A Conversation with Karen Kinney

One of my favorite things to do is talk to writers and artists about their creative process. What are their daily rituals? How do they go about developing their seedling ideas? While there is no single way, I believe these conversations can offer us insight, give us comfort and encouragement as we discover and learn to trust our own creative process - and come to own what we have to say as creative beings in this world.

My dear friend, Karen Kinney, is a fine artist who just released her book THE RELUCTANT ARTIST which is all about navigating and sustaining a creative path. In our discussion below, we dialogue about art and commerce, how to think about creative blocks, the importance (or not) of talent, and accepting the natural ebb and flow of the creative process. I hope you glean some new ways to think about how and what you are creating. I certainly did!

Karen Kinney is a professional artist whose work has been in numerous exhibitions, both nationally and internationally. Her art was purchased for the Lionsgate film “The Lincoln Lawyer” and resides in private collections across the country, including those of actor Bob Odenkirk and NPR’s Guy Raz. Her work often begins with a paint stroke, a shred of paper, or some ink scratches on pages taken from old books. The use of vibrant colors is important to her, as it contributes to the feeling of something new emerging from what has been discarded. 


In addition to small-scale collages, she also creates large installations and is currently building a temporary installation for the Los Angeles International Airport. She has a Masters degree from the University of Chicago and lives in Los Angeles with her husband. 

In her debut book The Reluctant Artist, Karen compiles helpful insights to release greater creative freedom. She offers guidance and wisdom to navigate a winding creative path and stay motivated over the long haul. Both for those firmly established in a career and those just starting out, she reminds us of the value of creative expression and provides important keys to aid in its development.

To learn more, visit karenkinney.com


Karin: Let’s talk about art and commerce. You write a whole chapter devoted to it. How do you perceive the relationship between the two?

Karen Kinney: I make money through art, whether that’s through private commissions, selling existing work or public art projects. I also make money through odd jobs. My husband works at a 9-to-5 job. I am of the belief that fine art is best supported to reach its fullest creative potential when the pressure for it to consistently make money is removed, and it is allowed to be more organic and free. There are many other jobs that are more conducive to a regular, consistent paycheck. If I were the sole breadwinner, income would primarily come through other work, before putting pressure on my art to fill the role of a weekly paycheck.

Do you distinguish creativity as ‘pure’ and unrelated to commerce?

Creativity intersects with commerce all the time, and what this looks like varies greatly depending on what creative field you work in. I focus on the relationship between commerce and fine art in my book, which can look different than say, commerce and writing, or commerce and dance, etc. Because creativity is organic, meaning it does not usually take a linear path, generating money through it is more often than not a winding path. Developing a product with one’s art is one way to earn money more consistently. Some creative pursuits lend themselves much more easily to product than others, like offering a class for example. That is very much a product that can be sold and marketed fairly easily. But a product is different than creating for creating’s sake. And I find that in our capitalistic culture, money too easily becomes the lens through which we see all of life, including creativity and art, and I think this can often be to the detriment of creative expression.

I’m a believer in full freedom in terms of artists pursuing the path they want with money, but I think we need to have a conscious relationship with money and look honestly at its effects on art making and examine what happens to your art practice when it becomes solely a commodity. Because I think things do happen to it when it does. And those aren’t necessarily bad things for all people, but they can be. I find commerce can be a box at times that can limit what expression happens because certain kinds of expression just lend themselves better to being a product than others.

And I think we also need to be liberated from the belief that the value of the work we offer the world is only defined by monetary compensation - just because we live in such a capitalist society. I think it's the only lens we ever look at, in terms of valuing what we do in life. If everyone lived according to this belief, much important work in the world would never be done. So I mostly want to advocate that people look at how commerce impacts what they make and feel free to shift accordingly if they feel themselves burning out.

What if, say, you needed to return to social work to support yourself? Do you think that kind of work would suck you dry?

That’s a good question. If that were my situation, I wonder if I would then look at art not so much from a career point of view, which is how I’m looking at it now, but might see it more as a therapeutic thing that I need to do, just like I need to exercise. I wonder if my focus on it would shift so that it would really be purely something life-giving, to balance the reality of a 9-to-5 job. I mean, this is just theoretical, but maybe that's how I'd look at it.

So regardless of where money comes from, I still wouldn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on my art to make a living from it because of what I know it does to my own particular creative soul.

Would you say that it's important to find another consistent means of income to support yourself so that your art can be free to be what it needs to be?

Yes, I do think creativity operates best when it’s least restrictive. So even if some portion of your creativity is what you rely on for bread and butter -- whether that is a certain product that you made with it or something that sells well -- I think it's important as a creative person to have a space in your life with creativity that is unbounded and unassociated with money only because it fosters exploration. If your entire creative pursuit is dictated by making money, I don’t think you’re going to end up being very happy as a creative person, because where do you get to play? Or make a mistake? Or do something that nobody wants but you actually like it?

Perhaps it's best, then, to make money in something entirely unrelated to your art?

