Sunday, 12 May 2019

Gone to ground

In April, I went to Venice. My first trip out of the UK since the South India trip in 2013. The image above was made while I was there, awash with impressions...

It reminded me how much I, as a solitary worker, need input, if I'm to keep working. And for some reason the input has to come from beyond my normal, everyday geographical and cultural environment. It's always been this way.

The first image I made after coming back was this one, which for some reason received a title:

'Foxy was indeed delighted to be in Venice'

The next day, I made another:

And then I hit a period of insomnia, which seems to be, amongst other things, challenging me to completely reframe the way I work.

I'm holding off from my usual responses, the ones which made the images above.  Instead I'm exposing myself to fragments of Venice, and just sitting in the midst of them. I've not been posting about this process, because it's a process, and I want it to be in some way private.

This is an interesting impulse in a world of social media, and particularly for me, who refuses to engage in gallery showing or regular exhibition creation. Without social media, my images are unseen. I make for myself, but in the end, what I make is my gift to the world - it wants to be seen.

But now I need to explore what happens when what I make is not immediately shared. Not because I make to share, but because I want to immerse myself in a different kind of process.

For the moment I'll only be sending occasional dispatches from the underworld. I don't fully understand why I even want to send occasional dispatches, but it's something to do with keeping an oxygen line to the surface as I go down.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Dinnae tread on ma seeds

I've never really thought before about what I feel when people come into my house and walk right into my studio.
It occurs to me that it's like walking into the mind of a writer... and you can't do that, can you? With a writer you only get to see what they actually produce, and even then they get to choose whether or not to share with you.
My studio is not a art gallery, it's the inside of my mind. There's a whole lifetime of experience, hanging in the air. There are seeds, jostling for position. There are eggs, waiting to hatch.
I should be very careful about who I allow to come in here.

Friday, 11 January 2019

A year of creative ease

I'm nearing the end of reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic; Creative Living Beyond Fear, a book that I bought two years ago, on both my Kindle and as hard copy (!), and which I had never picked up until a few days ago.

I've also just discovered Yoga with Adriene, another resource that many of my friends already know about, but which is new to me. The genius of this woman is not only her lightness and authenticity, but her generosity in providing free videos such as 'Yoga for when you are stuck' and other such cleverly-focussed gems.

For both of these inspirations I have to thank the fabulous and supremely dedicated visual artist, my friend Megan Chapman, who herself records a Studio Video Blog and writes a Friday Studio Visit blog every single week.

As I'm reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book, I keep saying to myself, 'this is it, this is what I've been saying to myself and boring my friends with for years, this is my philosophy....' I'm so grateful to her for writing it out for me.

In this culture, surrounded by so many different models of creative process, so many of which are dysfunctional, at least for me, I can lose track of what I know. So this morning, inspired by the three people above, I'm thinking about taking one idea about creative ease, whenever I feel like it, and exploring it here.

I personally can't tie myself to a regular day or a promise of any kind of systematicity. But I may write something here, from time to time, as I feel the need for its guidance and inspiration. As always, I will be writing it for me, but putting it into the blog format because a) sometimes other people seem to like that, and b) because it makes me think and write differently from when I write in a journal.

The first thing I have to say about this intention is that it may come to nothing. Many people like to set themselves goals and intentions, make schedules, discipline themselves firmly in all kinds of ways that work brilliantly for them.

Such things are the death of creativity for me. I disciplined myself firmly for over twenty years as a teacher and an academic writer - I know how productive I can be when I'm being asked to create to a deadline. But I'm not now trying to 'be productive' within those kinds of externally-applied constraints. I'm not interested in productivity.

I'm interested in a particular kind of form and content; something that arises, sometimes, out of the interactions that I daily consist of as a biologically specific, open, dynamic system, interacting with and being produced by my history and my environment at every moment of my cellular life.

