I got hold of Amy van den Bergh, an artist who lives and works in Johannesburg, to talk to her about her current 365 day project, her creative processes, and to hear a bit more of her journey as an artist.
Claire: Hi Amy, thanks for chatting to me today about your 365 day project.
Amy: Hi Claire. Great to chat to you!
Claire: I’m interested to find out more not only about your current output as an artist, but also the internal journey you’ve taken so far, the challenges and and difficulties you’ve faced along the way. Would you be willing to talk a bit about that process?
Amy: Sure. When it comes to starting a 365 day project, like with any new habit, the first month is torture, the same as with running. But after you push through that period of time, it becomes something you need, you almost crave it daily.
Claire: Before we get more into your etching project, let’s talk a bit more about how you got to this place you’re now in, working full time as an artist.
Amy: I’ve had this sense since I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Rhodes in 2009 that I wanted to do art full-time. That I was called to be a full time artist. But I didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t know anyone who was doing it successfully, at least anyone who was willing to actually open up and talk to me about their journey. All the successful artists I knew seemed unapproachable and a bit intimidating. I sat with this sense of ‘I must do this’ for about two years while I was teaching. After two years I felt challenged to do something about it, and approached my boss who was very understanding and agreed to give me one day off per week to dive into my art. I took Wednesdays off for that whole year.
Claire: And how did those Wednesdays go?
Amy: For one whole year I spent Wednesdays sleeping in, feeding my face and watching YouTube videos. I cleaned my house. I did everything to avoid actually making any art. Eventually, toward the end of that year I produced one painting which I was quite proud of. I approached a small gallery in my neighbourhood - one that seemed like a ‘safe option’.
The gallery owner ripped my art to shreds. They told me everything that was wrong with it, and I left an emotional wreck. I went home and cried and cried and cried. After that I journaled and cried some more. I wanted to take my painting and throw it in the trash, or burn it or get rid of it somehow, but a good friend of mine, who is a fashion designer, made me keep the painting. It now hangs in my studio. I can see now more objectively what their points were, and how their criticism was valid, but at the time it was all I needed to give up my artistic attempts and go back to teaching.
Claire: What happened next?
Amy: I went back to teaching for another two years. But again this sense of wanting this artistic expression, and wanting this ‘life of an artist’ wouldn’t leave me. I was constantly attending art seminars and asking questions - is this what I should be doing? Where is my artistic voice? How do I do this?
After that, I managed to get a really cushy job, that paid well and only required three hours of my day in the afternoons. My husband, Mark, and I moved a little way out of the city and for the next six months I spent my mornings running and on YouTube. Until finally I got bored. We had this huge house, with garage space, and work space and all kinds of space that was available for me to work and create stuff, but I wasn’t using it.
That year, in July 2015, Mark and I went down to the Grahamstown Festival. The Festival has become an important creative highlight of my year. I’ve been going for 14 years in a row now, and that year was particularly impactful. I had been saying to myself for ages, “One day, when I’m a fancy-pants artist, I’ll exhibit here.” So we went down to the Festival and visited every exhibition. And I walked out of every exhibition in tears.
Claire: What were those tears about?
Amy: The tears were tears of disappointment in myself. Regardless of what I thought of the exhibitions or the artist’s work - Did I like it? Did I consider it to be good? Did I consider it to be bad? - the point is they were doing it and I was not. You see, as a creative person you will keep hitting these walls, and you just have to break through them. You just have to do it. I went home from that Festival and said to Mark, “I feel like my voice is missing.” I was asking the question, “What is my creative voice?”
When we returned to Johannesburg, we went to the Joburg Art Fair. Again, it was an entirely inspiring experience. We went to every exhibition, and stayed late. I came home at midnight, and closed myself in a room with the only paint I had on hand, and a couple of canvases. I made these really awful paintings of proteas using blacks and browns - my worst colours! But it was my first expression.
After that I locked myself up in my walk in closet with my bible and a journal and everyday I asked God, “What must I do?” And I kept telling him, “I want to have a voice.” I began to reflect on my spiritual journey, and passages in scripture that had to do with life being fleeting, beauty being temporary, and the theme of wildflowers kept emerging. There was this sense of God’s constancy and our passing through the world.
Claire: And what happened then?
Amy: I started with wildflowers. My whole garage began to look like a science lab. I collected flowers, grasses, cacti. And I painted flowers. When I was done with flowers, I painted cacti. When I was done with cacti, I started with birds. I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with birds. I just kept moving in the right direction. The next year I exhibited at the Grahamstown Festival. Within one year I had gone from nothing to my first exhibition. It felt like an overnight thing but it wasn’t. It was a small step by step process.
Claire: Wow, Amy. That is a really an incredible story. [Pause. Take a breath] Let’s talk a bit about your 365 day etching challenge. Why did you start it? What motivated you to get going? And what are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Amy: I remember discovering Instagram. It changed things because it gave me access to an instant online portfolio and immediate feedback. It's also where I discovered the work of Lorraine Loots and her “Paintings for Ants” project. I was following her work which led to discovering the work of some other 365 day challenges, like Ross Symons of White On Rice, the origami artist.
At Rhodes I had studied printmaking so I had that background. My dad is so supportive of my work and he began to buy secondhand printmaking machinery whenever he came across it. He would renovate it and deliver it to my doorstep. My studio began to fill up with this machinery. At the time I began the 365 challenge I was very focused on painting and was in a bit of quandary as to whether I should continue with painting, or more actively pursue printmaking. I had a bit of an existential crisis about that.
