A Still Life

1st July 2018

 

This blog is a self-portrait. I’m not a very good painter, so this is the best I can do. I did have a modicum of success in the 90/00’s as an artist, swanning about the museums of Europe with colleagues, but self-portraits of the traditional kind were off the agenda even then. As well as things went eventually; my career in the arts got off to a bit of a rocky start. Back in high school, my teacher and first mentor, Kenny Morrison, had considered referring me to the school counselor, as he worried I was losing my shit. In retrospect, I can see his concerns. I was a moody teenager for a start, always hard to read. However, the main worry was a fair few too many self-portraits in various torturous poses that adorned the walls the Shawlands Academy’s art room. Understandably, they were starting to freak Mr. Morrison out. Across multiple renditions, I rolled my eyes backward, poked out my tongue, I pulled my face this way and that, grinned or grimaced – it looked like a gallery of strokes. I was spending a lot of time looking in the mirror, dangerously. It was easy to conclude from an outside perspective that I had either lost it or was in the early throes of a mental breakdown. He began filling out the forms. Would it help me to speak to someone, he asked? I was fine. I wasn’t falling apart I explained, it was really quite simple. Whenever I came up short for an idea to paint, I’d just maintain my industrious momentum by doing another self-portrait. I could have done a still life I suppose, but they never felt dynamic enough to constrain my energy in one place. I needed a moving subject, and I was constantly moving. If I stopped swimming, I would drown.

 

Years later, I’m still swimming away from procrastination. I didn’t need to keep working through the Chemo; I could have cashed in my Superfund insurance policy and received 75% of my wages for staying at home and doing shit all. Sure, I could have worked on that abortive novel or picked up a paintbrush again, but there was also going to be a lot of sitting around and feeling sorry for myself. A lot of time to mull over what was happening. I rejected it. I took a pay cut to keep myself at the day job and work part-time. I emptied out the annual and sick leave accounts. I needed to this not to be a crisis; I needed as much of life to remain normal. That was worth paying for. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Just paint another self-portrait.

 

All the same, I had to admit eventually that I couldn’t work every day. Appointments, fatigue, recovery, they all deserve due respect. So, I split myself, 50/50. Half the week at work, half at home. Half a week on my own. Half a week of self-portraits. If anything, it’s allowed for a compromise between work and work. I use my time away from work, and the commute back and forth to the chemo unit to write this blog. I recently dug out my needles and thread to continue a project I’d put on hold for awhile. I’ve got a foot in both worlds. It’s an almost perfect balance for now. I don’t even feel guilty for all the naps. And there are a lot of naps. I’m enjoying cancer as much as I can. But it’s not sustainable. I want to get back to full-time normalcy. My paying job is as important to me as my artwork, and I’m not talking financially.

Being an artist doesn’t come easily to me. I’m not sure I was ever really meant to go down that path. I can probably say I’m a failed artist now if there is such a thing. I only ask, because every article I’ve read about Glasgow School of Art these last few weeks has a list of famous alumni, most of whom went on to do something other than art. But they’re famous, in a way that artists never can or will be. In Glasgow, we celebrate those who decided to something else more than those who stuck with it. The ‘failed’ artists are always top of the success list. It’s not much of an advert, but it is a quintessentially Scottish quirk. So, no, I don’t exhibit, much, and certainly not with any delusions when I do. And it’s satisfying in its own way. To be an artist requires an off the scale ambition, enterprise, and arrogance that I always failed to embrace. It means embracing the market, patrons, networks, cliques. It means accepting the establishment as your benefactor whilst softly kicking them in the shins. And it’s arrogant. To say that pottering around with your own little self-indulgence is more worthwhile and useful to society than any other endeavor you could be doing, is to me, strikingly facetious. I know there are things I can do that directly impact people in a measurable, positive way, I do it every day, and I get paid to do it. That feels infinitely more satisfying than feeding my own ego at home, making work that nobody outside of a tiny niche really cares about and not getting much compensation for at all. If you want to make a difference in the world, art doesn’t really give you the immediate hit you might be craving. It’s a slow burn. If you’re lucky, someone might start paying attention to you when you’re dead. You have to believe you’re making a difference to someone who you have never met. I sometimes think as artists we’ve never met ourselves properly. We have to believe the version of ourselves that we try and make a marketable commodity. It’s not an honest a reflection you see in the mirror, it’s inverted, it’s a projection. Others see you differently, as how you really are.