This type of system is moved along by emergence; a curious and untrackable event or change of state/behaviour, which in humans is particularly difficult to understand because they're dynamic open systems with consciousness, so they can choose to act up themselves.

Emergence helps me to understand why so much of human behaviour seems to sabotage whatever the human is wanting or planning for. In my head, for example, I may be sure that what I need is to produce a series of ten paintings on the subject of x, when at that moment what my whole system (emotional, biological, physical, dreamworld, psyche...) actually needs for its own flourishing is for me to step away from the paints and lie on the floor for half an hour. The normal animal process of responding to the body's communications about what it needs is sabotaged by conscious thinking, and that's when things start to get messy.

I see much of human creativity as emergence. I can't make an idea come, I never know what kind of image is going to show up on the page, or whether the image will work for me or not when it does. In a very real sense, I have no control over the process.

Emergence is mysterious in terms of not being something that can be causally understood or deliberately controlled, but it does take place within constraints. People often forget this when they talk about dynamic systems; an elephant cannot produce emergence in the form of a snake, though the reason for its suddenly violent behaviour may not be easy to track back to any specific cause.

My last ten years have been a study of how to create conditions for the emergence of images, movement forms, sounds and words that satisfy my 'need to make things', as Elizabeth Gilbert would say. It's a tricky and elusive process, as it doesn't respond to plans or intentions. In my case, it's actually usually sabotaged by plans and intentions.

An example of this is me deciding earlier this week that I would put myself on 'a residency', here in my own residence, for one to two weeks. A friend had asked if I was going to apply for a residency somewhere, and, instead of saying my normal, 'oh, no, that kind of thing doesn't interest me' I listened to the idea and asked myself whether it might be time to check in that I still believed this. I was unconsciously looking for a way to focus back in after a year of total distraction, and this seemed like it could be a good idea. Why not?

I set out with the best of intentions, keeping in mind everything I've learnt about not pressuring myself, not working endlessly without regard to my physical body, making space around things, remembering to stop, varying my activities - everything that a ten year study of personal process had taught me.

By the evening I could feel in my body that something was badly wrong. I couldn't say what it was. I had done everything right by my own subtle rule book. But by midnight I realised that I had to jettison the entire idea of 'a residency'. I saw that I had taken a normal, external, institution-based idea and had tried to apply it to an organic being that has just spent ten years escaping from the effects of accepting normal, external, institution-based demands after a life before that of remaining free of them. It felt like I had thrown a net over myself.

Writing about creative ease may or may not work out. I need to try it out, because I don't know where it will lead. It might lead nowhere. But how can I know if I don't try? And I can only even consider it because I didn't sit and plan to do it with my mind.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

'Our living networks are not places of omnibenevolent oneness'

'We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.
Because life is network, there is no “nature” or “environment,” separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with “others,” so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory. We are not, in the words of the folk hymn, wayfaring strangers traveling through this world. Nor are we the estranged creatures of Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads, fallen out of Nature into a “stagnant pool” of artifice where we misshape “the beauteous forms of things.” Our bodies and minds, our “Science and Art,” are as natural and wild as they ever were.
We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.
Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.'
David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees

Friday, 25 May 2018

the rock pool

I am currently reading Twyla Tharpe, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life. I've just finished chapter 3, 'Your creative DNA', in which she talks about finding out what your patterns and inclinations are, the thing that it's right for you to do.

In that chapter there's a questionnaire. I got to number 25 no problem... no surprises... nothing I hadn't thought about before.

Then no 26: When you work, do you love the process or the result?

I wrote yesterday that everything is process; that process is all there is. I know this to be true, but the slant of this question was clever, because my response to what I love turns out to be the product.

It's my love of the product that motivates me. My excitement about what appears; lines on the page, shapes and forms. This is also what can stuff me up, because I want so much from every line, every smudge of paint. Lines and smudges are pregnant, bursting with mystery; ciphers, codes containing the world and everything in it. I can scarcely bear the fullness of them.

