'Still Life in Motion’ (2022). Naomi Elfred-Ross. Acrylic on canvas.
From a very young age, I had to work hard to pre-empt and be highly sensitised to subtle cues suggesting mood changes, indicating the needs of others, so I knew how I should respond and moderate my behaviour accordingly. Growing up, this was a coping mechanism that was essential to my survival and so it has become ingrained in me. Even though I know, at some level, that it is no longer necessary, it still feels of vital importance. As a result, I am often exhausted trying to guess what others expect of me and find that I can pay so much attention to this, that I am oblivious to whatever it is I may want or need. This can make for some complex interactions, particularly when the other person is trying to do the same. I can find myself getting frustrated with the other person for not being more explicit about their wishes, when I need to be doing exactly that myself.
I am grateful to those who are much more direct about their needs and feelings, it feels like quite a rare breath of fresh air. I think we have a bit of a culture of people pleasing, which is commendable to a degree, until it becomes, at best, irritating and at worst, utterly dysfunctional. The setting of personal boundaries is essential in any healthy relationship, as it means individual needs are met and everybody knows where they stand. I will look after my needs and you must take care of yours.
It is an ongoing piece of work for me, particularly as I have recently observed this very issue happening in my therapy. I guess none of us want to be seen at our most vulnerable, but it is in therapy where it is of utmost importance to take the plunge and allow ourselves to be truly seen. My attempts to be the model patient have, in truth, been an unconscious avoidance of facing the very reason I am seeking help in the first place. Now this avoidance has been named, I need to try and find a way to show myself, in all my fragility and trust that it is safe to do so. I am there to have my needs met, my therapist is well able to take care of himself. In theory, this makes so much sense, but the reality feels frightening and I feel ill prepared.
Thinking about this in the context of art; when I consider the artworks I get the most from, it is usually those in which it is most apparent that artist has created the artwork primarily to please themselves. To express something deeply personal, in response to the artists‘ environment and their internal world (I’m not sure the two can be separated). I think it is obvious if an artist has payed too much attention to pleasing an audience, as there is something of a lacklustre inauthenticity about the artwork. The art world has its fashions and trends, so it can hard to be true to one’s own creative instincts, when needing to make a living. However, I’m not sure an artist has much choice than to respond to what comes naturally, if they really want to create work that has true meaning, reaching their full potential.
My weekly therapy sessions take me to the galleries of Mayfair, which I am relishing the opportunity to explore. Being in the presence of art often leaves me better equipped to invite another person into my life. Galleries are a safe space for me, where I feel at home. It is exciting to see the work of newer artists and not always the ones who get the big shows at the better-known galleries, but maybe one day will. Nick Grindrod is an abstract painter whose art I was recently introduced to at the Maddox Gallery. The contrasting gestural, bold, flat planes of vibrantly joyful colours and compositions, then the areas that have been distressed, and wiped away, creates a sense of energy and immediacy. He works spontaneously, making decisions in the moment, which he says can be ‘both rewarding and disappointing’. This is something I can relate to and a risk any artist has to take, but as Grindrod goes on to say; it is the only way to ‘truly create something unique’. I think if the artist is working spontaneously, there is space only for honesty and so captures something of lived experience of the other.
Nick Grindrod. Oil and acrylic on canvas.
'When She's On Top' (2022). Nick Grindrod.
At the Original Print Fair, at Somerset House, I discovered a screen printer whose work really bowled me over. I am a lover of colour and Barbara Rae really knows how to make colour sing. Her interests lie in a socio-political arena, with traces of human existences and artefacts weathered by time and fortune. Although her subject matter may have a figurative starting point, her interest is in the conveyance of an emotional response to a place and its history. This is captured by her use of vibrant and energetic colours and movement. She, too, clearly works intuitively and spontaneously, with an instinctive understanding of colour, space and composition, which seems to somehow be achieved in a few choice strokes. There is something quite spiritual in viewing Rae’s work. I felt such a sense of the timelessness and of our place as part of our natural surroundings and the cyclical nature of life and death. Amazing that one can look upon an image and take away so much! Rae is clearly giving so much to her audience and yet I am in no doubt of the joy she experiences in its making, she is not compromising. She makes art primarily to meet her own most urgent needs and that is what makes it so good.
'Dead Sunflowers' (2012). Barbara Rae. Screenprint.
'Lacken Cross'. (2011). Barbara Rae. Screenprint.
I come away from seeing art, as I have described and feel so much appreciation and excitement at its endless possibilities. However, I have recently felt as though I have been in a bit of a creative straitjacket and I am beginning the find the courage to approach the cause. I have been too concerned about what I think people want to see, about making art that looks pleasing. This has been so much so that I have forgotten to please myself and it is impossible to work in this way.
I now find myself trying to absorb all of the wonderful creativity I am seeing around me, in the vast number of galleries in London and allowing this to help me find my own groove. It is a risk, as working in this way invites disappointment. I guess that’s not dissimilar to responding to one’s own needs in other aspects of life, there is always the chance that need may not be met and that means tolerating disappointment and accepting we cannot control everything. It is necessary to learn patience and to know that things happen as and when the time is right. This may feel like a challenge, a frightening prospect; for some a bit like reinventing the wheel. However, it is also what brings most joy in life, the fact there is no certainty, invites adventure and surprise.
So, with my earphones in, I get my body into a rhythm and begin to loosen up, as I make my marks on the screen. I keep Dungeness and Derek Jarman’s garden as my prompt, but I am not wedded to the imagery (or, at least I am beginning to try not to be). Similar to the concept of free writing, which I have found to have great therapeutic benefit; I am free printmaking. I am allowing myself to begin to let go. I loosen my grip on my brushes and unknot my brow. I do feel anxious about it and the need to anchor myself with something more definite and possibly more ‘pleasing’ to its beholder is tempting. However, as an artist, it is my job to please myself first in demonstrating how life expands when we allow ourselves to become who we really are and make no apology. It is not being selfish, it is living honestly and wholeheartedly. I’m a beginner, but I know which direction I’m heading now and that’s pretty exciting, if also rather scary. If the art I then produce then pleases others, then that’s a bonus.
A tentative step into the unknown.
‘Sculpture Garden’. Naomi Elfred-Ross (2023). Silkscreen mono-print.
When looking through some of the artworks I have made in the past, I can see that I already know what I need to do. I have the ’muscle memory’. I have risked ‘letting myself go’ and on revisiting the results of this, I can only smile. I see something of myself captured in the moment of their making. They were mostly created at speed, often working on several in one go. I have not sought to please and yet I know these works have been well appreciated. Here, I feel, I am allowing myself to truly be seen and it’s not so bad after all.
‘A Moment in Time’ (2022). Naomi Elfred-Ross. Acrylic on Board.
Leonard. My role model. He who always pleases himself.