An Artistic Retreat

Voices from Within

Cutting the ribbon to kick off the show! Photo credit: ReeHan Photographic Gallery

One of the most liberating things I have done in my quest to unleash my inner artist is to suck up my fears and attend the Gailani Art Retreat in Muscat. The idea of painting in front of other people was absolutely terrifying, and for the majority of my first retreat I was actually shaking a little. But I made it through the first one, eagerly went back for a second, and am happy to announce that one of my paintings was in the retreat’s Voices from Within exhibition last Saturday!

At my last retreat, I met a muse in a new 9-year old friend who had no fear about changing things up mid course. When I was stuck she wouldn't hesitate to throw something on the canvas to give me a new starting point. It was fantastic! There's nothing like a kid to help you paint without fear.

At my last retreat, I met a muse in a new 9-year old friend who had no fear about changing things up mid-course. When I was stuck, she wouldn’t hesitate to throw something on the canvas to give me a new starting point. It was fantastic! There’s nothing like a kid to help you paint without fear. Photo credit: ReeHan Photographic Gallery

These retreats are such a breath of fresh air. The purpose is not to create amazing pieces of art (though they create themselves anyway!), it is to spend an entire day dedicated to allowing your artistic expression to find its way to the canvas.

If at any point, you appear to be planning, plotting, outlining or in any other way deciding on the future of a piece, Gailani (the fantastic artist and founder of the retreats) will come by and mess everything up for you. He’ll turn the canvas upside down, streak red paint across your blue background or take your brush away and slap your hands on the canvas. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process, which makes every moment interesting and exciting. Every stroke, every motion is about doing what you feel inspired to do.

Gailani Retreat Growth

These paintings came from the retreat theme of growth. I have come to see growth as a natural and inevitable fact of life – a guaranteed outcome from everything we do – but it is something I have often tried to control in my own life. I’ve attempted to force growth in a predetermined direction (despite its inclination otherwise) or inhibit it to maintain my own status quo out of fear. This retreat challenged me to let growth happen as it wants to without judging it, forcing it, censoring it or editing it. Photo credit: ReeHan Photographic Gallery.

Although I couldn’t be in Muscat for the exhibition, I am really pleased to know that it had a huge turnout (over 430 guests!) and inspired more people to look to art as a way of finding their voice. I certainly look forward to meeting some of them at the next retreat.

To read more about the exhibition, check out the Times of Oman write up here! It really captures the purpose of the retreats and the brave and engaging spirit of all the people who participate in it. I’m so glad I’ve found this group of artists in my new hometown.

See you next time!

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Some Postcards for You

Hi friends,

I’m writing to you from my sister’s dining room table in Lexington, Kentucky today. I’m sitting by the garden door and revelling in the cool breeze that’s coming in. It’s so fresh I even have to wear a shawl. Imagine that! After the scorching temps in Muscat and the small heat wave in Tel Aviv on my visit last week, this is absolute perfection.

Anyway, onto the good stuff.

A few weeks ago, I asked you to help me with my postcard project by telling me three things to put together in drawing. So without further ado, here are the first three cards that I’ve made and sent off for you.

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Three things: Marmite, One Direction, bunting. Sent to: Slovenia

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Three things: mermaid, hula hoop, wine Sent to: France

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Three things: a child, an umbrella, a star Sent to: Saudi Arabia

Thanks for all the ideas you sent! They are all really exciting and challenging in different ways. I look forward to making more for you! If you haven’t requested one already (or if you want another, I suppose) you can send me your ideas here and I’ll draw one up for you.

Cheers,

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Anchors Aweigh!

I did a really scary thing yesterday. I asked for advice from someone whose opinion I respect immensely.

And as a result of that advice, I did an even scarier thing today:

I deleted all the ideas I have ever collected about creative projects I want to do in the future. 

This tricky task was the result of an email discussion I had with someone yesterday who knows his shit about this stuff, a creative mind I have followed for a long time, Paul Jarvis.

