This has been a really difficult post to write. Since my last one so much has changed and turned upside down that blog writing and doll making seems like such a small and lightweight contribution to make to the world. I never set out to make a massive contribution to the world but it’s hard to not want to when so much seems to be falling apart and changing and crumbling. That’s a bit heavy isn’t it!? It wasn’t mean to be. What I’m trying to say is that I, and just about everyone I know is struggling with fear, anxiety, sadness and frustration at what we are all witnessing around us.
I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality… to protect myself
– Alberto Giacometti
This quote sums up what I want to feel about creativity at a time like this. Notice how Giacometti’s not saying that his artwork “insulates” him from reality. It doesn’t block it out or wrap him up in a comfortable bubble where the world is fluffy and cosy – it helps him get a grip on reality while protecting himself, which is exactly what makes us useful people when shit is going down.
There’s a reason why art can be such a powerful tool in dealing with even the deepest trauma. Creating can be a small but important act of self preservation which instead of being about insulating yourself from the outside, is about warming yourself from the inside.
Many times when I’ve been going through difficult times, people have advised me to go make art and “use” what I’m feeling and to “express” my difficult emotions and whatever in my work. The issue with that is that when I feel scared or anxious or just plain bad – I can’t work. I can’t do anything and then I get frustrated and then the work gets worse and then on top of having a shitty time in life, my work looks awful, my sense of myself and my creativity goes downhill and then I feel worse. Which makes it harder to work. Which makes me feel worse again.
I decided to take January “off” and focus on completely new work and ideas that may or may not work out. I thought I could set aside time to indulge in work that was stuck in deeper places that hadn’t yet had a chance to come out and show it’s face. I made sure I had enough money saved to work on new things without worrying about selling them, and materials ready and deadlines cleared. The thought of a free flowing, creative January carried me through a lot of hard work at the end of last year.
That was the plan. A whole month. No worries. Just unbridled creativity. How many people get that sort of time and opportunity? How lucky am I?!
It’s now February.
I’m just, in the last few weeks starting to get going because I’ve had what is commonly referred to as “creative block”.
I tend to visualise things in terms of yarn and fabrics and textile structures. I see creative block as more of a knot. A tangle in a ball of yarn. Pulling tighter will make the knots harder to unravel. I find that creative block is like insomnia. Sleep is natural, normal, essential and healthy for all of us. Insomnia is a bitch. Insomnia gets worse the more you try to fight it, insomnia becomes debilitating the more you try to remedy it because what you really need to be able to sleep is a quiet, calm mind that can accept sleep. Sleep is not something you should naturally have to fight for. It makes no sense to have to fight for a natural response to darkness, to tiredness and the need to rest.
A lot of people see creativity as something that needs to be strived for. I tend to see creativity as something that’s natural for just about everyone in one way or another. While skill is something that needs damn hard work and patience and drive and dedication and practice, and quality and aesthetic judgement are things that take experience and self awareness to develop; I see creativity as a naturally occurring flow.
That’s not what it feels like when you’re feeling like shit though. When you need it most it seems backed up and congested with too much pressure behind it and too many obstacles in front of it.
Picture a creative block. It’s a wall. It’s a barrier. It’s something solid and immovable and in order to deal with it you need to break it, hack your way through it or burrow under it. In one way or another that wall or blockage needs to be attacked or broken. These are pretty aggressive ways of dealing with the situation. They sap energy. They get you on the defensive, preparing yourself for a struggle. Also, the next time you come up against one, (and you will!) you’ll be bracing and tensing yourself for another battle.
If instead, you try thinking of it as a knot in a natural flow, things change. The way to deal with the issue is to loosen up, to tease it out.
Here are some of the things that help me smooth out the tangles and find my natural creative flow.
Last year I decided to start my day with work that didn’t matter. A small piece of something that would take no more than one hour of my time and that would only exist for itself. No thoughts of where it would go, or how it would progress or of posting it on Facebook or Instagram. And it could be anything, but it had to take no more than one hour of my time.
