Monday, 29 August 2011


I've been thinking and writing about blocks for nearly two years now.  Recently I signed up for Kath Burlinson's 'Authentic Artist' three day workshop, and in preparation, I had to answer three questions about what I wanted to get from it. I wrote that what I wanted to explore now was 'process, blocks to process, fear, judgement, disappointment, a feeling of aimlessness. How to work freely, to stop judging, to develop acceptance of what appears. How to act on my hunches and ideas, instead of not taking them seriously (and then finding that some other person has made a whole career out of doing just that thing..). Also how not to feel that I have to push myself, to allow space.'

Then I looked at what I written, at that last sentence. And I remembered the words in the image above, from a book on creativity. The next sentence I wrote was that I wanted to explore 'the relationship between drivenness and creativity'. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Drivenness is part of the cultural fantasy of the artist's life. It's certainly part of how I imagined my life would be, in my early twenties - as I sat waiting for full-blown, obsessive creativity to claim me and start making me produce paintings in a continuous, internally- and endlessly-fuelled way. Strangely, despite my instinct and my longing, year after year, it never claimed me in the way I imagined it would. I thought about it sometimes, and wondered how I had got so distracted by 'making a living'. Sometimes I could see that there was a lot of creativity in my various different teaching jobs, and later in research. Sometimes I told myself that that would do. More recently, however, after my body pulled me kicking and screaming out of 30 years of compromise, I've looked back on all those years not as a mistake, but as simply weird and other. Something that , because it wasn't painting or music, was like an odd kind of detour, from which I was now recovering.

What I haven't been able to understand is why, now that I'm finally out and connected to what I want and need to do, I'm not just painting and drawing all the time. I've been assuming that it's because I'm 'blocked'.

Could it be that there actually is no block at all - that I have simply falled into an old habit of forcing, of expecting results, of thinking that I have to make things happen, now

Looking back over those years once again, I see an endless stream of creativity which, because of the constraints of employers and deadlines, was hugely productive, intensely productive, endlessly productive, six days a week, year after year. For 30 years. Folders full of lesson plans, filing cabinents full of module overviews and lecture notes, more and more journal articles appearing. Image banks of paintings and photographs (I once designed an introductory unit on Hinduism for an Access course, twice over, which taught basic Indian Philosophy via a chronology of miniature paintings and anthropological videos...). Box-files full of slides and talks. And all with pretty much never a pause, never a breath, much less a returning to the well. I've grown so used to moulding and pushing and shaping and responding and scheming.

Perhaps where I am is not sitting in the middle of a block at all, but simply a contented nothing. Set-aside. Learning to breathe again. Blinking in wonder at a world that might not have to be worked on all the time. These last few days I've stopped feeling a vague unease that my painting rythm has been quite broken since July. Released myself, just a little, from that old habit of pushing from the inside; the habit of noticing any a tiny throb of life and immediately feeling I have to fan it into a product. Just letting colour shape itself from time to time in my journal however it feels like it.

Over a year ago, I tried an experiment of 'stopping', vaguely aware that my mind, my desires, my intentions, seemed to somehow be getting in the way of something that was trying to happen. Jim wrote, at the time, that if you stop all the interactions, what's likely to happen is a great fat nothing, which I later agreed with, in terms of complexity and emergence (no interactions, no emergence..). But perhaps it's just a teeny bit of a problem to write about this creative process as if any of it might apply to anyone else. Complexity again. Without my particular history, a 'block', a sense of stuckness, or a period of non-productivity, would have a completly different meaning.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

mystery in accidents


I've been messing around with the Google profile thing, and recently put up five pictures. A friend of mine wrote the following under this image:

I find mystery in accidents, despite the reduced authorship. I love looking at this - it makes my mind work.

Whereupon I wrote back:

It seems to me that it's only in accidents that mystery truly appears (and least in making images). Intention always seems to make something lesser... Why, though, do you see this as accidental (I'm not saying you're wrong, I can tell you later how it was made, but I want to know what you see as accidental about it)?
This made me start thinking about intention again. Mystery in accidents despite the reduced authorship. Only in accidents that mystery truly appears. Do we assume that an artist's intention, or skills/capacities/vision, is the cause of any sense of mystery which may draw us into an image? Or, that intention and vision are in some way a 'higher' cause of mystery and attraction than accidental cause?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Amy Ellis Nutt's book about Jon Sarkin, Shadows Bright as Glass, was reviewed in the New Scientist in April this year.  A couple of weeks ago an excerpt from it was published in the Saturday Guardian. Sarkin was a chiropractor who suffered a stroke, after which he started drawing and painting more or less every minute of every day. It seemed to lessen his sense of hopelessness. The stuff just comes out. The final column of the New Scientist review continues:

.. I was surprised that Nutt avoided addressing one important question: is Sarkin's work really art? Defining art is endlessly thorny, but the compulsive, mechanical manner in which Sarkin creates seems to leave out a key ingredient of true art: intention.

Sarkin has his illustrations published in The New Yorker, and his works sells in major galleries.

When asked what his art means, Sarkin answers, 'It doesn't mean anything'. Perhaps this makes his work the purest kind of art. Indeed, Nutt refers to Sarkin as they neurological embodiment of Monet's Impressionistic philosophy: 'Artists like Monet search their whole lives for this kind of immediacy, to capture an experience, a sensation, in all its colour and light and texture, just as it is happening', she says.

Sarkin's work also reminds me of the surrealists' practice of automatism - writing or painting a stream of consciousness, removing all rational filters to directly engage the subconscious. But even automatism was itself intentional.

In the end, asking what makes Sarkin an artist is the same as asking what makes anyone an artist. Like all great books, Shadows Bright as Glass raises more questions than it answers.

There seem to be some interesting ideas here. Let's start with compulsion. From what I've heard, Kurt Jackson seems to be what those looking on might term 'obsessive' or 'compulsive'. So are practically all full-time artists I have ever heard about, including Renoir. Is this what we call it when someone immerses themselves in something, and, due to that immersion, finds that more and more connections are made, leading to more and more emergent effects? I wonder what the difference is, at that point, between the person with some degree of brain damage who finds that drawing and painting make them feel better, and the person who is so immersed in it that they, also, don't feel right unless they are continuing their immersion.

The author concedes that there are no clear answers, but she does seem to be confident in the statement that intention is an ingredient of 'true art'. Is the person who has been immersed for years really acting intentionally? Might not the activities of drawing and painting be similar, by that stage, to eating and drinking; a form of breathing, and also play? I can still see that she has a point. Kurt Jackson does, presumably, wake up some mornings and not feel in the mood, or decide to go out in a boat for the day rather than paint the sea (or does he?).

But then what about Werner's space? Werner is talking about operating from a place, as I understand it, where intention has, momentarily at least, been uncoupled from action. His space is a state; a state which seems to be emergent, which cannot be willed into being. He is arguing, I think, that it's precisely intention (I will conquer this piece/master this difficult scale/wow everyone tonight with my solo) which undoes the musician, however proficient they may be technically. Doesn't intention separate the mind into (at least) two positions - the player and the osbserver? This is what Barry Green, in The Inner Game of Music, calls 'self 1' and 'self 2', which he argues saps the life out of people's playing in exactly the same way....


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