It’s been quite an up and down week. I’ve been feeling quite tired and grumpy, and like I’m not really ready to go back to work tomorrow. I’m feeling better now, but was feeling pretty grim at the beginning of the week, and have been thinking about what has happened between now and then to improve things. It’s has led me to reflect a bit on the things we can do (or not do) to look after our selves when things begin to feel a bit stressful.
The main things that have been helpful have been focused around feeding the creative bits of me. To start with we went to see exhibitions of work by both Robert Rauschenberg and the William Kentridge. I found both exhibitions interesting and though provoking, but the exhibition by William Kentridge was particularly inspiring for me. This is because he used lots of film, narratives and animation in his work, which are also things that I like to play with. He has talked about using a ‘stone age’ approach to film making, and many of the pieces in the exhibition used these techniques, with beautiful effect. From a technical point of view there was little in his work that I probably couldn’t have a go at myself with enough time and effort. Seeing that kind of work on a large scale has been a trigger for me to think more widely about my own practice and where that could go.
We’ve also been out for several good length walks, one through the centre of London and one through some local woods. I tend to find my thinking is most productive when walking about, there is something about the rhythm of walking that works for me. A walk in the woods can really help me work through the kinks in an old idea, or snatch hold of and develop a new one, so this was a helpful thing to do.
Finally we’ve both been paying a lot more attention to what we put in our bodies, as we are a week into Veganuary at the magpie nest. We have had one vegan fail, but as this is time of learning for us I think it’s ok. One of the brands of gluten free bread we’ve used for some time uses egg as a binding agent and we didn’t think to check the label until we were half way through the loaf. What we have found is that we are having to think more creatively about what we cook, as a number of our ‘go-to’ meals are animal-product heavy. In putting limits on what we can cook, we are exercising our creativity in this way too, which is fun and an unexpected benefit.
Finally, we’ve also been indulging in some vegan treats. My boyfriend bought me a box of these chocolates from Booja Booja for Christmas, which are dairy free and particularly yummy. They have quite an intense chocolate flavour and I find one or two are satisfying enough so while they are on the pricy side, you can eek them out a bit. They come in a really beautiful hand painted box (see the picture above) which is particularly appealing to my arty/crafty creative side. I have been enjoying them anyway.
I’ve just got home after a week in Barcelona. Earlier in the week I wrote about how the city feels like a place where art is part of the everyday life, and have been reflecting a bit on what that may mean. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Barcelona was that I am particularly taken with art nouveau and that the city is famous for the work of Antoni Gaudi, a major contributor to the movement. I’m particularly drawn to his work as he used the traditional Catalonian skills and methods to create a new, radical, kind of building aesthetic.
I’m a big fan of making time to feed your creativity, in particular by immersing yourself for a few hours in the work of other creatives. I think it’s important to get a sense of what your creative influences are, as this helps you to find your creative community. We spent most of our trip visiting the buildings that were designed and built by Gaudi and the crafts men he worked with. On the Magpie Gaudi hit-list were:
- Palua Guell
- La Sagrada Familia
- Parc Guell
- Casa Batllo
- La Pedrera
Because of the rather brilliant organisational skills of my boyfriend we managed to see all of them (woop). Gaudi’s work is thrilling. In the more mature works he almost completely abandon’s the straight line and the the right angle. Some of the buildings do not look so much like they were built, but that they were somehow grown. He had a quite magical understanding of light, and used light wells, glass roofing and stained glass to illuminate interior rooms. He is completely unafraid of using bright colour on the smooth fluid surfaces. I was particularly taken by his use of bold ceramics (both solid, purpose made tiles, and shards of broken pottery and glass) in the elaborate decorative elements on the older buildings and in the monumental sweeping terrace he created at Parc Guell.
I didn’t actually take many photographs of his work while away. The works have been photographed again and again, and frankly any photograph I took just didn’t do credit to the scale and intricacy of the works. On of the photos I did take (above) is a photo of one of the iron doors at La Sagrada Familia. I found our visit to La Sagrada Familia to be particularly affecting and inspirational. The work is an enormous religious shrine, and at the time of writing is still incomplete. Work continues on it to this day. Inside the building is constructed of an elaborate arrangement of slender columns, and the outer skin on the building is littered with huge multicoloured stained glass windows. The scale of the building is breathtaking. The work is an enormous act of creative devotion. As you walk inside the building you are bathed in multi-coloured light. Over the week I’ve tried to think about how it is possible to explain the experience, but I cannot find a way to describe the sheer quality of the light. I think this is only something that can be experienced in person.
When I started writing blog posts about the connection between creativity and mental wellbeing I initially thought that I would write one, let it loose, see how it flew. Then I had an idea for another one, but I thought I would run out of steam on this thought stream pretty quickly, but then had another idea, and then another. So far each little thought seems to lead to another little thought, that is just enough of an idea to write a blog post about. Go figure.
