I LOVE BEGINNING.
I may love beginning a little too much and finishing not quite enough.
I have a pile of journals full of art ideas. I could brainstorm and make lists all day. But journals full of mindmaps aren’t frame-able. I suppose I could enrol at Elam, pile them on a plinth and call them Shows Potential 2015-2021. (That would be fun actually. Hold my laptop while I go write that down.) Also, those ideas aren’t actually beginnings. Putting the pen down and picking up a brush would be a beginning.
Anyone who looks at my socials will see that I get a lot done. I’m actually trying to begin far too many things right now (that’s another blog) and what you can’t see is all my unfinished business. Outside that little digital square are piles of ideas. Literally. (Piling is genetic, ask my brother in law.) I can’t say No to a cool concept, so they’ve all moved in and taken up residence in boxes, on shelves, in cupboards, on the floor. I work from home and the cleaner (hello) has gone on strike.
What’s the best way to deal with unfinished business, literal and metaphorical?
Make a project out of it.
Life can be seen as a series of overlapping projects (“deadline” is suddenly sounding…different 😳). Some of the things we do are literal projects (building a house, planning a wedding) and others more metaphorical (raising children, finding/creating work we love). Most of us are already too busy to add yet more DIY to our list but hear me out: if you’re at all creative or artistic and you’re not practising, there’s one project you should consider:
A 100 Day Project.
Designer and critic Michael Beirut is credited with its creation back in 2007 as an assignment for his graduate graphic design students at Yale School of Art. Their task was to pick a “design operation” they could repeat and then do that for 100 days, documenting their work as they went. At the end (if they made it to the end) they had 15 minutes for presentation. “Design operation” sounds mechanical but it can be literally anything. After a while, repetition of even the most mundane task can turn into a body of work.
There’s no official 100 Day Project - unless you’re at graduate school at Yale - but follow-alongs have been run in a few places around the world since 2007. In fact, New Zealand designer Emma Rogan ran a one for eight years, which is how I discovered the concept.
My first 100 day project was deeply personal. I was sad, tired, bored. I had a feeling that the absence of art in my life had something to do with this. I decided on my project: take a picture of something heart-shaped every day. I made the rule that, if possible, either I had to make it (eg the Yes work, above, made by cutting a heart shape in a piece of card and using it as a frame for things around the house) or I had to find it (eg a heart-shaped piece of driftwood or a leaf or a scuff in the concrete). I shared my photographs online, just didn’t say why I was taking them. I stuck at it for the whole 100 days, talking it out with myself on a private blog. I celebrated its completion by publishing a little Snapfish book, combining photographs and excerpts from my online diary, which I treasure to this day, and which no-one else will ever see.
A number of other projects sprouted from my first one. I got obsessed with the glory of cheap artificial flowers, making wreaths, words, and “fridabands”. I sold them to friends and broke even. My friend Gemma and I even held an exhibition together (above). I became an accidental jewellery designer, getting pendant after pendant cast, eventually creating a collection called #kupujewels.
The creative habit kickstarted by that first 100 days is responsible for every tee I have made since and continues to build my life.
But I didn’t do another 100 day project for a long time. When a sweet, colourful gal named Elle Luna turned up in my Instagram feed one day in 2016, she was answering a distress call I didn’t know I’d made. I wasn’t sad, tired, bored. I was frustrated and a little scared. I’d been in the post-Shortland Street wilderness for two years and was struggling to find my bearings. The invitation to join her project was so appealing, so soft and colourful, that I followed her immediately and it kind of changed my life.
Michael Beirut created his 100 day assignment to show his students the requirement of discipline in a creative life. Sheltered for years by school and university, they will need this capacity when they face real-world design problems and deadlines. It’s like an extended Zen koan in which they experience a truth: daily repetition, with attention, builds interesting things. Insight appears when you don’t give up. The assignment gives them personal experience of Picasso's famous assertion:
Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.
That first 100 days didn’t help me directly with being sad/tired/bored. Only feeling the feelings was going to do that. I’ve begun five projects in the last six years. I have finished two of them. The abandoned ones were instructive (keep it simple, make it specific). Each project has shown me the rewards of commitment and community. I’ve learned that a good project is like a good partner: when you've picked the right one, you know you want to stay even when it's hard. The two projects I have completed - photographic portraits and painting every day - came out of a deep appreciation of humanity. Photography and painting are now integral parts of my life.
The power of a 100 day practice is why, even though I’m supposed to be “quitting” things in 2021, I am still trying to come up with one I can commit to, starting Sunday 31st Jan. I really want to choose a practice I will stick at. To help me decide, I’m going to look back at previous projects and see if they hold clues as to what I could choose.
This is going to sound bold, but if the last 12 months has been a lot for you, if you’ve been reading and talking and scrolling and nothing is helping you “feel better”, I suggest you set your positive affirmations aside and begin a 100 day practice. My projects have taught me that our deepest troubles are best come at from the side. Instead of working on yourself, work on your project and you’ll deal with your "self" every step of the way. I believe that a committed artistic practice works on your psyche, soul, heart in exactly the same way that daily meditation does.
Start with art.
P.S. If this piece has piqued your interest, the 100 Day project starts this Sunday 31st January. Check out the following resources:
Michael Beirut on the 100 Day Project: In his own words: https://designobserver.com/feature/five-years-of-100-days/24678
MB in conversation with Elle Luna and Lindsay Jean Thompson: https://soundcloud.com/the-100-day-collective/the100dayproject-with-michael-bierut
A note on Kupujewels: I no longer sell these myself. They can be purchased through my friend Naomi Toilalo’s initiative, Whānaukai: https://www.instagram.com/whanaukai/, with some of the proceeds going towards the production of her beautiful instagram-based webseries.
A note on Meditation:
My friend Claire Robbie is a wonderful teacher. Find her here: https://www.clairerobbie.co/
And if you're struggling and need some therapeutic help, that kind that just might lead to a personal transformation, I whole-heartedly suggest looking up Dr Graham Mead: https://www.grahammead.com/