The Art Of Living Well

THE ART OF LIVING WELL

A Conversation about arts and mental health between Pete Jan and John (23/2/14)

 

Pete

 

The more I think about creativity the more elusive it seems. It seems a mysterious process.  I think it is a universal human quality, something innate in everyone, that enables us to express the fullness of ourselves in a holistic kind of way.

 

I think it has been part of our evolution as a species, most apparent perhaps in the arts, but something that also expresses itself in all human activities, but often doesn’t.

 

John

 

Yes, people do talk of being creative when they are not actually talking about creating works of art. So what can we say about the fine arts that make them stand out?

 

Pete

 

We could argue that all art forms are a particular form of communication. Maybe this is what the arts are for even. They are a way of communicating something about this extraordinary, sometimes bewildering, sometimes enchanting, state of being human. Perhaps there is a need to express that enchantment, that bewilderment, in some way through the arts. As artists we are communicating something about our experience of living, being human. For me this intersects with this business about whether it can change lives?

 

Graham Greene, when talking about the dilemma and difficulties of life, wondered how people who didn’t write, make music or paint, could possibly survive.

 

John

 

I think that in the fine arts one is creating something that exists and transcends oneself, that can be looked at, talked about, appreciated or not, by others. That seems to be powerful. Maybe that connects with your thoughts on communication?

 

Jan

 

I think about imagination and invention and certainly with art probably the ability to produce work that is imagining other worlds. And if that is happening, if your allowing your imagination to explore, then that is a work of invention.

 

It might not be anything you produce, it may be in the process that is going on that you are able to imagine and invent something other than what you are, or what you see;  you are envisaging something else. That might link it with communicating something, to someone else, or yourself, or the wider world, about the ability to imagine something and to create something from your imagination.

 

John

 

Imagining and inventing leading to change. That’s interesting and I think that people who might struggle with their lives might, through the creative process, open up that possibility of changing the world in a way, bringing about something that didn’t exist before. This should have ramifications for issues around freedom and change in general.

 

Jan

 

If, in your world, there seems an insurmountable problem, perhaps you have the ability to imagine different ways of dealing with it, a creative way to approaching a problem. This relates to the idea that creativity applies to absolutely everything. It is wrong to think about creativity as being just about art subjects; creativity and creative energy comes into almost everything that people do.

 

Pete

 

I think that ‘energy’ is an important word Jan, that’s part of this quality that we are trying to describe.

 

When we talk about creativity there is an energy about it; when we are in full flow, when you are caught in your own flow of creativity, you can start to feel that sort of energy, that vitality. That’s kind of interesting.

 

Sometimes I think when we are being creative with other people it seems to communicate itself. Creativity can flow through the group mind, that somehow harnesses it. When I was saying earlier that I think being creative can be about expressing more of yourself, I think it is about this aliveness, which is a kind of energy.

 

Jan

 

A  ‘charge’ maybe that can somehow change the individual and change the energy in a group situation?

 

Pete

 

Yes, I think so and you see it in Inside Out groups. I’ve seen it in singing groups where people seem quite energised. You come away from it just feeling more alive somehow. I think people also carry images away, the image the song carries, a short phrase or theme of a song, that you can carry away with you. This seems something enlivening and sustaining.

 

You have also talked John about the link between what we create and our personality. One member of the group used to create pretty pictures, beautify all her pictures, very neat, with a good sense of colour. If she framed something she would also beautify the frame. 

 

 I think she was doing that at a time when her life was rubbish, very bleak and ugly, yet she was creating a world that was beautiful. It was when she didn’t need to do that anymore that she stopped coming to Inside Out. She’d been able to internalise, see the beauty in her life, without needing to create it in the form of a piece of art.

 

John

 

People will express different aspects of themselves in creating art. In contrast to your example someone could have a chaotic life and paint that chaos. Perhaps either is correct but the relationship between the rest of our lives and the way we create art deserves some exploration.

