Where is my studio? And is it dirty enough?

Today I attended a symposium on Dirty Practice, at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, run by the Wolverhampton School of Art. This symposium was a culmination of a three-day art workshop open to art practitioners, academics and students. I couldn’t attend the workshop but I could just about take a day off the treadmill of children and work for the symposium. I nearly didn’t make it thanks to a poorly child. But I’m so glad I did, not just because of the fabulous lunch at Zuri Coffee which was divine. But because of the papers that were presented, the thought they provoked and the resulting discussion towards the end of the day.

A very yummy lunch

A very yummy lunch

I’m not going to go into detail about all of the themes of the day, of which there were many. Although two presentations stand out for me: Andrew Bracey and Elizabeth Wright talking about (and demonstrating) the idea that ‘the doing of thinking is not a hands free conversation’ which was essentially about the benefits of kinetic learning and how the hands may actually guide the brain, rather than visa versa. Also, Holly Crawford’s obscurely titled ‘Ants on a Shrimp, Thoughts’ for which Holly read out, or invited members of the audience to read out, snippets of a narrative taken directly from a short video written on postcards. The narrative (or the chosen phrases from it) were relevant to the age-old creative dilemmas of lack of confidence and self-identity. Some were oddly relevant to the people to which they were given (I had ‘Normal persons do not understand what we’re doing’ – that fear bugs the hell out of me all the time – and ‘Whatever’ which perhaps is the best response to the former).

My cards

My cards

Both presentations were utterly brilliant (as were the others). I have always been a kinetic learner. I’ve always been bedeviled (no irony intended) with a need to fiddle constantly. I hate that people think if you doodle, fiddle or play you aren’t listening. and Andrew Bracey and Elizabeth Wright’s presentation gave me some affirmation that I am normal. Holly’s bizarre yet effective way of expressing an idea was engaging and amusing. I’m going to keep the postcards I caught and picked up off the ground to give me hope on days when the ideas don’t flow.

One of the cards I took home

One of the cards I took home

However, the day’s thought and discussion in its entirety gave me the chance to think about my own working practice and reflect on whether I make the most of the ‘studio’ space and what it might mean to me to engage in ‘dirty practice’. There was a lot of talk about the studio environment and how it has changed in the digital age and the age of social engagement. It has also evolved to account for the modern not-quite-yet-post-capitalist notion of a degree as consumption for future economic gain rather than as personal exploration for exploration’s sake. These essential questions were oft asked: how is the studio perceived by those who use it and how does it function for them?

Holly throwing her cards.

Holly throwing her cards.

Since I began my rather late art education I have been given the opportunity to have a studio space. Firstly, at Shrewsbury College of Art and Technology. Here, between four people we were given a huge room with lots of white walls to fill with art. The result? Nobody put much, if any, art on the walls. I don’t quite know why. We all worked hard. We all fulfilled the criteria for the course. But for a long time, we didn’t fully utilise the space given to us. I don’t think we ever really did. We didn’t realise how lucky we were (sadly, we were the last students to take the course – no explanation needed). Then, last year at Wolverhampton Art School, I was given a small corner. At Wolverhampton, space is precious and fought over. Going from an enormous room to a precious corner had an interesting effect on me. I went from hardly putting anything on the walls to filling the tiny space with art and piling my desk with paintings, drawings, and bits of clay and plaster.

However, before I went to SCAT, I didn’t have a studio space. I worked at home. I worked wherever I could at home. Being given a designated studio space made me much more conscious of my output. It focussed my mind and forced me to think more deeply (this was A Good Thing).

At both SCAT and at Wolverhampton, I have tended to use my studio time more for thinking than creating (although to date I have done more creating at the latter). The time I spend in the studio is perhaps forced, but as a consequence, it is productive. I would love a world where I could spend hours and hours in the studio (what the tutors crave from their students). But, I can’t. I have children and a job. So the times spent there are precious and focused.

So my conclusion from today is that my studio lies in many places: it is in the physical art school studio with white walls and a grey floor (fairly generic and this description probably fits most art schools in the UK), it is on Arriva Trains Wales (the 8.33 from Shrewsbury and the 15.42 from Wolverhampton), it is here where I am sat now (on the right-hand side of the sofa in front of the TV and to the left of the ironing board), it is on the school run, it is in the car, it is at Zumba (where the best ideas come to me), it is in bed, it is in the bath and it is in Ginger & Co. coffee shop. It is especially in Ginger & Co. coffee shop. My studio is everywhere. It follows me around. It doesn’t even let me sleep. The studio doesn’t have to be a physical space. It is a movable feast. It is in the mind.

So does it matter what the physical art studio looks like? Does it need to be dirty? I suspect I could do with a bit more dirt and chaos in my mind and physical space. So long as that space inspires, whether it have clean white walls, dirty floors, be a train full of people going to Butlins, be an Americano with milk, or be my semi-conscious state, that is the most important thing.

