How to Retreat

Every year or so, I give myself a gift. I give myself a week (or two, if I can swing it) at an artist’s retreat. My favorite spot is the Penland School of Crafts. Sometimes I take classes there with amazing artists, and sometimes I give myself residency time—which is that wide-open, no-holds-barred “making time” that people like me dream about. I used to spend a much larger portion of my life as a printmaker, but there’s been a shift in the last few years, and there’s a lot less time to make art than there used to be.

But every once in a while, I do a retreat—a residency—that gives me time to focus on making new work, experimenting with new techniques, and rejuvenates me. The problem is, I start psyching myself out. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams?

Each time I sign up to take a retreat week, this cycle of thought occurs:

1. This is amazing. I can’t wait to go. (2 months until time to go)
2. OMG, what was I thinking? This costs too much. What will I make? (1 week before arrival)
3. I have no ideas. I have only one week here. This was a mistake. (Arrival day.)
4. This is wonderful. I have time to make art again. Look what happens when I do this… (Day 2)
5. I wish I had more time. Why don’t I treat myself better? (Day 4)
6. Best week ever. I made something that surprised me. When can I do this again? (Last day)

Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams? This happens EVERY TIME I decide to give myself time at a place like Penland. I second-guess myself until it’s almost paralyzing—even though I know this pattern and know that I always end up making something interesting and meaningful. This time, I went to make prints for an upcoming show in Asheville. I’d psyched myself out so bad by the first day that I didn’t even touch the printing press. I called Andrew and he said, “Are you having trouble getting back on the horse?” I told him, “It’s like the horse sat on me. He’s huge and stubborn and refuses to move.”

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The next day, I just started printing, in full-on “Let’s see what happens when I do this” mode. And the results were pretty cool. I made some calendars, some posters, and learned a new technique that led me right to the prints I needed for the show. (Scroll through the gallery above to see a little bit of everything.  The calendars and posters are for sale in my Etsy shop.)

This story has a happy ending. I had a great week and printed the pieces I needed for the Guild show, and made some things just for fun. I played around with monoprinting, and learned some new techniques. But the question remains: even though I always have a great experience at a retreat like this, why do I still doubt myself before each one? Why do I try to sabotage myself by thinking that money could be better spent on things like gas and groceries?

It’s often hard to justify an expense like that, but sometimes those expenses—and those experiences—bring the most gratifying and meaningful moments in our lives. To retreat in this way is to turn inward, to our most intimate creative selves, and get back in touch with that deepest part of the heart. Retreating reminds me of something John Muir once said. He was talking about escaping to the wilderness, but sometimes the artist’s heart is its own wilderness—and we must have the courage to go. So thank you, Penland, for opening your doors, for harboring us artists when we need you the most, and for giving us space to make, and meet our fellow makers, and for being such a bright spot in the world.