Art School Monster

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I have an art school monster. It lives in my head. It feeds on my fears and starts nasty little rumours.

Image by autumn_bliss, used under Creative Commons license

Maybe my monster was there before art school, a cute little baby monster perhaps? But art school gave it shape and helped it grow. Art school gave it the words to wound me.

I had a great and challenging time at art school. I learnt a lot and grew immensely. I met amazing people, had fantastic experiences, drank a huge amount of tea and worked extremely hard.

I wouldn’t give up that time for anything – but it did leave behind a few scars and a monster. And boy is it hard to create when you have a whispering monster taking up space in your studio!

Right now my monster is telling me that creating with fabric is a stupid thing to do. A girly thing. An embarrassing thing. Even though I love fabric, fibre and thread and adore the work that other artists make with it, my monster says that people will think I’m rubbish if I use it. Not serious enough, not clever enough, not arty enough.

Real contemporary artists shouldn’t use textiles according to my art school monster.

This is all nonsense, of course. Many wonderful artists use textiles. No one says boo to Louise Bourgeois or Ann Hamilton when they use fabric. One of my fellow students happily used felt all through her final year and as far as I recall no one said squat about it. Heck, she even got a couple of grants to go to a felt conference somewhere wacky like Uzbekistan and we all thoroughly enjoyed the presentation she gave when she returned. I sometimes used fabric when I was at art school and no one gave me a hard time about it either.

So where on earth does my monster get these crazy ideas?

I’ve been trying to take a leaf out of the wonderful Havi’s book and speak kindly to my monster. I tell it that I understand that it’s just trying to protect me from criticism and harm. But honestly, I think my monster is just a frightful snob and I wish it would take its stupid opinions and shove them!

Image by herlitz-monster-talent, used under Creative Commons license

I’d love to hear about your monsters in the comments…

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

33 thoughts on “Art School Monster

  1. I have an art school monster too. Art school is pretty notorious breeding grounds for those things, me thinks. Mine tells me that unless what I'm doing is “weird” I'll never be a real artist. If you can sell it on Etsy…it ain't art. Accessible to other people? Not real art. My monster tells me that I'm “just a crafter” and that isn't cool. I love Havi & really do try to heed her advice, I even made a nice puppet out of my monster once and then spoke kindly to it. It worked some. Felt sorry for the little bugger.


  2. I think you're right, Amber, I suspect most of us come out of art school with a monster or two. Does yours have a name? Mine is called Bernard and he's the sort of person I'd despise in real life so I'm not sure why I pay him any attention just because he lives in my head. Perhaps I need to work on pitying him more, after all, poor Bernard doesn't make anything himself, he's just an eternal critic.


  3. i think when we can start feeling worthy and good enough and lift the shame we feel around our art and creating that monster will quiet down considerably…but, i also think it's a life long journey!


  4. Oh definitely a long journey Kat. And my monster is usually pretty well behaved (for a monster) but I've had a rough week healthwise and monsters always pick on you when you're feeling a bit weak.


  5. Tell Bernard to be quiet and that you are exploring new avenues. That is the thing about critics/monsters, they are frustrated because they can't do it, so they have to shoot every body else down on occasion.

    I finished Crush It! yesterday and I can't thank you enough. His style is a bit in your face, but it really pumped me up. We can slay our naysayers and our Bernards, we just have to keep busy doing what we love. The rest will come if we keep hustling! (I hate that word by the way)


  6. I shall certainly pass the message on but Bernard doesn't usually listen to anyone except himself! And possibly the Times Literary Supplement (which I don't even read, so I don't know how HE gets hold of it!)

    I'm glad you liked Crush It!, it got me really fired up too although my DNA is certainly hugely different to Gary's. I think we can take lots of lessons from his story without trying to impose his style on our own natural way of being.


  7. Hi Jessica, sorry to hear that you're fighting with your monster. I'm starting to wonder if we could send all our monsters to the zoo for the day so we can get a bit of peace and quiet!