I’m thinking of someone whose life was also very disturbed and chaotic at times and they painted very calmly, serenely, which was an escape for them. It gave them a break from turmoil, yet one of the interesting things was that they desperately wanted to be more expressive in an active physical way in their paintings. They saw their work as far too calm, and placid, too structured. It was but I thought it was excellent.

They still got something from painting this calm way yet they were fighting that.  I don’t know whether their desire to be more expressive through the painting was a good thing to aim for, or whether they needed to accept that this is part of who they were. Perhaps they are a calm, placid, whatever, type of person and that is reflected in their art? Perhaps in their lives they need to be more active, energetically expressive but not their art?

I’d like to ask you both, in terms of the Inside Out groups you have been involved in, do you identify particular changes with people and how that was reflected in their art or whether the art enabled them to make changes in their lives?

 

Jan

Some people will go on for a long while producing the same kind of images which are very directly representative of their inner turmoil. It can take a long while for them to have the courage to shift away from the patterns of what they know. They may be aware of their inner life and producing that in their art. Perhaps this is a safety net for people.

But it is, I imagine, very rewarding for them when  they make the shift and produce something else, something new, and I have known people being surprised and pleased with that. This may reflect that changes are happening in their lives. We have to remember that what see in Inside Out is only a tiny fraction of their lives.

Sometimes people haven’t done much art before and may be surprised at what they create and how this can cause significant personal shifts for them.

John

That notion of being ‘surprised’ is interesting?

Jan

Yes, aspects of themselves that they are surprised by. The self that can be affected by the imagination. Maybe they weren’t very aware of that until they actually started to do something. Not talk about it, but actively do something, present it creatively  in another form. And yes, sometimes be surprised by it.

John

That kind of relates to change doesn’t it? And possibilities. Being surprised by something you haven’t been able to do before, that ‘you’ have made that change to your environment, and perhaps to yourself, and that has been recognised by others, that can be very powerful.

Pete

Something liberating, a word that often comes to me, a word that I feel is part of living a creative life. It can be freeing somehow.

I don’t know what that is, that somehow being creative unlocks something, opens the gates, this goes back to exposing more of yourself, the richness of yourself. This happens for me.

I can find that in art, particularly in writing – Blake talked about those “mind-forg’d manacles”. A lot of people we see in our groups have lives that are circumscribed by those manacles, and somehow the art can be a key.

That is something I love about Inside Out; to see people emerge from somewhere, as though they have been hiding. It reminds me of that film, Open the Door [check title?] , a film made by service users about the difficulty of literally opening the door and stepping out into the world. But it’s a big metaphor. I think art can be about opening a door and stepping out into the world. I’m sure it can.

John

I am wondering how best we can facilitate these possible changes – what is the best way to enable these powerful life changing experiences? For me there is something crucial in the different ways of creating art and facilitating art groups. You can do it in more or less positive  ways I guess, that are  more or less likely to open up doors, open up possibilities for people to perhaps experience that kind of liberation we have spoken about.

By contrast I remember working in mental health day centre and I had only been there for a week and I had to pass on a message to one of the Nurses who was facilitating a craft group where they were doing flower arranging. I knocked on the door, went in, and what I saw completely stopped me in my tracks. Around a small table sat five clients who all had a flower arrangement in front of them. And they were all the same. This felt a bit like a ‘Stepford Wives’ moment for me.

So, I want to say that the way an art group is facilitated, in terms of this aim of opening up possibilities for liberation and change, is hugely important.

Pete

There has to be that safety and freedom to create what you need to create rather than to copy.

John

Well, I may have been doing them a disservice, maybe they were copying each other rather than following instructions, and maybe this could have been a positive experience in all kinds of ways but I wonder….

Pete

Some people like to copy, there are people who come to Inside Out who like to copy. I guess that says something significant, maybe about their way of being. Very meticulous copying sometimes with a lot of skill, of draughtsmanship.

I remember a guy that used to come a lot and he would mostly draw with pencil and he was kind of happier doing still life; if it was abstract it was more difficult for him. He had quite a good eye and could draw quite well but it was all so careful and he would never use colour You just wanted him to splash it around a bit, but that is properly something in me that I am projecting on to him.

