Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

Still life

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I’ve never appreciated still life paintings.  I can applaud a good likeness of a bowl of fruit, appreciate the depiction of light falling on a group of objects or marvel at the way an artist has captured the transparency of glass or the lustre of metal.  But they rarely move me in the way that a landscape or a portrait can.  I’m not alone in this, it seems, for still life has often been considered the lowest form of painting.

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Recently, I heard still life described in a way that caused me to re-think this prejudice.  Art historian Professor Norman Bryson called still life ‘a re-enchantment of the overlooked.’  These paintings take a point in time and try to wring meaning from it, bringing vitality and attention to things that are so familiar we don’t see them anymore.  Still life painting may, in fact, be the most profound kind of art of all, as it poses the big questions of life and death in a portrayal of the most ordinary objects.

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I choose to surround myself with cherished things that, in reality, are poorly cherished.  I’ve stopped paying attention to them.  The ‘sleeping woman’ figurine from Malta, the mermaid goddess from Lesvos and the desert rose crystal from the Sahara are displayed on my mantelpiece, but I no longer really ‘see’ them.  My mother’s Murano decanter and glasses stand untouched on the sideboard and my grandmother’s tea set is never taken out of the china cabinet.  Wherever I go, I collect pebbles, feathers and shells, which then grow dusty in neglected containers.  These aren’t just objects, they are history, family, memory.  They are moments of life and death captured in stone, wood and pottery.

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For a few weeks in December I see things differently.  My home is transformed with objects that emerge for only a brief period each year.  The Christmas baubles are unpacked, many with their own cherished memories.  They’re placed carefully and festooned with the sparkle of tinsel and lights.  The mood of the house is different: light, festive, enchanted.  It vibrates with the energy of tradition and memory.  There isn’t room for anything else but the yuletide, not even ordinary life.  The house and the objects in it are no longer just a backdrop, but a focus.

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So usually when the decorations are packed away, the house challenges me.  For a while, it can seem drab and bare.  The old familiar things are back again and, for a while, they don’t seem enough.  They have the inertia of a still life painting without any of the insight.  But this year I don’t feel the usual grief that the festivities have passed.  Instead, I delight in the space and make an effort to re-acquaint myself with what has been overlooked.

I light a candle in the hearth – Vesta’s  place – and sit with the house awhile in silence and flickering light.  Letting in the space of the stripped down rooms.  Listening as the tick of the clock fills the silence.  Feeling myself expand into spider-filled crannies and the very earth beneath.  How often do we really appreciate this place that shelters us?  How often do we see it as it is?  The house sighs in relief at having its regular rhythms back.  The things that belong here settle back into their places.  Normal life gives space for new growth and no opportunity for disguise.  We get to know each other again as we really are.

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Out in the world, I appreciate the still life of winter: the serenity of a snowfall in the park before dawn, the lazy gliding of swans among frozen reeds, the huddling of ducks on frigid ponds.  Out here, I look for magic every day.  I then bring the magic back and fashion it into a piece of writing that tries to capture its meaning.  Each one of these posts could be seen as a still life, enchanting the ordinary things that I see every day.  My fiction is different.  It captures movement, a journey, a transformation.  But in these posts, I gather together a group of experiences, display them in a pleasing composition and hope that they will shed light on what that moment in time meant to me.  There is enchantment inside and out, not only among the things that grow and fly, but among the things that stay as they are.

 

A harvest festival

In the forest, the earth has succumbed to a peculiar alchemy. Far below the canopy, in twisted root and shady hollow, the fruits of the wood have bloomed. These flowers of autumn are strange blossoms: bruised purples, sickly yellows, blood reds, viscous whites. Waxy, slimy, gnarled blooms with names that hint at death and decay: fly agaric, sickener, shaggy inkcap, brittlegill. Some are delicate sprinkles as though a character from a fairy tale has carelessly scattered a trail of crumbs. Some are enormous, meaty things, the size of dinner plates, crawling with insects and already rotting inside.   They are the stuff of fairy tales, stools waiting for their toads.

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It is the sunset of the year, when the seasons once more inch towards balance. At the autumn equinox, the hours of darkness and daylight will be the same, but the year then tips into darkness. If we’re lucky, this is a time of plenty, when we gather in our final harvest to see us through the winter. This is when the year suddenly makes sense. The work of growing and nurturing pauses and the shape of the past year can be seen. And just as the fruits of the fungi emerge from the earth, so our dreams are ripe for foraging too.

At Candlemas, I took a handful of seeds and swaddled them in darkness. These were the dreams that emerged during the dark months, the ideas and the projects I wanted to work on this year. At harvest, I will unwrap them and consider whether they have been fulfilled. I’ll look back and wonder whether I did all I could to nurture them. I’ll celebrate those that have reached their potential. And then I’ll let them go. For this is a transition time, when we must leave behind what no longer serves us and begin to seek the seeds of new dreams.

