Watching the Imagine programme on Tracey Emin this week… love or hate her work… there’s no denying the power and importance of it, of her.
I’ve been writing a lot in my sketch book lately, but not necessarily the sort of writing for public consumption. Don’t get excited… that’s mostly because it’s boring.
As part of the preparatory work for the Study Days and Course I am delivering with Sarah Goudie I am trying to get myself “match fit” if you like to call it that… I can’t think of another phrase that puts it so succinctly!
So I am exploring through my writing the whys and wherefores of drawing from my own personal perspective. I have hung the drawings up in our studio’s ever improving gallery space (keep an eye out, exhibition soon!). And then I look and try to cast my mind back to where these strange and mythical beasts have come from. I’m calling them strange and mythical beasts, but they’re really not.
These drawings have grown from me and my life as naturally as a buddleia on the roof of a derelict pub. They are the portraits of long lost interactions with long lost lives and experiences. They are as familiar to me as my children. But, like my grown up children they still have the power to surprise me (Panama? Really? When? WHEN???!!!??)
So the content of the writing is not interesting to anyone but me, and of course some of it is deeply personal, as it should be when digging deep, but the reasons for doing it are ok to put out there…here…
It is important for me when asking others to dig deep and find out about their own creativity and where it might live, to know what happens when you do that. when I do that… Sarah and I have experience of these activities, and digging deep can be exposing, it can make one feel vulnerable for a while… it can reveal things to oneself that a part of the brain has kept hidden, probably for good reason. These study days can have a profound effect sometimes. Sometimes that happens on the day, sometimes a few months later. What I have found through doing it myself is that we are never really that far from ourselves. I don’t want this to sound like some ageing hippy nonsense, because I am not that sort of person. But I am the sort of person that likes my interactions to be real… whether that is with other people, or with myself.
This post follows on from comments here and elsewhere, about self-hijacking, and rule breaking.
Sometimes we set ourselves up to fail.
We hijack our own progress by setting limits and rules:
“I’m going to write in my blog once a day/week/month”… in my brain rules like this are always doomed to failure because they become aligned with work, duty, obligation… I’ve never had much of a work ethic. I shirk responsibility wherever possible. I write when I feel like it. Sometimes this is twice a day. Sometimes two months goes by. But if I write and post you can be assured it is not out of duty, but interest, because I want to say something.
I have looked at when I blog, and more interestingly when I don’t. I don’t blog if I’m waiting, or in some sort of limbo… in a changing state. Unless it is a brief post to say just that – a sort of “Out of Office” post?
Sometimes we set ourselves up to succeed.
I do set rules for the way I work with others. These might be professional ways of engagement rules which I have discovered I break at my peril. I have seen others around me crumble too under the weight of the unprofessional “Lets just do it, it’ll be fine/great/amazing… this time next year we will be millionaires!” Because in my experience, unless you establish professional rules of engagement, and expectation, of who is doing what, and how payment (if any) happens, it ends in resentment, unkindness, and murderous levels of sarcasm. It does not end in people working to their best. Failure happens through a failure to set up how we care for each other, and ourselves. Self defeating.
I set the rules for my making too. I work to them. Then I look behind me to find I have broken them and something interesting has occurred!
I’m sure I’ve laid out such rules here. I remember some of them.
The 8B pencil. The flat layout of drawing like botanical specimens. No colour. Limited colour. No colour again. The 6H pencil. Watercolour paper. Not watercolour paper… and now again the watercolour. I set the boundaries and keep going. Prolific amounts of drawing and painting.
Each material throws up a new set of qualities, and therefore a different set of boundaries and possibilities. For example, I have been working on the large roll of paper, developing a sort of narrative across it. Then I made the decision to cut the paper, limit my colour choice to alizarin crimson for one piece. it worked well. I ran out of paint, so for the next couple I used single colours. This naturally drained my stock of particular colours, so off I went to buy new. I bought a few tubes of high quality watercolour paint. I loved the Payne’s grey. And the Indian red. And then I used the yellow ochre. I was initially annoyed that it didn’t work like the others. Of course it didn’t. In a good quality paint with real pigment, the colour isn’t just about colour, it is about a material quality. I am currently in love with yellow ochre. Yellow ochre is rough, and grinds down my pencils like sandpaper when I draw over it. Payne’s grey doesn’t. When I paint Payne’s grey over the ochre it resists… oh my that is exciting. The decisions then about what I draw and where I draw become very complex indeed. And HERE…. RIGHT HERE… is why I am drawing and not stitching at the moment (will I ever go back?)
