Ecology of Solitude: Finding Permission in Landscapes

The inexplicable things of inspiration--the visual memory of minutia built up over a lifetime--are hidden beneath a layer of silt. They flow in from relationships with others and from our physical place in the world. How do I find permission--the freedom to make images as I desire, what I deeply know is beautiful--while engaging with the physical and relational world around me? How do I contend with the anxieties of inadequacy, especially those that are not outright recognizable? Stepping outside the everyday gives both physical and mental space for an introspective artistic practice and permission to be inspired by the internal landscape.

As an MFA student, this is a particularly gnawing question: how does one acquire inspiration and form critical feedback on work? The balance between critically engaging work and the creation of deeply personal artwork is vague; the distinction, elusive. How do we find space to consider ourselves in our work, especially when the work becomes a thing of its own to be discussed or deciphered?

The intent of participating in two residencies this fall was to remove myself from my present world of graduate school to the contrasting world of solitude and travel. This was a strange and liquid, personal experiment. The leaving and returning was the first step in discovering what it felt like to have permission. Similar to practicing a particular move in, say, soccer--like shooting penalty kicks over and over again--showing the body and mind what it feels like to have permission in art was a form of practice or repetition. It makes accessing this way of working possible in an everyday setting, and slowly, my hope, was that this free feeling I acquired during my travels manifests itself in my daily life. By teaching myself the rituals I do while traveling away from the day-to-day fears and anxieties, I can take note and begin to implement these ways of working and understanding myself.

My explorations ultimately brought to light that 1) I use art-making and process to contend with boredom and anxiety, 2) contending with everyday life is what I find beautiful in others’ work, and 3) I still don’t know how to be alone. My visual work grew dramatically during these two residencies. For the first time I feel affectionate toward my work. I understood subconsciously the actions in object making are tethered to my place in the world, they are a form of introspective work that few of us take the time to do, but these actions, this uncovering of the mental landscape, is unknowably rewarding to our world.

Agnes Martin’s artistic career is something of a fascination to me, and perhaps it is her story told in brief that causes me to attach myself and these ideas of permission to the montage of her life. After success as an abstract expressionist painter in New York City, Martin left abruptly and ended up living in New Mexico, where she lived the rest of her working life in solitude. I even read somewhere that she didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life. Regardless if this is true, Martin embodies the discretion of introspection made visual. The actions of her life represent the issues of living in the burden and anxiety of urban life versus the freedom from these things found in solitude.

Martin’s act of choosing solitude, however, is not the only way to access inspiration (permission). What if we have the opportunity to become the person we want to be when we idealize solitude? Perhaps we have all the tools in front of us, it is just a matter of shaking things up a bit to see where they were hiding. Nietzsche reflects on the idea that many of us do very little with the very much we have:

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences--their insignificant, everyday experiences--so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others--and how many there are!--are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. (p. 253, Botton)

For this personal experiment, I participated in two seperate residencies. The first was at PLAYA, a non-profit artist, writer, and scientist residency in Summer Lake, OR. This particular residency boasts its isolation factor: very little cell-phone coverage, limited internet, the closest small town about twenty minutes away. The county is so small that it is the only one in Oregon that does not have a stoplight. At this residency I found a cabin all to myself and a seperate working studio for my art practice, as well as eight fellow artists and writers, for two weeks.

The second residency ended up being on my aunt and uncle’s sheep farm in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. I spent those two weeks in the back bedroom working on my art. I also hiked the expansive acreage, fly-fished on the Tuki Tuki river, and helped out with a few odd jobs on the farm. I even found myself visiting several local galleries and sharing the results of my artistic efforts.

When I first arrived at PLAYA I quickly realized I had not been alone before in my life. I began to acknowledge particular crutches I used to cope with anxiety. Mainly, as a smartphone user, I did not have WiFi or phone service, and soon realized how often I used my phone to calm unnecessary worries. I used screens to distract rather than interact with myself and my world. By eliminating the distraction of electronic devices, I found I had way more time each day than I knew what to do with.

First sunrise I witnessed on the Playa at Summer Lake.

First sunrise I witnessed on the Playa at Summer Lake.

I started my days waking with the sunrise, watching the deep orange hop above the crisp horizon, just over the town of Paisley. I’d watch the playa thaw in all its pale blues and purples contrasted with lines of white alkaline, sandy beige, and deep, cool browns. I’d drink my coffee and write or read, then wander over to my studio space, passing the pond where the american coots dabbed seriously beneath willows and european olive trees. In the studio I committed to working in silence. I wanted to experience how my mind operated without the distraction of other creative work (mainly music). Once the sun set, I’d eat dinner and read and go to bed at inappropriately early hours since, as it turns out, there isn’t much to do without screens or other people.

I hiked after lunch most days. The landscape I walked in put me in a place of feeling tiny, unimportant. I think that the experience of smallness is incredibly freeing for a creative person. I could finally let go the battle of resumé-building decision-making. It made me wonder if this were the reason why many artists go on pilgrimage to find solitude; it is a relief to be put in a place of smallness or lightness when we tend to assume that our lives and actions are the most important thing in the world.

I tried to allow the sublime landscape to effect my visual work through its effect on my mental space. The playa and the high desert where a meditative place for me; the limits of the outerscape just as unknowable as the inner. Over the course of the two weeks I became enchanted; my body at attention to the physical and mental landscape.