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

 

 

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My new favourite word: Flâneur

I recently came across this word in a funny little book I found in a funny little art shop in London: Patrick Keller’s The View from the Train. This book is a collection of essays which explain Keller’s work and how he came to produce films such as London and Robinson in Space, his influences, his own philosophy and artistic practice. As I’ve seen these films, and loved them, this book caught my attention. It isn’t disappointing me. It’s a fascinating little book. I recommend it. It is a bit geeky but it is very good.

My book

My book

In one of the essays, Keller discusses the idea of the flâneur, a term coined by Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, which I have subsequently read. The flâneur is a literary motif for a wanderer or dreamer. Translated into English it means: stroller, loafer or lounger. However, in contemporary life it is more than that.

The flâneur frequents coffee shops to watch and observe the everyday. This figure was first seen in 19th-century Paris. The modern flâneur might be Martin Parr or Joel Meyerowitz with their posh cameras and people-watching skills. The original flâneur was just someone with too much time on their hand and an ability to hide interest behind a facade of boredom.

The flâneur is Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘man of the crowd’. The flâneur observes places and people, and also objects. They are able to take metaphorical (and literal) snap shots of urban life. The flâneur is more aware than other people of the beauty of the everyday and, crucially, they are able to translate it into something of substance. As Baudelaire describes this person: ‘Sometimes he is a poet; more often he comes closer to the novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains’ (Baudelaire, p. 5). Baudelaire describes this person as curious.

Curiosity is certainly what mostly defines them. He also describes them as akin to a child or to someone returning from a period of illness. They are an ‘eternal convalescent’ (ibid, p. 8). They are hyper aware. A child sees everything as if in a state of newness, as does the flâneur. They observe form and colour in a state of delight, just as a child might. Colours are heightened. Form is exciting. However, they differ from the child in that they are able to do something with what they see and condense it into something meaningful. They, therefore, are also a genius, says Baudelaire. The flâneur is at home everywhere. Yet he can remain hidden: ‘He is an “I” with an insatiable appetite for the “non-I”‘ (ibid, p. 9).

Charles Baudelaire, thinking about the loungers of Paris

Charles Baudelaire, thinking about the lazy cats of Paris

Although I would argue against the ‘genius’ part of the definition (I am not exactly on the same plane of cerebral glory as more famous flâneurs in the art world), I feel that this word belongs to me.

I LOVE coffee shops. When I am in a coffee shop (which turns out to be most days), I sit, I watch, I listen, I draw, I note down, I think and I have ideas. Most of these ideas are lost before I get home but they come to me in coffee shops when I am surrounded by ordinary people like me, drinking coffee and reading the paper, checking their phone or talking to their companion. I love people. I love the urban landscape. I love the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, the minute, the timy moments and the sudden glimpses I get of treasure when I overhear an exchange or see a face or a form. Most of all, I love coffee.

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

I spend a lot of time in arty cafes

So I will no longer feel guilty about my daily coffee stops. I’m not procrastinating. I’m not being lazy. I’m being a flâneur.

 

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Everyone should ‘get’ conceptual art or there is no point

This is what I think about conceptual art (which these days has morphed into almost all forms of art except the purely decorative): everyone should ‘get’ it and if they don’t then it has failed.

The term ‘conceptual art’ automatically turns a lot of people off. It shouldn’t. It is often viewed as self-absorbed, intellectually snobbish and abstract. In other words: there can be an immediate prejudice that anything labelled as conceptual art will be pretentious crap. Perhaps a lot of it is, but not all of it.

What is art?

What is art?

Until recently, I didn’t view myself as a conceptual artist but since returning to the world of education I have come to the conclusion that that is exactly what I am. My art tends to stem from a concept. The concept comes to me at 3am or during Zumba, the craft follows. I spend an awful lot of time thinking and conjugating before I put pen or pencil to paper. But more than anything else, I want people to get it and to be moved by it. I want them to think I have skill but I also want them to understand and think.

I don’t want to be intellectually superior and to confuse, or worse, be ignored. In an ideal world, it would be nice if my art could move both the thinkers and critics and my mum.

What exactly is conceptual art? It is the process of playing with an idea. It is a method rather than a medium. It is a thought. It is a provocation. It is humour. It is a play on words or a play on images. It messes with normality. It refracts accepted notions. That is why I love it. I think it is a largely misunderstood ‘genre’ (if it can be called that). I love anything that is quirky and odd. Conceptual art is odd.

However, isn’t everyone these days a conceptual artist, at least to some extent? In this data-driven age when everyone is online, then anyone who has a camera phone or a sense of humour and time to point out the oddness of life is a conceptual artist.

