I count myself lucky to have found artist Niya Christine before she started her 365 Paintings project in January 2013. Every day I looked forward to a splash of colour and a playful story in my inbox. I ordered one print (“Red Poppies, Random Numbers and a Birdie“) and am seriously coveting another (“507 Year Old Clam and a Barking Snail“) to hang over my mantel.
Niya made all these paintings while also working her day job as a designer. And now she’s Kickstarting a deluxe art book based on the project and its evolution. I jumped at the chance to interview her for my Hours for Art series. Enjoy!
Alison: Your 365 Paintings project was a carefully constructed labyrinth, giving you a structure and system to channel your creativity in 2013. Tell me about how you constructed that labyrinth: what triggered the idea? How did you come up with the parameters?
Niya: I love that you use the word “carefully.” At the time, “carefully” couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was more of an insistent urge; a wilful and rough declaration of a vision that I wasn’t sure was achievable. Kind of like when a cat throws itself across the room at a ball of yarn with the scant urge of unravelling it, only to find that it snowballs into the china cabinet.
The project began with very low expectations. I was incubating the desire to simply do a watercolour a day and post it in under an hour ~ to consider it a colour spa. I would have been happy enough to fill my brush with purple paint and water, make a splash and be done with it. I was mentally fatigued with work and suspicious of how I was accounting for real achievement. We get an endorphin rush when we solve a problem ~ it’s easy enough to be satisfied with that ~ until suddenly years have gone by and what matters most has gotten lost. What it netted out to was that I was mostly managing my days vs. building my dreams.
I picked a theme for the first month of “Coffee & Tea” simply because I wanted to see what tea- and coffee-stained paintings might look like. I hadn’t planned at that point to have an ongoing trail of monthly themes. I had my watercolour set and container of French press coffee, brush in hand, ready to be blobby. I felt tricked when my first painting was bags of coffee beans taking a sun bath on a beach in Mexico. Really? Wasn’t I in a meaning coma, healing? Why couldn’t I have just painted some coffee splats with a bit of colour and been done with it? How was I going to keep this up?
I had set up my blog and people were subscribing. I did that for accountability. My promise was to post whatever painting happened that day, no matter what. To further unravel my first inclination towards the simple colour spa … the bags of coffee beans took on characteristics and story lines. They wanted me to tell their story. Demanding little buggers.
This is where the snowball happened. I’d had enough experience with painting in my life to know that when a series wants to occur, my plans need to get out of the way. Flushed and forever forgotten. If they do come back, it’s real love. But most of the time, they don’t. The paintings that followed the “Lounge Chair Coffee Beans” were just as surprising to me and never preplanned or conceptualized. “Drunken Pigeon on a Coffee Diner Sign” – “Teabags of Character” (the teabags looked like wise ol’ ancestors), and more. And they kept evolving into scenes. The characters were chatty. Urgent and talkative little buggers.
I had to design a system to manage the complexity and the time. Clearly, I had created a monster and organization was the only control I’d have.
That’s how it happened. The months that followed were days filled with much deliberation ~ protecting and nurturing the creative time and space ritual for the work to do its thing. I was simply the ethos mother.
[Editor's note: What you've just described seems to me the epitome of care-full, Niya! Your "insistent urge" as a primal form of deep caring about yourself and your art, and then your attention and adjustments as the project declared itself to you. Careful doesn't have to mean cautious or exact; it can also mean being solicitously mindful and taking pains. So thanks for your spontaneous, intuitive, and enthusiastic portrait of careful!]
Alison: I’ve done smaller projects like yours, such as NaNoWriMo and the Clarion West Write-a-thon, which required regular writing and a certain amount of discipline. I’ve had mixed results, in that I did create and produce a lot more than usual, but I also found myself writing while tired or overwhelmed, and other parts of my life got neglected. Did you have any fears going into this? Were they realized? Did new difficulties crop up that you hadn’t expected? In what ways was it easier than you anticipated?
Niya: Great question. I’m a “keep my word” person. The biggest fear I had was that life stuff would overwhelm the commitment I made ~ letting myself and others down. On the other side of that (because I knew it would have to be very extreme for me to let that happen) was the fear that I would be stubborn and burn myself out. Luckily, neither of these extremes actually happened.
Fears were realized many times, yes. But there were many things that grew out of the creative practice that balanced fears and exhaustion. The top three: People, playfulness, commitment. I had to keep reminding myself that since this was my project, I got to course-correct and re-assemble it to make it work. And in doing so I learned a lot about how creative you can be when you are the designer of your work patterns.
Frequency gained momentum as the days went by ~ I either flexed to it or tensed up. When I flexed, without fail, delightful discoveries were made; energy and creativity I didn’t know I had came out to play. In addition, what I came to trust was that as long as I respected the commitment with the same value and energy I gave to other obligations … the project itself buoyed me. It was a rock-solid pocket of joy and adventure there for the taking every day. Discipline became freedom.
Creativity is fun after you’ve fired perfectionism and given it a big severance package (because it gets bored fast). The willingness to produce bad paintings in front of my subscribers brought those tendencies to their knees. It was painful at first. Now I see perfectionism as the enemy of creativity.
Alison: In knitting parlance, there are process knitters who love the act of knitting, and there are product knitters who love having a finished item to wear or give. Creating daily was your “process,” and the final paintings were your “product.” Were there other products of the process (intended or unintended)? Did you love one more than the other? How did the two intertwine?