 

Most artists I know don’t really think like this, negatively, they’re driven and committed to their practice and don’t see any other way to live, and that’s good. Thank God for them. Really. They’re also not nearly as arrogant as I suggest, not at all, in fact, they’re mostly painfully shy and retiring and borderline socially defective. But they do have to square the circle regardless – they do have to combine the sorry isolation and disconnection of the studio with a personality just arrogant and loud enough to shout at the world outside. If only someone would listen. You have to believe in yourself and your talent above all else. Are you that good? Really? It’s not always a healthy hole to go down. There’s a lot more disappointment and rejection out there than there are success stories. It requires a certain amount of self -delusion to pull off a sustained practice. It’s a mental health trick I try and resist; I prefer to live in the real world. I can potter here and there, sink a foot into the hole, but I can also grab a branch above my head and commit to a community project that has real tangible benefits for vulnerable people. I can make a difference to other people’s lives, and in turn, my own. Perhaps it’s like the warning they give you on planes – affix your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. I use my art to help myself work out some things, but ultimately it’s to help put me back in the game, the world outside my preoccupation with myself. Maybe it’s the cancer talking. It talks a good game. The siren has already sounded. When the clock starts ticking, you want to get a move on and get some shit done, kick some goals.

 

I had reconciled this crisis of identity in the past by combining the two worlds. On one hand, I didn’t work as an artist in crazy cat person isolation; I worked in a collaborative collective that was social, (if also a bit crazy cat person collectively) which meant the preoccupation was a many-headed beast, a Hydra of sorts. With teeth. I’ve still got the scars to show for it. On the other hand, I used to work for a charity called Art In Hospital, later headed up the Creatively Aging project in Footscray and developed my own brand as ArtWard. Since then I’ve managed to pull some projects together in the studio I manage. All healthcare based art practices. I found it was possible to work in the arts, still practice and still make a tangible difference. I’ve worked with the elderly, stroke rehab, criminal forensics, children, young adults, physical rehab – every single participant overcoming or living with something debilitating. Art can help the process of recovery. It can help the process of not recovering. It took years of practice to fully conclude what the point of it all was, and how to do it in a way that wasn’t harmful, patronising or pointless. And it begins by working out the difference between Art Therapy and Therapeutic Arts.

 

The best way to describe the difference is to retell a story told to me by an Art Therapist, who described the following as an example of best practice. They had been working with a young boy; let's say about 10 yrs old, who had experienced some traumatic event, the details of which we are not privy to. For months, the child was brought along to see the Art Therapist. All manner of art materials were laid out in front of him, but he never showed any inclination of trying them out. The Art Therapist cannot encourage them, or show them how to use the materials lest they unduly influence them and pollute the results, and so they sit in silence. Session after session, not a word passes between them. Months go by. Months more. Not a kind word is said in anger. One day, something changes. Either out boredom, indignation, protest or whatever, the boy picks up a brush. First, he dips it in some red paint and sploshes it around the paper in front of him. Then some blue. Splosh. Green, yellow, purple and so on and so on, splosh splosh splosh. The colours inevitably mix together into a thick muddy brown goo. Ah ha! says the Art Therapist; at last, he is telling us how he feels! He has painted something brown and messy. He is showing us that he feels shit!

 

There is something else a bit shit here. I think it’s more likely that he painted a brown mess because no-one had shown him how to use the materials and that without wiping or washing his brush, he would inevitably get a muddy painting. And you know, between you and me, I really don’t think it’s particularly necessary to continue sessions for months on end to determine that a child who has been through a trauma is feeling a bit shit, but there we are. Money well spent further traumatising a vulnerable child. Good intentions, harmful results. Shit really.

 

Art Therapists are either artists with a limited understanding of psychology, or psychologists with an armchair understanding of art. Is it fair to subjectively analyse a painting and then use that to create an objective record that will determine future care? The Art Therapists notes become part of the patient’s clinical notes, and that has implications. Potentially dangerous implications when we talking about pseudoscientific subjective interpretations. Does a jaggy line always have to mean anger? Is red always violent? Surely the point about visual art is that it isn’t literal? If you’re trying to read meaning into everything then you’re not really understanding it.

 

If anything, I can probably say with some confidence that a participant won’t express themselves openly if they feel like they are being assessed. So many patients I worked with would fear that their work would be used against them, so they needed my reassurance that their work would not be analysed. You won’t have me sent to the funny farm son? I was happy to make them that promise, I just wanted them to enjoy making.