I think it leads to more joy. And I should qualify... this isn't true for everybody. Like some people who are more entrepreneurial in nature might find it really satisfying to make a work of art and have it sell regularly in demand; that might really fire them up. I think it's important to ask yourself, “What brings life to my soul?” That should be guiding the process. But in my experience I’ve met many artists who have gone the route of pure commercialism, believing that to be a successful artist they must make as much money as possible from their art, which I don't personally think is true. I think being a “successful” artist doesn’t have to be related to how much you get compensated. But anyway, I’ve known many artists who’ve gone the direction of needing their art to either produce a livelihood or at least a partial livelihood, and often burn out because it does require having a commodity, a product. 

So if someone likes a rectangle you made on a wall – and now they want it blue and now they want it in red – you churn out the same thing over and over again; for a lot of creative people that can get exhausting. It’s like, “Well, this might be selling and people want this, but I’d really like to make a triangle and not a rectangle, but no one wants to buy the triangle.” So I don't make it, and then I shut myself down. You know what I mean?

Or some people spend all their creative energy making a rectangle, so they don’t even have the energy for the triangle.

Right. Forget about even clueing into the fact that they want to make a triangle!

What would you say to the person whose income-producing job leaves very little time or energy to pursue their art at all?

That’s a very real problem too. Definitely, I feel like that’s really hard to balance, especially when you have a family and child, and you know, that all complicates life choices. I would say for people who feel like they don't see any space for anything. I would just try to encourage them to carve out 15 minutes on a regular basis to do something creative that makes them happy. That could be worth doing just for their own psychological wellbeing, whether or not it goes anywhere. And I feel like that's always doable when we think about just tiny, tiny steps. So that sometimes helps to break it down as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the enormity of, “Oh now I want to become a composer or filmmaker,” or whatever. These big, large ideas overwhelm us and we don't take action, all because daily life is just enough to handle. So sometimes just even small, tiny movement over time can open up something in us that grows potentially.

I'm a big believer that our stories are meant to be shared. So how do you balance valuing the creative process versus the discipline required to complete something so it can be shared?

Yeah, I am also very much an advocate of sharing your creative work with the world. That's probably what drives me the most with creating; I want it to impact people and impact the larger culture. So I almost always create with an end goal in mind. I actually am a very disciplined person by nature, which helps obviously. Especially because a lot of what I do is self-driven, and then once I create it, I go find a place in the world for it. That requires being fairly self-driven and structured. But I try to balance between moving intuitively with my creative work and then bringing in a structure to complete it.

So I'm not regimented when it comes to the actual creative process or thinking up ideas or having the birth of some new thing in my spirit. I kind of let that be very free-flow. But once something's been established in my mind like, “Okay I’m seeing this idea and getting thoughts around it,” then I’d say that's where my structured mind kicks in, and I’m like, “OK let’s start working on this and showing up for this every day to do it.” And then when it’s finished find the right place for it to go. For me that would be a gallery exhibit - or if I wanted to sell work in a store - or find another public art opportunity, or whatever. It takes different forms.

At what point do you step in and start to structure it?

In the beginning, I give things space to just kind of form - start writing whatever it is, or start drawing on the paper, or whatever it is you're doing. But I really take an observer role and I watch it and I don't just let myself go on forever. It's more like I'm working with it. I talk about this concept a bit in my chapter on listening. So as I'm writing, or as I'm painting the thing, I watch what's forming so I can get in sync with what it wants to be. Because I think usually creations have something they want to be if we're willing to partner with them; it doesn't just have to be us imposing our structure on something. I think we can have this reciprocal relationship that we're creating. So as I listen to it and observe it, that actually helps me with the structure. I'm like, “Oh here are clues for what I think this wants to be. Now what structure can I bring in to support what's already forming?”

I love that idea of partnering with our creative projects. So what about writer's block? Do you believe in it?

A writer's block or a creative block... Yes, I think there are always times when we get stuck or don't know how to move forward and I think that happens for different reasons. There are times when we are feeling resistance and we maybe know what's on our plate or we know the project we're trying to birth - and it's just like we're being resistant to showing up for it. And so that would be one category of resistance. In those cases it's helpful to either trick ourselves into creating or jumpstart ourselves - taking a walk or doing an experimentation or whatever mind trick we need to do to jumpstart our creativity again - if we feel like we're just not showing up because we are not feeling it.

