Why can’t I talk to the M6?

Recently, I’ve been having some interesting discussions with my eldest son about art. I like these discussions as much as he hates them. The reason is, because, by his own admission, he doesn’t see the point of art. He doesn’t really know what ‘art’ is and I think he finds most of it rather baffling and confusing. This is after many years of being ‘dragged’ around art galleries by me. 

Concurrently to our ‘what is art’ talks, we’ve also been debating the difference between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, this being a topic closely related to my art practice. I’ve been writing about this in my thesis. I believe everything is animate and everything has the power to cause change in other things by the relationships between things (things including us).

This subject of animate vs inanimate started a few days ago as we were approaching the Welsh coast and I casually mentioned as we were getting closer that we would ‘soon be able to say hello to the sea’. He jumped in with, with much confidence: ‘No you can’t, the sea is inanimate’. 

My eyes lit up at this comment. On many levels, I disagreed. One one level, simply because of pleasure. Just because something, as science currently dictates, doesn’t have consciousness, it doesn’t prevent you from having a one-sided conversation with it. You can say hello to anyone and anything you like. I talk to things all of the time. When I mentioned this, his shoulders sagged as I fear he knew what was coming, and he replied with: ‘Fine, ok, but still, saying ‘hello’ to the sea is pointless. It can’t hear you or respond. It is inanimate’.

Oh, dear son, that is not quite the right way to conduct this argument. Define ‘pointless’? I wanted to say. I didn’t. I kept this particular strand of the argument to myself. My point, had I wanted to make it, would be that if I get pleasure out of saying hello to the sea, irrespective of whether the sea is able to feel my hello and/or respond, then it is not ‘pointless’. I didn’t make this point though. I concentrated instead on the second part of his reply: his firm belief that the sea is inanimate. 

‘The sea is clearly animated,’ I told him. ‘You can see it moving from here’. (By this point we were skirting the coast and had passed the point of the initial ‘hello sea!’)

‘Yes,’ he quickly responded with. ‘But it isn’t being moved by organic forces.’ 

The argument proceeded along the lines of what ‘thing’ or ‘being’ can be ‘animate’ and whether ‘organic’ forces are moving the sea. He firmly believes, as he proceeded to state, that the moon is the only thing moving the sea (I didn’t mention the wind but then it was a still day). And, therefore, as the moon is a solid object, the sea isn’t animate. We didn’t enter into a discussion of whether there is a chance that the moon is organic, never mind the sea, with all its organic forms contained within, whether these organic things within ‘move’ the sea, or whether it mattered whether the sea had been moved by organic forces or not to whether the sea is animate. At this juncture, as I was thinking all of the above, he thought of a counter-point to make to back up his thinking.

A calm and friendly sea

‘The sea doesn’t have free will,’ he said with arms folded, a grin forming on his face. He was conceding perhaps that the sea was maybe a little animate in strict terms of the definition of the word, ie ‘moving’, but it wasn’t in a state of flux because it wanted to. We left it there. He’s got a scientific, logical brain. I haven’t. We will never agree. I always keep the possibility in mind that science hasn’t yet found all the answers. He trusts science. So we didn’t delve any further but I haven’t stopped thinking about this topic, as I have been standing this week watching the waves pound the West Wales coast.

Then we saw dolphins. Then the rains came. Then the sea changed from warm and friendly to angry, rough and wild. See, what I’ve done there? I’ve given the sea a sense of how to behave. I’m not saying I may have ‘won’ the argument but I don’t think he has either.

I guess the jury is still out on this one.

So, this morning, back home, as we drove over the M6 I said: ‘Hello M6, you look nice and sunny today’. I was met with a withering look from the passenger seat.

A less-than-sunny M6

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The pleasures of slow

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of slow recently. Painting is a slow process. 

Time can seem to race by, it can seem to drag by, it can be frustrating waiting for something to happen but rather than feeling that frustration, I am starting to think that we should embrace the waiting.

As an artist, I am always waiting for paint to dry. I was talking about this the other day with a friend of mine, how when we are planning a painting, with a deadline, we have to build in ‘drying time’. What do you do during the drying times? I often fill those times with other activities such as work or reading. But I also think. 

