Curiosity. Wonderment. Amazing that one’s via creativa could be summed up in just two words.
Plato said that philosophy begins with wonder, so perhaps that makes me some kind of philosopher – but I’m not sure what kind. Certainly not the academic kind; I have always found it tedious to have to remember and regurgitate the ideas of others when there is a whole universe of places to find ideas of my very own – both in the wonder-full world of nature and the curious recesses of my own brain. And especially in the way these two inter-act when I am freely and playfully making things. Perhaps that means I’m some kind of a practical philosopher, but still I’m not sure. Must we be categorised and pigeon-holed under labels such as philosophers, or, for that matter, artists?
It is play, not properness
that is the central artery, the core,
the brain stem of creative life.
No play, no creative life.
Be good, no creative life.
Sit still, no creative life.
The impulse to play is an instinct.
– Clarissa Pinkola Estes
As a small child I never demonstrated any artistic interest in reproducing objects, people or landscapes in any medium. But I was endlessly fascinated with, and always busy, creating things – all sorts of things. Especially things that involved some kind of alchemy. Things that altered the everyday, that changed my usual way of seeing the world in some way. I’m recalling the shoe-boxes I’d fill with little treasures and cover with colored cellophane then peek into through little viewing holes under different kinds of light. Or things that were made by transforming simple materials – like turning lengths of yarn into forms by crocheting or knitting or knotting. Or things that changed color when I put them into buckets of dye, or left them buried in Dad’s compost heap, or under spawning mushrooms in the bush.
detail – earthWorks series – India
folded, buried, distressed khadi paper, found objects
I began my professional life as a classroom teacher. It was a perfect fit for my personality and my love of teaching has never waned. But I soon discovered that being contained within educational institutions was hazardous to my creative life.
I branched out on my own, set up my own designer label producing art-to-wear. It was a perfect outlet for my creative passion at the time – completely self-taught, I manufactured every stage of each garment myself from concept to completion. Pattern design and sewing, textile surface design, modeling, marketing and sales all fell under my one-woman banner.
|‘chrysanthemum’ ensemble –
painted silk tunic, pants,
bag and scarf
|hand dyed, block printed canvas
hippari coat and monpei pants
|hand dyed, block printed
There were two distinct lines to my label: a couture range of silk ensembles featuring hand painting, embroidery and beading, and a more ethnically-inspired range of garments in cotton duck and canvas. These were dyed and block-printed.
Curiously, it was through this business that I found myself back in the wider educational arena again. I presented art and craft programs on television and radio, workshops for organizations like the YWCA and various craft guilds, surface design courses for Further Education classes.
My work began to free itself from the body and move onto the wall – taking my repertoire of textile surface design techniques into a new context. As a result of a show in Wellington, where I was asked to create wall-works to accompany an exhibition of Tea Ceremony ceramics by a noted Japanese artisan, I was given a fellowship to visit Japan and work with contemporary textile artists. It was in Japan that I found my tribe as an artist; indeed, I felt as though I had found my spiritual and aesthetic home.
shibori sutra – Kyoto
organic indigo dye on cotton, shibori dye craft
When I returned to New Zealand, I began to teach at art colleges and participate in artist in residence programs – which struck me as slightly ironic since I have had very little formal art education myself.
shibori and indigo workshop – New Zealand
detail – ‘messages from the morphogenetic fields’ – New Zealand
shibori and mixed media
During the last decade of the old century my teaching experience took me around the planet as I explored schools deliberately addressing themselves to fresh, creative approaches to learning. My nose has always been close to the ground sniffing out genuinely creative approaches to curricula, always hoping that one day I’d uncover a program that fully understands what it means to engage in genuine creativity and works to foster that engagement in its staff and students. All the while, my makings kept happening – some of them can be viewed in the nomad collection.
My curiosity took me to Brockwood Park School in Hampshire – a school founded by the humanist philosopher J Krishnamurti. In retrospect, I’d say that at Brockwood I met some of the most creative thinkers of that time. People like physicist David Bohm, for example, who had a profound influence on my understanding. It was while on the staff at Brockwood that I developed the curriculum which would later come together as empty canvas : wondering mind – a series of free e-books for students, teachers and self-study. (You can download them for free on this website.)
detail – installation by fiberart students at Brockwood Park School – England
batik, shibori, embroidery, collage, on cotton fabric
So how did I end up being called an “artist”? It’s a very interesting question for me because actually I don’t see myself as an artist at all. I don’t see the things I create as “artwork”. I don’t have profound things to say, messages about society or about my own pathology. All I have is this irrepressible curiosity. Curiosity about everything. And I make things because I must, because that’s the only way I can come to understand what’s really happening as I question.