My work themes for the last ten years, (probably longer than that, but less deliberately perhaps) concern touch. How we touch each other. Physical, emotional, social, intellectual… each person touches another, a reaction happens, explosive, or slow burn, passion, hatred, or as above, murderous sarcasm.
Now I have it in the materials. Yellow ochre has no time for Payne’s grey… shrugs him off… Payne’s grey is gentle on my pencils, allows the 6H to groove across it in a ghostly fashion. The ochre is violent and aggressive… but Indian red does the bleeding… runs hurriedly across the page, making panicky changes in direction under the threat of my hairdryer. Payne’s grey dries in a beautiful naturally occurring fractal patterned manner. So there. Spiteful and sarcastic? Am I really anthropomorphising the paint?
Who needs them!?
It’s like learning a new language really… and there are levels of fluency to be achieved, from basic “one beer please” or “where is the toilet?”, to being able to express complex emotions, or write poetry.
I think any blogger would agree that it is hard to remain permanently positive…
I always said I would be an honest blogger, but sometimes that means actually not posting anything, because no one wants to hear me moan all the time do they?
Quick moan, and then perhaps an explanation…
I’m in pain with my knee. Sometimes this is low-level, ever present but manageable and mostly ignorable in terms of what I can get done. Sometimes it is the sort of pain that is shouting in my ear, and rattling my brain, making it really difficult to listen, process and respond… I’ve had a few of the latter lately, and it grinds you down doesn’t it? I know there are a few who read this who put up with similar, and worse. It’s not a competition and I’m not really looking for sympathy here. I state it in order to put things into perspective. Some days I go to the studio to be distracted from it. Some days I feel I shouldn’t drive. Some days if I got there, I’d have trouble getting up the stairs. This has an effect on my thinking about how I work, and indeed what I work on. Content, context…
I am also fortunate in that there may soon be a solution to my problem, through surgery, medication or both. So I hang on by my fingernails, trying to stay positive. But it isn’t real life that, is it?
I have been having many conversations lately about the mental health of artists, how to sustain and how to build a life, and how it may or may not be possible to earn a living. Not many artists I know, for instance make enough money (from just their art) to pay tax. That is nowhere near a living wage if you have a home and children. There is always something else that has to be done in order to pay the bills. Whether this is shelf-stacking, bar work, teaching or caring, it takes a toll on the creative self. It is easy for the creative self to be subsumed, consumed… exhausted… forgotten?
And yet, I know to my cost that this has its perils, so I now choose to not do those extra things – or rather – not too many of them. (Because I am older, this is possible now, without going into personal details.)
I have built a tool kit of ways to maintain myself, and build myself. I also now try to surround myself with people who understand what it is to maintain this part of the creative self, and we help each other along. I find it helps to explore my own nature… to go with the flow and not worry too much about when things get done. Sod the dusting, washing… even the cooking… most things can wait… including the blog writing…
This bunch are keeping me afloat at the moment… they bring me so much joy!
(photo credit Simon Meddings)
Since my last post I have taken delivery of a large roll of good quality paper… this was a gift from a very generous friend, who thought I should be drawing instead of moaning about how I couldn’t afford to order it yet. Bless her heart!
So I began to draw on it straight away, using those things I had learned from using the crappy paper. I don’t know how practical this will be, but my intention is to not cut the paper. It is five feet wide, and eleven metres long… I know the mixed measurements are unsatisfactory… sorry… but that’s what it said on the bit of paper! basically you just need to know it’s huge.
The rolled up end is propped at one end of the table, and I am unrolling it a table-width at a time. I don’t know how I’m going to manage the worked end just yet… I have already had to add a third table to my working space to take the width of it. I surround the table with chairs and I move from one to another while I work. This is how I wanted it. The motifs have increased in scale a bit, naturally, but the drawing is still happening within the sort of area encased by my arms when I adopt the “don’t copy my answers” pose. Each section of drawing takes about a day, and the choices are made according to mood, outlook and levels of belligerence. I think I’m getting somewhere. There is a tightness… I like that… but there’s lots of it… which lends a sort of relentlessness to it. It is a bit like a diary… a bit… each section a statement of the day. Each section a measurement of sorts, concerning sleep~pain~love~sex~death~joy so some days are dark and tight.
