Art is hard; A crisis of artistry, identity, and disability.

[content note; mention of self harm]

There is a summary at the end of this post for anyone who struggles with the full text.

I’ve been talking a lot about my mental health lately, a part of finally trying to put together all the pieces and understand myself; who I am, and perhaps even a little bit of how I work. Right now I’m at a point where things are not positive, I’m in a hell of a low and yet
somehow, in this darkness, a spark of creativity has turned up.

I was suddenly itching to do something, fidgety, almost vibrating. I wanted to create something, to paint. This is something which is intrinsically linked to higher moods rather than lows like this and I had no idea what to expect, I still don’t. Usually when creativity rears it’s head and I feel compelled to find an outlet I’m in a place where I’m almost high. I’m happy, confident, and proud. I can’t be dragged away from what I’m doing and while I’m self-destructive and coming apart at the seems,experience of making something ultimately leads to an immense feeling of relief and satisfaction, even of affirmation.

23103330665_7d005bd0b3_kStereotype as it may be, my art, and creativity more generally, are very heavily linked to my mental health, particularly mental ill health.

Spouse and I just had a big chat about art as being a part of my identity, a part of who I am from it’s presence in my formative years, my always doing it, and it’s sort of helped me to wrap my head around why it’s such a frustration now when it used to be such a happy passion. It seems like this new development for some people I’ve got to know, a kind of ‘ooh I didn’t know you could paint’, but I’ve always had ‘artist’ as a big part of me in so many ways even if at times it felt fraudulent for my lack of creating.

I would always have a sketch pad around when I was younger. I’d be chatting away on IRC or reading and drawing at the same time. It was just always there, every day.  Art supplies of all kinds littering the office our computers were in. Over time this familiar artistry started to go, and not because I wanted it to but rather my body just didn’t want it to happen. I kept having to take longer and longer breaks, spend more time on individual pieces.

As puberty kicked in my Ehlers Danlos began to really make itself known. To hold I pencil I started having to tape my fingers and
wrists to try and hold off the dislocations and restrict movement. Sketching turned into painting as it was easier on the joints in my fingers, I kept going with projects here or there instead of having it as a constant. I started putting breaks between works, putting away the sketch pads and adjusting to a life without it. While the tape reduced the dislocations and strain on my fingers it’s not a perfect solution, and the strain still took it’s toll. Over time I continued to do less and less, brushing it aside where possible to save myself the pain and dexterity loss, and it’s reached a point where it’s become a rarity.

Art helped to keep me toge22673896828_3b2f33ceb5_kther as it was a distraction from everything, all the time. Now I’m at a point where, while all my creativity comes out in massive bursts, it doesn’t offer that same escape from my pain and problems because it’s a bringer of them.

Every time I do a project I want it finished, I want it perfect. I disappear into it like I’m completely detached from the world and it absorbs my full focus, often accompanied by a severely negative or destructive set of behaviours and lines of thought. It’s something that it’s hard to drag myself away from and if I do I feel a deep sense of loss, like I’m incomplete.

As things are now, I seem to just be turning the corner after a week of having meltdowns. My desperation to paint has consumed me and it’s taken over everything, bringing with it explosive irritation and anger, immense frustration at seeing my limits so plainly pointed out and a sense of loss along with it, very little sleep, my desire to self harm has gone up enormously, I’m quite literally tearing my hair out at times.

I’ve not finished the painting that I started, a large project I’ve been wanting to do for the best part of 2 years, the urge to get on with it surfacing intermittently in that time. My hands are taped up heavily in micropore and my wrist is in a brace, I can barely move my fingers for bruising and any strain or movement brings grinding clicks and a feeling of movement or something being out of place deep under the skin of my hands. Under a haze of oramorph, I still have that same drive to make something pulsing away. I want to finish and I’m deeply upset and disappointed in myself that my body has failed me so close to it’s completion.

