Saturday, 30 March 2013

reflecting on an artistic life

This is a drawing by Eoghan Bridge, and a reposting of a reflection from his facebook page.

In a few days I will turn fifty and that will bring my semi-sabbatical year to an end, a year of reflection forced upon me through a growing dissatisfaction with the direction my life and work was taking. Failure to resolve my troubled state of being would have led to a touch of melancholy because I didn't want to turn fifty with feelings of regret.

So for a year I have worked tirelessly on my drawing, writing and sculpture and cut my sleep down to about five hours a night in order to work through the issues that concerned me. I stopped watching tv, the news and even stopped listening to the radio because I wanted to reconnect with my true self without distraction. I felt I was coming up short on my ideas and my motivations and drive had been worn into the ground with what I can only call my conventionalisation. The overwhelming pressures to conform and fit into a system that frankly I find absurd had pushed me to the edge, my confidence and self-esteem were low, I was just another artist turned over by a society in the throws of consumerist madness. Having tried to dedicate my life meaningfully to sculpture I was finally faced with a choice of continuing on a path to nowhere or putting a stop to the rot and fighting back so that I could achieve what I am truly capable of. There are other ways of looking at my situation too because it's also about maturity, using my learned skills, the development of my own personal language and finding the confidence to express myself through my own concepts. To move on you sometimes need a crisis to stop you in your tracks, something to alter your perspective and trigger a developmental awakening. I have (possibly annoyingly) shared some of my musings here partly because as an artist I work alone and can't really bounce ideas around in my studio but more importantly because by having the courage to share my thoughts I hoped it would give me the confidence I needed to push my work further by proving there is nothing to fear.

So I started in a bad place disillusioned with my life but its been an amazing year, I've found out more about myself and how we quite naturally deceive ourselves on a daily basis. In some ways I have travelled beyond my previous expectations and had the most moving year of my life. I feel whole again but in a better way than I ever imagined because by finding the courage to take the risk and open up to the possibilities out there I have discovered so much about the simple act of being and all this will now feed into my art and add great purpose and freedom to it. When I say possibilities out there I'm really referring to the possibilities we all have within ourselves many of which are latent. Through the developmental strides I've made with my work I now feel to have a much deeper understanding of life and human behaviour than I did before and it's really about being in touch with your instinct and feelings through all your senses and this knowledge is about understanding, not judgement. Modern living seems to take you away from yourself with all its layers of distraction and you get swept along without even knowing, in my case I became washed up which has been like a gift but I am just amazed at how much time it took to unravel myself from the mess. Of course I could have lived happily ever after the way I was but it would not have been what I feel is my true path. I guess you just have to make conscious decisions about your direction which are quite difficult when you exist in the artistic free lands where there are no hard and fast rules.

When I think about my journey and what I have learned there are really a few key points starting with an open-minded approach to the very conception of an idea and ensuring the integrity of the motivation behind it: swiftly followed by the question is there really a good reason for making it? and then not worrying about the reaction of others. Courage and risk taking also comes into it because you must have the belief to make what you feel is your valid artistic expression and you will be judged. If you are happy with what you made and believe in it you then have to stand by it and move on regardless of reaction because true validation comes from within, for only you will understand the realisation of your goals. By maintaining an open attitude throughout the creative process and freely going with your intuition there will (more than likely) be a greater stream of contributory factors entering the work which I feel really add to a work of art. And underpinning all of this is self belief, you have to really believe in yourself to reach your potential no one else can do it for you and I'm just amazed at what you can achieve with belief and determination. :)

Now I feel good about the future and am thinking with greater clarity than ever before so it's just a matter of transferring this practically into a way forward through my sculpture and realising my vision. I've come too far now and I'm determined to step up another level and where that takes me on a wider level I really don't mind because all I can do is make my art and right now that is all I want to do. :)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

walking in the opposite direction

I'm convinced now that the only way to find out how to create is by going inwards. I'm also convinced that whatever I thought this might mean is not what it actually does mean.  We're culturally predisposed to be very confused about this idea. 'Me time', 'but isn't that just selfish?', 'shouldn't we think of others?', ' I don't have that luxury, I have a family' etc. There's a vague cultural sub-text about loving one's neighbour, and a collective amnesia about the next part of that sentence.