Most of the things I blog about in this ‘series’ are just my ideas about theories that I know of and that I find useful in making sense of myself, and of my experiences. If working as a researcher in psychology and medicine and mental health for the last 12 years has taught me anything it is this: there are many splendid varieties of ‘human’. What works for one person will not work for the next, or will work but in combination with a third thing. For many people it is possible to manage their wellbeing through a healthy diet, a decent amount of exercise and a little enjoyable down time. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough for me, there needs to be something….else.
One of my blocks over the last few years has been in finishing things. I don’t know if this is a typical ‘scanner problem’ but I am pretty good at getting dug into a project, and then, about half way through there seems to be another project that I need to start, so I do. And then another. And another. The banner picture on my blog at the moment is a blanket I made for my sister. It took a whopping 7 years to finish that baby off. 7 years. And I was so proud of it that I took pictures of it before I handed it over to use on the banner of this blog. So in contrast to that, this little guy in the picture above only took around six months. And look, he lights up…
Many of my ongoing projects are quite ambitious, there is a play, a film and a novel, and now a book about art and wellbeing. I’ve struggled to get close to finishing any of these things and this was beginning to cause lots of creative angst. One of the strategies I’ve come across in the mental health world, and in the online world of inspirational businesses, is the idea of goal setting. Of particular use to me has been setting smaller goals, by which I mean developing much smaller projects that are I could potentially finish in a few weeks (it still takes a few months but never mind). I’m finding that in actually finishing some things I feel much more motivated to return to those more ambitious, difficult projects, and I feel better for it. It’s helping, that the play is actually looking in good shape to send somewhere soon.
I have been musing over the last few weeks in what has turned into a little blog series about how having an arts practice can be a positive thing for mental health. It certainly works on some level for me. Over the last few years I keep coming back to the idea art as a transformative practice in the projects I have started (and often not really finished – I have the multipotentialite problem of too many projects and not enough time). One of the characters in a novel and then in a play I have been (am still) working on was directly concerned with this idea, and I’ve often spoken informally to artists of have had similar thoughts about it.
The act of Making is one of transformation. We take all manner of things, objects, paper, paint and glue and in combining those things through various techniques we transform them into something new and possibly unique. For many artists one of those ingredients is feeling. The act of using good feeling or bad and channelling that into a project to transform into something else is an profoundly creative act. The idea that emotions can feed creative work has been around for a long time, as has the stereotype of the ‘troubled artist’, so I am doubtful that this is a new idea to many reading this. I think it is this ability of an arts practice to allow the expression of feeling that can make it particularly positive. It can be a way of expressing, and gaining clarity, on what is going on for a person without requiring them to directly verbalise it. Potentially for many, expressing themselves through visual means, or through music, makes far greater sense that attempting this through what can be the very limiting medium of words.
I’m not suggesting that all art is about this process, for many art can also be a restful or pleasing diversion. But frequently the art that speaks to me most speaks to me on this level. A really useful way of thinking about this for me came through reading Amanda Palmer’s Book ‘The Art of Asking’ (I really enjoyed this one, more on this another time). There are a lot of useful ideas in here, but the one that grabbed my interest in particular was the idea of the artist as ‘Sin Eater’. Traditionally the Sin Eater was a person who may live at the margins of a community. Their role was to take on the sins of a person who had recently died so that person would be able to pass on to heaven. In Welsh communities the Sin Eater may visit with a family and break bread and drink ale over the body of a loved one to ‘eat’ their sins. In ‘The Art of Asking’ Amanda Palmer speaks about the artist as the sin eater, as a figure who is able to take on the sadness, anger or distress of others and transform that into something beautiful, into art. I found this description particularly useful to think about, and in understanding the function art can play in helping us understand ourselves.
I’ve been blogging over the last week or two about how making has been helpful to me when it comes to mental health and managing anxiety. When I first began to contemplate this subject on this blog I drew the link between mindfulness and making, and wrote about how I manage to reach my most mindful state when, well making. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this and while I think in principle this definitely holds, there are ways in which my arts practice diverges significantly from the practice of mindfulness.
In a course I recently completed on mindfulness we were taught to experience things without ascribing value to it, or to become attached to it. The mind has a tendency to attach to things that are pleasurable and to try to prolong that sensation while trying to avoid sensations that are uncomfortable or distressing. One of the ideas behind mindfulness is that the pursuit of pleasure and the attempts to avoid pain are one of the root causes of anxiety, addiction and mental distress. Mindfulness teaches us to sit in the present moment with either pleasure or pain and to acknowledge that it is temporary. The good and the bad both will soon pass. So saying you enjoyed something or found pleasure in something is giving it a value, and from what I understand, not really what mindfulness is about.
