Inspired people – Melissa Dinwiddie
Artists are inspired people. But what makes them create what they create? What lights the fire that produces such wonderful work? Here are a few questions that will hopefully inspire some answers.
Today’s inspired person is Melissa Dinwiddie. Multi-passionate creative artrenpreneur, self-coined and aptly descriptive, Melissa is the powerhouse behind both the Thriving Artists Project and 365 Days of Genius. I first encountered Melissa through a guest post on ‘The Abundant Artist‘, her writing and story captured my attention with its honesty and fire. Since then I’ve been inspired by her determination, her optimism, and her certainty that, yes, you can be the person you want to be. And did I mention she does art? In multiple forms. Multi-passionate is the keyword with Melissa 😀 It is fantastic to have her here and I hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as I did.
Who are you? What factors in your life have led you to create? Was it an epiphany moment or something that has always been?
I think I’ve always had the drive to create, but I didn’t give space or value to this aspect of myself for many years. In my 20s, trying to figure out what to do with my life, I remember wanting to make a difference, and looking for a job in the nonprofit sector. At the time I felt very strongly that working for an arts organization just wasn’t as ‘worthy’ as working for social justice or animal welfare or the environment.
I can only shake my head and laugh at that younger me, because now I firmly believe that I was put on this earth to express myself creatively, and to help others to do the same! There’s so much cultural programming that art is secondary, though. Sadly, it took me half a lifetime to understand my creative drive and fully embrace it.
For me I think the epiphany wasn’t that I was creative, but that this was truly my calling, and that it was a wonderful, worthy calling. I spent so many years avoiding and resisting this, and it’s clear to me that part of my calling is also to help spare other creatives from making the same mistake!
Where are you from, where do you live, and how does your location influence your art?
I grew up in Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford University and Hewlett-Packard, in the heart of what is now referred to as ‘Silicon Valley’. Even back before the computer revolution, this area was a hotspot for intellectuals and technical innovation.
I think growing up in this intense, high-achieving, fast-paced environment was a huge factor in my taking so long to embrace my art as my true calling! On the one hand, I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful that I was exposed to all kinds of creative opportunities – special after school classes for ‘gifted’ artists, music lessons, dance classes, creative writing programs in school – but when all was said and done, academic achievement was given a lot more weight than artistic exploration.
My creative drive was pretty overpowering though, so much so that I took a year off after high school to be able to continue the intense dance training I’d started the year before. I remember Ivy League college-bound classmates actually telling me I was ‘ruining my life’! Thankfully, I knew this was ridiculous, but the programming to succeed academically was incredibly strong.
I still live near where I grew up, just a town away. This part of the world is also notoriously expensive, which had a huge influence on the kind of art I ended up pursuing when I returned to my artistic roots in my late 20s. In particular, I quickly moved away from more “experimental” art, and gravitated to a particular niche (Jewish marriage contracts), with a target market of people known to be willing to spend money (ie, engaged couples).
Were you ever distracted away from your art and creating by the need to make a living? Have you ever stopped creating?
Yes, this has been a huge problem in my life! I created my art business because I loved making art, but when I got divorced and had to make a living 100% on my own, money became a big issue. Everything I did was with an eye to making sales, or was commissioned – and art-directed – by a client. I stopped making art to feed my own soul, and made art solely to pay my bills.
For years I was really dissatisfied with this situation. I actually started playing guitar and ultimately became a jazz singer/songwriter because I wasn’t getting the creative fulfillment I needed from my visual art anymore! This ended up to be a huge silver lining, so I don’t regret it, but I was still unhappy that I wasn’t doing the thing that drew me to become a professional artist in the first place.
Something was wrong with this picture, and I knew it.
I got really burned out from working so hard for years, and for awhile I thought the solution was to stop taking on commissions for custom work. When I realized that not only could I afford to do this, but I couldn’t afford not to because I was driving myself to an early grave, I decided to take a year to let my print sales pay the bills, and just ‘coast’ with my business.
Well, one year turned into 2 ½, and what I discovered was that without the commissions for custom work, now I was only doing the drudge work! My art business became all business, and no art – I literally didn’t create anything new for ages. Life began to feel very black-and-white.
I was so stuck in a rut, though, that I couldn’t figure out what to do to make things better. I also assumed that this was as good as it was going to get – after all, I was earning my living from my art! No, I wasn’t creating much, nor was I doing what I really wanted to do, but surely that was impossible anyway, right?