If you haven’t read any of Paul’s work or listened to the Invisible Office Hours podcast he does with Jason Zook, you should get on that. Every time I read or listen to his ideas (and Jason’s too), I come away with so many nuggets of wisdom that help me in really big ways. Plus, he’s a really nice guy who genuinely likes to help people, so that’s a pretty awesome combination.

When I emailed him yesterday with a question, he gave me two pieces of advice that I took as a challenge for today. The first one is:

“The more I’m thinking, the less I’m working.”

This point really resonated with me because I tend to sit down and think out all the fine details of what will happen after I do the thing I am thinking of doing. I let my fantasy take me away, imagining where the project will go, what it will look like, what people will say about it and how I will feel as a result of how awesome it will be (obviously it will be a global success that will make me a financially independent world traveller the second it goes out).

But then I never actually do it. I never start the project. I never put the pen to the page. Because that’s where the real work is. That’s where things actually get hard.  And who wants hard when it’s so much easier to sit on my couch and imagine all the not hard things that will come from all the hard work I am not doing?

It’s the act of doing the work that make things happen. 

That’s where we’re are actually up against it, slugging through, trying things out, seeing what fits, experimenting, playing, but most importantly, working. Thinking about how awesome it will be at the end will never get the project up and running. Ever.

It’s a massive illusion to think we can predict where things will go, what a project will look like once it’s done because it will shift the second we actually start working on it. Then you’re in a tricky situation where you have built up expectations (remember, these are no bueno) and you begin comparing the actual work with what you think it should be. This is not a good combo.

You cannot think your way through a project. You have to get involved to see what it wants to be, where it wants to go. That’s when you get a feel for the essence of it – what elements of it elevate your soul and make your smile wider. You can only feel these things when you’re actually doing the work.

This brings me to the second piece of advice:

“When I have an idea, I write it down. If I don’t ACT on that idea within a few weeks, I delete it.” 

Because I am really bad at learning lessons, when I read this I thought, “Yes!! That makes so much sense! I would feel so light and free if I threw out my stale ideas and allowed room for new ones to grow. Won’t that be lovely!” and then I went off happy and proud of myself for doing such a liberating thing.

Had I actually done it? Nope. Not even close. I watched a movie instead (Big Fish, if you’re wondering – I really like that movie).

This morning, the real work came.

Armed with the first piece of advice, I dove into the second challenge: delete outdated ideas

It was really hard to start on this. I was a little bit pissed off that Paul suggested it because I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing some of these things out. Still, I wanted to give it a try because, well, he knows his shit and he’s done his work and pushed through and made things that he is proud of, and I want to do that too.

When I began, I felt like I was throwing myself away. I felt like I was erasing hours of work, hours of thought and creativity. It was pretty difficult.  But now that it’s done, I see that I wasn’t erasing any work at all. I was erasing things that took away from my actual work. Things that distracted me. Things that weighed me down.

Some of my notes have been a weight on me for years. I kept past ideas around because I thought I would reference them at some point. I thought I would come back to them and be reminded of what I really want in life, what I want to do, where I really want to go. I thought I would read these old, worn scraps of paper like tea leaves and bear witness to some kind of revelation about my ultimate purpose in life.

But outdated ideas are the opposite of insightful. 

Instead of pushing me toward the future, they pull me to the past. They anchor me to times and places that are no longer relevant to my life and the work I need to do right now. They are heavy. They are stressful. They are unnecessary. And they need to be cut out.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t until I started throwing things away, throwing the weight off, that realised I had been carrying it in the first place. I felt so much lighter, so free and liberated. I felt so much creative space opening up. It was amazing.

No longer linked to past ideas, I am now free to engage in the ideas that are coming from the present. The things that are relevant to me NOW. That are meaningful to me NOW. That excite me NOW.

When I set out on this mission this morning, I wanted to think that I knew better than Paul; that he was wrong about this; that his advice wouldn’t apply to me because I’m a different person.

But he is totally right.

It’s essential to diligently keep our creative slate fresh and clean. 

