Joey asked me a question about not making art

Can you talk about not making art? This is the question Joey asked me at Backyard Art Camp. This post is my answer.

I can.
And I will.

Answering this question will be a little like wiping off a foggy mirror.

My clarity is completely related to what I know to be true, for me. But my answer might help you answer this question for yourself. My sense is that this question is often asked in the course of deciding how to spend your hours on the planet on any one given day.

So here goes. (wipe wipe)

What seems a bit unclear these days, what with a big sense of “reclaiming creative time” and the rising popularity of “make dates” or “sip and paint” and “art journaling,” where reluctant people get nudged in to expression, is that time spent making always results in some product, some thing.

And some might expect that “thing” or end result to be ART.

But what I think is exciting and healing about “make dates” or “paint parties” or classes that you take on a Friday afternoon, is what happens while you are making. The behavior you are engaged in frees you from critical thinking, your hard edges soften, you lose track of your phone, your calendar, your to-do list, and your inner landscape widens as your pleasure increases. You feel expanded. You relax. You see things differently.

You are behaving artistically.

For many, this is new behavior, but it reminds you of kindergarten, before that nasty teacher shamed you for making a mess of your finger-painting. And yes, you draw a Zentangle or you learn a chord on your guitar. All good results.

But behaving artistically is not about end results. Let us set aside “making art” for a moment and think more about what happens if you give yourself time to behave artistically. It is a way of being, of responding, of participating in your life. It is how “make time” spills over in to your work hours and you find new ideas emerging or new ways of handling challenges. Any time spent in creative activities affects all the other things you do in the world, the way you parent, the way you listen, the way you wake up in the morning.

What is required to behave artistically is to begin.
And once you have begun, to continue.
This is where a daily practice comes in.

to answer the question, you have to begin

photo credit: Francine Caulfield

“Where your inner life meets daily creative practice.”

I teach about a daily creative practice because it sustains you as a social worker or an engineer or a beekeeper. It supports your other work as an artist. Perhaps you are a painter, and find access to your inner life differently because you work in a journal. Or perhaps, you are a writer, a poet, who submits your work regularly. A daily creative practice benefits you, whatever your occuptation, because when your inner voice is nurtured, your other work expands exponentially. You discover, as Naomi Shihab Nye suggests in her poem, The Song, that your inner rooms have rooms of their own.

I came to my daily creative practice originally as a mother with two kids, 13 and 10. I studied theatre in college, pursued my career as an actor for many years, paid my way in life working in costume shops and started my own custom clothing business before I became a mother. Once I began parenting, I let my theatre life and business subside. And it took exactly 13 years for me to notice that the way I knit (obsessively) or the letters I wrote (determinedly) or the jam I made (by the gallon) or the community service I did (relentlessly) were all tugs of my untapped creative life calling for my attention.

I pay attention by writing in my journal, daily

So I began making more time for my self, carving it out of our family schedule, little by little.

Things changed for me as a result of behaving artistically every single day.
My daily practice led me to consider myself a writer, a person who seeks to publish my work. I have learned to make fine Coptic Stitch books and teach this practice. I collaborate with other artists. I develop residencies in other places like Marquette, Michigan or Gyumri, Armenia.

But I did not set out with these things as a desired result.

I set out to listen to my inner life by writing in a journal every single day, early, before my kids were awake, before I talked to anyone about any thing, before I listened to the news, or these days, before I look at Instagram or Facebook or the New York Times. I put myself, my journal, a pen, and some colored pencils in the way of those distractions.

I answer questions by behaving artistically

photo credit: Francine Caulfield

What got my attention originally were tears

I set out to answer the yearning that had me weeping at church, unexplainable gully washing tears. I set out to soothe myself and give a frame to the hope I had to make something from within motherhood. I had no agenda to publish poetry or teach at conferences or run programs from my dining room. I could barely imagine working on something besides snow day plans or school lunches, let alone developing an international residency working with women artists in Armenia.

This work, the writing on this blog, all rose out from a niggling question of “is this it for me?” This, being motherhood–which I loved loved love. I heard a friend put it this way. With her kids were on the verge of being out of the house, she asked, “What else do I have in me?”

So when someone asks me about not making art, I ask whether you give yourself time daily to behave artistically. Maybe art will emerge out of it, but that is not the goal. The goal is to connect with your inner life so that everything you do is touched by your deep knowing of what you love, of what you cherish, and of what you value. I am not talking about whether or not you paint a canvas with oil pigment which will hang in a gallery next week.

Do you see the difference here?

Is the mirror any less cloudy?

A daily practice lets you behave artistically, with attention and dedication, no matter what is going on in your life. Whether or not art gets made as a result of this daily practice, you will never know the answer unless you begin. Behaving artistically takes the end result off the table. And ultimately, whatever you desire that end result to be, it will be exponentially served by what you learn in your daily practice.

I am talking about responding to life, your very life, artistically. Someday, you may find yourself writing in your journal about a dream to work with women who live in very different circumstances than you currently do, or sketching out a dress sewn with fabric dyed with your own morning-glory blossoms. You will never come to that if you don’t first begin to make art within your life now, not later, not when the kids are grown or when you retire or when change comes to whatever conditions keep you from pursuing that yearning edge. I am talking about how you live, right now.


