Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

Creative Paralysis: Side Effect of Pandemic Restrictions?

Sometimes you just have to cut bait and jump ship. I left NYC abruptly in early March. This sample had to be sacrificed in order to pack the pipe loom.

What to do when your normal routine comes to a grinding halt? That’s the question we all face during this pandemic. I read a lot of posts from weavers saying that sheltering in place is very much the norm for them, what a blessing it is to be a weaver at this time, and how nice it is to have time to devote to weaving. YES! BUT there is also something very weird about existing in this level of isolation, having TOO much time to fill, and living with constant worry, both generalized and specific. The lack of structure, change in daily habits, and uncertain future makes us feel unsettled—and that’s if you are lucky. Far too many people are also dealing with illness, financial hardship, grief, or all of the above. Supporting others is the most important thing we can do right now, but so much is out of our control.

For most of us, the shutdown has been in place for six weeks or more, and it’s really getting old. If Facebook is any indicator, I think just about everybody has an unusually immaculate garden, an abundant supply of homemade face masks, and the baking prowess of a Great British Baking Show contestant. These are all welcome distractions when one is in panic mode (and I’m as guilty as anybody for indulging in these behaviors), but to my thinking this time is entering a new phase. Heck, there is even toilet paper and flour at the grocery store now! Isolation is going to be the default indefinitely.  I’m feeling like now is the time to get back to productive creative work. I’m trying to make the shift from “what do I do with my time?” to “What does this time make possible?”  How do I go about reopening my “personal creative economy.” This is not easy given all the mental clutter. I was so flustered that I started this process by first reaching out to colleagues I respect and admire to ask for their advice on this topic.  These are the lessons they taught me: 

Be present

Having some project already underway, that you can readily jump into, is probably the most comforting experience one can have right now. (I would not know, but people tell me this is true!) I know many of you out there are enjoying the extra weaving time that this shutdown makes possible. If you are lucky, this could mean making great progress on a large project you embarked on well before the pandemic, or it could mean a re-focusing on smaller goals you made for yourself at the new year.  Maybe you made a “weave every day” goal back in January? I know many are happily weaving while joining Rebecca Mezoff’s daily You Tube Live session she calls Change the Shed. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHjPnwX7yFjsdzEC_bznjWQ/videos. Did you start a tapestry diary or a journal challenge? Got UFO’s staring you in the face? The luxury to Be Present in a weaving project cannot be underestimated. 

I don’t have a project at the weaving stage, so how the heck can I get in the mindset to design a tapestry right now? I know that the biggest reason why I am having such a hard time developing my ideas into viable  tapestry cartoons right now is because I’m in such a hurry to get something on the loom. This self-imposed pressure is not allowing me to be present, and that is denying me the head space I need to move ideas forward. I needed a way to be present in something other than making cookies.

Perhaps the most energized person I talked to during my quest was my friend Liz Pulos from Tapestry Artists of Puget Sound. Her energy did the most to jolt me into action. Liz has been doing the Isolation Art Challenge and various mini-art classes offered for free through Art Tutor.com. https://www.arttutor.com/class/art-isolation-challenge.  Her sketching exercises quickly leap frogged into a weaving project. 

What started as a simple value study drawing turned into this interesting “journey” tapestry. The red lines demarcate time. Interesting how it looks like a map, but not readable.

“The tapestry I did was not part of a challenge, but rather a response to my heightened awareness of  time now.  How 2 months ago seems like 2 years, how the allocation of my day has been altered, how I cling to the little landmarks of my day like 2 pm when our county’s statistics are posted and 7 pm when the NYT crosswords post, and of course how I am waiting for science to get us out of this.”

So I went online to see if there was a program out there that appealed to me. There are gazillions of these online offerings right now. Just google and you will find everything from free daily sketching programs to actual degree offerings from major art schools. (And there are tapestry learning opportunities too, of course. Many of my readers and friends are taking online classes from Rebecca Mezoff right now. It is a great time to focus on expanding your skills and I highly recommend Rebecca’s programs. https://rebeccamezoff.com.  Another option I can’t help but plug: the American Tapestry Alliance’s mentoring program: https://americantapestryalliance.org/tapestry-education/tapestry-weaving-instruction-mentoring-program/).

A class or a challenge thing felt like an overwhelming commitment to me, so I decided to join in on weekly Facebook Live sessions with artist Nicholas Wilton, called Kitchen Table Art Project. https://workshop.art2life.com/kitchen-table-art-project-2020/. There is no instruction, no project everyone is doing together or prompts even, just artists working in their home studio’s (Zoom style) and talking about their creative process for 90 minutes every Wednesday. The KTAP sessions have inspired me to play around with painting while I listen. I’ve been trying to get more proficient at painting for years. I’ve now set up a nice little “kitchen table” painting area in my studio. I’m enjoying just playing around. 

Do something else. Its ok.

The KTAP has made apparent that with fewer demands on my time, why not try something new. That is what I’m trying to do with painting. I was impressed to learn that many of my weaving friends were also going off-script and taking a slightly different path during this time at home. Julia Rapinoe, also from Tapestry Artists of Puget Sound, has been doing the weekly Community Stitch Challenge with Textile Artists.org. Julia’s tapestry work is very small and fine. She is also great watercolor painter, so I was not surprised to see how lovely her embroidered fabric collages turned out. I’m sure this experience will only enrich her tapestry practice.

