what happens to our work when we die?

The short answer: Nothing much.Santa.jpg

The long answer:

Recently I attended the memorial service of an architect.  While it was sad that she wasn’t with us, it was wonderful to find out about her life outside the profession.  It seems she was a well loved mother, grandmother and neighbour.  She was constantly doing creative and ‘crazy things’ in the home and with her family- those are what made her so special.  Very little was said about her professional work.  It has been said, ‘No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business’ and as we age, perhaps our external world becomes less important than our internal world.  We are all creative beings and until the day we die, we are always creating.  If we are not creating external works like writing, painting, photography or design, we are creating things inside our head. My father who suffers from dementia is constantly creating wonderful fantasies in his head all the time. Once I used to rush to ‘correct’ him but now I go along with his stories, it is so much more fun.

We constantly devalue our lives inside the home while we value the life lived outside.  Our feelings, achievements and success are all linked to external things.  Social media also has enhanced this tendency for external validation with ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and other symbols. But way back in 1935, pioneering artist, author, illustrator, and translator Wanda Gág wrote ‘Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework’. The man who thinks he does more or better work than his wife, swaps places with her and then gradually realises the value of house work.  I remember this story so well as a teenager when I came across it and thanks to a friend who reminded me of this book again, I have started to value my life inside my home and also inside my body.  I have started valuing things I do in the community where I live, the conversations I have with my children and family, with friends and neighbours.

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While David Shrigley’s ‘Memorial’, a gigantic stone slab featuring items from a grocery list such as paper towels, bananas, tampons, etc. erected in New Yorks’s Central Park, might be a step too far to celebrate the mundane, it does highlight the lack of attention to our everyday in a subtly clever way.  Last week, I also met with an Australian designer and as we talked, we discovered we had much more in common that we thought.  It wasn’t about work- our lines of work were very different- but the sharing of our personal lives and things we did.  After all, our creativity is unique, but our humanity is common.  That is what lives on after we die. Santa’s memorial involved not only the usual food and speeches but also a disco just ‘because that’s the way she would have wanted it’.  Wonderful- many thanks to Santa for sharing her life with us, even in death.

Creative soiree One 2016

After many requests to restart the creative soiree sessions I had organised last year, we finally had one yesterday. What a gathering- architects, documentary film makers, theatre artists, fine artists from six different countries or ethnicities (one from Homs, Syria). Some people had brought with them works of art and books that inspired them (Living out Loud by Keri Smith, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron; and Harnessing your creativity by Twyla Tharp). People of different backgrounds and age range from 70s to 30s added to the diversity. Naturally, I asked whether the artists of 1960-70s were of as high calibre as contemporary creatives of today or whether we are seeing the very frightening times of permanent loss of creativity. Hence follows a very short summary of the four hour event.

The interview with Marwa Al- Sabouni, conducted via Skype started us off on the question of value of architecture. Does architecture allow us to be frivolous or is it generous? Is it a technical or a social art? Marwa, is a 34-year-old architect and mother of two, who lives in Homs where she was born, amidst some of the most vicious fighting that the Syrian civil war has seen. With her architect husband, she has opened a bookshop after their practice was shut in the conflict. Remarkably, amongst all this chaos and danger, she has written a book about her life with a preface by Roger Scruton. For someone living day to day (as she described), the charmingly calm and articulate Marwa, made it clear that she thinks that architecture must contribute to society. Unlike fine art, architecture has a purpose beyond beauty and though it must be beautiful; architecture must also help to solve the problems that the world faces. The genius is not separate from society.

Another aspect that came up was the concept of waiting for the inspiration, or waiting for the muse. Instead of waiting, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert has described one must meet the muse every day by showing up for work. Luck is about preparation or being ready to meet luck. To be prepared one must work every day, flex the creative muscles everyday- that is meeting the muse everyday, to show up for work. To capture one remarkable idea, one must prepare many. The pop artist, Prince, who died recently, came up as an inspiration- apparently there is a vault full of his work. He worked everyday and created many songs, not all of which saw the light of day. But the important thing was the creative practice in which he participated every day.

But it is not easy, given internal or external difficulties. But such difficulties also present opportunities and hone our creativity. Marwa’s external problems make it difficult but not impossible. David, a fine artist, who was a contemporary of David Hockney at the Royal College of Arts in the 1960s and taught art there and at Central St Martins, is colour blind. He described how as a child, when he drew a yellow cow, was told off by his art teacher, ‘Cows are not yellow!’ He persevered thanks to a supportive family. An enlightened teacher gave him his first commission, aged 12- to draw French gothic cathedrals. David brought in his black and white digital art- a new media in which he has now ventured in his seventies. Creativity evolves constantly. I was reminded of Hockney’s digital art made on his iPhone. What makes us less creative is fear. We need to believe we are fully creative, right now, wherever we are.