Niya: I was fascinated by the process and learned to trust it early on in the project. The product was secondary ~ I’m still culling the product. It’s pretty fun to look at the paintings now in calendar format and remember the feelings I had daily and monthly in relation to the subject matter. For instance, the cows. Their surly bovine character and soulful eyes. I could have painted cows forever. And how I expected to love using coffee as a stain on watercolour paper … but got impatient with it and used brown ink. Or when watercolours were too precious for the mood of the day, I’d glob up my finger with acrylic paint and finger-paint a new painting on top of it.
Since my number one rule was that the painting needed to be finished in under an hour, there wasn’t time to think. I just jumped in with a fuzzy sense of direction and something came out on the other side. Something awful or surprisingly delightful or just so-so. If I ever thought about product before the painting was done, it would have destroyed everything. I was always teetering on that edge.
I think my training in product design early on in my career helped. Patience for process and discomfort is a requirement of quality design.
Sometimes a painting would go out there that I was too tired to see objectively. I’d wake up in the morning to a lot of comments and positivity from subscribers. Always a surprise, these blurry blobs. These bursts of “who-knows-what-or where-from-it-comes” shared with readers and the celebration of being alive that comes from that.
Alison: Did you notice a tension between the part of you that wanted to paint and the part of you that didn’t want to paint? How did you work with that tension? (If we could eavesdrop on those two parts talking to each other, what would it sound like?)
Me: It’s late, I’m very sleepy.
Painter: Nope, it’s time to paint.
Me: I don’t want to, I just want to go to bed. It’s been a helluva day.
Painter: How about some Russian Caravan tea with real cream and gobs of honey?
Me: Excited. Okay, let’s do it.
I know it sounds overly simple and like a fast switch. But when the body and heart are in an argument and you give the body something really yummy … (like kids) the two become best buds in a nanosecond.
I had to keep things simple ~ to not over think it, like diving in a cold pool. It’s not as cold when you put that thought out of your mind. I always felt more fulfilled at the end of the day after painting ~ always. Even if I didn’t want to, I knew I had that satisfaction to look forward to.
Alison: How did the project affect your relationship with your audience?
Niya: My audience surprised me the most. I got love letters for a year. Can you imagine? I mean real squishy love. One of my favourite tweets: she quoted a story line with “this is from my daily painter, everyone should have one.” She had encapsulated exactly what I wanted people to feel.
We are all managing and mitigating email. I wanted people to wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, open their email boxes and see some big bold colour, maybe something funny and not too long. I aimed for micro-fiction for easy and pleasurable reading. It was a good-feeling-thing all the way around. The only thing I would do differently is paint daily but post weekly. My stats show me that 65% were daily opens. People generally would wait until they had some real time and then sit down and slowly go through a week or two of the paintings. I think daily was too much for some. I did have this core set of people that got addicted to the daily dose. They would open it last to savour it in the morning. They wrote their interpretations and responses immediately. I loved that. I miss this routine with them quite a bit.
Alison: How are you feeling now that the 365 Paintings project has ended? Freedom? Sadness? How have you navigated the transition to new projects in 2014?
Niya: The answer to this is tricky. When I finished, the overall feeling was neither freedom or sadness ~ just excited about the next phase. I’d only just begun.
However, as time has passed this month, I’m definitely grieving. We humans and “change” ~ does it ever get easier? I’m still spending daily time in the studio. I’m exploring children’s book illustration. The other change is marketing, packaging, selling art and books. This will take some time to make everything happen ~ probably a year. I’m balancing these efforts with the work-a-day world. I’m still very connected to the project and my supporters. So I only feel sad when I can’t devote everything I’ve got (time-wise) to this next phase. But this was true last year as well; the activities were just different ~ more private. Mostly though, I’m just very excited about all the possibilities as the paintings get productized. I have a set of classes I’m working on and the books right now.
Niya: I envisioned this as a book as the story paintings kept coming out over the year. Something like: 365 paintings, 12 months, 20 topics; Bunnies, Bicycles, Cows, Canaries, Quirks, Curiosities, Fish, Dogs, Doors, Coffee, Tea, Wine, Kites … etc. It was simply going to be a record of the project in print in an organized fashion ~ a keepsake for my audience.
However, I was getting a lot of emails and requests to share the behind-the-scenes evolution from month to month. People wanted to know about the difficulties in detail and how I fashioned a creative practice within the demands of life. I have a lot to say about this. There were some tragedies and joys in 2013 that made painting a huge challenge. I learned a lot about what it means to reclaim something that matters for life vs. the net result being “just” a project or experiment. It challenges everything when you claim it as a new life-long habit.
So … as people were thinking about pulling up their dreams into a creative practice, they needed guidance. Guidance, resources and secrets were ongoing requests. I became very excited about creating a book that doesn’t just expound on the health and joy of creative practice but digs deep into the details and mobilization of its reality.
There is a ton of research about the power of problem-solving from the resting part of the brain vs. the executive part. We are a culture that generally operates from our frontal lobes. To reflect, be a child, unplug from outer distractions and listen requires a bit of re-learning, I think. Self-esteem plays a role. But there are other practical strategies I found to be useful over time that I want to share.
I edited the original vision of the art book to make room for the creative practice and memoir aspects. I want the book to be universal no matter what people are wanting to create. There are principles and creative-thinking approaches that I hope will be useful to any body of work.
I was close to sending the proposal to agents and publishers when I realized that even if it was picked up, it might be 2015-16 before it comes out.
Which is too long for a project that happened in 2013. I then turned to crowdfunding to fund a limited edition book print run for the full color beautiful book I had in mind + practices and tools and my story for readers.
That’s my story … so far! Thank you for this fabulous interview!
Thank you, Niya! I hope everyone will check out Niya’s Kickstarter and make a pledge because I’m more keen than ever to read her book. Here’s a link to a calendar of all the 365 Paintings at a glance. You can also find Niya on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.