Holding on to stale ideas binds us to the past and inhibits our growth in the future. Deleting them allows the really relevant ideas – the ones that matter most to us right now, in this moment – space to breathe and grow. For me, that is the definition of creative freedom.


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Choose Three Things….any three things

Hello again.

It’s me again.

And I need your help.

I’ve been tinkering around a lot with the book I mentioned last time – making lists of people whose work I admire and lists of the people they find inspiring so I can read them all as soon as possible; spending excessive amounts of time perusing graphic novels and making note of which styles appeal to me most; sketching a very rough layout of the key points of my story…I’ve been busy.

As I mentioned previously, I have no real history in illustration. I doodled a lot when I was younger and I sketch here and there when I journal, but I haven’t really tried to publicly express myself in a visual form before.

This is where you come in.

I need practice drawing. And I want it to be a real challenge – something that will push me forward by changing my frame of reference and force me to work with new concepts while I learn this new skill. I don’t want to get boxed in. I want to play with different forms, different styles, different ways of drawing. I want to try lots of things.

So.

I have 24 postcards sitting on my desk. I want to send one to you. All I ask of you is that you tell me three things to draw on the postcard. Any three things (obviously within socially appropriate bounds) for me to ponder on and decide how to stick together on one card.

Two examples so far are:

  • a mermaid, a hula hoop and a glass of wine
  • bunting, One Direction and Marmite.

I’m still working on that last one…

Anyway. I would love to make a card for you and use it as a way to practice this whole drawing thing. So click this link and tell me three things (any three things) I can draw for you. The sky’s the limit.

I look forward to staring at the screen in bemusement and trepidation when I receive your request.

Love,

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PS. For those of you who have requested cards already but haven’t received them, first, my apologies. Secondly, I will use the ideas from the brilliant descriptions of yourselves you gave me to make a special card for you.

Thanks for sharing about yourselves, by the way. Your stories make my day every time!


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Just Like That

Ok. This is going to sound crazy. It feels crazy. But it also feels like exactly what needs to happen.

I’m going to write a novel.

With no words.

For someone who has always relied on her words, this is kind of a strange situation. I woke up last week and watched an entire story play out in front of me. I saw every scene. I felt the whole story. But it’s all images. All snapshots. No dialogue. No description.

It’s all coming from my chest – from a feeling deep inside that I can’t describe.

I sat down this morning to doodle and my pencil carried me deep into the story, laying out the sequences, showing the emotions in each scene. I have threads. I have arcs. I have characters. I have relationships.

I have a story.

But I have no history in illustration, no background, no experience, no skills.

It’s all a bit overwhelming!

I need to make this book. I have to make this book. It’s dying to get out, to be a part of the world. And yet I am not entirely sure how to go about it. I have my sketches. I have my feelings. I can see it all. I just need to get it on paper, to refine it, to tell it like it is, with images and colors and expressions.

This is going to be an interesting journey…

Inklings

If there is one thing I have consistently wanted to be good at, a talent I have desperately envied in others my entire life it is this: illustration.

From time immemorial, I have had an absolute obsession with all things paper and pen. The closet in my childhood bedroom was absolutely enormous (not just in kid relativity) and one entire shelf was full of paper – top to bottom, side to side. I had all the colors, all the thicknesses, all the textures you could possibly imagine. The shelf above that was rammed full of pens and pencils – jars of them, bags of them, drawers of them. I had skinny ones, fat ones, glittery ones, inky ones, scratchy ones, markers, sharpies, colored pencils, crayons – anything I could convince my mom to buy or get away with accidentally not returning to whoever lent it to me (yes, I am the place where all your missing pens end up. Mystery solved).

Pen and paper are the perfect marriage for me. They are all I really need in my life. They let me write, they let me read, they let me doodle, they let me fantasize and wander and daydream. There are few things I love more than black ink on a white page. I love coloring in the spaces. I love appreciating the lines. I love whimsical swirls. I love ominous images. I love it all. I cannot get enough of it.

