Inner Life of the Artist: Honoring Cycles of the Soul

by Jennifer Keltos

My message is to artists, particularly the sensitive among us: You belong here.

Artists are introduced to an insidious idea the moment we decide to take our craft seriously: that we must suffer for our art. Although it is true that the time will come to make sacrifices in the pursuit of our craft, suffering is not the point.

by Jennifer Keltos

by Jennifer Keltos

There is a major distinction here: when we separate our art from our life and focus on only the work itself we tend to take a reductionist, bottom-line approach. We cut out parts of life that are not ‘essential’ in order to achieve the maximum output. We deprive ourselves of the necessary inhalation of life, believing that only the exhalation — the product — is what counts.

Here’s the thing: the inhalation matters. You matter. Since you are the one creating your art, it is wise to take care of yourself, along with all of the seemingly ‘separate’ parts of life that feed your art more than you may realize — and that support your ability to create at all.

I’ve often questioned my dedication to being an artist as I’ve so often been told that art should be the one thing I should care for above all else. It isn’t. My primary concern is that mysterious thing I treasure — the soul and muse that I can neither grasp nor understand. Art is merely a medium for communicating this and bringing it into physical form. Without this love or muse that I seek to explore and capture, my work loses its soul and meaning; it becomes an empty shell.

The physical product of our labor and creativity is only half of the equation. The entire process of creating deserves equal attention and respect — the dreaming, the incubation of ideas, the exploration, and the wonder. Our inner lives and outer processes weave in and out of each other and make up the yin and yang of creating. While productivity and hard work are certainly part of the equation, we must also value and cultivate those experiences that bring us to life and connect us most deeply with who we are.

As Thomas Moore once noted, “It’s important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don’t necessarily nurture soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animals rhythm of rest and activity.”

Our inner landscape profoundly impacts how we navigate through the world. The sensitive among us especially feel a strong inward pull to withdraw from the world and tend to our inner lives. Yet there is an overwhelming lack of appreciation as to the value of taking a mental health day or the necessity of time spent playing, dreaming, ruminating and meandering. The 9-5 world prefers constant activity, striving, and the unceasing motion of pushing forward into new milestones and perpetual achievement.

I studied drawing and painting in Florence for three years in an incredibly intense and competitive academic program. My work habits often made me feel lazy and undisciplined. I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously by my peers and teachers. For me, taking time away from the studio was a necessity, not an indulgence.

Despite this, to combat my ‘compromised work ethic’, I have repeatedly sought to ‘get over myself and on with my work,’ becoming disciplined and regimented while neglecting the ‘non-essential’ parts of life. This practice has never yielded positive results, and the so-called non-essential parts of life turn out to be entirely essential.

By neglecting my own self-care and depriving attention to the subtler aspects of my life, I slowly fell apart. I was depressed, lost, and plagued with migraines and constant colds. My relationships suffered as I was constantly on edge. It did nothing for my art — the thing I was supposedly sacrificing my health and sanity for. I lost all engagement and my work lost all soul.

The filmmaker David Lynch once wrote:

It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work. Right here people bring up Vincent Van Gogh as an example of a painter who did great work in spite of — or because of — his suffering. I like to think that Van Gogh would have been even more prolific and even greater if he wasn’t so restricted by the things tormenting him. I don’t think it was pain that made him so great – I think his painting brought him whatever happiness he had.

When I honor myself and provide myself the circumstances that allow me to create to the best of my ability, both I and my work have the chance to thrive. For the longest time I saw only two options: hard, grueling work; or lazy, indulgent time spent doing nothing at all. I didn’t realize how much power I had to mold my circumstances to suit me. We often withstand unnecessary pain or prolong it because we believe it is part of the package of being an artist.

It is for this reason that I have quit being an artist after every school I have attended. It takes time and space to gestate and sift through what we have learned — to purge what doesn’t serve us and nurture what does. I always find my way back to my art in my own way and in my own time. All I can do is support this process and honor its cycle.

Our processes — art and life — must truly be our own, reflecting our own values and desires. Any school, training or community, in its highest and truest form, should ultimately strengthen and deepen our connection with ourselves and move us forward on our own path. If we feel out of place, it’s probably for good reason. Rather than push ourselves to blindly adapt, we should seek to find the people, practices and communities that exalt just who it is we are trying to become.

We are in a direct relationship with our art and it demands the same kindness, patience and respect as any human relationship. Rather than valuing the ‘valor’ of commitment and hard work as the driving engine towards our work, we could seek to make the process as pleasurable and enjoyable as possible. Commitment and hard work for their own sake are useless orientations to take towards our art; they turn something we love into something we resent. Without enjoyment and pleasure, our lives begin to stagnate and petrify, and our art will invariably reflect this.

