The benefits of making art are well known and accepted especially in cultures that values mindfulness and flow state. I often hear about the latest research that has shown how the practice of the arts can delay symptoms of dementia, and assist with good mental health not to mention all the social benefits of being part of an art group, class or community. But what of its dark side? And here I’m not meaning the compulsion to stock up endlessly on the latest water soluble gold leaf markers, or the occupational hazard of dipping you paintbrush in your mug of tea because it looks exactly like your dirty paint water.
I am currently recovering from a bout of Artist’s Elbow- I heard that chuckle- and yes I hadn’t heard of it either until I got it. Like Tennis Elbow and Golfers Elbow it affects the muscles and tissue around the elbow joint and is caused by repetitive strain. Until I googled my symptoms I had no idea how vulnerable artists are to this kind of injury…..but apparently we are in the top 5 most likely! It’s really debilitating- and currently affects really everyday things like using the kettle and chopping up vegetables and means I can’t draw for long periods of time without ending up with a seriously sore arm.
Perhaps I have reached that age where my body is saying ‘I can no longer tolerate this abuse’ I’ve known for a while now that sitting for prolonged periods at my desk- drawing or cutting with a craft knife caused intense knots in my muscles and often resulted in back pain, poor posture and related headaches……..
Is it enough to stop me making art? Unimaginable! I would still make art if I had no use of my hands and no art materials, somehow, I know others have. If art is intrinsically part of who you are then it’s simple you have to make art- can you imagine trying to stop a young child making art out of anything and everywhere?
But what habits must I inhabit if I am to avoid unnecessary suffering for my art?
For the eyes: working in well lit areas, wearing glasses for close up work
For the muscles and joints: sitting in a good position, holding tools in as loose a grip as possible. Warming up and down art (as you would after a run, but focusing on shoulders, wrists, fingers and neck.)
Taking regular breaks (apparently there is an app remind you to do this!) it the thing I find hardest because when you get into a piece of work your really don’t want to stop. On the upside walking away from your art work and returning can often help you to spot problem areas or deliver new inspiration.
For the soul: remembering that I am not my art and my art is not me.
On balance making art is a healing process if I don’t neglect the body that enables this creativity.
Art holiday! Eynsham art classes and friends June 2017
Routinely checking through my messages, and being the optimistic type, searching for some glad tidings from friends or family – or even publishers (no chance there but you never know!), and there is news from Alice Walker. Hurray – she’ll have some news of the next art class, or even, since we are coming up to the summer, a sketching idea or two. But wait! Another idea: an Art Holiday. On the Jurassic Coast. Yes! That was my immediate reply, forwarded to my trusty helper, Sharon, who I had tried, unsuccessfully to take on holiday to Paris last year. What better than a south coast trip, with my artist friends and my personal assistant, who is a budding artist even if she doesn’t know it. I signed up right away, and called the hotel to reserve two ground floor rooms. Our class carried on with Alice’s latest project – about pathways. My effort “The Parting of the Waters” seemed worthy of the Eynsham Art Group’s Spring Show. Well I thought it was quite good, but nobody bought it. Anyway, I was on a new pathway: to the south coast. Sharon mailed me to say that she had hurt her arm, and could not come. But no – I was not going to miss out. Equipment companies (I need a hoist to get in and out of bed and into the bathroom), a care company, and Network Rail duly said that they could help me, and weeks early, I was practically on my way.
On the morning in question, my wife Tricia provided some sandwiches “don’t forget the Sun Screen” and my sister Kate delivered me to Oxford station. I was on my way! Change at Basingstoke (ramps on and off the train). On the train itself a very nice couple gave me a hand prising open my water bottle. On the next leg, a ‘Train That Stops Everywhere’ two New Zealanders from each end of the carriage who seemed to know each other (well they all do you know) helped me past an enormous piece of baggage which one of them admitted contained his portable bicycle, and then helped me open my water bottle again (it was a very hot day – very). As we got towards Sidmouth, I recognised from my childhood and welcomed the lumpy, hedgy landscape of family Devon and Cornwall holidays. I had been drawn back there along with my wife and children – when I could afford the time off from making revolution – well it was the 1960s and 70s. Ridiculous dreams I know. What is the record for the most crabs caught in one sitting on the harbour wall? My four- year old daughter Zoe must hold it.
