The breakthrough

Three days ago I wrote about The Slump… that dark moment, part-way in, when I question everything. Familiar with this heavy territory, I also acknowledged that “This is often the moment before the breakthroughs happen… when you ride the storm and come out the other side; brighter, stronger.” Last night I felt brighter and stronger than I have felt in a long time. The breakthrough came sooner than I thought.

On Thursday night, having raised my voice too loud, I was suffering from an anger hangover. The term references what Brené Brown calls “the vulnerability hangover”, a term that she coined when she needed a concept that captured that feeling of, “Oh my God! Why did I share that? What was I thinking?” My term “anger hangover” captures my feeling of, “Oh my God! Why did I just shout like that? What was I thinking?” It was one of those evenings when I was over-tired and going over old ground, asking nicely for things to be done to no response and being faced with yet another challenging episode of big boy picking on small boy, when the fuse blew. When all was finally quiet and boys were both in bed, I was still feeling the aftershock of being pushed to my limits and becoming a person I think (wish, hope against hope) I am not. I feel it in every inch of my body… the tension, the regret, the shrinking into myself, the desire to undo, the reality of what I become when I forget, for an instant, to discipline calmly or to walk away. It was eating me up and I had to get it out, so I turned to my art. I did not know where I was going, so I followed my instinct, went to the pen drawer and picked up the thickest, blackest pen I could find. It was how I was feeling. I rolled out a length of brown wrapping paper and taped it to the table. There is something about the shade and the texture of that paper that makes me feel happy and safe. It is comforting in a way that I cannot describe. I picked up a pencil, lay my head on the paper I traced my profile. It came naturally to me. I still had no idea what I was doing, just feeling my way. I traced another profile… my other side, making two faces staring blankly at each other. With the thick black marker I traced each profile. One appeared a little softer… the me I would like to be. The other I attacked with my pen, drawing in jagged lines, up and down, angry with sharp edges. I scribbled areas of black at the back of my neck where the tension lay and in my chest where I felt the embarrassing pain of the me I had been in that moment and the spikes and lines that came out from my throat were expressions of what I had done. It felt good, letting it all out. And when it was done, it was done. I had released the tension, expressed the feelings and the fear. 

I then turned my attention to the other face. I felt calmer; my edges softer and that came out in the pen, the fluid lines, the flowing, curling waves of the me I wanted to be. It was that simple. I was redressing the balance. I drew out the me I wanted to be and in doing so I became calmer in the moment.

Redressing the balance: how it was and how it should have been

Late Friday afternoon, I listened to an audio recording by Laura Hollick in which she explained how she had discovered a technique which had enabled her to heal her skin and grow in confidence; a technique which she herself had created, just by feeling her way and going deeply into her art. Hearing her describe the technique and listening as she shared this way of working, I realised that I had to share what I had done the previous night for myself. So, last night, when two friends arrived for my evening workshop, we first went through a few tried and tested techniques… playful ways to step out of your comfort zone and let go of the idea of making perfect art; ways to immerse yourself in the creative process and enjoy the pure pleasure of simply making art. And then, I took the leap of sharing what I had tried the night before. We traced our profiles onto paper and I asked each of my friends to think of something that was a challenge for them right now… to go deeply into that feeling and let it out on the paper. I did the same.

In creating my negative head, I could feel myself scratching away with pastel on paper, rubbing and smudging, blurring and spilling every ounce of negative feeling into the dark-edged drawing that was my fearful self. There were glimmers in there too… fighting the dark, but overall this image represented the fear of a beige existence, tied to a job I do not love, a reality that is far from my own right now, but a possibility that seems to be raising its head from time to time. I resist and resist and even thinking about it I feel the darkness descend, starting right in my eyes and moving up over my head and down my neck, into my back, shoulders and beyond. It comes from the fact that I do not have a steady, stable income. I am not in reliable employment, I am feeling my way, just getting by, and how does that equate with a life in which I have a mortgage and two children depending on me? But I trust in the process. I believe wholeheartedly (and some might say naively, but they may never experience) that this exciting and terrifying ride will lead to freedom. And when I say “freedom”, I mean freedom from the cage of other people’s expectations. I mean freedom from being chained to a life that is not your own. I mean the freedom to be me… the me I am yearning to be.

And so, in the other head, I created my colourful life. I filled it with layers of greens and blues and let the brightness of all that I wish for and all I am working towards shine, and it felt good and it flowed freely and easily and I rose above my shadow and felt liberated and ready to take on the world. All of the negativity had slipped away and I was left with a feeling that this was the way forward and I only wished that we had more time.

