Turn on the radio and hear a perfectly executed arpeggio. Flip open a book and read an achingly vivid scene. Gaze at a stunning photograph that captures just the perfect orange in a sunset. Now picture the artist who gave you that transcendent experience. Did you think of some exquisite persona who dresses in black, drinks only absinthe, and eats philosophical treatises? A tortured soul whose life is a seesaw between ecstatic inspiration and existential despair?
Life as an artist isn’t all about living in an attic and driving intruders off with wild-eyed intensity. Most artists are also teachers, performers, and craftswomen, working and serving the community in the very same field in which they create their fine art. But how do artists find time, amidst their workaday schedules, to create? To find inspiration? To maintain a balance between the have-to’s and want-to’s? Here’s what three local artists shared about juggling creativity and work.
A River of Inspiration
From baroque concerti to heavy metal, Amanda Gates Armstrong has played it all. You know her as the assistant concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, where she wears concert black, looks beautiful, and plays perfectly on a three-hundred-year-old Italian violin. Then there’s the other side of her music, when she lays down that sick lead riff of “Stairway to Heaven” on her bright blue six-string electric violin touring with her Led Zeppelin cover band. Yep, she’s got layers.
Amanda is a tiny person with a fierce smile and an air of absolute resiliency. We first met when we were both extremely pregnant with our second kids, and we were struggling to navigate the back steps of the Academy of Music, on our way in (me) and out (her) of our first kids’ violin lessons. Our initial exchange was just a breathless nod, an acknowledgement of mutual suffering and dedication. In the intervening years, Amanda has not only played in the VSO and other classical ensembles, but piloted Bay Youth Orchestra as an extremely capable and successful executive director for several years. She also came into her own as a creative composer, writing original music for a Portland band called Emberghost.
In a job that almost always involves playing other people’s music, how does Amanda find the mental space and energy to create her own work? She said the way to creative refreshment is—even more music. She loves to listen to all styles, to get obsessed and stay obsessed, and her predilections are varied: from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” to traditional Celtic tunes. “If it’s innovative and emotive at the same time, I’m pretty much a sucker for that,” she said.
Another way Amanda gets invigorated for contemporary composing is to think analytically about the classical music she plays. “I love the sound of Ravel, so I started to think more deeply about his use of certain instruments to create musical colors,” she explained. “He often used clarinets and flutes playing together to convey the quality of water, for instance.” Often as an orchestral player, she gets stuck thinking about her own part of the piece, Amanda admits. As she becomes more comfortable with her part, her appreciation for the overall structure of the piece grows, and she thinks about how the composer achieved it.
Amanda pictures her creativity as a flowing river and imagines dipping into it when it’s time to make music. But with one or two rehearsals a day and two hours of daily practice in addition to working out to give her the strength to practice and perform, her schedule can be grueling. How does she do it? She works best when there is a “crashing, consuming deadline looming,” she says, and is forced to put aside the pressures of daily life. “Then I just wander over to that creative river, dip into it, and then spend a long time writing it down.”
The Creative Cookie
I first saw Janet Peery at the Old Dominion University Literary Festival. She smiled sweetly and dressed softly, in cardigans and scarves and beads, layered like the garb of a ceramics teacher or a psychiatrist, not like some intimidating novelist with her finger on the throbbing pulse of the zeitgeist. But Janet’s literary creds are world class. Her first novel, The River Beyond the World, was nominated for the National Book Award, a golden honor most authors only dream of reaching. She has collected fellowships from both Guggenheim and NEA. When I spoke to Janet, just one of her signature over-the-glasses looks clued me in to the fact that under that sweet exterior was a live wire and a biting wit.
Janet Peery is also a beloved, award-winning professor at ODU, instructing both graduate students and undergrads in workshops and seminars. I asked her if she ever feels overwhelmed by work. How does she protect her work from the intrusion of the everyday? “I think all working artists surely must feel overwhelmed,” she replied. “I guess the answer is that I powered through, getting all the commitments and duties squared away, and doing the writing. This isn’t to say that there’s not a price for the hellbent approach. There is, and it’s exhaustion. I’d venture to say that all working artists have felt this, too. The cure is rest and time. Until the cycle repeats.”
