Growing Slowly

I want you to look back, for a minute. Look back at where you were in your creative journey one year ago. Five years ago. Ten years ago. Where were you? What were you doing? Could you have imagined being where you are, today, from that distance in time?

One year ago, I was still in the throes of learning mobile photography, trying to figure out how it fit in with my photography practice. This month a year ago, I was in Singapore for two weeks and the Redwoods for spring break. I was in love with trees and the freedom of mobile, but had not yet let go of my security blanket of dSLR. I still toted it along with me everywhere.

Five years ago, I was getting ready to move to Italy. I was probably just back to Oregon after a whirlwind trip finding an apartment in Italy. and in the throes of figuring out what we were going to ship to Italy vs store for the duration of the assignment. I don’t think photography was anywhere on my mind, except maybe just the occasional picture of our lives in chaos. I had no clue what the future had in store for me, creatively or otherwise. But I knew I was at the brink of an adventure.

Ten years ago, I was probably just trying to keep everything together as a mom of an almost-three-year-old little boy. It’s hard to remember that time, it seems so long ago. My spare time (what little there was) would have included lots of playing with photographs as I created scrapbooks. Photographs mostly of family and events, documenting our lives. A few artistic photographs, that I didn’t know what to do with. Photography was a growing interest, but not the primary art form for me at the time.

Could I have imagined, five or ten years ago, that I would be here today? That I would be teaching photography online and in person? That I would be exhibiting my work in galleries? That I would be a keynote speaker at a photography conference? No, I could not have imagined. One year ago, the seeds were being planted for this year’s growth, so these things were within the realm of possibility. But five, ten years ago? No clue.

It’s been a journey of long and slow growth. I think “slow” is the natural pace of artistic growth, at least for me. This is what it needs to be. There are creative growth spurts for sure, I can point to a couple of them in the last five years alone, but these are balanced out with periods of slower growth. The slower times are needed for me to integrate what I’ve learned and figure out what I’m going to do with it.

Spring Tree Blossom Oregon Kat Sloma Mobile Photography

Growth takes time, often time where it looks or feels like nothing is happening. I look at the trees blooming right now, see their amazing blossoms, and think WOW! It seems as if all of a sudden, the buds appear and the flowers burst forth. But it’s not all of a sudden, is it? The tree was working toward this, for months. All winter long, while the tree appeared quiet and still on the outside, it was working.

Artistic growth is like that, too. It’s hard to internalize, because we might not see this part when we hear about successful artists. We might see an artist with seemingly overnight success, and wonder how they got there. As I meet and talk to more and more artists, working artists who are making their living with their art, I can see that true overnight success is very rare. Most artists achieve their success through hard work, over a long period of time. Their art is growing and changing, as they are, preparing themselves for the big break, if it ever comes. They may experience a lot of rejection along the way, but they keep working, keep growing. So when an artist appears to be “discovered,” when we finally become aware of them, they have likely been working for a long time to get to that point. It only appears as if they burst forth onto the scene suddenly, like the blossoms on the tree. The work to prepare for their success was going on, behind the scenes, when no one was looking.

There is an element of luck in artistic success too, don’t get me wrong. I heard this segment on NPR which talked about why some art becomes popular while other art doesn’t. The conclusion of the study was that there is some minimum level of quality, and beyond that, there is an element of luck and crowd influence that determines which pieces of art or artists become popular or successful. That makes sense. Haven’t we all seen art that is fawned over and said, “But Sally’s work is just as good. Better even. Why is that artist so successful while Sally isn’t?” It could just be that element of timing and luck.

Now, in all of this discussion, I don’t want to imply there is one definition of success here. Fill in your own definition of success. That could be making a living as an artist, or gaining some notoriety, as is implied above, or it could simply be creating art that expresses your vision. “Success” is a personal thing. Defining what “success” really means to you is part of the growth process, too.

