On figuring out which way is up 

Sometimes the best thing you can do is just surrender and float

May 28, 2023

The following text was originally published as part my newsletter “Field Notes on Flourishing” which was on Substack from 2022-2023. Embedded images and links have been removed.

Subscribe to receive a ~quarterly newsletter directly to your inbox

I used to have a recurring dream where I was submerged in water, with shades of blue as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t see the bottom, nor could I tell which direction was up. I kept swimming in circles and doing summersaults, but as I moved towards the flashes of light reflecting around me, I never reached the surface. Sometimes I would wake up, panicked and sweaty. Other times, I stayed there, floating in this dream water, able to just surrender and admire the beautiful colors and dappled light rippling all around me.

A memory of this dream came to me recently. It’s been a while since my subconscious has taken me to this place, but as I think of the feeling, it’s not dissimilar to how I’ve been feeling lately. Since wrapping up my MFA earlier this year, I’ve been in rest and reintegration mode. I worked for a bit in June, but otherwise took July and most of August off (in true Scandi fashion). But as I’ve given myself time to regroup, I’ve noticed feelings of fear and uncertainty rising up in me. I’ve often felt like my dream self, disoriented and unsure of which way is up. As much as possible, I’ve tried to surrender, let go of fear, and admire the beauty of the current moment instead of trying to change it. But I would be lying if I said I haven’t also succumbed to feelings of panic and the desire to be in another place. 

Part of the reason I went back to school was because I was having trouble grappling with what it meant to be a contemporary working artist in tech-centric, late capitalism. I could see a path extending out before me and it frightened me: I felt I was slowly losing myself and moving further from my soul purpose. Though I was having “success” and getting to work on “cool projects”, there was also something nagging at me, whispering: there are other ways of being and doing. I wondered if, perhaps, I was in some ways missing the point.

I realized I wasn’t sure how to balance making a living from my art while still protecting myself from the commodification of my art and practice (often self-inflicted) for the sake of external recognition and financial sustenance. I felt I was stuck in a cycle of neglecting to protect my own spiritual art practice in order to secure my financial and professional stability—and I wasn’t sure of another way to go about it without a complete overhaul. So I stepped off the path and decided to take two years working on an MFA during which I could learn and grow as an artist on my own terms, experiment, play, work on personal projects, and temporarily take my focus off of my commercial artwork as my primary concern (this was a scary decision).

Two years later, I’m finding my way back to a path that feels right for me—and it’s not the same one I was on before. I knew back then that I would have different feelings and priorities after this experience, but I didn’t realize just how much would be called into question for me. I’ve also (mostly) accepted that being an artist and surviving in the world today is not easy or clear-cut. It’s a delicate juggle with a lot of big considerations at play: How do I make work I feel good about while also making sure I can put food on the table? Is it possible to work on commercial projects that are basically promoting consumerism without feeling like an unethical “sellout”? Is it possible to use social media in a way that actually feels good? How can one make a living off of their art without sucking all the joy and freedom out of it?

Since you last heard from me, I have been integrating a lot of play into my art practice, working with new materials and methods, and enjoying experimentation. I’ve moved into an amazing new studio with lots of plants and space to work (I’ll share photos next time once I’m more settled). I’ve started working with color again and it feels liberating and explosive in the best way after almost two years of working mainly in black and white.

I have been so fortunate to have doors opening for me in the form of exhibitions and other exciting opportunities that challenge me and help me to expand (more on this further down!) and envision a future wherein I don’t have to depend 100% on commercial work for a living (but the question of sustainability in my artist career is still a nebulous one and is not helped by the threat of AI sabotaging the future of creative work or the looming of recession resulting in a lot of creative projects drying up—sigh).

The current antidote for me is to keep minding my feet, to plant seeds where I am right now, and not to fixate on how the path looks further on down (this is almost always the antidote, I realize). I am practicing relishing and appreciating this exact stage of my life, in all its uncertainty, knowing full well that it will not always be this way. As a matter of fact, I know that one day in the not-too-distant future I’ll look back on this time in my life when I felt I was floating in a sea-blue abyss of uncertainty and confusion, and it will feel so incredibly different from that new reality that it may as well have been a dream.

I have some exhibitions coming up:

  • Lugares, New York Latin American Art Triennial / PTM Contemporary, (Governor’s Island) New York, NY / September 2-30, Opening Reception: September 2nd from 2-5 p.m.
  • A Home is a Portal, Östberga Kulturhus, Stockholm, Sweden / October 10- 21, Opening Reception TBA

And a few more I’ll be announcing soon.

Read next blog entry
©2021–2024 Ludi Leiva