She’s not a fan of artist retreats, however. She told a story of a month-long residency at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Writers who visit MacDowell have a famously sweet deal: they get fed, they get a quiet place to work, and they also get to say to people that they’re living in an artist colony. Yet Janet found herself sagging into doldrums without the pressures of normal life. She said, “I spent the last five days of my stay staring out the window, cursing solitude, writing next to nothing, and waiting for the lunch basket to arrive, longing for the everyday.”
Janet Peery’s latest book is The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, and it tells the story of Hattie Campbell, whose wayward children, especially young Billy, strain the bonds of their family. It is a difficult story told with compassion and humor. In writing about dark topics, Janet keeps her characters in the center and focuses on their love. For Janet, creativity is “like a cookie, a sometimes thing.” Instead of a constant urge or energy, it is variable.
Sometimes she spends hours at her work, “looking up only as the sun goes down to realize I’ve been at the task all day and I can scarcely see the words on the screen.” Other days she only works a little while.
What is the answer to sustaining a creative life? “Sit at the desk, go to the studio, show up,” Janet said. She looks to the past for inspiration, to her own daydreams, and to books: “What results from the amalgam of imagination and memory then becomes the new idea or experience,” she said. “Reading, though, is the great energizer. And the great comfort. And the great surprise.”
Jennifer Carr is an award-winning photographer who has shown her work in galleries from Seattle to Vermont and has been published in magazines like Click. But she is the last person to take herself seriously, proclaiming that she’d rather ride in a Jeep with the top down, her flip-flops kicked off, and her blonde hair tucked up under a ball cap. Her love of the wilderness and nature shines through her work, and she is famous for her portraits of seascapes. She documents our local sights with skill and grace: Colonial Williamsburg and Lantern Asia at the Botanical Gardens have been her studies, as well as the shoreline in every kind of light.
As a working photographer, Jennifer also does photography sessions, framing families and friends, babies and couples. She sells art prints and provides online mentoring. I wondered how she stays creatively energized when she is busy with work.
“I try to weave creativity into my days in areas out of the actual creative work that I am doing,” she explained. “But sometimes life’s daily to-do list does get in the way, and I find myself feeling stifled.” Jennifer’s solution? Something she calls an “Artist Date,” which she defines as “a time when I can be with myself allowing myself to focus only on what fills my heart and mind with joy and creativity.” I love it.
Travel also serves to energize Jennifer’s ideas. She loves to dive into new experiences and cultures with the same vigor with which she embraces her beachy lifestyle. In fact, as I write this, she’s in Ecuador, volunteering as a teacher of young children. It’s been a wonderful boost to her creativity, she said. “Watching children play together, use their imagination, and generally have a grateful approach to life has reminded me of how beneficial it is to allow yourself to experience things with childlike wonder.”
Jennifer is a teacher right here at home as well and offers a women’s retreat on the Outer Banks called “The Saltwater Retreat Photography Workshop.” Throughout five days, women learn photography skills and techniques, talk about their challenges, and deeply connect with their work. It’s meant to revive them, awaken them, and restore their energy for their art, Jennifer explains.
I asked what advice she would give to women who struggle to find the space for their creative work. “Recognize that your work and your self-fulfilling art aren’t always the same thing,” she said. “Sometimes projects come up that aren’t creatively fulfilling, but these projects make it possible for the other projects that you long to do.”
Women like Amanda, Janet, and Jennifer feed their longing for creative expression in all kinds of ways and bring music, words, and color to our world. We could all learn a lesson from these ladies: to push ourselves to create, forgive ourselves when we can’t, and find the strength to keep trying.
Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She lives in Norfolk. Find out more at www.lydianetzer.com.