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?

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.