In the end, though, while the binary extremes of 'product' v 'process' are useful for stimulating thought or having a conversation, they're not really very helpful.

And then there's input.

I can dive into the history and present of my experience, looking for shapes and forms and codes. For ten years, I swam, picking stones up from the ocean floor, noticing where the light from the surface cast its beam through the gloom, turning over the things I found.

Now I have a vocabulary. I have a language, a means of processing. And it's no longer enough to be swimming down here alone. I'm bored of my own tropes. Well, not bored, but they need energy from beyond me to bring the language to life. They need the breath of interaction.

My language does not exist to be a conduit from the closed container of 'me'. Because there is no closed container. All of my symbols and shapes and forms, the desire of my line to flow, these things are not products of a closed system, an entity that is singular.

They flow into the vessel of me, like tidal waves eddying into a rock pool. The energy of the wave sweeps around the edges of the pool, causing deep maroon fringes of anemone to ripple, tiny green fronds of algae to wave and breathe, and then the wave is gone, sucked back out into the sea.

In the rock pool there are objects, living molluscs, things attached to the smooth stone; for moments, or months, or aeons. And there is every kind of non-attached, or partially-attached thing. Slime and weed and viscous transparent texture; visible, part visible, invisible living forms, packed in fractal layers, interlocking jigsaws of living material and tiny creatures.

Without the inflow of the waves, the pool is nothing. If the tides no longer visited, if the waves ceased their pulsing visitations, their in and out, in and out, the pool would die within a few hours.

So now I wait for the waves.

And they come. Invitations, opportunities, chance openings - invaginations from the flux, momentary involutions creating vessels for new forms, new flows. I am a vessel, but nothing that emerges was made by a me. I am a student, studying the art of holding my coat open.*

(* An old story about three men on a windy cliff top. One of them is near the edge with wads of paper money. The other two are standing further back, downwind from the man on the edge. The man with the money suddenly throws it all up into the air. The wind catches the notes, scattering them in all directions, towards to the two men. One of the men starts running around, grabbing at the air, chasing the notes, trying to catch as many as possible. The other man slow opens his coat....)

Thursday, 24 May 2018

You are the eye of the universe, looking at itself

A friend wrote to me yesterday with some questions.

How did you, or indeed did you decide what form your art would take?

I never decided. It was more like a process of elimination. Not this, no, not this. Not this portrait, not this landscape, not this oil paint, not this art game, not this bohemian posing, not this boring still life. Now I see that those rejections were the key to everything. Not accepting what the culture, the art college, the friends, the gallery, the critic, told me was art, or worthwhile art. 

By noticing tiny moments, and trying to stay true to the feeling of them. I remember staring into a tree trunk in Italy and feeling something moving, in it and in me. Some deep mystery. I had no idea what it was, but nothing else would do. Better to stop making art completely than listen to other people or continue with work that didn't move me.

How did you decide what you wanted to communicate through your work?

I didn't. I don't try to communicate anything. I make images that interest me, or that seem at least to hold a promise of interest. In some ways I think I started trying to make images that I wanted to look at, because I was so uninterested and unmoved by most of the art that came my way.

I don't know what I'm working with most of the time. Sometimes I can make sense of it with hindsight. What actually appears shows me what I'm interested in, I don't decide it. I need to remain open and interested, and just DO SOMETHING. Not care so much what comes out, move on if I don't like it.

I encounter many doubts and fears. The critic is always sitting on my shoulder ready to laugh at my efforts. That's mainly ego, trying to keep me safe, safe from being ridiculed. But if I try to make art that fits with some idea of what I think art should be my art is boring, to everyone, including myself. We don't need more repetition of old cultural tropes.

I also did a very personal piece about my family but that somehow feels self-indulgent and actually quite private.

The personal is where interesting art begins. You can decide later whether or not you want to show it to anyone, or show and explain. One way of seeing it is that your art is the wisdom and depth of all of your experience trying to talk to you, as dreams try to talk, or symptoms of chronic illness. That's interesting, to you. Your system wants this exploration, it wants you to dive into yourself, into the everything of yourself, to follow its leads, to see where it wants to take you. 

