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.”

17 minutes

17 minutes are what is needed for your brain to completely focus on something or relax- our brain works in 17 minute cycles.  This summer, my sons and I went on 17 minute breaks during our trip to Venice to either pause and reflect on what we had seen or experienced or to take a ‘sketching break’.  This is one of my 17 minutes sketches from Murano-

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Tourists busy taking selfies, stopped to watch us sketching. In this harried world where photographing oneself is more important than observing things, they were perhaps surprised to see two boys (one in his late teens), sketching.  Bad moods and waiting times were happily passed by these moments.  Below is another one from Torcello, done while waiting for a boat to take us back to the hotel.  People were respectful and thoughtful.  One of them even started ‘crowd control’,  to make sure that I had a clear view- this without saying even one word!  How powerful is that?!

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My sketch book has been travelling with me and my children since then.  I think we have learnt a powerful lesson- that creativity is power!  You don’t have to sketch but you can write or even relax.  In the corporate world, people are taking 17 minutes breaks after working for 52 minutes (not sure where that comes from!).  Ted talks are also that length so that people focus.

Creativity and Children

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(My son at the Serpentine Pavilion, 2015)

I have two children- one is now a teenager and the other one, nearly one.  For all their lives and most of mine (and there were seven pregnancies with two live births), I have worked, starting with my first lowly job as a teenager working as a receptionist for a dentist.  I am now an architect, author and artist.  My children have always seen me working inside and outside the home.  Therefore I was surprised to view this recent broadcast on BBC Two (3rd July 2015) presented by the model and entrepreneur Lily Cole ‘to debate whether having children inhibits or enhances an artistic lifestyle’.  Perhaps, not surprisingly, the people she interviewed were mostly women- only one man appeared. Gavin Turk, the artist, was also interviewed but together with his wife, Deborah Curtis, who is also an artist.  The programme was based around the infamous quote by the critic Cyril Connolly, ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. One got the feeling that Lily Cole, who was then eight months pregnant, was exploring her own fears about whether she would continue to be creative after the birth of her child.  Barbara Hepworth also featured- how did she manage to be creative despite having four children, including triplets?  But the possible dilemma of her husband, Ben Nicholson, the artist, was ignored.  So I wondered if Cole meant to imply that this is a woman’s problem only?

The modern creatives- Holly McNeish, the spoken word poet, and Turk and Curtis- were sanguine and funny about the whole experience- breastfeeding in a public toilet, bringing babies to art shows, and doing those other crazy things parents have to do when they don’t have childcare, either paid or unpaid.  My life was like that too- I brought my sons to business meetings, construction site visits, art shows and lectures and I know of other parents who did that too.  Lionel Shriver, the author, who has chosen to be childless, spoke about the socio-politics of why and how only ‘white’ people were choosing to be childless or having less children- though her theories might be debatable (she appeared to have forgotten entirely about China, for instance).  This led me to think more deeply about my experience of having children. I believe my children have made my life more creative, not less.  It is far more simpler not to have to think about feeding and nurturing another person, about not having to argue with a teenager about pocket money, etc- instead just concentrating on being creative.  But is creativity limited to just what you produce?  Or is it about how you lead your life?  My life with children has really enhance how I live my entire life with creativity.  And I am proud that they are also known as creative people in themselves.  There will always be people, who choose not to have children (like my beloved Uncle) but those who care and nurture others (like my Uncle did with me).   I have creative friends, who are childless, and they enjoy my children’s company.  Creativity does not depend on whether you have children or not, it is a state of being, that continues, regardless.

The importance of drawing

Yesterday, I visited the annual summer show at the Royal Academy.  This is an open show, open to any one- thousands of people submit and this year, 1130 works were selected out of those.  The works of fine artists, sculptors, pop artists, photographers, and installation artists with people were drawn from all sorts of creative background such as tailors, ‘seamstresses’, architects and painters.  Some works mixed many genres such as collage, painting and photography.  There were deeply social and political works while others were simply to be enjoyed as ‘guilty pleasures’.

My friends, one of whom is a fine artist and the other an architect, who kindly treated me to this show, had been painting all day at nearby St James Park and Trafalgar Square.  They brought along their works and these also gave me great pleasure such as the one of different birds- ducks, swans, coots and pigeons.  They had been instructed to paint and draw quickly without much thinking and these kind of instruction appeared to have produced lovely fluid representations of the birds. The friend who is an architect, had been painting for a long time and so this marvellous work was not just a product of the day but of many years of effort.  This led me to think about the process of drawing and why it is important part of the visualisation, regardless of the final product or composition.  Apart from photography, all other creative arts require some basic sketches which form the basis of the final design.

