Is It Okay to Take a Break from Making Art?

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Roxy Paine's Scumak No. 2, 2001, pumps out machine-made sculptures.
Roxy Paine’s Scumak No. 2, 2001, pumps out machine-made sculptures.

Dear BURNAWAY,
Is okay if I take a break from my art? I’ve been working and exhibiting my art on a regular basis for the last several years at what feels like break-neck speed. But lately, I just feel burned out. I don’t feel like I’ve got any creative juices left. Is there such a thing as a vacation when you’re an artist? It’s not that I’m “blocked” so much as I just need to change things up. Will a temporary absence from my practice hinder my “brand”? Need some advice.
Thanks,
Drained in Atlanta
Still from Rodney Grahams 2001 video The Photokinetiscope, for which the artist took a hit of LSD.
Still from Rodney Grahams 2001 video The Phonokinetoscope, for which the artist took LSD.

Dear Drained,
Oh, breaks! Call it what you will: time off, vacation from life, work slumber, life nap, mental checkout, decompression mode; it’s all the same thing, and most of us need a hell of a lot more of it in our lives.
With social media barking up our trees every second of every day, and a relentless, ubiquitous pressure to always be “on” and “available,” we 21st-century folk need time away from work more than ever. In times of yore, when people were at home eating dinner or at the bar with their friends, they were palpably “not working.” The disconnection was visceral and vast. That’s not the case anymore. For us, we are often stuck in our professional mind-suits at all times. Just as we start to devour our cheeseburgers in peace, we hear the doom-chime of a new email on our phones. It’s hard to turn our careers off, even for a night.
Oftentimes when we put pressure on ourselves day-in and day-out to “produce”—whatever that means for you, be it word production, art production, fashion production—our output can become stagnant and so can we. The feeling is a lot like trudging through a miles-long swamp with wool blankets tied to your feet.
The “water well of the mind” can, and will, run dry from time to time; and it’s not fun. Which is why there’s no shame in saying that you need to retool for a second. Maybe that second lasts a week, maybe that second lasts a year. But take the time you need to take to reconnect with your life. Stop working and become a creature again! A sponge! Go spend some time in the world! Disappear for a month at a lake house and drink lots of gin and smoke cigars and read Thurber. Become a cinema buff and watch the really weird stuff no one else can sit through. Start soldering giant metal things together. Volunteer at a place where people depend on you. Write poems under a pseudonym. Join a shitty band and have a blast even though you’re terrible at bass guitar. Whatever it is, just do something else for a spell; it sounds like that’s the kickstart you need. Learn something new about yourself and what you’re capable of. Go marinate for a while in this crazy world, because you’ll be able use it in unimaginable ways when you return to your own work. Just ask Stefan Sagmeister, he knows what’s up.
Ultimately, if you know you need a break—take one. Demand it from yourself. You won’t wither away and die; you won’t experience some Orwellian vaporization. You will just take a break from making art, and that’s okay. Sally Mann did it! She said so herself two weeks ago at her lecture at the Frist Center. She stopped making photographs so she could write her new memoir, Hold Still. See? It’s fine.
However, yes, if you stay gone for too long you risk falling off the radar. As art critic David Hickey brilliantly put it in an old Believer interview: “The missing are presumed dead.” There’s a great deal of truth to that. You’ve got to be present to be counted. So factor that in.
Not to mention, a too-long absence may engender people (yourself included) to question your commitment to art-making entirely. Perhaps they’ll lambaste you behind your back or holler in the streets at you, “What a dilettante!” But probably not. Especially if it’s less than six months. Probably no one will notice, save for a few close friends. No offense. Plus, don’t worry about what other people think. It only ever puts one in a tangle.
In the end, only you know what you need. Trust yourself. The others can go to hell. Because here’s the thing: time off allows us to become bored again. And boredom is a great thing because it allows us to become curious. And curiosity is a great thing, because it gives us a chance to make discoveries. As it turns out, discovery is the key to everything. It’s the key to keeping our creative gears churning; it’s the key to keeping lit that precious flame that is our general desire to live. If you can get yourself back to a place of discovery and playfulness, by whatever means necessary, you, my flower, will be standing in a veritable fountain of youth.
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.