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.

connections

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I saw this last week- a 49ft-long 3D artwork celebrating ‘Star wars’, set underneath a humble bridge in London. It was created by 3D artists Joe and Max to celebrate the UK launch of the Rise Against The Empire play set.  A good drawing in itself but what made it great was the way it got people engaged with it.  Kids and adults pretending to hang perilously from the edges of buildings, people walking around it trying to understand how the simple perspective of the drawing made it so cleverly three dimensional; and passersby reverentially walking at the edges. Or people simply pretending that they were in a Star Wars movie underneath a London Bridge, accompanied by the sounds of ships, laser fire and droids.  What fun!

Art is about being fun, creative and engaging people.

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.

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!

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. 

Inspirational words from a terminally ill architect

After watching this, as an architect who has suffered from stroke, it reinforced my desire never to miss a single opportunity to express gratitude, help others and be happy in every way that I can.  Also, very importantly it has taught me to follow my heart.

acceptance and art

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I was very fortunate yesterday to hear Annie Fennymore speaking about her process of creating art.  Annie gradually went blind as a young woman until she lost her sight completely in her forties.  At the age of 49, she lost her grand daughter which turned to be the last straw but also proved to be the start of her career as an artist.  Her husband gave her some quick drying DIY putty and using the long ‘ropes’ made with putty, she created her first painting which she is holding in the above photograph.  This painting of a cottage is very simple, almost childlike-but for her this was a huge step forward.  In the years following, she developed her style to a mature style of abstract colourful paintings that she says reveal her passion and love for life.  She has exhibited all over the UK and has won awards including a commendation for Helen Keeler International awards.  A selection of her works are exhibited at the moment at the Moorfields eye hospital in London where I am am outpatient too, with my eye problems. Do go and visit if you can.

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Initially Annie depended on her memory for colours and shapes. Today she uses a number of electronic aids (colour identifiers) for the blind all of which have the software that converts all text into speech. These gadgets enable her to label her tubes of paint using a system which tells her the colour of the paint or the surface. She uses her finger tips to ‘paint’ on her colours after realising the painting in her head. Using ‘glue tack’ she outlines her painting just as someone would use a pencil and then she colours it in.  Annie jokes that her adorable guide dog, Amber, often emerges out of her studios covered in paint!  The drawing on the right is of Amber.  Annie uses putty, PVA, paper and even toilet paper to create textures on her paintings.  The painting on the left was made on driftwood.

I have written about ‘blind art’ before but Annie made me realise something very deep about being an artist.  She said that she accepted her situation, she did not fight it.  Instead she funnelled that energy into creativity.  Now, I have spent a lot of my life fighting for things, fighting on behalf of other people.  As I grow older and with increasing ill health, I see that sadly that energy could have been spent creatively instead.  However, it is never too late to learn.  Today, with great humbleness, I accept many of the situations I find myself and have decided to move on, concentrating instead on revealing my creativity and following my heart.  Thank you, Annie!

http://www.blindalleyart.co.uk/index.html

Having support- the lesson of the tree

This Christmas I had the ‘flu and also twisted my ankle, so I have not been able to write for awhile.  But this has been good.  I have learnt that sometimes I need to look after myself.  I have a tendency to do things and not let others help me because either I am too impatient or think that others can’t do it as well (arrogance, I suppose).  However, after these ailments, I had to let others help me and support me.  I had to let go of many things to others.  Contrary to my usual thoughts of doom and gloom, all went well.  I am at the start of a new project and by letting others help me, I have been able to start it on time- it was beginning to looking like an impossible dream by the beginning of December 2014.

The numbers of times when we think we should and can do it alone, especially me, came to me as I stood surveying this fallen tree in the recent storms.  Human beings are connected and it is this kind of connection that enables us to survive.  From the food that goes into our mouths to the work we do, we are supported by countless people who grew that food to the shopkeeper who sold it and so on.  Sometimes it takes some adversity or accident to make us realise that this connection is vital.  I can’t believe how many people said that they would help when they saw me limping and trying to do the shopping or trying to cook the festive lunch- unbelievable though it sounds!  When we try to be too strong, we break.  When we connect and extend our ‘roots’ deeper in the ground, i.e. by having friends and support, we can survive tough times.

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The following bit of writing from Nichiren, the 13th century Buddhist philosopher, rang a bell for me, and not just because of the reference to walking on an uneven path!

‘When a tree has been transplanted, though fierce winds may blow, it will not topple if it has a firm stake to hold it up. But even a tree that has grown up in place may fall over if its roots are weak. Even a feeble person will not stumble if those supporting him are strong, but a person of considerable strength, when alone, may fall down on an uneven path.’