A bad piece of conceptual art renders you wondering if the idea it is analysing is worth pondering. A good piece will enter your thoughts for days after and will keep you searching. It will inspire you. If it inspires an artist or an art student, result. If it inspires my mum, gold star.

Ideally, good conceptual art doesn’t require explanation. It should be evident. Or at least, there should be several evidents. Everyone, after all, sees art differently but they should see something.

The main problem with every day conceptual art is that it has no tangible, economic value. If I want to be a conceptual artist, I won’t be able to give up the day job (project manager and editor, and occasional writer, in the book publishing world). I don’t foresee a fortune in my art. But I will keep doing it regardless. I will keep having ideas and exploring them for whoever is listening.

Are you listening? I hope so. And if you are, I hope you get it.

 

 

 

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Am I more creative in a jigsaw skirt than I am in Levis?

Perhaps this sounds a little nuts but I’m convinced that I feel more creative when I am wearing certain clothes compared to others. Generally, I feel more creative in skirts. I don’t feel at all creative in jeans or trousers (I very rarely wear jeans), but I do in leggings. I am sure that I would feel the opposite of creative in Marks and Spencers elasticated slacks. I haven’t tried out this theory yet but this is perhaps an idea to park in my Big Book of Future Ideas.

I have a skirt that whenever I wear it, I feel much more creative than in other garments. It is a skirt that I believe came from Jigsaw. I’ve had it for quite a few years. I think it was either in the sale or it came from Bicester Village (so it was cheaper than normal – I don’t want anyone reading this to think I am rich enough to shop in Jigsaw). It may have been purchased shortly after my first child was born and before the second. I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think it was purchased before any children came along. But what I am sure about is that whenever I wear it, I feel more creative than on other days.

This isn't my skirt, but it is brown and it is from JIgsaw

This isn’t my skirt, but it is brown and it is from JIgsaw

I know of no other artist who prefers or preferred to make or paint in certain clothes. A quick goggle reveals no information on the topic. Does this mean that I am unique in my weirdness? The only thing I found on the Internet related to this query was a wikiHow page on four steps on how to dress like an artist. This is not hugely helpful. (It is, however, rather amusing.)

I suppose that this is one step away from having lucky pants. I don’t want to get to the stage when artist’s block renders me wearing the same skirt every day for a month in a vain attempt to reign in an idea from the ether.

I haven’t quite got that desperate yet.

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Is it time to do as Atticus Finch would do?

Yesterday I read an interesting article in the Guardian (in fact, I read this in paper form) about the reaction of the contemporary art world to the Brexit vote, as debated recently on Radio 4.

When it first happened, the ‘art world’ as a collective reacted in shock and devastation. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to step forward in support of the leave vote. All the voices that were aired were saddened and disappointed, sitting firmly in the remain camp. I was one of them (albeit on the micro level).

Six weeks later and it is interesting to read in this article about a calming of tempers and current thinking. Artists now seem to be questioning and doubting themselves, which happens after a shock, and after time for thought and reflection. Artists are now asking themselves: are we out of touch? Have we been living in our non-rebellious, London-centric, Guardian-reading, neo-liberal let’s-comment-on-these-important-cultural-and-political-issues-though-art-and-drink-Americanos-in-coffee-shops bubble? I think the answer might be yes. Not all artists are rich enough to shop in Waitrose and drink lots of Americanos of course but their audience is. That, I think, is the crux of the issue. The audience of the majority of contemporary art is out of touch with what most people in the wider community are thinking and so the artwork is ergo out of touch. It is basic supply and demand (indulge me, I have a degree in economics and politics). The artist may not be conscious of the economic process, but in the end they supply what the demand expects. At least that is what they do if they want to succeed and it is human nature to want adulation, admiration, and footfall at an exhibition.

The art world has been shaken up. It has come to the conclusion, the article states, that it has not been reflecting the lives and experiences of many of the people it wants to move through art. That’s quite a shocking thing to have to admit.

Perhaps the next move is to pause, and listen and watch. Of course the Brexit vote was a blow for the arts. The loss of European membership will be devastating. But it could be turned into a positive thing if artists are able to step back, and do as Atticus Finch would have everyone do from time to time:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus talking to his daughter, Scout in the film version of the book

Atticus talking to his daughter, Scout in the film version of the book

The Guardian article is predicting a revolt from the arts, perhaps encouraged by a greater involvement of young people in politics which has already been seen. I think this would be fantastic. I do think the art world needs to be shaken off its pedestal somewhat and listen to the people cry: ‘what have you ever done for us?’ Or perhaps ‘what does it even mean?’

