The Virtually Real

‘Every time I see that tree I think it’s real!’ Alix, at the online private view.

Reality has felt shifty and evasive over the last year. The familiar pattern of life has had to be gradually re-woven after the sudden shock of the March 2020 arrival of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns, restrictions and upendings of what we knew as normal. Reality has felt shifty and evasive over the last year. The familiar pattern of life has had to be gradually re-woven after the sudden shock of the March 2020 arrival of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns, restrictions and upendings of what we knew as normal.

Something I have hung on to as a rock and a lifebelt has been my drawing practice. Fairly early on I went out with a giant piece of paper and some graphite putty, a wonderfully messy and tactile medium, and drew an oak tree in a field, far from anyone. On my knees on the grass with graphite shining all over my hands, I felt so much better, a burst of outward expansion after the sudden contraction to indoor space.

The oak tree drawing finally bore fruit – acorns, perhaps I should say – in November 2020, informing a commission to create a roughly 2m square mural for a private house. It was commissioned before coronavirus arrived in the UK, by a life long campaigner for rights of way and supporter of public access to the countryside; something whose value has become so obvious throughut the pandemic for helping people to stay sane and healthy. He wanted a scene which would be of the countryside, fields and trees, and importantly, it would show people using it – walkers, cyclists, out there enjoying the landscape. We met at the site (his house) in February 2020 to look and discuss ideas. I made a few very rough notes in my tiny postcard-sized sketchbook. We agreed the square scene woud be framed by two trees.

Back to March, April and May 2020. I went through anxiety and a burst of learning and experimentation as I found ways to work online teaching, all my work beforehand having been face to face teaching. A year later I feel very fortunate to have a wonderful and gradually growing community of online learners and drawing enthusiasts. All the while, the search for the landscape to feature in the mural and research for the elements within it – trees, their bark and foliage, wildflowers of many sorts and grasses – continued in the back of my awareness. It became a reason for bike rides to particular places, drawing trips, photograph-taking and generally being outdoors a lot, as safety allowed, as far as I could understand what was allowed.

The online learning went through a boom, and the drawing classes I taught online took all my time in the summer of 2020. I finally started work on the mural in October 2020, having gathered my resources and built up the courage to start. Doubt about whether I could continue when the November Lockdown was anounced halted it for a few days while we tried to work out what to do. My customer agreed to my working onsite with the door open and wearing a mask, and I agreed not to use the facilities or accept a drink.

It was a wonderful thing to work on during that time; I have no sense of there being any restrictions or really what else was going on. I was in my own emerging world. To be holding brushes, smoothing and shaping the buttery, creamy paint on the surface, thinking of oak leaves, poppies, daisies and bees… how to get just the right texture to a cloud, just the right sky blue for ths sunny day in June… it was grounding, and a journey into inner space.

The learning and experiences of the year had given me the idea of presenting it online in a private view, with the willing co-operation of my client. We were able to tell a story about how to engage with the image, and take the viewers on an imagine walk into the landscape. So please, if you will, step into this landscape. What does it bring up for you? what feelings, sensations or thoughts? What memories?

New: Thursday Evening Drawing Class, 21st Jan, 19.30 GMT

Now available to register your interest for. This is another drop-in drawing session like my Monday morning class, but timed for evening to suit workers and my American friends. Get your drawing gear, whatever you have – a biro and printer paper will get you started. Graphite pencils and some good quality coloured pencils will give you lots to explore. Check out the Drawing Page of my website for more information about materials, and use the contact form there to sign up.

These drop-in sessions are a chance to practise your skills, train your eye and also have a bit of fun. No outcome is required, you can choose the subject matter and what media you want to play with. We share the work of artists we like, think about how their work could influence us, experiment and doodle.

Just some things we’ve played with: ways of framing a composition, mark making experiments, measuring, perspective, colour theory, watery media, pens, doodling, choosing subjects, even drawing with our feet and mouth!

On Drawing: Why it Matters.

‘I feel like I have new eyes – when I’m out for a run I keep stopping to look at shapes and colours I didn’t see before’. ‘I hadn’t realised just how intricate that shell is and how many colours there are in it.’ ‘I really have to concentrate, to look’…. just a few of the things students have said to me in drawing classes over the last few years.

My sister Sarah and I have been running drawing classes for about 3 years at the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Court, Surrey. Sarah had initially designed the course for embroiderers who wanted more confidence to design their stitched pieces; we offered it at Hampton Court with great success, succeeding in giving students confidence, tools and the courage to experiment and believe in their own vision.

In the teaching I’ve bcome more aware find drawing has a great value for itself, for centring my focus, calming me and above all helping me to really pay attention: to the moment I’m in, to what’s in front of me right now, and following my observation down a path of curiosity and discovery.

The three-day classes are an intense blast of information and activity, and both students and ourselves as teachers are often exhausted by the end of it. It’s great fun but intense! I wondered what it would be like to run a class where we have time to relax into drawing, that anyone, whatever their background in art, can enjoy.