Follow your personal fascinations. So what if a thousand people have painted a rock pool? What area of the rock pool makes you catch your breath? You don't have to tell anyone, just find that response in yourself. Start with this. Work out what to show and what to tell much, much later. 

This is a conversation between you and the universe. You are its mirror, its own eye, looking at itself. Find that private ecstasy, that connection, that fascination. Follow and follow and follow. See where it takes you. Forget about anyone else.

I love the process but not sure at all about the product.

It's all process. This doesn't mean that you want to burn any product that results. Products come, you assess them, note them, then carry on. Don't linger on them, at least not at first. Later, linger on them, but as an adventure of seeing and feeling, and adventure of your most private self. What thrills you? What works here, but not here? The answer to that question is your guide. You're on an exploration into the heart of things, using your body and mind as a portal. Ultimately it's a flow, something continuous, which gradually takes over from your conscious mind with all its intentions and desires.

And the strange thing is, that though so much in the culture will tell you that this all sounds very indulgent and self-oriented, it turns out that what comes from this starting point seems to have more likelihood of touching other people as well.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


In some traditions of Indian image-making the image-maker (shilpin or shilpini) has to purify and prepare themselves in order to make themselves into a suitable vessel for the activity they are about to perform.

Shilpa (शिल्प) refers to any art or craft in ancient Indian texts, while Shastra means science. 
Together, Shilpa Shastra means the science of art and crafts. The ancient Sanskrit texts use the term Shilpin (शिल्पिन्, male artist)[6]and Shilpini (शिल्पिनी, female artist)[7] for artists and crafts person, while Shilpani refers to works of arts of man.[1]
Shilpani, works of art of man,
imitate the divine forms,
by employing their rhythms,
they metrically reconstitute,
and interpret the limitless knowledge,
of the sacred hymns,
from the limits of being human.
— Aitareya Brahmana, Rig Veda, 6.5.27[8][9]
The meaning of Shilpa, according to Stella Kramrisch, is complex. She writes that it consists of "art, skill, craft, labor, ingenuity, rite and ritual, form and creation."[1][10] The range of crafts encompassed by the term Shilpa extends to every aspect of culture, includes sculptor, the potter, the perfumer, the wheelwright, the painter, the weaver, the architect, the dancer, the musician, the arts of love, and others.

All of the arts were/are one with each other, part of the same thing, and all of the arts were/are one with daily life and living. Indians do not, even to this day, naturally recognise a distinction between what we separate into 'secular' and 'religious'.

When you wake in the morning, you might do a ritual that makes you listen to the early morning sounds, which helps to remind you that you are breathing, and calms your mind before it starts to make lists for the day ahead.

If you're a woman in a village you might step outside your hut and make a pattern in your doorway with ground white rice, with the intention of inviting auspicious forces to come towards you for the coming day.

video link in text above image

People in India perform all kinds of alignment practices as a way of grounding themselves in their ordinary day to day lives.

Many of these practices act to intensify the sense of everything in the world (and its generative forces, however you understand these - the laws of physics or God...) being connected and embedded into everything else. The practices act to bring the relatedness of everything into the field of awareness, an awareness that includes all of the sensations of the body.  For example, a person may feel that God is everywhere and that He/She can be seen and worshipped in any form in any place, or indeed in the formless. That person may still on some days go to a temple rather than worship at the altar in their home, if they feel that they need some extra-concentrated awareness of what and where they are.

In this context, anyone can make an image. At the same time, there are people who have the specialised  task of making images, which are largely made to serve other people's 'helping you to connect up' intensification practices.

I am one of these people. This is why I think of myself as a shilpini (image maker) rather than as an artist in the 21st century AngloAmerican sense.

In order to make images that will serve my purpose, I need to be aligned.