Reclaiming Creativity

As I am such a madly creative person, it’s easy to assume that art comes easily to me. In fact, I went through about an eight year drought in which I was unable to make any art. This was during the time when I was the most ill, both physically and psychologically. Various things crashed my ability to make art. Upheaval in moving houses, studio space being promised but never quite eventuating, or my art table being sabotaged by housemates who knocked drinks onto my work, borrowed and didn’t return tools, etc. Increasing illness and trying to manage work meant I culled art time as my energy gave out. As I experienced setbacks and losses in other areas of my life that shattered my self confidence, my confidence in my art also suffered. As my physical health disintegrated to the point where I was housebound, using a wheelchair, and needed assistance with meals, dressing, and bathing, art became a distant dream. I remember craving the day when I would be well enough just to work on a cross stitch for a few minutes a day.

As my health started to improve, I began to make things again, but no longer art. I couldn’t handle the severe internal criticism whenever I tried to make something of my own design, so I kept my hands busy with crafts. I also employed my creativity in an attempt to strengthen my social network. So, I didn’t paint or sculpt any more, I spent hours making birthday cards for friends. I made cross stitch where I worked with someone else’s design, and got into stamping and embossing. I learned ribbon, wool, and bead embroidery and made gifts.

A few years ago I decided to concentrate on the blocks that were stopping me from making art. I didn’t want to give away my creativity and use it to try and stay connected to friends any more, I wanted to use it to say the things that I had in my heart, and to work on becoming a professional artist. I felt like I’d allowed my voice to be taken away from me and I wanted to take it back.

Don’t get me wrong here, there’s a popular culture hierarchy that goes something like this: crafts on the bottom, then ‘low arts’, then ‘high arts’. So an oil paint is deemed to be more high art than a street performance or a loom worked tapestry, which is deemed to be better than a cross stitch project or a leather worked belt. That’s all rubbish as far as I’m concerned, the skills needed to make a knife, handle inks, sew a dress, or sculpt a face are all significant! I love and spent time on various pursuits considered crafts, and on others generally badged as arts simply because I enjoy being creative and making things with my hands. I found crafts easier to get back into than arts simply because crafts are often about skill with your hands and the material, but not so much the deeply personal aspect of designing artwork. Simply put, there was less of my own heart and soul in the crafts.

I moved back into art in small steps. Having made many crafts, I started to design my own craftwork, such as beaded earrings. This was actually really hard to do, my perfectionism was out of control and my inner critic absolutely savage. I would bead some gorgeous earrings at night and feel really excited about them, but when I looked at them the next morning I would be disgusted and filled with self contempt for my efforts. It took tremendous self control not to destroy my own work or throw away my supplies. On bad days I would have to hide it all out of sight to reduce the temptation.

A lack of self worth also crippled me, I felt like nothing I could make would possibly be good enough or of any interest to anyone else. It felt like arrogance and pretentiousness to presume to make anything.

Another huge stumbling block was attitudes about art I had taken in from some other people, that only photo-realism counted as real art, that art was pointless and meaningless and a waste of time, that if I had the energy to make art I should be out in the real world doing something useful. All art is self-indulgent navel gazing. Tied into all of that was the idea that if I’m going to be on disability support and be a drain to society, the least I can do is be deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.

This all took a bit of working through! I moved as fast as I could without causing major problems – this was actually pretty slow. Lots of small steps. When I started painting again, I got into ink paintings. I had a lovely fountain pen I used to write in my journal with, so the jump between writing poems with it and drawing shapes with it wasn’t too much. I fought perfectionism and watched docos about other artists, noticing how near-universal many of my issues were. Most artists think their own work isn’t so good, struggle with self esteem, feel intimidated by other artists etc. I started to fight back hard with my inner critic, tearing their assessments and philosophy to pieces. I also started to mimic them in silly voices to undermine their place of authority in my life. I decided that the role of an inner critic is to protect us from putting ourselves out there in a way that makes us vulnerable to external criticism, and to inspire us to produce work to the best quality. I tore my inner critic to pieces and reassembled it in a more constructive way. This was really hard work. There were a lot of days when I sat at a blank canvas for hours and dragged myself away in tears.

I also bolstered myself by keeping art around me. I bought a table easel and kept it on display all the time. It made me feel happy just to look at it, inspired joy in me instead of cringing. I started to feel like an artist again, the way I did back in my school days. I also kept a visual art diary by my bed with my journal. I noticed that when an idea came to me, my visual art side had started to wake up. Sometimes the idea would clearly be a story or a poem, sometimes now it was an image to be painted or sewn or sculptured. Sometimes it would flicker back and forth between words and image, finding a home somewhere. Sometimes I will make the same form in many different ways before I find the medium it is really supposed to be. With practice, this all became easier, like muscles getting stronger.

I started to display my creations more, wear my jewellery, hang my pictures, enter exhibitions. I bought art supplies even when I was too knotted up to use them, because the fact of having spent money on them would help me win the psychological battle to actually make some art. I worked out who the voices of my inner critic were in my life and to tackle them directly in my mind. I would sit at my art desk and visualise evicting that person from my house, locking the door on them, and denying them the right to decide how I spent my time or what sort of art I made.

I deliberately forced myself to confront stupid values that had become lodged in me. I would make myself finger paint when I got stuck with ideas about realism. I surrounded myself with imperfect objects and images that reminded me to experiment and be creative. I got away from the idea that everything I make must be to the very highest world-class standard and got drawn back into the fun of the process, of experimenting and having most of it come out weird or completely different from my expectations. I started to make peace with the aspects of my own art that I hated most – in my case one of these was my very childish representations of people and the world. I turned these into aspects of my own signature and deliberately painted in this strange childlike perspective and found that there was something in it I really liked. I let go of the idea that a work had to look like what I saw in my mind and grabbed hold of the idea that what I most wanted was for it to feel the way I felt about what I saw in my mind. I decided that the rule I’d learned “You have to learn what the rules are before you can break them” was stupid. Suddenly my manifold limitations weren’t stopping me anymore, it was pretty irrelevant how well I could mix colour or handle paint or how cheap my brushes and paper were. I could bypass all of that and make something that made me feel something.

An audience remains an aside to my own art practice. It’s lovely when someone else is moved by my work, but I don’t make them for other people. Like my poems, some will probably never be shared. Through art I share a little of my inner landscape, how I see and experience the world. I once spoke with someone who felt that art was not really art until there was an audience. I disagreed. Art that remains shut in my books and tucked away safely is still art. It does what I needed it to do, whether anyone else ever sees it, or not. And it turns out some people like my art, like to buy these little windows into my head and look at the world through my eyes for a moment. Which is wonderful, because other people seeing me as an artist has also helped me to claim that identity for myself and to find pride and joy in it. Making art is one of the things that keeps me well, that gives me a voice and connects me to my own heart. It is a way of being alive that nourishes me and gives me strength.

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