With losing this ability, having a constant creative outlet turned into a bizarre, frustrating, and painful performance of human fragility, it’s like I’ve lost a big part of who I am. Something that was part of the very fabric of my life and helped me escape so much has been stolen away piece by piece.22470032224_580c6a3145_k

The more that I create, use my hands to excess in ways requiring strain or dexterity, the less I’m able to in future. Each time I try to do something like this it’s stretching me beyond the limits of what my body can cope with and, while my brain is pushing me not to stop until it’s finished, in doing there is a significant pay off. Over time it amounts to expedited though inevitable damage and a greater chance of additional mobility and pain problems post-recovery (usually 3-4 months).

What frustrates me further is that, having this change over time from a tool of calming escapism to an almost traumatising experience at times, finding the pain and harm I’m causing myself by pursing it, I fear I’m going to begin hating this part of me. I already find myself feeling negatively of any desire to be creative, trying to force it aside when it arises, and I have worries that this very part of my identity is going to become something I both desperately want and deeply resent for no longer having access to it.

I’m losing my artistry and along with it a part of my identity, and it’s dawned on me how much of it has slipped away over the past 4-5 years. I have this massive part of me that I’ve been trying so hard to ignore for self preservation, this great love in my life, and to pursue it is going to cause irreparable harm both physically and mentally.

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Art is hard.

Summary: I have always considered being an artist to be a large part of my identity, but in recent years the decline in my physical health and difficulties with mental health mean I have been unable to paint. It’s difficult to let go of such an intrinsic part of who I am.

Pumpkin 2012

For pumpkin carving tips, go to the bottom of the page!

I wasn’t going to carve any pumpkins this year. The last few years I’ve gone seriously over the top and spent a week doing carvings in preparation for Halloween, each year putting so much strain on my hands that it takes a few weeks for them to get back to some semblance of normality, and probably doing some long-term harm in the process.

This year my health took a bit of a nosedive and I decided that it would be immensely unwise to do any kind of carving, given that holding any of the tools or knives would be a very hamfisted event involving a lot of injuries. But, well.. I couldn’t help myself.

Halloween is a kind of art explosion for me, getting out a lot of creativity and having the chance to focus on one thing for a while, something I struggle with most of the time. Seeing pumpkins everywhere, I gave in.

My husband ended up travelling about 20 miles in order to find somewhere that still had some pumpkins in stock, but he found one eventually. He decided it would probably be a good thing for me to do so didn’t mind putting the effort in

I sat on the sofa with my hand wrapped around a sharpie for a few hours, doodling away to try and come up with a design. I ended up sticking to the same sort of theme I do most years, kind of tiki/abstract/aztec face.

I did the carving before hollowing it out in order to save me the stench of pumpkin guts, a smell which instantly makes me feel as though my dinner is about to re-emerge.

Rather than carving right through to the inside of the pumpkin, I use V-shaped cuts, taking chunks out here and there, and then scrape down the cuts with wax carving tools to get more light to come through if it needs it.

With several hours of trying to hold fiddly knives and tools, lots of breaks, painkillers, and 4 dislocated joints (I got them all back in eventually.. Although it took a while for 2 of them) I’d finally finished the carving itself and so braved the smell and gutted it ready to put a candle in.

So here it is, this year’s pumpkin carving escapades.

The above are pictures taken during the evening, hence the flash and rather rubbish quality when it comes to seeing the detail, so this afternoon I took a couple of photos in daylight so that you can see the full detail. It also gives you an idea of how the V-shaped carving technique works, cutting bits and pieces out here and there.

Tips on pumpkin carving:

Draw your design on using something like a sharpie. Biro and similar can rub off very easily as you’re carving. Any lines that are left on the pumpkin can be cleared off afterwards with a rough cloth and baby oil.

If you hollow the pumpkin before doing your carving it’s ideal to leave it somewhere cool and fill it with water for 24 hours beforehand. The pumpkin will absorb some of the water, making it slightly more dense. Adding a little bleach to the water also helps keep mould away. It’ll keep the pumpkin looking good for longer.