We don’t understand to create,
we create in order to understand.
– Cecil Collins
Questions fuel my work. Questions are always my starting point. They come in an awesome array of guises. Perhaps there will be a question about what is technically possible, such as pushing the traditional limit of a process or exploring new relationships between form and color. Or there might be a question about how an idea, or a place and its energy, or a deeply felt experience, could be expressed using visual rather than verbal language – often the latter is hopelessly inadequate. It’s a very intimate and personal process – it never occurs to me that I must be understood literally by others. (Oddly though, I find that when I am working in this way others often do accurately perceive the essence of the piece, an observation that opens up a host of further wonderings in my brain.)
the tide turns – Italy
acrylic and oil paints, silk ribbons, stitching, on textured canvas
There’s another kind of question that triggers my work. It’s an urge to simply explore whatever I find lying around. Perhaps these questions lurk in the studio within weird materials or pigments – I turn up and they pop out; I begin to play and we’re up and away. Or, as often happens when I’m living the nomadic life, they hide in crowded market places where I might find hand made papers, folk stencils, powdered pigments; on a track in the rainforest or beside a mountain stream where someone has left a little woven trap; in a rubbish heap outside a rural village; under the peeling plaster on an ancient temple wall.
Untitled (Casa Columbina) – Italy
stained, distressed canvas, market basket fragment, bamboo sticks, seashells
Also fitting into this category are the small, boxed works involving collage, objets trouvées, poems and paint, which I call wonderboxes. These works celebrate both my curiosity and my wonderment at Life and its “ten thousand things”.
wonderbox – twisted hazel twig – England
In India, during a quiet contemplative time, a fruitful question arose which generated an ongoing series of paintings:
What would happen if I didn’t design a painting or paint a design?
What if I simply obeyed the physics of paint and followed the flow of my breath?
These works use horizontal brushstrokes that last only as long as the paint in the brush or the exhalation of my breath, on a ground of textured canvas. They form the breathscribe series. The colors are selected intuitively. Some are white on white. Some are breathed in pearlescent or iridescent paints. Some happen in one layer and others are built up over many layers of color with the original template of the breath serving as a kind of continuo upon which color sings. The unplanned flicker, pulsation, and patterns of light across the surface are a constant source of wonderment to me, and I see no end to this ‘practice’ as long as breathing happens here.
breathscribe series – Australia
acrylic on textured canvas
The “what-if” questions are my favorites, for there’s no creative block that can survive their persuasive energy. They begin their seduction deceptively playfully but inevitably they lead me beyond the known, the familiar, and onto the creative edge. To follow them is to enter the world of the unknown, a totally unmapped place. It’s scary, but it beckons me and won’t quit.
Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how.
The moment you know how, you begin to die a little.
The artist never entirely knows. We guess.
We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.
– Agnes de Mille
That place or state or action – if it can be called any of these things, for it is an ineffable wonder – is the fountainhead of the juiciest questions of all. Questions about the dynamic of creativity itself. How can that state be accessed without use of any method – which by definition would deny admittance? How can we explain the magic occurring there, and what does it have in common with “everyday” living? What are the consequences, personal and social and cosmic, of engagement with the unknowable spirit of creation? And of lack of that engagement?
form and emptiness – Japan
Japanese washi, silver threads, cardboard stand
If you’ve read this far, and share a similar tendency for insatiable curiosity, it won’t surprise you to know that these questions inevitably deliver one to The Big Questions:
Why, when viewing the expressions that result from genuine creative engagement, am I so amazed? Why does it always feel as though I had nothing to do with the process – even to the point of thinking “I wish I’d done that!”
Where had my “everyday self and way of being” disappeared to during the immersion in creativity?
If I’m not the arty operator I take myself to be, what am I? What is painting and playing, expressing and inquiring?
If I become very still and look closely, can I find a gap between the bright knowingness that is aware of these movements, and their expression?
If no gap can be found, where does that leave “me”?
Legless, again, in wonderland.
– miriam louisa simons, 2014
And when the bit of painting was finished,
there was before one’s eyes a permanent record of the experience,
giving a constant sense of immense surprise at how it had ever happened:
it did not seem something that oneself had done at all,
certainly not the ordinary everyday self and way of being.
– Marion Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint