Steph Barnett is an artist from Gisborne, Aotearoa. For the final 100 days of her twenties, she’s embarked on a mission to create each day and live off her work. Womenclan caught up with her for a kōrero on Day 59.
Photos: Ellen Taylor
Tell us about the beginnings of your 100 Day Project, was it something you’d thought about for a while?
In a way, it was. I resigned from my job to look after my mental health a few months back. I was working with youth who’ve experienced trauma and there were a lot of things that made the job pretty stressful. I've always had a humanitarian interest, and I care a lot about social issues. So working with youth and teaching, that’s the area I ended up in. But I got totally burnt out.
I remember feeling like I wanted to be somewhere else, but I didn’t know where that place was. And if I could articulate what the goal was I could get there, but it was frustrating because I could feel it, but couldn’t see it. There’s a book I read called ‘Untamed’ (Glennon Doyle), and the author describes this feeling of being caged. I remember reading that and feeling like she was articulating something I’d felt for a long time. It was feeling that I knew there was this potential within me, like an itch that hadn't been scratched.
What did you do with that feeling, how did you figure out what to do next?
I knew that creativity was always important for me, but it wasn’t until I’d crashed that I realised it fully. During lockdown earlier this year, I was creating every day. I was sharing on social media and people were asking to buy my work. It was at that point that I sort of thought, “wow, I actually could be doing this more”. That was my turning point.
I got in touch with a life coach around then too. She helped me to identify and live by my core values. She suggested taking it slow, figuring out what would actually make me happy– what would make me feel the most alive.
I had done 100 Day projects before with friends, they’re a great way to force yourself to create even when you’re not necessarily inspired to create. I also like the aspect of seeing things grow, finding a theme and carrying it through. It almost changes the way your brain works when you’re creating every single day. I realised my 30th birthday was coming up too, and it all just kind of fell into place.
As a creative is it a scary leap to take, to commit to living solely off your work for 100 days?
I guess to an extent, yes, but I didn't have much to lose because I’d already quit my job! Luckily, I live in Gisborne too, where you’re not spending as much as you do in big cities. There’s a lot of ways that people live and socialise that aren’t orientated around money exchange. We live by the water, we surf, we share home grown veggies and value creativity; there are all these conditions that made it feel that bit easier to make a step in this direction.
Why is it so hard for adults to make time for creativity?
I guess it's because it’s seen as self-indulgent. As a kid, everything’s kind of taken care of, if you're lucky, and you're not worrying about what you’ll eat or cleaning up; you can just play. And creativity really is just play. That's why people find it tricky to create sometimes, to make the time. Unless you're doing it for somebody else or with a clear purpose, it can feel very self-indulgent and just not a priority.
What’s the pace been like for your 100 Day project, did it start small and grow from there?
It actually didn’t take too long before it got relatively hectic! The first week was pretty funny though. I’ve been trying to make $100 a day at least to pay for my living costs, and there was one day where it was maybe 4pm and I hadn’t hit that goal yet. A friend came through the door and mentioned that she’d be keen to buy something sometime. The poor girl probably just said it offhandedly but there I was pulling things off the wall and putting it in front of her until she got me over the line for the day.
What are you working on at the moment?
There’s a few things on the go, but one I’m working on is an animation for the Council to try and promote better practices around recycling. It’s given me the opportunity to think really carefully about who’s in our community. We've got a very bicultural community in Gizzy, and I get really disappointed if I ever see stuff put out that feels like it's not inclusive.. So it’s been cool to be involved with that. I've been working with a local artist Manaia Aupouri who’s doing some designs with me for this animation and will probably narrate it. It’s important to me to tell a story that will be fun and resonate with everyone.
What’s propelling you in your project, what gives you momentum to create?
The one thing I'm loving the most is probably the variation. There's just so many different projects and it's funny because people say often to me, ‘wow, you're doing so much’, because they see it on social media. But I’m actually only probably putting like, 40% of what I'm creating on social media. I can't believe this is my life sometimes though. I'm like, are you kidding? I get to create from my deck over the beach? It’s crazy.
It must feel good to be doing work that aligns with your values.
It does. I think that is one thing that's quite cool about this; that I can make sure that work aligns with my values. I can be true to myself and think about messages I’m putting out with my creative work. At the end of the day, all you have is your values. If you can stand by them, you'll feel okay. If you make a decision and it lines up with your values, it almost takes away a lot of unnecessary thinking, like, ’Oh, should I have done that?’
What was your relationship to creativity growing up?
I’ve always known there's this energy I feel in creative spaces like art galleries, theatre studios and live performances. Interestingly, I had my first ‘ah-ha’ moment of feeling life’s purpose when I was 15 at my first gig. I remember looking up at Kings of Leon thinking, ‘This is why I was put on earth’. It wasn’t about creating though, I felt alive being able to listen and appreciate the art of others. Looking back, I also reckon it was a lesson about the importance of supporting each other as creatives, and that when you create you’re in relationship with whoever experiences your work. Like how Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe held each other up in ‘Just Kids’. In a full circle kind of way I’ve been working for musicians and music festivals recently so now I feel like I’m honoring my 15-year-old self.
What are the messages in your art?
I think often it’s a playful look at things that people are afraid to talk about. That's why I create a lot of stuff around mental health. It’s art that is almost joyful because I'm kind of like, well, we’re all a bit fucked, that’s literally what being a human is. We are messy, imperfect creatures with highs and lows and shame and joy. Human shame is so normal but it also seems kind of unnecessary, so I try to promote self-acceptance, acceptance of each other and bravery about things like mental health. I want to make art about things that matter, because we can be quite lazy about having difficult but necessary conversations.. Especially in New Zealand.
As a colonized country there's a lot of horrific history that most people wouldn't know. I haven't delved into it with my art yet, but I’d like to. In Gisborne, for example, we’ve got these Cook monuments and street names of people who were responsible for a whole lot of brutality against Maori. I just think, man it’s so important to educate ourselves.
How can we do better in Aotearoa to encourage each other to talk about mental health?
I think seeing it as all of our responsibility is really important, and being brave to ask each other about our mental health. It’s quite common in my group of friends to say, ‘how’s your mental health?’ For some people that would be quite a confronting question. But just making it more of a casual conversation and checking in, I think it’s a good thing for everyone.
What comes after your 100 Day project?
I think I’ll take a bit of time off just to reflect on the project itself and what I jumped into. But I’d also love to do an exhibition or something to celebrate, maybe a collaboration with other artists. Friends and music too! What my life’s going to look like next year, I don’t know exactly, but there’s something I like that I heard from Rob Dial (The Mindset Mentor). He talks about headlights only having to illuminate a couple of meters. He says as long as you're going in roughly the right direction, you'll see the signs as they come up.
Find Steph: stephmarybarnett.com and @stephmarybarnett
Enjoyed reading? Read more stories from wāhine in Aotearoa in Womenclan magazine, available 2021 here.