Site icon Johanna Flanagan

Creation, frustration, destruction, creation.


I’ve been quiet for a while haven’t I? I realised that I haven’t posted on Instagram or Facebook or updated this website or written this blog in a long time.

Let’s cut to the chase.

It’s been a hard year. I was going to say “tough”, but that’s not enough – it’s been hard. Mostly this has been down to the people and situations around me, and me trying to hold things together without the time and space to sit down, rest and work through what’s happening in my own mind and body as a reaction to what’s happening to them.

A couple of months ago I cut off my long hair and now it’s a jaw length choppy bob. This is the third time I’ve cut my hair from my waist to above my shoulders. The first marked the shedding of a toxic relationship, the second was an act of defiance. This time, this time it was like shedding my skin. I wanted, in fact, needed to see a different face in the mirror.

When I moved into my house, I inherited a tall leafy plant that reached up and out towards the living room window. Over the first few months of taking care of it, it became clear that the plant was dying. It’s leaves were becoming dry and greyish and limp. The trunk was shrivelling up and no matter where I put it or how carefully I tended to it, it wanted to die. One morning I took a knife to the trunk and sawed off the top half, cutting away all the leaves at the top that had once been so lush and thriving. I hacked away at it until about a metre of dying plant came off. What was left was a slim, bare trunk, or what looked more like a stick in a pot of mud. I left it in the corner of the living room, next to the window. I stopped watering it and left it to it’s own devices. A few months later, without me even noticing, tiny green stumps had appeared along the length of what looked like a dead stick. A few weeks after that new leaves were reaching out and up towards the light coming in from the living room windows. I started to water the plant again.

There came a point recently where my dolls lost their faces altogether. At first their eyes closed, then one day their eyes didn’t appear at all. I couldn’t articulate whatever was inside, and despite always being able to find some sort of expression, even just a faint eye nose and mouth in the past in dark or confusing times, there came a point not too long ago where the faces just would not come. My dolls grew wings, scarlet hearts, long articulate fingers, but their faces remained blank.

It felt like I couldn’t go any further with them. Instead of feeling like they were clambering to exist and that I didn’t have enough hours in the day or days in the week to bring them to life, they felt like they’d given up. It was at that point when I decided, or rather felt I had no choice but to give up doll making all together. I realised that if my emotional state can shut down my ability to do this type of work then I need to find another job. Where once my small, calm inner voice was telling me to “make dolls”, it was now silent.

This is a big deal for me. I rely on my intuition, what I call my soul voice or heart voice or inner voice, for guidance in most things. It’s never wrong. It has literally never failed me. It took a long time to tell the difference between that voice and fear, or longing, or need or ego. The difference is that when I listen to this particular voice, it’s calm. It doesn’t bark orders, or plead, or insist or shout; it speaks clearly and calmly, even when it makes no rational sense whatsoever.

So I tried to plough on without it.

I had some ideas for pieces I wanted to make and thought that if I could just keep making, then things would resolve themselves.


Well, sort of.

A doll can take anything from a few days to a few months, or in some cases longer to make. I don’t start with a plan, more of an idea of one central detail, or a feeling or a sound that I want to explore. The ones I started to make around about this time put up, what I can only describe as a fight. Nothing worked. I’d diligently make something carefully and beautifully and it wouldn’t look right. I’d dye it, sand it, embroider it, stitch it – nothing made it seem complete. So I’d leave it alone for a bit, then try again. There was a constant pull between hammering away at it, and leaving it to the side. The dolls felt defiant. They felt demanding and belligerent. One in particular would not leave me the hell alone. Every time I thought I’d got through it and come almost to the point of completion it would not work. I nicknamed it The Firebird because it was like some unruly little harpy that kept harassing me, and the name stuck.

Can I just take a moment to state that I know that these are dolls and that writing about them as if they are tiny little demons who need appeased sounds bonkers. I know this. I have also found that resisting it and not paying attention to what they seem to want from me inevitably leads to time wasting, frustration and freaking out. My mind doesn’t seem to be able to explain what I need to me in rational, straight forward ways – it needs to project the whole thing on to wee cloth creatures. Like I said, bonkers. I know.

Rather than taking three or four days to complete, some small pieces were taking weeks and months and never seemed the way they were supposed to be. I have a personal rule that I do not fuck with those who buy my work – I do not sell or offer for sale work that doesn’t feel right or complete or the best that it can be. This, however, means that churning stuff out and making stuff for money isn’t something I can do. I can’t say, “sod it, it’ll do”.

So I kept sewing, kept hammering, kept trying and my body eventually packed in and one morning I woke up with a frozen shoulder, a dead right arm and no way of doing any more.

Which brings me back to thinking I can’t do this any more.

So I’m not going to.

I had one week of enforced stillness. No sewing. No making. Not much of anything because I could barely move. I’d tried to push on regardless and my body had said no more. What happened though while I rested and watched Kath and Kim on Netflix is that I started to remember ideas I’d had years ago when I first committed to doll making. Ideas that I’d never followed through on because I had found a flow and a niche in sewing them from calico.

I looked out pieces I’d made that were more about tearing things apart or salvaging scraps or winding cloth around wire, pieces that weren’t made to be seen or sold. I found half sewn dolls that had been on their way to being completed and I sanded the top layer of fabric off of them, drenched them in dye and mud and tore them up. I reconnected with the part of me that doesn’t know what the hell I’m doing – the very part of me I’d been trying to escape, the very part of me that I was immersed in when I started making dolls in the first place. 

And like the plant in the living room – there is a certain type of creation that comes from an act of sudden destruction, a tearing down and slicing off and ripping apart. It’s a type of creation that can go one of two ways – the shock can make you desperately cling on to what it was before and you can try to recreate it as closely as possible to what it was, all the time knowing that it will never be the same; or that same shock can make you rebuild in a way that makes more sense now, a way that grows out of what you’ve sliced off but is fresh and free of dead leaves.

It’s a scary thing to do though. This year has been so emotionally draining that what seemed to make sense was to reach for something stable, something reliable and I’d hoped that my work would be that safe place. Instead it felt like the dolls were angry with me ( I KNOW! Bonkers, I get it). It was as if they wanted me to let the instability and the chaos in to run amok. It’s only now that I’ve let it happen that they are settling down and coming to life again.
It’s a fine line between knowing and respecting your process and tumbling headlong into self indulgence. Again I have to remind myself that I am incredibly lucky to be able to have this work to do. I have to remind myself of when I worked three minimum wage jobs to scrape by and how that’s the reality for many people. Mind you, I remember years ago, sheepishly explaining to a business mentor that my creative process involved “intuition”, and how she went with it and how we were both right to go with it and how well it’s served me and how important it is to have acknowledged that part of my working process. Maybe all of this is only self indulgence when you try to pick it apart and glorify it or condemn it. Maybe it simply is what it is, it’s part of what I do. Creation, frustration, destruction, creation.




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