  8. Oh man, can I relate to this post.

    My monster is not from art school per se, but looks suspiciously like an art teacher I had in college. I believe she said something along the lines of… “You only won that drawing award because there was no one else to give it to…”

    Me: Uh………. But I just learned to draw LAST YEAR?! I think.. I mean, I thought I was doing pretty well, all things considered… ?!?

    That monster must have have been SO blocked. She still hovers. In fact, I don't think I realized that I'd packed her up and carried her around on my back since I graduated from school. I ignored her then (even though her words left one of those inner most tattos that you try to pretend isn't there) and I've been ignoring her since then, by not doing any art.

    Not the most efficient way for dealing with a loud and opinionated monster.

    I wonder what her Art Monsters were saying to her.


  9. Hi Kirsty. I'm sorry to hear that your monster is giving you a hard time, but it's nice to know that I'm not alone! I've always thought of it as more of a disembodied voice in my head, but now I know it's really an art school monster, haha! Mine says things like “you're not doing enough,” “what's the point?” and “nobody else is going to care about this.” What is it about art school that creates these monsters?


  10. Oh, my 'you're not doing enough' monster is a different monster from Bernard, my Art School Monster. I don't know what the Not Doing Enough monster is called yet but I think it might be a girl monster. Snigger – really it's a wonder there's any room in my head for me!

    I think art school encourages monsters because we're put in a position where our work is criticised and it's very easy to internalise that a little bit too much. 8 years after graduating, I STILL occasionally hear the disapproving voice of my tutor in my head and it's taken me a long time to get rid of the constant mantra, 'What would Nat think?'


  11. Oh Rebecca, what an AWFUL thing for her to say to you. People often don't realise the damage such thoughtless comments can do. Or they do realise and do it on purpose. :(

    I do hope you can find the courage to pick up your drawing tools again despite that particularly nasty monster.


  12. I, too, have an internal monster (at least one, maybe more). It didn’t come from art school, but it must be a close relative of yours.

    Like yours, my internal monster is a snob. It tells me that unless I am perfect, no one will like me. Unless I live in a prestigious area, dress fashionably, drive a cool car, etc., etc., I might just as well crawl into a cave because I’ll never amount to anything.

    It says that my art is not “serious”. That because I didn’t go to art school or get an art degree that I’ll never become a “real” artist.

    Each time I get the opportunity to do something I would truly love to do, my internal monster tries to sabotage me. It tells me that it is futile for me to put my time and effort into the project because it will never be successful. Over and over this monster has convinced me to abandon projects before they could be completed, preventing me from ever knowing if they would have been successful. Over and over, I have succumbed to the fear this monster has fostered in my psyche.

    With all respect to Havi, I think that it is a mistake to try to pacify the monster. The more you feed it and nurture it, the more powerful it becomes.

    Just as St. George slew the dragon, so it is time for us to slay our internal monsters. We must do this before they take over our lives.


  13. I think there's a difference between understanding your monster and attempting to pacify it, Nancy. We definitely shouldn't give in to our monsters but if we know what they're about, then perhaps we can finally have more power over them.

    But if monster slaying is what you need right now, then I'll be happy to help you strap on your armour. :)


  14. Kirsty: I definitely have an Art School Monster! I've been writing about this quite a bit on my blog (and I'm not done yet) as I crawl out of a dark headspace where I cannot make art. I didn't have a name for it. For me, a “Pleaser” Personality plus critical art professors were not a good combination. A big help has been Martha Beck's book “Four Day Win,” which is about weight loss, but is having unintended but very good consequences in other parts of my life. (Last year I destroyed all my old grad school art/sketchbooks and gave up a project I'd been working on for years.) I still need to spring-clean some bad habits out of my head. I'm a work-in-progress.
    Great post.


