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When Your Art Changes, It Changes You

by Joey Phoenix

Let’s talk for a moment about the crippling self-doubt that is your constant shadow as an artist, how it keeps you from taking risks and growing, how it tells you that your art will never be enough.*

Over the past few years my art focus has shifted several times, and each time my identity was wrapped up inside of it. I would question everything I was doing and worry that if people started to recognize me for one of the things I did, it might invalidate all of the others. 

Turning your art into the means by which you get fed is a dangerous game because it forces you to focus on the things which are popular, the things that people will pay for, and sometimes holds you back from experimenting or trying new things. What if you branch out and you’re bad at it? What if you lose your fanbase who’ve come to expect you making a certain style of thing? 

I struggled for years as a Photographer (note the capital “P”) because people told me I was talented and loved my work and, to be honest, some of it sold fairly well in coffee shops and cafés. But it didn’t serve me well. I felt the constant pressure to make things that other people liked, and then whenever I did something that challenged me or I thought was interesting, and I heard crickets in the market.

I folded, convinced that it was me the public didn’t want, which was an unhealthy cycle. My friends would frequently scoop me up off the floor reassuring me that what my head was telling me wasn’t true, and although that helped a little, it didn’t fix the problem. 

So, for a while, I gave it up. 

I took a few hundred photographs in 2019 – hich in comparison to the 20,000+ I took in 2018 was quite the change – but I needed that time to take a step back and figure out what kind of art I wanted to make. I replaced the hours I had spent chasing photography clients with good books, doing ambient performances and pushing my performance side, and writing thousands of words for Creative North Shore. 

Throughout that time I felt quite a few things shift in my heart and my head. By not doing anything I was eventually able to parse what exactly it was that I wanted to be doing. For months my brain was saying “Not This” and was supplying nothing to replace it with. So I replaced it with nothing and then allowed other things in the background to filter in and enrich the space. 

I reduced the capital P (Photographer) to a little p (photographer) and learned to see myself as something new. By allowing myself the breathing room to try new things and possibly fail at them, a huge weight was lifted off of me, giving me the wiggle room I needed to grow and believe in what I was doing again. 

Frog Bailey by Joey Phoenix

In the last month, I’ve covered myself in paint, photographed a guinea pig and a cat, taken self-portraits, performed as an elf, paper machéd fairy wings out of dictionary pages, and spent time wandering by myself in the forest looking for weirdly shaped sticks. I took myself out of the box with the professional label and accepted my new one, which is hardly a label at all: artist.

It’s a generic term, a common term, like a baker or a potter or a banker or a salesman, but it’s one that fits me. Where before my art was my identity, now, it’s an extension of me. I can put it out into the world and once it’s separate I can go and become something else.

I make things for myself and sometimes for other people (the part which pays my rent), but the pressure to meet an impossible standard doesn’t exist for me anymore. I can just be, and that freedom gives me life. I can take pictures or tell stories or build my community and these are all things that fit here, and I know that none of it will stick to me in a way that keeps me from growing.

There is bravery in letting yourself take risks and try new things, it makes you vulnerable, which leads to change. 

And sometimes, change can be pretty ok. 


*(If anyone doesn’t experience this or at least some degree of imposter syndrome, can we talk? I have yet to meet the talented working artist who hasn’t crumpled onto the floor at some point at their career crying about why the world doesn’t care about what they do or that they’re never going to be the kind of artist that so and so is. For me, it’s some kind of weekly flavor of this.)


Joey Phoenix (they/them) is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable deep-sea creatures, feel free to send them a message at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com or follow them @jphoenixmedia on twitter.


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