There is a myth that artists are disorganized. This connects with another misconception: to be any good at the arts you must have a little “crazy” in you. Not only are we messy, we are starving and we can’t keep it (whatever “it” is) together.
Time and time again when people meet me, come to my home or studio, they comment incredulously: “Wow, you are so organized.” I remember other teachers coming into my classroom assuming everything would be a mess. They made the same surprised comments about “having it all together” for administrative work and expectations. It was as if I’m an anomaly to the art world. Initially I took it as a complement until I realized what they were saying about artists in general.
At both schools I worked at I was expected to adhere to staff dress code. I did try once or twice talking to my administration about appropriate dress for art teachers, but no one budged. So I bought my nice clothes, wore them, and in 9 years of teaching, got paint on myself less than 5 times. No joke.
I’ve met two kinds of artists in my life: the creative who jumps head first into water and the creative who dips her toes in the well. My most recent colleague would sometimes wonder out loud how I could wear my dresses and slacks and never get covered in paint, chalk, clay, you name it. I laughed, because we were opposite this way. By the end of a school day she was covered in paint, fingers coated like wax in a bevvy of art colors. We must have been quite a visual contrast!
When she worked on something, she jumped into the creative pool, enjoying the tactile experience of working with material. Her paint covered hands and clothes are a reflection of this choice. I am less tactile than my aforementioned colleague. I am interested in planning and discovery of process via concept, not material. I’m sure that’s part of why I don’t have paint all over me; it’s a reflection of how I work as a creative.
In my first teaching job I shared a classroom. The first teacher was a person who lasted only a year. She incited such animosity from students that they would destroy “her side” of the room and apologize to me about it later. She made no effort to stay organized for her students. Her lack of genuine interest in them pushed them away and they returned the quality of affection. It reflected in our classroom and in student performance. It wasn’t her lack of organization that hurt students. What created disorder was her disinterest in maintaining a caring and loving space for student learning.
Then I met my most favorite art teacher colleague. Let’s call her Ruth. I always had a perception that I was organized but this woman took it to another level. I’ve shared this story before on Artist Strong, but I can still remember coming into the classroom one day after a study hall to find her with a Sharpee marker labeling all of the boxes. She sat there, humming along as she wrote labels. As I got closer to her I observed several of the boxes had no supplies in them. I asked her, “What are you going to do with those?”
“Why label them of course!” That’s when I first discovered I wasn’t the only organized art teacher and artist: when I had a classroom full of empty boxes labeled “empty boxes.”
It tickled me so much that when I’d find an unlabeled empty box I’d sneak around and label them nonsensical things like “childrens’ eyeballs.” I have this lovely visual in my head of Ruth going to our storage closet and standing there quietly curious for a minute. Her head was slightly tilted as she observed the tools and her nicely labeled boxes when she burst into laughter.
She took meticulous notes about students and her gradebook was an astounding, organized system for collecting information. (She insisted on writing it by hand). I learned so much about preconceived notions of artists and art teachers from my first two colleagues.
What bothers me most is how many creatives feel ashamed when they say they are “messy.” Different media and different approaches to creative techniques can often determine how “messy” or “neat” our studio is. A studio is a work space, it is meant to be used.
The painting studio and printmaking studio were two contrasting examples of this while I was attending college. The painting studio had large easels, marked up with paint. The floor had paint on it. The tables had paint on it. Guess what happened in this space? The interesting part is some people might label this messy. The irony is there was no clutter, we had minimal furniture and organized storage space for our art. It was a systemized place that just happened to have a whole lot of creative love all over it.
The printmaking studio, on the other hand, was a pristine white space. Printing presses were all over the studio. I don’t remember where the supplies were but I remember everything having a space. We had to leave the studio as we found it: a blank slate for the next students coming in. This meant wiping up all the wet materials we used, disposing of scraps and keeping it clean of paint. If you came in when we were working, however, it was as if all hullabaloo took place. Tools and paint supplies were strewn everywhere, we were covered in paint. It was like an art bomb went off in the studio.
Neither studio was messy, they were being used according to the nature of the creative process. Both were organized, with clear systems that encouraged us to create. They were efficient and effective. Sounds like disorganized artists to me!
Take some time today to reflect on the words you use about your art, creative process, and space. Do you describe yourself as messy or disorganized? These words are pejorative; that negativity may impact your creative process. Your word choices could contribute to a negative mindset about your creative interest. And we all deserve to see what you create.
ARTIST STRONG ACTION: Be mindful of the words you choose to describe your creative life. You are exactly as you need to be – it’s the only way to create the unique artwork only you can create! Tell me in the comments below: have you described yourself as messy and disorganized? Are you truly? What words can you choose today instead?