Coming Out of the Closet about Creativity
I have stretched the boundary of this ”travel blog” many times before – and I’m about to do it again. I’ve always advocated that blog’s are at their best when they are up close and personal – and whilst I have shared the death of my mother, blogged whilst depressed or scared and under fire in Iraq and even Tweeted my wedding – there is somewhere I haven’t gone yet.
You may or may not know that I am an artist. I wear the label like an alcoholic wears Johnnie Walker (hidden in the drawer or tucked into an inside pocket) . I was born with the affliction (it was a genetic disorder handed down from my grandfather via my mother), and whilst it does on occasion cause joy, in the main it is more akin to a frantic compulsive obsessive disorder. It is only by associating my creativity with healing, provision of comfort for others or political meaning that I have felt comfortable even talking about it. Usually I feel self indulgent and a bit mentally ill when the passion to create takes over. Hence I barely talk about it. At least not in any depth.
Last year I was turned down for an Arts Council grant – largely because I presented my proposal as a community cohesion project and neglected any reference to my own artistic development. They must have viewed me as someone trying to meet a cold political aim with technical application of my skills. I said nothing about myself. The project may have been about tolerance and diversity, but it said little about what I, as a living breathing artist could contribute or about my mental approach to my craft. Perhaps because, like a drug addict, I am loath to admit I am a “user” (of the paint brush).
My creativity does relate to my travels – so perhaps safe to talk about it on my anonymous travel blog. In the 36 countries I have visited, I have painted or sketched in every one of them. A nomadic closet-artist. On occasion I have exhibited my work – the British Council kindly sponsored a solo show of my self-indulgence in Slovakia in the 1990s. And my beloved Sri Lanka has been host to more than one of my exhibitions (along with other “users”). I’m getting used to the whole humiliating ritual of painting in private and then hanging things on the wall for friends and strangers to look it. It feels very “show offy” and I liken it to an AA session. My name is Nomadic and I’m an artist.
So here is the bit that I missed out of the Arts Council proposal. A few weeks ago I was approached by a retired ballet dancer and asked if I could paint his portrait. He asked me about the process – what was involved. I’m not used to sharing this, but once I started talking you couldn’t shut me upnd I realised I had a need to share.
If I paint a portrait of someone I don’t ask them to sit in a pose for hours as I stand pompously before them with my canvas, stroking my chin and squinting at the subject. Rather I spend time with the subject, watching how they move, how they talk, what makes them laugh, sometimes witnessing uneasiness, sensing flaws, and understanding what moves them, what makes them tick. I listen. I look. I may record the encounter with a couple of sketches and photographs, but this is more of a record to jog the memory of the empathy and intimacy discovered.
Then I return to my studio (a room at the back of my garage with paint spattered cheap carpet and the faint odour of nicotine from smoking times past). I will probably do a fair amount of thinking and “sleeping on it” before I begin. I usually begin with a basic layout plan, although this may change. I alternate between sessions using a thick pallet knife, a broad brush, a fine brush and sometimes fingers. I rub paint onto canvas, scratch into it, or daub it. The wonderful thing about oils is the freedom to move it around the canvas – it’s fluidity. I use fine washes and I use thick blobs. Some paintings will take months to complete, and each session of work will have a different mood, a different feeling, another layer. My work is very much about the process and the emotion involved. By the time I am nearing the end, I have very much fallen in love with the subject. I feel I “know” them better almost than they know themselves. This is the creepy, stalker-bit, which I usually keep covered. It’s not a sexually or needy love – but a love of that person as a human-being. So yes, it’s true to say I love Derrick Ashong, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham and even John Humphrys although I have never told them so.
After my mum died it was a good few months before I could contemplate creating portraiture and I turned to nature and began looking at trees and all things growing. I felt completely “in tune” and empathetic to my environment – as I believe extreme stress and mental disturbance can generate. I found pretty quickly that the process of expressing this feeling on canvas was pretty similar to when I painted a portrait. I began to fall in love with the apple tree in my garden, with the grass growing and my son’s potato plants (even though we planted them too close together).
I’m not sure what to do with this love but channel it through art and for the first time, talk about it here. The power of it scares the hell out of me – but it is very passive. At most I may shed a tear as I paint (a recent painting of Mary/Maryam mother of Jesus/Isa generated many of those, for she is in everywoman and I am she).
You probably find it very odd that this passion (or “Junoon” as a new friend would call it) is more difficult to write about than the loss of someone close, romantic love of my husband, or my own mortality. These things I write about, usually because I know that other people share this. I know that by sharing my own grief, love and fears that I will be providing comfort to others. But by sharing the intense-up-closeness-generated in the act of painting I feel I am stating my difference. What marks me out from others. I may appear a bold individual soul, but inside I really do just want to be like everyone else. I anticipate readers will mutter “huh….that’s wierd” or “bit creepy, I hope the freak doesn’t want to paint my portrait”, but I hope, just maybe, that there is someone else out there who shares this spiritual high. Someone who gets what on earth I am talking about. Who can weep with joy and understanding at a tree, or a face or the wind.
So, Arts Council, yes it is about the process. The meaning. The feeling. The insanity. The high. Don’t expect me to be putting into a turgid funding application any time soon though.
This boundary stretching travel blog will be back on course after a short interlude of non-travel. A few weeks should do it.