This week, I have been fortunate enough to have the time to spend every day in the studio. It isn’t often I can be here every day of the week. My children aren’t with me this week so I have had the time. In fact, I have had no restrictions at all on my time. It is mine, and mine alone, to fill.

As it is summer, the studio is relatively quiet. There are no undergraduate students around. Many of the MA students are working at home, working to earn money, or on holiday. In fact, for most of the week it has been just me and the occasional visit from the technician doing his health and safety rounds and one of the tutors who is painting in the same studio space as me. This solitude has afforded me a lot of thinking time.

The aforementioned tutor and I have discussed ‘slow’ this week since we are both feeling the force of it at the moment. He has been thinking a lot about the concept too, he told me. His paintings take a long time to develop and mature. They are made up of many rich layers of paint and tend to centre on a rare and luscious shade of orange. I have been quite fascinated watching him work on them. He only spends about thirty minutes at a time in the studio adding a new layer, then he has to wait a day, then he’s back to add another layer, then he has to wait a day. In between layers, he can think about his paintings (as well as do tutor-type stuff in the office).

To make slowly, to observe slowly, to think slowly

Slowness can be both positive and negative. In many ways, it helps the mind clear and gives the intellect room to find clarity and perspective on the many thoughts and issues churning around the head. If you are a painter, it helps you think about the painting you are working on. That is a good thing. But the brain doesn’t just think about art, even my brain. As someone who is prone to catastrophising, I need time to think to slow my thoughts down and this week has done that.

In a negative way, even during a period of slow, thinking can lead the mind down an existential path which isn’t terribly constructive. I have tried to avoid my mind going down that path this week. Interestingly, it has only done that not when I’m in the studio in the silence and solitude but when I’m surrounded by people in a shop or whilst driving home.

The positive side of this week is that I have filled the time well and filled it with much productivity. By the week’s end, I will have completed the first layer of paint on four ‘paintings’ (now time to wait for paint to dry), I will have copy edited most of a PhD thesis about the NHS (thereby earning money to pay for the coffees consumed in the studio) and I will have come to a few conclusions in my head about various issues demanding attention in my head.

So praise be for slow. Sometimes it is good to be slow and to just flow with time rather than fight it all the time. Next week, my children are back with me, I can’t wait, and we will no doubt be fighting time again. I don’t mind, I have had this week and I will have next. They are different and that is the flow of life.

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The start of disorder

I believe I am finally on the path towards the end. The thesis has always been running furlongs ahead of the practice and I think it is virtually finished now. I fear that it should be the other way around. The writing should be informed by and about the practice. For me, it has been the reverse of this: I read, I write, I think, I paint. I love reading and writing. I love making art too but I have far more confidence in my reading and writing than I do in my art so that is perhaps why I have worked the ‘wrong’ way around for two years. The writing has come relatively easy to me. The art, not so. But I think I have now at least got a hook on which to hang something for people to see that I haven’t just been sitting on my bottom for two years. 

My children are not with me this week, so to distract myself from the pain of separation and to make the most of the free time I have been spending every day in the studio working. It has been hard work and slow (more about slow later) but very rewarding. I don’t really want to be in the house at the moment so if this helps me get to a point when I am happy with my work as I come towards the end then that is the best case of ‘using the difficulty’ (to quote Michael Caine) I can think of right now. I will ‘use the difficulty’ and make art.

The start – lots of wood

First of all, I layed out lots of wood and treated it with watery PVA, twice, each side. Then I painted each piece of wood, with black paint, three times, each side. This all took three days.

Next stage – priming and painting the wood

Then I put together the bits of wood, with powerful glue. That was hard. The wood kept toppling over and making me cry.

The still life is going to be a collection of 21st-century symbolic possessions or ideas in the form of objects.

The tricky bit – gluing the wood together

I decided to start with one of the easiest ‘things’ to paint: a pile of blueberries.They are the ultimate superfood and symbolic of our current desperate desire to be shiny and healthy inside whilst battling the ever-growing obesity on the outside, and they represent the fight we have against the short-term satisfaction culture we live in. I love blueberries. They are succulent. They have a unique colour.

Making a start on the ‘real’ bit – painting in oils

We don’t eat much that is blue – bubblegum icecream? And nothing else matches the colour of  blueberries. Blueberries taste amazing. If they do me good, all the better. They go superbly well with a dollop of full-fat, luxurious vanilla ice-cream.

