Twelve Questions with Allison Schorr
Allison Schorr is a mixed media artist who makes unique and vibrant sacred objects, among them what she calls prayer or God boxes: "the idea is that when you're having a challenging time you 'give it to God.' By writing it down and putting it in the box you surrender control over those things you can't control."
1. What did artisthood look like to you as a child? Did you have creatives in your family or your family’s close circle of friends, or did you strike out in a new direction from your family culture?
I was always creative. I loved any craft kit I could get my hands on. My mother always had some new creative thing she was trying. She would paint flowers on glass jars, decorated the house in adventurous ways. I remember when we had parrots in the early 1980s she painted a room like the jungle and built palm trees out of felt and burlap.
My step-dad was a very straight-laced business man. I never really knew what he did, just that it was very much not artistic.
My Grandfather was kind of high up in the Canadian Air Force but I remember him as being more of an artist. He tied flies (for fly fishing) and oil painted and had other art supplies around. I would spend summers with my grandparents at their house in Ontario most years and they would always ask me to make some art for them. I would set up a still life and use different supplies, but mostly soft pastels. They usually would frame what I did and hang it.
Music was also a huge thing in my family. My mother loved music but was very tone deaf. My sister and brother ended up becoming musicians. My sister was more of a geek and has a regular job and is a bass player in a rock band as a side thing. My brother got a degree in Architecture, owned a vintage clothing store and was a drummer in some relatively well-know Austin bands. I have a huge passion for music but never learned to play any instruments.
2. Is there a formative image or event around creative calling for you? What made you want to pursue your artistic field? And was there anything in particular that gave you the courage to take that first step?
I think art first started feeling like my home when I was in junior high. I was very shy and moved a lot because my step-dad changed jobs a lot. I had very few friends. Art class was the only place I felt comfortable. My mother in addition to being very creative was also an alcoholic and verbally abusive.
When I got to high school my love of art became even more comforting. I hated all of my classes except for art. For my first 2 years of high school my art teacher often let me know that she thought I should pursue art. I had a different art teacher for my senior year. She picked 4 students to design and paint murals in the stairwells at school to celebrate our school’s 25 year anniversary. I chose to commemorate music in our culture. I painted the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine in a sea of green with dozens of bubbles in the sea with different album covers and band logos. I recruited a group of friends to help and we spent most evenings at school painting for months. I knew then that I wanted to study art in college. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
I had a lot of trouble graduating high school because of bad grades but my step-dad was surprisingly supportive of trying to get me into a good art school. I know he was always wishing I would do something more practical though.
3. What are some creative works of others that have made the greatest impact on you, stylistically or personally? Is there a work that makes you fall back in love with your craft or industry when you’re discouraged?
When I was in college I saw my first pieces of contemporary art. Sandy Skoglund did a series of installations that involved covering everything in a room with one food object. The most memorable ones for me were raisins, ground, beef, and cheese puffs. I remember feeling almost breathless with wonder at how interesting and weird it was. I fell in love with Claus Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. Pop art was the coolest, most inspiring thing I had ever seen.
I struggled a lot in college. Drawing classes were pretty boring and people in my painting studio classes were very into highly conceptual work or very representational work. I was finding old furniture, old mannequins, theater backdrops, anything weird that I could find and trying to turn it into art that expressed who I was but fit into the idea of what everyone else thought was art.
Looking back, I’m pretty impressed with my ingenuity. But I always felt like I wasn’t being understood. Then I took watercolor. I started painting frogs and flowers and people acted like I was finally doing what was the right art. I loved watercolor because of the way the color exploded on the paper. I still am on a constant quest to try new things, but I have so many voices in my head about what constitutes art. Decorative art is not real art is my main battle in my mind. I love making everyday objects into pieces of art.
Sometimes I wish I had never gone to art school. I wonder where my creativity would have gone had I not been given a bunch of other people’s teachings… So when I feel in a stuck creative spot and doubting if I can do what I want to do I hit Instagram. At the moment I love Ashley Longshore, Leif Erik Johansen, Christa Rijneveld, wolfbat (Dennis McNett)... I also follow a lot of pattern designers and curated sites that always inspire me.
4. Can you share a low point on your creative path and talk about how you dealt (or are dealing) with it? Or can you speak about a greatest fear that you grapple with?
From the time I graduated college in 1994 I have always done something creative job-wise. I’ve done picture framing, worked at Kinko’s learning every piece of equipment, painted children’s furniture, designed magazine pages for the health food industry, designed craft products… I quit doing structured full time art shortly after getting married in 2002. The jobs I had rarely made enough to support myself. I tried doing freelance design, designed wedding invitations, and painted a few murals. My husband was the primary breadwinner, so it’s always felt like art was a hobby.
I had my first child in 2007 and used my creativity on my kids. I threw amazing kids birthday parties, designed some cool Christmas cards, painted murals all over the house… I think I reached a low point a few years ago when I realized my kids were too big for splashy birthday parties and I was tired of making things that didn’t feel like they mattered.
I have struggled a lot with my identity as an artist. I have never felt like I fit in. I’ve tried almost every medium there is. I have so many opinions of other people running through my head all the time. It seemed like there was always talk in the art department at school about what constitutes “real” art. It shouldn’t be decorative, concept should drive your work… and then a lot of more subtle messages that run through my head while I’m making art. So there is all of that feeling like a low-point in a way. Like fighting back the constant critic is pretty exhausting.
I also worry almost daily that I might not be able to make a good living as an artist if I need to. I’m turning 50 next year and it feels like if I haven’t found financial stability with my art I never will.
5. Could you distill the most important thing you’ve learned about your craft or your identity as an artist into one sentence?
