The Lows

This is a low. I haven’t relapsed, it isn’t a depressive low. I am, like I posted yesterday, suffering from a major confidence dip in terms of my painting career. More like a plummet. It’s one of those days I spend in front of my easel where I doubt everything: my subject, my medium, my talent, my drawing abilities, my painting abilities, my ability to convey something to an audience, my ability to produce a painting. All I can see is all the uninterested, hostile faces who’ll pass over it disdainfully. Last year I thought I was producing paintings that no one will ever see, this year I am terrified that people ARE going to see them.

It’s been like wading through mud recently, my painting practice. Have you ever tried to paint while crying? It’s hard. And faintly ridiculous I realise too, how melodramatic!

So back to mindfulness. No believing the thoughts, simply observing them as they come and go. And observing the low days (and months) as they come and go.

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Doing the Right Thing

Here is the story of my working life until early this year: After leaving school at 18 with ‘good’ qualifications I spent 4 days on an art course before leaving the course and working 4 days a week at a bookshop (the other day was supposed to give me more time for painting but I never did any). I applied to do art and philosophy at various different universities in England and Wales (philosophy purely because a teacher on the art course suggested that if I wasn’t doing art I would be doing philosophy and I then decided that philosophy was sufficiently academic so as to be completely different from that art course where I was expected to find stimulation constructing things out of cardboard with people who talked about “Jack Pollockson” and knew nothing about art, or art history, or themselves. Also I admit that I liked the idea in a lecture based course I wouldn’t have to interact with the other students, and I’ve never got on with art students anyway) I fell in love with a place in Wales where I’d applied to do art history and fine art, and I got accepted but I was too scared to take this place (that art course had put me off, I thought if I was forced to study art I would end up hating it) For various bizarre reasons I ended up on a prestigious philosophy course (read: full of pretentious Southern English posh kids who talked waaaay too much for my introverted island-self) in a city that I hated. I hated it but I stayed because I was doing the Right Thing. I didn’t want to be one of those people who people talked about who “went away to university but didn’t like it and didn’t finish their degree”. The contempt that people talk about vulnerable young people like that is awful to hear, like their lives are public property to manhandle all they want. I was miserable enough without anything like that thank you very much.

I graduated with a ‘good’ degree. A major in depression and a minor in philosophy. I sat shell shocked in my parents house for months, wondering what to do. Before I fell asleep I’d panic; I was depressed, I was unemployed, I had no friends, I lived in my parents attic, I had no plans, I had no future. A few months later I took a temporary Christmas job in the same bookshop. Everyone around me visibly relaxed, including myself. I was doing the Right Thing again. But then I started to fantasise about running away, started to cry uncontrollably upon waking, started to use the till in such a-verrrrrry-slow way as to look strange (but no one noticed). I left.

Over the next 4 years I was unemployed. I have been supported by my parents and my boyfriend. I have learned yoga, I have developed my painting, I have had counselling, I have reconnected with old friends and miraculously I have recovered from depression. These past 4 years have been so rich and transformative for me. I think they will be some of the most valuable years of my whole life. But I have been doing the WRONG thing this whole time. I have earned next to nothing. Teaching yourself yoga and meditation, painting and running and learning to live with (and now without) depression doesn’t count for anything in a lot of society’s viewpoint. At least not without an income.

It became very important to me that I was doing the Right Thing For Me. That I wasn’t wasting my life, or “rotting away in this house” as I was wont to scream at my boyfriend on a couple of memorable occasions. I’d need near constant reassurance some days from my boyfriend. I always got it.

Last month, after an exhibition where I had 46 paintings for sale (“you must have worked hard” was a common statement) I registered as self-employed. I am no longer unemployed. It was funny trying to explain to the man at the tax department (I live in a tax haven… moneymoneymoneymoney) that even though I said I wasn’t expected to make any profit, I do intend to.

Hey I’m a fucking artist! I’m allowed to not earn money now!

Changing and Growing

I’ve spent the morning ill in bed, planning my next move. I’m sick enough to enjoy doing nothing but not too sick to think so that’s perfect for me right now.

The past 4 years since I left university not much has changed for me- I haven’t had a job for longer than a few weeks and so no responsibilities, few friends, just hours and hours and hours of “spare time” which I have filled with exercising, meditation, yoga, reading, walking, running, thinking, painting, and have also been filled with fear, loneliness, crying, anxiety, isolation, frustration, confusion, anger, bitterness and most of all: sadness. I thought things might change but couldn’t see how. I made small steps to change my life, reaching out to things I thought might help. Some helped, some really didn’t, some were denied to me.

