Local motion media designer Switzon S. Wigfall III has completed a piece of artwork every day for the last 565 days. Meanwhile, I’ve been known to take three weeks to write a single 1,200 word article. Of course, there’s research and interviews to conduct, information to organize and time off from my day job to finagle, but Wigfall’s level of productivity shocked me.
I’ve never personally known any other artist or writer to be so prolific. But, how? What is Wigfall doing to maintain such a high creative output? And could I somehow become more like him? What is he doing differently from the rest of us and is that kind of lifestyle even sustainable? I had a million questions. I questioned whether Wigfall was some kind of artistic anomaly. To what degree, I didn’t know. Unsure that a single man might have the answers I wanted, I surveyed 17 local artists about how and how often they’re able to make art. What did I find out? It all boils down to creative habits.
Wigfall and I have been Facebook friends ever since I attended one of his projection mapping performances at Graveface Records last fall. Since then, I’ve followed his Everydays project with vague interest, paying only passing attention to the dates and numbers beside his daily image posts. But on July 26 he posted this:
In the most flattering way possible, I thought: “That is not normal.” Wigfall’s regimented work habits and steady output of new art was seriously incongruent with my perceptions of how the typical (non-commercial) artist works. Having interviewed over 60 artists for this publication alone, I thought I had pieced together a pretty accurate archetype of the average working artist: a “night owl” freelancer who makes work in a studio filled with organized chaos whenever inspiration strikes. Admittedly, my romanticized (and very commonly held) version of artistic practices was at least partially based on assumption. But that’s not who Switzon Wigfall is at all, and that’s not how he creates. As it turns out, that’s not how the majority of the artists I surveyed create either.
Generally, artists don’t take the initiative to educate their audience about the effort that goes into making work. This leaves art critics and viewers two options: 1) believe that the work of making art is really, truly unglamorous, hard work, or, 2) believe that the man behind the curtain just doesn’t want to reveal his incredible, secret alchemy. Guess which one is more popular. I’m not the first to reach out to artists in search of insight into their creative rituals, but maybe, I thought, if artists within our community share their methods for creative success, we can all inch just a bit closer to greatness together.
First, some background information: Of the seventeen respondents to this survey, nine were men and eight were women. The average age of the participants was 29.4 years old. All of those surveyed are artists I have either interviewed or spoken to before.
Were any of those artists as prolific as Wigfall? No. This survey is concerned with creative activity regardless of the number of works produced. While it was Wigfall’s remarkable output that sparked my initial interest, it’s his consistency that held it. He spends 2 – 4 hours every day working on the Everydays project, time he squeezes in between graphic design freelance jobs. Whether he’s scheduling his art around his life or his life around his art, I’m unsure – but more importantly, I wanted to find out if his personal creative habits were in any way representative of the other artists in our community.
Of the seventeen participants only seven said that they created artwork every single day. However, every single participant felt that they created every day. Musician EmmoLei Sankofa* wrote, “There are layers to what “create” means and what it entails depending on who you talk to.” Almost every respondent emphasized that making artwork is about much more than simply being in the studio. “There are many small things that an art-minded person does every day which is only considered art once the artist makes the deliberation to advertise it as such,” Isaac McCaslin, a painter, noted. Doodling, taking inspiring photos, and looking at the artworks of peers were all things that interviewees considered part of their creative process. When participants talked about being unable to create at all, they used words like “upset”, “frustrated”, “anxiety”, “stress”, and “desperate”.
So what gets in the way? Day jobs, mostly. Of those surveyed, thirteen said they had a day job. Here’s how it breaks down:
*”Art-Related Day Job” includes those participants whose jobs were in the creative sector, i.e. gallery managers, artist’s assistants, and museum coordinators.
Other things that diverted time participants expressed they might’ve used for art-making included relationships (romantic and familial) and errands, but the most mentioned was “money”. Of those who said that they were employed in art-related day jobs, half currently work two or more jobs. Yet, when asked to give an average number of hours spent on creating artwork per day, the data collected and averaged from all 17 participants came out to 3.4 hours per day per artist. This is roughly the same as the average Wigfall gave. (Obviously, that number doesn’t apply to every participant but the sample data may be useful to extrapolate and apply to the greater artist community.) So, given their desire to balance jobs, family and free time, how do Savannah’s artists find those hours to dedicate to their work?
The majority of respondents indicated that they adhered to some kind of schedule or ritual. Of those surveyed, only 35% said their creative habits were dictated by bursts of inspiration rather than some kind of pre-meditated methodology. Some described a highly regimented day (illustrator and freelance caricature artist Catherine Blanch broke her daily schedule down nearly hour-by-hour) while others emphasized the importance of ritual to their practices. “I always listen to music and I like to have all my materials within arms reach so that I can grab things as needed without having to get up and possibly break my concentration,” painter and muralist Alfredo Martinez explained. “I like to set up my materials a certain way when I’m doing a watercolor painting and another way when I’m working with acrylic.”
The trend toward schedule-based creating obviously isn’t as uncommon as our romanticized notions of artistic habits would suggest. William James, acknowledged by many as the father of American psychology, once said that habits and schedules “free our minds to advance to interesting fields of action.” Contrary to what many may believe, scheduling time to be creative doesn’t stifle artists – science says it actually yields better results than waiting for inspiration to strike.
Consistently, studies have proven the power of intention over motivation or “inspiration” on actually achieving goals. A 2002 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. People who read motivational material about exercise but didn’t plan when or where they would follow through had significantly lower success rates.
Without being prompted, several respondents addressed their orientation towards intention-based models:
Fibers artist Jamie Bourgeois said, “I try to plan out my days the night before, or I even plan out the whole week depending on the projects I have going on. It keeps me focused and motivated.” Naimar Ramirez**, an installation artist and photographer, also wrote, “I often find myself distanced from my work or distracted by outside influences when I don’t have a specific goal in mind, like a brand new project, a submission or an exhibition.”
But even if it’s possible to work out a schedule for making work every single day, should you? Is Wigfall’s Everydays model sustainable for all? The respondents were split roughly 50/50. Some warned of burn-out, touting breaks and time off from art-making as “healthy” and “helpful”. Others expressed strong opinions on the other side: “Taking time off just creates an apathetic cycle of not making shit,” Corey Eisenberg, a gallery manager and sequential artist, wrote. Again, some were quick to point out that creating is work done outside of the studio just as much as inside it. “The interactions we have stimulate the practice of making, and that happens all day, everyday,” Heather MacRae-Trulson, a painter, added. EmmoLei Sankofa summarized her viewpoint in just four words: “Ideation is indeed creation.”
So is Wigfall an artistic anomaly? Within the context of our own art community it would appear not. With 565 artworks behind him, Wigfall’s dedication can’t be questioned but neither can the data – by their own admission, Savannah’s artists are (on average) creating – in and out of the studio – at a comparable rate. Though this survey didn’t measure the rate of output or number of finished works over a period of time, it’s clear that a majority of local artists have positioned themselves to actively schedule or otherwise prioritize art-making daily. Circumstances may differ from person to person, but it turns out there’s only one secret to creative consistency: habit, habit, habit.
*,** – Both Sankofa and Ramirez recently left Savannah after several years as members of the artistic community here.
Are you a local artist, writer or musician? Please participate in our survey and help expand our understanding of creative habits in Savannah. Click here!