Tag Archives: art

Creating is vital

Creativity is something we all need. It’s not just about making art, and it certainly isn’t all about making art for money. Nurturing a garden is a creative thing. Parenting, being part of a community, even just socialising can call upon us to be creative. Anything we do in the course of the day can be approached creatively and enriched by that.

For most of human history, we’ve engaged with each other around the things we’ve made, individually or together. Making and sharing food is a really powerful thing. Making clothing, shelters and essential things is really bonding, and sharing in this way puts people into powerful and cooperative relationships with each other. 

For most of human history, music, stories, art and dance were things we did together. This is one of the major reasons I’m worried about how AI ‘art’ is going to impact on us all. I worry about the loss of paid work for creative professionals, and I think we’re all going to be considerably poorer if we don’t have access to new ideas from creative people. However, I think the cost around our understanding of what art is, is already much higher.

Art where you push a few buttons and a computer makes you a picture or writes you a story doesn’t allow you to meaningfully share yourself with other people. How interested would you be in the fiftieth poem your friend has got a computer to write for them? How exciting is it if your sister has made her 700th piece of AI art? Why would you even care? The first few might have the merit of novelty, but that’s all they really have. It’s not the same as going to an event and listening to a poem your friend has written. It’s not the same as watching your sister grow as an artist, image by image as she learns her craft.

Creativity should be something we do for ourselves, and to share with other people. I want everyone to have opportunities to do that. I feel strongly that we should be using the technology to free up time so that people can spend their lives doing whatever they find interesting and rewarding. What is going to happen to us, as humans if instead we use the computers to give ourselves less scope to create in meaningful ways? What if we undermine this whole aspect of what it means to be human so that a small number of people can make a profit out of it?

Shared art gives us access to beauty and joy. It is however more than that. Creativity is how we express to each other what it means to be human and how we make sense of our human experiences. When we can dance and paint, tell stories and share songs we’re sharing references for how to live and what life is for. Culture is built of our shared ideas about what matters, what’s good, meaningful and desirable. What happens to us as people if we stop doing that and have machines do it for us? There are already too many pressures on too many people making it harder to connect and share in this way.

I think there’s a lot at stake here for us as a species. I think our compassion, co-operation and relationships are greatly enhanced by sharing creatively with each other, and that if, culturally, we start thinking that art and stories are things we make by feeding a few keywords to a machine, we’re going to lose far, far more than we could ever gain.

Inking for Wessex

This is me, working on a piece for The Wessex Mysteries – the series I’m doing with David Bridger.

David went through the text for all of the geographical content in the book. While the setting is based on actual Dorset, we’ve made a lot up. I then took his notes and worked that into a fairly basic sort of map. Tom took the map and turned it into a view of the landscape – it’s not a realistic perspective, more a kind of illustrative, narrative approach to map making, which I rather like. I then came back in to ink the whole thing. 

I don’t have a designated art space, so I usually work on a board wherever is most comfortable – usually with my knees up like this. I live in a small space with two other people and a cat, so there has to be a lot of flexibility around how work gets done.

One of the things visible here is how I hold a pen – I’ve always held it this way, despite many people trying to ‘correct’ me as a child. I have hypermobile hands, and a ‘proper’ hold is prohibitively painful for me. When I was a child, no one ever asked why I was refusing to hold the pen properly, the focus was all on trying to normalise me. I think we’ve come a long way since those days and there seems to be considerably more willingness to make room for difference. If you look at my left hand you can see my joints bending the wrong way. This is something that affects my whole body.

Having the space to do things on my own terms is incredibly important to me. If I can’t sit in the way my body needs to sit, or hold a pen in the way that works for me, I can’t really function. There are a great many people who have comparable issues and needs and who can’t thrive if forced to conform to other people’s ideas about what a body should be able to do.