In my adult life, I can and have quite easily gotten quite lost in the world of illustration online. I used to haunt a series of blogs, watching the artists talk together, listening to them inspire and support one another, and feeling utterly despondent that I couldn’t be a part of that world.

This envy comes from the fact that every time I put my own pen to the page, I produce the most infantile scrawlings known to man. My dogs look like small, deformed elephants. On a good day, my people are stick shaped. I am either the very best or absolute worst partner you could ever have at Pictionary – it all comes down to how much you like to laugh.

I have never let myself imagine that I could call myself an illustrator, that I could put myself in this class of people I respect and love so completely. That I could actually belong with people who are so creative, so incredibly inspired, so beautiful. Every time I have ever touched my pen to the page, I have heard the tape in my head start to loop “I can’t draw. I can’t draw. I can’t draw.” and I have stopped – broken, sad and completely defeated.

For the last few weeks, I have been going through the Artist’s Way book (a truly amazing read and creative adventure I think everyone in the world could benefit from), and it has stirred up a lot for me. It has made me address some of my ideas about what creativity means, about where it comes from and what it is capable of. It’s also made me see a lot more clearly what it looks like when a creative person stops themself from doing the thing they are compelled to do.

This realisation came to me as an image – as it always does – and I was desperate to express it as a drawing. All I wanted to do was draw a stick figure carrying a hobo bag on a stick. That’s it. But the thought terrified me. My hands were shaking and I was absolutely panic stricken that I wouldn’t be able to draw even that simple image.

And yet, I started.

I drew heads that were too wonky. Smiles that were too creepy. Legs that were anatomically impossible. It was kind of a mess – but I kept going.

It took me two pages of practice to get the beginnings of the image I wanted. But after some tweaking and some wishing, I sat back and saw exactly what I sat down to draw. I couldn’t have been more chuffed to see my pen create the perfect image for what I was feeling.

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It made me go a little nuts. I was so excited about making an image I was proud of that I spent the next few days in a total Sharpie frenzy. I couldn’t draw enough. I couldn’t be with my notepad long enough. I would make myself stop for a while to start on other projects – things I have to do to live my life as a responsible, adult-type person – but I could only think about drawing. And for the first time in my life, I found a strange thing happening with my images. I started liking them. I started seeing them as a place full of possibility, a place for my own self-expression instead of a xerox machine for others’ ideas.

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My images are far from perfect. They are far from skilled or professional. But making a lot of them over the last few days has changed my perception of what it means to illustrate. My whole life, I have looked at images that other people create and thought, “Oh my God! That is the most amazing/beautiful/stunning/evocative/powerful/moving image I have ever seen. I love it so deeply I cannot even express my total amazement at its beauty and my gratitude that this is now part of my life forever.”

Then I try to make that thing.

Unsurprisingly, it looks nothing like what I want it to. I can’t evoke the same feeling, I can’t create the same personality, I can’t draw the same thing. So I crumble. I grow despondent. I get sad and dejected at the idea that something I love so much, that fills my heart with such joy, that makes me so deeply happy, won’t come out of my own fingers. I curse my hands for their lack of skill and resign myself to appreciating the ability in others, always secretly yearning to make the thing myself.

But I’m learning something. It isn’t about making the thing that other people make. It isn’t even about making the thing that I picture in my mind beforehand. It’s about putting the pen on the paper and letting it do what it wants. Laughing at the turns it takes. Smiling at the colors it puts together. Allowing it to make what it wants out of the page. It’s about letting the image make itself, and not judging or censoring it along the way. It’s a really hard thing to do, which is why I am going to force myself to do a whole lot more of it – publicly, which is even harder.

I’ve been putting up images of my doodles on Instagram the last few days, if you want to check in and see what I’m up to. And for those of you who like postcards (who doesn’t!) for the next month (maybe longer), I will make all the postcards I send out (sign up to get one here!).

I am new to this. I am just getting started. I feel behind. I feel set back by my own mental blocks, my own definitions of what my expressions should look like, of what they should represent, of what they should embody. I am walking out into a completely blank space, and I am touching my pen to the page…