Indulge me please — I’m going to tell you a story about myself as a prelude to this essay’s topic. Spoiler alert, this essay is not about astronomy.
Early on in my career as a professional artist, a wonderful opportunity came my way. People I knew socially asked me if, besides painting, I could sculpt — yes, I told them, I had studied sculpting in art school. They were members of a distinguished local society that would soon mark its 25th anniversary by commissioning a bronze statue to be donated to our municipality. Thanks to this group’s political clout, a prominent location was designated in the city center across from the old public library. This would be my first public artwork! Imagine my apprehension and excitement; a bronze statue with my name on it in a public place, in the town I grew up in, for all to see for a long time, possibly well beyond my lifetime!
I plunged myself into my first official sculpting project, developing the proposal, formulating the symbolism, preparing sketches, then on to multiple presentations to the board members as well as the city council, getting supplies, building the statue in wax, learning as I went, rolling with the punches, and finally taking the wax statue to be cast in bronze. During this time the city council and my patrons would come by my little home studio periodically to look at my work in progress and give critiques so I could adjust the statue’s appearance to their preferences and municipal safety norms.
During the early stages of this exhilarating, scary process I began to realize this statue would be a big deal — not just for me personally, but for the entire township. As I listened to my clients plan the grand festivities for the unveiling, it dawned on me that I could expect a lot of publicity — note that this took place in the late 80s, years before the Internet and social media arrived to help artists connect with the world at large. Since I had only returned to live in this area a few years earlier, I was struggling to get noticed, let alone be recognized as a serious artist. In a rare moment of insightful calculation, I decided that my first solo exhibition should take place in the same month of the unveiling of the statue, to piggyback on the anticipated press. Next to working on the sculpture project that obviously had tight deadlines, I started creating a brand-new body of work. Besides color pencil, graphite, pastel, watercolor, and oil paintings, I also created a dozen decorative masks that would be displayed as a collection of objects d’art.
As my portfolio grew, I started searching for an art gallery in the region that would want to host my very first solo exhibition, but after multiple rejections I realized I would have to organize this show myself. Being young and inexperienced helped a lot — I just followed my instincts and plowed onwards, flying by the seat of my pants, holding on to the idea that when one door closes, another opens. The town’s cultural center, that hosted theater plays, musical events, and dances, also had a large subsidized exhibition space that could be rented for a minimal amount. Unsurprisingly, their calendar was booked months, sometimes years ahead. But as luck would have it, a scheduled exhibition was cancelled and the space became available in the precise time slot I desired — magic, providence, synchronicity. So, I reserved it, decided on a date for the opening night, and rushed full speed ahead.
The statue project came to its final stages, the wax figure was sent off to a bronze caster — my part was done. But there was no time to rest as I continued creating artwork, getting each piece framed, designed and printed the invitations, gathered a mailing list with the help of the phonebook, sorted the catering, figured out the transport from my home studio to the cultural center, recruited someone to speak at the opening, asked my beautiful musician friends to play live music, sewed the outfits I wanted to wear at both events, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.
The unveiling of my public statue was grand. A gloriously sunny day in November of 1991. The mayor adorned in full regalia spoke at the ceremony, there was an Oompah band that played music, there were television cameras, photographers, newspaper reporters, a copious crowd of people. A large crane removed the wooden box around the bronze statue placed there a few nights before. There was applause, cheering, lots of handshakes and kisses, bouquets of flowers, coffee and cake at the corner café with the mayor and my patrons, there were interviews, and lots of posing for photographs. A whirlwind. All blurry. But no time to rest as the opening of my solo exhibition loomed. Mad scramble to handle all the last-minute details. Then that date too arrived. The opening of my first solo exhibition was simply wonderful. So many people came that a line formed outside — this, I was told, had never happened before at the cultural center. Art sold, music played, people mingled with drinks in hand, the soft sounds of bossa nova filled the air, lots of hugs, flowers, enthusiasm, praise, and smiles. What a night!
The next morning, I awoke… and found myself completely lost. Nearly two years had gone by from the time I was commissioned to create a statue to the exhibition opening that night. Two years I had worked my ass off, running uphill towards those magical dates on my calendar. And yes, I had reached them successfully… yet here I was, staring at the ceiling in my bedroom, feeling completely empty. There was no relief, no joy, no after-party. No energy, no euphoria, no sense of satisfaction. Just emptiness. It felt like I had been sucked into a black hole.
The Black Hole
Quite a long preamble to get to the subject of this essay; the black hole we fall into when an important project gets completed or a significant event transpires. Years later I found out that what I still call the black hole today is actually a very natural response that goes by many names, such as post-project depression (PPD), post-project-completion blues, post-event blues, post-event let down, creative comedown, or post-adrenaline blues. In effect, it’s a physiological response that affects our emotions: after the intense rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that help us stay healthy and energized to finish a major project, comes a low often referred to as “the let-down effect” which suppresses the immune system and creates havoc with our physical and emotional endurance.
