How an Artist Marks Time

"Your job is to learn to work on your work." - David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear 

Sometime in the last year -- I can't say exactly when -- I realized that I had forgotten how to make art. I kept making it, regardless (which is never a good idea, by the way), but I felt something missing: namely, a cognizance of what I was actually making, how I was making it, and perhaps mostly importantly: why.

And so, exactly four months ago today, I set out to reflect on those very questions in the only place that seemed suitable for such a mammoth introspective task: a run-down farm and former meditation retreat center in rural Wisconsin.

**

July 17, 2015: I awake on this morning to the beginning of a 3-day stay at Swarm Artist Residency. Artists gather – so the idea goes -- free from the distractions of life in the big city, with finally enough time and space to freely create all the things they have intended to create. Nothing stands in their way. Except for time.

Coming from the daily routine of train tracker apps and 30-minute lunch meetings, the idea of having even a full day, let alone three, to create anything quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s a case of too much possibility. The boundary of time feels insurmountable.

Groggy and sipping my morning coffee I watched the other artists get right to work: doodling on notepads, stringing ukuleles, flipping through the pages of worn books. With each passing hour, I felt like I was failing more and more thoroughly in my mandate to create freely. All I’ve made this morning is scrambled eggs!, I would think to myself. I must be a terrible artist.

**

I decided to begin the day with my morning yoga sequence. Although it was nearly noon, I had yet to settle into any particular activity and so this seemed as good a place to start as any. Besides, maybe the familiarity of the routine would jolt my body back into its usual productivity and creative vigor.

I searched for a quiet spot in the field -- not too visible as to look like I was showing off, but close enough that I still felt a part of the soft buzzing of artists-at-work. As I pushed back into my first, achey downward-facing dog, I thought about the woman I had met the previous afternoon, just before I left the city. I remembered our brief conversation, and wondered -- for a silly moment -- if she knew that I was going to be entering this alternative artist-time-zone the next day.

“Excuse me, is it Thursday?” I remembered her asking.

She was an older woman, with a slight Slavic accent. Her husband had looked up at us as he climbed his way out of the passenger side of the car. She was standing about a foot from my face, poised with a quarter in her hand.

I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I told her, “today is Thursday.”

“There’s no reason to keep track anymore,” she replied, “when you’re retired. Unless you have a doctor’s appointment or something.” She sighed, “well. We all mark time in different ways I guess.”

I nodded quietly, wishing her a pleasant afternoon, and continued down the street, her words turning over in my head.

**

My yoga mat tucked away, I strode briskly out onto the porch of the farmhouse and plopped myself down in a rickety plastic beach chair. My first day at Swarm was moving far too slowly. It was only about 2 o’clock, just a few hours after our “working lunch” check-in meeting, and I felt like I was wasting the vast openness of the afternoon.

I felt restless. My skin itched. My arms were twitchy. My entire body felt like a moth trapped in a jar. Maybe I’m too addicted to the city, I thought. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this whole relax-into-your-art thing.

These thoughts ran on and on, as I gazed out over the open field. Pure, midday sunlight gave the barn a mystical glow. My companions meandered leisurely about, out of sync with my own hurried pace, pausing to leisurely eat apples with peanut butter, or lie out on the grass, or give a quick pat to a passing dog. They seemed so undisturbed by the abundance of it all.

I had an idea. I snatched my camera from the table next to my bed, and set out to explore. After all, if I couldn’t create something myself, I could at least investigate how others were using their newfound creative space, right? And – spoiler alert – I ended up creating something. Funny how that happens.

**

I returned to the barn that evening just in time to feel the quietude of nightfall. The coolness. This is my time, I thought. The day had calmed, and my hyperactive mind had, too. I sat down in an old wooden chair, feeling like I just stepped off a rollercoaster. I flipped open my laptop and began to pull up the images from my afternoon excursion. I scanned through them one-by-one, tracking each step of my restless exploration. I thought about the awkward unfolding of my first day in this unusual community.

Swarm, I began to realize, is a place of tremendous contradiction: of unmitigated extremes of experience. One moment I would be listening to the soft hum of insects in the middle of a dense forest and the next finding myself surrounded by the endless clamor of bodies, plates, and slamming doors as fifteen people try to all simultaneously assemble tacos. It is a place of tremendous solitude and incredible overstimulation, of endless opportunity and of ungraspable time.

At Swarm a day can feel like a week, but each passing hour lasts only a second. By the end of my three days it felt like I had been here for three full weeks – just like the brief summer sessions at my old sleep-away camp. The vibe was right for it, too: campfires, hidden lakes, and even original songs replete with the charmingly familiar “friends-forever-even-though-we-just-met” refrain.

And just like when I left my summer camp each year, I departed Swarm with the distinct impression that I was forgetting to do something important. Like I hadn’t yet said goodbye in the right way, or spent enough time walking in the wilderness, or really dug into a juicy creative project. But art – like summer camp – is about making choices. You only have so many resources: so much money, so much energy, so much time. There really isn’t a “right” amount of any of it. And as I learned from my creative companions, we all mark time in different ways.

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