• Michelle MacKinnon

knowing when to pause (and when to return)

I would like to take a moment to talk about the dreaded b-word with artists.

Break.

As in, taking-a-break.


When working in the arts, we can be incredibly bad at taking breaks, whether it is because a deadline is coming up, or because we feel guilty for not producing, or because we just don’t know what to make. A lot of people say to never stop making, just make, just keep on making, whatever you do please just do not stop, you’ll never go back, just fight through it, etc.


I would like to talk to y’all about a break I took where, even though I did not see its merit at the time, I am so thankful for it now.


From the time I started my BFA to the time I was in my MFA, I was always creating in some way or another. When I was in my MFA, it was go-go-go all the time. In a group of constant makers, I felt the pressure to be constantly making. At the time, I was working with portraiture, more specifically portraits of my family, but I didn’t really know why. I was doing what I knew that I was good at, and people were astonished by their real-ness, but they were not starting a conversation – just wow-ing. A little bit following my MFA, I had a quick conversation with someone, and for the sake of this story, names and exact words are not important, but someone who had thus far had a strong impact on me told me they couldn’t stand behind what I was making.


It hit me hard, and before I knew it, I had graduated my MFA and wasn’t making a thing. I started a retail job and was too exhausted at the end of every day to even think about jumping into making again. And if I could jump back in…what was I going to make? Self-doubt was at an all time high. I questioned why I made art, was I even any good beyond copying an image, felt guilty about it all, and perhaps the worst-of-all the questions was: when I could begin to entertain an idea, who would even care?



I spent over a year feeling this way about my practice and making nothing. It wasn’t until I moved to Newfoundland in 2016 that something started to spark back in me. My partner, Andrew Testa, an incredible thinker and maker, told me that now was the time – it was a better time than ever to start making again: a new place, a dedicated space and a new head space. Sometimes we all just need a little nudge, or in my case, a big push. I started by making what I knew, which was observational drawing. Little watercolours of things I found outside. They turned into sketches of ideas I had been having that I was too nervous to put on paper. I remembered, too, what a fellow artist in my MFA, (and more importantly now, a dear friend) Katie Marie Bruce, said to me once in a while: be soft with yourself. I continued the thought into being kind with myself, allowing myself to celebrate work that wasn’t intended, and giving/making myself time and space to create.


I started to ask myself: what about the human figure do I love – can I draw just that? I began to fragment the figure, drawing only the parts I remembered fondly of those I loved: an upper lip, a neck, an eyelid, knuckles, etc. I began drawing them, habitually spending dedicated time in the studio (aka the second bedroom or dining room in my house), and they continued to evolve to what I am working on now.



Taking breaks is more than okay and in some cases, incredibly necessary. Though I blamed them before, I thank that impactful person now. That break caused me to re-evaluate my practice, find what was important and start from scratch. I genuinely believe that I would not be where I am working today if it were not for that year of not making.

Now, amidst a nervous time in the world, I implore you: if you feel overwhelmed and need to make, make, but if you feel overwhelmed and need to take a break, take a break. Breaks are not forever. Breaks can mean making nothing, making something else, focusing on writing, focusing on thinking, focusing on family, focusing on friends, focusing on mental health, focusing on absolutely anything or perhaps nothing at all.


You’ll return. Be soft with yourself.

a reminder to be soft, a tattoo on Katie Marie Bruce