It can happen to any of us — artists and non-artists alike. It can occur after any big project that culminates, whether it’s a wedding, an important exhibition, a sporting event, a competition, a recital, the publication of a book or dissertation, getting a degree, or a large commission. We feel utterly forlorn when something we worked hard on comes to an end, and these emotions can drag us down for quite a while. Some psychologists compare it to post-partum depression, and in a way that makes sense; we do “give birth” to something completely new — especially amongst creatives — so no wonder we end up feeling exhausted.
Apathy, sadness, and the lack of purpose are the nemeses of a workaholic like me. Besides the disorientation and angst, feelings of guilt and shame also reared their ugly head. Those near me accused me of being dissatisfied, ungrateful, and spoiled for not being able to rest on my laurels. Why couldn’t I enjoy my success, celebrate all my accomplishments? Look at the newspaper articles, look at the sales, look at the recognition! Life certainly didn’t look like what I had imagined, because, come to think of it, I had never even stopped to imagine the period after. I had kept my eyes on the ball, never giving a thought about the day, week, month, year following these events.
Coming to a grinding halt felt like all my energy had drained and I felt completely rudderless. I lacked a clear destination. I didn’t feel like painting, or reading, or going out with friends. I didn’t feel like dealing with exhibition sales, writing thank-you notes, or delivering sold artwork (mind you, I handled these things dutifully despite my overwhelming dejection). I really didn’t want happy talk and slaps on the back — I just wanted to be left alone to sulk in my pajamas all day.
At the time I felt utterly alone. Not only because of the lack of empathy and understanding around me, but also because I simply couldn’t figure out why I felt this way. In following years, as I developed friendships with other creatives, I found out this reaction is normal — in fact, it happens frequently, especially amongst artists. In my case the black hole was caused by the lack of clear direction for what was next. I had no roadmap once my twin projects came to an end and I wasn’t prepared for the fall.
Afterwards, as I continued my artistic career, each time an important project came along, loud warning bells would go off. They helped me concoct plans to avoid the black hole. Now, one of my methods to avoid that stumbling block is to have an interesting painting or essay barely started, ready to dive into afterwards. In a way, I trick myself into a fictitious workflow — I always make sure I avoid despondency by having something to look forward to. Something I can jump right into after finishing a project, attending an event, moving house, after every trip and vacation, and yes, even after finishing a painting.
My bad experience with the black hole ended up being the seed for the way I tackle my creative process and work routine, which I describe in my essay Kloosterboer on Creative Time published in REALISM Today.
Everyone can experience the crash and burn of the black hole, so besides sharing my personal way of dealing with that recurring possibility, here are some insights that may help you prepare and pull through.
· Acknowledge it’s normal to feel sad or low on energy after an assignment or other important life event comes to a close. It truly helps to understand the psycho-emotional mechanisms.
· Give yourself permission to experience the full range of conflicting emotions.
· If you don’t have anything to jump into right away, try to do things you otherwise don’t have time for. Explore other interests, experiment, reconnect with those you’ve neglected, read that book, watch that movie, exercise, learn something new, do some gardening, enjoy nature.
· Mitigate the let-down effect by helping your body destress slowly. It’s similar to the cool-down period after exercising, you want to taper yourself down by engaging in moderate mental and/or physical stimulation.
· Change your daily routine starting immediately after the big project or event.
· It’s beneficial to take some time to reflect on the finished project or event — take stock of positive as well as negative aspects, and their lessons for the future. Making a list helps.
· Rest, sleep, nurture yourself, recharge your batteries.
· Reward yourself. Be kind to yourself.
· Reorganize and/or clean your studio.
· Wrap up the loose ends of the project, such as writing thank-you notes, filing new contact information, handling bookkeeping, classifying your files, organizing your photographs.
· Don’t pressure yourself to figure out the next big step — it will appear. Trust that your next idea, goal, or starting point will come to you, either from within or externally. Be prepared to rise to the occasion and grab it by the horns.
· If you are dealing with a lack of support or understanding from those around you, have them read this essay!
It’s healthy to give yourself permission to celebrate after an accomplishment, but that’s not always possible. Personally, I just don’t have it in me to dwell on past events — many people mistake this for humility, but honestly, once the moment has passed and the entry on my resumé is made, the inauguration is over, the painting is finished, I tend to move on as quickly as possible. This is most likely both a character flaw as well as my lasting fear of the black hole. I need to have the next thing ready and waiting for me to jump into — it doesn’t need to be big or important, it just needs to be there for me the next morning when I wake up and stare at the ceiling. That is my way of avoiding the black hole — your way may be totally different. But it’s important to understand that the black hole exists and looms each time an important milestone is reached. Know yourself well enough to identify what it is you think you need to do to prepare yourself if it ever happens. That vexing black hole sucked me in once, but I’m happy to report I’ve managed to avoid it ever since.