Things have moved on since since winding up my last blog “After Rites”. Some good things have happened, and some bad things, but I’m now getting some creative ideas and direction, enjoying a time of inspiration that I will soon be looking back on …
I think it’s time to wrap this blog up. I seem to have drifted off the original subject of “…I’m now getting some creative ideas and direction …”
And I am now looking back on a time of inspiration that I thoroughly enjoyed.
What’s come out of this 6 months?
1) Aquaphonics: the collaboration with Helen. She’s hopping mad, as she missed a 1st class honours by 0.3%; I would have thought that since she demonstrated an ability to organise live events, and to collaborate effectively (which weren’t being examined), they might have moderated her upwards by 0.3%. But my inner cynic is not surprised – if you’re not going to help put your tutors in the art history books by mimicking their work, so they can be remembered as “influential”, then they’re not going to do you any favours …
but I’m very pleased, I’ve met a whole load of new creative folks in Oxford, and been able to experiment with equipment and venues that would normally be outside of my financial reach.
Together with Helen, we have a “Show” which can take a variety of formats, which we’re aiming to realise in a range of contexts. To this end, I have just acquired a fish tank.
Also, it’s given me the opportunity to develop a whole new range of skills. Can’t say I’m a natural with the video stuff, but I can see a lot of potential, and I’m making progress.
2) Oxford Improvisers: by an odd twist of fate, my first new music performance for 15 years has ended up as an “example recording” on a pioneering website publishing academic and experimental jazz recordings, and from there was given a direct link from “The Wire”. Not exactly going to launch my career as an international superstar, but helpful to my aims.
3) Pyrotechnics: I’ve let this one drop for the last 4 months, too much else going on, but I now have enough pyrotechnical chemicals to manufacture a small bomb, so I should be able to ignite some canvas …
4) Ritual: I’ve just officiated at my first funeral, and it was a huge success. I had several enquiries about my services as an officiant the same day. I’ve also made some contacts in the funeral industry who are interested in the possibility of working together.
5) Spritual: I’ve made a positive decision to continue to practice “therapeutic” work outside of state control, which has the handy side-effect of saving me 20 grand. Now I’ve made that decision, I feel much clearer about how, and where, to market my services.
6) Education: I’ve suspected for a long time that much art and art-related education is over-priced and pointless, designed simply to maximise salaries for staff and profits for shareholders. I’m now convinced of this.
7) Documentation: I have a huge backlog of documentation to wade through and get up on the net. It’s rather daunting: I’m going to have to do it a couple of hours a week for a year or two.
What about the blog?
I’ve really enjoyed reading other peoples’ blogs, and taking the risk of making some quite challenging comments. Everyone’s been very generous in their responses, taking my comments in the spirit of enquiry from which they originated.
Much heartened by the fact that my co-bloggers, though much more “successful” than me in the traditional sense, are still struggling with all the same issues – money, time, self-doubt, frustration.
And – looking at what other people are doing, reading about the great variety of motivations, aspirations, philosophies, processes and outcomes, has given me a much clearer idea of where I fit into this thing called “Visual Arts”, what I am doing, and what I am not doing. I have gained a much deeper appreciation of other peoples’ work, well beyond what I have gained in 30 years of visiting galleries, attending fringe events, reading art books, or even embarking on challenging collaborations.
In finding greater value in the work of others, I have gained a deepened sense of the value of my own work. And that helps to keep the light of inspiration burning, even in the darkest times.
I’ve been meaning to write this since May, but other issues intervened. A friend asked me to contribute a piece of work to an exhibition raising awareness of “ME”.
Interesting: I have endured 2 bouts of ME, the first lasting 4 years, the second 6 years. That’s 10 years of my adult creative life, yet I could only offer 1 painting on the subject.
ME, short for “Myalgic Encephalitis” (‘muscle-pain associated with inflammation of the brain’), is a nasty and controversial disease. Most doctors, including most consultants treating the illness, deny its existence. To make it easier to deny, it’s been lumped together with a bundle of lesser conditions into a syndrome: “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” (CFS), the defining symptom being tiredness.
The current treatment is to tell patients to go to bed on time, eat proper regular meals, and do something enjoyable every so often.
The first attack was in 1982, before the term “ME” had been coined, still less the umbrella “CFS”. It was the end of my first degree year, I’d been having trouble sleeping and was feeling exhausted, but I really wanted to go along to the Stonehenge festival after my exams.