So in a way, creativity is about discovering yourself. As someone remarked, to be human is to be creative. But as a consequence of being creative, one will invariably fail as one tries different things. But as one only hears about successes, not failures, one imagines that the creative person got it right the first time. But in schools and further education, we are not taught the value of failure or even risk taking. We like safety, it seems, so it appears that our work has lost some of the edginess or even exploration. Ideas that are not used, bother us as they sit in the back of our minds as time passes. Artists, architects and other creative people took many risks in the 1960s and 1970s which saw the flowering of ideas. However, the world now presents many new problems- all of which need resourceful, innovative and creative solutions. So lets get out of our safety mode and experiment as much as we can. Creativity is not dying out, it is only transforming- that was our conclusion.

 

The winter of our lives

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This weekend I have been helping a neighbour design an ‘Order of service’ booklet for her husband who died suddenly.  She is quite distraught and as a result, unnaturally disorganised.  She gave me a pile of photographs and three pages that she wanted typed into the booklet.  Sitting down with her, we went over the photos and writing, editing out things that need not be there.  I also found a suitable printing service that could do the printing at short notice.  I have never done anything like this before- normally these things are done by the funeral service but she had left it too late.  But I am grateful she asked me because it helped me to find a new perspective on life.

The thing that struck me while laying out the pages that someone will be doing this for me too someday.  What would they put in that booklet about me?  What if I could do that now?  After all no one knows when they could die.  So I after having finished her booklet, I am now trying to put together something for myself.  How do I want to remembered?  As a creative person, as non conformist, as a mother, as a friend, daughter, etc.? What music would I like to be played?  What special photos would I use and who would be in those photos?  It has been said that the best way of getting our creative selves out of procrastination and into production is to imagine our own funeral or write our obituary.  I come to realise that the best way to set our life goals might be to make our own ‘Order of service’ booklet.  No one needs to see it- it is there for your eyes only.  As a goal setter, it may be a sombre; but yet the clarity and the simplicity it provides is truly creative. Try it!

thanking a hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person.  His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring.  Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art.  Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent.  As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly.  I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.

Bowie in his own words, spoken to graduating music students at Berklee College, Massachusetts, in 1999.

“Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it.
But it’s allowed me so many moments of companionship when I’ve been lonely and a sublime means of communication when I wanted to touch people.
It’s been both my doorway of perception and the house that I live in. I only hope that it embraces you with the same lusty life force that it graciously offered me.
Thank you very much and remember, if it itches, play it.”

The Flame of the forest

Flame of the forest

This seems a pretty picture- it is of one of my favourite flowers- Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma)- a medium-sized dry season-deciduous tree, which grows in the tropics.  It is found in a forested part of Delhi, where I grew up and seeing these flowers reminded me of springtime.  In my native West Bengal, the poems and songs of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, likened its bright orange flame-like flower to fire. In Santiniketan, where Tagore lived, this flower has become an indispensable part of the celebration of spring. I used to love these flowers.

However, the same forest became associated with murder in late summer of 1978 when siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra were kidnapped and brutally murdered.  On their way to the radio station to present a youth programme, the children were kidnapped for ransom.  On learning their father was a naval officer, both were killed instead and the girl, Geeta, was allegedly raped before being murdered. Both were bright young people- Geeta was a 16 year old second year college student and Sanjay, was 14-year-old school student.

I was very young but I remember the impact of the murders.  Suddenly parents were cautious about where their children were going, suspicious of strangers and our world changed from being happy and carefree to fear and mistrust.  The city which had never experienced such a heinous murder was traumatised and all energy was directed to finding the killers. It was my first loss of childhood innocence- the flowers which I loved, grew in a forest where children had been murdered.  I came to associate these flowers with blood.  Years later as an adult, coming across these flowers accidentally, I wondered if I could change my fear to joy again.  So this was painted.