There’s a kind of mono-thinking that permeates a lot of white, western culture. One God, one truth, one true way. One right way of holding your pen – I think of all the people who are older than me who were put through all kinds of needless distress for being left handed. People are diverse in all kinds of ways, and anything that insists on only having a solitary ‘right way’ of engaging is bound to needlessly exclude. 

This is part of why I was so attracted to Druidry in the first place. It’s not a path, as such, it’s an approach that allows people to make their own journey on their own terms. There’s no one right way of being a Druid, and no demands intrinsic to Druidry that casually dismiss people or deny their existence. There’s always scope to tinker things to make them work for you, and I think that’s incredibly important.

AI and the making of art

There are lots of things that need saying about ‘ so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and art, and for this blog post I’m just focusing on one thing. I’m seeing a lot of people claim that AI levels the playing field and allows people who are normally excluded from doing art to be able to make art. I think this is total bollocks, so here we go.

Creativity takes effort. It’s not about having a rush of inspiration and then being magically and swiftly able to make the thing you imagined. Every kind of creativity takes time. People who put genuine creativity into the world have spent years studying their forms, learning skills, developing ideas, practising, striving, messing up, starting over. Creativity is not held in some elitist way by a lucky few who are keeping everyone else out. Creativity is a lot of work, but being creative is available to anyone willing to put in the time.

Putting in the time is good. If you’re so excited about something that you want to be able to do it, then the process of learning is a wonderful thing. Investing years in something you are passionate about gives you joy in an ongoing way. Being able to pull something out of the ether, using a few words and someone else’s work won’t give you that. It might be briefly satisfying, but it’s not like having developed skills and understanding that allows you to really create.

Whatever kind of creativity you’re exploring, every time you make something yourself, you have an experience. You learn, grow, refine your ideas, find new things to reach towards. Yes, I could persuade a computer to make viola noises for me, but what would that give me compared to the day to day process of trying to manage the bow to get the best possible sound from the instrument I have? I’m not much of a visual artist, but there’s something exciting about being able to compare what I can draw now with what I was doing a few years ago and seeing how I’ve improved. 

Tools are good. I’m typing this, after all and I’m glad of the technology that allows me to share what I’ve typed. Nothing would induce me to use the AIs that claim they can write your blogs for you. I write because I want to develop my own thoughts, and I am at least as invested in the process as I am in having something to show at the end of it. Tools are good, but anything that offers you something for nothing is lying, simply. AIs do not enable creativity, they rob the people using them and teach little or nothing about what it takes to grow as a creator. It might be amusing to use in the short term, but there’s little satisfaction in that sort of process, as I suspect the people trying to use it will find.

If a short-cut takes out some awkwardness, that’s always worth considering. However, much of what’s good in life lives in the details, the experience and the process and the more we undertake to have done for us, the less room there is for our humanity and our souls.

Art and emotion

I’m writing this post on a bad day. I’m listening to the music that mattered to me in my teens, partly as a way of holding myself together, partly for comfort. This is hardly an unusual thing to do. Music has a huge power to connect us to different times and places in our own history. A song can bring back a whole summer, or a friendship circle. A song can represent a relationship, and all too often when relationships go wrong, it’s music we turn to for comfort.

There’s something uniquely powerful about being held for a few minutes by a stranger’s musical exploration of heartbreak. It eases the feelings of being alone in that, recognising our shared humanity as we suffer. 

People tend not to reflect much on happiness. When we’re happy, we just get on with it, usually. There isn’t the same urge to reflect and to try and understand why we are happy, or what happened to put us in this state. Grief and pain tend to invite introspection and because of that, we can end up seeing them as more intellectually meaningful states while our less considered happiness can seem trivial. This in turn informs how we value certain kinds of art – things that challenge us and reflect distress are often seen as more valuable than art forms that are designed to cheer and comfort.