When we are trying to create something new it’s all too easy to heap impossible importance onto our task. We think it must be fucking ground breaking!!! It must change the world, make up for any previous screw ups and/or disappointments, and ensure your future creative and possibly material happiness for ever. You need to do this, and you need to do this today, maybe in the next few hours because time is running out, there is stuff to do and you’re getting old. And you’ve wasted loads of time already. So take all this grinding weight, all of this necessity and pressure and strain, heave it up on to your shoulders and go make something that looks, you know, effortless and awesome. If you can’t do it you’re a failure and you’re wasting your talent and dare I say it, life.
No, you’re not that important, you’re tiny, one tiny voice, which makes you precious. Your voice is yours no one else’s. Use it to say whatever’s true at that moment. When you focus on just one small act of creativity with only a short amount of time to complete it, it takes the pressure right off and you can make whatever comes to you in that moment without any fear or anxiety about how important it will be in the grand scheme of things. The benefit is that it eases you into a creative frame of mind where you can then take on big important projects without the strain and stress.
I collaged. I took scraps of paper and fabric and thread and made little compositions that were about the same size as a notebook page. When they started to get boring to work on, I moved on to layering coloured tissue paper in my sketchbook. Sometimes I stitch into scraps of fabric instead.
I don’t do this every day, because there isn’t always time, and sometimes I don’t feel the need to, but when I feel blocked or frustrated with what I’m working on I go back to this one hour exercise to loosen myself up.
I often feel creatively knotted when I have pressure to meet a deadline or produce something for someone and it’s at these times in particular where this one hour exercise works really well for me. The hour spent on a piece of work that means nothing makes the “important” work flow so much more easily that it actually saves time in the long run. It’s a big risk to take the first couple of times, but it works for me.
I try to meditate for about ten or fifteen minutes every morning. I say try…. sometimes I end up kind of doing it on the train on the way to the studio or while I walk my dog.
I’ve been meditating for most of my life and studied various ways of approaching it. There’s a lot of mysticism and religious weight sometimes attached to meditation which can put people off and add all sorts of unnecessary attachment to the process.
Here’s how I do it.
- Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, your back straight and breathe. Pay attention to any tension in your face, neck and shoulders. Keep breathing and try to gently relax anything that feels stressed and tight.
- I imagine any weight that’s on my mind as a giant, heavy grey coat. Huge, wet, heavy, thick – and every single thing that is weighing on me is in that coat. Feel the heaviness of it, feel the itchiness, the discomfort, the burden of it. Then shrug it off your shoulders. Let it fall to the floor. It will still be there in ten minutes and you can pick it up and deal with it then, but for now it’s on the floor and there is nothing you can do about any of the things that need your attention or worry that can’t wait ten minutes while you enjoy the feeling of being out from under the grey coat.
- Take your attention back to your face and neck and shoulders and ease out any tension you find there or anywhere else. It is very hard to hold on to difficult thoughts and emotions if your face is relaxed. I don’t know why but it is.
- Any time a thought or worry or anxiety comes to mind, let it stick to the coat on the floor. You can deal with it later.
Stay with the feeling of being out from under the weight of the “coat” for as long as you like, and get familiar with that feeling. Once you get used to that feeling you can tap into it when you need it.
For me, meditation shows me what my mind is like when it’s not occupied with external factors. The aim isn’t to get rid of any stress and burden and worry in life, but to connect with a part of you that can think and feel clearly, which in turn helps you to deal with what ever shit comes along much more effectively. The point is that the coat isn’t you. You may have to heave it around with you but there’s a clear thinking, fully functioning mind underneath it that needs air.
Finding something bigger and older than me
I like feeling small. I like feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of life and culture and history. I love museums and I’m lucky enough to work with one of the finest museums in the world. I like seeing something that existed before all the things I hold dear. All the things I think I can’t live without. I especially like to see things that were pretty mundane in their life times – a little glass bead or broken bit of pottery that has somehow survived the last five thousand years and is now here in a glass cabinet in Glasgow where thousands of people look at it and marvel at just how incredible it is. I love that once it was sitting on someone’s shelf being completely unremarkable.