Jan

To him there was satisfaction and enjoyment about what he did and he put his own boundaries around himself about what he was going to do. So, again, that would be our desire for him to break out…

Pete

It would, but in his life you would say in general, you would want to say “break out”, from whatever it is, because you think there is so much more to this person….

John

A  question would be whether breaking out in the art would help him with his life, his problems?  Or is it in the rest of his life where he needs to break out and this is unlikely to happen by creating art?

Jan

A chicken or the egg situation?

Pete

That’s the thing. My intuitive sense is that they work in tandem that there is some kind of relationship between those two things.

John

There is also a problem with always associating creating art to wellbeing and positivity.

Does being a successful artist, who couldn’t imagine not being an artist, necessarily means you are living a life of wellbeing?

Pete

We know that the history of art is littered with artists who struggled.

John

But are we saying don’t blame the art?

Pete

It is what you were saying earlier; it doesn’t necessarily mean you will live a life with less turmoil in it but you can have a richer, or a life with a greater sense of wellbeing. Would van Gogh have chosen to be an artist, maybe he couldn’t choose anyway, maybe you can’t choose to be an artist, or not.

John

Could we talk a little bit about the focus of Inside Out work on the art itself rather than on issues related to mental health?

Traditionally arts in mental health may have been run by mental health professionals in institutions, and the focus on the quality of the creative process, and its facilitation, would often have been of secondary importance.

Pete

I think we would say ‘art for art’s sake’ is an important principle for Inside Out. We have always felt that people come to engage in the creative process, to create art and express themselves, in whatever way. I think that art as a source of wellbeing, or as an activity that contributes to a change in a person’s life, seems to work that much better if the focus is on the art, not the issues that people are living with.

John

And I guess that is connected with the educational element to the groups which are generally run by professional artists.

Pete

Yes. I want to say that there is something mysterious about this whole process. I’m not sure it is fully understood. I think there is something almost shamanic, something mysterious about it. And that’s good.

John

Something unknowable, or something just difficult to pin down?

Pete

People lose themselves in the art which takes them out of themselves, out of the preoccupation and struggles and distress that may be in one’s life at that time. So there is a sense of release in that. You could say that held in one’s art is a form of communication where we communicate something of our feelings and which is also somehow a release.

Maybe we can learn more from the experiences we have in our groups and when we create art.  You’ve talked about the importance of the reflective process John. Maybe we are not doing that enough yet. I don’t know but there are things we can understand more, at some level about ourselves. Our lives form the art we make and that can be healing and contribute to a change in one’s way of being.

You can identify these things but you can’t explain things completely, there is something more mystical, perhaps I am projecting this on to the creative process. Maybe I want it to be something kind of mystical rather than more mundane.

John

I like the interpretation that it is not an escape from a self when you lose yourself in this way, but that when you are ‘being’ creative, you are being quite active and in fact creating a, or one’s self.

It’s akin to the idea of a fluid self, always in becoming. Without wanting to lessen the idea that you are expressing a part of yourself that already exists, through being creative, you are are also bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before. Might be a painting or a performance, whatever.

This, I think, is quite a powerful aspect of being human; creating something that is itself of worth and value, that transcends you, created by you.

I am interested by the idea that a work of art can have a value that doesn’t always have to  refer to something else within you or something else outside of you. The work is an object in itself, with its own value, that transcends the maker. I think this connects with liberation and how creativity and creating art can relate to being free, or more free, or recognising one’s freedom; that connects with our ability to change the world, a world we share with others.

 

 

Jan

“Opening up possibilities” is a good phrase we used earlier. Really, everything is is about that. If there’s another possibility that you have touched on, that you might go on to develop, you’ve a glimmer of possibility, that in itself is energising, creative, and can mean that people can just step out of the norm. Or step out of this self that they’re not really happy with, or satisfied with. The possibility of trying something new.

John

And  if that’s true, I absolutely agree with you about this thing about possibilities, then how do you best facilitate that ‘opening up’ within arts group that we are particularly interested in, but also generally, I suppose, for individual artists. If that is so important, how do we best do that?