About perfectionism and other invisible “demons”, an interview with the author of the book “The Art of Imperfection” – Camilla Stark.

I’ve met her using a contact form and an exercise of imperfection. Not to mention I left behind a two-months research for an article about perfectionism, finally breathing a sigh of relief. Camilla Stark, the overseas young artist, a perfectionist who doesn’t fit any familiar box, among her experiences, had also a few answers I had been looking for. I wrote to her in such a hurry that I misspelled “below” with a double “l”. And maybe that yelled “bellow” wasn’t accidental. Spontaneously and eager for novelty, I had just elbowed the bitter and tiring perfectionism.

Camilla Stark lives in Provo (Utah, USA) where she works as a freelance designer. Among other interesting design and writing projects, she is currently working on an app aimed to improve the writing abilities of children with dysgraphia. An artist before everything, constantly guided by emotion and the need to tell stories through words or images, Camilla makes use of art to “process” her own existence and to beautifully share feelings and thoughts: “After all, isn’t life a poem?”

She is a designer and a design researcher and also “a mad scientist”, as she likes to call herself. For Camilla, art, design, visual and verbal stories, everything she does is in fact mad science: “because I am using these fields as tools to try to understand the world. Which is what science is about, right?”

Camilla Stark/ personal archive photo

Other curious things to note about Camilla Stark: she has a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Industrial Design (from Brigham Young University) and a secondary degree in French Studies; she worked for a biologist for three years, learning about insects and the wonders of the natural world; she turned her senior thesis into a self-help book accessible to everyone; last year, she worked at IDEO (a global innovation and design consultancy) as their first ever Storytelling Intern; she cries often, feeling the world around in a profound way.

Many creative professionals have the tendency to live within the limitations of their labels (web designer, filmmaker, illustrator, author etc.) – perhaps because they fear that trying too many things will make them less experts in their primary domain. What do you think about this?

Camilla Stark: I would personally be very bored if I had to pick one thing and stick with it, which is why I ended up calling myself a designer, design researcher, artist, storyteller, mad scientist…I can’t help but chase after anything I find interesting. The downside to this is that sometimes people (especially employers) don’t quite know what to do with me, because I don’t fit into a clearly-defined box.
However, in my opinion, having expertise in multiple areas is very powerful indeed. One of my favorite examples is Kate Compton (Twitter: @galaxykate), a coder/artist who creates AI bots that make art. She’s even created services to help artists who are less proficient at coding make their own artistic Twitter bots. To me, her work is the perfect example of two domains blending beautifully to create things that each domain couldn’t have done on their own. Working in a creative field is never a comfortable pursuit.

What are the most common (or most familiar for you) stereotypes and misconceptions about working and being successful in the creative industry?

Camilla Stark: I think a lot of people who don’t consider themselves artistic or creative think that creativity is all based on “talent”, which is inherent and unchangeable. This could not be further from the truth. While innate talent can give creatives a head start in their field, it is far more important to learn techniques and theory, be observant and seek out inspiration, and practice, practice, practice. When I was in high school, I tried painting in art class and I was terrible at it. But I spent the next several years working on it persistently, and by the time I graduated, I considered myself a fairly good painter.

Another misconception is the idea that creative work is only valuable if it’s completely original. As Austin Kleon says in his book Steal Like an Artist (my favorite book on creativity), nothing is original. Everything is a remix. Once you free yourself from the idea that everything you make has to be original, you open yourself up to inspiration from many sources—art, music, nature, literature. In my experience, the things that matter to me swirl around in my head and often find their way out on paper.

There are many emotional barriers and invisible “demons” on the road. What “invisible demons”/emotional barriers have you encountered on your path?

Camilla Stark: A major “demon” for me is fear. Fear that my work isn’t good enough, fear that no one will care about my ideas, fear that I’m not progressing enough in my career, fear that the solution I’m designing is not the right answer. Fear makes me stop in my tracks instead of moving forward. I was so uncertain about the direction of my senior thesis that there was one month where I only worked on it for two hours. I think this fear often stems from the “invisible gaze” of what I think I’m “supposed” to be doing—my perceptions of what is popular, of what employers are looking for, and of what I’ve seen on the internet.

I suppose the only way to face this fear is to keep moving forward, no matter how difficult. Sometimes you just have to make something without caring about what anyone else is going to think.

Self-compassion means to treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you treat others.

How did you come with the idea to design and to write a book as a self-help for anxiety and depression?

