Artists Share Their Rituals for Dealing with Stress

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 27, 2017 1:00PM

Photo by Efe Kurnaz.

It was late 2016, and New York-based painter Sofia Leiby was anxious. She’d just been notified that the building housing her studio had been sold—and she’d be evicted from her workspace just five days before she needed to ship canvases to Berlin for her first solo exhibition there.

“I had to finish work for the show in a temporary space, after begging the new landlord to give me a room on a different floor as they bulldozed my studio,” Leiby tells me from Frankfurt, where she’s now in grad school. “He agreed, but I had to move everything. The last few days [before a deadline] are always crucial for me, so it was very necessary to de-stress.”

Leiby needed to calm her nerves in order to finish the paintings headed to Berlin, so she sought guidance from friends. One suggested that she cue up the soothing compositions of Jazz pianist Alice Coltrane—and, crucially, remember to breathe while she was listening. Leiby took the advice.

Since then, it’s become her go-to calming ritual when stress mounts. “When I have an intense moment of stress in my studio, I listen to Coltrane and sit on the floor with my legs out straight and my back flat to the wall,” she explains. “Then I take three breaths, in and out.”

Being an artist comes with inevitable moments of anxiety. There are daily stressors triggered by creative block, studio mishaps, and deadlines; overarching personal concerns related to relationships, rent, and procuring the next paycheck; and those broad sources of unease that affect us all, like the political climate and, generally, the future.

For younger artists who are in the process of establishing their practice, these stresses can feel especially acute. There’s a lot to be nervous about, including anxiety over how their work will be received. But luckily, there are just as many methods available to help alleviate those tensions.

Like Leiby, Brooklyn-based photographer John Edmonds often turns to music when he’s feeling unorganized—his main source of stress in the studio. “Music, always. Slow, slow music,” he says of his go-to antidote. “I love R&B and have been getting into chopped and screwed versions of slow songs, which really relax me.”

He also notes the importance of getting outside the studio when he’s feeling anxious or unsure of how to move forward with a project. “Having space to step back and look at everything is important—to be able to see how things are connected, to see the thread throughout the work,” he explains. For Edmonds, he can find that perspective in something as simple as a stroll. “Taking walks, talking to people in the neighborhood, seeing what else is happening in the world” helps him find clarity.

London-based painter and animator Rhys Coren, too, has developed a ritual of walking to clear his head. While he explains that he’s happiest and least anxious when he’s making art, he also admits the importance of processing and minimizing other environmental and life stresses before he steps into the studio. It’s only then that he’s most productive.

A daily morning walk became his personal remedy about three years ago. Before then, he’d been cycling to his studio everyday, but the process of navigating busy London streets and moving vehicles was nerve-wracking in itself. “After biking, it would take me about an hour just to destress every time I got to my studio,” he remembers. One day, he decided to walk to work instead. And while the commute was longer—an hour—it alleviated stress and, in the process, actually saved him time

“When you walk, you don’t have to put as much conscious effort into not dying,” Coren quips. “It opens up time and space to do a lot of other things.” Depending on his mood or thoughts that occupy his mind on a given morning stroll he might listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music; analyze what he’s going to do that day, or what he did yesterday; or simply zone out and daydream.

“It’s become really meditative and calms me down,” he explains. “So as soon as I get to the studio, I’m good to go.” By the time he arrives, he’s worked through or brushed off lingering concerns that might have distracted him from making art. (Coren has tried other exercise-related methods to destress as well, but he prefers his daily constitutionals: “I had to do yoga for awhile because of a back injury, but I really just preferred to walk to and from it.”)

Los Angeles-based artist Ben Wolf Noam fends off stress with his swimming routine. The activity removes him from the pressures of the studio, clears his head, and often incites inspiration. For the past five years, he’s frequented a local pool several times a week, a ritual that began when he was living in New York and working out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. After leaving his studio at night, he’d swim for 30 to 45 minutes before heading home. He’s continued the practice since moving to L.A.

“When you’re swimming, all you have is your thoughts,” Noam tells me, from his studio in L.A.’s Vernon neighborhood. “There’s no music, no visuals, no cell phone. It’s just a moment to move your body, decompress, and reflect on art making or whatever is going on in your life.”

He points to particular aspects of swimming—and the pool itself—that allow him to focus on his thoughts, and in some cases, completely relinquish them.

“A pool is nice because it’s such a self-contained environment. I’m never surprised by what I see,” he explains, referring to the pool he frequents regularly. “It’s always three-and-a-half feet deep, 70 degrees, looks exactly the same, and feels exactly the same. In that environment, I’m not distracted; I’m focusing on breathing and counting.”

Los Angeles-based artist Brendan Lynch also takes to the water when he needs a break—but for him, it’s the ocean’s untamed inconsistencies that clear his mind. “When you’re an artist, or in any job you have, so much of your time, energy, and thoughts are constantly engaged in ideas and projects. It’s always on—you’re always thinking, working, trying to push it,” he tells me from Costa Rica, where he’s taking a break to surf after opening an exhibition in Mexico City. “I find that when I start feeling overwhelmed, it’s very important to step away from it.”

For Lynch, stepping away can mean leaving the physical space of his studio—and distancing himself from a piece that he’s stuck on. But heading to the ocean for a surf removes him even further from daily stresses. “It’s the only time that I’m able to truly be in the present—not be distracted by my phone and not be smoking cigarettes,” he laughs. “It’s a moment away from all the noise.”

Brooklyn-based sculptor Kricket Lane’s tactics are decidedly more social. Taking a break with her dog, having a smoke, or inviting friends to her studio can provide both clarity and calm. “When I hit a roadblock with a concept or material, it’s generally a good idea to walk my dog Paisley—sometimes with a spliff,” she offers. “I never drink in the studio because it makes me sleepy. A little herb, on the other hand, is like a perfect reset button.”

Working on a project or series that she hasn’t shared with anyone can also induce anxiety for Lane. In those situations, “having a trusted friend over for a studio visit helps reassure me that I’m on the right track—and that I don’t have to have everything figured out before I share my progress with others,” she says.

For Lane, like most of us, navigating stress is a constant process of experimentation. “I guess I’m always looking for better ways. Whenever I confront my fear or stressor head-on, or act opposite of my tendencies, I learn something valuable about my self-management,” she offers.

It’s a reminder that there’s a calming salve for everyone out there—you just might need to do a little work to find the one that works for you.

Alexxa Gotthardt