How Embracing The Art Life Kept Me Going In 2020

Curtis Matzke
6 min readOct 28, 2020

This past Christmas (about ten months ago, a time that feels like it could be six weeks ago), my brother gave me a copy of Room to Dream, the David Lynch (auto)biography written by himself and Kristine McKenna. The book, of which I am admittedly still making my way through the lengthy 550 pages (plus the nearly 25-page index), focuses primarily on Lynch’s devotion to “The Art Life,” growing up in rural America and discovering his place in the world. The story was also explored in the 2017 documentary about Lynch’s artwork and overall philosophy on life. At the time I started the book (and definitely back when I saw the film in 2017), I was unable to fully grasp the importance of Lynch’s message, despite finally embracing the self-descriptors of filmmaker and “artist” these past several years — the latter of which I still struggle with because of a healthy combination of bloviating pretension and festering self-doubt. When a global pandemic, social unrest, the threat of climate, fascism, and more coalesced into a perfect shit storm of what-the-fuckery that is the year 2020, however, I found that embracing “the art life” would be the thing that kept me grounded during such insanity and ultimately provide much-needed control and purpose in an uncontrollable world.

While under quarantine, I spent my time writing screenplays, writing non-fiction (such as this article), reading (including “The Art Life,” as well as Stephen King’s “On Writing,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Antkind,” and Patton Oswalt’s “Silver Screen Fiend”… I’m starting to think I have a type), watching films and television (too many to name here), editing films, cooking, painting, and even teaching myself a song on the piano (a feat I’m rather proud of as someone who possesses no musical talent). And yes, I’ve spent my fair share of watching trashy television and playing video games as well — like cinema itself, I still consider these as part of the art life, whether they are intended for mass appeal or not. None of these things came with a paycheck, but they helped divide my time between the unhealthy obsession and stress surrounding unemployment, navigating an industry that is forever changed, and the unfathomable despair for those who have lost their lives because of this virus.

During the height of quarantine (and a few times since), a friend of mine told me that, “amongst everyone, you seem to be the most suited for this.” Another recently said, “you’re like the only person I know who’s actually prospering during all of this.” Both sentiments felt simultaneously inaccurate and undeniably true, leaving me unsure whether to feel insulted or not. This has arguably been one of the best years for my career: a feature film I produced is getting distribution in December, I finished a new screenplay (and am well into several more), I received fiscal sponsorship for a feature documentary, and my short film somehow continued to play at virtual festivals. Hell, I was even nominated for a couple of local Emmys. I also felt like this year I’ve finally been talking to the right people about my work and that newfound support has helped me to thrive. It actually feels good…but man, is that a fucked up thing to say in 2020.

I believe my friends made their initial assessment based on the fact that I’ve been a freelance filmmaker for nearly a decade and therefore more atoned for surviving bouts of minimal-to-no income. Thanks to unemployment (and increased COVID-risk rates), I’ll likely end the year better than I did the past several (fewer expenses at bars and restaurants also helps). Perhaps my introverted personality kept me from going mad. Maybe I’m just the start of a generation that’s used to living with constant existential dread. Ultimately, these “successes” are a result of prioritizing the art life over the work-life. Navigating a creative career must stem that creativity, not the other way around. I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic for me to realize that.

When recently drafting a newsletter about my work, I had trouble finding the right tone in “uncertain times.” Who gives a shit about your movie when people are dying? While the notion of returning to business as usual may come more naturally in other fields, doing so in the creative arts is somewhat stifling. The sheer uncertainty for the future for our industry is certainly a factor and hard to prioritize amongst such chaos. Even as I write this, I question the inclusion of my recent accomplishments in the previous paragraphs. Do I come off as narcissistic? Am I too focused on myself when so many others are struggling? Despite all the work I’ve put in these past few months, isn’t my privilege showing? I hope, however, that sharing the work provides not only a distraction but inspiration as to how we might overcome such struggles.

Throughout the tragedy of this year, there is something sublime about the stories and artwork that have emerged. In the wake of the George Floyd murder earlier this year, at the height of the pandemic, I felt a deep sadness that I was unable to articulate. I was not alone in this feeling. Reading an article about the protests that followed, I saw an AP photo that inspired me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time in years and paint this:

A quick piece of artwork from a white guy in Chicago wasn’t going to have as much of an impact as the thousands actually protesting on the street this past summer but it was a small thing that helped me. And that’s all that I needed from it at the time. Embracing the art life kept me going. It encouraged me to march on the streets myself. I took some of the sadness that was inside of me and put it on the canvas because it was all I could bring myself to do at the time. There is beauty in the self-actualization of what to do with these feelings and their external form of expression.

After the 2016 election, I posted that one of the most important things we can do as a people is to continue telling stories and creating art as much as possible. This year has made that call feel nearly impossible, not only because our time is already so divided between work and activism, but because we’ve been sad for a whole year. It’s exhausting. Every day there is a new issue, a new crisis, a new problem that takes up so much mental energy that you avoid living your life through procrastination. Even I will admit that writing this very article took me multiple attempts, starting and restarting because of bad news bombarding us on a daily basis. The people in power have taken a generation of artists from us because of their cruelty. They don’t want you to express an opinion or have a voice. So many people have had to sacrifice their own ambitions in order to become activists — fighting battles that should’ve been solved years ago. It is an unfair necessity and a disservice to humanity.

Now, with less than a week before the election, two more months of this dreadful year, and at least several more before we have a vaccine, I implore you to view the art life as a means of hope, not only for yourself but for those around you. Art is a constant force that can guide you out of darkness. It can teach you about empathy and compassion. It can lead you toward new forms of success, whether it be in your personal relationships or your chosen career. It can inspire you to help others and help yourself feel less alone. I do not wish to speak from my mountain of privilege saying that your painting or screenplay will solve systemic racism or fix climate change or save the country. But expanding your pallet through the work of others and finding your own voice through your own art can make a difference. Just like voting, creating and consuming art will not end all our problems overnight — but if enough of us do it, it can sure create an impact.

Ultimately, art is what survives through even the worst of times. Art is a protest. Art is control. And, to put it simply, art is a way of life.

Embrace it however you can.

It might just save you.

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Curtis Matzke

Curtis is an independent filmmaker and writer in Chicago, IL.