Perhaps, in relation to creativity, it seems blindingly obvious to say that you need to go inwards. This might be the case for those who don't seem themselves as creative; who are slightly awed by what they define as creativity in others, or who have known creative people who have seemed to them to be self-centred, or self-indulgent. Isn't that what artists do? Don't they 'express themselves'? Isn't it all about the self (and that might be alright for them but I have far too many shirts to iron/research to do ....). Isn't art/creativity, in fact, a glorious self-fest, only possible for the very rich or the slightly mad?

There's no doubt that the ego tries to muscle in on creative action, and that artists are as prone to ego-delusion as any other human being. But the artists I have known personally seem to struggle with quite the opposite condition - a recurring failure of, or at least threat to, self - a constant return to self-doubt and self-questioning, of an often non-productive kind.

This is partly because - assuming that they're not involved in the complex game of playing the market, or trying to manage some kind of recognition without losing track of what they were doing at the the point that they got recognised - most of the time they have to get up every morning and believe in the continuing of an activity which may bring them little or no recognition or praise, let alone money. This is the equivalent, perhaps, to having had four hundred job rejections and expecting to get up and face your four hundred and first job interview in an optimistic and positive frame of mind.

The need for 'recognition' seems to be very complex. There was an story in the Family section of the Guardian this weekend about a painter who had made a living from painting all his life, who at the age of 70 still painted every day and loved it, reportedly feeling deeply depressed about the fact that he had never achieved recognition. What is that about? You do what you love, what you feel best doing, you enter into some kind of communion with the world around you through your activity, and you get paid enough from doing it to be able to eat and contribute to your family. But it's not enough.

I've managed to turn my back on that recognition, in terms of any fantasies about joining the mainstream art world, or of making much money from what I do. Leaving the financial aspect aside for the moment, I can only do that, I think, because I 'achieved recognition' in my previous career. I used to say that I never wanted prestige or promotion or power, but that I did want to be part of the conversation. The most important thing to me at the time was a) to be able to share all my ideas and the things I was working on, and b) to get a response, to have someone talk back to my ideas. In other words, to be heard. Perhaps these things get all mixed up when your first and only job is that of being an artist. Firstly, you need to eat, so you need recognition to get money. Secondly, as a human, you need to be heard.

I believe now that all humans are naturally and abundantly creative. We start creating and experimenting from the moment we're born - as children we want to make, and make noise, and use our bodies, and we want to share the miracle of what we make and do with the people around us. And then someone tells us that our joyful sharing is wrong in some way -  that we're singing off key, or that our moves look silly. On top of that, mum's out working and dad's busy at the computer. We soon learn that sharing the excitement of our creativity hits a wall.

Then the response we get to our creativity starts to metamorphise into something much less unselfconscious and free. It matters now if they like it. It matters if they trash it. It matters perhaps even more if they ignore it. We start to believe that our creations are ourselves, which are now fragile because they're self-conscious, and in awareness/self-consciousness pain has replaced unselfconscious sharing.

While the ego is rampaging about out there in the world, preening and puffing and trying to sell itself to the highest bidder, the creative self, if not allowed to breathe, starts to suffocate. This is how it was for me, at least. The 'going inwards' that I think is needed in order to create can't be dismissed as navel-gazing or self-indulgence. The extraordinary thing about the battered soul is that it keeps on trying to be heard, whatever else is going on. The ego can kick it and laugh at it, experience can build a narrative around its feelings that make it feel as if it has a rope around its neck, but these things just make it wail all the louder.

Whether you call 'it' your soul, or your feelings, or the biological survival instincts of your organism as self-organising system, the gutbody, feelingmind seems to know exactly what it  needs to do to flourish. And if you start to feed yourself rather than continually depleting yourself, it seems that everything starts to change. The body knows this, and is constantly trying to steer the system in the direction of feeding, away from toxicity; whether this be via dreams, feelings, vague intimations at the back of our minds, or recurring physical symptoms.