Now I’ve started running a class once a week in Godalming, for two hours of drawing in a very relaxed and supportive environment. There’s no aim other than this: to observe, to draw, to play with materials, to explore colour. There’s certainly no pressure to produce finished works. It matter because for me observational drawing is about connecting with the world, by trying to see as truthfully as possible what is in front of us and attempting to capture this. We normally see so little of what’s around us, being inundated with demands on our attention. Taking the time to pay close attention has really enriched my life; taking up some colours grounds me in times of stress and helps me to stay present in myself.

I also wonder if taking the time to be present, to overome visual assumptions about what the world looks like and to check in with our own response is connected to being able to ‘see’ more clearly in other ways as well. It’s a practise of gaining clarity, and can often show me something about what I’m thinking and feeling that nothing else can.

NEW! Drawing, once a week, Mondays 10-12 in Godalming. £27 a session, pay on the door. Please contact me if you’d like to come! it’s a small class.

Drawing in lockdown and beyond

Wildflowers in Shalford

Drawing practice has always been sustaining for me, but in recent months it has often felt like the most grounded, steadying and real thing I’ve been doing.

The reduction of stimulation which happened straight away on the implementation of lockdown restrictions made those things which were left feel very important. My sense of time changed, and what mattered to be done changed. It became easier to spend time scrutinising the structure of a flower, or watch the flight of an insect, and it also felt important in a way it hasn’t before. It has become very clear to me that people have relied on the arts and culture to occupy them and give their lives meaning, and as a teacher of arts it has re-affirmed my commitment to that. The value of culture and art to our society beyond simply the amount of money it brings in as a industry has become much clearer.

I know for some this time has been perceived as a reduction in opportunities. I’m very aware of having been lucky so far, having blessedly stayed well, and those around me have stayed well, and their jobs have been safe. People’s desire for the arts, for learning and for finding meaning has brought me new students, through online teaching. I’m really enjoying having students from Canada, America, Australia and elsewhere in the UK in my classes now. I can think and prepare demonstrations, make video recordings and have found ways to help me share their own images with me and each other for comment.

There’s a real sense in each class of choosing to focus on something with meaning and find ways to keep doing it, keep looking, keep seeing the beauty and keep sharing, no matter what obstacles lie in the way.

On Having the Courage to Not Know.

‘I’m rambling all over the place… sorry about that’. An apology from a Thinking colleague recently, one which I’ve heard before. People can feel very vulnerable, showing the rambling thought processes which emerge when we’re pushing the boundaries of our thinking or learning, and going to new places in our mental landscapes. Fortunately, in the space of a Thinking Environment® Think, there are strong boundaries and processes that make it safe. I’m not going to be interrupted and my colleague believes in me and gives encouragement.

Which line to follow? Creative confusion. C Homfray, Spirograph and watercolour, March 2019.

I’ve been struck again by the need for safety in thinking things through and learning. The mind can be woolly, like a big tangle of threads, whether it’s sorting through the oddments of one’s own mind to find the end of the thread, and therefore begin untangling it, or introducing something new which needs to be assimilated and woven into the fabric already there. There has to be a stage of confusion.

Our culture, as I may have observed in my blog before, isn’t sympathetic to admissions of uncertainy or not knowing on the part of adults. Interviewees on current affairs programmes are grilled without mercy, the interviewer pushing to find a chink of uncertainty, into which they rush with triumph when they find one. Although I am not often interviewed, thank goodness, this is the background music to all of our lives, and I’m aware of wanting others to see myself as successful. I fear that if they see my rambling thought processes, blind alleys of thinking and mistakes they will think I am weak, ill-informed or unable, and perhaps I’m afraid it could be used against me.

I often hear my students punishing themselves verbally or apologising for doing things ‘wrong’. And as a teacher I can feel my own vulnerability, and trying to embrace ‘learning opportunities’ of my own – making mistakes, dropping stitches, not being understandable in my explanations, getting a rhythm wrong, forgetting things. I want to demonstrate that it’s ok to make a mistake, more than that, it’s neccessary, to learn and expand one’s thinking. If I’m ok making mistakes, then it’s ok for you too. Trouble is, sometimes it’s hard to be that person in front of a group, feeling responsible for their wellbeing and learning yet feeling vulnerable myself.

However, it’s even harder to be the one who has authority and knows, and can’t be seen to make a mistake. I used to think as a beginning teacher that I had to know everything, or everything the students might want to know at least.

I’ve been giving that up in favour of vulnerability since I realised what a precarious and fragile position it can be trying to be the one who knows. And I’m grateful for Thinking Environment principles which enshrine within them ecouragement and permission to go beyond normal thinking.

One step at a time: Reflecting on experience as I go – and grow.

cropped-nautilus.png

I get great comfort and encouragement from the spiral. So often it seems like I am circling around the same things, confronting the same issues. I remind myself though that this time is not in fact the time before, however similar it may appear.