Rather than do the traditional ‘carve right through’ method, or scraping the skin off to let light through (which is cheating, if you ask me), get a fine blade like a craft knife or scalpel. Do cuts at an angle, taking V-shaped chunks of flesh out of it. You can make these deep so that they go right through (or almost right through), or you can do shallow cuts and hollow the gap out further afterwards. By doing this you don’t have to worry as much about stability as the flesh that’s left around the cuts will hold the design together better. You can also go for much more complex designs without compromising the stability too much, it can make the pumpkin last longer as it’s held together better than it would if huge chunks were removed.

If you go for the V-shaped carving method and don’t think enough light is coming through, get a strong spoon and dig the area you want to thin out gently from the inside, behind that part of the design. Make sure you hold the area you’re scraping out on the outside, it’ll prevent the design being damaged. Keep checking as you’re scraping to ensure that the design can cope with being thinned.
Although this method helps keep the pumpkin strong it can still be quite fragile. The more you scrape out on the inside, the less time your pumpkin will last. The designs can collapse quite easily when it begins to rot if you thin it too much.

If you don’t want to scrape the inside out further, you can also take something like a wax carving kit (which is what I use) and gently dig out the areas that are too thick. Many of the tools you can get in those kits are great for this, ideal for the picking and scraping that you may want to do. By scraping at the areas you’ll be letting more light get through. Be careful and keep stability in mind, look at the areas around where you’re digging out and make sure it will all remain connected by the pumpkin’s flesh.

If you’re using an LED light in the pumpkin instead of a candle, rubbing a bit of vaseline on the carved out design will help to keep the pumpkin fresh for longer, holding the pumpkins moisture into those areas. The LED thing is important, don’t use a candle if you’re doing this – Your safety is more important than a pumpkin lasting longer.

Pumpkin carvings. 2009 – 2011

2009
The larger of the two pumpkins was grown in our back garden. It was the first attempt I’d made at a very detailed carving, and my first year growing pumpkins!

Personally I only ended up carving the larger one. Between growing, design preparation and carving, it took around 6 months!

2010
We spent a good 2 months planning out the more detailed designs this time around, not just because of the thinking of designs, but holding a pen is hard. Here’s one from the 2 weeks prior to halloween, so I could encourage a good friend to give carving a go, too!
This was a year we planted a much larger crop of pumpkins but unfortunately most of them failed. Again, the largest pumpkin is the one we’d managed to grow ourselves, but the others were bought from Over Farm, near Gloucester (A great place for good price, quality pumpkins!).

2011

Given the leap from ridiculously detailed to even more ridiculously detailed in the past 2 years, and having gained a lot more experience with carving, we obviously had to do something immensely OTT. And so we did. My husband was a great help by doing all the scooping, helping draw on the designs, and also carved a couple of them himself.

Yep, a lot of yelling and feeling nauseous because my head had been filled with the smell of pumpkin for the best part of a week, we did it again.

Suffice to say, our house is popular on Halloween.

And that’s before I do things like this…

2010 Costume

2011 Costume

Disclaimer: Only one teddy bear was harmed in the making of this event.

