New Internationalist

Portrait Of The Artist

Issue 144

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ART [image, unknown] Surviving by your art

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Portrait of the artist
Traditionally artists starved in garrets, wore freaky clothing and
were devils in love. For the four people below, the money problems
are still there. And persuading others that you are an artist
can be less difficult than believing yourself.

The Painter

I used to have such a low opinion of my work that I didn’t like to call myself a painter at all. But the other jobs I did were very short-lived. It wasn’t really that I decided to be a painter, just that I never really decided to be anything else. No heroic chucking over of security here, rather a case of never having grown up.

As a child I was always doing drawings and presenting them proudly for approval. Nowadays, its much the same; I represent things I’ve seen and hope people will recognise this as something that’s part of their experience too.

Difficulties arise when this simple idea of sharing an experience is lost sight of. Prevailing fashions, wanting to be more like somebody else, pressures to earn, to please, are all disconcerting.

When working outside I am often approached by passers-by. Usually I am not happy with the way the picture is going and feel anxious and vulnerable. They watch for a bit and I wait to hear the criticism I feel I deserve. But what comes is a story about their sister-in-law who once won a prize for her painting in a local show. Or if their house is featured in my picture they are embarassed; they apologise for the state of the garden; I should see it in the spring, they say.

In neither case does the person comment on or even appear to see what I am actually doing.

In social situations, I often find myself defending painters I may not even particularly like against charges of insulting the public and overcharging gullible Americans. People just don’t have confidence in themselves as far as judging painting is concerned. This expresses itself either by silence, or outbursts of bewildered rage.

This means that I have to find whatever confidence I need to work all by myself with the support of friends, fellow-painters and the odd collectors. I feel my pictures are accessible to many people, and generally popular. I do sell them but the response I get for the effort that I put in is hardly a justification in itself. So how do I justify it?

In one sense I don’t. It’s just that I have an unflagging enthusiasm for painting that is greater than the enthusiasm I have for the results. In other words, I live for the next painting.

Anthony Hodge


The Musician

People find it hard to understand what I see in drumming - they think it’s about as creative as emptying dustbins. They’re interested when you say you’re in a band but not so interested when they haven’t heard of it - when it isn’t Culture Club if you’re at a white party or Aswad if you’re at a black one. But what turns them right off is when you say you’re a drummer. It’s as if drumming is all brawn and no brains and only singers and guitarists have any skill.

I wish I could say I played music for a living but I don’t think it’s every going to be that easy. I had a job for five years after I left school - working as a bank clerk. It was hard to give that up, not because I loved it - I hated the place - but because I knew how much trouble it is for black people to get jobs like that in the first place. Black people can’t drift in and out of jobs like a lot of white people do--you either hang on grimly or you’re out on the dole, especially where I live.

I hung on for as long as I could but in the end one or the other had to go - I had no time. People think you just get up on stage and play without realising all the hours and the aggravation that go into rehearsing.

So now I’m working at the band full-time, and I’m happier even if I keep getting into debt. There’s always the worry about the doel catching up with what I’m doing – if they find that you’re in a band they assume you’re earning millions when in fact you can’t persuade pubs to put you on, let alone pay you more than a few quid.

Sometimes I dream about what it will be like when I’ve made it, when I’m rich and famous’ – who wouldn’t? But all I’d like really is to make a decent living out of drumming. Everyone should be able to do what they’re best at – and this is what I do best.

Winston Jones


The Dancer

There are still strong prejudices against men dancing, especially where I come from in the North of England. It was not until I came south to go to university that I started taking dance classes.

Another problem, one that dogged me for a long time, was the standard image of dancers as extremely supple super-beings who all started dancing at the age of six. I started at 18. My early dance training was in ‘traditional’ contemporary styles that made me feel inept and ugly - and prevented me from discovering the range and quality of my own movement. It took a long time to learn that dance isn’t about being able to stick your toe in your ear. Dance includes ordinary, everyday movement - what counts is the way it’s presented.

Fear of the social and financial penalties of not having a full-time job kept me in publishing until I was 25. I eventually left - to do a one-year dance course - after a six’ month strike at the publishers where I worked. The strike proved to me that I could manage without full-time work.

Dance is a marginal art - for most people it has little or no relevance to their daily lives. To create anything that has relevance outside the very narrow limits of the traditional dance world a dancer (or choreographer) has to make the connection between dance and everyday life. It took me a long time to realise this, and it wasn’t until I did that I could accept the image of myself as a dancer.

Now I’m a member of a small dance company and there’s a whole new set of problems: like the reluctance of venues to book small groups without big names and the rigid funding policies of the arts establishment. It’s as if we’re working in a vacuum; we don’t fit into any neat category and there are virtually no other dance groups trying to teach and perform in a local arts centre without proper funding. What models we do have come from fringe theatre. It means a lot of work for not much money.

I am getting more confidence in my ability as a dancer and a choreographer. What I want now is to make my ideas more accessible. It’s all very well understanding for yourself how dance is inherent in everyday events, but how the hell do you explain it to other people?

Andy Solway


The Writer

Sometimes I’m convinced the inspiration is gone for good. For months I try to write. I wake early and go to my study, hoping for the change of consciousness that sleep can sometimes bring. But the same knot still binds. I re-read the paragraph I wrote the day before, tear the page out of the typewriter, begin afresh on a new page. changing maybe one or two words and then rip that out as well. Pages with one line, four lines, half a paragraph strew the floor around my desk. Often by nine am. my working day is over-- I’ve reached the limit of my concentration and have nothing to show for it. I’m a tightly-coiled spring bolted down. I’m frustrated. And I’m convinced that it will never happen again, that what I’ve written in the past was a fluke.

Then suddenly I wake up one morning and it’s back. I am released. The bolts holding the spring have been loosened. I’m transported in every sense but bodily to the situation I’m describing, and the words are coming directly from this, matching and encapsulating it. It’s a union of feeling and intellect. When this happens I’m obsessed with my writing. Any distraction or change is a threat that could break the rhythm. I hope, work. sleep, go out, see friends, only to the extent that it rekindles me. All that matters is that I ride the wave until it breaks.

I don’t like believing in fate. I tell myself it’s an excuse for lazy self-indulgence. I try to routinize my writing, turn it into a nine-to-five job. I force myself to sit at the desk all day and pages do get splattered with type-script - but these are letters only strung into words, sentences. This writing has no integrity, no life - it’s the fundamental difference between a full array of bones and organs on the dissecting table and a human being.

While I wait for inspiration I think about it almost obsessively - I wonder what exactly it is, whether it can be induced and made to stay. I have no answers or formulas, but the wisdom of my twentieth-century rationality sees it as something integral to the writer, not heaven-sent -- more a question of natural mood-swings than channelling cosmic powers. And how to control mood-swings? I’ve experimented with changes of diet, drugs, acupuncture, the anti-depressants, yoga, jogging, going on holiday. But moods, with or without the inspiration, still sweep over me like wind through a corn field.

But there is one thing I do to prepare the ground for inspiration - I withdraw into myself and limit external stimulation to a bare minimum. Then from somewhere in this intense concentration and introspection words can begin to flow. It is this that provides my own rationale for the times of waiting - slots them into my job description of being a writer. Those apparently wasted weeks and months are in fact productive, although nothing appears on paper. Without them there would be no time or space to go inside - there would be no inspiration tapped.

Monica Connell


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