We shared our stories… the challenges and the desired outcomes and described how we had represented these feelings and how it felt to be creating and sharing amongst friends.

It was a powerful releasing and allowing…a shedding… a letting go… a way of tapping into our emotions and creating a new reality… a brighter future being mapped out right there and then on paper with our own hands. And in sharing we were connecting.

My immediate thought was that a whole day of doing this kind of thing could be so worthwhile… encouraging and allowing people to make imperfect art for the sheer joy of creating and using art as a way of tapping into our emotions and letting go and sharing the story with new friends.

So this is my path. For now, I will continue to map out my own emotions. I will empty the negative into my art and create the positive new. This is my breakthrough. This is my path out of The Slump and not only this one, but any more that await me just over the horizon too.

Letting go: the fear and the brighter path

I would love to know what big breakthroughs you have experienced following a slump. Have you used your art as a path out of the darkness and into the light?
Please feel free to share your experiences here…

With love,
Julia x

 

A lesson in letting go

An arrangement of cut-outs on my table

On Friday, I decided to let go and see where the “I don’t know” would take me.
I let go of the desire to make good art and embraced the fact that, as I picked up my scissors, cut into my painted papers and pasted them onto a pre-coloured background, I had no idea what I was making or where the work was going. The idea was just to play, to create freely without ideas or expectations.
Now, if the truth be told, this idea of total freedom was not entirely true…
The one expectation I had was that the piece I was creating would be of a size that could fit into a particular box frame I had waiting for it, if I deemed it worthy.
The one idea I had was that I would create something inspired by the work of Jonathan McCree, whose works of “almost symmetry” had so inspired me.

What I was not expecting, when I felt I was coming close to just trying the piece in the frame, was that it would not fit. The background paper which I had cut some weeks earlier was not, as I had thought, the size of the frame. It was a little larger and I had been collaging away without realising that what I was creating would be so much larger than the frame that even a careful cropping to the edges of the image would not be enough to squeeze it in.

After careful consideration, I decided that this was a lesson to me. I chose to see this as a happy accident, pushing me out of my comfort zone, reminding me not to be attached to a particular outcome and forcing me to take the work in a direction I had not intended.

Just before the cut

So, feeling less frustrated by little hurdle than I was excited by the possibilities, I moved forward with the piece, carefully cutting round the shapes with a view to reassembling them on a different background to fit the frame. I loved the new shapes that emerged. I was thrilled by the different configurations I was able to make. It may take a little longer for me to figure out how to finish this, but I am happy to wait. The way the individual elements looked once separated from the background gave rise to a whole stream of unforeseen options that would never have arisen had I stuck with my original path.

Another cut-out arrangement on my table

Today, I am grateful for happy accidents.
I am loving my lessons in letting go.
I am looking forward to seeing where the next step takes me.

Do you have any stories of letting go and how doing so has impacted your life or your art? I would love to hear your experiences. Please feel free to share them here.

With love,
Julia x

How lucky I am…

Wednesday is Art Club day at school.

As 3.30pm approaches and I am preparing the room, moving tables and chairs, choosing music and building up to two hours of teaching, I am never quite sure what to expect and feel that delicious combination of nerves and excitement, reminding me that what I am about to do is both a challenge and something I love that means an awful lot for a number of reasons.

Some days, all goes well: I don’t lose my voice; great art is produced; everyone leaves with a smile.
Other days, I am faced with challenges: paint-splattered uniforms; lively mischief; tired, hungry kids.
And sometimes, I leave on a high: inspired by my students; proud of what has been achieved; thrilled by the possibilities.

Today was one of those days… an exhilarating day to remember.
Today, I walked out of school with a smile on my face, thinking HOW LUCKY I AM!
And as I walked, it struck me that some of the things that challenge me are also the things that excite me. I thought about the lively class; their voices raised in playful banter. I thought about the mess they made; the fun they had making it. I remembered the hug from the liveliest class member before he went home; his way of thanking me for the lesson he had so clearly enjoyed. I smiled as I thought about the conversation about art which I had shared with one of the students as he worked a little late, keen to finish what he had begun.

In class, as I tried to keep the volume down, my perspective shifted, in a moment, from frustration to elation… those were excited voices, the laughter and sounds I hear coming from my own children’s mouths as they anticipate some fun activity or outing.

As I tried to tame the mess, something changed in me and I chose to let it flow, to deal with it later, to let the experiments get a little out of hand… what else is art about if not pushing things further; taking things to the next level; playing freely with paint and paper and whatever else is at hand?

Watching the artworks unfold, I became more animated as I acknowledged that all that was happening was all that I wished for… the children were experimenting freely, playing, exploring, creating original works of art and feeling good about themselves, gaining confidence in their abilities and letting go of ideas of perfection.