Julia Rapinoe, Stitch Challenge works

Julia also has a big, gorgeous tapestry in process that will likely get finished soon.

Julia Rapinoe, WIP.

Similarly, Tapestry artist Alex Friedman has taken this time to join the 25 Million Stitches Challenge. https://www.25millionstitches.com.

Alex Friedman’s contribution to the 25 Million Stitch Challenge in progress.

“I am working on a stitching project, 25 million stitches which is almost complete. It is a project to acknowledge the 25M child refugees. Jennifer Sohn, who started it now has many groups around the world working on it and intends to have some shows starting this summer (~?) You can see more on FB and it has a website. My work in not sophisticated but I wanted to participate. ”

Rebecca Mezoff is actually suffering a little bit of Corona Paralysis herself, but she has found solace in connecting with her many students and perfecting her spinning skills. Like me, she has given herself permission to put big ambitions in the back seat for now and take on a different challenge.

“I have had a 6 x 6 foot tapestry design ready for my big loom for at least six months now waiting for the time when my schedule lightens up enough to allow me to start it. The design is done, the yarn is dyed and organized, but I haven’t started. Now my three upcoming retreats have been cancelled and I have time, but I’m feeling stuck. The only thing between me and starting is having the cartoon enlarged and the local print place I use is still open and could do it for me. But I haven’t done it. Instead I started a daily live weave-together event which is good for my soul but doesn’t get a tapestry on the loom. It effectively allows me to talk about tapestry and do some small weavings, but it isn’t pushing me to get the big one started. I’ve decided to give myself a break on that for awhile and instead have started spinning on my wheel again. I moved it into the living room and have done more spinning in the last two weeks than I have in the last year. It is calming and the yarn is something I can knit. After this bit is done I’m going to do some experimenting with making yarns for tapestry with some new fibers I haven’t tried before.” 

Get Organized

Alex Friedman also reminded me about this time tested method for hitting ‘reset:’ get organized. Oh yes, and I’m not talking about the garage here.

“I recently decided to clean out my photos on the computer. I have many duplicates and similar images that are just clogging up my memory/ or when I go to look for something I see way too many now irrelevant images. It is a treasure trove of inspirations! I knew they were there but I have never really organized them in an accessible way. So now there is the beginnings of a file with new ideas! ”

What a great idea to go back through what ever source material you have, get reacquainted, and organize it so it can be more useful. I did go back into some old sketchbooks. I found many ideas worth resurrecting. It’s true that my photos could really use some organizing too.

Feed your interests

My passion for art and textiles is what I love most, after my family of course. I have a true hoarding disorder when it comes to textile and art books. I find a lot of inspiration in them. When you think about it, it just makes sense that any subject you really love will inspire creative ideas. It could be gardening, or astronomy, or mathematics – all full to brim with visual possibilities just waiting to be discovered on your book shelf.

Turns out books are a major source of inspiration for artist Michael Rohde. http://www.michaelrohde.com.  I contacted Michael because he never seems to lack for ideas. The man is a weaving machine! I figured if anybody could give me great advise about getting unstuck, it would be Michael. He did not disappoint.

“Now, there are times when I’ve finished what is on the loom, and don’t have any idea to do next. In these situations, I’ll look through books with heavy visual stimulation - for me textiles books are rich sources, but others might be consulted, such as abstract art sources, or color rich books, of which there are many. Almost always some mental note taking app is running in the back of my mind, so that vistas from travel, stage sets, movie scenes or articles of clothing trigger a response that later might become a source for tapestry design. With books, I might put bookmarks on pages that are possibilities. Then it is time to step away from that effort; seldom will one image jump out right away and get me going. Most writers about creativity suggest real breakthroughs come when you are not focusing intently on the problem. Talk a walk, watch a movie, talk with friends, play computer solitaire, whatever. This might go on for days, but if something doesn’t pop into your mind, go back to the bookmarks. Usually you’ll see them with fresh eyes and can begin to eliminate some, and focus on fewer ideas. If you don’t have books, then scroll though the great rabbit hole in the middle of the earth, the internet. When all else fails, try something you haven’t done before - on a small scale.”

So now I plan to organize my art books, take inventory, place ‘inspiration’ bookmarks for future reference – and then explore my inspirations with paint – on a small scale - while listening to KTAP….

I found reaching out to my friends to be both informative and comforting. Now I’ve got a plan: Be present, go off-script, get organized, and feed my interests.  It may be Fall before I am able to resolve and start another major weaving project. That’s ok because in all honesty my practice is changing. For the last five years my goal has been to “get out there” and exhibit as much as possible. Now I’m growing quite weary of entering juried shows, and many of the regular opportunities have evaporated anyway. The next project I plan to embark on is a commission that demands a totally different approach than work directed at jurors/curators.  I’m resolved to the fact that I may not complete a single large format tapestry in 2020, something that hasn’t happened since I quit my “day job” five years ago.  All I can say is I hope to come back strong at some point, but for now a phased reopening will suffice.

P.S. Here’s another useful article about this issue that popped into my inbox just this morning: https://www.artworkarchive.com/blog/cultivating-a-creative-mindset-during-quarantine?utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=quar-mindset.

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