I spent a lot of time, post the Brexit vote, arguing and debating on social media with ‘leave’ votes. I just couldn’t get them to ‘understand’ or ‘admit’ to what damage they had done. I couldn’t get them to see sense. As far as I was concerned, they had been taken over by aliens from the planet rhetoric and they had been brainwashed. However, gradually, I was able to see something of their perspective and their reasoning. I softened (and I thank them for that). They were voting for the lesser of two evils: the status quo being the evil, uncertainty being the lesser. However hard I find it to take, I have to respect that and hopefully find a way to use that in my art. I don’t know how yet.

Although I love politics and economics, and I am very capable of entering into an impassioned argument with anyone willing to argue back about Trump, UKIP, Brexit, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, the NHS, benefits, the arts or whatever, I have always been reluctant to mix art with politics. My art has always been about the micro and the mundane – people and things. I have avoided anything that involves controversy or comment. Perhaps it is time to change this, at least a little bit. After all, politics is about people and things too.

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Why are some images just ‘not right’?

I’ve been drawing again. This is my drawing so far.

Balloons

Balloons

I asked a random person for a response. The answer was: ‘I’m not sure’. So I turned the drawing upside down and asked the same question.

Balloons

Balloons

The response was: ‘That’s better’. I found this change of mind interesting. The drawing hadn’t changed. It doesn’t matter to me which way up the drawing is. However, the first way up caused this person an obvious sense of unbalance. The second way up, gave him reason for relief. It is the same drawing, so why? I believe that this is connected to the ‘top heavy’ nature of the first version. Is the fact that when the drawing has the green shape at the top and the first division between the three objects coming over half way down the board, the image has less appeal? Is it because the brain needs to understand any semi-abstract image it comes across and ‘turn’ it into something less abstract and more comforting? Was my viewer seeking a figure, one that hopefully wasn’t standing on their head? Although my drawing isn’t strictly an abstract drawing, it has abstract qualities to it. The viewer was perhaps trying to reconcile and understand it fully. Their brain didn’t feel settled until they could see a form to it.

Is this partly to do with the shape, or dimensions, of the board? Most abstract drawing or painting is on a square or a near-square format. There is a reason for that. Canvases that are taller than they are wide are associated with portraiture. Turn them on their side, then the brain looks to find the landscape whether it be urban or rural. When the brain sees a square, it is less likely to seek a narrative or a specific form in the shapes and colours on the canvas. It probably still will (or at least I think so) but this process is less obvious and less immediate. Perhaps in those cases, anxiety isn’t the first response if the rules of the golden mean (consciously or otherwise) hasn’t been followed. There isn’t a mismatch between what is on the canvas (chaos, no narrative) and what the brain expects (a figure or a landscape, a narrative).

I think this is an interesting concept to play with. I quite like creating anxiety and uncertainty in the viewer. I like it when the viewer questions what they see. It is interesting when they feel unease, but can’t say why.

My chosen viewer then asked me to turn the drawing on its side.

Balloons

Balloons

I did so, and asked what they thought now. Interestingly, it didn’t matter which way up it was. Both ways were ‘reasonably pleasant’ to the viewer. I asked them whether they found the lack of shadows disturbing. Oddly, against my expectation, they said they didn’t. I wondered whether it would upset the brain to see shapes floating when in a landscape format, they would be sitting on a surface. In this case, not.

Hmmm, I think I have many things to ponder. What shall I question next?

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The irony of art-student creativity

Today I have been drawing. This is the first time, beyond random sketches of people in coffee shops and on trains, that I’ve drawn for weeks. I love drawing. I love drawing more than any of the following:

  • painting
  • blogging
  • making videos
  • casting in bronze
  • playing with plastercine
  • animating
  • pairing socks
  • eating orange chocolate

I don’t spend enough time drawing. I carry a small A6 book with me for impromptu sketching of people in coffee shops. However, beyond that, I don’t do nearly as much drawing as I’d like to. This is largely due to lack of time and perhaps pressure to produce.

But today, as work has moved from Code Red to Code Green thanks to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook going to press, I’ve had time. Time to draw.

This book has ruled my life for the last five months

The 2017 edition of this book has ruled my life for the last five months

Today, I’ve drawn four things. I’ve drawn four balloons / balloon fragments.

My drawings aren’t very exciting. They relate to a project I’ve more-or-less finished now that my first year as a part-time Level 6 student has finished. I gain nothing in terms of grades from this. I gain nothing in terms of enlightenment or advancement. All I have gained, is therapy and practice. I had no reason to draw balloons today. I just wanted to.

Random balloon bit

Random balloon bit

Another random balloon bit

Another random balloon bit

And another random balloon bit

And another random balloon

Final random balloon bit

Final random balloon bit

It is as if the freedom to do nothing, or draw anything, for no ultimate goal has loosened my hand and my eye. I just want to draw. I want to draw more. I want to draw every day. Oddly, I’ve worked really hard today. I spent about 4 hours drawing which is more in one sitting than I’ve spent in the last year. I don’t really know or understand why. I’m tired now. More tomorrow perhaps.

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