Colourful abstracts and a struggle for artistry

For years I wanted to do a painting which involved a lot of colour. Patches of colour, patterns in colour. One day I’d started a painting with a red background, pondering something of a sunset, perhaps a silhouette. Fidgeting with my palette and brush, I ended up just doodling with blocks of colour and over the next few hours I got more and more engrossed in it. Making the colours overlap, adding in shading, becoming really quite focused on it.
This is what it had become once I’d finally pulled myself away from the canvas.
Deciding that that was a little too bland (despite the colour), that it lacked something, I started thinking ‘lines’, or ovals, or circles.. Unfortunately I don’t have the messy in-between photos when I kept having to cover up the little things I decided I didn’t like, but this was the end result. My first colour filled painting.
Not long after it was given to a good friend who’d fallen in love with it. It had been sat in the corner of my living room for so long that I’d got used to the vibrancy that it brought. It brightened the place up without me even really paying any attention to it. I wanted to embark on a second go, bring that colour back to the place.. This time with some idea of what I was doing.
I wanted the blocks neater, the shading less patchy, more refined overall.
There’s a problem with that, though… I can only paint when I’m in a really loopy, obsessive, mood. These appear for hours at a time, sometimes days. And often by the time I’ve realised that I could focus the excess energy and actually do an art, it’s gone again.
I had a few days in 2010 where I noticed almost immediately, and back to it I went.
Yes, I tend to sit around in very floppy clothing at home, looking like a bit of a tit.
After a day I couldn’t grip the brush because of pain in my hands. Holding cutlery for a meal can be immensely difficult, with the joints stiffening and becoming painful to move very quickly under the strain of positioning. Even though I was working on it intermittently, in 5 minute intervals between very large tea breaks, it wasn’t quite enough.
Then that obsessive ‘I must do something, must paint, must keep busy’ sense of manic ‘I can do ALL THE THINGS’ euphoria wore off. I was mere hours from finishing it when I finally went back to try again. I found I couldn’t focus on mixing the colours I wanted, or shading neatly. The ability to paint drained from me as quickly as it had appeared a few days before. It was eventually tucked away behind a shelf and left, neglected, for over a year.
A few months ago after a conversation with a friend about art, lamenting projects laying around unfinished, and being nudged to paint again, inspiration struck. The large piece of MDF (poor choice of medium, I know) was tugged out from behind a shelf by my husband and the brushes were out.. Busily working away at it, ideas changing a bit as I went.
Finally, I finished it! Now adorning a wall in my bedroom, perfectly complimenting the deep red walls, the bohemian furniture and carpeting (blankets as carpet, various colours/styles of cheap argos furniture), I’m quite satisfied. The bright colours in front of me each morning help as a little pick me up for each day.

While I state in this post that this project is finished, I’ve since seen many flaws in it which I want to correct. The size of the project, and the detail I’ve gone into already, I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with with it. It’s a permanent project, and likely always will be.

Painting technique, ideal for kids (and anyone else)!

This is a set I made to explain a painting technique to a friend for her to try with her kids. She’s been wanting something made by her children to put on the wall, and this can be a simple one that can some out with some good results. I’ve done a number of paintings in this style over the years, generally a lot more detailed, but this gives a description to start you off! It’s as easy or difficult as you choose to make it.

Preparation

Get your paints out, all the colours you want to mix for the background

Applying the paint

Heap the paint onto the canvas.
If you’re a little worried it’s too much, be a bit more cautious, you can always add more later on.

Heaps of paint!
Blend the colours

Move it all around on the canvas until you’re happy with how the colours are blended together. You can streak the colours or stick with just one.
Be confident, you don’t have to be careful with how you mix it all up on the canvas – part of the beauty of doing this is that it doesn’t have to be perfect!

Make some patterns if you want, whatever you feel like!

Since it’s a lot of paint on the canvas with this one, I used the brush to make patterns in the background. Swirling the brush around is an easy one, just start at one point and swirl it outwards. If you haven’t used as much as me, just leave it with the brush strokes. Whichever you prefer is fine, it’s just an easy way of doing something with excess paint.

Get scratching!

Get a stick, maybe some other things like a fork (multiple sticks!), or turn a paintbrush up the other way. At times I’ve used pins and wax carving tools to get finer detail. Use your scratching implement of choice to start making grooves in the paint. Scratch out a design or an image in the background while the paint is still wet.

Keep going until you’re happy!

If at the end of it you don’t like what you’ve got, you can always take a brush and cover the grooves, add a little water to the brush first, change the scratch design, add more colours and so on until you’re happy.

The finished product.

Not such a great example, I’ll admit.. This was all done very quickly to show a friend how to go about it. The one above has since been dry-brushed over in places with gold acrilyc to separate the background patterns to the lines.