The nautilus grows its shell one chamber at a time, moving every so often into a slightly larger space than the previous one. It gives itself room to grow, increasing the spiral as it adds a new chamber.

Regularly reflecting on what is happening in my life and what I need to do next is a bit like building a new chamber for my self, or allowing the space I live in to gow and expand a little.  As I realise a blockage and remove it, or change a habit to something more beneficial, I grow a little. There’s always a new thing around the corner, or even a similar thing around the corner, but I can take some time to think. What have I tried, why didn’t it stick last time, is there somthing else I haven’t seen which is affecting me?

The regular meetups I run for Evolve Leadteam, in our local community, give me that steady, regular application of thought to my life. I started running this monthly event, which we carry out on Thinking Environment® principles, to share with others the benefits of a space to thin well for oneself. one step at a time, little by little, I stop doing the things which don’t work. Slowly it changes my life.

Our necxt Magic Meetup in Farncombe, Godalming is on 10th July at Hucklberry’s cafe.

Reserve your free place here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/magic-meetup-10th-july-2018-tickets-46840049850

Drawing and Design for Embroidery Course

A student’s reaction to our recent embroidery class, taught with Sarah Homfray. I’m glad to see the Thinking Environment additions of ‘what’s going well?’ were a valued part of the course. Thanks, Marlous.

The Stitching sheep

Last weekend I was back at the Royal School of Needlework. Not to continue with the next module of my certificate course but to attend a 3-day class on drawing and design for embroidery. This class was offered as one of the RSN-day classes but was specifically aimed at certificate & diploma students but anyone could attend.

The tutors for the 3 days were sisters Sarah and Caroline Homfray. As they are sisters they immediately created a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom with jokes and comments about each other. Both tutors have lots of experience in embroidery and art and they had brought lots of their own sketchbooks, art books and art materials with them for us to have a look at. They even decorated the central table with lots of different items (jars, masks, feathers, leaves etc.) that we could draw or be inspired by throughout the course. On…

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Learning or experiencing?

Makeplace 505 Beginners Tambour Over the last four years I’ve been learning and then training as a Thinking Environment® facilitator. The cornerstone of the Thinking Environment is the principle that people can think well for themselves, given the right conditions. They involve being in the presence of a listener whose attention and encouragement is wholly yours, and who trusts completely that you are creative, altruistic, intelligent and can think for yourself.

That work, and delivering Thinking Environment and training for the NHS, researchers, undergraduates and local people at a regular community event I run with a colleague, has been slowly informing my teaching of embroidery, something else I fnd very rewarding. I’ve been pondering how could I make my classes more about the student discovering and exploring for themselves, and less about me leading from the front.

I started to introduce rounds, and ask people to share what’s going well, what’s their favourite sort of embroidery, what’s a project they’re proud of. Then, after a student volunteered some very useful feedback about what had been most helpful for her in learning the technique, I started to ask, what have you learned this morning that was most useful? what went well about today? what else would you like to see in the course?

Now I’ve started to ask myself, ‘how can I give them the experience of exploring and learning for themselves? How little information do I need to give, and what questions will stimulate their learning?’

On Sunday I was teaching tambour embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework. We had a really fun, collaborative day with a relaxed atmosphere and everyone sharing their learning, questions, and tips from their own considerable textile experience. It felt easy as the teacher; I wasn’t tired or drained, but energised by the day. The participants reflected that they’d enjoyed the warm, friendly environment, and left with smiles and thanks.

So now I’d like to ask you. What are your best experiences of learning? what works for you? Please leave your comments below.

 

Travelling with potential

I was reminded yesterday of declaring some time ago that I really wanted to reach my potential, desperate for it. Recently I’ve been thinking more about this phrase. It suggests that potential is a thing out there to be reached, like a mountain peak, requiring struggle and effort fixed on a goal. I was asked, what will you do when you reach it? will you be happy?

Envisioning the future has long been hard for me; recurring bouts of depression have  eroded my ability to see forward. At times, the future I could concentrate on was the next few minutes. Yet I knew I still wanted to ‘reach my potential’. I don’t know what it is I’m trying to reach though. When asked what I want, usually all that’s there is a sort of desperation, and something of a void, like hunting in a large cave with a small torch.

Now though, I’m becoming aware of a burning desire to explore what I can do. Feeling a drive to put stuff out there – thoughts, music, art, listening, enabling – assess the result, then choose the next thing, like navigating through a new landscape, bit by bit, and it opening out before me. This isn’t a clear view to the mountain, where all that has to be decided is how to get there. It’s a continual checking of a map which is being made, asking questions, feeling my way along, looking outwards, seeing what could be done, doing, noting it, and then checking inwards to find out how that feels, does it sit well with me, does it flow?

Potential feels more like Dylan Thomas’s ‘green fuse that drives the flower’. There is a fuel, (a need? drive? desire?) and a process (observing, acting, assessing, recalculating, observing…). It isn’t anything I’m going to reach. It isn’t only about work. It’s a restless, searching force, it’s a process, it feels energising, it’s life.