I live by the coast by the Thames estuary, 40 miles east of central London. I love the juxtaposition between the coast and the capital, and how both settings spark creativity in different ways. Whilst the big estuary skies fuel me on a daily basis my trips to the city have a different rhythm. On my days in London I go just for the buzz and inspiration. I’ll work in a coffee shop and soak up the freneticism of this vibrant city, walking its streets and visiting galleries. These are my ‘creativity jaunts.’
The last time I was on such a jaunt was two weeks ago. But it seems so much longer ago than that, before the lockdown, in what feels like a different world.
That precious day in London started in the morning with David Hockney's exhibition of drawings at the National Portrait Gallery. His prolific body of work demonstrates an energetic approach, one embedded with a sense of playfulness and fun, of curiosity and expression. Through his drawings that span decades, he charts the passing of time, as well as capturing the mood and feel within a particular moment.
In the evening I attended a workshop and talk on visual storytelling, organised by Greater than 11%’s very own Renee Vaughan Sutherland. The blurb described the event being aimed at those considering a career change or if you were “just plain curious” - well, I was curious. Plus anything that involves art and storytelling is a win for me.
First of all, Marilyn Ford, artist and arts educator, warmed us up with a bit of drawing - ‘wrong’-handed and then with eyes closed.
Marilyn Ford's workshop: Greater than 11% - Visual Storytelling Event
Marilyn’s final exercise was to devise a new creature, based on any animal we fancied and adding in some other details sparked by prompts on the table. The session was free-flow and fun, nothing pressured, just letting your mind and hand go where they wanted.
Then Candy Guard, multi-award-winning animator, director, writer and author, and Émilie Chen, Graphic Designer and Art Director talked about their experiences of creativity, their sources of inspiration and about the benefits of failure.
Panel Discussion: Greater than 11% - Visual Storytelling Event
I learned a lot from what was a fantastic day and one that really topped up my creative fuel tanks. Who could have known it would be my last trip to London for some time?
Now London’s doors are essentially closed. Not being able to go to any cultural event in person is a weird and unnerving thought. It feels like a great hole has opened up, a void where there used to be galleries, theatres, museums - food for our soul. It’s a solace that I never consciously knew I needed, until now it’s been taken away. I always loved soaking up the artworks or watching a performance on stage, but perhaps I took it for granted, that it would always be there. And now that it’s not I have a keener sense of what it meant to me - the essence of all life is held in the art that human beings are able to create.
Art will save us
Later that same week, I took inspiration from Candy Guard, feeling moved to make my own little comic strip. It was four images of how I felt about my elderly parents going into self-isolation, about how I wouldn’t be seeing them properly for a long time, and whether things would get back to normal with them. It wasn’t a perfect drawing, yet it summed up my emotions at the time. I felt I could say more with four images, and communicate my message stronger, than I could have with words.
So what can we do to stay creatively stimulated and engaged while faced with our four walls? Here are some practical things we can do right now:
1. Do something, even if it’s just a snippet.
My husband bought me this book (before Covid 19 struck) which I’m sure will be brilliant for this time - My Year in Small Drawings. It’s broken down into seasons to draw what’s available at the time; the areas for the doodles are 4cm square, so you can only do a small bit at a time - and that makes it manageable. What’s more, the emphasis is on doing, not on getting it perfect.
2. Steal from other artists.
For example, David Hockney drew himself every day for two months. The repetitive nature of doing the same thing over can be useful - spotting things you’ve missed, focusing on a different aspect, seeing moods change.
And no one has to see your self-portraits after all.
3. Check out some creative challenges on social media.
A couple I’m enjoying are #RAdaily doodle on Twitter - the responses from @royalacademy are wonderful too; on Instagram try Leigh-on-Sea artist @goldman.art_; plus Sketchbook Skool on Youtube for ideas and community. There are bound to be many more.
4. Grab an empty notebook or sketchbook and create a visual documentary.
You can supplement it with writing about how you’re feeling, the craziness of the situation, the challenges you're experiencing etc. It can be a place to offload as well as doubling up as a diary of these strange times. I’ve also started leafing through old magazines to find images that appeal - home interiors and travel destinations, beautiful images that lift the spirit - to include too.
5. Get meditative.
Once in a life drawing art class in Australia many years ago, we were tasked with sitting around an imaginary model. Essentially we were looking at nothing - and asked to draw. I thought at first this was ridiculous, but as I sat and moved my pencil around, I found myself drawing a picture from an old photograph. The image was of me as a toddler in the arms of my mother. I realised then I needed to return to England, to come home. If you just let your pencil move around the page and see what comes up, you might be surprised.
6. Use isolation as a constraint.
You’ve probably seen on social media the Italians singing opera on their balconies; the sock puppet at a window that looks like it’s “eating” the traffic; the Spanish guy in a wig and glasses, pretending to DJ using the rings of his hob and flashing the light on the overhead fan. These small creative expressions cheer us up. They show us we’re all in it together and that the human spirit is alive and well in the most difficult of situations. And they show that even though you might just have an old item of hosiery lying around, you can create something entertaining.
7. Accept your failures.
Émilie Chen said many of her ideas for a particular project were rejected; but in one of those rejected ideas was the seed for the concept that was used as the final image. Failure happens, drawings might not live up to your idea of good (what is good anyway?), but time spent is rarely wasted.
8. Use drawing to communicate a concept that might be difficult putting into words.
With my small cartoon, the image of me giving my mum a hug made the situation even more real to me, and helped me to see it more clearly, even though it was my own thought. By sharing it, it also helped me connect with others in the same situation.
9. Be a passive pleasure-seeker.
If you’re not into creating right now, and I understand some might find it hard getting motivated to focus on pleasurable things, you can escape for a bit and be curious from your living room. The Guardian has a handy list of ten of the best virtual museums and art galleries; you can use Google Street View to walk round exhibitions, such as this Doug Coupland exhibition; and galleries like The Royal Academy are planning to get more of their artworks online soon.
I’ll end with this impassioned and hopeful, quote from Ben Okri:
“We have to find a way to keep culture alive. It is not only through viruses that a people die. A people also perish when they fail to keep alive the values that make them human, the wellsprings of their sanity. It may well be that it is not only self-isolation and science that save us. We may also be saved by laughter, by catharsis, by the optimism of being able to see beyond these times, with stories, with community, with songs.”
FT Weekend, 21/22 March 2020
Zoë Sanders is a storyteller who brings brands and businesses to life through the power of stories. She lives by the coast where she’s fuelled by fresh air, dog walks and estuary swims. Happiest doodling with a pencil in her hand or getting to the essence of a great story.
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More about her storytelling work: iansanders.com/storytelling