I was ill-prepared for the scorching heat, with only a tiny water-carrier to fill from the single stand-pipe, at which there were permanent 1 hour queues. The first day was a continuous round in the water queue –fill the container, drink as much as I could, drench myself, return to the back of the queue …
The first night, after Hawkwind, a chapter of Hell’s Angels turned up at 3.00 am and proceeded to tune their bike engines outside my tent. I just packed up, walked away, and hitch-hiked to my girlfriend’s parents in Lancashire. When I got there, exhausted, heat-stricken, I went down with ‘flu contracted from a fellow water-queuer.
A week later, as the fever lifted, I still wasn’t well – I couldn’t wake up properly, sleeping 16 hours a day; all my muscles ached; and conversations stopped making sense after a few minutes; when I tried to read a book or watch telly, I’d start getting panicky, my pulse would start racing, and I’d have to put the book down, or leave the room. Even radio was only bearable for about 10 minutes. I found I couldn’t walk far – a couple of hundred yards and I’d be desperate to return home and go to bed. I was suddenly intolerant to several foods: bread, butter, cream, liver pate, all made me feel suddenly, and extremely, ill.
Initially the doctors were saying: “it’s just a virus, it’ll get better in time, take it easy for a few weeks”.
So I did, and as University term started, I was well enough to go to lectures again. But by mid-afternoon, all the symptoms would be returning – aching muscles, feelings of panic, extreme tiredness, inability to think straight or communicate effectively.
I was treated as a head-case. After a year, the doctors were recommending I visit the psychiatrist, family were suggesting anti-depressants (I was depressed, as I never had enough energy to go out evenings or weekends), girlfriend was telling me to pull myself together.
The symptoms gradually abated over the next 3 years, until I was back to climbing mountains and going down pot-holes, and was thinking straight enough to be researching for my doctorate.
Then it all happened again, 4 years later – on a cycling holiday: again I wasn’t sleeping properly, fiercely hot day, not enough water, bad heat stroke, rounded off with a dose of ‘flu. Stupidly – insanely – decided to cycle home: Cambridge to Oxford.
By this time, “ME” was widely known, and I’d met other sufferers. There was even an ME society in Oxford. But I never joined – the members seemed to define themselves through their illness, whereas I defined myself through my love of nature, people, and creative work.
Which is why I never used the illness as a subject. The one painting I did was just a sketch, a bit of life-drawing/self-portrait practice. I just added the “energy flow” in at the end, as a kind of afterthought.
Research into ME: Outbreak in Iceland – Polio virus implicated; Outbreak at Royal Free Hospital – “Mass Hysteria”; Organophosphate (insecticide and nerve gas) poisoning implicated; NLP: self-obsession, because the letters m and e spell me; psychiatrists: a form of depression; virus contracted from mice recently implicated; acupuncturists: lack of elemental fire. Only treatment that actually speeds recovery: rest.
Other kids always came to me in the playground with their problems, though I didn’t have the special life experience of somebody who had “overcome problems”, nor was I the charismatic kid who was everybody’s friend.
At 16 at boarding school, sat in my room one Saturday evening, a face peered round my door – One of the rugby team, which usually meant trouble.
But this time, instead of looking predatory, he looked scared and shocked. When he came in I saw the blood-soaked tissue round his wrists, concealing deep, self-inflicted wounds. I just sat, and listened. “What else could I do?”, I thought.
Listened to how his parents lived in Singapore, and he only saw them in the Summer holidays. Listened to how he looked after himself in their flat in London where he stayed during other holidays.
He wasn’t moaning– this was his frame, the foundations and the fabric of his life. He sprayed his dormitory bathroom with blood, because of an argument with his girlfriend …
But this wasn’t really about his girlfriend – this was about his frame, the things he could never question, in case the foundations of his world fell apart. Often, death seems preferable to breakdown.
Then there were the friends at University who, at unexpected times would tell the stories of how their fathers had tried to seduce them; my friend who told me all about his father’s suicide; and the CPS lawyer who confessed his nocturnal cottaging habit; another friend whose father had thrown her across the room as a child, before raping her; the colleague who suddenly confessed a string of infidelities; the neighbour who confessed his preference for men, worried how his wife might react …
Then there was my grandmother, who just needed someone to sit with her through slow death from cancer; and the celibate Hindu artist who called me her “Father Confessor” and confessed all her lusts.