My friend Matt makes incredibly beautiful arrowheads and recently he sent me one made from petrified wood. The fossil is a couple of hundred million years old. It used to be part of a tree that actually lived then died then became fossilised and I can now hold it in my hand. That gives me perspective.
Walk ( or just move)
I am very lucky to have a beautiful dog who needs to be walked every day without exception. Before I adopted him I would never go out in rain and wind unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I need to, even if it’s just for ten or fifteen minutes. There’s something about walking that helps me process tangled thoughts and a lot of it comes from the fact that for the time I am walking my dog, or walking to work, all I need to do is walk. I can’t do anything else but walk, so the pressure’s off and ideas and solutions start flowing. I find this works really well when I can’t find a practical way to do something – a technique or stitch or structure that just isn’t working in the studio tends to make more sense when I’m walking somewhere else.
Get off Facebook
Or Instagram or Pinterest or whatever. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the one I struggle most with. It seems so bloody harmless to just go check on things just in case someone has sent me a message or reacted to something, anything that might have been posted or shared or whatever. Seriously, what the hell are we doing? Checking for some kind of connection every five minutes.
Leave it alone for a while. It will still be there when you check it again later. If anything really important happens you will catch up.
Stop looking at other people’s work
You will never, ever be able to do someone else’s work the way they do it. And that applies to all of us. There’s no point in overwhelming yourself with images of all the wonderful things that other people have made. It also gives you a false idea of other people’s creative output. You’re not seeing all the failed attempts or years or dodgy work that’s led up to the perfect, original and beautiful piece of work on their website. It’s hard to look at your own messed up attempts when other people seem to have easily nailed their own and put it out into the world for all to see.
By all means use the internet to help you learn, to see what is possible in terms of skill, craftsmanship and technique, but keep in mind that you might be just starting out and you’re judging yourself against someone who may have spent decades honing their craft. Be inspired by what’s possible, not intimidated. However, when it comes to aesthetics, to the voice of the individual artist, I cannot see a reason to try to imitate anyone. All it does is compound whatever insecurity you already have about your own work.
Another weird side effect of being constantly looped into other people’s work online is that you start preempting the Facebook and Instagram posting potential of your own work. You see someone else’s beautiful vintage cottage studio space and start decorating yours accordingly so you can look just as whimsical and eccentric on Pinterest. You start making work that will look fabulous while it’s still in progress. That is not the right frame of mind to be in when you’re feeling knotted.
In the end it all comes down to measuring yourself against strangers.
Go sing in the shower. Knit socks. Play the ukulele. Walk in a forest. Chat to a stranger. Take a bus to a strange place. Do
something you’ve always fancied doing. Do something you usually go to great lengths to avoid doing. Engage your brain and mind in an unfamiliar activity for a while. Enjoy the feeling of not knowing what’s happening next.
Alternatively do something mundane that needs doing – clean the rabbit hutch, empty the rubbish, sort the recycling, do your tax return. Even a short break doing something else can ease the pressure of having to create something awesome, important and earth shattering.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, more an idea of what works for me and what might work for you. People are very tense and scared and angry right now, and this is by no means an overly simplistic solution to what’s going on in the world. It’s not about making the world awesome by embracing creativity. This isn’t my answer to everything. It’s what I have to work with though.
In the time it’s taken me to write this post, two projects have come along that will help me contribute in a larger way to the changes I want to see in the world. And both of them rely on me using my voice and skill and experience as an artist. I wouldn’t be able to do either of them if I had chosen a different path in life. Both of them are small, both of them are local. Call it synchronicity, call it cosmic ordering; I call it paying attention and having the focus and clarity and confidence in your own mind to grab hold of a chance when it comes along – I am bloody well doing this and it’s my creative flow that’s going to sustain me.