Art thoughts

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Today I've been reading a long interview with Johnna Flannagan from The Pale Rook, who makes beautiful, wistful dolls from antique fabric.

I particularly liked what she had to say about creative blocks:

"I used to get crippling creative block, which, in my experience is usually the result of two things – focusing too much on what other people are doing and achieving, or worrying too much about other peoples expectations of you. I find that creative block has little to do with a lack of ideas and more to do with too much noise and clutter in your head." Johanna Flannagan

 

I haven't been able to work much since we moved and naturally I've been beating myself up about it and trying to force it. But every time I tried to work, I would quickly find myself physically exhausted, ill at ease and mentally depleted.

But while reading Johanna's quote, I realised: I haven't been blocked, I've been empty. And there's a big difference.

The jar project scoured me out. There were no ideas and no energy left, so there was nothing to unblock. The stream wasn't choked by mental detritus, it had temporarily dried up.
 

Dry stream bed
Dry Stream Bed by Martin LaBar, used under a Creative Commons license
 

On one level I already knew this, I wrote a post last year about burnout and how you sometimes need to refill the well. But it was very hard to accept that I was so empty and so I've been playing The Blame Game instead.

The Blame Game says things like:

"Why aren't I working? God, I'm so lazy."
"I'll never get anywhere if I keep stopping."
"What the hell is wrong with me?"
"Every one else is doing great epic things, why do I just want to knit?"
"Oh come on, you can't still be burnt out, that's ridiculous!"

I am not someone who likes to 'do nothing'. There can be immense fear in stopping. The dominant fear for me is 'maybe the art will never come back.' And our society looks askance at those who stop. We reward busyness and bustle and achievement. There is very little tolerance for just being.

It has been challenging. You can see the reasons for something and even know how to fix it, yet still not be able to fully accept it.

 

Stop sign 01
Stop Sign: Kirsty Hall, Jan 2011
 

But in truth, it takes a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy to uproot yourself from a relationship and a house where you've been for 15 years. To move to a brand new place and completely start over - especially when you're in your 40's and believed that you were nicely settled - is no small thing. I'm a gardener; I know that some plants romp away when replanted while others sit there for a while before they get going. And I am a real homebody, so I'm definitely the second sort of plant!

Don't get me wrong, I am immensely happy in Hebden Bridge. I feel far more at home here than I ever did in Bristol. There's an inescapable rightness to being here. Yet more than 2 and half years after moving, I am still having unsettling dreams about houses. It's not nearly as raw as it was but I'm still processing everything that happened.

“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”
― Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

 

Looking at it logically I can see that I've done loads of things since moving. My husband and I have made our new house into a home. I've slowly been making new friends and putting down tentative roots. I've created a brand new garden from our empty concrete parking space. I've lost more than 2 stone at Slimming World in the last year. I've started learning French. Last July I curated an exhibition in twenty Hebden Bridge shop windows and this May I became president of the Hebden Bridge WI, which is great fun but a lot of work. And all while suffering from ME/CFS.

But none of those things are art. And if I'm not making art, it's hard for me to feel real. It's hard to feel that I am doing anything important. It's hard to be grounded and to feel that I matter. Yes, a therapist would have a field day with that little lot!

But thankfully, the water has recently begun trickling back into my art stream again.

I've started noodling around in the studio with matchboxes and I'm planning a big summer project around those. I've been making more art jars, because apparently I'm not quite done with those yet. I bought a new bedside notebook and I'm jotting down ideas on an almost daily basis. Projects have started drifting out of the studio into the rest of the house. And I can read about art without wanting to cry.

I am coming back to my core self and the relief is immense.

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I have a scar on my left knee. It has been there for more than 30 years.

I was about 7 when I fell hard onto a Yorkshire pavement and grit worked its way deep into the graze. I raised such merry hell about having it cleaned, that my mother missed some of the dirt. There is nothing left on the surface now, just a faint black line drawn deep into my flesh but I carry a piece of Yorkshire within me. Perhaps that's why I chose to return here, like a fish heading home.

The need to make art is like this. A scar that heals but remains visible. The grit in the oyster.

Artists talk of ideas that irk and niggle away at them. 'The work just wanted to be made,' they say, 'I was haunted'.

Haunted, niggled, irked, irritated. A pearl making oysters from dirt.


Oyster with Pearl
Oyster with pearl by Max Garçia via a Creative Commons license


I recently reread some of my old sketchbooks from college and was deeply amused to read page after page where I was stuck, frustrated or worried about my work. It made me laugh because they were exactly the same things I'd been thinking about my current work.

