Monthly Archives: January 2014

How to Make Art in The Real World

This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.

This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.

Hello, Furious Faithful.

Welcome to the Inaugural Guest Post on mdibiasio.com. I’ve got a busy couple of years coming up (mischief is in the making) but I want to keep up a dialogue in between potentially more sporadic posts from me — so you may see some more entries from guests as the year continues. I’m especially busy for the next month (planning of the making of the mischief), but will still chime in now and then and I’ll probably do what I’m doing now and introduce and comment briefly on guest material.

Now, some info on our guest writer, Liam Billingham.

Recent posts about navigating life as an artist and indie filmmaker have been popular here, so when I noticed the below-mentioned conversation on Facebook — and read and enjoyed and agreed with many of the points made — I reached out to Liam to share his findings and his thoughts.

I first met Liam during a Seed&Spark Twitter chat, which, incidentally, you should check out if you’re a filmmaker and if this sort of material is of particular interest to you. Seed&Spark has been bringing great energy to the discussion and growth of a rising movement towards empowered, sustainable and self-directed indie filmmaking, offering support that ranges from crowd-building to funding to distribution, and their momentum and influence seems to really be growing. I’ve enjoyed becoming a part of their #FilmCurious community (the hashtag used during chats). Anyway, Liam is an indie writer/director living in Brooklyn, who recently finished a short film and is developing his first feature. Since I’m in the same position, more or less, we realized we had a lot in common and have become friends.

All of the below came out of an informal poll Liam took on Facebook, asking for some added insight from other seasoned artists in regards to providing advice to college seniors in the arts who will be graduating this year. I agree with all of what came up in the conversation, and believe many of the observations and advice shared by Liam’s friends can be of value to emerging and established artists as well as those who are nominally in more of a beginner’s position.

I’ll leave it to Liam to contextualize his specific findings. The reasons why I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing them, for the benefit of all, should become readily apparent as he works through each.

In spots, I’ve made some personal notes, which appear in italics and are tagged in the front with my name. All remaining text is from Liam unless otherwise indicated by him.

What’s Next

Just before Christmas, my former undergraduate theatre professor at the University of New Hampshire asked me to Skype in to a class of graduating seniors and talk about my experience as an artist since graduating. Specifically, the topic was ‘What Next?,’ and dealt with looking at the journeys alumni took that led to where they are right now.

The morning of the talk, I decided it was best to poll a group of friends and fellow artists who had been making art since we graduated. I didn’t want to restrict the poll to UNH alumni. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I didn’t want to just ask theatre people only, either, since I don’t really work much in theatre anymore. For these reasons, I turned to all my Facebook friends in asking for advice for seniors.

The post got a lot of traction, and we got about 40 comments, most of which were incredibly useful. Reviewing what was sent in, a few key ideas popped up that I thought I’d share:

The More You Know…

From Stage Manager Natalie Lynch: “Do as much as you can and learn as many skills as you can. The more you know the more areas you can work. And you never know what may be asked of you…”

From UNH Student Engagement and Young Alumni Programs Director Megan Hales: “…ask as many questions and talk to as many people as possible. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and the only way to make progress is by talking to people!”

The More People You Meet…

When I was at UNH, I had an intellectually challenging professor named David Kaye, who turned me on to Anne Bogart and the SITI Company. I read Anne’s book and applied to train with them. At their month-long training program in Saratoga, I met Jean Ann Douglass, whom, years later, introduced me to Nicholas Nelson and Jared Mezzocchi. Nick has been a constant collaborator, and Jared introduced me to Ben Jaeger-Thomas, who has been a client and collaborator for the past few years. Both Jean Ann and Ben comment below on how to make it as an artist. They’re lifers, fully committed to making art a part of their lives.

The more people you meet, the more you learn, the more experiences you have, the more these wonderful people will feed you. (MICHAEL: And you, them. In my experience, after I have summoned up the courage to “butt in” on someone, particularly online (though I do it in person as well) and open up to how I’m feeling about whatever they said or did (in a positive and/or constructive way) and then offered help — down the line, they’ve offered to help me too. A simple and obvious lesson but one that can be easy to forget). You’ll also meet assholes. You need to meet those people too, so you know you don’t want to be around them. (MICHAEL: This is a very good point. There are unfortunately a lot of negative people, in every industry. Negative artists can be particularly damaging to your progress and momentum. I should know. I used to struggle against one who used to live in my head, and still does — behind a series of locked doors).

From actor Jesse Presler: “…foster artistic relationships outside of your comfort zone. It can be an artistic hindrance to only spend time with people who speak the same artistic language in which one is indoctrinated. It can be a hindrance to personal growth to only spend time with and hide among one’s recently-graduated friends. College comrades are very important, of course, but part of being an artist is growth — growth which is and should be uncomfortable, painful at times even.”

So, find your people.

