On Focus


I’ve been learning and observing a lot about ‘focus’ lately. In reflecting on the last four years of living in Victoria (after our big move from south west Queensland to North East Victoria) I’ve come to realise the truth in ‘what you focus on, you expand’. For a very long time I was focused on expanding my art: on holding exhibitions, running workshops, and then finally on opening my dream gallery space in Beechworth. Because this was my focus, these things seem to have just happened — and it certainly felt like a natural progression. However, without my realising, along the way, other things that have been important to me have taken a back seat, and this also seemed to have happened by chance.

But life doesn’t have to just toss us around like a piece of flotsam — we actually can move ourselves towards certain things. For example, after ‘the big move’, I didn’t want to lose my connection to the friends I’d made in Surat, or the place itself — after all it’s where my art career began. Life in Surat is what ‘helped me’ to articulate what I wanted to say with my work. So I deliberately keep going back, even though there’s effort in maintaining the workload associated with going back.

Choosing to live with conscious focus

I've always been aware that if I focus on improving my skills and if I try hard enough, I can do almost anything with my art — I just need to give it enough time to perfect. So my primary focus, and the one of which I have been most conscious, has always been on improving my art. Everything else, all other business needs, have had to fit around this.

To me, the feeling of drifting along without aim — the idea of ‘I just go to work and go home, live day-by-day’ — is uncomfortable. I drift very rarely, as I get pretty uncomfortable in that state. I’ve always believed that life is too short to waste being on this planet and not at least attempting to make a difference in some way. For me, creating art has been my main purpose, and yet lately, I’ve come to realise that in being so driven to pursue my art, this has caused me to drift in other ways.

What I’ve learned is that you can be so focused on a thing that you miss other stuff without even knowing that you’ve let it go. This is where I've been for the last four years, doggedly chasing the art, until, as I did late last year, I became really uncomfortable — because despite my focus on art, I was still drifting. Since then, I’ve been struggling to adjust myself, and to not keep falling in that hole. But I think this realisation has helped me to clarify what is most important. Pain is an awareness as well, even if its mental pain. I think the idea is to become aware, and try to put that awareness to good use, rather than holding a pity party.

Choosing what to let fall by the wayside, and what not

I have found over these past four years that I just can’t ‘do it all’, which is why some things have fallen by the wayside. I’ve unconsciously let them go because I just couldn’t cope with pushing myself that far. But over the Summer holidays, I’ve had time to reflect on where I place my focus, and to wonder about what would be best for the future.

Some of the conscious decisions I’ve made are relatively simple. I’ve realised, for instance, that if I wake up in the morning and know that today and every day I’m going to go out into my garden, do maintenance, and focus on growing things, my garden will expand and become a beautiful thing. But I had to ask myself — are the rewards big enough to warrant sacrificing my time in this way? I have decided to do a modified version of it, and save some time. (By the way, my yard currently looks terrible!)

I have also asked myself, if I wake up and decide that today and every day I will cook healthy meals that nourish my family, can I sacrifice the time, and are the rewards big enough? Well, to me, deciding to clean up our diets is a blatantly obvious ‘yes’. In fact, it’s something that was massively important to me, and yet I had let it slip. I’d stuffed diet (and exercise) into the ‘too hard basket’. Now I realise that I really should bring that back into conscious focus. Besides, if I continue on the current path, I will be in poorer health, and that will eat into my painting time!

Some decisions are harder. I always have big dreams, but right now I am hesitating to dream too big because following through on big dreams requires massive amounts of energy and commitment, and the sacrifices are huge. Pursuing my big dreams landed me a trip to the United States to study art, and it also got me the art gallery in Beechworth, which opened in mid-2018. However, these things have taken huge amounts of energy, which at the end of 2019 left me exhausted. I feel like I’ve been in a tumble dryer since we moved down south four years ago, and now I have to look at recuperating some of that energy.

Being focussed on both what’s necessary and what’s fun

I find it really difficult to juggle lots of things. It’s easier for me to focus whole-heartedly on one thing, and because I get good results with my art and I enjoy it so much, this is the direction in which I have pushed myself. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself.

However, I’ve also come to realise that the easier and more fun a thing seems, the more likely I am to do it. For example, doing an exciting painting of a horse in a slightly different composition to the usual, although difficult, seems like fun and I’m confident that it will probably work. On the other hand, doing my book-keeping feels daunting and hard; I don’t enjoy it and it certainly isn’t a challenge that I feel will result in a great success. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable.

Since opening the gallery, I’ve also had to contend with finding more and more ways of being ‘present' on social media, to look at marketing strategies, and focus on how to sell my art — and this business-side of things has been taking me away from the pure pleasure I feel when I do a painting. For example, I recently painted some donkeys and calves, and I really had a ball with those paintings. But the next day I spent in the gallery, and I ended up feeling overwhelmed, looking at how other artists build their careers, and feeling some degree of self-doubt. Thankfully there was the consolation of knowing that the people coming in to the gallery love to ‘meet the artist’, and I certainly enjoy meeting them. However, I cannot escape the business-side of owning a gallery.

So what’s the solution to feeling overwhelmed, or even just ‘let down’ by the things on which it is necessary to focus? In writing this, I’ve realised that conscious focus is vastly more productive than just letting things happen. So now I’m committed to identifying the most important things to me, and working out daily strategies — probably ones that include doing the crappy jobs first so that I can get stuck in the exciting stuff later.

Dealing with big picture focus

This summer, it has been difficult not to focus on things that are out of our immediate control, like the drought and the bushfires. It is especially hard not to focus on this bigger picture when you live on the land. I wonder whether if we focus too much on these bigger things that scare us (ie: climate change), whether there’s a danger that we expand these things in our minds to a point where we become despondent, or even immobilised by fear. Better, I think, to switch this thinking to focus on the things we can change: reducing our waste, being water-wise and offering support to those who can actually make the big picture changes. Maybe it is more productive to live a life focused on creating or doing things that enhance the world — whether in some little ways, or a big way.

Back to the art

All this said, I will continue to primarily focus on skill development. Over the years I've been painting, I have often focused on improving in the areas in which I am weakest: for instance, I focused on colour over a twelve month period, experimenting in as many ways as I could imagine to prove one way or another whether tone is more important than colour (which it is, hands down, 99%). My new aim is to get over my fear of portraits. I’m not going to let the old-fashioned argument that ‘painting from life is best’ stop me; I will continue to paint using photographs. I'm going to explore soft and textured methods until I find something that feels right to me. I am also going to explore finding the subjects and how I want to capture them.

Finally, I want to focus on creating competitive work, with the aim of bringing realism back into the larger art awards in Australia. Whether I’m fighting an impossible battle with that, I don’t know. I just want to demonstrate the value of displaying artistic skill, and of creating works of beauty and ‘relatability’ to everyone, in a forum that has often become too academic and high-brow for the ordinary person to relate to the work.

Just by writing this, it’s helping me to see the direction in which I’m headed, and where I want to place my focus.

What are your choosing to deliberately focus on this year?

Cheers,

Kathy


COPYRIGHT © 2019 KATHY ELLEM

You can see Kathy's work in person by appointment at her Beechworth art gallery at 45 Ford Street, Beechworth, Victoria, Australia.

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