In thinking about what to prioritise creatively for the year ahead, I’ve been particularly inspired by Kate of A Playful Day . Her project for 2016, The Maker’s Year, first caught my attention on instagram. Her goals include time to reflect on all aspects of daily making, and what I connected with especially was her phrase, “in a way the nourishes, not weighs down.”
This really strikes a chord with what I’ve really been grappling with personally for the last year or so. I chose my particular direction in life because I delight in making things, and yet so often I feel pressures and burdens that make it anything but fun. Most often, those pressures and burdens are self-induced.
One example of this is the idea I’ve held that I need to ‘be professional’, since my book Lighter Than My Shadow was published. You have no idea how much this nonsense has held me back. Another aspect of Kate’s Maker’s Year, which you can read about on her blog, is that it’s “not about driving further divisions between the words making, crafting or art but instead allowing a simple act of creativity the room to grow without hangup or uncertainty.” For me, that means not about sidelining certain aspects of my creativity because I’m worried they don’t fit. I’m seeking a sustainable way forward that feels more whole and honest, for my work’s sake and especially for my mental health.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well let’s take knitting. I have knitted since I was about seven years old, but I really took to it about two years ago. In the aftermath of Lighter Than My Shadow’s publication, I relocated from Bristol, left my therapist of eight years and was not in a good place mental health wise. Knitting became a powerful resource in those months, and has remained so, but something else has also happened: I have become obsessed. I knit every day, I think about it almost constantly. When I visit a new city, it’s to the yarn shop I gravitate first, before the comic shop. I can no longer deny what an important part of my creative life this craft is becoming. Until now, I’ve held back on blogging about it because I’ve worried that it doesn’t ‘fit’ with my identity as an illustrator. But is that creative identity even appropriate any more?
The more I think about the Maker’s Year, the more I relish the opportunity to acknowledge and respect these other aspects of creativity. Last year I learned to sew garments, a craft I’m really excited to explore more. I made toys, something that I featured often in early issues of The Green Bean but have not revisited since. I also learned how to tat lace, and how to weave. And what about the daily, small acts of creativity that are so easily taken for granted? The food I prepare, the decoration and care of our home? Why shouldn’t my blog also honour these things?
So thanks, Kate, for the wonderful idea and inspiration. I’m excited to explore what 2016 #themakersyear brings, and to learn from what it brings for others too.
Clearing The Decks
Alternative title: The day I deleted my portfolio, and decided it didn’t matter.
I’m not much of a one for resolutions. I’ve lived with my mind long enough to know that change happens in almost imperceptible increments, with continued effort, not by waking up one day and deciding to be different. Nonetheless, I get caught up with a feeling of shiny newness this time of year, and find unexpected energy to, well, attend to things.
When this happens, one of the very first things I want to attend to is my website, which seems to be perpetually two years behind what I’ve actually been doing. Does anyone else have this problem?! Who knows how it happens, but I certainly need to attend to it. And so I began, making subtle tweaks and changes to the look, and barely moments later I managed to delete my entire portfolio. Excellent start to the year!
I spent a few
minutes days lamenting my idiocy, and then a wonderful feeling of clarity came over me. I don’t need to sort through those old images, figure out what stays and what goes. I don’t need to get my head around how exactly I tweaked the code two years ago or whenever it was to get it all aligning nicely. I have a blank slate, a fresh start, and it’s no bad thing.
So currently I’m an illustrator with a portfolio-less website. Hopefully I won’t let it sit that way for too long, but no promises. The accidental loss has opened up a lovely blank space in which to think about which piece of work I most like, have most enjoyed, and what I want to do more of. I am prepared to be surprised by what I pick.
Having this unexpected space and freedom to begin again got me thinking about other things that might benefit from a fresh start. In 2015 I so especially wanted to get my zine, The Green Bean, back up and running and I did not. I laboured over several pages because I felt I really ought to: over the course of the year I managed to gather together about three quarters of a new issue, but I could never bring myself to finish anything. There always seemed something more appealing to do.
And then this idiotic thing happened with my portfolio, and I got to thinking: I began The Green Bean almost six (SIX!) years ago in a burst of enthusiasm, and it was filled with energy and joy. Over the years it came to feel more of a obligation and a burden, and I had this sudden realisation that I’ve been trying to keep it the same. In six years I have grown, evolved, changed and so has my artistic practice: no wonder I don’t feel excited by trying to create work that belongs with who I was six years ago. It all seems so obvious.