Camilla Stark: The underlying motivation was my ultimate goal for my art and design: to help people, and to make the world a better place. When I began my senior thesis (which ultimately culminated in this book), I was exploring how objects might make us into better people. While doing research on this topic, I discovered a psychological concept called self-compassion. Self-compassion means to treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you treat others, and it is very beneficial for people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Because I have many close friends and family members who struggle with mental illness, as well as my own personal experiences, self-compassion became my new topic. My goal was to use design to make developing self-compassion accessible and possible for all.

Usually, a lot of people are skeptical about self-help books. You have designed an interactive journal giving a solution step by step. For what type of people is the journal?

Camilla Stark: This skepticism towards self-help books was at the forefront of my mind throughout the project. I actually shied away from the journal idea at first, but I ultimately decided it was the best way to deliver a long-term experience, which is necessary when changing your mindset. My target audience is teenagers and young adults who deal with anxiety and depression (mental illness rates are very high on college campuses, for example). However, I wanted to create a book that anyone would be comfortable using, whatever your age and whether or not you struggle with mental illness. This is where design comes in. In The Art of Imperfection, I carefully designed simple, engaging exercises that promote self-compassion, and presented them with illustrations that are simple and ambiguous. In one activity, you might cut out a punch-card that gives you to make ten mistakes that day. In another, you might write a letter to your past self, or describe an experience that caused you shame. In another, you might simply practice breathing. There is a wide range of activities, all tied to the psychology of self-compassion pioneered by psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff. Whatever your current experience is like, there is a place in The Art of Imperfection for you.

What are your insights on self-compassion?

Camilla Stark: I think one of the biggest things I learned about self-compassion from creating The Art of Imperfection is that it can take a long time to change your thought patterns from self-deprecating to self-compassionate. Many of us are much harder on ourselves than we are on others—our internal voices are downright mean. Oftentimes, this habit is engrained over many years, so it can take some time to shift how you react to failures and disappointments. While I was developing my book, I interviewed one woman who described her years-long journey from extreme shame to self-acceptance and self-compassion. With the help of her therapist and loved ones, she was able to change her perspective and is now living a much happier life. It might not take everyone years to reframe their thoughts, but it isn’t something that happens overnight.
But, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with an single step. You can start learning self-compassion next time you get frustrated. If you start giving yourself negative self-talk, simply put your hand over your heart and say in your mind the type of comforting words you would say to a friend: “Aww, I’m so sorry, this situation is so hard, isn’t it?” Try it yourself and see what a dose of self-kindness can do.

Are you a perfectionist? When do you consider that being a perfectionist becomes a problem?

Camilla Stark: I am absolutely a perfectionist. When I was a kid, it was easy for me to get good grades at school, so I expected myself to always be the best. As an adult, this is a dangerous mindset—like many other people, I struggle with all-or-nothing thinking. If I can’t be the best, then I’m nothing at all. This attitude makes even the slightest failure feel like death…and obviously, you can’t work while you’re dead. Lately I’ve been working to become less perfectionistic— in the past year especially, I have been working to change my mindset and accept myself, my work, and my life for what they are.

 I tend to reach creative dead ends when I haven’t had enough newness.

Do you experience the so called creative blocks? How do you deal with them?

Camilla Stark: I tend to reach creative dead ends when I haven’t had enough newness. When I spend too much time in my house, when I don’t read anything interesting, when I don’t meet any new people. The solution, of course, is to get out and go exploring. Go hiking on a new trail in the woods, find some new music to listen to, visit an art museum, sit outside and watch the people walking by. You never know what might spark inspiration, or what connections you may make between different things you see.

Can people find solutions for their fears and problems through arts?

Camilla Stark: Yes. I say this with certainty because it happened to me. A few years ago, I was dealing with some particularly bad anxiety. I kept asking “Why? Why do I have to be this way? Why does my head have to be broken?” Then one day, I stumbled upon a photo of art piece by Damien Hirst. The piece is a six-legged calf suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, floating with its body rising upward like it’s spinning up to heaven. The title of the piece is “In His Infinite Wisdom”, a Biblical reference. Looking at the piece, I suddenly realized that the way I am is not a mistake or a fluke of the universe—it is simply how I am. That piece changed my view of mental illness—I realized that instead of just suffering, I could seek for wisdom and beauty in the midst of struggle.

This is just one of many pieces of art, writing, and music that have touched me. After all, art is the distillation and presentation of the common human experience. Since we are all human, we can all make connections between art and our own fears and problems.

photos and illustrations: Camilla Stark

*This interview was originally published in Romanian, in Capital Cultural, edition Nr. 9

“The Art of Imperfection”, by Camilla Stark, can be found here: camillastark.com/the-art-of-imperfection