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7 habits of highly creative people

Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009

After 5 p.m., as the normal work day winds down, artists and crafters all across town begin switching on the lights in their basements and studio spaces, preparing to immerse themselves in work of a different kind.

Though maybe all of us are creative in some way -- in the kitchen, in the office, in the yard - some manage to focus those energies toward a tangible artistic product, giving structure to what for many of us is often not much more than a general impulse. And they do this outside of the daily demands of work and family.

The Empire talked to a small handful of productive visual artists whose names have appeared regularly on First Friday posters to find out more about how they juggle the demands on their time and what keeps them going. Their habits may inspire others to get started on whatever creative projects they have left idle in their back rooms - or minds -for too long.

1. Cultivate a broad concept of art

When artist Miah Lager was a kid, her mom encouraged her and her siblings to blur the line between regular life and art. Even setting the table or writing their name could be viewed as artistic exercises, Lager said.

"She brought us up with 'whatever you do, make it art,'" she said.

She keeps this broad definition in mind when working with kids at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, where she is the art teacher, and encourages kids to downplay the hierarchy of what makes something art. Being open to seeing all the ways she is creating art in her daily life, she said, leads her to more productivity once she's in the studio.

Barbara Craver, a painter who recently retired from her job with the state, shares this approach.

"I think almost any kind of creative activity that you do in a broad sense - you could take up running creatively, for example - any of those things inform the other things you're doing," Craver said.

She said activities that make her feel more alive and in touch with the world, such as listening to a symphony or reading, also help stimulate the parts of her brain that feed the artistic process.

2. Designate a separate space for physical creative work

Whether it be a closet or an entire studio, a separate space devoted only to art can be essential in blocking out distraction.

Sherri McDonald, a paper artist and stay-at-home mom, said that when she and her husband were in the market for a new home, she made her studio space a priority.

"It's safe, it's away from kids, I can leave stuff out, and it's nobody else's space," McDonald said.

Craver said having a separate space made all the difference in the world for her productivity.

"The biggest thing for me was to actually have a place that was my designated art space, even if it was just the corner of the basement, and being able to leave stuff up so if I wanted to work, I could," Craver said.

For Rob Roys, a painter who works for the state, carving out a space in his house wasn't enough to force the necessary mental break between his artistic work and the rest of the world. He rents a separate studio space in the Valentine building.

"The only time I've ever noticed a decrease in my productivity is when I didn't have a studio space separate from my living conditions," Roys said.

3. Indulge in mental prep time

Few of the artists we spoke with said they were able to just dive in after work and make something fabulous. Most needed a warming-up period to get in the groove.

Rowan Law, a jeweler who works for Alaska Airlines, said he eases into the fabrication process by starting with something easy.

"I start with really simple things, like maybe some post earrings, and once I'm into that I can think about other projects," he said.

He also sketches out ideas on paper or looks through magazines.

Lager, a new mom, said that often all she has time for is preparation. She sketches and looks at art magazines whenever she can, knowing that those images will feed her creative process once she can find time to go back into her studio.

4. Make it a habit

Especially with limited time, the pressure to create something can be overwhelming, Craver said, so she tries to make her creative sessions more about the process itself than the end-result.

"You have to tell yourself that every painting is not a finished project," she said. "It's like practicing the piano; you just put in your hours," she said. "That sort of takes away some of the creative terror of 'what am I going to do?"

The mental habit can be reinforced by keeping up a physical routine, Roys said.

"If I was giving tips to anyone I would say, treat it just like a gym," Roys said.

Tanna Peters, a multimedia artist who works for Alaska Litho, doesn't need to worry about making her art a habit. Peters belongs to a small group of crafters who call themselves the "craft addicts."

"The name (craft addicts) is not just a joke," she said. "I'm literally addicted to crafting. It's sometimes a problem."

Peters is perhaps best known artistically for her sewing projects, which include the cup cozies sold at Heritage coffee and TP Designs hats; she also has a degree in set design and has worked as a master carpenter. She said she is constantly looking at crafts in stores and magazines and saying to herself, "I could make that." And then she does.

"I think a large part of it is that I have this kind of mind that is always thinking of new things to make, to create," she said. "I can't turn it off. So (crafting is) an outlet to just get rid of that."

5. Get inspired

Taking a class is one good way to encourage inspiration. Lager is currently taking a jewelry class (from Rowan Law at the Canvas). Roys is taking one at the University of Alaska Southeast in etching. And both Craver and Law recently took trips out of town to take classes.

In addition to absorbing the expertise of others in classroom setting, Anji Gallanos, a jeweler who works for SEARHC, said she seeks inspiration online, most often at the artists' marketplace Etsy.com.

"Etsy is great as a catalog of inspiration," she said, for both materials and techniques.

Gallanos sells her own jewelry on the site, as does Peters, and both women also have blogs for sharing creative tips and stories. Gallanos recently took a trip to Nome to collect sea glass for her jewelry, an experience she describes on her blog.

Roys said that living in an natural environment like Juneau is one thing that feeds his creative brain; going for a hike provides him with a multitude of visual images he carries back to the studio.

"I don't think there's an artist in Alaska that doesn't find inspiration in the natural world," he said.

McDonald said for her, the natural environment combines with her love of the materials themselves. If she's in a paper store, she gets ideas from looking at the various textures and colors.

"I'm inspired by the material and by the natural scenes - the vistas of Juneau which are so gorgeous - and they meld together. (Then) the paper starts to take on its own play at that point, take on its own ways."

Law said since he started making jewelry, he's more observant in general. He finds inspiration in man-made objects such as chains, as well as natural formations such as branches.

"When you make jewelry, you start looking at things from a different perspective, like how things are put together," he said.

6. Know when to quit

All the artists that were interviewed spoke of a super-productive state they sometimes were able to access, usually when they had several hours to devote to their projects without distraction.

McDonald said she remembers one weekend this past summer when she got a sitter so she could put in two full days. She said she was almost resentful when she had to stop.

"I was in this other world and didn't even think about the things around me," she said.

"There is nothing like working and having the music up and stepping into this place where nothing else exists," Lager said.

Other times, a bad beginning can signal a lost day or evening.

"If I go down (to my studio) and things aren't working out, I'll just quit," Law said. "I just stop, get up and leave. It's just not a good day."

Gallanos agreed. Once the broken drill bits and melted pieces of silver pile up, she doesn't force it.

"I have to walk away or I end up wasting money," she said.

7. Practice positive thinking

In spite of the stereotype of a depressed, bourbon-soaked artist, positive thinking seems to breed creative thinking.

Roys said for him, relaxing about his art has come with age, and with having a partner who is a strong supporter of his artistic pursuits.

"I'm not on the emotional roller coaster that I used to be," he said. "When I was younger, there were more manic and depressive periods, now I've relaxed quite a bit more about it and stopped beating myself up about it and it became a lot easier," he said.

Lager said she used to worry about not making her art enough of a priority in her life, but has learned it didn't do her any good.

"I found that (negativity) was actually prohibitive," she said. "(I try to be) open to whatever comes along or out."

Peters, who brings a positive attitude to her projects, said that for her, part of the joy of creativity is sharing it with others.

"I am such an advocate of trying to get other people to get excited about crafting," she said.

Law said he loves what he does and encourages anyone who thinks they want to head in that direction not to be intimidated.

"I think basically we can all do whatever we want to do if we put our minds to it," he said.

• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.



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