So what can we do, to be ready for that success, however we define it? How do we prepare, if there might be an external element of luck or timing involved? All we can do is continue to grow. Continue to do the work of becoming better at our art. Continue to take one step after another on this creative journey. Slowly, surely, moving ourselves forward. Looking out for opportunities that may arise, taking risks, and trying new things. Showing up. That’s all we can do, day by day.

Sometimes, when the growth is slow, it may feel as if nothing is happening. But it’s when we look back — one year, five years, ten years — we can see how dramatically things have changed. And we can see where our hard work made that change happen. How our effort and growth got us to where we are today, artistically or otherwise.

So let yourself grow slowly. Be the tree that is getting ready for spring. Don’t worry if the tree next to you is blossoming, bursting forth into spring, and you are not. You are still getting ready. Your time to bloom will come.

Never the Same Place Twice

Some old friends visited me recently. These are mutual friends you and I have, I’m guessing. You probably know them too: Doubt and Fear. Do they ever visit you? I would bet they do.

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For me, they show up anytime I’m doing something new. No matter how much I’ve already accomplished or become comfortable doing, they like to come and whisper in my ear, “What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are?”

There is a difference in my response these days, though. Instead of stopping me in my tracks, or paralyzingly me in place, I wearily say, “Hello, guys. I should have known you’d be along anytime now. Why don’t you sit over there, in the corner? You can watch me work. I’m busy here and don’t have time for you.” I know I can’t get rid of them, at least until this new project is over. But I can acknowledge them, then ignore them and move ahead. There is no use paying attention to them. They sing the same tired song every time.

This part of growth is inevitable for me. The Doubt-and-Fear part. Just like spring comes around every year, doubt and fear will come along every time I stretch myself into something new.

There is that one big difference though… Now that I’ve been doing my art for a while, since I’ve stretched myself over and over by doing lots of uncomfortable, new things over the last few years, their impact is not as great. They don’t hold the power over me that they used to.

Inevitable, yes. Powerful, no.

That’s the amazing thing about growth. When the cycle comes around again, you aren’t in the same place. You can look back at where you’ve been, where you were the last time you heard those voices and say, “Huh, guess you weren’t so right after all. Why should I listen to you this time?” Your response and your capacity to manage the doubt and fear grows too.

Take a moment today and think about where you are now. Is there a direction you are going that is bringing up the doubts and the fears? Then look back a year, two years, five years. Look at how you’ve changed. The things you’ve done. How you’ve grown. So when our mutual friends of Doubt and Fear show up at your door, you can banish them into the corner too. Because you know you don’t have to allow them power over you.

You’ve done it before, you can do it again. With less doubt and fear, this time.

Layers upon Layers

 
Aaaahhhh, Italia.

Italy seems to be coming up for me a lot lately. Just little remembrances, here and there. It’s like a soft realization that my time in Italy has been absorbed into the layers of me, of my history. No longer the most important layer, or the most fragile, raw layer. A layer that’s been safely ensconced by “before” and “after.”

Italy Sorrento Bicycle Kat Sloma Photography

Sorrento, Italy

Maybe it’s because now — heading on 3 years later — I know there is a “Kat” after Italy. Life has continued to go on. There has been more creativity, more learning. More growth. I’ve reinvented myself again, as a new person, after Italy.

My time in Italy was about reinventing myself. Beyond the scope of my normal life it was this chance in a new place to dig deeper and find who I am at my core. I uncovered the creative, artistic part of me again. I found confidence in myself outside of my previous frames of reference.

But it was still with a frame of reference, and reliance, on Italy. I took my identity as an artist, as a photographer and writer, from the place. From the travels and adventures around Europe. So, coming back I had to reinvent myself once again, in a new context. The context of “after.”

For a while, Italy was still my frame of reference. That layer was on the surface, always to be referred to, compared to, examined against. And then, when it started to get covered up, the top layer was too fragile. I couldn’t dig down to Italy, because I would damage things on the surface. I need to let it go, and move forward.

But now… I can revisit it again. It’s like picking up a treasured object; savoring a special memory. A layer of who I am, like any other. Not one that defines me any longer, but one that enabled my definition. And a layer that, because I found I could transform, allows me to continue to transform. Because of Italy, and the return, I know I can learn and grow and forever change.

