Creativity/Serendipity Tag

“Everyone is broadcasting. I’m seeing what comes when I listen,” Julie says, in one of our characteristically candid conversations. I like to think of my time, energy and expression in terms of ‘input’ and ‘output’. I try to find a balance. There are times to speak out, to be heard, and there are times to receive. However, what I heard in Julie’s words is a more provocative enquiry. What happens when I listen more deeply? How can I sit with what’s uncomfortable in me enough to hear the other fully? How can I tune in to the voice of the unheard? What happens when I make space to listen to the unknown? At home I listen to a muffled city scape of footsteps, distant shouts, rumbles of passing cars, and fragments of electronic beats. Out on the marshes, I listen to birdsong, weather and the rustle of leaves. I open my ears to inspiration that blows in on the wind, and the energies of the land.

‘Norton Grim and Me 2019’ is a short, animated film about Tony Gammidge’s experience of being sent to boarding school. The film portrays strong emotional content with visceral images. It is also beautiful. Stark shadow puppets, plasticine figures, haunting photographs and quirky drawings weave together to illuminate his dark tale. He is one of the people who adds their perspective in ‘Sabre Tooth Tigers & Teddy Bears’ by Suzanne Zeedyk. Tony Gammidge invites us to find our own stories, to use creative expression as a way into healing. He brings his own grief, and trauma as raw materials to be transmuted. Inspired by Thomas Ogden’s work, Tony says, “To make art works from these events is not just about making sense of something, though this is important but also compensating for the loss, making something worthwhile and beautiful that in part makes up for it.” By watching the film, we bear witness to both his grief and its processing. “The film that charts his journey is not, then, just a re-telling of his childhood. It is a re-making of that childhood.”  With Tony’s encouragement I am fashioning my own characters to animate, out of wire armature and plasticine.
‘Norton Grim and Me’ by Tony Gammidge.

As an only child, I struggled to learn the rules of play. My games were often solitary imaginings of ‘house’, dolls being ‘mothered’ my way. Eventually I developed impulses to create – ‘Spirogyro’ patterns, badly spelled poems and an illustrated story about ‘My Aunt’. Dexter has always been more hands on. He introduced me to his games of make-believe, where he imagined, dressed up, and we acted out his devisings with him. “You be the shark, and now you fight me…” From an early age, he would suggest costume ideas, “fun-fur patchwork hoody?”, which I would procure. His eyes blazed then, as they do now, with fierce intensity as he conjured up worlds to escape into. He taught me to play, helped me to bring forth some of my reticence to get involved. We are still playing together. “It’s going to be a story, where I get messier and messier. I’ll wear my pink fluffy jacket. Can you find me a table cloth?” Each of us has a part to play. We all revel with delight, in the creative process, and it’s fun. I source the yoghurt.

I am curious about this time of review, re-evaluate, retreat. It seems that for those whose work is absolutely necessary, there is a new respect. For many others, normal activity has been suspended and something different is taking place. At odds with the surge of growth that is happening outside, I am held back from the usual outpourings of social energy, of being out in the world. Instead, I am tending to new seeds. For me, this darkness is the compost for creative ideas to germinate. I am feeding my soil with the conditions for learning. I am taking in good food, wise words, sunshine and water. Alongside, I watch Dexter growing into a DJ. Named for this expression of rhythm and joy, he becomes more self-assured as he plays. He takes particular pleasure in sourcing tunes that will make us wiggle. We dance as he streams music out into the ether. What are you incubating?

We gathered, the damp and determined, in an upstairs room at the Roebuck in SE1 on a rainy Wednesday night. It was not so long ago, in a different era. We went to hear Emma Purshouse and Steve Pottinger. Also known as two out of three ‘Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists’. Love and loss are currency for the grist of poets. They notice the small changes and gestures that show love like Pottinger’s ‘Impulse’, or Purshouse’s love letter, ‘Wolverhampton – a Winning City’. They both speak passionately about change. Be heartened by Pottinger’s letter to Café Nero. Emma Purshouse brings her irreverent eyes to the back waters and cul-de-sacs of town. She stands to read, as though recently uncrumpled from the sofa. She is astute, wrapped in humility plus woolly hat. I want to hug her. Her wit is sharp enough to hide in the spaces between words. Her voice lingers, leaving a sigh after her dead-pan face has left the room. If you need cheering up, or fancy a trip to the everyday life of the Black Country, there’s stuff to read, watch, and some silliness on-line.

At the (not mentioned in our Lonely Planet) temple, we find heaven and hell. Ten kilometres or so outside the city of Da Lat is a fabulous Buddhist temple complex. It takes the ancient traditional art form of mosaic making, and uses it artfully to decorate the concrete structure. (Breton is the Vietnamese word for concrete, borrowed from French. It is used liberally in every context from city to farm, as the nation expands and grows upwards.) The curved surfaces of broken china – often with delicate roses or tableware – are tessellated into patterns to form brightly coloured three-dimensional dragons, demons, clouds and birds. It is a wonderful visual feast. Buddhas are halloed by neon mandorlas. There are giant bells to ring and plastic welcome mats. In typical Vietnamese fashion, there are street food sellers, shops selling elaborate Tolkein-esque furniture, huge marble statues, communist party posters and corners for mops and detritus. Under the giant Buddha covered in dried flowers there is a gift shop selling marble knick-knacks where an unexpected opening leads to a visual representation of the ‘hell realms’. I am not a Buddhist scholar, so my understanding is limited, but these realms represent metaphorical states of mind created by ordinary human suffering. In turn, the causes of suffering are generally covered by hatred, greed or ignorance/delusion. In this context I get the impression this is a more literal hellish representation of the torture that follows vices of the flesh. Theology aside, the display is a ghoulish romp through the underworld. Demons torture souls, skeletons eyes bulge with red lights. It is a spooky feast of horrific delights that is designed to make even the virtuous squeal.