But then I think there are other times--and you can look at my chapter “The Ebb and Flow”-- where the creative process seems to shut off completely. Those periods where it's like, “OK I've tried all my little tricks to get myself to create. I've done all these things and there's absolutely nothing, zero. I feel nothing. I have no ideas, like a blank.” I think those seasons also happen on the creative path. And I've learned over time to be much more OK when they come and more able to ride them out. Whereas I think when I first experienced times like that, I freaked out as I go, “Oh my god, what's happening? Am I not going to create ever again? What's wrong with me?” But I think over time I've realized that there is a natural ebb and flow to creating - sometimes there are longer periods where we just aren't creating. I call them dormant seasons and I think it's in those seasons when deeper things are allowed to process and kind of go underground that will surface in our future seasons of renewed activity. Basically there's value in having space in life. We live in a culture that basically says you have to be “on” all the time and I would question that because that doesn't allow for renewal, it doesn't allow for rest; it doesn't allow for new ideas to foster and incubate and then come out later. I think there are periods of what seems like stillness, and I think they are actually necessary and a valuable part of the creative path. But you're not going to get that affirmed in the larger culture; the larger culture doesn't understand. If you're not constantly producing, constantly active, you're told, “What's wrong with you?” But we're not machines.

If something completely new is going to be birthed... I can use pregnancy as an example. When a woman is pregnant, everything that's happening is happening inside. But it’s certainly super valuable - you don't have the option of skipping that stage! If you’re going to produce something really different or not the status quo, it would need time to come out. But the time before it comes out might not look like much is happening.

Do you think much about talent? Whether you or someone else is talented?

It’s not actually something I think about very often. I think people do have an innate talent, but I don’t think that means people can't be creative. I think everyone has something creative to express, a piece of their soul to express to the world. And so I like to encourage people to see the possibilities in their life. I think people too often get fixated on seeing themselves as deficient. And I think, “Well, that doesn't help get us anywhere.” I can do the same in my own life, like “Where am I not measuring up?” Or “I'm not good enough” you know. That's not a helpful message to perpetuate. I feel like we need to be affirming people's potential and everyone has creative potential. So whether they have a more natural inclination for something or not, I feel like they can still express who they are to the world and leave the world better for it. Really people should just do what brings them joy. Look for what lights you up inside or what's life-giving for you, because you're going to be happier.

Of course, the peaks and valleys are par for the course when creating. So when do you know if it's truly time to shelve a project?

I actually end up finishing most things, which is, from what I understand from other artists, a bit atypical. I have a very strong left brain, in addition to the right brain, so I think that makes me a bit of an anomaly, or less common at least, in the artist world.

I think one gauge is what I referenced before. “Is this project life-giving?” Because I think if a project is feeding us in addition to us feeding it, then it has greater potential to be finished or is easier to see through in the midst of the peaks and valleys or the times we're frustrated or want to end it. I think it helps increase the odds that it will be finished. So that's why for me, if it's just totally life-sucking for me, it makes more sense for me to shelve those kind of things and resume with something that has more of an energetic spark. There has to be life coming back.

Also, I think having a strong sense of self really helps a lot, because if you're clear about who you are and what your own creative voice looks and sounds like, you have a better sense of when a project really aligns with your dharma and it's bursting to the finish line, versus when it might be something that's more in the camp of experimentation and it's not necessarily meant to go all way. So I think having a strong sense of your creative voice can help to make those kinds of decisions.

I've noticed in my writing workshops some people feel compelled to underline that they are NOT a writer. And yet, there they are writing! Why do you think  people are reluctant to call themselves a writer or an artist?

It's a good question, because the whole journey to be able to call myself an artist took time. And I envision the same will be true of calling myself a writer. And why is that? I think people maybe just need to have enough lived experience to feel like they can really own that, whether that's psychologically or confidence-wise or to feel emotionally connected. Who knows how people relate to those titles? But I feel like for me in terms of “art” I needed to be at a certain level of confidence, whether in having completed enough art projects and shown them to the world or done the things which, in my mind, felt like, “This is what artists do and I'm doing these things before I can call myself an artist.” People have definitions around what all these things mean. But whatever those definitions are, I think people need time to journey down their path and own it. And it's not an overnight process. Ownership of identity means different things to different people. It's a very personal journey.

Was there any one thing that helped push you over the edge?

There were several markers that did matter. When people did first buy my art, that was a big deal, it did mean something to me. Or when I was in my first gallery show, that really did mean something to me. So the traditional markers people use did impact me and it did have significance for me in my journey. And even though in my own evolution I've evolved to a place of self-value that isn't reliant on those markers, it doesn't mean they didn't play a role. And so I think when people first purchased my art and the gallery exhibition in particular - when those first began - that was really exciting and it helped me feel like, “Oh, I am an artist.” These signposts for the things that the world defines, that mean you are one, they do still affect me even though I do ascribe to gain value from some kind of higher plane, but it doesn't mean they don't have meaning and value. The only problem for me with those markers is when they become the only things that people identify themselves by and then they start to be controlled by them; then I think that's a problem. But they serve a purpose for sure.

If there is one takeaway from your book, what would it be?

That there's value in your creative expression. I really want people to be -- not just encouraged in a general sense, but hopefully come away with a deeper belief in the value of what they have to offer the world, because that can drive all kinds of good things. And I feel like the other things will get figured out, like where the money comes from and how this works and what the journey looks like; those are all challenges everyone has to figure out for themselves. But if you're driven by a deep belief in the value of what you're doing, that's what's going to propel you over the long haul.


To learn more about Karen, visit karenkinney.com

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