Heidi Shedlock is an artist, teacher and mum of two. Over and above her usual creative work, about two years ago Heidi started a daily practice of painting a small postcard sized work and then kept going for 568 consecutive days! I spoke to her about how she began her “Paintings in the Post” project, about community and accountability, and about the ebb and flow of the creative life.
Claire: Hello Heidi, how wonderful to be able to chat with you - thank you!
Heidi: It's a pleasure, I’ve really been looking forward to it.
Claire: First up, would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?
Heidi: Sure. I live in Durban, I’m a very busy wife, mother of teenagers, artist and teacher. Life is very full and very rewarding.
Claire: I’m really interested in your painting a day challenge? How did it start and what did it turn into?
Heidi: It never started off as a 365 day challenge at all. If it had, I probably wouldn’t have even begun. My inner critic would have kicked in and caused to me doubt if I would ever manage such a big project. I had recently finished an exhibition and was experiencing those post-exhibition blues. I felt like there wasn’t much left inside me. I started working on a commision but really struggled to get into it. I was in my studio, and it was flip-flop Friday, and I thought why not paint my shoe, just as a quick one-sitting painting to get into the flow of things. At the time I was following a few daily painters, like Carol Marine, and thought let me do something like that - a quick study in a single sitting. I thought, “I just need to paint for the sake of painting.”
I absolutely loved every minute of it and it immediately put me in a different frame of mind. The next day I went into my studio a little terrified about whether I would find myself in the same space. I did another quick painting. Every day that week I completed a quick study, the point being to capture the essence of something - an apple, a paintbrush, anything. After a week of this I shared my work with my cousin, Candice Caldwell of Refab Diaries, in Chicago and she encouraged me to start a blog. She set it up for me, and challenged me to try out one month of documenting my creative process. So that was my initial challenge, just one month of painting and sharing the process.
It brought me so much joy! I reached the end of that week, and then the end of that month. One month became two, and then I reached the 100 day milestone. I was so chuffed with myself. It almost became an addictive process. I began to crave that 40 minutes every day. I then approached a gallery in Durban with the idea of holding a 365 days of paint. But even once that was done, I continued with my daily routine, for no other reason than to connect with paint. It became like a meditation or a prayer. One thing that really helped me was steering clear of too many rules. If I had had too many rules it may not have worked for me. I might have wondered, “Am I meeting the expectation?”
Claire: You speak about ‘craving’ that time. What do you think it was that you were craving?
Heidi: It was the one on one time to connect with my materials free of expectation. I got to play with paint, and felt free to share my failures as well as my successes. It was a wonderfully liberating feeling. I wasn't doing it for anyone. It was just for me and my paint. We forget to enjoy ourselves. We forget to make and do for the sheer love of it! I read a wonderful thing written by a Canadian advertising guru. He said every seventh year he takes a year long sabbatical and spends the year reconnecting with his own creativity. I’ve always thought it is so important to remember to top up your own soul tank. We forget to create for the sake of creating.
Claire: It sounds like this postcard painting has become a sort of tool to help you get into the work?
Heidi: Yes. It is a tool, a zone of comfort almost. It's a space I can switch off and be rejuvenated. Anything that you do that is habitual and repetitive, like prayer or exercise, can become something we turn to when we’re in a state of angst. It can be a calming meditative space for us.
Claire: Would you mind telling me a bit about your upcoming exhibition?
Heidi: Well it’s at Artspace in Durban in October. It is mainly floral work in a loose style. Interestingly, it's difficult to paint well in a loose style when you haven’t practiced the finer realistic work. You need to be able to ‘see’ and these exercises really helped me with that. It honed my skills of observation. As an artist my vision is the foundation of everything - how I perceive colour and form and shape. If my vision isn’t sharp then my work won’t be either.
Claire: What was the most surprising part of this process for you?
Heidi: The most surprising part of the process for me was my own resilience to my inner critic (which most of the time needs a big kick up the butt). If someone had told me that I would not only paint daily but blog about that process I would have thought they were daft! But if you really love something and you’re passionate about it you can do it.
Claire: In this process did you experience that ‘fight’, that sense of ‘I can’t do this’, ‘Why am I doing this?’