I invited a friend of mine,I invited a friend of mine, and talented artist, Carmen Ford, who had also studied printmaking with me to come and ‘play’ in my studio for two weeks. We tried out all the machines and made a bunch of stuff. We tried out all the machines and made a bunch of stuff. Looking at my work at the time I felt that my painting truly reflected my artistic journey. I could see the improvement in my technique and detail work. I didn’t feel the same about printmaking. There was a lot I had forgotten from my university days. You know the 100 day principle? Where it talks about improvement through focused challenge? Well I felt there was a lot of improvement needed in my printmaking so I decided to commit to a challenge.
Claire: Had you done any of these kinds of extended challenged before?
Amy: I had done a few 30 day challenges - Roxy Hutton’s 30 day photo challenge, Inktober, 31 Days to Create, and a few others. But I hadn’t done anything more than that. I chose etching because I felt I needed to grow in this area the most. How it happened was that a friend invited me to what I thought was a lino-cut workshop, but it turned out to be an etching workshop. I realised that etching wasn’t as hard as I remembered, that I had the tools needed, and that it was doable. That was in November 2016. By December I had decided to do it.
Claire: What does this 365 day etching project look like for you practically?
Amy: Well, I didn’t want this challenge to be so large that it would take up my whole day. I first tried with my huge print making machinery but it was so big and cumbersome and the process was complex. I did a bit of research and discovered that you can do small-scale print-making with a pasta machine, so I decided to go that route.
One hour is already a long time for me to sit and concentrate on one thing, so I decided to do something that from start to finish would take me 10-15 minutes. I have a few constraints. My daily work isn’t expensive, I don’t use any colour - only black ink, the etchings are small (4.5cm x 4.5cm) and it doesn’t use a lot of space so I don’t have to unpack and tidy up every day. I can get to it quickly and get it done.
122 days into the process it has become my favourite part of the day. After getting past the initial technical challenges - what pressure is good, how long do I soak the materials for - my real creativity began to emerge.
Claire: So how do you keep yourself committed to this goal? Are there any accountability structures you’ve set up, or are you the kind of person that once you’ve committed, that’s it?
Amy: Well, social media has its own kind of accountability. I committed to posting an Instagram pic and a blog post everyday, and that was enough pressure to force me to get it done. In fact I put too much pressure on myself at first having committed to posting a picture by 9am. That meant that some days I had to get up at the crack of dawn just to get the etching done and posted. I also encountered a lot of technical glitches with my blog (South African internet issues!) so sometimes I would end up taking two hours to get a blog up and a little blurb written. I realised later that wasn’t necessary so now I just stick to the Instagram post and then do a monthly round up at the end of each month on my blog.
Oh, a note about balance. In the past I’ve found that when I work too much creatively my body suffers. And when I train too much physically, as in preparing for a half-marathon, my creativity suffers. I’ve gone through both of those cycles. While I’m doing this 365 day project, Mark and I have also committed to a 365 day running challenge. If your brain and your body are fit, your creativity and your spirituality are fit.
Claire: Jeepers Amy, that’s deep. Hold on while I write that down.
Claire: Anything else you want to add about your challenge?
Amy: One last thing on that, I realised that I was making the creative process more complicated for myself by committing to blogging about it. That wasn't necessary. You need to strip yourself bare in this process and ask, what is a necessity and what is fluff. The blog was fluff, so it went.
Claire: Okay a last question for you. Looking back on your 2014 frustrated artist self, what would you like to have said to yourself then? I imagine there are other people now in a similar position to where you were then, so I guess you’d be speaking to them as well.
Amy: If I was talking to myself then I’d be quite harsh.
Claire: Sorry, did I hear you correctly, did you say harsh?
Amy: Yes. Crippled by fear is how we all start. You’re crippled by fear and making excuses. Just get over yourself. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it because you’ve got a 9-5 job. A 9-5 job is only one third of your life. The other one third is sleeping. What about the last third? That’s available isn’t it? Use it. If you don’t use it you don’t want it badly enough. And remember this. For the first few months, or even a year the work you produce won’t be what you want it to be. It won’t be as good as you’d like it to be. But keep going.
Claire: Amy, this is all such good stuff. I wish I was making a video recording of this chat so I could pause it and make more detailed notes.
Claire: Before I say goodbye, are there any resources you would recommend that have helped you?
Amy: Definitely. I'll send some along later.
Claire: Thank you so much for this interview Amy. There is so much good stuff here. Maybe we should start a podcast.
Amy: Maybe we should!
Food for thought
1. What do you think the the connection is between fitness and creativity, if any? Do you see a correlation in your own life between your health and your creativity levels?
2. How have you been supported (or not) by your family and close friends on your own creative journey, and how has that affected your work?
3. Where do you draw your creative inspiration from? Have you considered attending a festival or art fair to be refueled?
4. What would you tell your younger creative self if you had the chance?
Keen to be interviewed?
If you've taken part in a 30 day creative project, 100days project, nanowrimo, or 365 day project and would like to share your story through an interview, I'd love to hear from you! Please take a moment to fill in this form so I can have a little bit of context, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. I'm interested in all sorts of mediums (media?) from music, to poetry, to painting, dancing and everything in between.
Looking forward to hearing from you. :)