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How do U of T student artists hone their craft?

Four creatives on balancing school, overcoming fear of failure, lessons learned in 2020
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GLADYS LOU/THE VARSITY
GLADYS LOU/THE VARSITY

What keeps us from creating art? Some people may genuinely be disinterested in creating; however, there are still hurdles to overcome for those who want to create but still don’t. 

Some fall under the pressure of time, while others may fear judgment from peers. Consequently, creating art serves us an irony: although creating art intends to be freeing through personal expression, it can be constraining due to the stresses it brings. 

This is especially true in an environment like U of T, where academic responsibilities must be carefully juggled with any other activities. How, then, can we successfully be student artists?

Although being an artist at an academically inclined campus is difficult, it is possible. I’ve come across some talented people who are very passionate about creating, even during the school year. 

To better understand how U of T students can create despite student stresses, The Varsity interviewed Erich Mayerhofer, Karooni Ahmed, Amy Lee, and Imaan Rajan, who each provided personal insight about how they carry out their creative processes while being students.

The creators

Aside from being an articulate film student in class, Mayerhofer is a budding screenwriter with a passion for art films. He can be found on Twitter @erichwashere, where he shares his personal updates and opinions on the film world.

Ahmed is a graphic artist with a growing social media following on his Instagram account, @madqaps. He currently shares work that pays homage to pop culture’s best album covers and will soon be releasing prints of his work. 

Lee is a dancer who has been involved with many distinguished hip-hop and modern dance studios in Seoul and Toronto since she was in her early teens. She frequently posts videos of her own choreography and collaborations with other dancers on her Instagram account, @aims_lee. 

Rajan, who can be found on her Instagram account, @imaanrajan, is the creator and editor-in-chief of the online multimedia collective RANI Creative, which serves and represents underrepresented artists. She also enjoys exploring many artistic media including singing, poetry, and photography.

The Varsity: How do you balance your schoolwork and art?

Erich Mayerhofer: I like to treat my personal work as kind of a break from schoolwork. Often, I find myself getting mentally exhausted from all of the material in university, and it helps me to just reroute my thinking elsewhere for a bit. To be honest, I do some of my best thinking and writing when I should be doing something else.

Karooni Ahmed: Honestly, it’s just about how badly you want it. I make the time for it by cutting out most distractions. I cut out video games, watching Netflix, and used that time to paint. It’s also about passion. 

Drawing has become a part of my daily routine, and I feel restless without it. I’d have the same feeling someone else would have if they didn’t watch an episode of their favorite show. It’s therapeutic for me; in fact, it helps me deal with the stress a student typically goes through in university.

Amy Lee: It’s always difficult to find time for my art when I have school. So, I try to go with the mindset: instead of finding time, make time. It’s also a source of stress relief for me, so I kind of have to dance. Even if it’s just a quick freestyle.

Imaan Rajan: As a student with heavy ADHD and anxiety, incorporating artistic outlets into my week, in any form, is vital to my wellbeing. I am constantly restless and seeking new media to uncover. My favourites are photography, singing, and poetry. 

Because of this, my individual creative outlets do not follow a set plan. They come from emotions I am feeling or the threads of passion that I want to follow. I do my best to give time to my art during the school year, but I cannot go long without experimenting with artistic outlets. It is meditation and a release.

TV: How do you overcome the fear of failure when it comes to the reception of your art?

EM: Failure is honestly such a healthy tool for improvement, I think. Whenever I show people my writing, even technical writing not associated with screenwriting, I try to make note of everything they didn’t like. 

Sometimes it stings when something you personally enjoyed isn’t received that well, but ultimately, screenwriting is more about the audience than it is about the writer. I’ll admit it’s hard to get past failure, but without being too cliché it truly does make you better at what you do.

KA: You have to be your own biggest fan. Of course, not everyone will love your artwork; only if you see your artwork as a failure can it indeed be titled as a failure. You have to see every artwork you create as a stepping stone, take what you think applies to you from criticism, and evolve instead of dwelling on the past.  

AL: My art is my art. Of course, I have moments where I have my doubts. In those moments, I just remind myself that what I put out there is for me, and not for anyone else. If other people can relate or find it entertaining, great. If they don’t, then so be it. 

If I continuously fear the way people perceive me and my work, then I will never put anything out there. As long as I stay true to myself, people who like my work will support me and people who don’t like it will not. That’s how art has always been.

IR: We live in a digital age where artists are constantly being evaluated and forced to prove themselves. With an increasing dependence on the ‘likes’ from their digital audience, not getting the response one wants can shatter an artist and stunt their growth. 

I often find myself in this bind, only considering my art sufficient if it has received a certain number of likes, rather than how it individually touched someone. At some point, you have to have a conversation with yourself about why you’re creating something: is it for the reception of your audience or to feed your soul? 

It could be both, but the latter must be prioritized first. There must always be passion behind your creation.

TV: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about creating in 2020?

EM: A habit I already had, before everything 2020 brought, was keeping an idea in my head too long without acting on it. I found — and still find — myself picking apart ideas before they even reach the page. Some ideas that perhaps may have been good died before even getting the light of day just because of my own criticisms. 

A situation like lockdown only made that habit worse, but it also gave me reason to improve that aspect of myself. Nowadays if I have an idea, I try and get it on paper as soon as possible. That way, I can let it sit for a while, maybe come back to it, and ultimately judge it more objectively. I guess I’m trying to become less like my own biggest critic.

KA: I learned how time management and consistency play into creative potential. Harmony between the two can genuinely result in outstanding results.

AL: I am, at my very core, a dancer. So as much as I do enjoy creating, I also enjoy being a part of the projects of other creatives around me. 

One thing I’ve learned is that I should always be a student before being a teacher. My goal is to learn from all the beautiful and talented people around me so that I can continue to be inspired and grow as a creator myself.

IR: Surround yourself with other creatives. I catch myself comparing my art to the work of artists who end up on my feed. Because of social media, imposter syndrome is at its peak. I’ve learned to foster a community of the artists I admire and fellow creatives. 

In my first year of university, I created an online multimedia collective, RANI Creative, that serves and represents underrepresented artists — Rani means ‘queen’ in Hindi, paying tribute to my culture. This community has allowed me to develop my craft as a minoritized artist and leader.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.