The overwhelming feeling of the past 4 years has been that life is really really really incredibly hard. I knew I wanted to recover and I knew that all that work would have to come from me and I knew that not everyone else would help me. People would even hinder my progress. Depression makes existing hard, even intolerable. Days when you wish you didn’t have to exist in your skin, when your skin is so uncomfortable you wish you didn’t have that restriction. The hours stretch out, the whole day empty, daunting and meaningless. It is up to you to fill that day. Every day. Somehow I got through these days, towards the end being taunted by easy afternoons and evenings, free of depression, only to wake up to sadness and another leaden morning.

Then after about 2 years of dedicated (when I was physically and mentally able to) painting I got my first break, I got my exhibition. This year has been strange. I worked hard to get my exhibition together, I even applied for a residency which was due to start at the beginning of this month. I applied thinking there was no way I would even be considered: I ended up being a very close second, getting a very gushing evaluation of my work and a position as an artist within the gallery. My exhibition opened on Friday, I spent a few hours in complete overwhelm while people gushed and praised me and my paintings (I even sold some and got a commission!) On top of that an exhibition I was in over Easter has brought in a lot of praise and another commission for me, people are googling me! The curator of the exhibitions at the museum is a fan! I have spent days waiting for more good news, opening my email with excitement and expectation, instead of fear and dread like I have been doing for years.

It feels weird. I spent a long time wondering why it feels weird. But I know now: it is so EASY! Life is so easy! I have become so accustomed to hard work that to have people coming to me to tell me good things just feels bizarre. What you’re saying is I don’t have to do anything, I just have to do my paintings and you’re happy with that?? That’s good enough??

Still with all the external rewards I worry that I will neglect my internal life. I don’t want to attach my happiness and self worth to something as fleeting as a yearly exhibition. This is why I’m back here, and why I’m going to do Sally Kempton’s 3 Week Breakthrough meditation programme from her book Meditation for the Love of It starting next week. Because as Jon Kabat Zinn says, we have to adapt to any change, whether it be good or bad.

I’m just glad that it’s good change I have to adapt to, for once!

Competition

Strange how the day after I admit I don’t know whether to blog anymore I find myself wanting to write. But something happened yesterday, nothing major but something.

I have said I’m not a competitive person, that people can do their thing and I’ll carry on doing mine thanksverymuch. But I do feel threatened sometimes and I do feel like I’m competing. Even in my non-competitive yoga class I think about how my strength/flexibility/general air of calm compares to those around me. These days I’m mindful of it and I say to myself “ego” or “judging” if these thoughts arise. They still come.

Months ago I applied to be represented as an artist by a gallery (the same one I’m applying to be artist in residence for). I was rejected initially, along with another painter. However, the directors of the gallery overturned this decision and decided to accept us both. Unfortunately I had already followed up my application and was told I’d been rejected. The other painter hadn’t and got accepted. Over the coming weeks after hearing about this I came to terms with the corruption and unfairness of it and I dealt with it.

Until I suddenly suspected the super-duper-ace yogi in my class was that rejected/accepted painter. She has the same name, the same hairstyle, the right accent… it all fitted.

My god I felt jealous and resentful. Jealous of her handstands, her forearm balances, her headstands, her incredible strength, her thinness, her acceptance within the yoga class, but most of all the blissful ignorance she had of the inner corruption and politics within that gallery. All that had happened to her is she had applied to be an artist and she was accepted. I (who was recovering from depression, with no other job) had to deal with the initial rejection, the criticism of my work, the hurtful comments of the director who was supposed to be supporting me, the ripping apart of my identity, the worthlessness, the doubts, the insecurity.

As you can imagine, this all put me off my yoga. I am very proud of my dual identity: my yoga and my painting. I think it makes me unique, different, special. “But this woman does both too, and she does it better!” I said to myself. This is all ego. I do what I do, let others do what they do. I am not defined by my talents or my practices, I am me regardless. I wish these lessons were easier learned.

The bizarre end note to my little story is I don’t even think this woman in my yoga class and the painter are the same after all. How does that change my little narrative?

Injured

Today I am injured. Some form of RSI, I’m guessing, in my right forearm from painting. Working diligently towards your first exhibition will do that. Right now I am trying not to panic and resting it in the hope that having a day off now will mean I won’t have to take weeks off later.

