Making art during COVID-19: thoughtful advice from La Trobe alumni

Have you thought about making art, but don’t know where to start? These alumni artists are here to help. Read their suggestions on how to nurture your art practice during a global pandemic, in part one of our series on being creative during COVID.

Hands-on hobbies can help us during times of stress. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us have started, or thought about starting, an art or craft practice during this global pandemic.

As local lockdowns ebb and flow, you might find yourself with time inside that’s conducive to being creative. But what if you’ve never picked up a paintbrush, played with clay, or sewed a stich? And even if you have, how can you overcome the struggle to get started again?

To encourage you to have a go, three alumni artists stepped away from their canvases to share tips to nurture your artistic talent. They include Bendigo artist and educator Angela Morrissey (Bachelor of Visual Art with Honours 2001, Graduate Diploma in Primary Education 2002), whose latest exhibition is inspired by emus; artist, La Trobe lecturer and art therapist Dr Libby Byrne (Master of Art Therapy 2003), who regularly contemplates what it means to be an artist with her clients; and artist and gallery director Dr Susan McMinn (Bachelor of Visual Arts with Honours 2007, PhD Art 2016), who runs independent Bendigo gallery The Arnold Street Milkbar to support local, regional and emerging artists.

1. Find inspiration in art books, films and the internet

While many galleries have been forced to temporarily shut their doors during the pandemic, inspiration is still at your fingertips. To find inspiration, Angela draws on art books spanning painting, printmaking, drawing and photography, as well as Google Images. Susan also recommends observing the work and methods of artists whose work you’re drawn to.

“Study artists that hold your interest and learn about their processes and research,” she says.

If lockdown prevents you from visiting galleries in person, why not go online to view it instead? La Trobe learning partner The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) lets you explore its collection online. And our own La Trobe Art Institute regularly shares flashbacks and previews of upcoming work on Instagram.

For those interested in making moving images, online streaming services make it easy to be inspired by those who’ve come before you, too.

“Draw your inspirations from the past and open your mind to the greats. I’m also a filmmaker, and to create my own movies I watched films of every genre. From silent movies, to Hollywood’s s golden age of the silver screen, through to the blockbusters of today. Expose yourself to all types of work,” says Angela.

2. Dig into the archives for new ideas

Archives are another rich source of inspiration. For Susan, delving into archival materials led her to discover the topic of her La Trobe PhD in Art: the depiction of horses in war.

“To start the creative process, I need to find subject matter that sparks my interest, which is usually triggered by narrative around relational human struggle. My research focused on the stories surrounding the Light Horse Soldiers and their struggles during WW1, particularly around the horse in war,” says Susan.

Susan travelled to Israel and Europe during her PhD to research work that would inform her art. Her PhD paintings have since been exhibited alongside the likes of Sidney Nolan and George Lambert at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance.

More recently, Susan has used objects from the Bendigo RSL Collection to create a series of still life paintings. And while not all museums and archives are open during COVID-19, you can increasingly view popular digitised collections online.

For Susan, working with archives is also a way to expand your point of view. For example, they can help you make new connections about a subject you want to respond to.

“I’m interested in archival material and the way in which a construct might connect to a variety of perspectives. In this way, my work is formulated from not only my personal viewpoint, but also from the way in which the compositional arrangement of the objects might retell past histories,” she says.

3. Get to know your creative process

You might think the creative process is something of a mystery. But according to Libby, there are four distinct steps. Knowing them can turn making art into something that’s less of an enigma, and more of a personal experience.

“The creative process is an experience of relational care and connection that calls me to respond, discover, connect and create,” explains Libby.

“For me, it always begins as a response, both to the wonder that I encounter in the world around me and to my own need to make sense of what captures my attention. My response leads me to discover new ways of seeing, thinking and being with questions, ideas and materials. These discoveries enable me to connect ideas and materials in ways that I’ve not previously imagined. And I find that I can create when I arrive in the middle of the process – when I’m no longer focussing on the beginning or the end, but simply immersed in the possibility of what’s still to come.”

4. Try new tactics when you’re feeling stuck

Everyone hits creative ‘stuck’ moments. If you’re struggling to know what your next piece could be, or which direction a work should take, you’re not alone.

“Being stuck is a normal part of our experience,” says Libby.

One strategy she finds helpful during these times is to lean into other artists’ work.

“Learning to be with art in moments when you don’t know what to do offers you the chance to look and listen, and to receive the gift of creativity from the world around you. Remember, making time to see and be with the art other people make is a creative practice, too,” she says.

For Susan, persisting despite feeling stuck can help you break through to new ideas.

“We all have creative blocks. The only way I can get through it is to just start making art. I usually start by making drawings or doing some printmaking and I find the ideas come during that creative process,” Susan says.

That perseverance can become especially powerful when you also shift how you think about the art you’re making.

“When I start creating work again, it takes a few weeks to bring the work up to standard, so I regard this work as preliminary studies. It’s during this time that I might discover new ideas and methods which drives my creativity.”

By trusting in the creative process, and reframing what you’re doing to help take the pressure off, you’ll be past that block in no time.

5. Be alive to art’s impact on your wellbeing

Making art can give you more than aesthetic benefits. On one level, you might use art to visually express an idea. At the same time, you’re also reaping therapeutic perks, like focusing your attention and inviting wonder.

“Art is so much more than a resource to be mastered or manipulated in communicating an idea. The important thing is not what you can do with art, but what art can do with you,” Libby says.

“Art is a way of paying attention to the things that capture your imagination and making space for the gift of wonder. Wonder about what might still be possible if you engage with the call to be creative and move from there.”

6. Forgive your mistakes

Bringing self-compassion to your art practice is important – and never more so than during a pandemic! Learn to bypass the inner critic and keep at it, even if you’re unhappy with what you’ve made.

“The more you do, the more you learn. Everything is a learning process and nothing is a waste of time. You might not feel overly confident at first, but we all had to start somewhere. Learn from your mistakes and keep on going,” says Angela.

“Making art isn’t easy. It requires hard work and dedication,” agrees Susan. “It’s especially important to follow your own creativity and keep working through your ideas even if you feel the work is not where you want it to be. That will come.”

Letting go of your artistic mistakes will also free you up to create from your heart.

“Whatever you do, do it with passion and from the depths of your soul. Don’t hold back, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you it can’t be done. Anything is possible. Create, create, create!” says Angela.

7. Grow your hobby

While there’s certainly no obligation to make art for anyone but yourself, you might find you want to take your hobby out to an audience. Should growing your hobby feel right for you, it’s helpful to know what skills to build.

“If you want to move forward as an artist, show your work when and where you can. Learn the boring stuff like arts administration so you can apply for grants and exhibitions. Be professional in your online and social media presence. Don’t be afraid to approach galleries using a professional presentation to exhibit your work. And don’t compromise: only you know the ideas and vision that you hold in your heart. Finally, have fun!" says Susan.

If COVID-19 has given you the necessary time and space to dabble in art, why not try one of these approaches today? For inspiration, start by discovering Libby, Susan and Angela’s art online.

Image credits: Susan McMinn, Vietnam, 2019, watercolour on paper; Libby Byrne, Memory 5, 2020; Angela Morrissey, Expressionist Daffodils I, 2020.

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