Blueberries or just ‘squiggly lines’?

Is my painting recognisable as blueberries? No, not really. I am trying not to over think this. I am trying to let go of that old devil, the ego, and just paint. I am doing that at the moment: just painting. The biggest test is yet to come and that will come in October. What People Think.

 

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Completing the circle – ‘a still life of disorder’

It is crunch time now. I have three months to go until the end of MA show in Walsall. Tomorrow, I am seeing the curators of the Walsall Art Gallery and I need to make sense when I talk to them. I need to sound confident. I need to know what I am going to do.

This time last week, my head was very woolly indeed, as reflected in my musing about the pain of the group crit. I realised at that point that I had exactly seven sleeps to come up with something concrete, something real, a ‘thing’ so to speak. There’s nothing like blind panic to bring focus.

It took a couple of days of blind panic, but while sitting in my favourite coffee establishment in Eccleshall thinking about oatcakes, I had an idea. It isn’t a revolutionary idea. In fact, it is just me completing the circle on what I’ve been doing for two years and what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve turned, I hope, the wool into steel. I’ve completed the eternal circle that has been troubling me for two years.

So this is the idea. I have decided to create a grouping of still-life objects as a semi-sculptural painting. Each individual ‘painting’ within the bigger painting will not be dissimilar to the paintings I have made recently, on wood, with a black background. The paintings will be bigger though and resembling the original object more than these did. They will adopt some of the virtual reality painterly drawing style but I will mirror the colours and form of the objects more closely. They will be free standing and more sturdy. They will be placed on the ground of the gallery so people can walk amongst them. 

A close-up

The title of the work is going to be ‘a still life of disorder’ which is a quote by Norman Bryson, author of Looking at the Overlooked, which is a well known collection of essays on still-life art and the still-life genre, published in 1990. The title refers to the ongoing battle within the tradition of still life of the objects often depicted in that genre: between vice and virtue, between wealth and poverty, and pleasure and abstention. I want to reflect that these battles are still inherent, in our live sand in our ‘treasured’ objects of today. The only thing that has changed, is the objects themselves. The metaphors they stand for, are the same.

To this end, I asked people to send me photographs of objects to paint. So far I have received a few and I have come up with some of my own including: blueberries (superfood – metaphor for life); a cup of Costa coffee (it is what it is); a fitbit (time – metaphor for death); apple (Apple features massive in Western society today – it is also a metaphor for knowledge, wisdom and joy); beer (alcohol – symbolic of debauchery, binging, a desire to forget and escape); Alexa (symbolic of monopoly, also domination, surveillance, convenience, isolation); a vape (not symbolic as such but a contemporary object); chargers (a source of technology oxygen); diet coke can (the epitome of company duopoly, capitalism); a cat (something the Internet seems obsessed with, as do people, traditionally symbolises lust and vice). And that is just the start.

Do you know what this is?

The background on the paintings will be black, to represent the fact that our modern objects exist in five areas of space: real, visual, metaphoric, imaginary and virtual. Space is black. Black also to reference the tradition of still life which often used and still does use a black backdrop as a way to highlight the beauty and power of objects. Black enobles them, isolates them and praises them.

I represent lust, apparently.

So, that is my idea. Will it work? I have no idea. Will I be able to paint the ‘essence’ of things in this idea? I really have no idea. I have nothing to lose now. ‘Fear is the enemy of art’ said someone I know recently. I’m just going to jump in feet first and face the fear.

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The love and pain of the Group Crit

Every few months, we MA students take part in a ‘group crit’. This is where we all gather and take it in turns to discuss where we are at and what to do next. This exercise can be both vital and excruciating. We all get nervous about it, we all feel relief after it, but we all feel a strong need for it.

A black cat. He or she has nothing to do with this blog post.

When you are involved in an art project and a philosophy, you develop blinkers. You become unable to see what you are doing through someone else’s eyes. You understand what you are doing. It makes sense to you. But it only makes sense because you live, eat, breathe and sleep it. It might not necessarily make sense to fresh eyes. This is why the ‘group crit’ is so useful. You present your ideas to fresh eyes and they can be harsh, very harsh.

During the ‘group crit’ you explain what you have been doing, usually to your friends and others, and a random tutor. It makes sense, of course it does, to you. But, wait, once you have stopped talking you look up and see a sea of confused and blank faces. The result: panic.