I’m capable of more than I know. I need to stop letting lack of confidence and a narrow definition of art get in the way of making things. I’ve been convinced lately that the weirdness that is me is not something I share too much but that apparently is my greatest asset.
6. Our childhood experiences shape us, the positive and the painful. Sometimes we have access to unusual resources, and sometimes loss, loneliness or lack can be a rich tool to move us forward. Are there any unusual circumstances, weird childhood habits, or difficult challenges that shaped the way you see or interact with the world? How might these things show up in your craft?
I have always had a fascination for things that are silly. I loved Steve Martin when he was on Saturday Night Live. Things that are so weird and silly that they make you a bit uncomfortable. There was so much tension in my home most of my life that those silly things must have brought some relief. The times I thought my mom was awesome were the times she was silly. My younger brother who passed away in 2013 was so incredibly silly in the best way. Silly runs in my blood. I try to put silly in my work when I can, but I tend to be concerned too much might cancel my work out as valid a lot of the time.
7. Talk about a failure or disappointment—can be related to your career or not—that led to greater success or sent you on a more authentic or whole-hearted path.
Failure and disappointment have generally derailed me for long periods of time. I can see looking back though that those failures have made me try new a new approach. I never truly give up, I just step back and lick my wounds and come out ready to try something new.
8. What does a good creative day look like for you? What gets you in flow?
I have to have multiple events and due dates on the calendar or else I feel lost. A good day involves my morning routine (morning pages, meditation, some kind of motivational podcast or a chapter of an audiobook, working out, eating breakfast) taking no more than 2 hours. I have a little meeting with myself about what needs to happen that day and then the rest of the week. There will be some computer time that will involve vendor research, prepping files for printing, image research… some good art making time would involve about an hour of watercolor, some inking and some finishing work on various projects. If I’m feeling kind of stuck or lost I’ll do some art journaling.
It’s really hard for me to get in any kind of groove before noon. I have 2 kids I homeschool so there are breaks to make sure they are being productive and I need to make meals and do general house stuff. On a good day I’m focused on each thing as I need to do it, get it done quickly and get back to the studio. The best way for me to get in my flow on these good focused days is to put on some loud music and have a clean workspace.
9. What has your experience with loneliness and creativity looked like? How do you find creative community?
When I’m in a great creative flow space and cranking out work, I don’t feel at all lonely. Sometimes I miss being part of a team at a more regular job because when you get stuck you can bounce ideas off other people. A few years ago when I was trying to get the motivation to get back to making art I met another homeschool mom who was also a working artist. She had just started a creative meet up at a local coffee shop every 2 weeks where we would get together to work on small projects and talk about what we wanted to do creatively and just general life stuff. It was just the 2 of us for months. Eventually more people started coming and we started a group called Indie Arts Alliance. We started it because we wanted a place to show our art, and to have other creatives to hang out with. We’ve grown A LOT in the past 2 or 3 years and have really cool unique events every month and are starting to get pretty well known locally. This group has fed my need for creative community more than anything else I have ever experienced.
10. What would be some things on your go-to resource list (ie. books, podcasts, online courses) that you would love to share with others? Any habits or spiritual practices that keep you on track or pull you up when you’re down?
So many books, depending on the situation. I’ve noticed my cycles have become more predictable over the past couple of years. I will have some kind of crisis, (someone will die, my marriage will go through a particularly hard patch, we move) the big hard life stuff happens. I will retreat from friends and go through a dark period of depression that grips me so hard I don’t know how I will survive, then I get consumed with finding a way out. This is when I start a hunt for the resources.
Some big ones have been The Fire Starter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. In my 20s Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch shifted how I saw everything. Sacred Contracts by Carolyn Myss did that too. I’ve read The Artist’s Way multiple times and have done a Sacred Circle a couple of times. That always helps me make art more of a daily habit.
The podcasts that always get me motivated and thinking are Don’t Keep Your Day Job with Cathy Heller, Creative Pep Talk with Andy J. Pizza (I love how wacky and himself he is… it always gets me to loosen up), and Secular Buddhism with Noah Rasheta.
I also will write down prayers or wishes I have for myself or other people and put them in my God Box, (one of the things I make) I know I can obsess about things and it distracts me so much that writing it down and “giving it to God” (or the universe, whatever you call it) helps remind me that I’m not in control of a lot of situations. There is a part of me that so confidently believes that there is some sort of universal intelligence, it just seems obvious and sometimes I can feel it, but there are lots of times when I think believing that is naive. I try to quiet my mind and just follow my gut and that usually gets me at least a little back on track.
So that long and brutal process of trying to dig my soul out of my heart when I’m in a deep depression can last several months most of the time. Then I start seeing signs of spring and I let myself start planning some time in the studio. I didn’t use to see my art-making as a spiritual practice because it was rarely a thing I did when I was feeling heavy or upset. I firmly believe the art that I’m making is like the sun to me. But I have a hard time doing it when I’m in hibernation. I can see how life is made up of cycles and my creativity and spirituality follow a similar cycle.
11. What does success as an artist mean to you?
To always be trying new things, and questioning what you do and why. I seem to equate success with being prolific and having people respond well to your work. There is also the big part of success that means I could support myself. It feels like a hobby if I’m not giving it my all and getting it out in the world.
12. If you could go back in time and speak to yourself at any age, what age would you choose and what would you say?
I think I would talk to the high school me. I would tell myself that life seems so fucked up. That I don’t need to use food and boys to try to feel some sense of safety. This thing that you do and feel drawn to isn’t just default. It’s your way out. It’s okay to just make things that are cool or pretty. Find the sunshine where you can. Make a lot of it. Explore all you like and make as much as you can. Your ideas are worthwhile.
You can find Allison on instagram @ogoodgravy