Tiny Essential Victories – by Guy James Whitworth

You know those laminated cards in the back pocket of seats on planes you always ignore? Specifically, the illustration that explains you should only help others with the oxygen masks that drop from the ceiling after you’ve helped yourself? Well let me tell you, them is wise fucking words those.

During the shut-down for COVID-19 I struggled. I mean, obviously we all struggled in various ways and various degrees. Jeez, tough audience, but since you are calling me out on it, sure, I probably didn’t struggle the most out of everyone I know, but this privileged white child’s struggle still felt real enough, nonetheless. A big part of that was everybody telling me what an awesome time this was for artists; all that time to sit indoors and create, they couldn’t wait to see all the work I’d produce!

Fuck off fuckers.

The creative part of my brain doesn’t really work in that way, and I, burdened by the drama of probable death, society’s imminent collapse and the shortage of toilet paper, freaked myself out into an almost artistic standstill and I barely ventured into my studio. My creative urges suddenly felt very stifled under the weight of everyone’s expectations. I called this COVIDcreativeblock19

All of a sudden, there was a lot of things that I really needed to watch on Netflix, Stan and Disney+.

In truth, I felt scared to peel back the seal on my thought process and my mental activity veered erratically between ‘WE”RE ALL GONNA DIE’ and ‘what’s the fuckin point? I might just stay in bed’ and ‘If I could paint hands better this pandemic might never have happened.’

This ‘unprecedented’ break down of societal structure did fall conveniently into the months just before No Meat May kicked off (an annual challenge I run with my partner Ryan—look it up, it’s fun—you get to save the planet by just saying no thank you to sausage rolls!) so I kind of busied myself with that, thinking up slogans, photographing delicious plant-based food and cobbling together edgy left-of-centre graphics for the campaign. However, it quickly became clear my random, overly enthusiastic but haphazardly thought-through input, wasn’t really appreciated by Ryan, so I kind of backed away from that too. This further compounded the ‘everything I do is pointless’ feeling.

I absentmindedly attempted to paint a portrait (remotely from photographs) of a friend who is a therapist, who, when I rang to offer excuses about why the portrait was taking so long, shared some wise advice with me. She said, ‘Maybe the best we are able to do is to just get through this as best we can with as little self-damage as we can’, and that wise advice really triggered a slow change of mindset.

I’d unwittingly taken the side of the baying crowd and was expecting too much of myself. Perform monkey, perform! Jeez, surely if anybody should know my lazy-ass-limits it’s me! Once I removed (or rather just wandered off and ignored) the pressure I felt from others to create culturally relevant masterpieces on an hourly basis, and blocked out the constant bulletins of badly foreboding news so readily available on social media, I found there was still an indefinable creativity there within me waiting to cautiously peer out and allow its potential to be considered.

That was the end of one struggle and the start of the next. I’ve never been one to be overawed by the big, blank, white of a bare canvas. I am way too man-confident and uneducated to be intimidated by such thoughts; but I still found myself sluggish and fearful of what possibly dark paths my creative thoughts may lead me down. As is often the case with depression and mental health issues, I found it all just a bit too difficult to get started; every task was too demanding. I had the tools. I had the time. I had the technical abilities, but I could not convince myself there was any worth to it.

So, I started giving myself tiny, fun creative assignments to complete. Scale was the key. Very small and undemanding projects which I could abandon without issue if I decided. I allowed myself more time of just sitting in my studio contemplating things. I chose to paint on objects that were not expensive canvases, but disposable and ‘found’ items. A few months earlier I had climbed into a skip (don’t judge me, I’m an artist darling, I’m an artist!) to rescue some round wood offcuts and I started playing with those. And rather than encouraging myself to think up a large narrative to execute, I chose to let my mind just go wherever it chose in whatever scale it felt comfortable with.

Rainbows: rainbows are easy! These pieces were just small technical tests; could I paint a 50% tonal difference in rainbow range of shades without measuring out the paint? Turns out (mostly, kinda, convincingly) I could. I collectively christened a lot of these test pieces ‘Tiny Essential Victories’ a few of them turned out a tad rubbish, and that was okay, they still served a purpose as practice pieces.

However, even these small steps sometimes felt overwhelming and I deliberately took a few steps back creatively and rediscovered the simple joy of pen and paper doodling, sketching out small abstract designs built around fleur de lys (a constant motif in my work and a shape I can literally draw with my eyes closed). No colour, no shading, no intended outcome, slowly building up my confidence and enthusiasm around my work until I felt more able to tackle bigger projects.

And then, I received a call from a past work colleague at ACON asking if I would be interested in doing a ‘Creativity for Wellness’ seminar. I mean, I’d be interested, yeah, but was my creative confidence in a place where I could advise others?

While details of the session were being worked out, I set to work thinking about what I could talk about and what I could do/share/teach/advise during the seminar. I came up with the idea of offering the simplest, least demanding creative pastime I could think up and I chose to talk about some simple drawing and colouring in exercises. Start small was going to be my big message. I needed some simple black and white line drawings for the session, so I sat down in my studio and traced off the designs I had painted onto the wooden circles. Well, once I started, I drew and I drew and I drew and I drew and I literally could not stop drawing them. They flowed out.

I never studied art. I studied fashion and a tutor at fashion college once gave me some essential advice that I doubt I would have gotten in a pretentious art school; he said ‘The magic of creativity only comes when it’s ready, it’s like a shit, if it’s not ready, it won’t come out, don’t try to force it because at best you’ll produce a wet fart.’ I didn’t offer this sage advice during the ‘Creativity for Wellness’ session as I can never say it out loud without giggling, but I offer it here along with the theme of that session which was: let’s be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can and see what we can then create. Think about the scale of what we expect from ourselves. Even during such times as a global pandemic, do not try to look after anybody else until you have looked after yourself.

But you know, also, regardless of what’s happening in the world, take time to just appreciate your own tiny essential victories as you create them.

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Guy James Whitworth has won various awards and has been finalist in many of Australia’s art prizes. His first book, Signs of a struggle, has been recently published by Clouds of Magellan Press. guyjameswhitworth.com

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