The denial of this basic fact - that the human is like a plant, which needs soil, water, air and food - doesn't seem to make any difference to the system's attempts to right itself. Your mind can tell you that you need to put others first, or that the most important thing is to get some savings for your retirement, or that you don't matter while your kids do, but the biological need for an improvement in your basic conditions will keep trying to assert itself. I remember that I used to frequently think, after a conversation, 'why on earth did I say that?'. Berate myself for being 'inappropriate', or too outspoken, as if there was some part of me that existed somewhere completely beyond my control. Exactly right. There was one day when, joking along the corridor with my head of department (who was also a friend) I suddenly pinned him to the wall by the shoulders in a mock attack in response to something he'd said. A little warning bell sounded in my head.

Whatever 'going inward' might mean, it seems that it has to be done; you have to find out what it is that has to be done in order to start to burn off the soot of ages and give yourself a chance of returning to your free, experimental, laughing, creative self. Which is not some touchy-feely, new age, mythical promised land, but the simple fact of your human existence. I would argue. :-)

Ironically, once you begin to turn around and walk in the opposite direction, back inside, away from all the things you believe that you should be doing in relation to all your internalised external agendas, you seem to start to open outwards to the world in a new way. It's a strange paradox. That as you start to pay attention to your body and your inner speaking, the need for fighting and protecting yourself, for pushing and forming and competing and 'trying to survive' seems to turn on its head.

I know all this experientially, and yet I still find it so hard to do. As I create, as I play and sing, the mind, desire, intention, heave into the space of my awareness, and start to scrunch my body up on some subtle level I'm not even aware of. I wonder why I'm not feeling calm and clear and light and then I see that my mind's been at it again - dancing me from activity to activity to activity, without space, without light. Even in the very act of creating itself. I saw all this - summed up in the feed and digest model I posted a few days ago - when I was forced to my bed recently with a bad chest cold. As I lay there, drifting in and out of sleep, relieved from subtle tensions/intentions I hadn't even been aware of (I want to make a painting about this, I want to do that for the exhibition, mmmm, that's a good idea...)  things started to emerge easily, of their own accord. Quandaries about painting direction resolved themselves in a simple and easy ways, colours appeared, shapes formed.

It seems that the creative response is emergent, light, easy, unending, and constant, if we're able not to stand in its way. But of course, that's where I usually stand. In its way.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

teachers and technique

This is K.P. Vijayakumaran, director of the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi. I would love to study Indian music with him. My teachers Kath Burlinson and Paul Oertel have changed the way I experience the world, the way I experience myself.

But I've been confused and reactive about teachers for a very long time. When I first tried to pick up my violin again at the age of 19, I found a violin teacher. I went two or three times, but soon got dispirited by the classical approach. I was also shocked to hear that he knew the violin teacher I had when I was 9, who said that I was 'very talented' or some such. I was furious, because at 19 I believed it was already too late to become a musician - furious that nothing about the way my teacher had interacted me had led me to believe that there was anything in my approach worth nurturing.

The lack of the right kind of teaching fed into the stuckness I got into so often over the years. When I picked the violin up again at about 23, I really had no idea about how to learn anything (having left school at 16, after many years of bemusement, largely caused by changing schools a lot...). I had heard that you just had to practice a lot, so I thought that if I just kept playing over and over, things would improve. Which they did, in a way. But as I was trying to learn to improvise, I quickly got trapped in repetitious and limited patterns that frustrated me because I could see that I wasn't really developing.

When I started violin again about nine years ago (having done a few qualifications and become an education lecturer meanwhile) I decided that I was not going to be beaten this time by not knowing how to study, and set about trying to work my way into Jamie Aebersold jazz books. I went to jazz courses in Edinburgh and Glasgow, though I soon found out that I had bitten off something almost entirely indigestible - 'beginners' jazz classes turned out to be peopled by players who were grade eight on their instruments, and theory, and not really even beginners to jazz. I had about grade 2 level skills.

My lack of technique was a continual frustration to me. I tried a few one-to-ones with some top Scottish jazz musicians. They were brilliant, but I don't think they really understood that I had no theory, and wasn't in any way in command of my instrument. Then one day one of them said, 'I think you're one of these perfectionist people, you should read Kenny Werner's 'Effortless Mastery''.

I've written about the insights in that book quite often here. My memory of the basic idea of it is that you can be a top jazz musician, 'burning' away with your awesome solos, and still not be really playing music. There's something else in music, something that isn't about technique and facility. Acknowledging that something else became the focus of my approach - calming right down about what I could hear in my head but couldn't play, focussing instead on the quality of the sound that I could play.