This pain is not new to me, it increases every time I paint a lot. This is in itself alarming because it keeps coming back… I want to paint for the rest of my life, I need to sort this out now. I’m frustrated with myself that I spend at least an hour everyday doing mindful yoga and I pride myself in knowing my body well and not creating unhealthy, unconscious patterns of movement and I injure myself painting.

I must be a mind-less painter.

Fear

I’ve had a lot of fear recently. I’m thinking of applying for a residency at a gallery (yes the one that’s caused me no end of grief lately) and it’s brought up all the old anxieties about my teeny tiny CV. I’m going to say something now that may shock you…

I have not been in any kind of employment for over 3 years.

Now after you’ve picked your jaws up off the floor I’ll explain. I had a job at a bookshop in the year after school and before university. It was pleasant enough, a bit boring and lonely. I went to university and came back depressed but still felt pressure to get a job so I got a temporary job at the same bookshop. I soon realised that this was not the right thing for me when I started daydreaming about running out and going up to the nearby hills. There I thought I’d be left alone, it’d be peaceful. I knew I was “losing it” and left the job fast. It was clear that I was not in any fit state to have any kind of job.

The years that followed have brought verrrrry gradual recovery. I still felt pressure to get a job and worry about how difficult it would be to get a job after being unemployed for so long but strangely the longer I was unemployed the less I worried about it. Everyone who knew my situation (my boyfriend, sister, parents, counsellor) agreed that not having a job and concentrating on recovery was the best thing for me.

Over this time I have thought a lot, done lots about of self-enquiry about how I want to live my life and what is the best thing for me. Money hasn’t been an issue because I live with my parents, my boyfriend has a full time job and I, crucially, don’t spend much. I still have savings from my job and every so often I get some money from selling paintings. I decided that it’s definitely the right thing for me to give making paintings for a living a go. If not now, when?

This has been the best thing for me, and if I had to live it all over again (and thank god I don’t) I would make the same decisions. But it’s so hard to go against the grain of full-time employment even when it’s unnecessary and actually detrimental to your well-being. I worry about how it looks to other people, worry about having to justify the way I live my life. Sometimes I feel worthless, like I’m not a real person because I don’t have a job.

How ridiculous. I know how boring jobs can be, how soul sucking, and how easy it is to get up and go to a building every weekday to do the perceived “right thing”. This is hard. Living not the “right way” but the way that’s right for me and it takes a lot of courage to do this. I hope that some day I can look back at this point, at my self now with pride for my choices and my courage and tenacity.

This is what’s getting me through this fear. I hope to see through it to the other side.

Yogic principle to take to my art: Persistence

Persistence is an important principle in art and one of the ones I’ve valued from even before I started practicing yoga. It seems obvious, you just keep going.

People tell you your art is good, you keep going

People tell you your art is not as good as you thought it was, you keep going

People tell you to keep at it, you keep going

People tell you “don’t bother trying to sell when you’re 20, wait 30 years” (an “artist” actually told me that) you keep going

People buy your art, you keep going

People don’t buy your art, you keep going

People tell you “you can’t just paint”, you keep painting

Good days, bad days, sad days, busy days, lazy days, just show up and work at it. I haven’t been trying to build up my art career for very long, only seriously for a couple of years but I have had more than my fair share of setbacks. Strange mixtures of encouragement, rejection, discouragement, closed doors and complete bewildering silences. I have persisted despite being depressed and every setback being a little knife in my poor sensitive artist’s heart. But on days like today when the path seems a bit too much like an uphill struggle (or a sheer cliff face) I need to attach a lightness to my persistence. So it’s gentle persistence, not drudgery. A river carving its way through stone, that kind of thing. (I apologise for the mixed metaphors, I am not a writer)

I need persistence, yoga-style.

I have recently committed to practicing handstand everyday. This is a slow process that I realise will mainly consist of a few hops to nowhere for I don’t know how long… weeks, months? I have never done a handstand in my life before, never got anywhere close. I do not expect to be able to first time, second time or twentieth time I try. I persist. I realise the  journey is long but it some ways that is the reward, the persisting. You just do it to do it and who cares about “getting there”?

I can paint, and persist. I do what I do for me and I carry on and deal with whatever blows other people decide to throw at me. There’s nothing like a spot of depression (or 5 years, whatever) to instill a steely calmness.

So keep at it, keep going and let go of attachment to the results.

Yogic principle to take to my art: Acceptance

Continuing in my series about ways that my yoga practice can enhance my painting practice. Today is acceptance.