Other days are ethereal and wispy and loose. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Meanwhile… perhaps this is also included in the feel of the drawings… is the state of limbo. I wait.
This afternoon I met a printer, and we talked about this distant mythical publication that may or may not happen. I had this glorious conversation about bindings and mixed paper stock and stitching and hand-painted/drawn end-papers, and short run feasibility. And then I sighed, I said “I’ll let you know”, we shook hands and parted company. It was one of those pivotal meetings, but there is also a sense I might never see him again!
I could have carried on for a while, but my stamina was flagging as I think I’ve found out what I wanted to know.
A large drawing is a problem for me… I have to know WHY I’m going bigger. Bigger isn’t a good enough reason on its own I don’t think. It has to achieve something.
Anyway… I found a reason… or two. I wanted the shapes and motifs to relate to each other over a space, but didn’t want to draw them smaller, or to hang them together, I wanted them on the same surface. I also wanted to create a sort of narrative. I had noted how the drawings changed, and their content and mood changed depending on what was happening in the other parts of my life, so I wanted to see if the story worked as a story.
What I discovered from this 14 day (ish) experiment is that the narrative element works, and the overlapping relationships work. What I didn’t like, and the thing which has led me to this morning’s halt is that the quality of the outcome isn’t working for me.
I suppose as a textiles person, the feel is important… how I touch the paper and how the paper touches me is a vital part of the work. How the materials interact with each other is crucial, because in these drawings it is the interactions which give the pencil the starting point. Those interactions are what I stare into, to see the drawing that it will become. All a bit wanky perhaps, but there it is. That’s my truth. I could have said self-indulgent, but that’s my truth too. It isn’t. But I say it to ward off those who might. I beat myself so they don’t need to beat me. This is a thing I am hoping to stop. This is why I am pointing it out. If I notice it, I can stop it BEFORE I say it or write it.
I digress…although it isn’t a digression, it might actually be the nub of the matter…
Things I like about this piece, now I’ve hung it on the studio wall, with my feet on the desk cup of tea in hand: The narrative element does work. I like the colours. I like some, but not all of the pencil marks. I like the way the shapes are starting to relate.
Things I don’t like about it: The paper is cheap and crappy. It has no character, so it doesn’t work hard enough, doesn’t pull its weight. The paint hasn’t settled into it, so leaves busy marks. This means I can’t see the points in the texture of the paper, highlighted by the paint, where I should start making marks. So for the most part, they are coming from my head, rather than being suggested by the materials. I’m possibly the only one that would know this. But it is this sort of integrity that I want. I don’t want it to just LOOK this way, I want it to BE this way. The pencil lines, because of the lack of surface interest, have made holes. The thin paper doesn’t like a 6H pencil. So therefore also, it won’t then take the depth of tone I want to give it with the 8B pencil…
As a piece, it is a sketchbook piece, an experiment. It’s just full of self-importance because it is large. (I call it the Trump Effect).
So what I need to do next is get bigger, better paper, and do it properly.
Troublesome and Torturous
I have used both these words this morning to describe my drawing.
I’ve moved the drawing from the single sheets of thick-textured cartridge or watercolour paper to a roll of cheap stuff. The cheap stuff does not take watercolour paint well. I am wrestling with it.
But the wrestling is very informative in terms of my ability to control and manipulate my materials and learn what is (im)possible. It doesn’t take kindly to a 6H pencil either. It has puncture wounds.
What I find though is that I am forgiving of it. First of all, unrolling a large piece of paper allows the drawing to be rather more narrative, things relate and influence and have an effect. These are not individual events or individual people, these are sociable, messed up crowds of people… some of whom really don’t get on. The analogy of drawing to life is abundant here. So I AM forgiving the rubbish nature of these materials, because at the moment, rubbish materials that don’t work properly and throw up the unexpected are perfectly analogous to my life.
I am also forgiving myself. I have the tendency to want to produce the perfect, regardless of the context. I want to do a perfect drawing or stitch a perfect line, on good materials, to create something impressive. Sometimes this can be at the cost of the concept and the context. So this is good for me. Life is not perfect. Do I want my drawing to LOOK torturous or do I want it to BE torturous?