I’ve sat calmly, acceptingly, through it all – suicide, rape, rage, grief, buggery, lust, depravity, despair, death.
Last week, I thought: “let’s get sorted out, get an Art Therapy qualification. Stop complaining about education: get accredited.”
IATE are the cheapest who offer HPC accreditation (without which it is a criminal offence to advertise as “Art Therapist”), and also have the most liberal entry criteria: Fine Art BA is not required. The course is in 2 parts, Diploma and Masters. Entry directly onto the Masters is possible, but rare. Nonetheless, I can save 7 grand and 2 years if I convince them.
So, I compiled a list of my experience, everything I’ve read, and done. All the tortured stories I’ve sat through non-professionally and professionally; all the mad, sacred and experimental creative projects.
I read through it, and thought: “Right, Jon, you’ve got a PhD, you know what it takes – how does this compare?”. The reading list goes well beyond a Masters, and the hours of group experience are pretty close. “Equivalent supervised client hours” are lacking, but encompass a breadth and depth of human experience that few art therapists encounter in training.
I booked myself on to the group interview day anyway, which was today.
Just after the last funeral, another friend, Rob, died. I was honoured when mutual friends called and asked me to help design, and officiate at, the funeral.
Sometimes, the bereaved want to be alone with their recollections, more often the grief-stricken only want to pour out their memories … a good starting point for designing a funeral.
My friends mostly knew what they wanted – just some details to tidy up, and a suitable form of words to agree for the sacred bits. I’m not the world’s finest poet, but I’m a good enough writer to come up with something moving, and not too cheesy.
The funeral was yesterday. In Rob’s Mum’s words “It was perfect” … and it was.
Rob was a drop-out. Stuff the establishment, stuff accredited qualifications, stuff the rat-race. He worked as he pleased, at whatever he liked – a bit or writing, a bit of accountancy, a bit of woodwork, a bit of building. He died admired and loved by hundreds.
I missed the group interview today. I could do so much in 5 years with 20 grand!
Stuff the HPC … there’s life beyond accreditation, and a much more interesting, satisfying and useful life, at that.
Thanks David, Abbi and Rob for your comments. Partner is back at work now, 6 weeks since falling ill. Still needs an afternoon nap, but since she works school hours, that’s possible.
Amid the flurry of urgent work callouts I remembered I’d agreed to present a lecture on dream interpretation to the Hampshire Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, near Winchester. Torn between cancelling and presenting a badly prepared lecture, chose the latter (the money was the deciding factor), and later regretted it. Not much customer satisfaction … normally hope for more work to come from each lecture, but I don’t think there’ll be anything stemming from that one.
Took the kids camping over half term, while my partner recovered on retreat in North Wales. First day we visited a friend who was dying of Motor Neurone Disease, then moved on to camp in Devon and take my Mother out with the kids for a couple of days. On the first day received a message that our friend had died 24 hours after our visit. Just returned from the funeral this evening.
After Devon, took the kids to visit friends in Herefordshire who, alongside a publishing business, run a small-holding. Lots of fun with sheep shearing, quad bikes, etc. Nice camping in a field with the sheep.
Exhausted after half term, and struggling to wade through the backlog of work, and get my accounts up to date (No money left in the bank, living off the credit card until I get my invoices posted out).
Was flattered to find that AN took the trouble of publishing a reply to my letter; despite exhaustion, sent a letter in defence of my indefensible position. It makes more sense than the first letter, and doesn’t take quite such an extreme stand, so probably won’t get published. Prepared to be surprised, though. Wondering why I feel so strongly about the issue, though, as I don’t feel I have any vocation as an academic lecturer, Fine Art or otherwise.
I guess the little experience I’ve had of H.E. in recent years has been rather dire, finding myself in an environment in which the wellbeing of the students comes a weak third, behind the financial viability of the department and the career development of the lecturers.
Thus, reading all the adverts for Fine Art courses in AN really pisses me off, as they’re so clearly such poor value for money. The Community Arts sector – really professionally run studios such as the Oxford Printmakers Co-op, or the Oxford Film & Video Co-op, clearly outstrip many University departments:
Members have a wealth of skills which they’re prepared to share for little reward beyond the satisfaction of teaching.