I had to go through this ‘ordeal’ yesterday. I admit that beforehand I worked myself up into a bit of a nervous frenzy. This was partly because I’d missed the last one and it felt like a very long time since the last time I’d taken part in such a crit. This was also partly due to impostor syndrome biting me again. And partly due to the apparent surety of those who presented their work before me. They did seem to know what they were doing. I don’t.

So, yes, I did see the confused and blank faces after I’d introduced my work. However, once that moment of silence passed, I received some really useful and valid feedback, and, in fact, rather a lot. I want the criticism as much as I want the praise so all was good. I had both. Everything that my critics came back with was very useful.

However, I ended my day yesterday feeling discombobulated and confused. I had expected the ‘group crit’ to give me an answer as to what I was going to produce for the final show in October. It didn’t. It gave me things to think about, but it didn’t give me an answer. The MA course leader asked me to describe my practice in one sentence. That question threw me. I was struck dumb by his question. What I came up with sounded awful to my ears. 

So I spent the 12 hours after yesterday feeling rather worked up, confused, and uncertain. Then, today, I had an idea and that idea was thanks to the feedback I had yesterday. More on that next time.

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Dirty Practice Day Five – goodbye and thanks for all the pasta

If I am honest, I struggled today, the last day of the symposium. I’m not used to travelling so much, five days a week, from home to Newport to Wolverhampton and back to Newport and home again. I usually visit the studios twice a week at most, as I am part-time. So this five-day week really took its toll on me today.

This morning I arrived late, and reluctantly, in Wolverhampton with a strong coffee, a lot of emotional baggage weighing down on my shoulders and a lot of chaos swimming in my head. I’d had a late night, and even then less than the optimum amount of sleep and a tough and disordered morning. My home-life musings and insecurities naturally impeded on my ability to focus and function on thinking and creating. I didn’t feel the love for ‘art’ as ‘play’ today. I felt tense, over-tired, emotional and in need of hiding from the world rather than engaging with it.

Three things happened that shook me out of my horrid bubble of angst. Firstly, a friend asked me a favour. It was a strange favour, but interesting nonetheless. This simple request served as a powerful reminder to me that stress is not unique. Stress is normal and stress is, boringly, universal. I was happy to oblige and very grateful for the effect it had on me. Powerful.

Secondly, at lunchtime, after I’d failed to do anything creative whatsoever, we attended a short presentation given by Lisa Metherell from Birmingham City University. Lisa came to talk to us about octopuses and love, self-care, the creative life and community. Sitting around the table, feeling extremely tired, I felt the reluctance of someone deeply distracted. However, I forced myself to concentrate. I’m pleased I did. Her talk was very relevant to the ethos of the dirty practice in particular and to art education and what it means to be an artist in general. We discussed the pressures of life, the intrusion of life and the difficulty of focus. A couple of important conclusions came out of the discussion: the benefit of talking or thinking while engaged in other activities and the importance of mutual care.

Lisa’s luscious strawberries.

I felt a sense of relief after this presentation. I needed caring for and I needed to accept that if the creativity wasn’t happening today, then it can’t be forced and I should take care of myself by going home. However, before doing that, I decided to paint one more painting without care. I painted the fez. I quite like the painting I made. It took me ten minutes, tops. As with yesterday’s drawing, it’s not a ground-breaking artwork, but I like it. It helped. The process cleared my mind a little. I packed up to leave for home feeling lighter and, a little sad that the week was over.

My last-minute painting.

Then the third thing happened. Just as I was leaving I went to say thank you and goodbye to three attendants who belong to a small team of academic coaches employed by the university, one of which is also an art student. The role of the academic coach is to facilitate students getting the most out of their experience at university. It is a relatively new role, but an important and interesting one. The academic coaches were attending the symposium as themselves, as artists (real and temporary) and as cooks. It was thanks to them that we had all been fed regularly. It was also thanks to them that we had engaged in some very random and fascinating debates about subjects not at all related to art. They stayed around all day, each day, creating a sense of community for all us with their questions and their food. As I was thanking them for bringing their particular brand of joy and kindness to the event, one of them offered me a saucepan of spaghetti bolognaise to take home for my children. Such generosity. So that, my dear readers, is what I did.

