Comfort in Uncertainty

January 22, 2021

Written by Brandon Long, Exhibitions Director, for the January 2021 Artists Only newsletter.

Now more than ever, things are uncertain – and I’m using the term “things” as an all-inclusive term. Since the COVID-19 pandemic came around last year, it seems that everything has a tiny asterisk next to it, with a footnote at the bottom reading “subject to change.” Your favorite restaurant may or may not be open. Your kids school may or may not be meeting in person. Your favorite art festival, or an exhibition you’ve been creating for, may or may not be happening. Absolutely everything is up in the air.

But it’s ok.

One of the most empowering personality traits of artists, writers, musicians – all creatives – is the ability to have comfort with uncertainty. Uncertainty is an inseparable part of being an artist. We thrive on uncertainty.

The very act of creating anything – making something out of nothing – involves a high degree of uncertainty. We practice, take lessons, and hone our skills to try to eliminate unfortunate surprises and increase our abilities, but I believe that not knowing how something is going to come out is what keeps us coming back for more. If every piece turned out exactly as we imagined it might, I’m not sure that we would be as excited to hit the studio, the writer’s room, or the stage.

When I see a movie, I get so engrossed in the opening scene, getting to know the characters, and seeing a world being built on the screen. I love that absolutely anything could happen. I try to figure out what twists the plot might take, following the clues to see who the secret villain might be. The endless possibilities – uncertainty, if you will, is what makes all of this so exciting. Movies are often quite predictable and most of them follow Joseph Campbell’s recognized Hero’s Journey pattern (which if you’ve never looked into here’s a link). By the time the movie is running on rails, and the big-hero vs. villain scene is coming up, I usually get bored and nod off. I can’t decide if falling asleep in movies is an attention-deficit issue, a lack of sleep, or an unfortunate side effect of fatherhood. (Seriously, whose dad doesn’t end up snoring through at least part of a movie?) Regardless of whether or not I’ve maintained consciousness throughout the entire film, I always enjoy that first act of the show where anything can happen. These possibilities lie in uncertainty.

Making any kind of art is a bit like a puzzle. There are several pivotal moments in the arc of any piece, but most projects can be divided into two main parts – exploring and execution. The exploring phase is all about ideas. To be honest, a lot of my art (most of it) is stuck in the exploring phase. Some of it has never even left my brain to the sketchbook stage, let alone reach the studio to become a finished work of art. Ideas are cheap to produce (some of them are even free!), require little risk, and perhaps most importantly – take up no storage space.

Execution on the other hand, takes discipline, effort, and work. . . Investments, if you will. Unfortunately, investments can result in disappointment about as often as great success. But, nothing ventured – nothing gained! Maybe your ideas, your explorations, didn’t translate as well to the execution stage as well as you had hoped. Maybe what worked so well in your mind didn’t operate as well in reality.

I believe that’s one of the more difficult things to face as an artist – the transition from uncertainty to certainty. To go from nearly infinite possibilities to very real, very tangible outcomes takes a lot of mental flexibility as you adjust your parameters and expectations during the process of creation. Artists have unfortunately been given the reputation as procrastinators – and perhaps rightfully so in many circumstances – but I beg to differ. In situations in which I find myself running late on a project, I have come to realize that it is because I have become more than content to dwell in all of the possible outcomes. I get carried away thinking about how different directions an idea could take, that I am hesitant to choose just one and follow through with it.

Although I am quite comfortable with uncertainty within the inner creative process, I need to expand that comfort beyond my own consciousness. I need to become comfortable with the uncertainty as to how my art will be perceived by others. The artist’s greatest desire is to create work for themselves, that follows their own inner vision BUT is also embraced by their audience – both critical and commercial (although there are some among us that claim that they don’t seek financial success).

Creating work that you are passionate about that also resonates with others is no small task. Sometimes I find myself erring on the safe side when it comes to creating my work. Knowing that my art will be seen (and thereby judged) by others is something that does enter my mind as an unwelcome burden during the creative process. I work a lot with recycled/found agricultural materials, and I recognize that to be true to the artistic goals of my work, that I need my materials to be left raw and unfinished. However, I understand that Women’s Wing of the new hospital might not accept my work into their collection if it has jagged, exposed rusty edges. They might not be delighted that the work has authentic cow manure embedded into the surface – BUT — a contemporary art gallery might!

I need to become comfortable with the uncertainty of what will happen when I release my art into the world. Although I have a want/desire for others to enjoy my work, I need to understand that their approval doesn’t necessarily equate to my success as an artist. I can affirm (in hindsight of course) that the more I have tried to create work that others will enjoy, the more compromises I made, the worse that particular piece of art became. I can clearly remember making work, thinking, “They’re gonna love this,” only to find that they didn’t love it and neither did I.

So, as you’re hitting the studio more often (I know you made that as a New Year’s resolution), be mindful of how you embrace uncertainty. Welcome uncertainty into your studio practices, your idea/exploration/execution phases – welcome uncertainty all the way up until you’re hanging it in your solo exhibition that you worked hard to earn.

I’d love to hear from you – how does uncertainty influence your work? Do you strive to avoid uncertainty or do you welcome it with open arms? Share your thoughts by emailing brandon@artcenterky.org.