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The Anxious Artist is Running Short on Spoons

‘There is No Spoon Painting’. Tereza Swanda.

I was recently sweating blood over a submission of three artworks to a group exhibition in Folkestone. The gallery in question had wanted photographs of each piece in its frame. I searched and found a space on the wall and dutifully followed the very specific instructions, only to discover each of my screenprints had been obscured by the glass in the frames. It had already been a rigmarole to get to this stage and having messed about with editing the pictures, with little success; I was tempted to send the images as they were and hope they were good enough. However, I stopped myself and decided to send the images to some friends and ask their opinion. One of them suggested that I remove the glass from the frames and reshoot the photos, he added 'if you have the spoons'. I wondered what on earth he was talking about and considereed the possibility of there being a special tool that removed glass from frames (which seemed a little unecessary, I could do it by hand). However, the idea of removing the glass made my heart sink, it seemed ridiculous that such a small task should feel so exhausting.

This has been applied to a particular chronic illness, but it can be tailored to every individual need.

Feeling curious, I asked my friend what he had meant by 'spoons' and he explained 'spoon theory'. In brief; it is an analogy which equates the amount of ability that someone with chronic illness has to complete their daily tasks to a limited number of spoons' (MEpedia 2023). I immediately connected to this idea, as the analogy enabled me to visualise my daily energy quotiant and recognise my limitations. This, in turn, somehow enabled me to feel more compassion for myself, as I often pay most attention to the things I feel less able to do and give myself a hard time about it. This, then, seemed to give me a burst of energy, I found a spare spoon, gave it a polish and reshot my exhibition submissions, so they could be seen in all their glory. I'm not claiming the photos looked especially professional, but I was out of spoons and so I submitted, payed the fee and now sit and await the decision. I allowed myself to be a little bit pleased with myself, as I had wanted my Dungeness prints to be seen close to the special place itself.

Derek Jarman’s Garden I

Derek Jarman’s Garden II

Dungeness Power Stations

I remain grateful for the 'spoons' analogy, as during particularly testing times, it is helping me plan my days in accordance with my mental and physical resources. It is hard to separate the two, as one impacts on the other; the things I find emotionally demanding usually cause me to feel physicaly exhaused, if I were to overdo it and this is easy to do. It is important to recognise the things we find particularly demanding, so we can take better care of ourselves in identifying what helps us replenish our spoon supply. For example, I know that listening to the news is a huge drain on my energy, due to the anxiety it causes, so I avoid it as much as I am able. I also know that, as much as I need connection with other people, I can find social situations, particularly busy ones rather overwhelming. For me, time and space are essential, in order to recharge.

Right now, I feel I have overdone things and am pretty much out of spoons. These days, it seems, the demands of life are coming at us from all angles and it is difficult for those with just a handful of spoons to plan ahead and take care of themselves. The diminished level of mental health support available to me made itself painfully known over the last week, to the degree I actually felt that the service that was meant to be helping me was determined to make me feel so much worse. This had obviously left me feeling very distressed, as I felt so worried, helpless and vulnerable. I have not been sleeping well. I am sure it won't surprise you to know that my story is not unusual these days. I have many friends who have had support withdrawn and have been left to try to cope on their own. I can only hope that this situation is temporary and that this is the worst it is going to get.

With the emotional demands of impending anniversaries also approaching, I feel like I am juggling quite a bit at the moment. It feels like all of these additional stressors are intruding on my space in every way and there is no room to resource myself enough to ride the storm. I feel stifled and sense the desperate need to retreat. As I visualise my spoon supply, I am put in mind of Cornelia Parker's steamrollered silverware in '30 pieces of Silver' (1990). Sometimes I am able to retreat into my artwork and this recharges me, but even this feels like too much for me. I am far too restless to relax, so the next best thing is to look for some space to regroup. To let all the noise die down and to just be. It can be hard to find this sort of thing in the busyness of London, but not impossible.

‘30 Pieces of Silver’. Cornelia Parker.

I am lucky enough to live close to the Walthamstow Wetlands for a start, then there is Epping Forest not far away, both regular haunts of mine. However, last week, I felt the need to be fed creatively, especially as I felt unable to actually be creative myself. On an attemted journey to Core Arts, I was surprised to realise I had missed my stop and was heading towards Liverpool Street. I took this as a sign, however and knew exactly where I needed to go.

The White Cube Gallery, in Bermondsey has to be my favourite art gallery in London and I think this has a lot to do with it's expansive rooms, with high ceilings and gloriously tranquil white walls. I have seldom been when it has been busy and it always seems to have an excellent exhibition on (it's also free!) I arrived fatigued, but immediately glad I had made the trip.

It delivered all I could have hoped for and the sheer joy in finding sanctuary boosted me immediately. The choice of artist could not have been better: Imi Knoebel (b. 1940, Dessau, Germany), renowned for his quest to detach non-representational art from any fixed ideas. He sought, in his art, to celebrate the 'supremacy of pure feeling'. Thank you Knoebel, this was exactly what I needed!

Imi Knoebel at the White Cube gallery, Bermondsey. My port in a storm.

Without wishing to intellectualise too much, for this was not part of the ‘plan’; for me it was such a delight to see the simple shapes and geometric forms positioned playfully about the gallery walls. I was able to step back and enjoy the interactions between each painting; each room a complimentary body of work. Or, I could look much more closely and notice the generously gestural, translucent brushstrokes, which revealved a sense of depth and movement.

I found that I was gradually able to let go of my cares and found myself playing with compositions, as I took pictures on my phone (as you have seen!) which I would later enjoy editing. I even found the headspace, without expectation, to draw inspiration from Knoebel's approach, picturing how I could incorporate the sense of freedom and space into my own practice. If only I had the White Cube as my studio space too; that would be wonderful! I have recently felt the need to return to working more abstractly anyway. I find anything too busy is just too demanding and I simply have to look away.

By necessity, artists are often rather sensitive, so it is understandable and essential to find a means of escape when it all gets too much. Historically artists have managed to do this by a variety of means and so I am doing the same. I also think that, these days, you don't have to be especially sensitive to feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on in the world. We all need to be aware of how many spoons we have available and to learn to identify how we will need to take care of ourselves when everything is just too much. It is also important to be understanding and kind towards ourselves, when some days it is a major achievement to have made it out of bed and an added bonus to have washed and put some clothes on. So this Anxious Artist wants to tell you all to go forth and be gentle with yourselves. Visualise your spoons and don't squander them unnecessarily. They are in high demand.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross


When I was doing clinical work (some years ago) I spent a lot of time talking to people about "pacing" - I wish I had known about spoon theory then. I would love to know where you found that spare spoon which enabled you to reshoot your photos - I'll bear it in mind next time I'm looking for an extra spoon.

Good luck with the submissions. xx

Naomi Elfred-Ross
Naomi Elfred-Ross
Mar 07, 2023
Replying to

Those spare spoons are hard to come by, that's for sure!

I think It was in knowing my friends who told me about the spoon theory were there rooting for me, knowing exactly what frustration I was dealing with and that I could share the journey with them. xx

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