If we were having coffee I’d tell you that this has been, hands down, the most surreal week of my life. For those of you who may not know, I’m a Brit: London born and raised. So it would be slightly disingenuous for me to pretend that the seismic shift in the UK’s global position didn’t occur and that it has had zero effect on me. But this post isn’t actually about politics: it’s about art. Art as therapy. Art as a coping mechanism.
A picture popped up on my Facebook feed, displaying words of wisdom from Gomez Addams. The fifth bullet-point stated:
“Hobbies give you a measure of control when you find it slipping away in real life.”
It was something I really needed to be reminded of, at that moment.
When my life imploded, back in 2012, knowing that I had a creative skill base that I could utilise for nothing more than sheer enjoyment was essential for keeping me out of the jaws of despair. Even when I was pretty much unable to lift my head off the pillow, the mere thought of the things I was going to make (eventually!) would elevate my mood.
Control is something that those of us with chronic illnesses can often feel we lack. Our symptoms can repeatedly seem arbitrary, medically contradictory and unfair: the unfortunate genetic make-up of a vegan, non-smoking, teetotal Yogini (for example) could be what eventually strikes them down – while a hard drinking, hard living party animal, who won the genetic lottery, can still feel like a thirty-year-old as they head towards their seventies. The uncertainty of not knowing if, or how far, one will be able to walk on waking, or if a symptom is going blindside you as you carry on throughout your day can make it seem as though every new dawn is like waking up on an alien planet; leaving you wondering how harsh the gravity is going to be this time, and whether any of the food is safe to eat.
Blindsided is what I felt when the UK fell into a political vacuum. I’m one of the lucky ones who still has quite a few choices regarding how to proceed in the safest and most logical way; but like pretty much every other ordinary citizen, the constitutional uncertainty is the sentry at the gate of my family’s personal plans.
Like eager children waiting for an Easter egg hunt, we cannot exercise our options and choose our various paths until somebody in charge shouts the word ‘go!’ It is a situation where, by default, we have no control. As the xenophobia rose, and the value of the pound fell, that feeling of blank uncertainty started to transmute into a kind of existential panic – a personal impotency. Rumination could only make the situation worse – I needed to engage my own creativity as both a distraction and a release.
Normally, my instincts would drive me to working with textiles, but I needed something much more instant; something that didn’t rely on the mathematics of pattern drafting or the careful measuring of fabric.
I needed to make something entirely visual. I needed to paint.
Now, I in no way consider myself a visual artist; I can’t draw, and I can barely control a paintbrush – but I do like to experiment, just to see if I can make something striking whilst being an untrained outsider. Because of that I usually have a lot of art supplies lying around the house. I opened a box canvas that had been leaning against the wall under the bedroom window and grabbed all of my acrylic paints – from the well-respected tubes of Daler-Rowney to the little pots of watered-down pigments aimed at curious children – and lost myself in colour.
And it worked. Even as I busied myself with other things (including, rather foolishly, scrolling through Facebook) while waiting for each layer to dry, I found my focus would always drift back to my relationship with the colour palette. As it was an abstract piece, I found myself unable to stop walking around it (having no easel, I laid the canvas on the floor); examining it from all angles trying to decide if it should be portrait or landscape, and which way should be considered up. For a little while at least, I had removed myself from the equation and felt so much better for it.
Once it was completed, I felt much more in control of my emotions regarding the current political climate, allowing the intellectual information to become a psychological reality. But, perhaps most importantly, my Graphic Designer husband actually likes it!
As is so often my custom, I’m going to leave you with a TED talk. This one is from the legendary director Taika Waititi – he explains why we need our creativity in a much more entertaining fashion than I ever could…