Friday, 9 August 2019

An Artist, Emerging

Hey folks, and welcome to another blog post about *feelings*. Please keep your hands and arms inside the tab at all times as we don’t want you to inadvertently catch them. Here's a patch I embroidered at North West Zine Fest.

I’m quite honoured that your eyes are falling on my blog today; a place that, for an illustrator, feels quite thin on the illustration content. I guess writing here almost acts as a way to contextualise and explain that, but I’d also love to return to scrapbooking more and sharing drawing in a more online-journal-type way rather than hanging around on instagram. Honestly, I think this post is a precursor to more of that, and more drawing generally, so thank you for bearing with me over the years, particularly as I express feelings of being lost every couple of months without even making that many nice new pictures to sweeten the pill.

I suppose the important root of this is that we are first and foremost all people. We're complicated and we're beautiful and sometimes we feel like we can do anything; we are fearless creative explorers who didn't give up on our dreams! But sometimes, in fact a lot of the time, we're not. Our creativity is interconnected with everything else about us, which is why sharing illustrations as and when they come up doesn't feel like anything like the full picture. The full picture however can be bloody scary and make us vulnerable, even effect whether or not someone might hire us, so I absolutely grapple with wanting to be open but also needing to keep myself safe too.

Here's a series of events that have led me to write this, and some thoughts on what I consider to be a complex interplay between creativity and mental health that we need to be more conscious of.

+ Reading that if you’re not exhibiting self-care then chances are you’re partaking in self-neglect.*
Reading Information on BEAT
+ Making Daily Specials, a calendar exploring food rituals across the world
+ Doing a #selfcareadvent24 personal acts to make me calmer, healthier, happier or more rested.
+ Going To My GP
+ Getting Tools** And Getting To Work
+ Surrounding Myself With Positive Role Models & Imagery
+ Awaiting Treatment

Along some of these stepping stones over the last year or so, I've learnt that my brain had become more obsessed with food and my body / weight than I ever could have realised, which in hindsight is really quite terrifying. Beyond everything else I thought I was doing in what I would always say has been a very rich, blessed life, it turned out that losing weight was pretty much my sole metric for my value as a person, despite raising up others for their creativity, compassion and hard work, traits I value deeply, and caring little about other people’s appearances. I still don’t know enough about this to understand it, and am still waiting for group CBT sessions / someone to talk to, but I can see that this was where my anxiety attached itself in my teenage years, and returned there whenever I felt emotions that made me uncomfortable (which was basically all of them).

As much associated terror and disgust has now begun to lift, I can see more clearly how much this was taking from me through how much I’ve already gotten back. I feel like my brain has gone from being a small, dark loft space to an expansive room looking out across open fields, with natural light pouring in. I’m experiencing a view of myself which is so much more filled with the compassion and care that I afford others, and am finding things way more satisfying and joyful and lighter than I could have imagined, despite still feeling a sense of looking through that window rather than being on the other side.

I should say that at so many points I regretted leaving the loft. Boy, did it complicate things and the last 12 months navigating this without any formal support have been a constant source of stress. The main thing that I had always held onto tightest was the idea of no-one knowing I was struggling, or my state of mind being anything less than an amazing, positive rock for others. I was also functioning on a massively high level, staying up all night doing more and more work on top of my day job, investing deeply in countless relationships, holding everything together, pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible regularly in terms of endurance, developing skills and confidence, and feeling really validated by that. I definitely didn’t want to lose that drive or for anyone to discourage me from working at the level I was performing, and I still enjoy putting boundless energy into my work, but it’s different to not do that in a kind of challenging or punishing way, and choose to do it through other motivations, whilst also beginning to understand rest is key. What I thought was enough rest was painfully little, and had really got me into a mental health blackhole. Whilst I don’t have much deeper understanding of the backdrop for my brain’s inner workings, I do feel like I can observe some of this for what it is now. Whilst leaving the loft and speaking to a human about your deepest shame was the worst, the day you speak out is also the day the thing ultimately loses its power over your life, and light can be let in, whatever you're going through.

Considering this in terms of its impact on my creativity, I found myself thinking that the idea of emerging and established artists is incredibly flawed, and have always advocated for creatives to decide on their own progression and achievements, not wait for external validation or professional status to measure their worth or success. However, even in this more personal sense I think we tend to remain emerging as artists because we’re always working and wading through what holds us back, because creativity is not a linear, logical pathway and very few of us just confidently stride through it. More often than not I find kinship with other artists not because of the work they make, but because of the role creativity plays in their life; something that at some point along the way we developed as a way to express ourselves, explore the world, and essentially cope with our own existence, our uncertainty, our feelings; a way to celebrate the love and confidence we are capable of enjoying at times, but also our darkness or pain; our fear and our loathing. Basically, our humanity; that which makes us messy and flawed and human. Essentially for me it’s a way of attempting to understand the things that I don’t understand, and to me great work explores the mysterious things that none of us do.

"Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work"Milton Glaser, Art is Work

One of the main purposes of writing this is that I also think that, due to this link between, essentially, artists and their mental health, there’s a deeply-held myth that to be in pain is to be interesting, to be suffering is to be creative, that our troubled minds as humans is where beauty ultimately comes from. This is pretty dangerous given what we now understand around the mind, and I think stops artists getting the support they need to be happier and more prosperous in the world with their creativity flourishing. We can see for ourselves that creative work can be painful and uncertain as well as enriching and rewarding, much like personal relationships can absolutely yield both, but the inner anguish, doubt, and hopelessness of our mental health being at risk largely just makes it all more difficult, something Florence Welch touched on beautifully in her latest article.