The little Sidmouth railway station appeared incredibly soon. A guard on the train proffered the ramp this time, taking hold of my luggage too, and I alighted, looking for the taxi that I had ordered. It was not there. But eventually it showed up. “The exhaust fell off the one that started out”. I believed the driver, who then gave me a conducted tour of the area: Sidford, Sidbury amongst other villages deriving their names from the River Sid. I didn’t ask him for his own name … And then we arrived at the Sidholme Hotel, Sidmouth.
Brown paper parcel
My room contained a vast double bed, and a very big brown paper parcel which I deduced played host to my portable hoist. In the adjoining wet room stood proudly a shower chair. Amazing what you can order online these days. I had asked the care company to send somebody to help me unpack. She arrived. She was called Janet. I mentally christened her company Can’t Do That Ltd, for that was my impression. Janet looked suspiciously at the medication she unwrapped from my holdall and uttered, not for the last time, the company name. Janet looked at the flat pack emerging from the huge parcel, pursed her lips and shook her head in bewilderment. Happily the hotel handyman set to, and assembled.
The artists began to assemble too. At dinnertime, we gathered together round some tables on the lawns surrounding the hotel. A magnificent setting shaded by cedar trees which became the base for our five days’ sketching and painting. The hotel is part of a small chain run by a Christian fellowship. Little did Alice know what mischief the minds of her self-selected art students might hold. We introduced ourselves to each other, and promptly forgot most of each other’s names. I do remember John, from the Bicester group I think, a gentle, unassuming Oxfordshire archaeologist. The hotel booking was half-board, and we were treated to some more than acceptable dinners, including, I suppose because we were near the coast, plenty of fish. I liked the skate and barramundi. I don’t think you can get either in our local Waitrose.
And so to bed. Janet arrived on time, accompanied by her line manager Susan, who announced to me that the job was now two-handed, and demanded an apology for my somewhat abrupt reaction to Janet. That was easily delivered, and we made friends thank goodness. They hoisted me into bed, gave in to my demands that the French doors and net curtains be left wide open “Anything might wander in. There are a lot of badgers and foxes round here you know.” My reply: “All badgers and foxes welcome here!” They switched on the TV for me to watch, and left. I settled down to watch a David Attenborough special. I soon became uncomfortably aware of a problem. Something I had omitted from my packing. At home, I sleep on a blowup mattress. In the morning, I was not aware of having slept a wink. In the night I had determined to return home. When the Can’t Do That team arrived, I told them. They got me up, and promised to do something about my situation. The softer mood made me think of trying another night at least.
Broad- Brimmed Hat
The idea for that day was to assemble at one end of the seafront promenade, where there were boats and cliffs. I donned my broad brimmed hat (compulsory on this trip – most days were over 25°C). Following the others down there I noted the amazingly pristine Sidmouth Print shop and the Sidmouth Garage as landmarks for my way back, and some mostly well presented tourist shops as I neared the front. And there, as if it had been painted on a back drop, straight across the end of the street, the grey blue sea. “First one to see the sea gets an ice cream” flickered across my mind as I tried to identify a way up onto the promenade. I followed the class instructions and turned left. As predicted, at the end of the promenade there were fishermen’s and women’s boats ready to be winched down a slipway into the sea, and further along the shore, red cliffs stretched to the horizon. A fragile -looking walkway led over a river (the Sid?) up towards the cliffs. After saying hello to some of the other members of the group, and trying out the walkway, I settled down happily, using the seat of one of the boats for my equipment, to do some sketching.
