In a Crisis, Artists Rethink What it Means to Be Creative

Photographer Kristina Bakrevski lost all her work overnight when shelter-in-place orders came down. Her mindfulness practice has been an important tool while she figures out how to bounce back creatively and financially. (Skyler Greene)

Painter and designer Vida Vazquez has been looking for the silver linings of sheltering in place. With all of her upcoming art markets canceled, she hasn’t felt a constant pressure to produce jewelry and clothing. So instead, she’s been using this time to experiment with new mediums and revamp her online shop.

But sometimes, she finds herself hitting a wall. Underneath her optimism is a low hum she describes as “gnawing anxiety.” A feeling of guilt occasionally creeps in, asking her, Why sell earrings when so many people can’t meet their basic needs? And when she thinks about the human toll of the pandemic, her creative drive becomes paralyzed by grief.

On a recent afternoon, emotions came pouring out when nothing seemed to be going right. Shipping online orders, her envelope got stuck in a mail box. When Vazquez returned with a coat hanger to push it down the slot, a stranger accused her of committing the federal crime of mail tampering.

“That was one of my worst days so far,” she says. “That day just kind of hit me. I cried a lot and I felt better the next day.”

Pausing to reflect, she muses, “One of the best things we can do is feel all the feelings.”

Designer and artist Vida Vazquez. (Vida Vazquez Studio)

While we navigate the emotional ups and downs of life during a pandemic, a debate about productivity has been bubbling on social media. Some people chide others for not using their new “extra time” to perfect skills or work on self-improvement projects. Others counter that we’re living through a global emergency; it’s OK to just take care of basic needs. The current circumstances are prompting many artists to rethink their notions of productivity, especially because it’s unclear what creative industries reliant on large gatherings will look like in the future.

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“I see that online a lot, this is the time to be creative. And what I see even more is creative people being like, ‘Yeah, that’s not working,’” says astrologer, author and Ghost of a Podcast host Jessica Lanyadoo. “The reality that we’re living under is very scary. And fear may at times provoke creativity—some of the best creative things come out of complicated or difficult emotions. But the truth is, the fear of getting sick, of seeing others suffer, of not being able to pay your bills or get groceries is going to overtake the creative process.”

Oakland astrologer Jessica Lanyadoo's new book looks at 'Real Relationships' through an inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly lens.
Oakland astrologer Jessica Lanyadoo. (Anna Alexia Basile)

Lanyadoo says it’s important to reframe our definition of what being creative means while dealing with sadness, anger, fear or anxiety. The real creative work right now, in her view, is going within and focusing on our emotional and spiritual needs. Indeed, psychologists advocate for self-compassion while experiencing overwhelm and stress, feelings that can lower our immune response and take a toll on physical health.

“Everything external is out of our control and somewhat slowed down,” Lanyadoo says. “So I think the opportunity is to figure out how we respond to emotions we spend so much of our lives evading and avoiding and projecting out.”

That’s been a recent focus for Los Angeles photographer Kristina Bakrevski, who lost virtually all her income overnight when shelter-in-place orders came down in March. In the face of panic, she turned to her mindfulness practice. In grounding meditations, Bakrevski visualizes energetic roots going from her body into the earth, creating a sense of stability. Spiritual and self-care practices like tarot and yoga are now greater priorities as she simultaneously figures out how to bounce back financially and creatively.

“I’ve been a production machine for five years straight,” says Bakrevski. “This slowing down feels really good because there’s no pressure for me to live up to another person’s expectations. It’s really going back here, to my heart, and asking, what do I want to do? And that’s a first.”

Letting go of external pressures, Bakrevski instead focused on low-stakes creative exploration, trying out photo collage techniques and jotting ideas down in her notebook. That eventually led her to ideas for changing her business model. Soon, she may offer virtual horoscope readings and photo collages that correspond to people’s astrology charts.

“I had to step outside the box and instead of forcing being creative in a specific type of way, I had to allow whatever wanted to come through,” she says.

Approaching life from a place of what feels good rather than fear and scarcity—even under hard circumstances—is a central tenet of Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, a book of essays that’s been an inspiration for dancer and fitness trainer Erica Jasmine Moon. In it, brown advocates that pleasure and joy should be part of social justice activism and our vision for a better future. These ideas keeps Moon motivated to create even when financial strains, the suffering in the world and her lack of control over either feel overwhelming.

Dancer and fitness trainer Erica Jasmine Moon. (courtesy of the artist)

“I get wrapped up in this guilt like, ‘I don’t have time to dance right now. I have to call so-and-so policy leaders and legislators,’” she says. “But if I’m only doing that, I’m going to be bone dry. I’m not going to feel like I have a life worth living.”

So how do artists stay motivated to create, especially when their livelihoods depend on it? There’s no easy answer, and the pandemic will likely cause many to reevaluate how they earn a living. But Lanyadoo cautions against attempting to force ideas—sometimes stepping away to tend to ourselves and clear our heads is enough.

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“We have to make money so we can pay rent, buy food. But we don’t have to be creative all the time,” reminds Lanyadoo. “I think artists and creatives need to hear that. You don’t have to feel good all the time, you don’t have to be creative all the time, it’s OK to have a slump. If we don’t give ourselves permission to do that, it’s going to be hard to get out of it. We have to remember we’re humans.”