I'm still in the business of exploring the 'something else', which perhaps might be articulated as a kind of inner connection - a playing from yourself, from your body, from where you are - rather than from your idea about where you might like to be, from your head, from where you aren't.

On the some of the workshops I've done with Kath and Paul, I've been recommended by people who have been through years of training not to go near a singing teacher, for example, if I want to develop my singing. And I know, now, exactly what they mean. When I told someone the other day that I had started singing lessons, they looked at me hard and said, 'and are you learning to find your voice, or some other idea about what a voice should be?' Spot on. I'm now very wary of the focus on technique, not least because friends who have done singing lessons seem to become obsessed with thinking about their abdomens, and their throats, and projection, and breathing, all at the same time, and seem to end up thoroughly confused by all that head work when they're trying to sing from their bodies and their hearts.

However, the advice from people who have been through years of formal training 'not to go near teachers' (and of course I would say exactly the same thing about art colleges) can also be very limiting. Because there are technical issues, and it can revolutionise what you're doing to learn some of them (may I say in my defence that one of the reasons I would tell you not to go near an art college if you want to learn the technical aspects of art is that you're unlikely to be taught any there....) . If you want to draw what you see in front of you, the simple idea of 'negative space' can change your drawing capacities almost instantly (that's an interesting one in itself, as Betty Edwards shows - we're so sure that everything needs years and years of practice, and yet sometimes a teacher can show you something and the results can be pretty much instant...).

If you want your voice to sound stronger and fuller, getting feedback on how it sounds at the moment and how your body is working to produce that weaker, thinner sound, is something that you can't really give yourself. You can read about 'abdominal breathing' for ever, but because you're locked in your own limited view of what that might mean, you're stuck in the very thing that's stopping you from being able to actually be able to breath from your abdomen - the limited nature of your own experience. So it's very tricky.

I recently started having singing lessons. It's hard to know what negative self-consciousnesses and head tricks I might be about to learn, but I have to say that with this teacher, who does seem to be focussed on getting my voice out, rather than constructing some idea of a voice, there seems to be hope. My voice already sounds much stronger. It's all very well saying, 'you don't need technique', but you can hear when the sound quality is wrong, you can hear the out of tune note, or the harsh bow stroke, and without technical information you can only go so far on your own to rectifying that. You can 'practice' until the cows come home, but as you don't know how to change the thing that's annoying you, you just engrave it deeper and deeper into your playing/singing, because you know no other way.

So I say, blessings be upon the real teacher, as I define this for myself. The person who is standing above you on a step you were not even aware was there. The person who can see the wide, wide plains of what the whole thing is about, at the same time as knowing that what it's ultimately about for you is not something that they can see.....who knows all the small details, and how they might be acquired/explored, but who also always sees those details as part of a whole, part of which will always be obscured....

I always remember the first time I learnt that the Sanskrit word guru, as an adjective, meant 'heavy', heavy with knowledge:

The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
— Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5

Well, there's debate about the etymology, of course, but I like this idea.


Friday, 15 March 2013


I've fought all my life
Fought for myself
Fought for a nation
Fought for a population
I'm no longer interested
in fighting
Now I try to give bread
Or is it roses?


Wednesday, 13 March 2013

strange how it looked at the time

I'm looking through digital records of the work I've done over the last three years, thinking about what to have prints made from for the show in September. It's quite interesting to see things that I'd completely forgotten about, and to see them now as the pathway to where I am now.

I remember, for example, doing this drawing very early on. I could see that there was something that interested me in it, but it was also somehow inconsequential. I couldn't see it as 'going anywhere' in particular. At the time I was writing here about feeling completely lost, about not working enough. I kept stopping and starting, and wondering what was going on.

Now I can see clearly how this drawing had the seeds of the very thing that has become my thing. I can see how the ideas here recurred again and again throughout the years, slowly repeating themselves until finally I began to realise that this is what was coming through, like it or not. Natural forms, repetition and novelty; the patterns of froth and webs and oil bubbles and tree bark.

The painting knows how it wants to come, just as the songs arrive whether or not I like the sound of my voice. My only job is to do, to respond, to let the stuff come through.

