Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you have a desperate need for something big. You know deep down it’s going to require a lot of change to achieve. That can be scary.
In the middle of Covid, I had a really honest look at my life. I had four young kids, a great art school education, a teaching certificate, and a pretty good creative practice all things considered. But I wanted more. I wanted to have the deep creative satisfaction I found during my BFA. I wanted to feel fulfilled to the core, knowing I was making the art I really wanted to make, that I knew I had to make.
For the first time, I admitted if I had done an MFA instead of that teaching conversion course I would be farther along in getting what I really wanted out of life.
So what to do about it? Again, I had four little kids. Ages 4, 6, 7 and 9 in fact. I was a stay at home mom and my kids needed me like salamanders need water. A real, accredited MFA would be logistically impossible and financially inadvisable.
But I still had this burning need, and having admitted it to myself I had to do something about it or it would eat me alive.
So how could I get what I wanted? I had heard about art consultants that you could pay to give you a critique. Could I employ them? I decided to call a friend of mine who had an MFA to ask her about it.
Thankfully, this friend was more than happy to answer my questions. She told me the most useful elements of her MFA were the camaraderie between her and the other graduate students and the time to make the work. It was all independent study – no assignments. Overall she said it was a useful experience, but hugely overpriced considering how difficult it is to get a professorship off the back of it.
I proposed an idea I had – what if I made my own self guided MFA course? What if I gave myself the assignment to create 50 small pieces, 30 medium sized pieces and 15 large pieces? Once I had made enough work to be fairly sure of a direction, I could employ art consultants to review my work. These could be professors at a local university, people I approached from the local art museum, or even someone working in a gallery I admired. I could pay them well for their time and it would still be vastly cheaper than an actual MFA. I would have to work out some way to get the camaraderie I needed – perhaps start a critique group with some local artists?
She thought it was a great idea! With this positive feedback, I immediately got to work.
In the run up to this, I had worked hard to establish a creative practice by getting childcare help from my parents and husband. When my kids were sleeping well through the night, I could work a little in the evenings too, but that wasn’t dependable. All those pockets of time added up to about 6-7 hours a week. My studio was in the basement of our house so I could get to it easily.
But how was I going to structure my use of that time?
I thought it was really important that I did not set any time requirements or deadlines. For other people, this would be key, but I had found, through experience, that my children’s needs were like shifting sands in a sandstorm. A storm could blow up out of nowhere and I would have to drop everything to attend to them until I had it figured out. Deadlines would cause way too much frustration. Instead, I made it a requirement that I sustain a feeling of momentum.
Now, this is a really important concept. Momentum is the feeling of being in forward motion. In order to preserve momentum, I needed to keep good records of what I had done. This would act as a “scoreboard” that would show me how much I had achieved. (I read about this in The 12 week Year, which I highly recommend.) One of the first things I did was create a grid I could put on my studio wall so I could tick off the artworks as I made them.
Another thing you need for momentum is to be really clear on what you want. I knew from the depths of my soul I wanted to achieve a level of depth in my creative practice I hadn’t felt since art school. I also knew I had a tendency to spend too much time on the “business” side of getting my artwork out in the world, AND a tendency to get distracted by what everyone thought about it! I decided to focus ONLY on creating the artwork until I got a bit more centered within myself.
Accountability is also really key for driving momentum. That sinking feeling in my stomach from knowing I wasn’t leading the life I wanted made me feel accountable to myself. I knew this was my life to live so I had better get busy. But just to be sure, I told all my closest friends what I was doing.
Starting Studio Work
So I began! I started by making lots of really small pieces. To my joy, I rapidly became addicted to ticking off the squares on my grid as I made new small artworks. It made me feel so good! And even if you hate the piece you made, you still get to tick off a square!
Quickly I was in the thick of it again, making and making, the work pouring out of me like honey. Within about three months I had already made 50 small pieces and decided to raise the number to 100 because I was making such good progress.
Around this time I found out about a “Creative Clarity Cohort” that a local artist coach named Court McKracken was starting. It was small group coaching through a series of sessions in which you take a deep look at why you make the work you do and the passion, intention, and purpose behind it. It sounded ideal!
