Getting through the art ‘come down’


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What I’ve found in making art is that once you’ve given birth to your baby – a performance, a film, a sculpture, a painting, an exhibition – you go through a type of postpartum depression. How to get through this?

WORDS BY ST. JOHN MCKAY | First published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 1

What I’ve found in making art is that once you’ve given birth to your baby – a performance, a film, a sculpture, a painting, an exhibition – you go through a type of postpartum depression. How to get through this?

In my case I make solo, multi-media performance pieces. In 2018 I put on two ‘major’ works, in that they were years in the making, were each over an hour in length, and were quite complicated to execute.

They are also filled with very personal, very true elements, revolving around traumatic experiences.

The first of these two had a three night run in February and, as can be imagined, the two months leading up to the dates were all consuming.

I do freelance work to pay the rent and, luckily, I had a light season around then so could just ‘be in the zone’, working day and night on the piece. I was working right up to the minute I put it on.

It went well, I had more than the three people I expected to show up (50 people!), and got great feedback.

And then comes the day after. When everything has been directed toward one thing, and that one thing is done, suddenly I found myself facing a huge, cavernous void.

I crashed badly. I basically got into bed and stayed there for two months, only getting out when I had to for work. Gradually I came out of this, but it was very scary.

Then came the second show, set for September. This was even more taxing than the show in February as that one was a mixture of personal and societal, whereas this was all personal, dealing with my deepest traumas, domestic violence from my childhood and estrangement from my young son in adulthood.

Again, I was lucky to have a quiet time from work so was able to be totally immersed in the piece. Though I’d been working on this thing for years, I now spent two months thinking of nothing else, twenty-four-seven.

But it was hell. Working on my most acute trauma day in day out, for the purpose of exposing it to a room full of people for their judgment, felt quite insane. It was like I was having a mental breakdown every single day.

I couldn’t see how I could go on except I had a date, and I had to go through with it. I’d actually already quit on putting on this show a year before, when I’d had a couple of nights of it booked, because it was too emotionally taxing. I didn’t want to quit twice.

But now, on top of everything else, I was most terrified of one thing: the day after. After being put through the ringer with this piece I couldn’t see how I was going to keep out of the dark hole awaiting me on the other side. Except, this time I had one difference: an exercise routine.

For reasons to do with the performance I’d actually wanted to get physically toned, and so, besides working on the show, I was also a gym rat, and became very careful about what I ate, including intermittent fasting.

So, when the show was over, I had this routine in place. I had lost thirty pounds and was in probably the best shape I’d ever been (if I may say so!), so I didn’t want to just throw away all that effort.

Therefore, though I wanted to crawl up into a ball in bed, which I still did plenty of, believe me, I also got myself to that gym almost every day. And that made the difference.

The lesson I learned is to have some sort of routine alongside your immersion in your work, something that can be there for the fall off the cliff that can sometimes happen when something is done.

It doesn’t have to be the gym. It doesn’t have to be something you don’t really like (I’m not a fan of the gym!), it can be something fun.

A sport, a building project unrelated to your art, a volunteering commitment, therapy, some kind of regular social thing that involves multiple nights a week.

Or, if you have the luxury, plan a trip for afterwards – I’m a fan of ten day Vipassana silent meditation retreats.

What I’ve learned is to be ready, have an idea for how to keep healthy after it’s all over. Making work is difficult, taxing, stressful. We all need a plan to keep us sane, and… To. Keep. Going!

St. John is a New Zealand born Brooklyn-based artist, and connected with the Arts Wellbeing Collective team while working at the 2019 International Society for the Performing Arts Congress in New York.

Check out St. John’s arty stuff:


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