Making Art & Keeping Secrets

This post is the 2nd in the series about structuring one’s life as a working artist. Topics in this post: Persona, Pseudonym, and Developing a Creative Language.

In the beginning of a project, it can be good to keep your creative work secret.

Since we live in a world of extensive public sharing, this feels very counter-intuitive.

When I transitioned my life back to working primarily on art, I decided on a few things:

1.  I would develop a persona that handled creating and sharing my work.

2. I would publish- under a pseudonym– but even that would be only after I had spent a year working on developing the work in complete privacy.

3. I would not share my work with family or friends from my real life during the first several years of development. (Excepting my husband, who shares an art-school background and understands the subtlety of useful comment and critique.)

Persona and Personality

The delicious potential of creating a new version of yourself- perfectly constructed and optimized to deal with the task at hand- this is the magic of persona development.

A persona, in this context, is the public facing personality that you choose to develop along with your creative work. Yes, it is a facet of your gestalt self, but it is a clarified facet that has the strength and skills to share your work. It does not have all the insecurities that follow you around through an average day.

And the brilliance of this charade is- you do not need to maintain the persona 100% of the time.  It can be like a jacket that you put on for going outside in the snow.  It protects you.

When I was in art school I took a class on performance art.  Not the performative arts, mind you, like dance and theater. Performance art, that odd and ugly duckling sister of fine art.

For one project in the class, we were asked to develop a persona.  This persona needed to have a way of talking, moving, dressing, and interacting with the world.  It is an opportunity to explore a hidden or neglected aspect of your complete self.  It can be quite therapeutic to realize how constructed our outer facade is.

I am also reminded of reading a fictional story of a spy, living under cover in another culture.  The steps required to become “invisible”- to disappear into the fabric of the society, are an example of the power of persona development.  The spy, a woman in her mid thirties, identified a few sample women of the target culture she wanted to embody.  She purchased clothes and makeup that matched their style.  She did her hair the same way.  She ordered the same types of food and beverages, imitated their body language and habits, until all these tricks became second nature.

Much like that, if one is going to be in a foreign country for a period of time and wishes to blend in a little, it is useful to arrive with an empty suitcase and purchase clothing and a haircut after arrival.  By skimming off and replacing that outer surface of the public face, we relax into to the mode and pace of a foreign culture just that much more easily.

Likewise, we can use these techniques proactively to create a structure for embodying and enhancing our creative-work persona.  The persona becomes something we use to interact with the art world, and it becomes a habit that helps us get into flow state.

Costume & Wardrobe

For example: when I work in the studio, I prefer to wear dresses and skirts.  It doesn’t make sense, of course, to wear some of my nicest clothing while working with paint or clay, but feeling my body clothed in certain types of apparel helps with creative flow.  My art work is very much related to femininity, and so there is some logic behind the effectiveness of wearing more classically feminine clothing.

Food & Drink

My art-making persona drinks sweet Middle-Eastern tea out of little glass cups, poured out of a silver teapot.  Or, she drinks pale green tea from Japan, from a ceramic teapot. Studio work, for me, must be accompanied by tea in little cups, and small plates of cookies.

Taste & Preferences

Likewise, my working artist persona listens to specific types of music for specific modes of making. There’s a perfume I’ve associated to studio work (Patchouli by Le Labo), and an incense (Sandalwood), and a style of writing. I have a specific writing approach I use in publicly describing my work.  I chose never to analyze my own work in writing, but rather to describe it objectively and pragmatically.


Anonymity & Pseudonym

My choice to use a pseudonym for my return to making art was multi-fold.

Using a pseudonym allowed me to publish creative work that I otherwise would feel nervous about having associated with my public persona.  I am involved in several other businesses, and I did not want my public business life associated through the magic of the search engine with my new art projects.

Using a pseudonym has freed me from worrying about public perception of follower-counts or activity or style of work.

Using a pseudonym, ironically, has reduced my self-criticism and enhanced my objectivity with regards to the work and how it appears to the public.  Going anonymous has helped me approach sharing and publishing work in a more rational and scientific fashion.  It has improved my constructive self-criticism and reduced my negative thinking about the work.

Choosing to not share my work with family and friends has restricted the number of clumsy comments or questions I am faced with.

This stance on anonymity is not a forever choice.  But it is appropriate for the first several years of developing a new project.  Of course, this route might not apply to a self-assured extrovert who thrives off feedback, regardless of quality!

It is funny to think back to the internet twenty years ago, when anonymity was the default and it was a challenge to link a person’s public persona with their online activities.  Now, the default- pushed by the big internet companies- discourages anonymity.  Try to sign up for a twitter account or email account without providing a phone number and you’ll get a sense of how much anonymity is discouraged.

(Just in case it provokes a question, this blog is NOT written under a pseudonym.)


A Year of Seclusion to Develop a Visual Language

I committed myself to one year of work in private without the pressure of sharing, finalizing, or explaining.  This timeline made sense for the medium I chose.  I needed to learn a variety of new techniques, tools, and materials.

When I began I had a sense of what my goal visual language was, but it took time to actually develop the materials and art objects to look like the images in my mind’s eye.  I had chosen to learn a completely new set of sculptural techniques, and I expected it would take some time to bring them together in a coherent fashion.  A year of private development proved to be an accurate timeline.

For an artist or writer working in a familiar medium, a year might be too long.  It also might be too short, depending on the complexity of the work.

The important concept is: protect the work from outside commentary until it is ready.

Developing a Language: Visual Language, Symbolic Language, etc

This is what might be otherwise called style. It is that ephemeral combination of approaches, words, metaphors, textures, and modes that marks a period of time or a body of work in an artist’s portfolio. It could be visual, semantic, kinesthetic, or auditory.

And, to flesh out this example:  it took me about a 1000 hours of work to reach a point where I felt like my visual language was coherent enough to begin sharing.


Do you keep your work private or secret when you are getting started?