Chipping Away at the Dots

Back in the 80’s — such a long time ago now — one of the most popular video games was Pac-Man. It featured a pizza-shaped monster who roamed through a maze of dots, while various “ghosts” threatened your existence. You could eat a bit of fruit, turn the monsters blue… and good heavens! I’ve all but forgotten how to play the game.

Pac-Man had specific patterns for play. Yep, you know me. I bought a book, memorized the patterns, and after that, playing Pac-Man wasn’t quite as much fun as before. Oh, it was gratifying to have a crowd gather around as I played, to hear kids excitedly shouting, “Come watch! She knows the patterns!” but even that grew tiresome after a while.

But then came “Ms. Pac-Man”. So far as I know, there were no patterns for the game. It was all random, and that made it a lot of fun. Ms. Pac-Man is considered one of the greatest video games of all time, and I loved it. I could play for hours. In fact, I even won a small “Ms. Pac-Man Tournament” at an event sponsored by one daughter’s elementary school class. I thought for sure some of the kids would beat me. Turned out, they couldn’t.

Now, you’re wondering why in the world I’m praising Ms. Pac-Man on an art blog. It’s because this game taught me a valuable principle in life. Because there were no patterns to memorize, the best strategic advice a player could follow was this:


Yes, chip away, chip away. If you couldn’t gobble up an entire row, just eat as many dots as you safely could, back away, and go gobble up a few more dots elsewhere.

For the last forty years, this advice has stuck in my head. In all honesty, sometimes it doesn’t work to my advantage, but as often as not, a lot of progress on a project can be made if we just keep chipping away at the dots.

That’s the approach I’m taking now with my latest attempt at straightening up and re-organizing my art studio. See? Here’s the connection. This is why I’m talking about Ms. Pac-Man and all those different dots in the maze.

As far as organization, my studio had never fully “recovered” from last year’s flooding. I still had lots of boxes in odd places, some haphazardly packed with various art tools, old drawings, and miscellaneous art supplies. This is one reason why I’ve had problems finding things in the studio. Everything had been moved away to avoid flooding, but once the situation was corrected those boxes had never been unpacked and properly sorted.

Despite previous attempts at getting things in order, the studio quickly turned into a huge disaster area again. I’m always buying new art supplies, always getting new things in my art subscription box, always trying different things. And, as my husband so often reminds me, an art studio should be messy.

Well,  yes, and no. It should be messy in a creative sensebut it needs to be efficiently messy, that is to say, art supplies have to be close at hand, yet still be organized. Canvases and various tools — rulers, T-squares, paper-cutters — have to have a place they call home. Brushes need to be stored properly.

Recently I took a look around, shook my head, and despaired of ever getting things into a comfortable but workable order. I couldn’t complete the clean-up project in a single day — or even in a few days without making myself exhausted and crazy. So, I resorted to that old strategy and began chipping away at the dots.

I set a timer for five minutes, and I spent those first five minutes straightening up one small area. It’s amazing, really, how much can be accomplished in five minutes if we keep at it. The next day I set an alarm for five minutes and focused on straightening another area. Little by little, as I kept chipping away at the dots, my studio began looking better.

It’s not finished yet. I still have a lot of proverbial dots to chip away, but the progress is obvious. I still find that the best approach for me is to have various “art stations” — one area where I keep all my drawing supplies, one area for my watercolors and gansai, and one area for my oil paints and brushes. Other media — such as my colored pencils, my pastels, and my alcohol inks — are put away in another part of the studio since they are not used as often. Art books belong on the book shelf. Canvases, sketchbooks, and drawing papers are stacked neatly on a shelf in the supply closet.

It’s not perfect yet. As I said, there are many more dots to chip away, but one day soon I’ll have it all in order again. I’m not wearing myself out by trying to do it all at once. Miraculously, I’m accomplishing the task by setting aside only 5 minutes a day. It’s working.

I did mention above that this strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’ve approached something with the idea of “chipping away at the dots” only to find that I can’t chip away enough dots fast enough to keep up with the project.

That reminds me of an old cartoon. I wish I could find it. It showed two office workers at their desks, their in-boxes crammed and overflowing. One turns to the other and says, “I’ve stopped worrying about catching up. I’m just concentrating now on slowing down the rate at which I’m falling behind.”

That’s very much how I’ve felt at times when I’ve come to the studio and seen the disastrous disarray. It’s creative, yes, but a creative mess is still a mess, and a large part of the creative process will always be cleaning up that mess.

Chipping away at the dots is making it easier for me, and it is applicable to many situations in life. If we don’t have time to do something all at once, we can still make a start. We can chip away a dot or two, and if we do that every day, eventually we’ll make it through the maze.

Thanks, Ms. Pac-Man. Good advice!



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