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‘There are no wasted moments’: Jerry Saltz has some advice on staying creative while quarantined

The award-winning critic shares tips on rediscovering your inner artist, even in the midst of a global health crisis.

‘There are no wasted moments’: Jerry Saltz has some advice on staying creative while quarantined
Jerry Saltz [Photo: courtesy Penguin Random House]

As people adjust to being in their homes 24/7, one thing has become clear: They want to make things. Whether that’s bread or a garden or a collage, creating something with our hands gives us a way to process emotions—something we all need as we navigate the new territory of COVID-19. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz wants to help people rediscover their inner artist, especially as we seek tangible ways to channel cabin fever into creativity.

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[Image: courtesy Penguin Random House]
Saltz recently released his latest book, How to Be an Artist, and Co.Design spoke with him about self-critique, adapting to a new set of conditions, and reimagining our homes as personal studios.

Co.Design: How does isolation breed creativity?

Jerry Saltz: Creativity was with us in the caves. [It is] one of our most primary survival tools. Darwin did not say it was survival of the strongest or the fittest. He said it’s survival of those most able to adapt. And creativity is exactly fitted as an adaptation to an environment. Now that our environments have all changed collectively, it turns out creativity thrives and excels under exactly these conditions—in smaller rooms and in more intimate settings.

CD: What would you say to people who see their homes as filled with distractions?

JS: None of it is a distraction, all of it is a simple thing called “the conditions on the ground.” Art was made in concentration camps, it is made in refugee camps—art has never not been here, ever. And it will only disappear when all the problems it was invented to address have been perfectly addressed.

CD: How do you think people can find balance in this time—both taking time to relax while also making a concerted effort to create art?

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JS: Viruses come and viruses go, [but] art will be here—[so] what you are doing now is modeling for yourself, your children, and your friends how you will be going forward. That’s why making something in this period—doing a funny dance and posting it on Instagram, finding your own moves—is what you’re meant to do. It’s a form of flow, relaxation, love.

Is it okay to be idle, to not be working during this terrible pause as the angel of death walks among us? Of course it’s okay! I’m not telling you to work every minute of every day. There are no wasted moments. All I want people to do when you feel a strange urge to put something down on paper, or to take a photograph, or to sew a button . . . is that you put your butt in a chair and get to work!

All the not working, that’s easy. But only one thing will take the curse of fear away when you’re procrastinating, and that is to work. Make something bad for 22 minutes, make it for me. Make it for Jerry Saltz. He wants to read it, he wants to hear it, he wants to see it.

Finish the damn thing. It will never be perfect, nothing is perfect. Just finish it. It’s progress you’re making, not a product.

CD: How do you recommend people develop a practice and actually commit to finishing?

JS: I think that the first thing you have to do is accept that you will 100% be embarrassed by whatever you make. Being embarrassed is a sign that you’ve already gone a little bit deeper into yourself than you were just a second ago. There are no rules for making anything; I only ask that people make things in their own voice. You don’t have to worry about other people’s ideas of skill. I’m only interested in you redefining your own idea of what a poem or a dance would be.

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Get lost. Don’t be afraid of getting lost. Don’t turn yourself into a machine that says I’m going to portray the kitchen exactly as it looks. If you want to portray the kitchen, just start portraying it. There’s no map, no rules.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Willow Strip [Image: courtesy Penguin Random House]
CD: What parts of the home can be a studio as we shelter in place? Where do we find the physical space to create?

JS: I think the kitchen table is a great place, as is the bedroom. All these places are secret clubs and laboratories and kitchens of the mind where you can make anything out of anything that’s right there at hand. As a writer, I just sit in a chair from very early in the morning to very early at night. That’s my entire life, I have no other life. [Laughs.]

CD: Since we have so many different things available to us [at home], how should people choose their medium?

JS: Here’s my advice: Keep it simple. I would counsel, for now, against oil paints; they’re too messy and they take too long to dry. Don’t work with steel, maybe work with cutout paper or styrofoam. Make art more like a beaver, part by part by part. Keep your materials cheap and keep them malleable, if possible, so you’re not always fighting with [them]. You don’t have the time for that.

CD: Do you get the sense that this pandemic could inspire a Renaissance? That we’ll see more amateur or non-establishment artists emerging?

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JS: I would never call it a Renaissance. But the art world became very insular and it was hard for any outsider to get in. An outsider could be 51% of the population—which would be women, who are actually the majority—and all people of color. Now if this new art world [post-COVID-19] would be open to all of those people, it would be telling more than half the story for the first time in 75,000 years. We must always remember that 51% of the handprints in the ancient caves are female hands.

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