How lucky I am…
To be working with a group of children who are lively, playful and open to new ideas.
How lucky I am…
To be learning from the children I am teaching; sharing my love of art and watching theirs grow.

Last week, on the boarded up wall of the classroom, we installed a hanging system – a simple hook and eye contraption on which I can display the work and cover the wall. Our art class is now becoming a gallery too… living with art is as important as creating it. I want these kids to share their art with pride.

I love to witness their first experiments with new techniques and see their joy as they realise they did well.
I love to 
see that pride as they spot one of their artworks on the gallery wall and show their parents what they have created.
I love to
watch their eyes light up as I tell them how brilliant they are, how original, how creative.

I love art and it is a privilege to share it.

How lucky I am.


The joy of painting


Brushes, paint, big paper, a pot of water, masking tape, a large piece of wood… these have been my necessary items this past week or so as I have been painting again. Painting big, painting happily, painting often, painting indoors, outdoors, in the morning, evening, late at night.

As the 30 Day Challenge drew to a close at the end of May, the need to create and post here on a daily basis became less urgent. The word “challenge” became less relevant. Finding little pockets of time to create became more natural. Art was becoming a habit again.

With the target of making and posting every day, there was a certain pressure to create. There was a pressure to think of something, pressure to do something, pressure to share it. Whilst that pressure meant that I was fulfilling my target, it also meant late nights, little sleep and what was produced was sometimes forced, not always natural, created from a “must do” rather than “want to”. But the great thing about that pressure was that it made me consider art on a daily basis. It forced me to make time to create. If pushed me into making space for art in my life. And that pressure worked. Now, free from the constraints of daily posting, I find that I want to create. I want to make time. I want to draw, paint, cut and collage. And so I do. The little opportunities to create are now more obvious to me. I seize these little moments to do what I can when I can. If I am out, I carry small paper and pen. If I am home, all that I need is close at hand. Waiting for my coffee to arrive at the café, I have a few moments to sketch a little scene. In that quiet hour after boys’ bedtime and before mine, I turn away from the computer, tape my new big paper to my wooden board and I paint. Art has become a habit. A good habit.

The thing that is missing now is my own voice. I am aware, looking back at the work created over the past couple of month, that there is no clear style to my work. I admire those artists who have a clear voice… a definite stamp of originality… a certain something that marks them out. I like to be able to look at a piece and say, “ah yes, that’s by…” and I am struggling to find my own voice.

No… struggling is not true. It does not feel like a struggle. At the moment, it feels like a journey. I am on a journey to find my own voice. Step by step. Some days, I have a clear idea of what to create… but these days are rare. Very rare. I have realised that this is a good thing. Letting go of expectations has freed me from disappointment at my inability to create on paper what I see clearly in my mind. When I come to a fresh piece of paper and just paint, there are no expectations, no pressure, just the pleasure of painting. And this is something I am loving more and more. I trust that I will one day find my painter’s voice. All in good time.

Feeling the need for a focus and the feeling (after 30 days being part of a 200-strong group of challengers), that I do not want to do this alone, I decided to embark on Connie Hozvicka’s online workshop Total Alignment. With Connie’s virtual hand-holding, video by video guiding you through the process of FEARLESS® painting, paiting without expectations, it’s like hearing my own voice. I am back to the teen-me, the fearless me, the one who just painted… the one who carried a notebook everywhere, who drew, wrote, created on a daily basis and yes, the one who got angry and frustrated, frightened and almost gave up… but then picked up that pen again, went back to the drawing board and drew… drew on the tube, in the street or the café, at home in the early hours… the one for whom art was a part of daily life.

The art I have created this past week or so is not what I would ever have had in mind. In years gone by, I may have hidden it away, thrown it even, but now I feel happy to share. I have posted it here because it is part of the process… another milestone along the path… another step in the right direction.

In painting without expectation, I am free to immerse myself in the process. In painting free from expecation, I am free to explore whatever I wish in any way I wish. In painting free from expectation, it does not matter what comes out. What matters for me now is the process… the feeling… that fabulous freedom of paper, paint, hand, brush… anything is possible.

And this is what I want to share.

This is what I LOVE:
I love taping a new piece of paper to my big piece of wood.
I love the sound of water gushing out of the tap and into the glass jar as I turn the tap on too fast.
I love holding the brush in my hand.
I love the look of those freshly squeezed colours on my palette.
I love the first brushstrokes, putting something, anything on the page.
I love going with the flow.
I love seeing what emerges.
I love the dance of my hand and my brush.
I love walking away.
I love coming back.
I love the fact that I am painting.
I love that I am loving painting.

