Everything about our frugal family life stretched me to be resourceful, to see the objects around me in an unusual way and to repurpose everything. As a child, I spent hours in my room (I shared until I was about 10, then: unparalleled JOY! My own bedroom) - a space to make and be quiet away from a noisy family environment. I don't think I ever took that seclusion for granted.
In my room I made cardboard sculptures and furniture, clothing out of my dad's old jumpers and old sheets (which I painted to look like embroidered waist coats). I hand-sewed, sculpted, painted and drew and was the most unselfconscious an instrument for the creative muse that I have ever been. In those precious years I taught myself how to use materials and objects in unconventional ways, I approximated and experimented and didn't worry that I was not doing things 'properly'. I was at ease in my inner space. Ideas came easily and the need to make was a daily drive.
I went to Art college at 16 and started to learn new skills. I started to formalise my making a bit without ever doubting what I was doing. University really shook my world. A Fine Art degree varies hugely from institution to institution. There are no set rules about what you can and can't do, but doctrines exist, instructions to follow in order to describe yourself as 'Artist'. Gradually I absorbed the 'house style' at my conceptual art leaning University. After initially freezing in the face of new/different, I threw myself into my degree course, opened myself up to new teachings and tried to forget (and cover up evidence of having been) the girl in her bedroom making stuff. I loved University and was excited by the work I could make and the opportunity to exhibit all the time. I think I showed my work 8 times through my 3 years there (not including my final degree show). I had different work and ideas for each showing, I made sculptures and explored video and photography. My work always had a scrappy energy and 'homemade' look about it, tell tale signs of my early self schooling which proved harder to erase than I wanted.
At art college a culture exists to question, examine and explore all work. There are organised 'crit groups' which consist of groups of students and a tutor who discuss presented work and criticise it in the context of contemporary and historical art. It seems a bit bizarre now, when I describe this process out loud. Essentially the function of 'crit groups' is to decide whether you are on the right tracks and your work is acceptable in the eyes of the assembled people or not. As you can imagine, these sessions have the power to crush or swell egos. If you are not very careful, you can be making work purely for the placation of the groups of your peers and their tutor, rather than listening inwards and making the art work you really want to make. I worked hard and was so engaged in my methodology and in flow that I found the crit groups helpful and drew on them as a resource to help me make work. Unbeknownst to me, in tiny increments an angst about getting it wrong, not doing things properly and getting a thumbs down in crit groups for my efforts, began to metastasise within me.
After Graduation, slowly, subtly I started to lose faith in and connection to my voice as an artist and belief in the validity of my ideas and work. Outside the creatively dynamic bubble of Art college, I found the prospect of standing on my own two feet to sell myself as an artist and to allow myself the time space and budget to explore what it could mean to be an artist too daunting to pursue. I made earning a living a bigger priority (I did have to work to start to pay off debts and to eat and exist). Something deeper than just pragmatically responding to financial expediency was happening: The story I told, out loud and to myself quietly in my tiny bedroom in my shared house at night, was a tale of banishment from the art world because of a lack of resources and time. I lost belief in the validity of the risk of making art. I feared that my art might not stand up to criticism. I extinguished my inner flame and put my need to make and do on hold: telling myself that I would let myself glow again only after I could get financially stable. Rather than risk getting art wrong as a part-time artist, I slowly began to let go of it as something I could hope to have in my life.
I had been conditioned very subtly to feel the need to have my art work approved of. I had also given credence to the idea that if I couldn't be an artist full time then, I couldn't call myself an artist at all. Art work could not be considered completed if it hadn't been picked over by fellow students and tutors. Caring what people thought had been amplified within my methodology. Getting an approval stamp and pleasing people: essentially being praised for making a pretty/witty/clever piece became my artistic raison d'être. The creative muse had left the building and been put in a taxi to the wilderness. The need to be impressive, to please, to be admired became an enormous obstacle for me. Rather than enabling me to be happy about showing my work and able to discuss the concepts behind my work, (which I assume is the aim) being a crit groupie hydrated my latent predisposition to care far too much about what people think. I lost spontaneity and the ability to make without concerning myself about what the end user/audience might make of my output. I was all about stuttering to explain my work and by extension myself. The truth, my truth is that I don't believe art should be explained. A few notes about background or inspiration is fine, but if you have to explain to me exactly what a piece really means or how I should feel about it, it damps down the magic and stops it being art: becoming a kind of propaganda instead. It stops being about internalising and making sense of the external and starts to become about being instructed on how to read, respond and think.
As a viewer of art I don't want to be told what to think of a piece of art and as a born-again-artist, I don't want to have to get too involved in explaining my work. I am only just back on speaking terms with the muse and a lot of the time even I don't understand the work I am making. My hope is that you will make your own sense of it and that it will touch you without you needing me to explain how it should make you think and feel. 20 years after art school I am still calling myself an 'Artist'. It has taken a long time to recognise and then admit that I have built my own obstacles to prevent me playing a bigger artistic game. In amongst all of the doubts I still feel that the word Artist belongs to me and I to it.
Lately, I have stripped down to my metaphorical underwear and returned to making art the way I used to when I was a child. I am still self conscious and forget to trust the process all the time, but the difference is that now I remind myself each time I make art that I do it out of love. I do it because I believe, I KNOW that everyone is creative and has a right to explore their soul cries to make art (in whatever form that takes) and that includes myself. I KNOW that this undefined space is where I belong and that I / we have a birth right to connect pen/paint/pencil to paper or thread to fabric or kinks to wire, to make marks on surfaces, to let our responses, thoughts, feelings tumble from brain through hand and body out into the world. Humans are richer and more deeply engaged in the energies of this world when they adventure in creative activity. We are also better connected to our inner world and our truth through creative practice. You don't need a degree or a certificate or someone else to approve, you don't need permission from anyone. You don't need to dress in an alternative manner or go to the right parties. Ask that little girl in the bedroom: anyone can be an artist.
All images from creative drawing classes taught by Susannah Elizabeth, working with all comers from trained artists to brave beginners & nervous novices.
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