Heidi: Oh absolutely! And sharing your work online creates a whole other aspect as well. I would post something and someone might respond with a comment like, “Well that’s a terrible painting!” Or “How can you call that a nectarine? It looks nothing like it!” But for every negative comment I must have had a hundred positive comments. I had decided in this process to share not only work I was happy with but my failures as well. I wanted to share the whole process.
Claire: Was it hard to push through and get going?
Heidi: It's a bit like exercise. I’m not the sporty type but my husband is so I’ll take it from him! You need to push through that ‘unfit’ feeling. I think in this process I got so creatively fit that I couldn’t skip a day of painting. But you do just have to keep pushing through that initial part until it becomes a part of your routine.
Claire: Talk to me a bit about being organised when it comes to your creative challenge...
Heidi: I found that it really helped me to set up my materials, my space, and to be organised. This kind of preparation helps you get down to the creative work every day.
Claire: Like putting your running gear out the night before?
Heidi: Yes, then your shoes look at you accusingly and you have to put them on! People make the excuse that they don’t have time but you can make good use of the time that you have. I took 30 to 40 minutes of my day.
Claire: I’d love to hear a bit more about the community aspect of this challenge…
Heidi: It was helpful knowing people were out there and I could get that feedback. Putting it out there and sharing your work makes you accountable. In a good way. For me, on the days I was pleased with my work I might not have received much feedback, and then on the days where I was unsure of it, or didn’t like what I’d done and might end up feeling discouraged, I would get the most awesome feedback. My advice to anyone doing this sort of challenge is that even if you choose not to share your work online, you should pick one or two friends and ask them to hold you accountable in your process. Share your work with them. It's so good to get feedback.
Claire: Do you find that you experience certain cycles within your creativity?
Heidi: Yes, there are highs and lows. After 568 days of painting daily, I fell down the stairs and broke my leg. I was more upset about having to stop painting than being in pain. I wanted desperately to continue but I needed to rest. Although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it brought me into a transition period with my work. I went through a period of questioning - where to now? I found myself in the same place I was when I finished that initial exhibition I mentioned earlier - a little low, a little depleted, a little unsure of what next. But I think we need to see that downtime as a positive thing. We need the downtime to ask questions and reorientate ourselves. To ask ourselves, what do we want?
During that time I began to pick out some bigger canvases, and bigger brushes and return to larger scale work. As much as I had enjoyed the small scale work, and even become ‘known’ for it, or identified with it, I missed the larger scale painting.
Claire: What else happened during that downtime?
Heidi: I stopped blogging for three months. I gave myself some grace. I booked another exhibition. I took little steps and set some short term goals. I tried to find myself in the creative cycle again. I recognised the pattern from before and began to ask myself “where to now?’ and “Where would I like to be and go?”
Claire: What answers did you find?
Heidi: I learned two things. I learned that I do love my big works, but that I love the littlies too, and I wondered: why can’t I do both? Each cycle has a sparked a new season, and like with everything, new seasons bring rejuvenation. These things come along and we can respond to the seasons. Like the saying, ‘You can’t have a rainbow without the rain’, I believe you need a little lull to help you change gear. Had it not been for this forced break from my daily challenge I realise now that my work would have become stale.
Claire: Had people now come to identify you as ‘the paintings in the post’ lady? Did they push back against your new direction?
Heidi: They did. When I changed direction and began doing bigger work people said things like, but that’s not your style! And I was the paintings in the post lady, but there is more to me as well. There is more that I am capable of doing.
Claire: is it good to purposefully reinvent yourself as an artist? I think of a phrase I’ve often heard, “to kill your darlings.”
Heidi: Purposefully reinventing yourself can be exhausting! I would say that when you rather allow yourself to go with the ebb and flow of your creativity you can keep reinventing in a more sustainable, more positive way.
Claire: Before we say goodbye, is there anything else you would like to share?
Heidi: As creatives we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves. We need to learn to enjoy the journey. Remember to fill your own soul tank whether it's by doing a creative challenge, or finding a group of people to connect with. It's important to replenish yourself with what you love when you’ve put your work out there whether that’s drawing in your sketchbook or taking out your camera.
Claire: Thank you so much for sharing your time, your process and your wisdom with me Heidi, it’s been an incredible chat, and I feel so energised listening to you.
Heidi: It's a pleasure Claire, thank you!
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