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In an interview about how they think about their buildings, the Irish architects, Sheila O ‘Donnell and John Tuomey, who won this years RIBA Gold medal, say that both are influenced by drawing and painting.  Sheila says that she uses water colour to explore form and light and which could be a ‘way of summarising something about the feeling of what the building might be without having to go into detail’. She says that working with water colour is that you can ‘speculate about material and weight  and even almost texture, but in a kind of unspecific way, in a sketchy way’. John on the other hand, works with pencil drawing and says it is ‘a form of hand writing’.  Another set of Irish architects, Clancy Moore, also talk about drawing and say that they sketch and draw a lot for many reasons, but one of them is to ‘simply look with care at the world around us and the places [they] visit and build in which then describes the primary context of their work.  Such use of quick sketches have been used by not only architects but also sculptors and tailors/ couturiers.

My fine artist friend is now encouraging her younger students to paint, many of whom question the need to draw something on paper in the days of the computer screen. But she says that drawing helps us in many other ways, including becoming more articulate and expressive in our writing and speaking.  She also thinks that drawing gives us organisational skills because one is composing in one’s mind before putting the pencil and brush to paper.  Creative skills can be used in other areas of our lives too.  Also, as I have mentioned previously drawing can be therapeutic. Drawing or painting is a more deliberate and permanent act than doing something on a computer screen that can be wiped out and started again.  Will Kemp, a fine artist, says that people sabotage their own efforts by being to critical of their own work, labelling or categorising their word and finally by talking too much.  So I guess the main things I took away yesterday would be-

1. Don’t think or talk too much- just do it!

2. Do it little and often- build up a habit of drawing ideas out instead of writing or talking about it.

legacy

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This week was very exciting as my son’s first art exhibition opened to the public.  His installation consisting of videos, stills, paintings and construction, attracted much attention and curiosity because it was based on my family home.  He has been visiting his grandparents in India since he was five months old but it was after I watched the movie with his voice over that I realised how much he had absorbed about my life there without me directing his thoughts or saying much.

Of course, I was very proud that his work was selected for this exhibition and that it was received well.  But the most gratifying thing was that somehow by osmosis, he had absorbed ideas about expressing himself creatively by perhaps watching me.  Everyone wants to be creative but when one is able to inspire creativity in others, that is also a great thing. So I was amazed as well as chuffed.

As parents or carers, what we give to our children is something that we don’t speak about. What they are watching is what we do, not what we say.  My son is a teenager and we have the kind of arguments that parents of teenagers have with them.  So in that respect he is ‘normal’.  But overcoming those issues, he has managed to transmit our relationship and that of his with his grandparents into a tangible art form that others can appreciate. Awhile back, I had commented on my mother’s sewing and how I now display her work in my home as works of art.  So she had transmitted her love of creation to me and I have done that to my child.

So never underestimate your own creativity and what you might be transmitting to your children or anyone young.

Healing Art

I have wondered if art has an effect on healing of minds, not just bodies.  Yesterday, I went to an art show where six artists of different disciplines were placed in dementia care settings and looked at the different arts they produced- ranging from poetry to paintings.  In one of the comments, the writer wondered whether the quality or the content of the art work was less important than the fact that it was being made at all.  Was the art condescending in its presentation? David Clegg, artist and founder of the Trebus project, which documents the lives of dementia patients, says “I have been around a few care homes now and the level of individual care or therapy is horrendous – bingo or painting. I am not anti art therapy, but it’s a long time since I have seen anything that was accessible, enjoyable and relevant. There isn’t much fun in care homes.” IMG_0620 IMG_0621

According to Karen Haller, a creative consultant, art per se, does not heal- it is the act of producing the art that heals.  I agree.  In my opinion, creation of the art is more important on the person doing it rather than on the viewer.  David Clegg says, “I got a lot of very good responses from families who said they saw their relatives change before their eyes. One woman said she got her mum back for a while. I think what we’ve got reveals something really true and honest about the sad, funny, chaotic interior world of people with dementia and mental illness, which is a bit uncomfortable but I think really important. One of the disturbing and distinctive features of dementia is that people undergo personality changes – they are not the mums and dads that their children knew. One old lady developed a taste for Motörhead.”