Seeing those same emotions surfacing a decade apart, it suddenly forcibly struck me that my process is rooted in struggle. Sooner or later, I will always doubt, I will always resist, I will always feel anxious because this is how I make my art.

While I don't enjoy it, I've come to recognise that it's not a problem. Sure, it would be nice if work flowed easily from me like water from a unblocked fountain but I am not that person. I am a worrier and a maker of lists. I am often mired in procrastination, doubt and fear. Fear that the work isn't good enough, fear that it isn't interesting or valid or conveying what I want it to say. Fear that I don't have anything to say anyway and what the hell am I playing at with my silly sequins, jars and pins?

And it is easy to fear those fears and then to shy away from those hard places. But I've found I need to sit with those fears or I can't make my work. The work comes from that grit. Maybe you're the same?

On that note, if you haven't already seen it, I encourage you to watch this Louis C.K. rant about the importance of sitting with pain.


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During the summer my occasional art assistant, The Wonderful Z, helped me get my studio up and running.

I'd already carved out a studio area in my bedroom but because it hadn't been organised properly, it had devolved into a dumping ground. So we decluttered, moved furniture around and made sure that I had everything I needed within easy reach. Although I'm still very unwell, it's made a huge difference and my productivity has markedly increased.

Before:

Studio before
Studio before: Kirsty Hall, July 2013

After:

Studio after
Studio after: Kirsty Hall, July 2013

The Wonderful Z also installed a pole and hung Pelt, a pin piece that I started work on way back in 2007. It's been in storage for two years due to the house sale and move, so it was lovely to see it again.

Here's how it looked when we unwrapped it...

Pelt in progress 01
Pelt in progress: Kirsty Hall, July 2013

And here it is now...

Pelt in progress 04
Pelt in progress: Kirsty Hall, August 2013

Despite my poor health, I've been working on it slowly but steadily, mostly whilst listening to the excellent Talking Walking podcast. It may not look like much progress, but I'm happy with how it's coming along.

I'm going to cover ALL the fabric with pins. I did consider leaving some areas blank because I'm enjoying its present map-like quality but I started the piece with the intention of entirely covering it and I've decided to stick with that idea. Besides, I can always make another one if I decide I want a map related piece.

Pelt in progress 02
Pelt close up: Kirsty Hall, August 2013

Ideally I'd like to get it finished this year but that's probably unrealistic because I can only do between 20 minutes and an hour before I get too tired and sore to continue. An hour's work is a couple of square inches so there's a lot of hours to go. The trick with a time-intensive piece like this is to concentrate on what you've done and not worry about all the work still to come. I just take it one pin at a time.

Pelt in progress 03
Pelt close up: Kirsty Hall, August 2013

Right, that's enough blethering from me, I'm off to do some more pinning!


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Burnout.

I have it.

Burned-out car
Burned Out Car by Niklas. Used under a Creative Commons license

And at some point in your creative life, you've probably had it too. Creative people tend to go like the clappers and then fall down in a heap.

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.
Edna St. Vincent Millay


Candle
Candle by R!E Used under a Creative Commons license


The last two years have been immensely difficult for me. 365 Jars was an epic but gruelling art project. And then halfway through the jar project, our 14 year relationship with our ex-wife disintegrated in a very painful way. A divorce and house move followed in 2012. Oh, and our teenage son flew the nest. It was a time of harsh transitions and deep loss.

I kept myself going with willpower, sugar, caffeine and neurotic list making. I knew I was well over my limits but because of circumstances, I had to keep going until my partner and I moved house and got settled. I knew that I would fall apart when once we moved and fall apart I have.

I used to see burnout as a horrible trial, something to be grudgingly endured. And while it's true that it isn't fun to experience, it does have its place in the creative cycle. Like trees sluggish with winter sap, plants hiding underground from the frost and animals hibernating in their nests, sometimes we need to retreat, to turn in on ourselves and conserve our energy. Without a baseline level of energy, making art is impossible. You cannot create from nothing.

My word for January was 'rebooting' and that's what I've been doing. Switching myself off and seeing if I can reset myself to a healthier level. Letting myself be. Resting. Knitting. Reading. Watching documentaries. It does not come easily to me. I chafe at the restrictions my brain and body provide, I constantly butt up against my limits, I convince myself that I am rubbish and that I will never make art again. I am forced to recognise just how much of my self-image is rooted in me being an artist and how lost I am when that deserts me.

February's word has been 'completion' and I have been gently finishing off a few projects and even more gently getting involved in a new one - helping with the Hebden Bridge Rag Market. It's subtle but I can feel the burn-out gradually starting to lift.

So now my challenge for March is not to immediately throw myself into a dozen creative projects before the burnout has fully run its course.