Inviting pleasure into our work may stir us to take a walk or to stretch; to feed our bodies, minds, & souls; or to slow down in some essential way. We might make our workspace more inviting and beautiful. We might be inspired to step away from our work entirely — to cease focusing on what we ‘should’ be doing and move in the direction of what excites us. When we take pleasure in our work, we become engaged and enlivened, and the process becomes one of discovery. This can only serve to deepen and assist in the highest expression of our art and our lives.

Shakespeare asks, “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Take pleasure in your unfolding, and revere your art as something sacred and precious, like a small bird that desperately needs your love and care. Approach it gently with respect for all of its cycles: of birth and death, opening and closing. Give yourself whatever support you require to feel most at home in the world and in yourself. Cultivate the experiences that bring you to life and nourish your soul.

Honor the depths of yourself — the ‘you’ that is hidden from others and your gifts that have not yet seen the light of day. Whenever you feel isolated and unseen, or come up against anything that seems to suggest that you don’t have what it takes to make a difference in this often harsh and uncaring world, know that you belong here and are needed all the more. The world yearns to receive both you and your gifts, in no more and no less than your own beautifully imperfect way of expressing them.

Born in the Hudson Valley, Jennifer Keltos is an artist and painter who has returned to the area after having spent the past three years studying drawing and painting in Florence, Italy. She is currently locked in her studio and hopes to emerge in 2015 with a body of personal, self-directed work. Her website is

9 Responses to Inner Life of the Artist: Honoring Cycles of the Soul

  1. Aiyana Winn says:

    Beautiful article, I couldn’t agree more. I’m a baby when it comes to being an artist, as my art started unfolding for me only about 5 years ago after an intense first saturn return. Understanding and getting to know my process of creating is quite involved and I’m starting to notice and become more familiar with all of the layers that help feed my creativity. My art started blossoming when I was going through some very dark times, but now that I’ve healed from all of that, I’ve noticed that when there is too much chaos in my life, my art starts to suffer. Peace, quiet and reflection are definitely integral pieces for me and my creativity. This article is inspiring. Thank you.

    • Making art is definitely a multi-layered process with so many factors feeding into it! It definitely works out the best for me when I respect the cycle – it’s ups and downs… The time for rest, planting seeds, gestating ideas, new beginnings, growth, creating, nurturing, harvesting, dying… The times I have fought against it have been terrible. I’m so glad that this article was meaningful for you. Best of luck on your artistic journeying. 🙂

  2. Kathy says:

    Thank you.

  3. Nancy says:

    This is very well put and thank you for the gentle reminder and insight. If there is not a sense of balance the artist and the art suffer.Your work is beautiful in the old tradition of the Hudson valley… Enjoy and we will as well.

    • Yes, Nancy! Our lives are so intricately connected to our work so if one part of ourselves is suffering it may bring the rest of us or our work down with it. Best to be kind ourselves along the way and nurture our art into whatever it most wants to be. I think each piece of art has a life of its own. Thank you for your kind words. I did spend some time last summer landscape painting in the Hudson River School tradition (or attempted, perhaps)! Best wishes to you.

  4. Michael Mayes says:

    Beautiful piece, thank you so much. It reminds me a lot of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. That book was life changing for me. This piece was a great reminder of everything that book instilled in me.

    • Thank you Michael. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I read ‘The Artists Way’ years ago and loved it, so I suppose it’s woven into my subconscious somehow. It definitely helped me connect back inwards with my creativity. I find it easy to be swept away with other schools of thought that may teach us something in the short term but often get in the way of what and how we most long to express ourselves. I am still trying to figure this out 100%. Sort of like ‘learn the rules and then break them’ only ‘learn the rules, connect inwards with yourself to see if they actually work for you, and then let what you learned emerge how it most wants to emerge in your work.’ Best wishes to you!

  5. Laianna says:

    Jen, I am so grateful that you wrote this article. The message you convey is so beautiful in so many ways. The topic of hard work, suffering and balance is one I have been wrestling with for many years. It seems the ultimate challenge is to build a life that aligns with, supports and leaves room for this healthy balance so that all needs and important desires are fulfilled. I always felt that when one is in balance with one’s true nature, he or she will thrive. So many messages in our culture are contrary to this and they are so constant that it is easy to forget that simple truth. Thank you for shedding light on it once again for all of us.

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