At another event, I heard from Japanese artists who are working with the victims of the March 2011 Tsunami and the subsequent even more catastrophic nuclear disaster at Fukushima about how art is being used as form of expression of sorrow and participation. This made me think quite deeply about I had previously viewed art made by others- particularly those with less physical ability than others.  Of course, there are savants, like Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who draws and paints detailed cityscapes, and is autistic. Coincidentally, I was sent a link today to a programme made by an architect who had explored a city (Portland in the USA) entirely through sounds.  I wondered then if that was the way, the city sounds like to blind people, rather than sighted people who only view the city and never hear anything, especially with ears plugged to music or mobile phones.  So in fact, people with mental or physical disabilities can teach us more about the physical environment than we care to know.

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I reflected on how I ‘superior’ or complete I have felt in the past to people with less physical abilities than myself and consequently, learnt less about the world and about myself.  It was certainly a humbling experience for me this week.  I have learnt not only to respect others’ art and expression but also appreciate my own work and myself (something that I, in the past, had found difficult).  This is holistic healing.  The Trebus Project was named in honour of Edmund Trebus, a Polish war veteran, who filled his house with things thest of the world had decided were rubbish, convinced that in time a use would be found for them. Our minds with all their experiences, feelings and emotions are also a great storehouse for our art and consequently through those, we can heal ourselves- both mind and body.

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!

Creative Soiree 2

This are the conclusions from the last creative soiree I organised with the theme of ‘Overcoming barriers to creativity’.  This time participants had to bring in a recent piece of work- anything from poetry to sculpture. The idea was not to critique the work itself but for the person to describe how they overcame barriers in order to create that work. The evening kicked off with videos of Annie Fennymore and Sargy Mann (sadly recently passed away)- both blind artists, who have managed to overcome their physical limitations to create art. As a result of the discussion, we came up with a list of ‘tools’ that could be used to overcome barriers to creativity- whether internal (procrastination, self defeating thoughts, etc) or external (money, time, etc).

1. Use paper– Paul Klee said to take the line for a walk. When stuck in rut, use paper to think out ideas. An architect used CAD drawings to work out a circulation route in a complex plan by actually drawing on the plans.

2. Look and look– learn to look and observe without analysing or judging. Often looking at something like that opens up fresh ideas. A piece of sculpture brought by one of the participants was created by looking carefully and working on a single sheet of metal from all angles.

3. Tell a story– Each piece of work- written or artistic- connects to another person via a story. Traditional story tellers and balladeers knew that. Even architects can tell stories through their buildings. As long as we have experiences, we have a story to tell- said Sargy Mann. So use your experiences- good or bad- to connect with the world. Nothing need be a barrier.

4. Create constraints– By limiting resources or creating artificial constraints, one can be even more creative. Jackson Pollock (paint splashes and drips) and Jasper Johns (cross hatch series) both used this technique. A sculptor described how he used only one sheet of metal. A fine artist described how she used just one pint brush or one colour to create constraints.

5. Finally, organise yourself- In order to be creative, manage your time and money! Different people mentioned different barriers- money, work, time, children etc and how they overcome these issues in order to be creative.

being an artist

not 1975

Jasper Johns, the ‘pop artist’, wrote about being an artist as opposed to ‘becoming one’. He said later of this resolve, ‘In the early fifties I was going to be an artist, and I thought,’Here I am. still going to be an artist. What was different? What needed to be changed, so I would be, rather than going to be?’  So he did two things- one, he destroyed previous works of art, almost to mark his resurrection as an artist and second, he painted the ‘Flag’- a modest piece of work that has become synonymous with Johns’ style.  It was as if he had discovered himself and his true calling. Buddhists call this ‘throwing off the transient and revealing the true’.

Sometimes it takes some kind of dramatic life event for the person to do this, sometimes it is subtle.  Nichiren, the Buddhist philosopher, was to be beheaded when he was dramatically saved and then after that, resolved to share his true self with others.  Whatever the cause, the effect of this recognition of one’s true calling is huge and transformational.  Mostly we are scared to reveal our true selves until something or someone forces us to.  But why?  Our true self is beautiful and creative, and yet we are afraid to show it.  As Marianne Williamson said in her famous quote, ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.’

My resolve to be myself has been slowly building up since I had my stroke and as sometimes, strokes bring back early memories, I have been reflecting on the electrifying effect Johns’ works have had  on me as a small child.This work is titled ‘not 1975’. It is a collage of ideas about fear and revelation.  It came about as I reflected on several scraps of paper I had found and a significant year 1975 when I had been very ill.  I already had the central group of children peering from inside the tree- an image compelling and disturbing- what were they looking at?  So with this central image, I put a collage together along with paint scraping away and revealing and hiding things.  This became my way of explaining a sense of who I was, and who I had become from where I was.