A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
I'm in a strange and interesting place with my work now. Since working outside every day in Tenerife, I'm keeping up the practice of going outside and drawing something that's right before my eyes, as the sea was there, or the sunset. Mostly this process results in images that are not as interesting to me as some of the work I've done in the past. Occasionally, the images that are done outside feed into other images which are less literalistic, and something comes that makes me feel I'm slowly moving somewhere I want to go. Like this one of the sea, there's some small thing that I like here.
But mostly, what I produce from being outside isn't that satisfying. The strange thing is, though, that the process of being outside, doing it, makes me feel completely wonderful. I think it's something to do with making a connection between myself and the world through my hand, instead of feeling like I'm living inside a goldfish bowl, looking out at a visually fascinating world, but mysteriously paralysed. That feeling of connection seems to pretty much override the sense that the images aren't of great interest. In terms of 'painting'. But somehow they are of interest, nonetheless, to me. What a strange process this is.
Ah yes, the channel. Just remembered that...
There is a vitality,
a life force,
that is translated through you into action
and because there is only one you in all of time,
this expression is unique.
And if you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is
nor how valuable,
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly
to keep the channel open.
You do not have to believe in yourself
or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to
the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever, at any time.
There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction,
a blessed unrest
that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive
than the others.
Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille in "Dance to the Piper"
I'm currently reading an article in the New Scientist which is an update of recent thinking about the idea of 'flow'; that state of 'effortless concentration' that is said to be associated with achievement and the development of expertise. From what I've read so far, the article seems to be suggesting that researchers are isolating the chemicals that are associated with the state, and experimenting with administering them to people to see if it will help them 'drop into' this state and therefore be more creative and productive, to a higher level.
There must, of course, be a chemical correlate to what they're calling the state of flow. But is seeking to identify and then administer the relevant chemicals going to do it? Make people 'concentrate effortlessly' and 'achieve' at a 'high level'?
'Achieve' and 'high level' are culturally-based judgements (dependent on local context), applied, in a sense, after the fact. The person who has 'achieved' actually has little control over whether or not they will finally get this stamp of approval from the outside world. They may be motivated by the desire to gain such approval, but this may have little to do with whether they get it.
It seems to me that reducing the 'ability to drop into' such states to their chemical constituents is likely to be missing the point somehow. So you take the chemical, feel focussed, start to 'achieve', or concentrate in that direction. But then what? It could kick start a virtuous circle, where the satisfaction gained by said achievement or concentration motivates and feeds the person's desire to keep going.
But I wonder. I suspect that what is defined as a capacity to drop into a state is the result of an existential drive which is integral to an individual's meaning-making system. This meaning-making drive may create the appropriate chemicals, but administering the chemicals to people with all sorts of half-understood existential drives seems seems unlikely to create clearer, or more relevant, frames of meaning (which in turn might drive the kind of concentration and application which this research seems to be trying to get at)....
On the other hand, the power of chemicals to reconstitute the internal/external nexus that is consciousness might lead to all sorts of unexpected effects....
I remember someone once saying to me that it was the simplification of nature's complexity which was so interesting in any form of 'naturalistic'* art. And I remember thinking, but I don't want that simplification, I want that glory and that complexity, that's the thing I love...
Another comment that people have made a few times recently relates to what they call 'the artist's hand'; the distinctiveness of an artist's mark. This reflects the idiosyncracy of the individual, but is perhaps also something about this simplifying treatment. It occured to me the other day, after I had worked exactly from a photograph and then done another in my own way (the photograph one was flat and uninteresting) that perhaps it is my own 'hand' that I have been objecting to all these years.
I have wanted the painting to be as beautiful, or complex, or interesting, as the thing that I'm looking at - in the same way as the thing I'm looking at. In other words, it's almost as if I want to copy it exactly, somehow transfer its beauty and mystery precisely onto my page. But why? We have photographs, we have the world itself for that. Trying to make the same beauty on the page is forever doomed. It cannot be. You have to accept your 'hand', your type of simplification. You have to accept it and explore it for what it is.
Perhaps it's not so much that you don't like your 'hand' but that, similar to the relationship with voice (in both a physical and larger sense), when it finally comes out it simply gives you a fright. You aren't used to its presence, its qualities. It's like a stranger.
The real issue is that you are a stranger to yourself, disconnected from yourself in some way.
* Interesting book review in the New Scientist about the patterns of nature being abstract rather than 'naturalistic'!
The experience of working every day by the sea, so easily, so consistently, has begun to open something up for me. When I was there, I remember thinking, this is why painting from photographs (as in, bring a photo along to the class and make a painting of it) is no good. I always suspected that there was some kind of subtle work involved in transforming the 3D into 2D, but I could never put my finger on what this was. It seems to be something to do with experience.
When people talked about product and process and said things like, 'it's the process that's important', I couldn't quite get it, because it seemed weird to say that in making a drawing or painting the drawing or painting itself didn't matter. But now I start to see something almost like this. I'm not 'inspired' by the British landscape in the way I've always been inflamed by the places I've travelled to. But I do see beauty and light every day. Whereas before I was always photographing it and wondering about what kind of painting I was going to make (eventually), I'm now continuing the practice of responding to what I see on a piece of paer with something in my hand. As I do this, a vague intimation about experience that I had on the North coast of Tenerife begins to consolidate.
It matters less and less what ends up on the paper. What matters is that I connect with the world - after all my years of deadness and all my procrastinations; after all my questioning and analysing and living in my head - through the worldess, thoughtless physicality of my hand on the paper. The doing of it, without the judging of what comes out - the simple, actual, doing of it, brings a deep, bone-tingling satisfaction that is somehow its own reward.
Yesterday I had 20 minutes outside before going to a friend's. I walked to my urban lookout - the area of scrubby trees, litter, a football pitch and view over the Ochil hills - and I sat, under a grey sky in the mist, and traced the outline and colours of a piece of bark onto my paper for about five minutes. And somehow, that was it. That was connection, joy, satisfaction, aliveness, completion. It was all I ask of the world and more. Quite regardless, strangely, of what ended up on the page.
On the second day of sleeping, eating, waking and living ten steps away from the ocean, I began to experience the constant sound of crashing waves as a solid wall of sound. More, perhaps, than the normal cleaning effect of being on holiday (away from all sense of duties and obligations etc etc), the sound of the sea seemed to enter into every part of my consciousness, driving out all the stuff that usually sneaks in there to annoy me.
On this holiday there was no sightseeing or travelling about (apart from moving from the mountains to the sea after the first week). There was just the simply peace of a balcony looking onto the waves, out of season, on the north coast of an island in the middle of the Atlantic (Tenerife). Africa was the nearest land mass, and you could feel it in the vegetation; pines coexisting with cacti, palm trees and bouganvillea alongside roses and hibiscus.
There was no disciplining or straining to 'get on with it' in terms of painting. Nothing seemed more natural, more completely what I wanted to do, than being outside, walking beside waves and prickly pears, studying colours, and occasionally doing something onto a blank page.
It helped as well that I gave myself a little project in the form of deciding to work in a small concertina sketchbook. Once I got over starting something so irrevocable, there was something about the building narrative, the sense of a story unfolding, which made the moments and the days count in a simple and delicious fashion.
But, for me, it's not difficult to want to respond to the world visually when I'm away from the grey skies of Scotland that I know so well. The lamposts and the dark hills have miraculously disappeared, and in their place everything is shining with reflected sunlight and the warm colours of .... well, anywhere south or east of the Italian Alps works for me....