RESOURCES

If you're also suffering from burnout, here are some resources:


Preventing burnout

How to recognise, prevent and deal with burnout in a creative job

5 ways to bring yourself back from burnout

My beloved Catherine Caine writing about overwhelm and a pragmatic approach to self care.


Take care of yourselves, my honeys, the world needs your creative visions but you have to protect and nurture yourself to bring those visions to fruition.


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Today I read yet another ‘you should only work when inspired’ comment on a post about creativity.

Wah, wah, wah. Cry me a river, newbie.

This idea that you should only work when inspired otherwise you make rubbish is a load of bollocking crap. Making rubbish is the important part.

Making rubbish is how you learn.

Making rubbish is how you improve.

Making rubbish is how you exercise your creative muscles.

All artists, even the best ones, make rubbish. The smart ones appreciate it and understand its part in the creative process.

You don’t have to show people your rubbish. But you do have to make it.

So yes, you do bloody have to show up and make your work every day - or as often as you can possibly manage.

Do you think that athletes show up for the Olympics hoping to be inspired? No, they train and train and train and then hope to do their best on the day. And when they don’t, they spend time asking themselves what went wrong and how they can do it better next time.

Splashdown
Creative Commons License photo credit: cmaccubbin

Do I believe in inspiration?

Hell yes! I’ve felt it. I know it exists. And like most artists I live for that particular drug, angel-sweet in my mind.

But I also know for a sure and solid fact that inspiration tends to show up more often when you’re already doing the work. Like a garden, inspiration grows best when the ground is tended and fertile. And that means lots of digging and a hell of a lot of manure.

Colours
Creative Commons License photo credit: Scarleth White

So get out there, my darlings and make the very best rubbish you can; you’ll grow prettier flowers in the end.


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When we moved into our house 13 years ago, the garden was so neglected that I thought I’d have to dig up the lawn just to have a few flowers. Then I started cutting back the hedge and discovered to my surprise that I already had large flowerbeds. They were just completely hidden by a ridiculously overgrown hedge and swathes of ivy, brambles and ground elder.

Garden before
Kirsty Hall: Garden after the hedge butchery but still full of brambles & ivy, May 2003

If I wanted to reclaim my flowerbeds, I had to get serious.

One of the first things I did in my garden was to completely remove three enormous leylandii trees that were shading the entire space. It was obvious that nothing very interesting would grow in such deep shade. Most flowers and vegetables need light.

Your art or business is the same. You’ve got to make space in your life for Your Wonderful Thing or nothing will grow.

If your life is full of crap, there will be no room for Your Wonderful Thing. It will be strangled to death by other people’s needs and shaded out by all those sneers and subtle little put-downs.

You’ve got to clear the ground. Get rid of that clinging, stifling ivy and those spreading brambles.

Oh, you know what I’m talking about. That friend who's oh-so-entertaining but only talks about their stuff and is mysteriously absent when you need help. That family member who pours scorn on Your Wonderful Thing and tells you to Get A Real Job. That clinging person who just won’t let go and insinuates herself into every space in your life.

Sometimes those people can be contained. There is still ivy in my garden – it’s good for wildlife & I am happy to have it on walls, trees and in the hedges - but when it starts to rampage through the flowerbeds, I know I have to pull it up or it will smother everything else.

Some people need firm boundaries or they’ll choke out Your Wonderful Thing. They won’t even mean to but they will, so you need to protect your flowerbeds. Arrange to have a pressing appointment so you can cut short that person who goes on too long. Graciously go into a conversation with that self-absorbed friend accepting that you’ll be in listening mode for an hour. Phone a different friend when you need help.

Garden after
Kirsty Hall: New shrubbery and path, May 2009

Unfortunately there are some people and situations that you simply cannot afford in your life. Not if you’re committed to Your Wonderful Thing.

After three years of pulling up ground elder, I finally realised that all I was doing was spreading the damn stuff around. It is virulent as all hell and will spread from the tiniest bit of root that’s left in the ground. And it makes a lot of roots. I’m not quite sure what the Romans were thinking when they introduced it to Britain. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Eventually I guiltily resorted to weed killer and I’m now ground elder free. Similarly I have at least one person that I cannot let back into my life even the tiniest amount because they absolutely will not accept boundaries.

I’ve dropped friends who were such drama queens that they sucked the life out of me. Sometimes I’ve been the person who’s been dropped. It is Not Fun to be on either side of that situation but sometimes it’s needful.

If boundaries won’t work & they’re killing Your Wonderful Thing, well, you have a hard choice to make.

Do you want flowers or not?