My days have been quite similar the past few weeks, mainly consisting painting, being ill, being tired and doing yoga and meditating when I can. I had a birthday last week (happy birthday to me!) and now it’s back to it.

My body has suffered from being ill, and so my yoga practice has changed. I didn’t do a vigorous practice for about a month, I had to really tone it down to restorative practices and slow, simple vinyasa practices when I felt up to it. I’ve lost fitness because of this and am slowly trying to bring my body back to the condition it was in December. It’s slow and stuttering, hence the tiredness.

Because my yoga has always been therapeutic for me and meant to make me feel better rather than worse I have always been very accepting of my body’s condition at every given time when I come to practice yoga. If I’m tired I do a slow practice, if I’m feeling anxious I do a simple practice, if I’m feeling unenthusiastic I allow myself to do a practice I find interesting. If it’s too hard I don’t practice at all, and I don’t beat myself up about it. I try to do what’s appropriate and I’m accepting of that.

Applying this to my painting would mean being aware of my current body and mind state and allowing myself to work in a way that would benefit it (or at least not harm it) So this would mean accepting that when I’m tired I cannot just push push push as much painting out as possible. I have to accept that painting is a very draining activity. I have to take regular breaks, I would benefit from being mindful of any feelings that come up (tiredness behind my eyes, panic rising from it not going the way I want it to) If I’m too tired to paint, draw. If I’m too tired to draw, look at other people’s paintings and think. And accept that I’m doing the right thing in the long term by not bleeding myself dry at the easel every day. Even external factors have to be accepted: today it is too dark to paint in natural light. So I’m not, I’m planning on what I’m going to work on next and I’m looking through my art books.

I do the best I can given the conditions that are present and I look after myself. I accept that I am doing my best.

Yogic principle to take to my art: Patience

I’m going to have a series of posts about my continuing work at bringing the principles I use in my yoga practice to my painting practice. The first principle is patience.

Patience is a very useful thing to cultivate in all of life. Now I am not a particularly patient person but in my family I am a regular Dalai Lama of patience and calm. My father will swear and rave when he can’t think of a crossword puzzle clue and my mother is prone to outbursts of anger when the cats sit near their food bowls and look at her when she’s doing something else. So you see where I’m coming from.

I have cultivated patience in my yoga practice. Everyday I will turn up to my mat and I do my poses and I wait patiently for my body to respond. I wait patiently in pigeon pose, in forward bends as well as in boat pose and plank and headstand. Sometimes I wait for my body to respond and make more space and sometimes I wait for the strength to build. The thing is I am willing to wait for this, to be patient. I do the ‘work’ and I wait for my hips to become more flexible and my core to be stronger. And it happens, miraculously.

This would be an absolute boon to my painting practice. To just turn up and paint and wait patiently for ideas and for new skill to present itself to me. No more berating myself that I should be able to work competently in ink despite never having practiced it much. Or to just expect to have infinite ideas of what to paint and how. Also it would be helpful to have patience when reaping the rewards of my painting, to realise that it takes time to build up a painting career. Sometimes you have to do all you can and then step back and wait.

What’s the rush anyway?

Bringing yoga to my art

This has been a big theme for me recently when I realised that I will berate myself liberally when painting but not when doing yoga. And then I wondered why I like doing yoga more than painting…

So I decided that I would bring my yoga attitude to my paintings: acceptance, patience, joy, maybe a bit of fun? But for some reason I couldn’t just do this, no, I had to plan some time to sit down and think about this before I did it. Preferably the beginning of this year before I had to just work work work for my first exhibition.

Well that didn’t work out thanks to my 2 week mega cold. So now I’m learning on the job. Less thinking more doing.

I’ve spent the last 2 weeks producing the same kinda stuff I’ve been doing for the past 2 years. They’re good enough, nice solid acrylic painting with the same bright colours. Sooner or later I want to change though (preferably sooner to show that I’m not just “that lady that does those”) I want to progress, try different things, experiment.

So today I’m doing an ink and mixed media painting (also known as using whatever the hell is left over from my school days) which is more based on drawing and tone than colour. That was the plan anyway. I don’t think it’s a great painting and I knew it’d be difficult as soon as I started it.

But that’s not the point, the point is I’m trying something new and I decided to be aware of my feelings and my thoughts as they were happening. I brought all my insecurity with me and it sat with me while I did something I’m not comfortable with. But I did it.

And I’ll do it all over again tomorrow.