It took a series of personal crises at the start of 2010 to jolt me out of my stuckness. Now I’m very clear that if I want to create – whether it’s art, music, writing, whatever – the only way to make it happen consistently is to make that my top priority. This takes consistent effort, and hard work, but I’m a helluva lot happier since putting my creativity at the top of my agenda!
What do you create? Do you have a niche or do you spread your creativity across several disciplines? Do you have a preferred subject?
Oh, geez. There is not a short answer to this question! Historically as a visual artist I’ve mostly created works of art on paper, usually involving calligraphy and incorporating such varied media as painting, collage, paper cutting, paper sculpture. I’ve also focused on artist books and some quilted pieces out of hand-painted silk.
In the past 6 years I dove into the world of jazz singing, and in 2007 I wrote my first song. For several years I dabbled in guitar, and this past summer I picked up (and fell in love with) the ukulele. Playing my uke makes me really happy, and I make time for it every day.
At the moment, I spend most of my creative time writing, primarily creating content for online courses and blog posts. I’ve also been having a lot of fun making video lessons.
Last year I began playing with stretched canvases for the first time, painting with acrylics and sewing on layers of paper. I’m excited about getting back to that, though my “content creation” is top priority at the moment.
I have to also mention dance, which was my first creative passion. I’ve done a wide range of styles of dance, and still love it. It’s been far on the back burner for a long time, what with other creative pursuits taking precedence, and with a recent knee injury and surgery, but I really look forward to getting back to Argentine Tango someday!
What inspires you to create? Do you have any techniques to find inspiration?
I find inspiration in so many ways, but there are two techniques I come back to over and over:: 1) going on long walks by the San Francisco Bay, and 2) just doing.
A few months back I was painting on a daily basis, and I found that the more consistent I was about putting the time in in my studio, the more ideas started to flow! I really look forward to getting back to that!
How often do you create? Do you procrastinate? How do you balance between the things that have to be done versus the things you want to do?
I’m a terrible procrastinator, but whatever has a deadline in my life does always get done. I’ve managed to create some ongoing deadlines for myself that keep me hopping, mostly by promising something I haven’t created yet! I’m very motivated to get work done to satisfy a client, so whether the client is someone who paid for a piece of art, or a member of my online course, I will bust my butt to get the project done!
I often say that balance is an ever-elusive goal. Thankfully most of what I have to do right now is also stuff I really want to do, but that’s certainly not always the case. I will often procrastinate by spending time on something I feel more compelled by in a given moment, which can lead to late nights and crankiness when a deadline comes due, but somehow I manage to make it work.
Honestly, right now I could use a little (or a lot) more down time, as I’m almost always in creation/production mode, and when I’m not I’m usually thinking and strategizing. My goal is to build systems to get things chugging along so I have a lot more time to relax. The next step in that direction is paying a virtual assistant to do data entry and blog formatting, so I can spend more of my time actually creating!
Mostly on my computer these days. I have a Mac in the studio, and a PC laptop downstairs, set up so I can use an exercise bike (for knee rehab) while I’m online. (In fact, I’ve been biking while writing most of this interview!)
I also do a lot of brainstorming and writing in a paper journal while sitting in bed. I find first thing in the morning to be a very creative time for me.
Music-making happens all over the house, I do my painting and art-making at a big drafting table in my studio, and when I’m working on a textile piece my sewing cabinet opens up and takes over the living room.
What do you enjoy doing the most?
My favorite part is the creating – coming up with ideas, trying things, playing around. I call it being in the “Creative Sandbox.” Execution of a design, say, isn’t nearly as fun as coming up with the design in the first place… which is why my visual art these days is very experimental and improvisational, and a lot less meticulous than my older stuff.
Do you have any advice for other artists?
If you’re frustrated because you don’t have the time to make your art, don’t just suck it up like I did. The only way you’re going to have the time is if you make the time. Something else might have to go (I, for example, am a terrible housekeeper!) but if your art is really important to you, don’t wait. As Nike says, just do it.
Do you have any questions for other artists?
I’m always interested in how other working artists bring in money from their art. For the Thriving Artists Project I record regular interviews with artists and creatives who make their living from their creative thing, so if you’re reading this and that’s you, drop me a line!