I am all layers. I am adding to myself all the time. No one layer dominates. No one layer defines. The beauty is in the strata… Layers upon layers.

Dealing with Disappointment

Yesterday I found out that something I applied for, related to my photographic art, I didn’t get. It’s one of those things… Lots and lots of people applied. Only a few were going to be selected. The odds were low. The selection process is always subjective with the jurors. The other work submitted was amazing. There are so many reasons I wasn’t selected. I can list them all.

Yet… I’m still disappointed.

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It always happens when I hear I wasn’t chosen for something I applied for. Even though I know the odds are really low in anything art-related, I always apply with hope. There is always a piece of me that believes I have a chance at whatever it is. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend the time, energy and (sometimes) money to apply.

And so, there is the disappointment. It’s usually short, but it’s there. I feel the anticipation and excitement of receiving that letter or email or phone call… Hoping for the answer I’ve dreamed of… Only to get a sinking feeling in my gut as I find out the real results. It’s not me. I wasn’t chosen. As my dream world reconciles with the real world, the disappointment sets in. For a brief time, my inner child comes out: Why not me? What’s so great about this other work? What’s the point of it all? I hate to admit it, but that is almost always the first reaction.

And then… I take a step back and look at it more objectively. I turn on my mother voice, to talk to that petulant child… Now, you knew the odds going in. These things are subjective. And wow, isn’t the art that was chosen amazing? See what you can learn.

So I mentally pick myself up, brush myself off, and start all over again.

Such is the life of the artist. If we are going to put our work out there, if we are going to submit, there will be disappointment. The funny thing is, we usually only share the successes. So on the outside it looks like it’s smooth sailing. That someone is blessed, getting everything they want. I tell you, from the very real inside, that’s just not true.

For every success I share here, there are five times… no, make that ten times… the number of disappointments. For every step forward I make, the are many, many more steps back. It’s only because I have some inner drive, some passion for what I do that I continue on through all of the disappointments. I have belief in myself that I can succeed. And so the disappointment is all the more real.

Being an artist is not for the faint of heart. We put our selves, our soul, into the work we create and then we put it out there in the world. We open ourselves, knowingly, to the possibility of hurt. By the very nature of a selection process, we open ourselves to the likelihood of hurt. And yet we do it. Over and over again.

It takes both courage and resilience to be an artist. I’m calling on both today, to deal with my disappointment.

Redefining Creative Achievement

The Exercise in Alignment I shared last week has got me thinking about lots of things. While I’m not surprised that I’ve been challenged to think, because getting into my heart and head this way always generates some good thought, I am surprised at where the thoughts are focused: Achievement. Finally admitting to myself that this is an inherent need I have and accepting it, and not viewing it as a frustration or annoyance or something to be changed about myself, turns out to be kind of important.

Now, you might be thinking, why is having the need to achieve so bad? Why would I even think this way? I think it comes from the sense that I have this driver, Type A side to me that I want to minimize. Not because it’s inherently bad, but maybe because of my approach to it. Up until a few years ago, I seemed to blindly follow an established path to success. I didn’t stop and ask myself what and how I wanted to achieve, I just sort of picked up the achievements laying around. These were achievements left there by people I cared about and respected – colleagues and managers and teachers – but they weren’t defined by me.

So maybe that’s really been the work the last few years — redefining achievement. I thought maybe I was trying to change my need to achieve, but really it’s about changing what, how and for what purpose I’m achieving. That feels about right.

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So as I look at this need to achieve the last few days, I’m realizing I’ve picked up goals and requirements on my creative journey, too. I seem to have set up internal frequency limits for a number of things – creating new work, blogging, sharing through social media, hosting online classes, etc. Some of these started as my own internal goals, and some started as things I heard worked for others with similar interests. Regardless of where they came from, when I’m not meeting them, I feel this internal tension. I feel that I’m not achieving.

