Creative sustenance and sustaining creativity

At our Story-share evening on November 4, Claire Capel-Stanley shared the following thoughts on creativity and sustenance.

There’s a scene in Friends where Rachel is trying to put some moves on Phoebe’s doctor in the hospital. The doctor is an obstetrician or gynaecologist, someone pretty involved in female anatomy anyway. Rachel tries to ask him out on a date, and he looks at her, and sighs, and he says

‘Let me put it this way. What do you do for a living?’

Rachel says she works in a coffee house (this is before she started working at Bloomingdales).

And the doctor says, ‘Well, I bet a cup of coffee is about the last thing you’d want when you get home at night.’

I have become one of those people I’ve always been very sceptical about: I am a person who really likes their job. I work in a gallery, putting up exhibitions, talking about, looking at, selling and writing about other peoples’ art. In my spare time, I’m an arts writer, reviewing exhibitions and writing articles. I also work casually as an art model. This year, I’ve curated several independent exhibitions and started regularly reviewing exhibitions on the radio. You’d think, like Phoebe’s doctor and vaginas, I’d be sick of it. But actually, I feel like I’m always skating around it, skirting art, and often, it doesn’t make me want to write and curate and organise, it makes me want to paint, and draw, and sew, and dance. But wanting to do it and doing it are two different things.

I feel like a complete fraud saying that I make art at all, and I’d never, ever promote myself that way. I very rarely finish anything, I don’t know what I mean to produce, I just feel a vague need to make something, maybe in the same way some people feel like they’d like to bake a cake, or go for a run, or read, or volunteer for the RSPCA. It’s just that I feel, for some reason, like I need to go to Lincraft and buy a length of hessian and some silver thread and do some embroidery, or like I need to paint a bunch of circles on a piece of paper. Or practice dance on our back deck when I think no one is home, or even when I know they’re home and I don’t care. I don’t think I am an artist. If anything, I think for me these things have a stronger relationship to writing, or even just to living and thinking, than to art in itself.

Recently, though, because I’ve been busy with work, or perhaps because I’m suddenly boring, my creative life has become fairly uncreative in formulation. Like an elderly person whose major relationship is with their GP, I try to get my fix in regular doses. As well as a couple of sewing projects that are taking a billion years to complete, I have two scheduled injections ­– ballet class on Mondays and Thursdays or Fridays and life drawing on Tuesdays. I keep doing it because it makes me feel good, and normal, and happy, but like anything that’s a rule, sometimes it feels like a pretty useless challenge I’m only barely meeting. I’ve been thinking a lot about rules lately though, and I like the challenge of meeting them, and of breaking them. I think that’s why I like to get my creative sustenance in scheduled bursts. Time set aside is like a blank page, or an empty plate. There’s a lot of possibility for filling.

The kind of drawing I like best is life drawing, and that’s why I think of both dance and drawing as similar kinds of activities. There’s nothing better, I think, more mysterious, or more compelling, than an actual body, especially one that’s either moving or trying not to.

While dance is something I do for pleasure and because it’s good exercise that doesn’t involve a bored Lycra-clad American instructor shouting fake yoga poses at you at the ANU gym to the theme song used in the movie ‘Wreck it Ralph’, my drawing routine started because of a job. It was a way to get another kind of sustenance, the useful kind.

I started working as a life model a couple of years ago, starting with a group my mum used to go to, but doesn’t anymore (because that would be weird). It was a bit intimidating at first, but it paid cash and I liked it. I did it all through two years of Honours, and it was nice to go somewhere and be still and just be a body instead of a mind, or as well as one. It was meditative, and I liked trying to find poses and be a picture, but also feeling so dimensional. At this time I was still going to ballet class, and I always thought of modelling as a version of dancing, but one where my movements were stilled to the tiniest rustle, the gradual relaxing of my hips into the pose, my head falling sleepily onto a pillow. A dance between stillness and stiffness. Like dance, it made me tired. Being still is, like being silent, really difficult.

One thing that started to bug me about modelling is the perception of who is the active participant. I’m often not looking at the people drawing, but I can hear them. To them, I’m just a shape. I remember one class, especially, hearing the sharp whisper of charcoal against paper, the scratch of pencils, the swish of a brush in water. And it made me quite jealous that everyone saw me as the passive one. There is a feminist novel, or play or film waiting to be made about this. I can’t believe I can’t think of one that exists already. I decided to start drawing myself, which, it turns out, is more fun. Though there’s still something unchartered and special about being the living version of the picture and I always remember this when I’m drawing other people. I know there’s something going on inside the shape. I like to start in the middle and work outwards, kind of like moulding a sculpture out of plasticine.

I don’t know if I’d say going to dance class and drawing sustains me. My main issue is that I wish I could do it more often, and that I could get as much out of it on my own whenever I felt like it as I do in a scheduled, set time period. I wish I was the sort of person who didn’t turn everything into work. It’s pretty ridiculous when you’re just following some bizarre routine you set for yourself, like that scene in Kath and Kim where Kath says ‘I’ve got so much on Kel! I’ve got to decant the dipping sauce and take the lids off the dips!’ I don’t have an answer for why I do any of these things, except that I feel like I need them. They feel very necessary.

Yesterday, I was feeling pretty drained, and tired, and overworked. I couldn’t make my dance class, and I was stressed about writing this and about other articles I have due. I felt guilty about all the money I spent on fabric on a recent trip to Melbourne that I know will sit in my drawer for at least three months, just ‘being really nice’. So I went over to my mum’s house, and she lent me some books, as if that would help – Michelangelo’s Drawings, Italian Drawings, French Drawings, Watteau and his World. Beautiful, moving, dramatic life studies, all muscles and sinew and heads turning and feet springing.

I told her I sometimes felt depressed looking at art when I couldn’t do it myself, because I was too busy, or just no good at drawing in the first place. Mum said it helps to slow down and look. ‘Most nights’, she said, ‘while I’m having dinner, I open one of these books and I just watch one drawing the whole time I’m eating. I watch it, and then I trace it with my free hand. I never get sick of it. I think it’s good for my digestion, too’.

Maybe that’s better advice.

Image: Futurilla

Claire Capel-Stanley is a writer, curator and arts manager. She works as Program Manager at PhotoAccess, and is currently Writer in Residence at M16 Artspace. She never has enough time for the stuff that sustains her, like dancing, drawing, and buying new music. Consequently, she has in desperation listened to the new U2 album off her phone in the car.

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