Also, to stop fretting about how much work comes through. I don't have to paint like a demon from early morning to late and night. That might be some people's way, but I've found that this work has found its way out despite being slow and gradual. My habit before was to concentrate and apply and sustain and push. This is the greatest learning of all, for me, the greatest miracle of my creative life so far. That nothing has to force and worry and push at all. In fact, this work seems to have come out precisely because it was left to do its own thing.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

music is my firewall

I've been thinking and writing here for years now about the reality of managing or balancing different creative media. At the age of 12 I was asked to choose between music and art, and the question sat on my shoulder for many decades. One of the results of this question, which is a deeply culturally-engrained one, was that I ended up all those years doing neither, convinced that I didn't 'have it' sufficiently in either field.

More recently, in the last few years, as I try to explore both, I've become irrationally upset at people reflecting my 'artistness' back to me but ignoring my 'musicianness'. Which is not surprising really, as I've had my art on the internet for quite a while now, and there's not a recording in sight there. Or even a performance in the physical world. But for me, they were equal; equally vital, their very differentness speaking to different aspects of myself. Being performance-shy hasn't stopped me from playing away at violin, viola, and now piano as I write my songs (on number 6...). Music seems to be a response to life for me, regardless of whether or not I take it outside for public approval/disapproval (though I would love to share it).

This week I thought that finally things had resolved themselves a little when I was offered the possibility of an exhibition of my paintings. As my head started to fill up with painting-related ideas and practicalities I thought, ah, ok, that's clear now. The art has priority, and I can stop angsting about what's happening to my singing voice, or why I'm not playing viola very much, or why it's so hard to sing my songs to people.

But yesterday I realised that though the music may not be ready to 'go out there', for whatever reasons, it has a vital function within the dynamic, changing whole that is my human existence. A function that is not only 'equal', but somehow more than equal, different to equal, because it has a balancing function. When I get fired up by ideas, which particularly happens when ideas have to appear and resolve themselves in some way within a limited time-span (like submitting a paper for a conference, or having a show...), I can find it difficult to unfire. I know now that this is a physical response caused by the sense of pressure of the deadline - the feeling/sense creates adrenalin and cortisol, and then the adrenaline/cortisol in turn create a sense of pressure - horrid little feedback loop that may make me productive but can also make me feel trapped in a cycle of amplifying shit.

When I was working at the university, I used to swim to relieve this feeling. In recent years, I've mainly avoided situations that give rise to it in the first place. Now, as I begin to integrate these extremes (exercise may be good, but it's no solution in the long term to toxic pressures...), I learn that music is where I go when I need to stop using my mind - or relieve my sense of pressure. Yesterday, feeling a bit strung out, I found myself drifting over to the piano - which, as it's not 'my main instrument', I do very regularly, as there's no resistance there. I'm always working on a song of some kind - songs tumble out and play like puppies in the sun. Yesterday I found that I wasn't even finding a song, but just creating the simplest little descending melody that I could play over and and over.

And it felt like sitting on this balcony in Kerala listening to the waves and the wind in the coconut palms.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

unintentional music

I've been sent details of a workshop called 'Unintentional Music: Releasing Creativity and Transforming Stage Fright'.  It comes out of Process Work, which was developed by Arnold Mindell, who trained as a Jungian but was dissatisfied with psychotherapy's lack of interest in the physical body. Though I'm not a fan of the packaging of his most recent books, his earlier ones are interesting, exploring the link between physical symptoms and dreams.

Here is some of the blurb (contact me by email if you want the full details):

Whenever we create, just like in other areas of our lives, some things happen that do not go along with our intentions. The unintentional aspects of the music we make - the unwanted note, the cracked voice, the strange croaking sound we try to avoid, the rhythmic problem we cannot erase even after hours of practice - contain more wisdom than we think.

They are intimations of parts of ourselves, and of our music, that lie beyond our awareness. Exploring the unintentional with curiosity and love can help us tap into the wellsprings of our deepest creativity and make our music, and ultimately our lives, more authentic, meaningful, and original.

The guy running this workshop is not Arnold Mindell, but an experienced Process Worker who seems to specialise in creativity and performance. You can see his book here. I'm going.


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