My second residency was supposed to be at a backpackers lodge in the Marlborough Sounds on the South Island of New Zealand. The original plan was to spend the first week at my aunt and uncle’s sheep farm in Hawke’s Bay on the North Island, then drive down to Wellington, catch a ferry to Picton, and finally a mail boat out to the lodge.

However, three days before leaving for the residency I started having panic attacks, and by the time I needed to be getting on the plane that Monday I had cancelled my flight. I am not sure the precise reason for the attacks, but my life had been stressful and full of heartbreak up until that point; my husband and I had moved into group housing, I was in graduate school, my husband was dealing with chronic pain, and that summer my best friend and housemate died in a tragic traffic accident. I was overwhelmed and had assumed that extreme solitude would help me work through these difficult times, as I had assumed it helped artists before me.

As I prepared to leave I read through the residency handbook. I hadn’t realized all that was required of me at this particular residency, which seemed to add to my anxieties. My hut had no running water, nor did it have a lock, and the lodge was to keep all my artwork, I had to pay for their return shipment (which I simply was not financially able to do, nor did I want to be leaving my work behind). I had become quite attached to my art objects since my experience at PLAYA, as they represent particular moments, emotional responses, and even evoke certain sounds or thoughts I was having while making them.

I started to recognize that making was about self care for me at this point in time. I still wanted to take that special time for myself, away from my current pain and stress, and so I re-booked my ticket to leave that Saturday. I made an agreement with my aunt that I was to stay in their back bedroom as a sort of isolated space to create my work.

I began to see patterns in how I worked away from home. Once again, like PLAYA, for two weeks I woke up with the sunrise, had my coffee, read, and then drew on scraps of paper. I started to allow myself to play with a childish style, trying to create a drawing process similar to Natalie Goldberg’s writing prompt in Writing Down the Bones. The point of which was to commit to a certain amount of time, or a certain number of pages, in writing (or in this case, drawing) anything that comes to mind, to not put the pen down or even stop to ponder.

I was also strongly influenced by the artwork my aunt and uncle had collected that hung in their house. Many of the paintings from Haitian, Cuban, and Eastern European artists spoke to me about being aware of their place in the world, which seemed to be what I was grasping at in my own work.

These paintings, even though some of them are Orthodox in their narrative, do not speak of grand gestures or brilliant ideas. They don’t point at the artist saying “this is the smartest one”. They speak of contending with the banality of everyday. The marks represent time passing and a commitment to introspection. These were the marks I needed in my work--I wanted to represent my smallness in my work, too.

So I continued to practice a drawing process to commit to myself. Being in beautiful, sublime places, it was also important for me to break free of that European/Western desire to represent landscape in its sublimity when we are in them. I started to pretend I was a child again, and I wanted to draw my place in the world from a birds eye view. When I painted, the shapes were responsive to the shape of the paintbrush, not to the capturing of the outer landscape.

During this explorative period I was also spending time hiking around the farm with the black labrador retrievers searching for hares, hawks, quail. We found lambs that had died in the night, left behind by the flock, chased by the farm dogs to the next paddock. I wandered down to the Tuki Tuki river, watched rainbow trout glide in and out of riffles and currents as slow black shapes. I picnicked along a stream, watched a longfin eel slither beneath fallen logs and limestone rock. I enjoyed evenings swimming in a cold pool, shocking my skin awake. All of this in the name of experiencing the place, to understand my place, so that I can make in response to that.

Both New Zealand and PLAYA allowed me to rethink of who I am as a consumer. By limiting my access to the internet, I greatly limited myself to images and sounds. No longer could I pick any music I wanted. I didn’t have the option of assuming I knew exactly what I wanted to consume and when. Just like with an art project, parameters in our consumption greatly increases our appreciation for what we do have to consume. I listened to music quite differently, the radio carried more meaning, the weight of the lyrics powerful. The books I brought became more important than any other book in the world, the art I saw more important than all other images in the known universe. By limiting the option to see more, read more, listen to more, the creative acts alone carry a power that few get to experience in the modern world.

Perhaps this reaction of reverence for things was what I really wanted to feel when I thought of solitude. I wanted objects in my life to carry importance and weight again, and scarcity certainly causes me to respect, pay attention, and care for them more than unlimited access does. By feeling this towards other creative works, it allowed me to feel the same toward my own work. My work and process finally carried an importance it didn’t have before. It wasn’t about making unique things to put into the world, it was about building up my world, using my time, my energy, that is otherwise terrifyingly boring.

The results of these two residencies overarched into my daily life. They were highly introspective, and much more difficult than I had anticipated due to the emotional weight that introspection carried. I returned with the afterglow of centeredness, a vague outline of what being at peace felt like, an understanding of the anxious turmoil that precedes it.

The residencies became more about contending with fears I didn’t know I had. They gave me an opportunity I had not had before in my life--the opportunity of solitude--to point out assumptions I had made about myself, about what I liked and didn’t like. I took with me an openness--that one can never truly know the self--into the dark and unknown. With this terrifying openness comes a freedom and permission to make art in ways I hadn’t ever felt before.

The time away, traveling, in parts of the world unfamiliar to my own daily life taught me new ways of seeing, understanding, and working. They allowed me to become affectionate with a particular process, to adore art objects as they are idols of our anxieties, metaphors for our meditation and presentness.