The ‘bark’ of the trees is made from newspaper cuttings about the murders and the stylised flowers, with their curved and spiky forms, represent my fear.  However by painting this, I have made my fear disappear and understand the sadness from those murders.  It may be because I am older and it may be because exactly 20 years later on the day when the culprits were caught, I had a son, who helped me to see the world in a different way.  So the painting is curiously sad but optimistic by its brightness and exaggeration.  Like these flowers that bloom in the spring and wither away in the heat, whose leaves fall in the winter, leaving a skeletal bareness, our lives are informed by sadness and joy, by gain and loss.  This painting connects me to my childhood and my adulthood and to that of my son.  The sadness of the loss remains but the fear has gone.  Art has become a therapy.

calling and career

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A Facebook acquaintance inserted this photo with the title, ‘The 380 upper deck is, well…um, a kind of different, I’d say’ and then he inserted another one which offered views of the scenery he could see from his hotel window, saying,’Not so bad view from a window you have to spend four days in.’  And so on- then we had photos of him drinking wine, trying different kinds of foods, etc.  He got 28 ‘likes’ for that first post and 37 for the second one. This person works for an organisation which helps the poor.  I wondered what his colleagues and ‘customers’ would have made of his posts? I realised that his aspirations and job were so opposite to each other that perhaps he does not find comfort and happiness in what he does. He is someone who cannot reconcile his behaviour with the values he is supposedly espousing.

For many of us, one’s career can different from one’s calling, leading to a dissatisfaction with our everyday lives.  A calling is something we do from our hearts, it is part of our whole lives so that something that is naturally a part of us.  Thomas Carlyle said, ’Blessed be he who has found his work, let him ask no other blessedness’.  But what is success?  Alain de Botton recently posted a blog about learning from the 80’s pop group, Wham!.  One of the lead singers, Andrew Ridgeley, is living a comparatively unknown life with his wife, who is also a former pop star from ‘Bananarama’. de Botton contends that Ridgeley is the ‘winner’ and more successful than his former partner, George Michael, who is in the news all the time (sometimes for the wrong reasons) and wealthier.  Success is about more than accumulation of money, travel, homes and cars!- ‘The life of Andrew Ridgeley belongs in the public realm. It’s one of the great moral fables of our time. It’s the story of one man’s redemption – from manic, narcissistic pleasure seeking to maturity. But it’s not just his story. He shows us what we need to do collectively, as a nation.’

I have been thinking of success and what it means to me.  For me success is a quiet confidence that we have lived the life we wanted, regardless of what society thinks of it and to have contributed to the world a similar amount of time and resources that it has given us.  Success does not shout its status from the roof, it is solid and deep, grounding us with our calling- inside out.

what creativity means to you and you

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Last week I attended an art workshop. Using materials and techniques I would not otherwise use, I created couple of large drawings.  Although my instinct is to go back to what I was doing before, yet by doing something different, I feel I have extended my creative limits.  I was like a child at this workshop, trying colours such as black and white spray paint and stencils- which I have not used before. I used calligraphic pens and rulers too- some new things for me.

Perhaps these things are not new to you.  The point that I am making is to try new things whenever you get a chance. Not only does it extend your repertoire but also tells you why you like what you do.  So now I realise why I paint the way I do- for instance, I like telling stories through my work so I use found objects, newspaper cuttings, cards and photographs.  This is one of my paintings below. It is called ‘Looking, Watching, Seeing’ about fear told through different events that happened in 1976-77.

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Creativity is the only thing that is a relationship between you and you.  Everything else is a relationship between you and someone else- and that relationship can be good or bad, depending upon you and another.  However, the relationship between you and you is only dependent upon one person- you.  It is the gift you give to yourself.  Whether your work is liked or you became rich through it, depends upon the relationship between you and someone else (the viewer/patron) but that is not in your gift.  It is beyond your control.  Your creativity is your gift to yourself, regardless of external gifts. So always gift yourself!

my first art exhibition

Spirit 2014 Flame of the forest

This week, my first ever art show opened. It may have been something vaguely I wanted to do in life but I really hadn’t thought much about it, except that it was ‘impossible’. Then I heard an inspiring talk given by a blind artist ( see my previous post on Annie Fennymore) and realised how actually I ‘understood’ her and her techniques for painting. I got talking to the person who organised this show and suddenly she turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you exhibit your work too? We have a three month vacant slot here.’ I was deeply reluctant at first. My reaction was- ‘what if people don’t like it? what if people laugh at the work? what if people don’t get it?’ etc etc.

I was full of fear. But having thought about how much I was going to regret not taking this opportunity, I said yes eventually. Then I also decided to paint new work and re-worked some of the originals. I realised I had changed- I had taken on fear and won. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”  You can always learn from mistakes, but what if you’ve actually never made a mistake (as if that is possible!)? Life is all about making mistakes, learning from them.

It was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed painting again.  I didn’t try to please anyone- just painted to please myself and thought about what I would like looking at.  Having now done this, I am in a daze- people have written so many kind words about my work. One said, “I have just been to have a look and the art looks amazing. You are very talented!”