Found on the table, what is this?

I left the art building with my gifts from the Dirty Practice: a new creative bounce in my step, a greater sympathy for my vulnerability and that of others and a huge saucepan of delicious-smelling bolognaise.

If I had a hammer, I’d make it out of a drawing.

Goodbye, Dirty Practice, and thanks for all the pasta.

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Dirty Practice Day Four – stop thinking and just draw

Today’s schedule on the Dirty Practice Symposium was taken up with symposium-type stuff: talks, questions, discussion and a workshop. I didn’t have much time for painting (or any, in fact) or thinking about what I am doing. I did, however, have a lot of time to think about wider subjects.

In the morning we were treated to three presentations. These were all interesting and thought-provoking. The most inspiring in terms of art practice for me was the first one given by Henry Ward, one of the participants and a ‘real’ artist. He was very relaxed in his approach and he talked briefly about his process of working at home (sporadically, after hours and hurriedly) and what his art is all about (found objects, inspiring objects). He then went into more depth about what he’s been thinking (a lot) and doing this week (a lot). I found his practice very interesting partly because he is a painter (and I paint) and partly because he paints objects (and I paint objects). But also, because he is trying to exist somewhere between the figurative and the abstract (I have dabbled in this area of the world recently). His process is much more organic and automatic than mine though, so that is where we differ. However, I found much to be inspired by him and in fact I think he encouraged me, inadvertently perhaps, to just draw today.

The other two morning presentations were given by Clare Beattie about her ceramics / physics PhD practice and thesis and Holly Crawford about recent work concerned with the history of the ‘other’ in culture. I was very keen to see Holly’s presentation as she had had a huge impact on me three years ago when I attended the end of the Dirty Practice Symposium of that year. I still have one of the postcards she created and it is on my studio wall. I use it to remind me when I am feeling misunderstood that ‘normal persons don’t understand what we are doing’. This time, however, she carried out a more specifically targeted performance piece, about the ‘other’. I thought it was brilliant and clever. She was quite mesmerising in her adoption of a persona and her coming in and out of her self. However, her message didn’t hit me emotionally until she spoke about her childhood experience of being the ‘other’. This personal element to her talk and performance was the essence for me. It hurt. I was very moved. Perhaps because I, like so many other people, have had a similar experience in life.

I still have this.

In the afternoon, we all attended a talk and workshop given by Doris Rohr from Liverpool Hope University. Doris is a drawer. She loves things. She draws things. She has read Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which is my current bible. So I felt a kindred spirit in the room. As part of the workshop we had to draw something, break that something and reconstruct that something. For this activity, she had brought along a number of charity-shop and home-found objects which she was happy for us to destroy. However, it is at this point  where she and I differ in our thinking. She has no issue with the destruction of ‘ordinary’ replaceable objects. She is interested in the transformation of things and the influence of the organic on the inorganic. I am too, to a certain degree. Yet, I cannot destroy. I feel the pain of things. The complete reticence on my part about harming the objects fascinated me and gave me an odd feeling of discombobulation and anxiety. Instead, I rebelled against her instructions, and destroyed and reconstructed my drawing rather than the object (Wayne Rooney). I simply could not put myself or the object through the pain of destruction. 

My chosen object, and I could not destroy him.

In terms of my practice, for what little time I had left, I decided to stop thinking and just draw on the wall using random biros. I quite like what I have created (it has grown since the photo below was taken). It isn’t a great work of art but it is interesting and has a potential. I have no idea whether it will go anywhere, or do anything, or mean anything. But it felt organic and interesting. It seems that I just can’t seem to get away from this idea that everything at the end of it all is just one big messy blob of thingness.

Drawing on the wall – organically rather than with too much thought.

The thingness of things – the mess of things – dirty practice is having an impact. What will the last day bring?

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Dirty Practice Day Three – ‘Fear is the enemy of art.’

The Dirty Practice Symposium today, for me, was all about painting. I love painting. I could paint all day if I didn’t have to earn money and look after children. So, on one level, today was my idea of heaven. All I did, was paint.

My painting. It’s ok. It’s not revolutionary.

However, I am slightly bothered by the lack of adventurousness and lack of messiness in my painting. I am still painting the way I have always painted. I am painting on a surface I’ve been using for a couple of months. I paint in a neat and tidy style and that is my style. Is that what dirty practice is supposed to be about? I’m not sure. Should I be trying to jump feet first and arms stretched out of my comfort zone?