Oxford old and new co-exist like parallel worlds. I feel how Lord Asriel and Lyra took shape in this city, where the ‘Schola Metaphisicae’ is only a short walk from the Modern Art Museum. It is a place where ideas are currency. Wren and I take a conversational journey of ideas from death to art and back again via welding. We enjoy animals and patterns in the tapestries of Kiki Smith. “How imperative it is at the moment to celebrate and honour the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth,” says Smith. Wren and I speak of the need to follow subtle impulses in order to manifest creative ideas in our unique ways. We met through a shared enquiry of metaphysics. (A philosophy which examines the nature of reality and the relationship between mind and matter.) Today Wren shares an invocation from the 7th Dalai Lama, which inspires me. “Help me to make myself into a jewel, able to satisfy all the needs of the world, able to manifest as best suits each and every occasion.” Later I head off to look at repositories of fossilized ideas and values. These lurk under the scent of formaldehyde, dust and mothballs at the Natural History Museum. With another friend, I see ‘Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits’ by Nyema Droma at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The young modern Tibetans portrayed find identities constructed through work, sexuality, what they choose to do, alongside more traditional cultural identities. Finally, a conversation in the Eagle and Child introduces the study of architectural decay and the world of academia. As I return to London, my head is full of ideas.

“What makes you shape and reshape yourselves so brightly from so much pain and suffering?” asks Charlotte Salomon in her own words, in her extraordinary exhibition ‘Life? or Theatre?’ at the Jewish Museum. This is part of the collection that was found after the artist’s death in Auschwitz. Painted over two years in hiding in France 1940-1942, it was kept safe by a friend and re-discovered after her death. The artist challenged herself “to create her world anew out of the depths.” Conceived as a therapeutic autoethnographical work, she invites us into her personal and family drama. It also reflects the history of a German-Jewish girl, in Berlin during the 1930’s; running up to the racial violence known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – the night of broken glass in 1938. (Autoethnography connects the originator’s work to the wider political and social context.) Charlotte Salomon’s story leaps from the pages of loosely painted images. Using only the 3 primary colours plus white, she mixes them to create sombre depictions of her family life with elegant red, blue or yellow outlines and later more urgent, bolder pictures. They were conceived alongside writing and relate to pieces of music. Inspired by her former music teacher and lover, she explores ancestral grief through the creative process. ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ is her therapeutic reclamation of the tragic set of personal circumstances that happen to her, simultaneously with the persecution of Jewish people. This exhibition shows over 200 small paintings, which begin with detailed frames telling the troubled history. As she delves deeper into the process, the images become more dynamic and the gouache streaks onto the pages, reflecting her own complex internal landscape. “I became my mother my grandmother in fact I was all the characters who appear in my play. I learned to travel all their paths and became all of them.” Like story boards, and pre-figuring graphic novels, she takes us step by step, back to childhood and her mother’s suicide and the events that follow. A final shocking revelation comes in the letter written at the end of the process. She finds a way to move through trauma and re-connect with living, “One can be resurrected – in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died.”

This miniature fairy tale house, red with a pitched roof, (but missing the white picket fence) is a tiny library. It rests on the corner of Rushmore and Powerscroft Roads. There is room for perhaps twenty books. It regularly holds a mix of children’s picture books, adult fiction and the odd non-fiction tome for anyone to take. The Little Free Library movement sprung up in the US, and sells kits for anyone who wants to start their own. I deposited a shamanic self-help manual. As I passed later I watched young man with dog-on-a-chain take out a novel. The day after I found myself chatting with older-man-few-teeth. He was just returning two books, and a real advocate of the little library. Mis-judging them both I wouldn’t imagine either as avid readers. I was peering in to see if the Shamanic guide was journeying yet, and was happy to see it had gone to a new reader. This week I have felt dismayed by the proliferation of social media and sound bite culture at the expense of critical thinking and the longer attention spans needed to explore themes more deeply. I love the really accessible opportunities for random reading that this service provides. I couldn’t find a UK map, but there is a Facebook page as they pop up around the UK.

This particular piece of luck talked to me at the car boot. I paid £2, erring on the side of caution. I feel very lucky. I try to keep this luck in mind, and to be thankful for it. Displays of gratitude can make me feel uncomfortable, like saying ‘grace’. I love the American tradition of ‘thanksgiving’ meals, but they are bound in a complex heritage of oppression and religion. But more and more I feel the need to offer my thanks to the foods and other things that nourish me. I need to say thank you in a simple private way. Martin Prechtel encourages us to “feed the holy”, to make offerings and give thanks to nature, to the elements, to the ancestors, to all that is greater than us. I increasingly feel nurtured by the unseen, and I light a stick of incense to offer thanks and well-wishing to all who support and guide me as a personal daily ritual. In San Francisco’s Café Gratitude, each dish on the menu was served with a different earnest affirmation. “You are beautiful”, drawled the server with each coconut pie. It antagonised the cynical and made me blush. However, an authentic cultivation of gratefulness expands my sense of connection with all that is. The challenge is to walk the line between grateful and smug. “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude” (A A Milne). I am following Piglet’s example and making more room to saying thank you.