the website of owen byron roberts

some thoughts on making art
in writing

Last month I was in Catskill, New York, at the Catwalk artist residency, where I lived alone in a three bedroom house located across a large property from the main house for the residency and worked on a new art project.

The driveway up to Catslair, the house I lived and worked in.

When I talk to other people I first talk about how beautiful it is here and what a privilege it is to have time to focus on my work. Which, of course, is true, but there’s a masochistic component to exiling yourself in a remote location in order to pursue an activity which cannot simply described as “fun” or “relaxing” or even “fulfilling”, although it was at times all of those things. But like many artists and writers before me, I experienced the struggle of the “blank canvas”, of knowing what to do and believing it is worth doing. In a way, when you sign up for a residency like this you are basically committing to hours of that struggle, hours that you count as you compare the amount of work accomplished to the ratio of time left.

While there, I thought, or even wrote down, things like “you suck at this”, “this sucks”, “this is pointless” and many other thoughts or feelings of being inadequate as an artist and feeling like all artistic pursuit is impossible and pointless. It’s part of the “struggle” that is valorized by artists and, while it’s easy to make fun of, it’s a real thing. It’s not struggle like the class struggle but it is it’s own type of struggle.

One of my favorite authors, who I’ve returned to for inspiration often since first reading in a college course in 2004, the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms, has a collection titled “Today I Wrote Nothing,” a line from one of his notebooks that continues, “Doesn’t matter.” Beyond the obvious irony of the title, which could have many meanings - imagine Kharms, who was interrogated, imprisoned and ultimately died imprisoned in Soviet era Russia, giving that as an answer when questioned about his literary works, considered subversive to the state - Kharms wrote often about the struggle to write.

Kharms drawing from something I was working on a while back.

This sentiment is echoed in a lot of self-conscious writing. Another inspiration I always turn to to avoid the “blank canvas” is blogs and a constant theme of diaristic blogging is the difficulty of self motivation of the author to write the blog that one is currently reading. “I haven’t posted in a while,” or “I wanted to write another entry but I kept talking myself out of it.”

I found a blog by a woman who had moved to a new town in order to get a better job with higher pay but left behind a boyfriend and a group of friends who almost immediately stopped corresponding with her, as well as a disappointed family. Her pain is intense and I wonder if that’s why she’s writing the blog. Many of her entries are about the struggle to write. Some entries are short, others long. Some are written as poems, most in prose. The blog is about a year old, beginning just before the move, starting with her beginning to imagine leaving her home town, which she depicts as happening almost by fate, a job offer comes out of nowhere from the exact town she was considering moving to. At first I felt empathy for the woman who had been trying to achieve a professional dream and ended up emotionally devastated. I did start to wonder as I read, why did this woman’s friends abandon her so quickly? Is is possible they were happy for her to leave? Was the distance really so significant that they just dropped the friendship immediately?

Before I arrived in Catskill, I was interested in creating a piece about isolation created by distance, which is what I had there in a small sample.

I’ve dealt with isolation and relationships in remote locations in my work before. Why do we hold on to people that we can’t see regularly, or lose touch with them? Why do we leave familiar places at all?

So there’s a weird reversal, where the author of that blog began writing in part to deal with the fear and then reality of isolation, while I applied for isolation in order to spend my time thinking and writing and drawing about.

I was reading The Silence of Animals by John Gray. In a section on Freud, he writes about the idea of “happiness” and that for humans, part of “happiness” is, counter-intuitively I guess, struggle. For Freud, psychotherapy was a process that was not meant to reach any conclusion, there was no fixing a patient’s psychological problems, there was only examination and maybe the hope for understanding. According to Gray, Freud saw tension and struggle as an incurable human condition. This might correspond with writing or making art, trying to find meaning. Of course, this doesn’t make it easier to stare at a blank canvas, but it maybe makes it make more sense.

A street in Catskill.