How to Heal and Even Benefit from a Setback or Failure in Your Art Practice (Inspired by Buddhist Teachings)
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Many authors and coaches tell creatives we need to get good at failure.
We need to be “resilient,” and “get back on the horse.”
Okay, I get that.
I mean all experienced artists know their art practice only evolves if they can allow themselves to experiment, bomb and recover on a regular basis.
But the thing is, some of our failures are doozies; they can leave us debilitated and doubting our calling.
And I don’t hear many experts telling us what we can actually do that will motivate us to pick those gravel bits out from our face, get up, and move forward.
(For my post on how to revcover from a harsh art critique go here.)
I recently discovered one way to recover from creative failure.
And my hope is that if I share it with you it may help you deal better with your own face down gravel drags.
The best way to explain my odd recovery process is by giving you an embarrassing example of an epic fail from my own art life.
This story involves one wise guide, two-part epoxy and three tenets from Buddhism.
My Failure Story of Coming Unglued
I make these weird, Joseph Cornell-like, compositions inside of vintage cigar boxes.
They’re based on myth and dream symbolism. They often contain tiny dollhouse antiques. I paint, wallpaper, sand, and age each piece.
I avoided selling my art for years because I harbored a secret fear.
A fear that did indeed come to pass.
Despite my best intentions, some bit or bob managed to come loose from my artwork during shipping.
My first customer wasn’t mad, she just let me know something to the effect of:
“Hey Thea, love the box, one of the antique metal chickens on top flew the coop—it fell off during shipping.”
I was flooded with embarrassment.
Okay, I reasoned to myself, I messed up, I stumbled, this is why I shouldn’t charge much for these boxes, I’ll get back up, buy better glue and I won’t let this ever happen again.
I sold another box treated with the new glue. I shipped it.
The customer gave me a glowing review on Etsy but wrote me a private note that casually mentioned how she had to whip out her own glue gun to stick a miniature boat back in place.
Because I was new to selling my work (or maybe because I’m both Italian and Jewish) the guilt was off the charts this time.
Boats and chickens falling off equaled shoddy craftsmanship which in my eyes equaled — bad artist.
Despite my boyfriend’s protests, instead of being compassionate with myself and looking at the failure as a learning opportunity; I decided to give up selling my art and stick to writing.
But soon I missed the thrill of making and even selling art.
One day I did what I thought was going to be a ho-hum Maitri meditation (which is a meditation about making friends with yourself when you’re in pain).
I was surprised to feel a little compassion for myself and my failure welling up inside me.
And throughout the meditation, this compassion grew. It allowed me to take my focus off failing and put it back on to why I started making the boxes in the first place — for the love of it.
I also began remembering a bunch of affirming things I was told about my boxes (even if they did suffer from “stray-chicken-syndrome”.)
Suddenly I was driven to get off my ass mid-meditation, grab my laptop and start googling crazy queries like, “Why things fall off during shipping even when well glued?”
The Google Gods quickly whisked me to Canada; specifically to the website of gifted painter Laura den Hertog who (with her sister Karen) had put together four great, free videos on how to ship your work so it never gets damaged.
I learned a lot about external packaging from the videos but nothing about internal gluing.
Desperate, I threw a hail mary pass and sent an email to Den Hertog via her contact form to see if she had any answers to my glue problems.
Caveman Gets Shown a Bic Lighter
Den Hertog wrote back in 2 hours.
She had even popped over to my Etsy site and thought that the only glue that would survive shipping the kinds of things I was making, was two-part epoxy.
(It’s the kind of glue you mix together and have three minutes to work with before it adheres all your tools permanently to your counter.)
A curtain parted in my brain.
I was like a caveman being shown a Bic lighter for the first time.
Being the kind of gal who buys things she doesn’t yet need at hardware stores, I had some two-part epoxy somewhere in my house.
I ran downstairs, dug it out from under a sink and clutched it to my chest; radiant with the hope I might get to be a real grown-up artist again.
With Hertog’s encouragement, I proceeded to rip all the objects out of my boxes, reglue them with the 2 part epoxy and repair the scars that surgery left behind.
Miraculously, another box sold a few weeks later.
I shipped it and held my breath.
I received my best 5-star review yet and no complaints of glue issues. I even had the guts to email the client and ask if there was any “chicken fall off syndrome.”
After what I now refer to as “Glue-Gate” my self-esteem slowly began to rise along with my prices.
So thanks to my failure and the wisdom of a more experienced artist, I no longer have as big a coronary as I used to when I got an Etsy notification that someone has kindly bought one of my boxes.
How about we now take a quick look at four steps (inspired by Buddhism) that you can take if you need support after you feel you’ve failed.
Four Steps To Recovering from a Creative Setback or Failure
1st Post-Failure Recovery Step – Acknowledge the Suffering
Acknowledge the failure hurt.
The first noble truth of Buddism is the truth of suffering.
The Buddha taught that life on earth is painful as well as beautiful.
Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says by acknowledging our suffering we open the door to more beauty in our life.
It’s important to remember that you experienced failure while attempting to bring to life something your soul was urging you to try.
Now that’s commendable, so show yourself compassion.
2nd Post-Failure Recovery Step – Show Yourself Compassion
The meditation I was doing that led to my post-failure breakthrough is called Maitri or Loving Kindness meditation popularized in the west by Vietnamese meditation master Thích Nhất Hạnh. (You can learn more about Han and the philosophy of Maitri here).
Remember the role of compassion in my failure story?
It opened a blocked path in my mind so I could remember that I love making art — no matter who is watching.
And so do you.
3rd Post-Failure Recovery Step: Everybody Fails – Especially Successful Artists
Self-compassion allows us to see all artists fail, especially successful ones.
One thing I remembered during my meditation that helped me recover was a story a curator once whispered to me when I used to work at the Art Institute in Chicago.
He looked around to make sure the coast was clear before telling me that artist Julian Schnabel had a specially certified “plate crew” that went jetting about the globe.
Their only job?
To glue back all the fallen crockery that regularly crashed down and broke onto posh museum floors from Schnabel’s zillion-dollar “plate paintings.”
My point is creative setbacks and failures happen to everyone, but whether we grow stronger from them depends if you can do two things:
1. Mentally re-frame the failure and put it in the proper perspective.
2. Then find a solution.
4th Post-Failure Recovery Step – Stay With the Problem
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein
Super successful artists often are no more brilliant than we are, but they usually are more persistent. They tend to stay with their creative problems longer.
Take Georgia O’Keeffe for example. Early on in her painting life, O’Keeffe was disappointed with her combinations of color with form in her oil painting. She saw them as failures.
But instead of throwing in the towel, she persisted till she found her solution.
She arrived at her solution by rigorously restricting herself to using just black charcoal on white paper for months; only adding in back one color at a time as she felt she understood the role of the previous color in her work.
O’Keeffe believed in herself and her work enough to stay with her problem, and so can we.
As beloved, humorous Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron would say, it’s just a matter of “befriending our obstacles.“
So to sum it all up, in order to fail and rise up stronger you may want to:
Acknowledge the pain or humiliation you feel.
Feel compassion for yourself.
Remember all great creatives fail early and often.
Stay with the problem longer than feels comfortable to find your solution.
Now go make
trouble more art.
“Failure is always hurtful, humiliating and embarrassing, but it’s the price to pay for daring to get what we want out of life.” — Fabian Duttner
Have you ever had a failure or major setback in your creative practice?.
Would you like to be more compassionate with yourself?
What has helped you get back up?
Let us know in the comments at the end of the page.
You might like these other Charmed Studio posts:
If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Pema Chodron speak, play this short video.
She will make you laugh and make you think.