This group was fabulous! Within it I had a deep dive into what I needed in order to create, why I make the work I make and how to proceed forward with purpose. Court was fantastic! I highly recommend her book Art Nurture for more helpful guidance in supporting your creative practice.
Through the group I made a lovely friend and we started meeting on zoom once every two weeks to chat about our studio practice. I also went to an art school reunion and renewed an old friendship from that! In addition I reached out to another old friend from art school and we began chatting regularly!
With each of these friendships, I make it a priority to have a good chat with them once every few weeks. For the first time in 15 years, I was starting to get the art camaraderie I desperately needed! And what’s more, because this is all handled over the phone and on zoom, it fitted into my life. I didn’t have to arrange childcare to meet up with them!
I cannot stress enough what a difference this made. Going through the process of sharing your thoughts with another person, celebrating wins and mutual encouragement is all so validating. It opens doors in your mind as friends suggest ideas you’ve never thought of before or resources you didn’t know about. And it makes you feel so good to support them too! Everyone wins!
Next, I was watching my son’s martial arts class when his teacher gave him the most incredible assignment. The task was to find 5 people who have achieved something you really want. Then study them thoroughly, so well that you understand why they made the decisions they did. These five personal heroes can form a “mastermind council” in your mind. When you have a question, you can ask your mastermind council and have a good idea of what they would say. I thought “I’m going to do that!”
To get started, I went to The Abundant Artist Association, which I had been a member of for some time, and asked them to name artists who were making more than $100,000 a year on their artwork, ideally without relying on galleries. The answers came flooding in! The other artists in the group responded with over 50 suggestions for me to study!
I really wasn’t sure how to go about picking which 5 to get to know deeply, so I started studying all of them. I started with the artists who had been interviewed on podcasts and took notes on each one. This way I could review and solidify what I was learning. The more I listened the more I learned! So far I’ve listened to 35 interviews and have chosen two people for my mastermind council. It’s amazing! I’m learning a ton and each time I add a person to the list I’ve studied, I feel a surge of momentum. The personal heroes I’ve chosen are already making my mindset better. I think about them often.
Throughout this process, my work has been changing. Creating lots of small pieces seems to move the whole thing on very effectively. With each piece you go through the whole cycle – planning, making, finishing, so you get more effective at completing whole artworks. I’ve done about 90 small pieces so far and my work has really evolved.
For one thing, I’ve kept the same aesthetic but moved on to another medium! I was working with found objects and drawings in resin but have begun taking photographs and producing the artwork digitally instead. It’s giving me much more creative freedom!
It also aligns with my values for the future. One day I hope to sign up with a print fulfillment company who can fulfill my orders, ensuring that I spend the maximum amount of time with my children. This makes my heart sing!
Most importantly, I’m starting to get toward the depth I was hoping for in my creative work. It’s just beginning to deepen. I’m mid way through my first medium sized piece and it’s starting to come through…
So now you might be wondering, how could I fit this into my life?
The main thing is to set aside scheduled time to work on your thing. Even if the only scheduled time you have is during your lunch break at work, you can strategize a way to use it. I once heard of an artist that created a whole installation just during her lunch breaks. I often think about her.
Then, when you have scheduled time, only work on your artwork!! Don’t let anything intrude! This is a matter of honor! Even if you’re just staring at your table wondering what the hell to make, that is a valuable part of the process. Work through it. This is totally normal!
Once you’ve gotten used to using your scheduled time for your artwork then you can commit to a project. Assign yourself a number of small pieces to get yourself going. Remember, even if you don’t like what you made, it still counts!
Eventually you will build enough trust in yourself to commit to something bigger. That’s the point I had gotten to when I started my self guided MFA.
So now I’m about 1/3 of the way through my self guided MFA. It’s so fulfilling! By giving myself a structure, declaring I’m doing an MFA, strategizing my assignments, and recording my progress, I’ve given myself a container for growth. Who knew after all these years of struggle this was what I needed?
And you know what the best part is?? I’m fulfilling my dreams using the time and money I already have.
So if you want to do something like this for yourself, just go for it. The logistics are easier than you think.
About the author:
Jenny Kiehn is on a mission to use artwork to inspire women to feel comforted, loved, inspired, and feel a sense of ease so they can relax into self care. She is a mama of four young kids and lives in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.