While I would say that the moments in which I am making things are probably some of the moments where I am most present, I would also say I derive a deep pleasure from some of the making activities. A lot of the work I’ve been developing involves silhouettes, and I am particularly attached to the use of strong curved lines. I find drawing or cutting a really satisfying curved line to be particularly enjoyable. To be a sensual experience. I am happy, possibly driven, to repeat that experience over and over. When I was studying for my PhD a few years ago now I came across the concept of ‘flow’, which is described as a psychological state in which a person is fully engaged in an activity, is deriving pleasure from that activity and feels energised by it. I think for many people doing art work may provide that state, and this is a positive, healthy state to be in.
I think that it may not be the norm to talk this way about craft. I’ve seen people, particularly (but definitely not exclusively) women, being belittled for their enjoyment of their creative work, as if what they do is trivial. I think I’m lucky. I come from a family of artists and it is totally normal to speak this way about doing something creative. My mum and dad can get pretty caught up in describing a painter’s use of light, a particularly well set up shot in a film or a good solid line. We take creative work seriously and being surrounded by that environment as I grew up was a helpful thing I think. It taught me that putting effort and thought into creative work, whatever that creative work may be, is not trivial.
I think I’ve been blogging for about a month now and I thought it would be a good time to take stock of where I’ve got to on this ‘I’ll just set up my own business, that’ll be simple’ path I’ve taken myself down. So far I’ve done the following;
- Bought a domain name
- Set up a blog
- Had a few people actually read the blog (eeek)
- Read a few books on business
- Bought some other books, not all on business
- Outed myself as having both anxiety and a strange affection for kissing gates
- Started to work out what it is that I actually want to do with this whole business thing (probably should have started here but never mind)
There is much more to do, and each time I learn a new thing I find a door opens to a whole new set of possibilities, and that my ideas evolve all the time as a consequence. This week I have come across 2 things that have helped me enormously. The first is this book on tax and accounting by Emily Coltman called ‘Refreshingly simple finance for small business’ which has already answered several questions I had about tax and what I would need to do about that. I do recommend this to anyone who is just starting out. I think one of the anxieties that stopped me from getting started sooner was being put off by the idea that the paper work would be really complicated, and this book was pretty re-assuring on that point.
The second is this website called Puttylike.com, which is run by Emilie Wapnick. She talks about a category of people she calls multipotentialites, who are people who have multiple interests and never quite fit into a particular niche. She strongly encourages people not to try to force themselves into a niche, but rather to find a way of bringing those interests together into what she calls a Renaissance Business. This works for me, I think I’m one of those people. In my time I have studied medicine, psychology, social sciences, animation, and film making. My parents are both artists so my childhood was like being in art school. And I like walking in the woods. And kissing my boyfriend at each and every kissing gate we encounter. So I think the next thing for me is to wok out if these things can be bought together into something co-herent. It’s really helpful to know there are other people out there doing this stuff, but at the moment I’ve only really discovered American peeps talking about it. Any UK multipotentialites out there?
In a recent mindfulness course I took my tutor spoke quite a lot about the ‘beginners mind’ which is the stat that you are in when you encounter something for the first time. What does it look like? What it it’s texture? Does it smell? At the moment I am encountering all of these new ideas and it feels very much like I’m frequently in a beginner’s mind state, which is having some knock on effects that I hadn’t expected. It’s also motivating me to go back to some unfinished projects and take another look, which can only be a good thing I think. It feels like each new little thing I discover is one small pebble, but over time I’m going to have enough stones to build something pretty cool. Exciting times…
I recently did a mindfulness course to help manage the anxiety I’ve been experiencing around work and other aspects of my life (mostly work at the moment). We did lots of meditations and breathing exercises and lying on the floor, and it was helpful. But taking the practice out of that classroom and into my everyday life has been a bit of a challenge. The one place I have found that mindfulness fits quite naturally with what I do is where I’m in the middle of making something.
I find I can sit and cut the little beauties above for quite some time and keep my sense of presence with the motion of the scissors and the curve of the petal. I use these flowers or stars or whatever you want to see in them in several ongoing projects at the moment, accumulating bagfuls of different coloured flowers as some painters may accumulate paint.
I know many people are finding colouring books helpful, and I have some really beautiful ones, but I have to say that they are not for me. I don’t seem to be able to focus in the same way when I’m working to someone else’s design. The other creative space I have found for a mindful practice is crochet. I’m only just learning this one, but there is something calming about the process of producing loop after loop, and working those looks into a growing creative whole.
There has been much said about the mental health benefits of creative work. I suspect that the mindful element to it is only part of what is happening and the way in which art can provide a useful channel for expressing, sharing and understanding emotions is potentially far more powerful in helping people. But I’ve found in my own creative space, a little work on mindfulness has been very helpful for me.