Alex Raper ’25, a visual arts and psychology double major, works on a self portrait in the Millard Art Center at the College of the Holy Cross. Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross
Alex Raper ’25 dove straight into her Weiss Summer Research with a complex self-portrait. The sketch, which included a serpent wrapped around the top of her head, was one she described as mentally heavy and frustrating. Within a week, she felt burnt out from the weight of the artwork, so she set it aside.
But Raper didn’t quit — she reset.
In that moment, the visual arts and psychology double major needed something she could rely on to maintain her artistic motivation. She picked up her charcoals and returned to what she knew, using them to create a still life piece featuring a teapot.
“You can switch from an idea, put something to the side, pursue something else, but you can’t completely quit,” Raper said. “It’s the worst thing you can do. You’ll never make another piece of art again and it can put enormous pressure on restarting after a long period of time.”
Recognizing the strong temptation to stop creating when the world becomes overwhelming — and how that can be detrimental to an artist’s mental health — Raper is dedicating her summer research project, “On Your Own: Maintaining Creative Motivation Post Graduation,” to the topic. In this, she is researching ways for those, including herself, to keep motivated creating art when there is no external deadline, such as that for an exhibition submission, a class assignment or a client.
“I started thinking about what I could do to benefit myself and others. When you leave school, where do you find motivation to create art?” she said, adding that statistics show that most who graduate with an art degree don’t become professional artists or enter the field. Some stop making art altogether.
According to Leslie Schomp, senior lecturer in visual arts, Raper’s approach to her research shows that she recognizes that there are more struggles for artists other than a lack of motivation.
“The world can be a distraction,” Schomp said. “By taking this into consideration, Alex has been able to approach her project in an interdisciplinary way.”
With a keen interest in art and psychology, Raper chose to also explore the connection of her art to her life as a person living with ADHD.
“A lot of art is very psychologically centered around motivation and motivation is incredibly ingrained into psychology,” she said, adding that having a creative outlet can boost a person’s mental health, particularly for visual learners like herself.
Raper said her ADHD is heavily involved in the art she creates: “My diagnosis opened the door for me. I had a better understanding of how my brain works. It just makes sense for me to incorporate that into this research and really look at how it influences how I work and make art.”
When starting her research, Raper started by asking herself a question: How can young artists, who are heavily motivated by academic assignments and traditional markers of achievement, continue to create when there is no longer a specific project or due date?
Through interviews, museum visits, daily prompts, various materials and different media, include books ranging from “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Tom Orland to “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds, Raper is compiling a list of methods for maintaining motivation in creative endeavors.
Instead of avoiding subjects she finds challenging or those that fail to provide her with the level of excitement she’s seeking, Raper has been choosing challenging pieces that spark curiosity and keeping her materials, such as watercolors and charcoal, familiar. If that doesn’t work, she pairs familiar subjects with unfamiliar materials. And she’s documenting her progress.
“By compiling this information from these resources to use in my own art and posting them in daily reflections on Instagram, I can keep them accessible to myself and to people when they are feeling overwhelmed,” Raper said.
“You don’t need to make something incredible. You just need to make something. You never know, it just might turn out to be the best thing you’ll ever make. If you didn’t start, you would never find out,” she said.
Schomp added that artists should also remember to give themselves and their work a break: “Returning to something, like Alex’s teapot, allows the brain to take a break. It invites the artist to revisit something and make revisions. The end result might not be exactly as the original concept but incorporate similar characteristics to make the piece stronger.”
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