We need all of the things. We need comfort, and reflection. We need things that lift our spirits and help us process our grief. None of these things is intrinsically more arty or important than any other. Good art is about being human, being real, and making sense of whatever comes our way. Of all the feelings we might have, happiness can be the most ephemeral and hardest to reach for. We live in a state of grief and loss, killing our own home and with most of us suffering immensely from the horrors of late stage capitalism. Right now it’s easy to create and share expressions of distress. Perhaps what we most need are truly heroic acts of creativity that show us how to feel something other than despair.

After the inspiration

Unhelpfully, creators are often depicted making their art in a rush of intense inspiration. In practice it doesn’t really work like that. The rush of inspiration is a wonderful thing, but the results are usually messy and need working on. After the inspiration comes the tidying up, and the working on whatever you’ve got.

What the rush of inspiration gives you is raw material. An idea, or a cluster of ideas for a thing. It might even give you a first draft, a sketch, a design. Then you have to sit down and develop it. The idea for a book has to be developed into a detailed plan perhaps, and then actually written. The poem written in the heat of the moment is probably going to need refining when your head isn’t on fire. The thing you drew in the heat of the moment might require reference material to develop into a finished piece.

It’s all too easy to become focused on the rush itself – which is an exciting part of the process. However, the idea that we can make a finished piece flat out from raw inspiration is so often a misleading one. Creativity is more than the initial rush of ideas and enthusiasm. The crafting part is just as much a part of the process. So is gathering your tool kit and learning how to use those tools. Learning about the form you are working in, finding your ancestors of tradition and your contemporary, living community is also an important part of the process.

For most people, the sudden rush of inspiration is a rare thing. If you wait for it to turn up then you could be waiting a long time for your art to happen. If you practice your craft skills, study your form, and work in more planned ways, you actually make more room in which inspiration can happen. It’s not just about becoming a wildfire of untamed imagination. Inspiration can be with you at any part of the process.

Spirits and Goddesses

These images were all drawn by me, using pencil, and without looking at any references. Partly I wanted to see how plausibly I could draw these figures without having to look at anything else. Once of them owes a lot to Neolithic Goddesses and none of them are meant to be realistic, but I did want to see what kind of bodies I can manage.

These drawings helped me think about what makes the representation of a body seem objectified, to me. I also came to the conclusion that the world has enough images of tormented, malnourished and impossible-sexualised female bodies. Probably we need more that celebrates and is rooted in joy and delight, both in terms of how the person creating the image feels about what they’re creating, and in terms of how the person is depicted.

What makes me happiest are depictions of people who are themselves happy and at home in their own skin.

Inner worlds – fiction

There are worlds inside you. 

This is the place I think of the most, even though the sun can be punishing. I know the landscape looks barren and unkind, yet there is a stark beauty here I cannot help but love. The story of this place is harsh. Terrible things happened here and we do not speak of that. What excites me is the knowledge that this is not the end of a story, but the place where dreaming begins. 

We are going to regreen this land, you and I. We will make water flow again, through the old channels that barely remember they were once rivers. When we are ready, the trees will spring up here again, and there will be lushness and beauty. 

There are worlds inside you. This world is also inside me. I feel the sand rasping in the wind. I feel the weight of the same sky. I have been burnished rock and endless desert. I remember.

In the end, we must take off this armour. We must lie down in the heat, and become the shade. Where we have merely survived, we must learn to flourish.

(art by Dr Abbey, text mine.)

Accessible art

Recently we had an art show in our home town. It’s an accessible gallery space, with ramps and an accessible toilet, and we did get one visitor on a mobility scooter.

Art is usually hung at a height that assumes the viewer is an adult, and standing up. We took the decision to hang art at various different heights so that some of it was actually inconvenient for standing adults – who could and did crouch down to have a look.

During the course of the week we had a lot of people bring children in. I had the pleasure of watching children work their way along the images that were at a good height for them, looking at the art and enjoying the experience. I’ve never been to a show that hung anything at a child’s eye level before.

