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The Anxious Artist Seeks Freedom Through Creativity

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

‘Wind Turbines-Dungeness’. Silkscreen mono-print.

As I sit at the computer screen, I am aware of having a scattered mind, which has not been conducive to writing, so I hope this makes sense. Life continues to feel challenging, as seems to be the case for many people these days. What is also difficult is that so many of these challenges feel beyond my control. Feeling so distracted, I have very poor concentration, so it feels I am not getting much done. There is a constant conversation happening in the back of my mind, which is hard to ignore, as it ruminates on everything I am worried about and everything I am doing wrong or should be doing. Feeling a sense of increased threat, I am also more vigilant to potential danger around me. I am also noticing increasingly how my emotional wellbeing is affecting my immune system, which means I am often too tired or just don’t feel well enough to do the things I want to be doing, which is frustrating.

While accessing physical and mental health health services continues feel more distressing than helpful, I do continue to attend Core Arts. This is a fantastic resource, which somehow manages to keep going when funding opportunities must be considerably diminished. I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for those who keep such a special place afloat. However, as my own funding source for my place at Core Arts feels increasingly more uncertain, I am finding it more of a challenge to go. The anxiety that is inevitably created in these uncertain times is impacting on how I am relating to my peers, as I feel so preoccupied and I am increasingly finding that I am seeking solitude. Yet, paradoxically, there is also a definite need for social contact, otherwise I am left feeling very lonely and removed from the world around me. I continue to take comfort in attending exhibitions. This feels like a form of social connection, as I appreciate whatever it is I feel the artist is communicating in their work. I take reassurance in recognising something of my own experience interpreted through a variety of means and media. I feel that artists are often so generous in the giving of themselves in this way.

I recently went to the Alice Neel (1900-1984) ‘Hot off the Griddle’ exhibition at the Barbican. I had not heard of her before, but discovered she did some wonderful expressionistic portraits, celebrating those who are too often marginalised by society. This included black and Puerto Rican children, pregnant women, civil rights activists and queer performers. In fact, unsurprisingly, the politics of her work has given her cult status amongst the younger generation of artists. I got immense enjoyment from the humanity captured in Neel‘s portraits. They lacked any sense of pretension, just spoke the truth about the diversity of lives in our society, which should be appreciated. As a disabled and, therefore, marginalised person myself, I really appreciated Neel’s amazing capacity to devote her life to working in this way, regardless of whether her style was deemed fashionable at the time. She was an artist’s movement in her own right.

Alice Neel, ‘Self Portrait’ (1980).

As far as my own creativity goes, it’s all a little slow and feeling a bit stuck. I’m hoping, however, that I am soaking up all the creativity I am observing around me and it will inform my own practice, when it regains momentum. I am finding it much harder to approach my work, as I am feeling more judgemental about what I do, often getting frustrated when things don’t turn out as I had hoped. I often find I am comparing myself to others and coming off badly, so I have lost the courage of my convictions. However, I haven’t given up altogether and will persevere and trust that my confidence will return, in line with an improvement in my mood and overall mental wellbeing.

Silk-screen monoprints of Derek Jarman’s Garden.

To be fair to myself, I am also exploring new territories and experimenting with my screen printing, so there is a need to be open to whatever emerges and to abandon any idea of having a plan as to how I think something should turn out. This can either feel like a lot of fun and an opportunity to play and explore, or it can feel daunting and soul destroying, depending on how I am feeling. Still, it is important, as an artist to learn and take risks. Surely it is through our supposed mistakes that new discoveries can also emerge. I think this could also be applicable to life. Because of my anxiety, too often in life I am so preoccupied by the things that may be potentially dangerous (such is the nature of PTSD), that I miss out on so many new opportunities. Art offers me the opportunity to explore and experiment in a way that feels safer.

Peter Doig is one of my favourite artists and whose exhibition I recently visited at the Courtauld Institute. Doig’s work often relates to the places he has lived (UK, Canada and Trinidad), and so his work carries a sense of transition. As Doig’s surroundings change, as does his colour palette and subject matter. Doig approaches his painting as I am trying to approach my printmaking. He works without an ultimate plan and enjoys the element of surprise this approach brings. He is experimental with his painting technique too, relying on the materials already around to suggest possibilities. He doesn’t enjoy using fresh paint from the tube and never intentionally mixes to create colour. He builds up layers in his paintings starting with translucent, thinned out paint, then building layers towards opacity. He varies his mark making, which brings his paintings alive. I find looking at Doig’s paintings rather joyful and I draw inspiration from his sense of adventure in his art making; something I really would love to harness.

Peter Doig, ‘Alpinist’, (2019-22).

It is a bit of a cliché that along with psychological distress, comes creative genius. In 1888, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head…at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse”. It is well known that Van Gogh was hugely productive in his career as an artist, cut short too early. However, I wonder if these spells of prolific creativity may have been interrupted rather than enhanced by the troubled mind he describes so eloquently? For me, creativity is a tool for helping me stay well, so it is a preventative measure, which I hope I will be able to maintain without needing to also be unwell!

Van-Gogh, ‘The Bedroom’. (1888)

I do, however, think art is a wonderful means of expressing our internal processes and communicating things that are otherwise too difficult to talk about. I think we can learn a great deal about ourselves and each other through creativity. I do also think that, perhaps, somehow through the fluctuations in my mood and the sensitivity that inevitably comes alongside mental distress, that perhaps I am also open to looking at things a little bit differently and seeing beauty in unexpected places.

Art has the capacity to offer a more honest commentary on the world around us, in a way that is often more accessible and less threatening than the blunt instrument that is the daily news headlines (which are often economical with the truth, at best). It can also describe the complexity of our inner worlds, in a way which reaches out and touches, reminding us that we are not alone.

My ongoing screen-printing work, inspired by the magical, austere beauty of Dungeness seeks to communicate nothing other than my personal need to strive to create something (without wishing to sound pretentious), uncomplicated and beautiful in a life that seems increasingly complex and overwhelming. The subject matter bringing to mind the wonderful sense of freedom I had felt there, and what I long to feel again, perhaps reliving that sense of space through my art. I don’t feel that my work is particularly fashionable, but it is what I feel compelled to do right now. Perhaps I am working purely for myself, but I think this is the only way I can be genuine. I take heart that Alice Neel’s portraits were not fashionable either and yet they are now being embraced and appreciated years after their creation. She did what she believed in and this is self-evident in looking at her art, it shows great integrity.

So, right now I am feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with my work, but surely that is merely a projection of how I am feeling about myself right now. What I know is that nothing ever stays the same and I will put my faith in this knowledge and I won’t give up. Right now, I am working through things in my life and in my art, it can be a painful process and so I might credit myself for the courage this takes. It is hard, but I know I am fully invested in it, as something that is potentially lifesaving and will open the door to new adventures.

‘Derek Jarman’s Garden-Dungeness’. Silkscreen mono-print.

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