Working in to a hand bound journal is how I behave.
I make the journal first.
I write every single day in to that journal.
Some days I paint, or doodle or collage in the journal.
Some days I write the beginning lines of poems or stories I will return to later in the day, when I turn to the work I do in the world.

But it all begins with beginning.

Does it have to be writing? What if you make a clay pot every single day, a small pinch pot that you do in solitude, before you begin the rest of your day? What if you spend time embroidering, as a way of engaging with the impressions you take in, and you do that every single day?

I ask you.
I do it with writing. I like to take notes, write down my dreams, keep lists. It is the threshold I cross in to the rest of the work I do. Your threshold might look different, but crossing that threshold regularly is the artistic behavior that shapes our work in the world.

What about not making art?
I think that is a lot like not breathing.
Humans sense with acuity, we inhale our perceptions; we interact with the world around us by exhaling stories about what we sense.
Those stories crave a perch. The wall of a cave perhaps? A page in a journal?
We make stories by arranging flowers or painting decoys or designing tattoos.

And we live, as I believe humans are meant to live, surrounded by the call of sparkly deep story. Our story, which we know because we have given ourselves time to recognize it more deeply through daily practice.

Now. Is that clear?
My teacher Paulus used to say, “It’s not about making a living, it’s about making a life.”

Paulus says, “It is not about making a living, it is about making a life."

My teacher Paulus Berensohn led me to inhabit the journals in the way that I do. His book, Finding Ones Way With Clay, is an invitation for creative attention. Photo credit: Francine Caulfield


I am a person steeped in artistic behavior that causes me to listen deeply to what I yearn for and in responding to what I hear, I map out a life. I take action based on what I write about in my journal.

That is my answer, dear Joey.
Ask me another.





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Showing 9 comments
  • Gail Burlakoff

    Oh, Suzi! Yes! Yes! Yes!!! Thank you for this! I, too, have a daily practice of writing in a journal early in the morning. It sustains me. First, though, I read a few pages in three books, a rotation of, perhaps, memoir, then poetry (one poem a day–the book I finished today: Myra Shapiro’s 12 Floors Above the Earth–nonfiction, and then the day’s meditation from a little Al-Anon book (the only book that stays the same, day after day, year after year). The part I have neglected, except for a few days each summer, is the other part of artistic behavior. I enjoy collage but don’t make time to *do* it regularly. I used to love pen & ink with watercolor wash. I want to teach myself to make books. I look at the pictures of your gorgeous books, the glorious colors, and long to be able to do something like that–but I’m afraid. I’m 81. Guess it’s time to throw caution to the wind and just dive in, no? Thank you!

    • Suzi

      Dear Gail! What a wonderful message. No, it is not too late…oh a book you would treasure and work in to, I can see it already. Where do you live Gail? Is there are art center near by where you might find a book arts class? You are completely on to it! Thank you for your comment. I am delighted to hear from you. With love, S

  • Ann

    Brilliant Suzi! The energy/clarity behind your words is very powerful and helpful. I really appreciate the image of ‘wiping off a foggy mirror’. It made me smile as it perfectly describes where I’m at and what I’m trying to do – find who I am now and express that in a form other than writing. It’s getting rid of being tied in the strait jacket of the critical voice which is the main challenge. There is something inside that is pushing – new growth!
    Gail, you are an inspiration! I’ve just been getting used to turning 60 and receiving a travel card that has word ‘senior’ printed on it! I have to believe that “it’s not too late” for a lot of things and to overcome fear as well.
    Thank you for this post Suzi. Blessings.

    • Suzi

      For sure. And there is always time for this expansion. Always a way to capture what you experience. Much love to you from here. xoxoS

  • Nancy McMillan

    Brilliant, Suzy. So well-said. Thank you. I will share this.

    • Suzi

      Thank you Nancy! All my best, S

  • Susan Himmel

    Thank you Suzi! This is just the message I needed to read today. I’ve recently been struggling with the amount of time I’ve been spending doing “art related work” that feeds my creative soul but doesn’t necessarily result in a new painting. I’m an artist who paints for a living, so keeping a fresh body of work growing is important, too. However, when the world is feeling a little too crazy, I am drawn to something more private to sustain me. Sometimes it’s in a journal, sometimes just on a scrap of paper, but the idea is that it’s just for me to see. Down the road I find some real gems from this practice which might or might not result in a new series at some point. Your post helped me reaffirm the importance of this practice. Thank you again! Blessings, Susan

    • Suzi

      Thank you Susan. I love hearing how this lands with you. It is true for me, that doing this work, intimate, slow, undirected and soft, affords me a nimbleness when I move on to other work…my hands have been somewhere, my eyes know a line they crave…I become more familiar with my interior appetite which I love to bring to my work. Keep me posted on how things go for you. It would be fun to share journal pages this winter. Do you know the work of Sigrun on this site? xoxoxoS

      • Susan Himmel

        Suzi, I will check out the work of Sigrun. Thank you for the head’s up. I will keep in touch. I love your posts and your writing style. It feels as if I’m sitting across the table from you sipping from a cup of tea. The best! Blessings, Susan