One of the hard lessons I learned directly after leaving undergraduate school was that without specific project assignments and deadlines for completion it was easy to become stagnant as an artist. In school I had the benefit of those irritating professors coming up with challenging new assignments and barking at me like a drill sergeant to make sure I finished each project by the appropriate date. Without that irritation, however, I found it difficult to know what I should do next and even when I came up with an idea for a new creative project, the lack of a hard deadline allowed me to idly procrastinate for weeks on end.
During graduate school I focused on this idea of deadlines and began to enforce my own deadlines as a means to developing a larger quantity of work in a relatively short period of time. The creative process became more important when there was a sense of urgency to the production time. I was forced to plan ahead and develop several sketches and ideas before getting my hands on steel or paper. This approach also pushed me to make assessments and changes as the project developed adding analysis and synthesis to the process. Not every decision made on the fly was a good one, but I was generally able to recognize my mistakes and not repeat them in successive projects.
In life after school I continue to work under self imposed deadlines. Often this is made easier by an approaching exhibition date, a request from a gallery, or a call for artist submissions. But if no outside force acts, I still often set a specific date for completing a project. Sometimes these deadlines are selfish in terms of creating opportunities for me to relax or shift gears for a while and focus on something different. An approaching vacation or trip presents a good opportunity to set a deadline the week before leaving. With a project finished my mind is free to move on to other thought processes and I can spend more time away from the shop or art room and spend that time with my family. I may also shift from working on a sculpture project to a drawing project or I may decide to spend a few weeks reading and sketching in preparation for the next big sculpture.
Other times these deadlines are almost impossible. Last year I did the “one drawing per week” deadline. A few years ago I did the “five new large scale sculptures in 3 months” deadline. And this month I did the “finish this one by Thanksgiving” deadline, essentially allowing 8 work days to complete a seven foot sculpture from start to finish. But while I did meet all these deadlines, I’m not always so successful. There was the never-ending sculpture this last summer, there was the acrylic painting that gave me fits last spring, and there was the big sculpture that attempted suicide by leaping out on the highway a few miles from the metal shop. Yet even in the ones I missed, deadlines are always motivators.
I am much more realistic with deadlines for my students although they’d tell you a different story. I fight a constant battle against the slackers and procrastinators and do my best to stamp out such enemies of creativity. Even with my most generous deadlines I regularly have students who turn in projects late despite the tough penalty for tardiness. My goal is to teach each student early on what I had to learn on my own….that deadlines can be most helpful in developing a creative process that works for the individual. Those who listen and observe will find that they gain time management skills, learn creative problem solving skills, and develop advanced techniques in handling each new medium. I’ve watched recently as one student began to realize this and made advances in his design work as a result despite some bad luck. After pulling an all-nighter and subsisting mostly on Red Bull he accidentally nudged the Red Bull can over spilling the contents across his freshly painted design just hours before the deadline. That is of course, the bad luck part. The good part is after he composed himself he started over and nearly completed the new design on time. The really good part is that the new design gave him the opportunity to solve some mistakes and problems he was able to identify in the first draft and he was able to see how much he could accomplish when he was intensely focused on meeting the deadline.
Now there’s a foundation to build on.