Over lunch we had a group discussion about art education in general, the tutor-student relationship, the experience of this symposium, the nature of ‘results’ and what it means to be an artist. During this discussion, the subject of ‘impostor syndrome’ came up. Impostor syndrome is very common in the creative industries (but also exists elsewhere). It is a psychological term, first heard in 1978, used to describe a feeling of consistent doubt about one’s abilities and achievements. It also refers to the fear of being ‘found out’ as a fraud. It stops us being adventurous. It stops us from jumping feet first out of the comfort zone. The dirty practice symposium is supposed to facilitate that jumping, being free of grading, exhibition and pressure. Yet, for me, it hasn’t done that so far. And that is my fault. We also talked about the fact that tutors and professional artists suffer just as much as students from impostor syndrome. It is a universal experience and time doesn’t lessen it. If anything, the more responsibility and kudos an artist has, the bigger the fear is.

Ironically, a couple of hours before we had this discussion a friend and fellow dirty practitioner had approached me. He’d peered at my painting-in-progress and advised me to have more confidence in myself. He had added, wisely, ‘fear is the enemy of art’. With that, he had left me to ponder. His words stayed with me all day. Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear is a huge black cloud that hangs over me, and many others. It has haunted me on the foundation degree, on the BA degree and now the MA. 

I am on this final furlong of the MA now. Can I face the fear? And even if I do, I realise after today’s discussion that the fear won’t leave me. I can’t just shrug it off. It would be naive of me to think I could. Even if I do well and get good results, the fear will always be there and I need to accept that. The ‘fear’ is the black cat to Churchill’s black dog. She needs constant fuss. There is no point fighting her. I may as well accept her and work with her.

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Dirty Practice Day Two – can you guess who owns the fez?

Early this morning I arrived for Day Two of the Dirty Practice Symposium to find a nice collection of objects donated for me to paint (more came during the day).

The objects

There are a number of interesting themes running through the objects: the colour red, round, found, utility and small. Given that the objects were chosen and placed independently of each other, this is quite intriguing. I suspect that some people picked something they found in passing while wandering around the studio: the hinge, the Primark tag, the nail and the balloon. (Actually, the balloon is my object but I did find it in the studio.) The other objects were chosen with more care: the shuttlecock, the fez, the brush and (not in the image) the egg box.

Initially, I found it quite interesting to try to match the object with the giver. There is no such thing as random selection when a decision is made, whether conscious or unconscious. The object givers chose an object for some reason or other: humour, convenience, appeal, or reflection. Even if they believe that they chose an object at random, they didn’t. The object caught their eye for some reason or other and as such, reflects their personality.

I have been asking everyone in particular if they can guess who left the fez for me to paint. Only one person didn’t know. Everyone else guessed correctly. To me, it was obvious. I also thought the Primark tag was obvious but fewer people guessed this one. In fact, knowing the identity of the giver of each object, or at least in most cases, I think it is obvious from whom they came. 

Everyone has left a little bit of themselves for me in the form of their object. It feels as if they are all with me. The objects have a personality. They are keeping me company. I feel oddly honoured to be the custodian of these things and I feel a sense of responsibility for having to look after them, and paint them. I need to do justice to them, to create something meaningful with them, for the sake of their kind lenders. 

Questions, questions, questions.

The day is now over, and I have spent most of today writing on my wall, procrastinating and avoiding starting anything creative. This is what I do in these situations. I think. I think a lot. I think a lot before I do. I am secretly actually quite scared of doing. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that. Artists are supposed to love creating. But it is the truth. I’m a fearful artist.

Still life quotes

Eventually, at 5.23pm, I threw my wall of caution to the cliche wind, and started painting. Once I had started, I didn’t want to stop. Often the starting is the most scary part. Yet, I had to stop. I have three children. They were waiting for me to fetch them. I write this now at home, lying in bed, absolutely dog tired and creatively spent. Yet, I can’t wait for tomorrow to start so I can pick up my brush and paint some more.

I’ve started painting.

As to who gave me the fez? If you have any connection to the Wolverhampton School of Art, can you guess? If not, you have no chance. But it was the first thing I wanted to paint.

