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In Praise of Making Things No One Will Ever See

I have a long list of things I’m unlearning. I think of this “unlearning” as one of the great tasks of adulthood. When we inspect the ideas we absorbed in our youth and then intentionally decide which ones we want to keep and which to let disintegrate, it’s an act of maturity and growth. Do I still agree with this perspective? Is it true and good?

One of the things I’m unlearning is the idea that everything I do or experience must be useful. I’m intentionally taking action in opposition of this, particularly in the area of creativity.

I was in graduate school when my first child was born. Having that creative outlet while navigating my new life as a mother and soon after experiencing divorce and single motherhood was so crucial to my survival in that season. When my son was little, I would often put him to bed and then do informal printmaking at my dining room table, then spread the prints all over the living room so they could dry during the night. I even made a music video around that time, just because it was fun and I had an idea, not because I had an agenda. 

Years after I graduated, I was working full time with a job title of “Creative Director” but all that creativity happened between screens and not fingers. Once I realized how much I missed the physical act of creating and making, I still struggled to make space and time for it, especially because it felt wasteful to use art supplies if it was “just for fun.” I was believing the lie that creativity was only valuable if the end result was shared with an audience.

Lately, I have been intentional to try to reclaim my own creativity and give myself permission to make things simply because the making brings me pleasure. Although I believe there is great benefit in the mental relaxation of creativity, I’m not making things because it will make me a better mother, wife, friend, business owner. 

Andy Goldsworthy is an excellent example of an artist who seems to embrace the act of creating without concern for longevity or functionality. Much of his art feels like a temporary mural or installation from found objects like leaves and stones.

It’s this type of creativity I’m interested in right now, except even more private than that of a professional artist who has photographs of his ephemeral art.

I’m interested in delight. In pleasure. I want to remind myself of the value of creativity for its own sake. I want to make time for it as a mindfulness practice, as prayer. I want to unlearn the expectation that everything should be useful. I don’t want to measure everything in my life by its function. I want to play with crayons and markers and get glue on my fingers. I want to make things because the act of making is full of delight, not because in the end, I’ll have a product. 

Not all creativity has to result in “content” to be shared in public for people to consume. You don’t have to be a professional or aiming to build a career for making art to be worth it. Creativity does not have to be a commodity. This is really a reminder to myself to play with the fancy markers and sit and color with crayons even if my kids are not around. Just because I find it fun. 

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  1. Suse Fishburne

    Such an interesting post, thank you. I find it very challenging to create things and not share them in some way, but it’s something I need to do more often in order to keep my creative journey authentic and playful.

    When we create for no one but ourselves, the process is inevitably more free and it’s in that more open-handed posture that happy accidents can occur and real creativity can flourish.

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Suse, I appreciate your insightful response. Yes, yes, yes.

      • Bonnie Ramsey

        I have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. I spend a lot of time in my recliner with my glitter pens, markers and water color pens coloring in adult coloring books. No one will ever look at these, but they provide me with quiet creativity and relaxation. Go forth and create!

  2. Kay

    I LOVED this article! I am not artistic at all. I have been participating in 30 Days of Lists for years. It’s a list making challenge but many people use the challenge to express their creativity and make beautiful pages and books. I love this challenge but have never felt I could do something like the others were doing. I guess I feel intimidated. Anyway, I’m doing the challenge right now and again thought maybe I should drop out. My lists are never ” good” enough. This is Ridiculous I know but how I feel. After reading your post today I thought I don’t have to feel that way. Yes I can try to post something fancy one day but for now I can make my own ” creative” list/ book and be happy and proud even if no one else ever sees it. I was feeling so much pressure that I lost my confidence to even try to be creative in my own way. Thank you!! By the way, the 30 Day Lists challenge does tell us to do what we want: you can do lists digitally, make books, write on scraps of paper etc. They are fine with that. It was me trying to conform and be like everyone else that held me back.

    • Guest

      Thank you so much for sharing about this! I have also always viewed myself as “not artistic” but have been challenged to broaden my view of an artist. Had never heard of 30 Day Lists challenge but have just signed up!

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Kay, so lovely to hear that this encouraged you to release pressure on yourself and be creative in your own way on your own time.

  3. Ronda

    Every word of this spoke to my heart. I too used to work in a creative field and got out of it about 9 years ago and it has been so hard for me to get in the mindset that making the time and the resources to make just for me and not to share or make a class from it (former art teacher, hard habit to break) is good for my soul and my overall attitude to life. Going to reread this before this weekend as I already blocked off time on my calendar to just paint with no agenda. Thank you!

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Ronda, thank you for taking the time to comment and share this! So beautiful.

  4. KC

    My challenge is always the making of things that will most likely have to be thrown away – it feels environmentally wasteful somehow, to make something that won’t serve a future “purpose” and that will go into the trash when the art supplies are “new” materials (rather than something that would be headed to the trash anyway) – and I also have a hard time throwing away where something of me has gone into them successfully, and yet one can’t keep it all (unless there’s a lot of storage space, I guess). Any ideas?

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      KC, I feel you. Completely. I definitely still struggle with this with some mediums, but if it’s just markers, watercolor, or crayons, it feels like less is wasted per creative session. I will often use a piece of paper and color/draw all over one side and then, use the back for a grocery list. So there’s that kind of obvious re-using. The other way I think about it is like this: when my kids are making art and it’s not “useful” is it still valuable and worthy of that piece of paper? Yes. Emphatically. Can I extend the same generosity to myself? Harder, but yes. The other way I reframe it is that sitting at home making a little art uses fewer resources than driving somewhere (gas) or any other activity that often involves other kinds of waste.

      • KC

        Thank you! That is true, re: other peoples’ art/kid art, and a brilliant way of reframing it, although yes, generosity to oneself in certain arenas is often trickier. I’ve used the “cheaper per hour than going to a movie” theory (I don’t actually go to movies in general, but it is a nice ballpark figure?) for some forms of not-actually-totally-free entertainment, occasionally even with success (but see also: generosity to self: challenging sometimes).

        I’d like to get more squarely into a mindset where, while what I make *can* be given away/useful, it doesn’t *have to* be in order to pay its way somehow. (and also where I am not buying supplies mainly for the fun of buying supplies, a perplexing opposite-end-of-the-spectrum temptation)

  5. Corrie

    Thank you for this. I am a newish mom, who is working from home in a newish position (Marketing Coordinator).

    Making pretty planners is–for this version of me–a sacred act, akin to self-care. Each week, I get to create something beautiful, and look at it all week! It’s magical, even if it’s just for me.

  6. Joe

    I have blogged, and written on Twitter and Facebook and whatnot, but a month or two ago I got fed up with the toxicity of social media and logged out of all of it (inspired, actually, by Tsh’s report on her sabbatical). Without that outlet for writing, I finally, after a lifetime of intentions, started journaling. I was surprised to find that it largely scratches the same itch, and even in different (often better) ways.

  7. Ashlee Cowles

    I really needed to read this today — thank you! One thing I often hear from the readers in my community for writer and artist mamas is that creativity–whether anyone will ever see the results or not–is one of those life-giving pursuits that reminds us of who we are beyond our social roles like “wife, “mother,” or “insert career.” To be human is to be a creative being gifted with an imagination! And doing little creative acts that have “no purpose” remind us of this truth.

  8. Kara Monroe

    I’ve been thinking about what radical self care really looks like a lot lately and what it means to love myself most. Every word of this spoke to that. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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