So as well as deleting my portfolio (accidentally), I have ditched over twenty pages of drawings for a new Green Bean (intentionally). Just plonked them in the recycling. Just like that. I have cleared the decks and I feel relieved, liberated, and best of all excited to afford my dear little publication space to grow and evolve into something new.
It’s a crisp and bright autumn morning. I have a steaming cup of ginger and lemon in my hand, and an ever-more-contented little dog curled up at my feet. I am wondering what to write.
I actually have a collection of half-written blog posts I could choose from: about the medieval dress I made, about what’s on my drawing table, or in my knitting bag, or in my brain. But like these creative projects, blog posts also sit unfinished a lot longer than they used to in these days of learning about balance.
As always, the right blog to post is the honest one. Those are always more juicy to write and, I suspect, more satisfying to read. I am challenged at the moment to accept the limitations of a 24 hour day, during which I also want to eat, sleep, rest and look after my family. This is new. I have never, ever prioritised these things, anything, above work. I have always treated myself, my creativity, as a machine, cracking the whip to get things done without regard for sanity or health.
Now I am choosing to do things differently, but it’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t quite flow yet. The going does not feel smooth because this is territory I don’t know. I am used to finishing things. I am used to cycles of euphoric exertion followed by a crash and burn. I have spent the last eight years in an aggrandised version of that, from which I’m still emerging. Emerging with the question: can I do things differently?
What would it be like to have a working pattern that is sustainable? Is it possible? How do I explore and honour creativity as a gift, not an obligation? Can I use it in a way that nurtures rather than exploits my body, my mind and my family?
When people ask what I’m working on, these questions are my answer.
One of the things I’ve found odd about my work as an illustrator over the last few years is a need to be secret. If I’m working on a book, a comic for a magazine, or some other commission, it’s not always OK to share work in progress.
When I first started blogging, back in 2008 (alas, you won’t find evidence of it – I botched the transition from Blogger to WordPress and lost everything), one of the things that kept me doing it regularly was sharing every stage of every thing I was working on. I was also…how shall we put it? A little on the compulsive side. I blogged a lot. I didn’t sleep much.
Since then, I’ve slowed down for my health and sanity, but for the pleasure in my work as well. I’ve learned that over long periods of time, my creativity actually doesn’t respond well to me cracking the whip. I burn out. I stop having fun. It becomes a treadmill and a chore, and for a career path that’s also financially challenging, that makes no sense. It needs to bring me joy. So these days I’m trying to remember that and embrace a slower process, though it’s not always comfortable.
The pages above are from a Green Bean issue that has been on and off my drawing board since February, weathering losses of confidence and direction and needing to be laid aside often for commissioned work. Sometimes I miss the days when I could confidently churn out a Green Bean every two months (heck, I did it every month in the first year. Madness!), but those days are gone.
Now, I regularly take breaks to sit with my knitting. Working a few rows has become a kind of daily practice that reminds me of the rewards of patience, and that the best part of any creative work is the process itself, not the end result.
It was knitting, in fact, that helped me navigate my way back into drawing after my burn out. It began with drawing comics for Pom Pom Quarterly, the first of which was published in winter 2014. The latest, due in the winter 2015 issue, is what’s been absorbing most of my time for the last two months. I remain obsessed with scratch board, again a significant factor in my exploration of working more slowly. Scratch board is about the most labour intensive medium there is. When I worked on Lighter Than My Shadow, I routinely drew 12 pages a week, at times up to 18. For this latest comic I scratched one. One gloriously absorbing, meditative, financially unsustainable but who-cares-because-I’m-hanging-out-with-the-dog-and-enjoying-making-art-again page a week.
Sadly I can’t show you much as it’s a secret until publication, but I’m chuffed with it. I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever drawn. Here’s a little peek…
Now that the Pom Pom comic is finished, that Green Bean, the one that’s been on and off the drawing board, will get some attention. I won’t finish it this week, perhaps not even this month. Who knows. What I do know is that it will be one of the most thoughtful and beautiful of all the Green Beans. And so will the one that follows it. All in good time.
By the way, that “I am doing a new thing” card, pictured at the top, was a design created especially for Green Bean subscribers, to explain what on earth has been going on and why they haven’t received a zine for so long. It was inspired by this embroidery, by talented lady and dear friend, Mollie Johanson.