  15. That sounds like an interesting book, Lisa, thanks for the recommendation.

    Wow, destroying your old sketchbooks sounds cathartic! I'm very attached to mine – I have a terrible memory, so I tend to hold onto records of my life with a slight air of desperation. But it sounds like it was very freeing for you, which is great.

    Incidentally, one of my daily affirmations is, “My life is a fascinating work in progress”, so I could relate to that idea too.


  16. I totally know this monster. When I went to art school — the 1960s — I became so alienated from not art but the art scene that I left feeling I would never paint again. And guess what: I never did. I became a writer instead.


  17. Kirsty – I, too, used to hang onto things with desperation. Suddenly, I just don't care anymore. I used to wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking: OMG what if we had a fire and all my journaling pieces burned?! What about [insert other sentimental object]??!! Now I'm totally clearing out my possessions. It's like a Spring Cleaning of my life. I also notice a lot of other places online are posting short articles on topics covered in Martha Beck's book, but she has detailed exercises and examples/stories to go along with them. It is, indeed, very freeing. But maybe not for everyone!


  18. I have the art school monster too! From hearing that 'stitching fabric is NOT painting,' 'Can't you just paint a tent black?' (When I wanted to make a felt dome to sit in), to'your work makes my skin crawl,' the monsters have been put in my mind, I didn't create them. I have made endless work with rust, pins (Yes!), scraps of fabric, stitched fabric, torn fabric (yum) and I have struggled so hard to A)Believe it is valid, and B)Get it exhibited.
    I think we textile artists are heroes. Or mad.
    Good to hear that I'm not the only one, this is a brilliant post, thank-you. :)


  19. Kirsty great post as usual, I read all the newer ones above before I came to this, you are indeed a font of wisdom… I was wondering what guys monster's say to them? Mostly mine says you waited too long, you started too late, your ideas are boring and unispired/cliched so no one will want o see your work. Also she says make simple things, smaller things, you are grandiose… self inflated. Hmm. I never thought of talking softly to her, I tried to ignore her mostly, shut the door. And she dissapproves wholeheartedly of anything I think is fun!


  20. It's interesting to read about the monsters originating from (or fueled by) art school. One of my biggest monsters comes from there too. It has the craggy old face of a tutor who took us for typography at design school, years ago. It repeats (ad nauseum) the kinds of things I got on my reports, like, “Too messy. Needs to keep her artwork clean,” “Lacks professional attitude,” and most-repeated, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” The worst was “Shows no aptitude in this subject.” That was for photography, which I loved. It's taken me till now to timidly start taking photos again, and thank god for computers, which have saved me from a life of constant handwashing! Thanks for the post – I am happy to learn that everyone else is harassed by their monsters too.


  21. I guess your tutor wasn't a fan of the more experimental forms of photography, where being messy can be an advantage, not a disadvantage. Of course we all need to learn techniques and there's a point where we are a bit rubbish but a good teacher helps their students to get past that point. I'm glad you've started photography again, Carla – technique can be taught but I believe that deep love for an artform comes from inside.


  22. To be clear, I have never advocated pacifying monsters. In fact, I wrote an entire post called don't give your monster cookies.

    What I actually talk about is: the usefulness of having a conscious relationship with your stuff, of knowing what it's saying and why, so you don't have to be impressed by monsters. And I talk about what happens when we find creative, intelligent ways to navigate their world, without perpetrating violence towards ourselves.


  23. Oh hello ! Art school monster sounds so familiar except mine is called “you never went to art school monster” and he is sooo good at convincing me to stay in my “don't even try to go there” inferiority complex that I take his protective words for granted…silly huh ?


  24. To hell with your “art school” monster I say! Look – when Marcel Duchamp wrote R Mutt on a urinal and put it in some dada show, almost any medium can be considered art.

    If you have talent, bust ass, and are passionate about your art, it doesn't matter what the medium is. For better or for worse, art is subjective.


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