Art and cages

Catch 22. My week goes on and I find myself captured and ensnared by ideas that make me bleed anxiety. Failure is everywhere and I’m driven before it like a horse into a blizzard, numb with ice and hot with panic. I’m bound and can no longer run, I cannot fly, or swim, or even breathe. My mind is not my own anymore, full of cages so small my soul is squeezed between wires, it makes the sound of a violin screaming.

I find sometimes that I can name the cage and thus reduce its power. It becomes transparent or rather, I transcend it by no longer believing in it. It does not work if I try to force it or fake it.

‘Work’ is the name of one cage that’s killing me. I stumble into college through drizzle, so desperately afraid I can barely breathe, so overwhelmed with despair it is an effort to put each foot in front of the other, and think to myself – to feel this way about a day spent making art – something is deeply wrong with the way I’m looking at the world. And I named the trap – work, and asked myself how it would feel if, that day I did not work at art but instead, dreamed things into existence. And some small bird in me took flight.

I sat in class sketching designs about death and the lights were painfully bright and the students laughed around me and my heart was so heavy with sorrow I felt like I had a broken egg in my chest and all the yolk was oozing inside me. How can they make art in the daylight? I ask myself. How can they think death is here, invoked here under these lights? They laugh and they work studiously or lazily, they talk of faraway places. I’m sketching a hill in which little cats are buried and a woman holding her dead tiny unformed baby and my heart is breaking. And I find the name of the next cage, and it is ‘Art’.

Another student is kind to me and she talks of her studio back home where art was a kind of spiritual practice, not a product made to be assessed or sold, and it’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone making art the way I do and I feel less alone. We talk about how hard it is to sell works that are so much a part of us, and tells me of feeling physical pain when an artwork of hers was cut. I think of phantom limb pain and hysterical pregnancies and all the ways we map things into our own mind and body as part of us.

She tells me that my work reminds of her of the work of the female surrealist artists and I’m surprised that I didn’t even know there were any female surrealist artists and then I’m sad I didn’t know that. I look a few up on my phone and discover one had psychotic episodes, like me.

After the class, I go into the sculpture studio just to be there and smell it. I chat a little with my favourite tutor and the words lay in my mouth like huge, fat river stones: ‘does my art count as art? Why??’ but I don’t ask them, I carry them home in the bus with me, accepting that doubt and grief are part of this.

That evening my friend comes over and we play games and something that’s been shut up tight all week finally blooms and the fear lifts like fog in the sunlight and I can breathe again. I realise that we’re wearing the wrong clothes to college, that those clothes that are suitable to get ink stains on we usually wear camping and those parts are heartsick in buildings and lost in the city, far from home and a world that makes sense. I don’t have many other clothes that we can risk ruining, but we’ll try different shoes and see if that helps. Or we’ll try face paints. I’m afraid but determined to walk my own path.

One of my tutors hates the stories about mad artists, the mythology of genius disgusts her – and for good reason, it’s so often false, cynically manipulated, obscuring sad or banal truths, or creating edifices of snobbery… Not that snobbery isn’t everywhere in Art. But for some of us there’s some truth to the madness and the not fitting, some of us do not make our art in the daylight or about daylight matters. Consciousness is linked in a way I do not yet understand and I won’t have that link broken and destroyed by their endless rationality.

I stood in a street last week, feeling deeply sad and music played and spoke to me, it called me and I came and found the sound of the crowd and the sound of the fountain wove through it to create a unique symphony, a piece of theatre that would never be recaptured. Most walked past or through but some like me were snared as if on hooks, tugged to a stop and drawn in. We sat or stood in a half moon around the musician and listened with ears tuned to another world. It was no longer day but another place, no longer ordinary, but a moment beyond. So few of us stopped. Like dogs with ears tuned to a pitch their humans cannot hear, we could not go on without acknowledging the music, while so many others could not hear it.

I do not know what it means, only that the world is a strange place and at college is a strange place and I do not wish to become someone who cannot hear the music or someone who makes art in the day.

4 thoughts on “Art and cages

  1. … my own experience has been that for over 10 years after a Great Experience of Being – a bit like your ‘The Whole World Speaks to Me’ – therewere no major projects – not successful ones anyway, some pointers in Great Moments and a few very important blissful encounters – but the rest often felt like pretty dull and grey… I put that down to not yet being in the right place to respond fully – inside as well as out. Although I cringe at some of my eccentric behaviour during that time, I am coming to understand the cringeing now more as due to an over-sensitive conscience than anything particularly dreadful having been done… Gradually, over the last few years, some of the things I do feel more grounded, and in surprising places… Last week I met a woman who “reminded me” immediately of you – she gave the Haiku workshop. She is probably round 50 – and shining. Yet, centred and with some depth – an artist in her field. I won’t even begin telling you what she had to go through to get there..


  2. Beautifully written, Sarah. I experienced every moment with you and remembered having similar feeling/experiences, mostly long ago now as I had to learn to survive in a world that never fitted my reality. It was not possible for me to survive feeling like I had no skin; no barrier between my soul and the pain I saw all around me. Even joy or love could be overwhelming. Life is more peaceful and fulfilling now that my core self is better protected and my soul is safer. Shalom. Millie

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  3. … listening… –
    …”their endless rationality…” shows you the bended and broken frame you can fill to spilling over with fresh art your way: Allowing the world to speak to you beyond those boundaries.It may mean protecting yourself with the help of your own rationality -?


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