 

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Dirty Practice Day One – is cleanliness really next to godliness?

This week I am taking part in the annual University of Wolverhampton Dirty Practice Symposium. This is a week-long art practice, thinking, talking, discussing event which is open to students, artists and thinkers alike. This is the first time I have taken part in the whole week of the event. 

This year’s title is ‘Don’t Wash Your Hands! Cross Contamination of the Arts and the Institution’. Contamination here is not necessarily a negative, although we tend to see it thus. At least, I certainly did before today. I’ve been thinking a lot today about the word ‘contamination’. There’s nothing I love more than having my thoughts provoked and that is what a good symposium does.

The main theme of the symposium is the ‘contamination’ of the outside on the inside. This could mean ‘contamination’ of society and culture on the artist, or contamination of other artists on the self as an artist in the same space, or contamination of other disciplines on the arts such as science, maths, engineering, philosophy or whatever. It is about crossing the boundaries. It is about contamination in art education and how that can be a positive.

There are a number of secondary themes related to the main concept, which we discussed in the introductory session. One is about the nature of ‘hygienic’ and ‘dirty’ and how they relate metaphorically to other areas of life. We see ‘dirty’ as a negative and ‘clean’ as a positive. Dirty is black and clean is white. Dirty is depraved and clean is angelic. Why is this so? Dirty is also creative and clean is sterile. Dirty is illogical and clean is logical. Sterile and logical aren’t always positives. Illogical can result in new ideas. Does logical ever do that? Other secondary themes relate to the purity of the image, and contamination of the image.

I like to think on my wall.

At first, I wasn’t sure how the themes related to my own art practice. I was taking the word ‘contamination’ too literary and I was a bit wary of the word ‘clean’. Also, what is it about the ‘purity of the image’ that connects to the sort of paintings I do? However, as the day wore on I had a bit of a light bulb moment. 

My practice is about things and contamination is actually a very strong theme in the world of things. We effect the lives of things, and this is a type of contamination. We contaminate all things we come across, with both positive and negative forces. We give them good memories and bad. We leave a patina on them, which is ‘dirty’. In that context, to me, contamination and dirt are good.

But I am also interested in the idea that everything is either something or the opposite and this notion of clean vs dirty fits into that. We see so much of our lives in binary terms: positive negative, dirty clean, black white, zero one, nothing something, I have always fort against this way of seeing. However, recently, ironically, I’ve started to doubt myself. Last week I started looking at ways to portray objects through a universal language and I came across the notion of using binary code. In binary code things, numbers, colours, properties, images can be described using just two digits repeated in set sequences. These digits are on both sides of everything in between. They are 0 and 1. These digits are used in computing technology in sets of eight and they are used to describe anything. They describe this text, they describe the colour of this text, they describe photos I upload on social media, they can describe anything and everything. In fact, there is nothing that can’t be reduced to 0s and 1s. The two digits, in terms of electronic processes, represent ‘off’ and ‘on’. They are indeed opposites. So, I reasoned last week, surely this means that the world really is binary? 

I have yet to resolve this in my mind. Seeing the world as two sides, or as describable from two sides, goes against everything I have previously believed. I have been a firm advocate of the grey areas since I can remember. But if grey can be described in terms of black and white, just as anything can, then there is no grey. I’m not sure I like that. Yet, there is beauty and purity here.

How does this relate to a dirty practice? Dirty is black, clean is white. Dirty is messy, clean is tidy. Dirty is bad, clean is good. Again, we see the binary nature of our thinking coming into play. But dirty is below the clean. Dirty contaminates clean and clean contaminates dirty. This might actually imply that grey exists. Now I am confused.

Even the concept of the purity of the image relates to my recent paintings. I have come to believe that my abstracting of them, from original, to photograph, to virtual reality, to painting, to line is away of trying to find a purity in the object.

In terms of what I am doing for the symposium, I haven’t yet related the themes to my plans. I need to think some more. So initially, I’ve asked people to bring objects to me so I can create a 21st-century still life. I’m not sure yet how I am going to paint this still life. I need to adapt it to this idea of opposites and binary, black and white, dirty and clean and purity of image.

Please give me objects.

I guess I will just have to be predictable at this point and say watch this space. In order to get clean, and pure, I must first get dirty.

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