There’s more potential to form long-term community-based relationships and partnerships with other practitioners.
There’s hugely more realism about the financial aspects of working as an artist.
There’s hugely more acceptance, and promotion of, non-mainstream contexts, and much more support in creating your own context on a shoestring.
There’s immediate access to all kinds of contemporary art events and exhibitions – not just the headline stuff that goes up at Modern Art Oxford, and 2 or 3 other trendy galleries … the real experimental, whacky, fringe, forward-looking work that inevitably informs the future, because it’s challenging the status quo.
These outfits often have access to equipment as good as, or better than, what’s available in a University Department.
You can pick-and-choose the development of your practice as you go … you’re not limited to whoever happens to occupy the lectureships at the moment – want to develop another direction – just join a different community group.
The only thing that’s missing is a qualification … the dreaded accreditation. Wait for the next edition of AN for my personal take on that, and if they don’t publish it, I’ll post it here.
So Fine Art courses can claim “Learn your skills in the community, do a BA/MA to get something different”. Problem is, the “something different” costs a small fortune, and yields very little. Don’t do it!
Long live Anarchy!
Time to turn in. Hoping to get my accounts sorted tomorrow. Then, next week, I should have a few hours to start picking up the threads of my fragile creative life, and keep my fingers crossed that there are no more crises for a few months.
Partner still very unwell, coming up to day 14. She’s been sleeping 20 hours a day, and though she reckons she’s not getting any better, I’m sure I can detect a slight shift in mood. Still no feedback from GP, but my money is on glandular fever.
Discovered swiftly that there were no laundered clothes for kids, and found a mountain of dirty clothes hidden behind the laundry bin. Processed it all now. I’ve no idea where the clean clothes go, so I went to Tesco and got a pile of boxes, and stowed the kids’ clothes in those, stacked up in the lounge.
Decided to clean the cooker one evening, and found the main ring blocked up with grease, so dismantled the whole thing. It was 2 am before I had it back together (clean and working). Regretted it in the morning.
Have resorted to hiring an occasional cleaner for hoovering, dusting, and general cleaning. The extra costs are in danger of tipping us over Micawber’s cliff: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Getting the kids off to school on time in the morning, but involves getting up 30 minutes earlier. Washing the dishes after childrens’ bed times, and organising next days packed lunches and clothes, while attending to partner’s needs, gets me to bed 30 minutes later. As I was living on minimum sleep anyway, I’m surviving on power naps in the office between jobs …
Shopping isn’t much of a shock, as I did most of it anyway, but those extra few pints of milk etc. midweek are intensely annoying.
I was doing all the morning, and 2 afternoon school runs, but the extra 3 afternoon runs are destroying my ability to run the business. 2 of those days enable me to offer customers a full day on site, but now I must organise a childminder for the pickup before booking a full day with a customer. The third day was my “studio” day, which is now cancelled until further notice.
Painfully, the 10 to 15 minutes I’ve been grabbing each day for music practice have also disappeared without trace. Practiced the Sax today for the first time, but I’ll probably have to put the music side of things back on ice for some months.
Friends are rallying round, and as always it’s the people you least expect who contribute most. My past experience is people lose interest in assisting after 3 months, which takes us neatly to the Summer holidays … the point at which we’re really going to need help, since the school won’t be providing convenient weekday childcare.
Childcare for 2 kids 5 days a week costs 60% of my income … assuming my days are fully booked with customers. In reality, it would probably absorb 80% to 90% of my income, making it almost pointless working.
So I’m trying to manage asking minimal favours, in the hope folks will still be inclined to be generous with child-minding when most needed.
Helen is working all waking hours, and probably quite a few sleeping hours, editing the video of Aquaphonics for her degree show. This was supposed to be a collaborative video, but given the new circumstances I’ve barely put 6 hours towards this project phase, and only then with the help of a childminder.
Most of my input has been watching what Helen has done so far, with my jaw hanging open, occasionally muttering inane phrases like “ … it’s amazing …”. She’s done an astonishing job. My only contributions have been altering the speed of some of the fades, and trawling through the help files to find out how to do freeze-frames and motion-smoothing.
For some reason, AN just published one of my regular rants on the letters page. The editor seems to like extreme generalisations and indefensible views. Is this a good thing?
Tomorrow is another day … one in a long line I’m not looking forward to.