 

The thing I was always banging on about, as a practitioner was the importance of reintroducing choices to the patient, choice being essential for retaining independence in an institutional setting. When you are dependent on someone else getting you up, taking you to the bathroom, providing you with your meals, rationing visitors, it becomes very easy to lose control and drift into passivity. The patient becomes institutionalised, and they begin to slip away, the fight and fire has gone out. Art for art’s sake brings back those choices - what paper to use, materials, brushes round or square, what to paint or draw. It can be a bit daunting, but that’s why we were there, to help navigate those choices and provide a little advice when required, but mostly encouragement. Choices, taking risks, strategising. It all affects the brain, which in turn affects the immune system. Your health, recovery and rehabilitation are all affected by the environment you create. It’s environmental art, sort of. Making is what is important. This is what I’d term Therapeutic Arts.

 

I got invited to an Art Therapy class as part of my treatment. Here we go I thought. There are a lot of complementary therapies made available to you when you move into the cancerous contingent. There’s a catalogue of activities to choose from. The make-up and beauty sessions aren’t really relevant to me, and we’ll skip on past snake oil aromatherapy. I did get a nice chair massage in the unit once, and I’d sign up for more of that in a heartbeat, but it’s never available on a convenient day. That leaves Art Therapy. I snobbily waved it off for weeks, but nosiness finally got the better of me this cycle. Maybe I wanted to see how my prejudices stacked up today, so I gave it a go. It was in truth, not nearly as bad as I’d expected. Conversation was thankfully permitted. There was an opportunity to choose your materials; there were choices of paper. So far so good. But there were no sourcebooks. You had to draw from your imagination, and you had to draw how you were ‘feeling’. Ugh. How do you think I feel? I‘ve got cancer! I don’t really want to draw how I’m feeling in such a literal way. Everything and anything you draw has something about how you feel. I’d rather let my feelings soak into the paper just by doing not by telling.

 

Fortunately, the therapist did not dissect my drawing. If that had happened I was going to make the next drawing feature murderous stickmen dancing around a flaming demon torturing an art therapist. Fortunately, such drastic measures were not required. Instead, we the participants got to apportion our own psychology to our work, for better or worse. We all sounded convincing, so I think we passed. Well done everyone. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect was that there was precious little time for making. In an hour-long session, most of the time was taken up by chat, mediation, and minor psychology colour games. I feel pink! I feel pink all over! In all, I think we had ten minutes to draw, not really enough to time to immerse myself. Barely enough time to get a toe wet. I gave it a go, but I think I’m better off going it alone from here. You can’t keep swimming if you don’t even get wet.

 

John is a patient I worked with years ago. He had been given weeks to live. His anxiety was understandably peaky. He was prescribed sedatives, but, from my own experience, I know they don’t help. When you’re worried about your time, the last thing you want to do is spend it in a confused, suppressed fug. What John found was that painting would take him out of his looping mind, calm the anxiety and let him disappear into his work for hours, leaving him feeling refreshed for the challenges outside the art room later. I remember trying to talk to him as he worked, sometimes waving a hand over his eyes to get his attention, but he never even noticed you were there. Do you want a coffee, John? John? JOHN! He went on for years like that, blissfully oblivious in his work. He lived long enough to attend his own Doctor’s funeral, the one who had handed him his life sentence. And he darkly enjoyed it, sticking two fingers up at the lowering coffin. I’m not saying Art saved his life, of course not, but it kept him going through a dark time that medical science appears not have answers for other than a cosh.

 

Jane was told she would never walk again. She was determined to show them how wrong they were. Four times a week she would get her physio to walk with her to the art class we had set up in the day room. As she said, she would have long given up before had there not been an oasis at the end of that testing walk. After a year, she walked on her own to her Doctor’s office and knocked loudly. When he opened the door, he found Jane there giving him two fingers. Brilliant.

 

There have been so many stories like this. I’ve had the joy of introducing hundreds upon hundreds to the sheer joy of making. I made a lot of people into self-indulgent dicks. Well done to me. And the world is better place it for it. The world needs self-indulgent dicks, even if I feel it difficult to count myself as a member. I will always defend your right, you need to make art and only make art and not hold down a day job. I’ll work, you don’t need to. The fact that we fund artists just to make art is the one thing that makes us a civilized society. Now, all we need to do is get rid of the questions on those grant application forms about the purpose and the impact and the legacy of the work we are intending to make. The answer is always everything and nothing. Who cares why, let it just happen. Stop looking for jaggy lines and meaning in brown goo. The meaning is in the making. We’re just trying to stop being institutionalised by the shitty world we live in. Have you seen this place? I mean, what the fuck? We don’t get any choice in it.