What else, but a boat. I had only got halfway into my rendition, before I felt I needed some shade, and a drink. Some of the other sketchers had congregated in a kind of bus shelter over the other side of the road. So I set off over there. Jolt! I had forgotten, in my artistic reverie, the curb. I ended up half out of my wheelchair, perilously dangling over the middle of the road. “Help!” Happily it arrived quickly in the form of Alice, who pushed me back upright. Otherwise it would have been a major incident, with paramedics and ambulance in attendance. That was enough for my day. I arrived back at my room, to find a comfortable mattress installed. Being abrupt had been more effective than I had dared to think.
Wednesday was a day for exploring the other end of the seafront. According to Alice, there was a hill up there. At lunchtime I decided to take a rest back at the hotel, and then back down to the promenade. On my way back there, I realised that my battery was low. Oh God, I had to turn back, past Boots, and then oh no the battery was lower still. Nothing for it, but to wheel in to the Pound Shop and call the hotel to send down my battery charger! I did, and of course sketched my situation while I waited. My little sketchbook was already primed for an illustration:
One of the hotel staff arrived with the charger from my room. I gave it only half an hour to complete my sketch, and set off again. The next halt was opposite the Methodist Church. No singing: no one there! But a kind man spotted me, and offered to help. “Well if you look behind each wheel, there is a catch that you can switch to operate the freewheel”. He found the catches, and cheerfully started to push me up the slope. He was in Sidmouth, he told me, on the mend from a broken relationship. I sympathised, trying to keep off the subject of the heaviness of my power chair. But as we turned the corner of the hotel driveway, we both realised that he would need some help to push me along – still uphill – and round the corner to my room. The man returned again with the trusty hotel staffer. They pushed me to my room and plugged me in to the charger. Only with that sense of relief did I remember I had no means of thanking my anonymous rescuer. There is a Radio 4 programme ‘ Saturday Live’ which features “thank yous” to anonymous benefactors. NB contact ‘Saturday Live’.
The next day, Alice suggested a change of venue. A little village called Beer just up the coast. So I ordered Peaks Travel Company to send an accessible taxi, and off I went with a very charming driver. The little harbour of Beer reminded me again of Polperro, where my children roamed free in the 1960s. Down a very very steep lane I joined Alice and the crew on a kind of viewing platform. Looking over the edge I could see hundreds of metres below a beach with fishing boats drawn up at high tide, smaller boats on the beach with holidaymakers walking or running between, a few parasols and beyond the beach, the sea and the sky. You could breathe it all in. I talked to John while I did my best to provide an impression. He told me about some of the Oxford work that had interested him. The council had decided to revamp the dilapidated prison. One of his jobs was to excavate the compound: he and his colleagues found gruesome reminders of how prisoners had been treated and tortured and then thrown in the moat. The building has now been refurbished and is a hotel. The cells are now used as bedrooms. Sweet dreams.
A strip of land (and sea)
It was the right way to end the group sketching holiday. We turned right on the promenade and looked towards where the land gave way to the sea. There is a photograph somewhere of us looking beyond the promenade railings. Mind you Sue, taking the initiative, clambered onto the beach and made a sculpture of what she found there. Of course it will be washed away, or taken to bits by holidaymakers – but the impermanence is part of what the seashore is about. Isn’t it? My sketch, of the wall, bits and pieces of housing, a crumbling cliff, land leading out to sea and clouds building up to end our sunny holiday, turned into a dwindling scene which meant the same thing:
Not finished yet
Sue, our official photographer had taken a wonderful picture showing the incredible shapes and colours of the bark of the vast cedar tree on the lawn just beyond my windows. Not being one for adhering to regulations, after checking out I decided to stay put outside my room until my afternoon train. Peaks were coming at 2 PM to take me to Honiton station. So I set to sketching that wonderful tree trunk. This was definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of my holiday:
Sidholme –Sidbury – Sidford – Sid … On the train home I fell asleep thinking about it.