There is a really good thing that is coming out of this line of thought — I’m recognizing the tension I sometimes feel around achievement, or NOT achieving, is a good indicator that I need to examine my definitions. When I feel this internal stress from “missing” an achievement, I can stop, set things out in front of me, evaluate and start the process of redefining.

I’ve already done that in the last week. I was feeling a tension around creating new photographic work. I really haven’t photographed or edited much in the last month. Even though I’m out of the dark time of December I haven’t been spending my time creating new photographs. But in the process of examining this, I’ve recognized that this is a “false” goal or achievement. I’ve been doing a LOT of creating in January – I’ve been preparing presentations for several photography talks I’m doing at a regional photography conference in the spring – it just isn’t along the lines of new photographic work. So I took some time to consciously redefine, or reinforce, what encompasses “creativity” to me. It’s more than new photographic work, since I have multiple creative outlets. It’s ok to take a step away from one creative endeavor to support another for a while.

It feels good to redefine what leads to creative achievement. I keep the goals I have, creating on a regular basis, but I get to honor other types of creativity as much as my photography. I get to see the creativity of pulling new thoughts together, writing and sharing thoughts with others as just as important and fulfilling as my visual work. I’ll be honest, as much as I’ve done it over the last few years, up to now I haven’t viewed the sharing of ideas and writing on the same level of importance as creating new photographic work. It’s played second fiddle in my goals. It’s time to rearrange that. Make it equal, at least some of the time.

I think there was always this worry, somewhere deep inside my psyche, that if I took a break from one form of creativity I’d never go back. So if I wasn’t really photographing regularly, I’d lose my interest. Maybe this was rooted in my past, where I tried out a lot, and I mean A LOT, of creative activities to see if one would stick before I really fell in love with photography. I think I’m beyond that with photography now, don’t you? It’s going to stick, even if I take a few weeks off. And when I come back, there’s a good chance it will have changed a little bit, because I will have a different perspective from my other creative endeavors.

Even as I write this, I’m feeling the urge to get out and photograph again. Not only for creative achievement, but because creative space has again freed up. Last night, I wrapped up the first draft of the photography talk I’ve been working on, which means that I’ve finished something. Creative achievement? Check.

As I step away from the keyboard and look outside, I’m seeing a whole world of bare trees waiting for me. I think it’s time to go photograph a few.

An Exercise in Alignment

Today I want to share with you a simple exercise that has brought me great insight into my personal priorities this week. The beauty of taking a big, long break from my normal plans, as I did in December and early January, is that things look different on the other side. Not only do interesting things emerge, like the new-found interest in painting digitally that helped to create today’s image, but there is also an opportunity to revisit, reassess and reprioritize all of the things in my life with a different point of view.

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So earlier this week, as I sat down in my journal, I came up with this little exercise to look at my needs and my activities and see how they were aligning. Some really interesting insights have come out, which have helped me shed some things and look at other things in a new way. I will walk you through it step-by-step, because you might benefit from it too.

Step 1: List out Needs

The first step is listing out my needs. I consider “needs” those things that I personally must have to be a balanced human being. These aren’t priorities, which are, I think, an externally imposed idea of what I need. These needs are the things that I will subconsciously arrange my activities around, whether I want to or not. If these needs aren’t met, everything is out of whack for me — I’m unhappy, grumpy and awful to be around. Understanding myself enough to identify and categorize these needs has been the subject of much personal exploration and growth over the last few years, so I don’t suggest that coming up with your own list is an easy thing. But when I made up my list, it felt right, and I could see how these fundamental needs drive my choices, conscious or not.

I’ll share my list of needs and explain them as an example. I expect your list of fundamental needs would be different. This list is not in any sort of priority order. They all exist for me, and need to be met.

Physical Well-Being – This need addresses the basics of food and shelter, but also physical health and care of myself and environment. It’s about my physical self, and all that is needed for my body to be well.

Emotional Well-Being – This covers the non-physical essence of me. I named it “emotional well-being” but it includes the mental, spiritual and personal — all of the needs around well-being that aren’t just physical. It’s kind of hard to encompass all of that in words, so hopefully you know what I mean here.

