How to be happy as an artist

Do you ever ask for guidance and receive an answer so clearly that you are momentarily stunned? That happened to me this morning. Waking up brimming over with ideas, plans, excitement, making a cup of  earl grey tea (imported from my recent UK bridge trip), I remembered back to December when I was feeling much less certain about the direction of my life and whether this bridge project was something to keep so much of my energy focused on. I asked for a sign that day, and turning on the radio, the first song to play started with a line about a girl standing on a bridge, wondering if life was worth it, helping someone else to walk away from the edge and something about not being alone. The song I’d never heard before, I wish I could remember the lyrics. Thinking back to that moment as I flicked on the radio today, the first lines from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Under the Bridge greeted me: ‘sometimes I feel like a don’t have a partner, sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in’… and knew it was all going to be alright.

“Don’t just sit there, do something!” my mother loved to admonish when I was happily ensconced in the window seat, daydreaming. I could reply now that I was dreaming my future into being, or using positive visualization, but I hadn’t yet encountered those concepts at fourteen. What I did learn, from a friend’s dad. a wandering adventurous film editor who enjoyed sharing his wisdom, is that ‘not having the money is never the real reason for not doing something’. This attitude I happily adopted has shocked and horrified various friends and family as I careered from one vine to another, in a kind of Tarzan tango, dreaming up new ideas, skipping my way across the many bridges, trying not to get washed away. Christopher also showed me the graffiti on the studio wall of legendary Sydney portrait photographer Jon Lewis, which became something to live by: Courage, Grace and Love. There’s a photo of me around that age somewhere in Jon’s archive, dressed as a nurse in the film clip for my godmother Jeannie Lewis’s song ‘So You Want Blood’, which was shot on a seedy backstreet in Kings Cross – hardly a conventional upbringing, I’ll be the first to admit. And now look where it all got me – living in Berlin, somehow surviving ‘purely’ as an artist, with the absolute freedom to do whatever I can imagine.. and if I can dream it, I can do it!

Living in Berlin, a dream come true

I also worked out fairly early on in life that if I wanted to avoid being locked away in an institution, I better find myself a context where whatever I did or said would be accepted, if not always totally acceptable. Which is why I chose  a career in the arts, the crazier you are as an artist, the better. Not that I have an actual mental disorder, more a tendency to melancholy and borderline depression, with an overactive imagination. My uncle ate too many magic mushrooms and cycled away into schizophrenia at eighteen, we used to go visit him on the Ashram at Mangrove Mountain (I wanted to write magic mountain) when I was a child. Therefore I  am only too aware of the tenuous grip that reality has, and very disinclined to do anything that will take me over the psychic bridge to places I can’t get back from. Losing your grip on ‘reality’ and your sense of self connected to the world, having the thin blue cord snap (as it’s described by people who astral travel) the one that keeps your spirit attached to your body and leads you home from all kinds of adventures and altered states – to lose that connection and be stuck in a mind unable to return to the world is my vision of pure hell. It doesn’t have to be drugs or madness, I believe you can also stretch that cord almost to breaking point through years of numbness and boredom, by muting your dreams and ignoring your desires, the signs that pull you back to your spirit get lost, the signal drowned amongst a bedlam of noise and rush and responsibility.

It makes me sad, to see people who made ‘sensible choices’ and decided to do what society told them was expected of them, now being catapulted through this worldwide state of financial chaos into a situation that I’ve lived in for years mostly through choice. I mean, broke, no expectations, no assets and having to find ways to survive and create a life you can live with through whatever means possible. I believe as an artist you’ve probably already built up some excellent survival techniques, one of them is to live without money being a priority (although it is hard to live entirely without money), create different kinds of exchange, find your inner balance through uncertainty and the clarity to move with grace, humility and openness through the unknown. Maybe that is to romanticise artists way too much, probably many other professions engage and enhance similar traits.

That is, however, why I choose to live the way I do, being exactly who I am as much as possible, doing what brings me joy and hopefully inspires other people, honouring my spirit and seeing the spirit alight in others – this is what keeps me sane. I revisited the wonderful world of Susannah Breslin today, and was charmed all over again by her writing on why crazy people make the best bloggers, how to be a freelance hustler, the benefits of failure and joys of being unemployable. If I want to work all day in my pyjamas, I can and will – don’t try to convince me that success requires a set timetable and daily format, and the 1% inspiration to 99% perspiration, I know how that works only too well already.

Now there is no-one to tell me what to do or when to do it, and I can happily daydream any moment the impulse takes me. I’m about to go make coffee so I can sit and enjoy waking up in the window seat of my current borrowed apartment/studio, and think of what else to do today to create the life I want to be living. One where I can keep writing and having wild bridge adventures, travel for interesting projects, make incredible work, meet amazing people – coming back to a home of my own, sharing all of this with my magnificent (as yet hypothetical) husband… and maybe one day a dog. I get to be creative and loved, successful and secure, independent and free to follow my impulses, intuition and creative dreams. I think of it as being grounded rather than ‘settling down’, or even ‘settling,’ able to navigate the currents of your own desires amidst the unexpected rapids and sudden obstacles of life. Not running aground or smashing into a bridge pylon, it’s a series of subtle turns to the wheel, adjusting course constantly while keeping your eyes on the horizon, watching the end point – while knowing that you will never actually reach it.

The title of this post was inspired by the response to a photo I posted on facebook, ‘How to feel Miserable as an Artist’. I found it inspiring and funny, listing all the things not to do made me remember that I have the choice and actually even if I am doing roughly half of them, I can stop now. I didn’t see it as negative per se, but some of my friends took it that way, one in particular said that he didn’t believe a word of it, going so far as to rewrite the advice with a positive spin. He is someone I chose to collaborate with on a project recently – we built a room at the ice hotel, an ice bridge for rich people to sleep under – and I found his constant attitude that everything is ‘easy’ both inspiring and frustrating. I mean, don’t you know you have to struggle as an artist, Justin? I’m half-joking, but the other thing he has in spades is an absolutely unassailable self-confidence – something I would love to be able to feel, and however much I work to cultivate this quality, sometimes my self-belief is still a case of fake-it-til-you-make-it.

Here is Justin Tyler Tate’s response:

I don’t believe a single word of it. Let’s go through it and change everything to make better statements…
1) Stay up to date on what other artists are doing.
2) Talk to your family about what you do, and give them shit if they don’t cheer you on.
3) Do as many projects as possible.
4) Learn different tools, materials, techniques and theories as often as possible.
5) Overvalue your expertise.
6) Do what you want, travel for free and, largely, forget that money exists.
7) Do what you want.
8) Only do work that you love.
9) Do what you want.
10) Do more than you’re able to and then don’t worry if you don’t get something done…it was an impossible task in the first place.

And this is the advice I’m giving myself, to stay on course this year and remember what really matters. It’s a scary thing, to be embarking on a fresh start to an existing work, and finding the best ways to move forward, go deeper, be true to the spirit of your vision and communicate the idea, express your doubts and uncertainty without being sunk by them – and keep remembering to connect with your own passion, to enjoy the process, take pleasure in those small moments that take you into a state of flow, and enjoy life:

Be outrageous.

Be unapologetic.

Do what you  most want to do.

Be yourself.

Be honest.

Make it count.

Be unexpected.

Be with people you love