Becoming an artist: awakenings

This is about my journey. Everyone’s journey will be different. I am addressing those, who like me, have spent a long time thinking about doing art, but never finding the time or courage to do it.

How many people suffer from that debilitating idea “I can’t paint*”. This is often because someone told you so, or gave your confidence such a knock, you never quite recovered enough to try again [* paint, or anything else you would like to do – learn to play an instrument, be a sculptor, do maths, play the drums, or whatever].

Schoolchildren are expected to make a choice quite early in life as to what they want to be. At face value it seems reasonable to expect a student to start to specialise at some point, but the mirror image of this is that they must ‘drop’ a whole load of stuff that is valuable in life. Little wonder that in older age people often pick up on subjects they loved but did not have an opportunity to develop when young.

I chose to specialise in science, even before I was forced to make that choice. 

I’d happily freeze to death looking at the moon and stars through a small but much loved telescope, clutching my Observer’s Book of Astronomy (I think I may have had a 1st edition from 1962, when I was just 9). Geometry was my favourite subject. 

A little later but still quite young I had a laboratory, and loved to do experiments with bits of apparatus such as a Liebig Condensor, regularly causing a stink that required all the windows in the house to be opened to clear the smell.

I was never a rote learner. I always asked questions and challenged my teachers. I love the ability of small children to ask “why?” then why again, to never be afraid to ask questions. But it is also important to learn how to listen to the answers, to reflect on them and then to do work to explore things more deeply. This gives rise to more questions.

I wanted to understand the world and how it was put together, and went on to study Chemistry at university. To highlight my tendency to question things, there is a story from my final exams I want to share. 

There was a question about chemical bonding I didn’t like because of the way it was framed, so I answered it just like I knew the examiner would want it answered, but then wrote “However, I want to challenge the framing of this question, and believe the question ought to have been …”. 

I then wrote a second answer to my newly framed version of the question. The external examiner (Prof. S F A Kettle, I believe) was so impressed he told my mentor that he would have happily awarded me an upper first if such a thing existed. Nevertheless, I was very proud of the 1st Class Honours degree I did receive.

I stayed in academia for a while, doing a PhD at Cambridge and then a postdoc in Bristol, where I met Marilyn, who was to become my wife. 

For a range of reasons, I decided to leave academia in 1982, and worked in computer-aided design for several years, but for the final 30 years of my career up to 2016 I was an information management consultant, helping large organisation to be better at breaking down the information silos in their organisations, and be better custodians of their knowledge.

I enjoyed using creative ways to discuss and articulate problems. I never stopped asking questions. Clients liked my thoughtful approach, and the fact I didn’t try to ram software products down their throats (as had been their experience on the previous times somebody had promised to fix their issues).  In ways that I now recognise only in retrospect, my scientific and artistic sides both found expression in the way I did consultancy.

Throughout this time, I was always questioning myself, always learning from new engagements about other ways to look at things. Even when one thinks one has mastered a skill, there will always be opportunities to explore nuances or discover new variants of a skill.

Over my 63 years before I retired I had tried on a few occasions to learn to paint. Even at school there was a group of us scientists who showed artistic promise and the art teacher allowed us access to the studio to paint just for fun, not for any examination. And I have attended classes on watercolours 30 years ago, but it never went anywhere.

Meanwhile, one of the favourite activities that Marilyn and I enjoyed over these years was visiting art exhibitions, and we have numerous catalogues to testify to this. I was great at looking at art, but not doing it.

There could have been many reasons for the failure of my early attempts to develop further. 

I had a time-consuming and at times stressful job, involving a lot of travel abroad. Marilyn and I brought up two girls, and there were always too many projects (that, funnily enough, seems not to have changed!). In Bristol I was an early recruit to Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA), and became its Secretary for a while. Writing and speaking took up a lot of my extra curricula head space (SANA later became SGR, Scientists for Global Responsibility, and is still active).

Since my retirement, I have become very active on climate change, giving talks and helping to found a group, Nailsworth Climate Action Network in my home town, which I am currently Secretary of.

Despite being busy with family – now with grandchildren – and home, garden, climate change, etc. I decided I wanted to have another go at learning to paint. 

Marilyn and I have for several years tried to stop buying stuff – we have too much already – and instead buy vouchers for experiences or classes. 

About 6 years ago she bought me a voucher for a set of 1-to-1 art lessons from our dear friend Di Aungier-Rose. Unlike previous art teachers I had tried, Di was very good at getting me to loosen up and not stress about what I was doing; to not obsess about colour and so on. To just have fun, and see what emerged. She imparted little nuggets of wisdom here and there, but without overloading me.  

This unlocked the first door to me becoming an artist, and gave me a boost in confidence. I knew from that point on that I had an innate ability to become an artist, even while I knew it would be a long journey.

However, the ‘3 steps forward, 2 steps back’ rule seemed to hit me. I got waylaid by climate change, sorting out my pension for retirement, etc. There is always a long list of things stopping us doing what we want!

Also, I was really hankering after learning how to use watercolours, and had a lot of admiration for the work of another local artist, Alison Vickery. So, a few years ago Marilyn bought me another present: to attend a batch of classes at Alison’s weekly art class, held at Pegasus Art in Stroud.

I will talk more about what Alison has taught me in later essays in this series, but the key point here was that I started to carve out a time during the week – every week – when I wouldn’t be distracted by the other things crowding in on me. Wednesday afternoon was to be art time. So even if I didn’t manage to do any art during the rest of the week, this time was sacrosanct.

I have kept attending these classes ever since.

Maybe that is the secret – and of course a lot easier when you are retired – to find a space to do your art. 

If you are very disciplined and no longer require a mentor, then it is perfectly possible to create this time and space for yourself. It may mean creating a Woman Shed or Man Shed in the garden, to get away from domestic distractions.

However it is done, you need to find your time, and your space.

You need to unlearn the “I can’t do X” gremlin in your brain.

Now it is time to loosen up; to experiment; to ask questions; and to rediscover the joy of learning something new.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020

Next essay in this series will be Becoming an artist: fundamentals

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  1. Pingback: Becoming an artist: fundamentals | EssaysConcerning

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