Growth – If there is one thing that I know I need, it’s growth. Growth in any area – intellectual/mental, personal, artistic – I will continually strive for growth in some area of my life. I’m most excited and engaged in life when I am learning something new. If I don’t consciously feed my need for growth, I will unconsciously put myself in challenging situations that force me to grow in some way. I would rather acknowledge my need for growth and choose the path I take to growth, when I can. Then I can observe and learn, not only about whatever new “thing” I am learning, but also about my self, along the way.

Achievement – There is no way around it, I fundamentally have a need for achievement. I am hard-wired to accomplish things. This is another area where conscious choice makes a big difference. If I don’t consciously choose what “achievement” means – both the end goal and the path – then I will unconsciously pick up definitions of achievement externally and strive toward those. There are so many places these can be picked up – parents, teachers, mentors, society in general. This one has been a constant challenge for me, I think partially because I feel like I shouldn’t have this need or I should be able to eliminate it if I don’t want it. By acknowledging that there is this need at my core, however, I’m starting to see that I just might be able to choose the path AND meet the need.

Connection – This is the need for connection to things external to myself. Not just to other human beings, which is the initial and primary way I defined this need, but also to other living creatures, like my pets. I’m also thinking this need may encompass connection a larger idea or movement, but I haven’t thought through that as much. I just know have a need to connect to something outside myself.

Those are my fundamental needs. They feel right, and I can map just about everything I find myself doing – consciously or not – back to more than one of them.

Do you know yours? Try to list them out. This could take several days of journaling, and making and revising lists. I found that I listed a whole lot more things at first and then started to coalesce them into a shorter list as I worked with them.

Step 2: List your Activities

The next step is listing out all of the ways you spend your time, the groups of people you spend your time with, and the activities you do. I listed them out and then found that some of them fell in natural groups. My final list was:
Corporate job
Hiking
Yoga
Art (this contained all of my activities related to art, including teaching, exhibiting, guild activites, etc.)
Family (both my immediate family of husband and son as well as extended)
Friends
Input (this was all of the activities I do around personal growth – reading, journaling, writing, etc.)

What are your activities? As you start to list them out, you may find there are general categories that group nicely together or there are ones that need to remain separate. As you do the next step, you might come back and refine your list.

Step 3: Map Activities to Needs

On a sheet of paper in the landscape orientation, list your Needs along on the left hand side. Leave space between them and fill the entire height of the left side of the page. On the right side of the page, list your Activities in the same way. You might want to use a different color for each activity, or as you draw the map lines, it will get hard to read.

Now, for each Activity, draw a line to each need it helps to fulfill. On the line, write how that activity fulfills that need you mapped it to.

For example, I have a line between my activity “Corporate Job” and my need “Physical Well-Being,” and on the line I wrote “food, shelter.” In a physical sense, it’s my Corporate Job that provides the funds for those things.

Another example, I drew a line between my activity “Art” and my need “Achievement,” and on the line I wrote “completing works, sharing, exhibiting, selling.” These are all the ways that my artistic practice feeds my need to achieve.

Continue with drawing the lines and writing the reasons for the lines until you feel that you have nothing more to add. As you work through each Activity, you may find that you need to go back and add lines for other Activities, because you see connections between Activities and Needs in a new way. You might also find that you want to draw a line somewhere, but you don’t have the right Need to map to. You can add or revise Needs and Activities if you find there is a gap like this as you map.

Yeah, it’ll get messy. Let it be messy and scribbled. The mess is the point. This is the part of the exercise where you are just trying to get it all out on the page — organization and understanding comes later. Don’t put any value judgments on what you are doing. Make the lists, connections and reasons as honest as you can. They should feel right.

Step 4: Review for Insights

This is the part where things get really interesting. There are insights to be found, when you start to look closer.

First, if you had any “aha” moments as you went through the mapping, capture notes on what those where. Maybe you realized that there was a need or an activity missing. Why didn’t you capture it the first time, do you think? What did you feel as you added it later?