Carve Out A Life Course

From Seven Stages Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Dan Beaulieu: “Go out and see as much as possible. Now that classes are over, take 15 hours a week and carve out your own “life course”. Shows, concerts, movies, art exhibits, artisan craft fairs, anything creative. And read! And read. And read.” (MICHAEL: This is fantastic advice, that I whole-heartedly agree with. To me, it speaks to the importance of immersion. Personally, I long struggled with a tendency to explain away reasons why I don’t have the time (or, worse, don’t need to take the time) to do my due diligence as an artist and do as Dan says and “go out and see” stuff. A few additional added points: 1) Don’t wait for perfect circumstances when choosing what to do or not do, just be open and experiment and allow yourself to be led from there; 2) Be wary of the line between immersion and avoidance; 3) Apart from reading, mix in a healthy dose of private creative consumption. There’s even a difference between seeing a movie or a play with friends, and experiencing it privately and then talking — and doing the same thing but having another hour or more to process before the conversation.)

From Artist/Fractured Atlas Insurance genius Jean Ann Douglass : “Also, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to make rent off your art. There are lots of ways to make money, and they all have trade-offs. Irregular paychecks may be more stressful than the confines of working 9 to 5. Or vice versa.”

And, again from Jean Ann: “Don’t burn yourself out before you’re 30 years old. Taking care of yourself as a whole person is the most important thing you can do.”

Adaptation

From Voice over Artist/Actor Ben Jaeger-Thomas: “Really think about what it is realistically that you want to do in the arts. Being famous isn’t specific enough. Are you going to be okay
being on tour six months out of the year, every year, to piece together a living? You aren’t 20 forever.” (MICHAEL: Another good point. I’ve been trying hard lately to not only focus more on “the work,” but on how my work fits into reality. Accepting reality and adapting to it can be so much better for us as artists than we may think when we are following fear-laden trains of thought that tell us conditions need to be perfect).

Take Risks

From artist/musician/graphic designer/filmmaker Ken Nash: “If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not worth doing. Set a goal each year to do one thing you’re completely terrified about doing.” (MICHAEL: He’s right. I would add that, invariably, what scares us the most can often produce our best work, if not directly — in some way or form at least).

Don’t be a dick

From filmmaker Chris Ungco: “People will respond better to good ideas from people who seem like good people. You get more, and you live better by not being a dick. Good luck.” (MICHAEL: This can be a hard piece of advice to adhere to, as time goes on and the (understandable) propensity for bitterness grows. Adhere to it anyway. Toxic people invariably release their poison to disastrous effect, even if they succeed in a short term way. Further, while we of course always want every single project to be the best it can be, acting monstrously towards collaborators (or worse, to or in front of potential audience members) endangers or destroys future prospects. Finally, in my opinion, no piece of art is worth the cost of dehumanization — in terms of what damage you could do to yourself or others. “Don’t be a dick” could also be translated to “be human”.)
So what did we learn?

  • Being an artist takes time, and it shouldn’t ruin your life. Have a life.
  • Constantly go out and meet new people, learn new things, and find a new niche.
  • Treat people right. Seriously, don’t be a dick.

I think the most important lesson is to really evaluate where you are right now. If it isn’t where you want to be, don’t beat yourself up. Make changes, slowly but surely. Once you’ve started making those changes, you’re doing it right. Being an artist isn’t a race. It’s a long, slow walk forward.

Liam Billingham
Liam Bilingham is a filmmaker and media educator in Brooklyn, NY. He’s currently developing his first feature film and working on several short-term projects. He’s just starting up his own blog, ‘Somewhat Suspect’, on his website, liambillingham.com.

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Temporary Blindness

photo of man walking alone down sidewalk

I took this photo just a few days before things went momentarily dark. That must be why he’s out of focus.

I’m not even sure where to start. I went half-blind last week. I don’t mean that I went blind in one eye — although that happened (twice). I mean I mostly lost my ability to see for several hours-long stretches at a time, once for about a day and a half total.

It was hard. I was alone for much of the worst of it, while my wife was away on a business trip. It was frightening, even after I figured out that, if I kept my eyes completely closed, and tried to relax and let the pain take over for a while, I would be “rewarded” with the ability to open them back up and see well enough for a literal second while I felt my way around. It was especially frightening, though, when I had to go out and walk my dog. I can’t imagine how the truly visually-impaired do it.

The first walk in this state was tough. I took almost twice as much time as normal to get through it, taking my time and spacing out my intervals of rest to get the most out of the brief moments of sightedness. Still, I worried for myself and for my dog at points because it truly was very difficult to know if or when a car or a bike was crossing our path.

But you know what? I figured it out. I braved through it. And then I adapted.

The next time I had to take the dog out, I realized I could just choose a direction, left of right, and repeat it block by block. If I ended up walking in circles (something I usually loathe), so be it. A little bit of circling, to ease the fear and probability of injury, isn’t actually that bad at all. In fact, it’s preferable.