 

When we ask the why questions, we try and bend artists into doing what we think is important, we’re asking them to make art for us, not for them. That’s never going to work, artists are self-indulgent dicks and we need to let them be so. It’s about them, not us. The why questions toy with authoritarianism, even with the best intentions. Our money, our values, our rules means it’s our art or not at all, says the Government appointed arm’s length Quango.

 

Fuck your ‘value for money for the taxpayer’; you don’t get to tell the anarchist how much petrol to put in their bomb before they throw it at you. Be brave; let them do what they want. You never know, they might bring you flowers instead. Put the therapy notebook down. But the bean counter away. Let art happen, and let it burn brightly or burn it all down, let it do whatever it wants to do. Our society is only worth shit when we stop telling artists what their work means. Art Schools beware.

 

Sadly, Art did burn brightly again this cycle. Glasgow School Of Art, my spiritual home, for the second time in four years, was consumed by fire. Four years ago, despite being engulfed by an inferno, the building was salvageable. It could be restored. This time, it looks like a complete rebuild. I am heartbroken.

 

Detailed measurements exist of every square inch, recorded for posterity by laser mapping. An exact replica is possible. But will it be the same? For new students, it probably won’t matter, but for me, it will take another century plus change of wear, tear and abuse before it gets back to the girl I use to know. I knew her at 150 years of age, but despite her advanced age, her beauty only grew with each passing year. A century and a half of wood saturated with oil and spirit, doors covered in decades of paint fingermarks, sinks stained with a million dirty rainbows and always accompanied by dirty carbolic soap aromas. Nicotine embedded into every surface. It’s surprising that the place lasted as long as it did; it was basically a bonfire being stacked higher every year.

 

It was during my time a first-year student that the School finally tried to get a grip on its fire safety precautions. Smoking was banned inside. The students mostly obeyed. Tutors did not. I recall two tutors defiantly smoking all the way through a two-hour event in the lecture theatre the day after the ban was announced. In a confined space like the dark Mackintosh Lecture Theatre, it’s fair to say that someone had had a double scoop of self-indulgent dickhead that morning for breakfast. On another occasion, our life-drawing tutor chastised my class. A few amongst us had, despite the new ban, lit a cheeky one whilst we waited for the tutor who was running late. When he eventually arrived, he pulled fags from our petted lips and crushed them out on the studio floor with his boot. He lined us all up, and let loose on us with both barrels for disrespecting the new directive. We were a disgrace to the School we were told. We should all be expelled. Heads hung low. And then there was the wry smile. The tutor pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and sparked up, puffing great plumes of smoke rings into the rafters, his laughter ringing in my ears. He handed us our butts.

 

The lesson that day was to give two fingers to authority at every opportunity. Jane got it, but Jane got it better than a lot of those tutors. Sticking two fingers up isn’t an end in itself. Libertarian conservatives; they want to dispense with all the rules, even the ones we would all agree are actual beneficial, and don’t care what happens to the rest of us. They would be safe in their castles. They would risk bringing everything down in the name of their freedom. Their freedom. Not yours. Risking the building burning down or dispersing carcinogens into the air doesn’t really make you an anti-establishment hero, it just makes you a self-indulgent dick, and I think being an artist is about more than limiting yourself so dick indulgence. There’s more to it than that. It’s about being a self –indulgent dick with a conscience. I learned something at Art School. Just being a dick wasn’t satisfying enough, despite my best efforts.

 

Two fingers are what you show only when you’ve got something better to show the world than rules or just anti-rules. It’s on all of us to make the world a better place. Anti-authoritarianism ran deep in the school. I was privileged to spend ten years on the hill, from life drawing classes for my entry portfolio, to four years of my degree, a year with the SRC and four years working my way from monkey to Manager in the union. I got to see behind the scenes at every single level, from the top to the bottom. Some of it was beautiful and life-affirming, some of it considerably less so. A small boast - I led the world’s shortest occupation to get student fees reduced. It was over in, maybe 3 seconds? 4 at a push. The handcuffs, guitar, and tinned beans never even got out the bag. I was combative, but only when I really had to be. Two fingers, only when you have something in your hand – otherwise, no cigar.

 

Those memories still exist, the people who made those memories still exist and the art, the passion, the combativeness and the love, by and large, still exists. Does it need that building to exist to preserve them? There is a gaping hole in our hearts now, its dimensions the exact size of a vacant lot between Sauchiehall and Renfrew Streets. Scar tissue grows over those first floor nooks and crannies, where light spilled in those long dark corridors, the unfeasible weight of the front door which directly equated to the weight of expectation on your shoulders, the decades of oil and spirits permeating through every wooden pore, a glance from behind an easel, a coffee shared on the steps, awkwardness at an exhibition opening, a moment of silence in the hen run. It was building built with a singular purpose, to hold all these things together, to contain them and use them to light a fire of purpose in every student. Of course, wasn’t it obvious that the building would burn when it was emptied of students? It had no one left to transfer all that passion to. It had no choice but to consume itself, deprived of its energy outlet.

