You were a graphic designer/ illustrator for years. What led you to take the leap into painting full-time 1o years ago?
The industry had eventually locked me into this tight, mechanical way of working. I was told, ‘Make this colour stronger, move that over 5mm, that’s got to be shinier, that’s got to be bluer’. It had become soulless, after 20 years in the business. My creativity had been knocked out of me and I didn’t even know what kind of art I liked anymore. I knew in my soul that I had to unlearn. I couldn’t get to my raw creativity unless I pushed my boundaries out. I had to get rid of the rules, even though the industry had been really good to me for many years.
How did your reclaim your creativity?
I did everything the opposite. I used to work sitting down, so instead, I stood up. I was used to using little brushes, so I got rid of those and got big ones. I was used to working on a small area so I got a big, big canvas – that was so uncomfortable for me! After that, the very first painting I did was one of the best I’ve ever done, because I had no preconceived ideas. I knew intuitively I couldn’t seek anyone else’s guidance, that I had to paint until I knew I could put work on the wall and say, this is who I now am.
I didn’t show my partner or my friends. I didn’t look for validation because I knew it had to come from me. When I decided that I liked what I was doing, I had an exhibition. I put the work on the wall and I stood outside. It was like taking my clothes off in front of a room full of people, and that was partly why I couldn’t be there – I was really vulnerable. I didn’t want to hear what anyone had to say, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. And then people started coming up and saying, ‘Hey I love your work.’ And because I had decided I liked what I was doing – I didn’t need other people’s validation although it was nice – I decided maybe I can do this. Naturally, gradually, the other illustration work fell away.
Why did you decide to sell your own work, inside of going through galleries?
I have been in many galleries and in the early days I was doing really, really well with sell-out shows. But I took myself out of that system, to a degree, because they take so much of a commission [up to 50%] and don’t necessarily promote you. Sometimes, I heard what they were saying about my work and it wasn’t correct. Then when it was sold, my work would go out into the ether. The gallery keeps you from your audience, otherwise they don’t have a business, which, although I understand why, meant there was no connection between myself and the viewer. I had to take out the middle-man out because my work is about the heart, and about connection. I realised I didn’t know who my viewer was, so I decided to set up a studio gallery where I could meet my audience, and then I didn’t have to worry about paying commissions.
Your paintings are often seen as very feminine, and described as whimsical. Do they have a narrative? What do they mean to you?
There is a perception that they are feminine, which makes sense as I come from the feminine perspective, however at least half of my customers are men, and not necessarily purchasing for their other female half, either. If I have to categorise my paintings, I would describe them as visual narratives. What makes art art, is that I’ve got my story or perspective, but someone else sees something different, which is brilliant. I love hearing about what people see. I don’t tend to attach a story to my work because I want it to be open for the viewer. If I tell them something, it stops their own interpretation. I want people to see elements of my story that they share, and that’s when it becomes a connection.
Your customers often ask you about how they can discover or reclaim their creativity. What do you share with them?
It helps if you know what you want to do, or at least if you know what your passion is. If you know what it is, you’ve got a really good place to start. From there, follow your guidance. You can start simply, today. Maybe you can go to a stationer, get a beautiful blank book and a gorgeous pen and just start playing around. You don’t have to create masterpieces. Find out what you like by going through magazines, ripping out colours and images, and themes. The process is about going inside yourself to see who you are before you can start to recreate who you are.
It’s a cliche but it really is about the journey, not the destination, because it’s like travel, once you get to a place, it just opens up more opportunities, inspiration and ideas. And keep your work private: what you make is not up for judgement or discussion. You don’t need anyone else’s opinions or judgements.
What do you say to people who want to make the leap into a professional creative life?
Listen to yourself. When you feel like you can’t walk into that office door anymore, because it’s somehow stripping you down, when you know you just can’t do it anymore and get a sinking feeling when you have to go there…That’s a big marker to leave. The desires we have in us are what should guide us. It doesn’t take a lot of step into it. I tell this to people who come into the gallery who have unfulfilled dreams: it’s just about starting. You can start today. It doesn’t mean you need to make a really, really big move.
We’ve come to learn that working really, really hard means you’re a worthwhile person but I am of the opinion we should work smarter, not harder.
Changing the work-hard paradigm
I guess my whole artistic process has become anti-establishment. I don’t see myself as a rebel but now that I’m telling my story, I can see that I have been. We’ve come to learn that working really, really hard means you’re a worthwhile person but I am of the opinion we should work smarter, not harder. I think we’re moving through this whole paradigm of work, work, work. Nine-to-five hours are so hard on people, they’re exhausting. I hope we’re moving through that because it’s soul-destroying. I don’t think life’s meant to be hard – I think it’s meant to be enjoyable. You get to the end of your life and think, ‘Man that was hard.’ What is at the top? Are you at the top when you’re 60? When you’re tired? You’re so busy trying to get to the top, but for what? You get there, you fall off.
What does your average ‘work day’ look like?
Most days in summer I start with a walk and a swim, which helps with mental clarity. Some days I am lacking inspiration so I don’t push it, unless I have a deadline and no choice. I believe in tuning in and working with energy: I work better in the mornings – in the afternoons I would rather do something else.
I know when I’m on fire and I use that energy. I have found that I can get a lot of done in a short space of time, if I know when to hook in. I strive for balance.
If you don’t ‘work hard’, where does money come from?
Sure, I have a lot of times that money’s tight but I’ve always managed to pay the bills through 12 years of being a solo parent. I’d like to say it’s easy and I think essentially it is, but we’ve been brought up to believe it’s not. I still sometimes get tripped up and fall down in the tougher months, but never for long. I’ve learnt to trust that it will work out. If we follow our heart’s desire and inner joy, then the dollar will come and in the meantime, our time has been spent in fulfilment, freedom, creation and autonomy. What’s more beautiful than that?
Ingrid Berzins is an internationally renowned artist who works and lives on Waiheke Island. See her art here