I got sick about a week and a half ago and I didn’t do a good enough job of resting. I took a few days off but should have taken a few more. Then there was a work obligation I couldn’t put off. Then I got carried away trying to force myself to complete some of my own work with Multiverse because I was in denial of the fact that I was quickly getting worse, instead of better.

Well, I write this now having been humbled. Illness will do that to you. You’d think I would have learned this lesson by now.

In the end, what started as a mildly sore throat turned into a violent cold that knocked me onto my ass and then spread first to one eye and then the other. That’s where the temporary blindness came from, a bad case of double pink-eye that left my vision blurry at best, and pretty much absent at worst.

Strangely, in retrospect of course, I’m fine with what happened. I have learned, a bit, over the years. I would never have been able to accept something like temporary blindness before now. It would have put me into a rage.

Keeping calm was almost as hard as dealing with being sick. At many points, I felt compelled to fight the facts of what was happening to me. I couldn’t possibly be actually blind. And in truth I wasn’t. I had the benefit of those stretches of sightedness that the actually-blind don’t get. This even made me feel guilty, occasionally, because I didn’t feel it was right for me to say that I couldn’t see. But I had to push back against the guilt, too, especially for that bad stretch, because I really couldn’t keep my eyes open.

And it didn’t matter. My anger, my fear, my guilt — none of it could or would change the fact that I was dealing with a natural course of events that was going to work out in time. The only power I could have exerted would have been negatively charged. I could have only made things worse for myself.

Even sleep was difficult, for most of last week. I spent the majority of my days and nights wiping my eyes, blowing my nose, washing my face and hands.

I took refuge in audio. I listened to podcasts in the dark. I listened to music. When I started to get better, I watched a little TV through one open eye, because reading and writing was too difficult and I could deal with the blurriness and just close my eyes and listen when it got to be too much.

In short, I made the best of a bad situation that could have been worse and which I knew with reasonable certainty would eventually resolve itself — especially if I didn’t fight.

So why am I sharing all this? Partially, out of compulsion. It was still a difficult experience, and it feels good to write about it. But I also wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the advantages of approaching the ordeal (mostly) in terms of its own reality rather than through the prism of my impossibly idealized default mindset.

My default mode is set to fight. That shouldn’t be a surprise to regular readers. My “instinctual” reaction is to try to actively fight a viral infection that I can’t do anything about, past following doctor’s orders and letting my body do the real work of getting things back to zero.

I don’t know how alone I am in this default. I feel as if many of us try to barrel through difficulty, rather than temporarily alter course until the difficulty has passed.

Sometimes, it can be an advantage to fight, to barrel through. I won’t deny these responses and won’t completely forsake the benefits of knowing they can be leaned on — both abilities have served me too well in the past to do that.

At the same time, though, I’m here to suggest that perhaps there’s much more merit, sometimes, in relegating fight and bull-headed perseverance to the background. I’m starting to believe that their benefits only exist in the realm of rare use.

Ours has become in many ways a cutthroat culture of survival of the fittest, in terms of attitude if not in truth. Bold individualism reigns. We must always push forward, in order to not only keep up but to better our chances for success — whatever that may mean.

But what if we’ve come to a point where this compulsion towards pushing has outlasted its usefulness? Where do we end up, if we push forward for the sake of it, without taking the time to survey the terrain and choose a direction — if we don’t take the time when we need it to rest and recharge and to recall the reasons for pushing in the first place? Quite apart from my personal experience, I think there’s plenty of evidence out there of how and especially where this sort of approach to life has long been failing us as a society and as individual people.

How fit are we “survivors”, really? Physically, on average, not very, if we’re talking about Americans. Mentally and spiritually — again I have to say that evidence proves we’re deficient. Even the healthiness we do have, I’d argue that much of it is performed or engineered more than it is actually felt and lived.

I don’t want to do it anymore. I guess that’s where all of the above was leading. I’m working to switch out my default. I’m not going to say that we and I don’t still have plenty of fights on our hands, as we work to build a better future. I’m not going to say we don’t and won’t have to continue barreling through, when things get difficult, when we find ourselves weakened or momentarily defeated. But if and when we are temporarily blinded, it helps nothing to defy the darkness. We really can only feel our way through it, can only listen and wait, so that we’re ready to do as much as we can when sight returns.

I’ve been thrown off for much of this month, so far, for obvious reasons. But I’m back now. I’m feeling good. I’m charged by regained healthiness, and refocused by the gracious perspective afforded by a comparatively tame — if still difficult to me — experience of powerlessness.

So, again, I remind myself — and you, if you’ll allow it — to fight smart. Play the long game. Let’s take care of ourselves. Let’s pause, at those moments when we know in our hearts that a time for pausing has arrived.

I think, if we get better at this, more good things will follow. Perhaps we’ll suddenly look around and realize that we aren’t alone, that we’re surrounded by other bewildered soldiers who have also taken a moment to pause, to try to make some sense of this crazy world.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you well.

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