I want you to feel this too… the joy of painting.
So try it.
Just try… and let me know how it goes.

Nothing is finished


1:24am and I have been drawing, painting, exploring on and off for a few hours. Nothing is finished, but I have enjoyed dipping into a variety of subjects and playing with materials. I began to re-do the portrait from the first day of the 30DC, but with colour and new words, but insufficiently inspired, I stopped. I will return to that piece at a later date. I played with another self-portrait (not my own), dancing a line across paper from the subject’s hair. Something reminded me of a murmuration of starlings, spotted some six months ago during a walk on the South Downs, so I put pen to paper, attempting to capture my memory of their movement… difficult to do, but mesmerising in its own way… a kind of meditative way of drawing, like the cloud pictures I first did from a train, London to Liverpool on May 1, 2008, and have occasionally attempted since, always enjoyable, and tried again this evening, but this time not from life.

Tired and ready for bed, I stood up from my desk to head upstairs, but spotted the roll of brown paper I had purchased yesterday to draw on, pulled the charcoal from the drawer, the mirror from the cupboard, taped the top of the paper roll to the wall, unravelled it and embarked upon what turned out to be a lopsided self-portrait, which captures to a degree, my dishevelled appearance this evening.

Satisfied and about to share, I will now stop. I have promised two young chaps a picnic and some treasure hunting on the South Bank beach in the morning with big boy’s new metal detector. Low tide at 11:51am. It is time to sleep.

Paper, scissors, paint

There has not been a great deal of time to write these past few days. Sickness in the house has allowed little time to think with the clarity required to finish a paragraph. Big boy was quietly ill, spending most of his sick-time reclining under a blanket on the sofa before bouncing back the next day, full of beans, raring to go… just as small boy became lethargic and ill. Small feverish boy has been (and continues to be) rather vocal, poor chap, so my bursts of creativity have been punctuated by cries for cuddles (which of course I don’t refuse), and doses of medicine. I have managed to be surprisingly productive with with the art though. Perhaps these little interruptions mean that by the time I get back to the job in hand, I too am raring to go, keen to get on and create, having been dragged away and then returning by choice, rather than succumbing to the usual distractions that prevent me from focusing for long.

Whatever it is that is happening with my art, I am enjoying it. I have been trying to create whilst the boys are around, get them involved if possible, rather than waiting until they are tucked up in bed before I pick up my tools and begin. Yesterday, with big boy back at school, small boy and I did some “scissoring”, as he likes to call it. I had painted some large sheets of paper whilst he was sleeping, then cut petals from these and magazine pages of a similar colour, before forming them into paper flowers which reminded me of things my grandmother used to make as Christmas decorations. Memories of borrowing her pinking shears, a.k.a. “angry scissors”, to snip jagged lines into cloth and paper, came flooding back as I saw small boy’s pleasure at snipping alongside me. After a little while, he gave in to the fever and requested I cut a little cat from an advertisement in one of the magazines, to sit alongside him whilst he rested. He and the cat sat happily for a while, watching and chatting as I worked, the cut-out-cat on a small cushion, before disappearing temporarily, down a gap in the sofa, only to be noticed missing and retrieved some while later, slightly crumpled, but still intact. It was at this point that he went to live on the window ledge.

The flowers formed the beginning of another collage piece which is still in progress, but can be seen here in its current state.
This afternoon, I took some paints into the garden for both small boy and myself, hoping that he would paint alongside me. He found the movement of his paper in the breeze rather too frustrating, so we returned indoors and sat at the table to work on our individual projects. I had given him a selection of paints on a plate, and a handful of cotton buds to try instead of brushes. He loved dipping and dabbing, and produced a rather lovely dotty work in blue, green, yellow and pink. As he was using both ends of the cotton buds, his fingers had also become painted, so he added some finger dots, then hand-prints to the piece you can see here, below.
Meanwhile, I completed a new little self-portrait in watercolour which I had begun last night, but had put on hold to answer a call from small boy upstairs which became a cuddle and a  sleep and when I woke up, work unfinished at 5am, I was still wearing the red dress I had been painting.
I feel I am on a roll today. I would like to continue painting long into the night, but common sense is telling me not to, that sleep is more important and that little and often is good. This time, I am listening.

But first, I must seek out the gorgeous little black and gold buttons, purchased in a vide grenier in rural France several years ago, which I squirreled away somewhere, until I could find a good use for them. This afternoon, I purchased the perfect cardigan for these little gems. Now, all I have to do is locate that safe place I put them in…