I am treating this nasty cheap roll of paper with care and forgiveness. It suffers.
Analogy ahoy… I’ve just been told that my troublesome and torturous knee will undoubtedly need a third lot of surgery, and if I’m lucky I will get injections while I wait. It is troublesome. I never know from one day to the next or even sometimes one hour to the next, if it will work without causing excruciating pain. I plan life accordingly. I park outside the door, even if I feel ok, because later on, when I come to exit, a 500 yard walk back to the car might prove impossible. I am EXTREMELY GRUMPY about the whole thing. I wanted the doctor to give me a golden pill to take, that would make it all instantly better. Not unreasonable huh?
So then… these drawings are just the thing. This troublesome and torturous blob of blue is turning into a nightmare. But I’ve blobbed a bit more Prussian blue (the colour of sleep?) over it and left it to wrinkle up under the weight of the water and dry out in time, not with a hairdryer… I’ve let it rest. I won’t rip it out as I first thought, no, I will allow it to calm itself before I take pencil to it again on Thursday.
On the way home from the studio we called in at Sainsbury’s. In the car park we were cut up by a sour-face looking woman in a tatty old Ford Fiesta. Yellow (the colour of pain?).
“She looks happy!” Sarked my husband.
“I expect she’s got a bad knee” said I, with unaccustomed good grace and forgiveness.
The good thing about pressing the submit button is that at last you can forget about it for a while. (Apart from the occasional cold-sweat moment when you are SURE you have left out something crucial.)
There. Done. The rest is up to someone else now. I’ve worked on it, researched, spoken to lots of people, got other people to read bits of it. It has actually been months in the making. I’ve done my best. In six weeks time I either to get to re-do bits of it and resubmit, or I get the money and can get started.
I remember this little hiatus from last time. It’s Schrodinger’s Arts Council Funding Application. During these weeks I can exist in a state of funded/not-funded. All things are possible. I could talk about probability and such. But the only thing definite is that if you don’t press the button, you don’t get the money. So I make myself do it. I have nothing to lose and much to gain. But we artists know about rejection and failure better than we know success (most of us anyway). So there is a real pull to NOT do all that work, for no pay, on the off chance… because that feeling is more familiar, it is the devil we know.
There’s also the feeling that I shouldn’t tell people I have applied, because then I will have to tell them if I fail. But the thing is, most people who know me personally, or those who know me closely enough on a professional basis will know too, because it’s pretty likely that I’ve asked them to read the form!
Also… if you have read much of this blog you will know that I am not that person. I am not that artist that pretends I only know the cool people, do the cool stuff, get in the cool shows and earn the cool money, without having to do things like stack shelves, wash cars, work in education or health, walk dogs, child mind, wait on tables. I know artists who do all these things. I have done most of them. But some keep that hidden, for fear of not being regarded highly by the Real Art World. Bollocks to that. I hope that this blog is a bit more down to earth. Yes, I like to bask in a bit of glory occasionally, but I like to think that I’ve earned the right, by also letting you see me make an idiot of myself, fall flat on my face and haul myself back up to give it another go when I’ve had a period of mourning and moaning. Oh boy can I moan!
So yes, I tell you. I have been writing, budgeting, negotiating, discussing, researching, refining, rewriting and editing over a period of months in order to get this form in a condition that I am happy to submit it. Ten minutes after pressing submit, I HAVE remembered something I should have included. Too late now. I tell you because this is the reality isn’t it? We are (most of us) not cool. I am certainly not cool. But I do plug away at stuff. I do work. I do try.
I have come to realise that representation is important. We need to see ourselves in the positions we would like to inhabit. Whether you are black, white, disabled, gay, young, old, male, female, single, married, a parent, a child, fat, thin, bald or hairy, ugly or beautiful, and all the glorious and infinite combinations of all the above and more, we want to see someone that makes us think something is achievable, and that we have the right to be there.
So all you 57 year old, fat, grey-haired weary women of Serbian-Irish descent, with hedge-hair, dodgy knees and slightly strange dress sense… I am here, representing you by applying to the Arts Council for a grant. I might get it, I might not. But I’m having a go, and if I can, you can.
Be The Tenth Woman.
Break out of the mould.
Be terrified, and do it anyway.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?