"To self-crucify in the name of art always means that the art stops, and another voice is lost. At this time in our history, it has never been more pressing to have as many voices singing as we can." Florence Welch

When trying to force my turbulent mind to just be creative and get on with it, borderline threatening myself, I’ve personally just found cycles of over-producing and obsessively making, followed by total inaction and paralysis fuelled by a fresh fear of making, then developing fear I’ll never make again, fear that not only that I now can’t draw, but fear and confusion that perhaps I never could. Finding positive motivations also becomes really hard, with a lot of creatives struggling to recall what the point of all this is, and the main way for me to work was by sticking to strict, usually terrifyingly heavy deadline burdens, or putting clients needs way before my own.

74% of illustrators said they felt they had anxiety or confidence issues that effect their career. Illustrator's Survey 2018/19

With really high results on Ben the Illustrator's 2nd Annual Illustration Survey for those who experience anxiety, this statistic didn’t surprise me in the slightest, yet brought me a great sense of sadness. It’s a case of chicken and egg, which came first the creative career pathway or the anxiety / depression? because creativity being wrapped up in work is anxiety-inducing, but so was living in the world in the first place, multiplied if you’re on the back foot of privilege due to gender, race, faith, sexuality, class and more, let alone at intersections of these experiences which of course is a reality for so many gifted and ambitious creative practitioners.

I think the white patriarchal, predominantly commercially-driven, extractive structures within which art and design tends to exist is in no way, shape or form fit for purpose, particularly if we take into account the link between creativity and different outlooks, needs, and challenges; its link to healing and creating what we need. Not acknowledging that is absolutely a tool to perpetuate the exploitation of creative minds, which have an incredibly rich value (economic and on far deeper levels) to all aspects of our world. If as creatives we look around at the industry we are part of and know it’s making our lives worse then we have to challenge that and carve our own paths to do right by one another, beyond our particular disciplines, specialisms or expected roles. For me this looks like not only being the producer of work for others, in my case a pencil for hire, but someone who designs things for other creative people to thrive within, in a genuine way that is much more about that process than wider goals of growth or scale or profit. We need to create examples which take things gloriously in the opposite direction, that put value on people’s comfort and contentment rather than efficiency and hierarchy.

In so many ways I believe designing for those who feel anxious or unwelcome in dominant spaces will open us up an incredibly supportive, humane, empathetic society and world of work unlike which many of us can even imagine; so far beyond the realms of just being paid fairly or on time by people who don’t give a shit about us, yet some part of us is still grateful to for the work. And please be reassured, dear reader, that I acknowledge the absolute privilege of having work at all, never mind work that uses our creativity and that we can in some way shape or choose, but thus is my point. Everyone deserves better, particularly those for whom choice is not a freedom which they are afforded. Beyond an affluent top sector, the experience of so many artists represents challenges that so many of society face; of having to do everything themselves, all too often getting nowhere.

Facing some of my own demons has forced me to gently start re-centring and recommitting to the reason why I began drawing in the first place, something that I didn’t know the importance of until it was no longer possible in the same way that it had been all my life. 7 years ago I left university with my creative superpowers, my mental health and trying to make money tangled up in a mess that never felt right. I’ve always worked in lots of different ways, never earning higher than living wage but trying to keep pressure off my practice performing financially with a base of part or full time work, but naturally other kinds of pressure continue to emerge from this.

For me, creativity was not only the answer to that coming of age question: what do you want to do with your life? it’s what I’ve always done with my life. It is life, from drawing title pages for subjects at primary school with my dad, using chalks to decorate my granny’s yard, and creating illustrated mixtapes for friends in my teens, to designing identities for imaginary magazines and bands at college and on to real ones at university. How that transfers into our careers and wider lives as responsibilities grow and shift is vitally important, and there’s no one right way for any of it to happen, but there are what I at least perceive to be some wrong ways; ones that have become totally normalised; impossibly tight deadlines, deep undervaluing of creative labour, competition rather than compassion, celebrating scale and style rather than depth and detail.

I’m going to keep exploring how we create better circumstances for one another through #ArtistsMeanBusiness (looking at what it means for artists to sustain themselves whilst doing their most earnest work) and Brum Zine Fest, which essentially promotes and explores the creativity that everyone has, without pretence or pressure, whilst trying to create a working culture of abundance and hope for makers to connect, share their work, and take up space within the world, and across the rest of my future endeavours because we need to start shifting the landscape for one another, into one where our minds and our creativity are healthy. If we are always on the back foot, always emerging, always asking for the basics, things will never change. We must demand more from the systems we are a part of and less from ourselves. We must look at this together, and be those singing voices that the world needs to repair itself, to heal and to move forward in a way that enriches all of our humanity.

Part of me would love to be sharing visual updates from the loft of my latest project, something I’d drawn for a commission or an exhibition or designed for a client, but unfortunately this space isn’t about content for me, it’s just life. Instead, I’m saying hey from the now warmly illuminated studio in my mind, as I pour myself a cup of tea and begin work as myself, perhaps an artist who has emerged from underneath the crushing weight of her own expectations, to begin observing and studying all that lies beyond the window pane with fresh clarity, perhaps, admittedly, someone who resists the conventions of growing up because it looks terrifying, but definitely someone who is happy to be here, and therefore will take a bit of vulnerability and exposure if it gives someone a keyhole to peek through from their own hideaway, or to stop me shrinking back to there because the light feels too great.

Feel free to share any thoughts about this or post resources below that people might find useful.

Here are some of mine:

*The Self-Care Project by Jayne Hardy
**Overcoming Series recommended by the NHS
Further resources via my previous blog post I Am Afraid of Nothing

With love and creativity, always

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