Many people helped out, working on Saturday at 8-00 am working solidly for four hours to hang the pictures- none of them got paid to do this (although I certainly will send something to them). Someone who helped out with the hanging commented,”Just to let you all know that the pictures are all hung safely and, personally, think the corridor looks great…..several people have already admired them…..”

What can I say, I am speechless with gratitude! If my art moves and inspires people, even though technically it might not be amazing- it is perfect for me and them. It is my gift to the world. By taking on fear and leaving aside regrets, we can only become more creative and live true to our hearts. It doesn’t matter if I get any more compliments or not, or even if I get some nasty comments- I have won!  So if you still thinking about something that you have never done, go for it now!

PS-writing this blog for the last three years also helped me to overcome my fears!

Re-working the old

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Sometimes, when you look at something you’ve created and it appears perfectly fine and then later, other things happen to come along that say the work needs something more- that is alright!  During my recent visit to look after my sick and elderly parents, I found many newspapers that reading now, suggested something darker was happening then- things that would be unacceptable now.  So upon return, I decided to use those historical references to my painting of the city of Jaisalmer in North India which I had made in January 2009.  I decided it was perfectly fine to revisit memories and through my art, to be exorcised of that past. Although upon first glance the painting glitters and there are flags reminiscent of festivities and brightness, but when one looks carefully at the newspaper cuttings, darker images emerge out of the surface.

Here is a reminder of the painting looked like for almost five years before-

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I know I can’t take it back to where it was and now it reads differently, so I have to accept it is now where I am.  Art is an expression of one’s life and one can’t be too precious about it.  This work is also a representation of my eye problems because now my art has to be more tactile and contrasting.  Have you done something like this?

A creative soiree

After perhaps too many years of thinking about this, I finally hosted a ‘creative soiree’ yesterday.  The idea was to get different kinds of creatives- artists, designers, poets, writers, photographers and dreamers- to come together to talk about creativity and the barriers they may face to realising their creative potential.  I was so pleased when many accepted.  As the tea and wine flowed and food warmed the cold evening, conversations also flowed and hearts warmed to each other’s experiences of creativity.  The talk ‘Pursuit of happiness’ by the late architect, Professor Libby Burton, that I have used on this blog site before, started off the evening.  From the theories of creativity to the work of creatives- such as the architects Peter Zumthor and Joseph Allen Stein, the Bauhaus, the artist Gerhard Richter, the gardener/blogger, Frances Bellord and Peter Fay, designer Bernard Newman, inspirational writer Julia Cameron and many others- an intense and in depth discussion of what it takes to be a ‘creative’ rather than a ‘technician’ followed.  Difficult as it was to fully document the evening, I have tried to put together some of the main points below-

1. Do something every day that expresses your creativity.  It could be even be a piece of early morning ‘Stream-of-consciousness writing’ as advised by Julia Cameron.  And don’t worry about what others think about your creation. Do it for yourself, not for others. If you don’t express yourself, then you de-value your life if you don’t use the gifts that you have. Remember who you are.  But one has to be disciplined enough to do this everyday in a self unconscious way.

2. Remember your creative self everyday.  You have a financial self that strives to earn to make a living so that you can put a roof over your head and put food into your mouth and you have a caring self that may be caring for others but do not forget that you also have a creative self too.  Try to go back to being a child sometime- being creative is about having a space for ‘play’ in your everyday life.  The daily grind, problems and deadlines may actually focus your creative energy.

3. It doesn’t matter if no one ‘gets’ your work!  Share your work, your talent.  Engage others in the process of creation.  Judgment, justification and self flagellation are the biggest obstacles to creativity.  We also had a lively debate about the ‘modern’ need to reference everything.  The great works of art we love starting from those flowing paintings made by cave dwellers (perhaps that would be called ‘naive art’ today), didn’t need to be referenced to something else- they were just pure creativity.  It is best to reference something after you have understood it perfectly yourself.

4. Produce lots of work and learn to ditch.  Careful editing, keeping of scrapbooks, digital photos of creating the work, thinking deeply about the process and documenting what works and what doesn’t makes the creative journey productive and interesting.  Forget the pursuit of perfection- walk away from it. Does everything have to be for one’s impending future success?

5. Get into the making. Get your hands dirty- by actually making it, writing it or painting it.  Without that actual feel of materials and how they come together, one can’t be creative.  That is why many projects fail because we thought too much without actually doing something!

PS- I am hoping to have more of these creative soirees and if you are in London and want to come, do let me know.