Next, look at your map and ask a few questions:
For each Activity, how many Needs does it map to? All? A few? One?
Which Activities map to the most Needs? Are you surprised?
Which map to the least Needs? Are you surprised?
Were there interesting reasons that came out as you drew the lines?
Were there lines that you needed to draw but it took some time to figure out the reason?

This is where the insights lie.

I’ll use the example of my Activity “Corporate Job.” It maps to every single Need on my list. Now, I’ve known for a long time I like my Corporate Job. Even with all I do with my art, I have no desire to leave my Corporate Job. I knew it provided me with things that are different from my Art, but this exercise helped to clarify just how it was meeting my Needs in essential ways. Now, even though it maps to all of my Needs, it doesn’t completely fulfill all of them. But, if the only Activity on my list were “Corporate Job,” I would have a miserable existence because these Needs would only be partially met. That’s why I like working part time, because it gives me the opportunity to have more on my Activity list which fulfill needs in different ways. This exercise showed me how this one Activity fits into the whole for me. I understand myself and my choices better – it’s moved from unconscious feeling to conscious knowing. That’s always a good thing!

Another example I’ll give is on my Activity “Hiking.” As I was mapping it to my Needs, I felt that there was an element that mapped to my Need “Connection.” Since I initially defined “Connection” as with other human beings, that didn’t make sense. But I do fill a greater sense of connection with my dog Zoey when we go hiking, and I get great satisfaction and enjoyment out of that. I also feel a connection to the greater world around me through being in the forest. It brings me outside of myself. So my definition of my Need “Connection” expanded and I see how my Activity of “Hiking” has a broader impact to me as a whole. (Now, if the Activity were “Working out in the Gym,” for me that would only have one line on the map – to the Need “Physical Well-Being.” That’s probably why I’ve never been able to stick to an exercise routine that involves only the gym.)

A final example I’ll give is under my Activity of “Art.” I originally considered listing all of my external-facing art-related activities as separate items, such as Kat Eye Studio, PhotoArts Guild, Corvallis Art Guild, Philomath Open Studios, etc. because they are something specific I do with my time. But after working through this exercise, I realize they are really a subset of my overall activity of “Art,” fulfilling the Need of “Connection.” It all works together.

I won’t go into more detail than that on my results because many of the insights were very personal in nature, but hopefully you get the idea. Take some time with this portion of the exercise. Journal about it, over days if necessary. That’s what I have been doing. I keep looking at the map and finding new things to consider.

Step 5: Make a Plan

Now that you’ve pulled out the insights, you have the opportunity to make conscious and positive changes. If an Activity maps to a large number of Needs and seems essential to you, but you aren’t spending much time on that Activity, then look for ways to readjust your schedule. If an Activity maps to few or no Needs, then consider if you really want to spend your time in this way. Or figure out if there are ways to make and Activity you must do connect to more Needs.

For example, my Activity “Yoga” originally didn’t map to my Need “Achievement.” The yoga I do is incredibly gentle and relaxing, and didn’t initially fit what I think of when I think of achievement – meeting goals and milestones. I mean, I’m not pushing myself to do back bends or headstands or anything. But in thinking about it, I realized I can fulfill the need of “Achievement” by setting a goal for the number of days I attend yoga in a month and tracking. I do have an unstated, internal goal – to go to class every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning I can – so why not track it? Then I meet this Need too, and don’t get the achiever part of me niggling that I’m wasting my time because I’m not “progressing” toward anything. One more line drawn on the map means more confidence and commitment to my chosen Activity.

I think Step 5 of this exercise is much more long range. I’m still doing work in Step 4 and am only starting on making a plan. But I feel I have better insight into how I want to align my activities and needs, and the knowledge to make conscious choices is the important thing.

I hope this is helpful to you! Let me know if you work through this and find it valuable. I never know when I post this stuff if anyone is interested, but I figure if it connects with one other person and makes a difference anything like it has for me, it’s worthwhile.

Have a great day!