It’s all too easy as an able bodied person to go into a space and only see how that space works for you. It’s all too easy to assume everyone else using the space will use it in the same way that you do. I’m committing to thinking more about this, and trying to make what I do in spaces more accommodating of more people.

Here’s a video of the exhibition in which you can see the child-level art, amongst other things.

Art with my ancestors

One of the things I do is to colour comics pages for the Hopeless Maine graphic novel series I do with Tom. Above is a work in progress – we start each chapter with a two page spread. Until now I’ve been doing them with pencils, but am now exploring a mix of pencils and oil pastels.

Pastels are better for colour intensity and covering large areas of paper – especially for land, sea and sky. Pencils are better for details. I can mix the two and get away with it. The oil pastels I’m using belonged to my grandmother. As I was working on this piece I realised that my sea and rocks look very much like her sea and rocks.

For the first twenty years of my life, I regularly spent time watching my grandmother creating art. She mostly did landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes. She was obsessed with tall ships, which I’m not. However, it clearly isn’t a coincidence that I feel most comfortable using oil pastels, and most confident when I’m doing images of land, sea and sky. My grandmother avoided architecture and technology, she tended to avoid people and still life as well. Of necessity, I’ve had to learn how to colour people – I like fabric but honestly faces still scare me. I’ve learned a lot from Dr Abbey about how to handle skin tones and that’s really helped.

We all learn from our families, we all have things passed down to us from our ancestors. Sometimes it’s obvious – but not always. It’s only this week that I’ve thought about the impact it had on me watching my grandmother make art, and just how much I learned from that experience.

Separating art from the artist

Should we draw a line between what people make and who they are the rest of the time? Is it possible to do so?

Firstly, to separate art from artist you have to not have been affected by whatever they did, or are doing. The person who can separate may well be experiencing privileges not available to others and is therefore under some obligation to proceed thoughtfully.

Is the creativity being used as a platform? Does it get this person access to victims? Is it giving them an opportunity to spread hate or cause harm? Is their economic value to their industry resulting in people pretending not to see the harm caused? Where this is true, the decision to consider the art as separate from the artist is the choice to be complicit in the harm they cause.

Where the artist is dead and can no longer hurt anyone directly, it might be less problematic to separate art and artist. However, the notion of whether that harm continues may be less visible to people with more privilege. If we continue to celebrate people who were harmful, and we do so by saying that the art is more important than the harm, what message does that send to the people and the wider communities they harmed? What does it tell future artists about what is acceptable?

Is it truly possible to separate someone’s behaviour from their art? If you’ve experienced the kind of nastiness they pedalled, that art is going to be tainted for you even if the specific content isn’t always visible. If I know someone was abusive, I can’t un-know that to view their art objectively even if I want to.

I don’t accept that ‘greatness’ in any field should give anyone a free pass on being a shitty human. I think for every shitty human who has managed to also be a ‘great’ creator there are many less visible people who are kinder and who do better work. Capitalism favours ruthlessness, self importance, and people who like having power over other people. Gentler people can be disadvantaged by the way the big business side of creative industries work. I’d rather seek out the less famous folk than support the ones whose creative platform has more to do with their pushiness than with their ability.

There are massive issues around who is allowed to be ‘great’ and shitty at the same time. The further you are from being a white, middle class, straight, cis guy, the less room you will be allowed to be considered great while being shitty. What’s indulged in this demographic isn’t allowed for everyone. While some are allowed to get away with almost anything, others are punished for not playing nicely and not doing what they are told – not playing nicely includes of course calling out the shit of the great white men. The more profit you make for other people, the more likely you are to be considered great and to be shielded from the consequences of your actions.

I can’t separate art from whatever I know about the artist. I can’t separate any aspect of human endeavour from whatever else a person is doing. If it’s something you find it useful or interesting to do – that’s fair enough, but please be alert to who gets harmed when we excuse certain kinds of behaviour on the grounds of certain kinds of output.