 

Memories can exist without walls but left to the elements they also get rank and sodden. Sometimes they get blown away and ultimately, they die of exposure behind a wheelie bin clutching a cheap bottle of blended malt in a brown paper bag. There are other buildings on the campus, other shelters. The Newberry, The Barnes, The Haldane, The JD Kelly, The Richmond, The Bourdon, The Assembly Building… if anything, in sheer practical terms, the Art School is a mere 20% smaller. Life will survive, if only in sheer practical terms.

 

I was hoping that my chemo mix was going to be amended this cycle, but alas, I appear to be holding up too well according to my Consultants and have only been granted a 20% reduction of the most toxic chemicals. I will survive, if only in sheer practical terms. But the Phenergan, temazepam and twice daily steroid dance will continue, leaving me in a continuing limbo of speed racing but too catatonic to move. It means the neuropathy continues. It means the dead weight of fatigue in my limbs continues. It leaves me in the unenviable position of wanting a really bad cycle this time so that I can get a further reduction next time.

 

They will only cut it back a maximum of 30%. When you get down to only 70% potency, you might as well quit the whole thing for all the good it’s doing you the Doctors say. Take note of that Creative Scotland. Time to dust the cobwebs out the wallet.

 

Everything fails eventually. I will, you will. Is it time for the Glasgow School of Art to die? Sentiment alone won’t save it. We will all be asked why it should be rebuilt, what’s the point? And by having to answer the why questions, we might save it but we’ll be killing its soul a little more because we gave the question enough respect to not just acknowledge it but answer it.

 

What will we have lost? Rick Baker, who created those special effects for American Werewolf In London spoke recently about the demise of practical effects, his art and his studio in the face of CGI. He noted that an actor in prosthetics would always deliver a better performance than one whose transformations had been created on a computer as the actor has had hours in the make up chair to study their new face in the mirror, whereas an actor today would go on set blind to their physical character looked. Spending time looking at yourself helps you perform better. We all need artists to help us perform better as a community.

 

I’ve been spending time with the mirror again myself. I got my pencils out for the first time in quite a while, the self-indulgent dick that I am. Delusions, that I’m an artist. Spending time with a chemo-ravaged, nerve damaged, post-stroke face is a confronting experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve spent time reacquainting myself with of my reflection. The scars, the pockmarks. I’ve aged 150 years. I’m slowly collapsing. Kenny Morrison, you might want to write out that referral again.

 

The fire in me burns now like never before. The chemo burns my legs all night so that I can’t sleep. My shins feel like that they’re burning from the inside out, consuming the soft tissue. No cream or moisturizer can douse the flames. Heartburn strikes again, and an acid reflux burns the lining of my esophagus. My arms and face flare up from time to time, the chemicals coursing through the veins, flaming up in spot fires. I can feel my library crashing down, my lecture theatre disintegrating, the museum, boardroom, Mack Room, Directors Office, Miller’s Art Store, The Wood Shop, admin offices, studios across every floor, all collapsing in on themselves. My unique treasures are being stripped down. Oh God, I don’t have any insurance either. Who will rebuild me? I’ll see the consultant fireman again this week. Let's see if he thinks I’m a restoration or a reconstruction project. I don’t know if I will ever be 100% again. Should we rebuild me? Should I even accept that there is a question to be answered? The only way through this is to roll into a ball, look after you and be as self-indulgent as it takes. Make something. It’s a survival mechanism. Sirens are sounding again. I get it now. It’s as it always should have been. My bones are exposed, a hard skeleton, cleaved of flesh after 150 years of treatment. Extinguish the fear and anxiety, turn on the sprinklers and let words, paint and chords rain down. Let it flood and douse the bare bones so that they are protected, so that something vital, valuable is left behind. It’s an act of conservation.

 

The demolition team meets me again on Tuesday. None of this is pleasant, but what choice do I have? None, but it is manageable, it is tolerable. I wish I could show it two fingers, but I’ve got nothing better to offer. So we go on. Is it my therapy or my art that will sustain me? Can’t they be the same thing? Whatever comes, this here now, it aches so much. But it’s still life.

 

 

Up Next:  Harp Of Glass