My dreams this year were dreams of creation. I wanted to write and I wanted to paint. In fact, words took precedence over images. A dozen short stories written, my novel readied for submission to agents, an outline of a non-fiction book produced. This year writing has been about work: completing projects and submitting them. There has been a modicum of external recognition – a short story publication coming soon, another publication that almost came off before the magazine stalled, invitations to guest blog. I haven’t achieved all my writing goals for the year (the biggest being to find an agent), but I’m happy with the fruits of my harvest.

My painting has been about pure enjoyment.  I’ve resisted the temptation to see them as something that I might one day sell.  The paintings have been personal.  Some of you may remember that I have a vision of myself as a landscape painter  but haven’t been able to stop painting portraits.  Some of you suggested that I could combine the two. So landscapes have begun to creep into my portraits. And unexpectedly I’ve had my first offer of a sale.

Have you ever been to a harvest festival, where the best of the harvest is gathered, displayed and celebrated? Well, I’d like invite you to a harvest festival of creativity in which we’ll celebrate what we’ve created this year. In the comments, please share your greatest creative achievement of the year (big or small, whatever means the most to you) and insert a link to your favourite post that you’ve written in the last twelve months.  (For those of you in parts of the world where harvest is still months away, we’ll call it a celebration of spring!) My contribution to the festival is a coming magazine publication that I’m particularly pleased with (of which more soon) and a link to my favourite post I’ve written this year: The small wild things  And now, over to you. Don’t be shy about your achievements, this is a celebration!

Celebrating rejection

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When your work is rejected, what is your default reaction?  Despair? Indignation? Anger? Doubt?  My immediate response is usually some variation of despondency.  Depending on the piece of work and the forum I submitted it to, this might range from mild disappointment, to full blown despair.  And though I’ve had some writing successes, this doesn’t always help, because if I was successful then, why not now?  In the past month, I’ve had my first rejection from an agent for my novel submission, I was unsuccessful in a short story competition I particularly wanted to do well in and a promised publication of a short story hasn’t yet materialised.  So you might expect that, by now, I’d be curled on the floor, starting a descent into the doubt doldrums.

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But no.  This year, I made a decision to celebrate rejection.  The idea came from the actress, Susan Sarandon, who, when she didn’t get a part, would always celebrate.  At the time, this might have been something as simple as buying herself an avocado, if that was all she could afford, but the point was to mark the moment with a little celebration.

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Rejection is part of a writer’s life.  We all know this.  But, instead of resigning ourselves to regular moments of despair, why not choose a different reaction?  It may seem as though there is nothing to celebrate.  Those stories we’ve written, those pictures we’ve painted, they’re personal.  A result of our deepest thoughts and our greatest efforts.  And someone, somewhere, has told us that this wasn’t good enough.  Putting aside the usual platitudes that it’s all subjective, it’s about luck and timing as well as talent (all of which may be true), there is still reason to celebrate.

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Rejection is a good thing because it means you’ve tried.  You had the talent and perseverance to create something.  You were confident enough to see yourself as an artist or a writer and to demand that the world look at your work.   You had the courage to send that work out there, because you considered it worthy of being seen.  And then, when your work was rejected, you did it all again.

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Celebrate consciously.  Do something that is a treat for you: savour a good meal, go to a concert or gallery, read a book in one sitting, have a massage.  If there is something you would usually do to forget your unhappiness, such as having a drink or eating chocolate, do something different.  This isn’t about forgetting the pain of disappointment, it’s about recognising what the pain represents.  Face up to the fact that you’ve been rejected so you can remember that you acted.

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I’m sure I’m not alone in keeping each rejection letter or email I’m sent.  I don’t do this to wallow in disappointment, but so that I have a record of every time I’ve made a submission.  I don’t keep them in a shameful darkened drawer, but in the same folder in which I store my successes.  All of them are stops on my journey.  And if I celebrate the lows as well as the highs, the trip will be so much sweeter.

 

Painting in colour

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When my mother was dying, I began to paint, but only in shades of black and white.  I’d barely picked up a pencil since I was a teenager, but one morning, in the middle of her illness, after another late night dash because she was confused from all the pills, I went to work, sat at my desk, started crying and couldn’t stop.  I didn’t return for four months.

I don’t remember why I picked up a paintbrush, but during those months of my own recovery, I discovered I loved to paint.  Although I’d always been good at art, writing was what I felt compelled to do.  For years, it was a craving, always a story in my head or struggling onto the page.  But during four long years of caring for my mother, words left me.

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Our relationship was a complicated snare of love, guilt and resentment.  She was an older mother, from a conservative generation of working class women who knew their place and kept up appearances of respectability at all costs.  I was an only child, with no-one to share the weight of her expectations.

“Children are meant to be seen and not heard,” she would say, and I played the good girl so well that for years I was crippled with shyness.  As a teenager, secretly, I reached beyond her boundaries; doing all the things she would have disapproved of had she known.  Later, I was more openly different from what she expected: dressing like a punk, smoking, going to university, coming out.  And yet, though I had the strength to be different, I still feared her disapproval and censored even the simplest things in my life to avoid it.

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By the time her breast cancer returns, this time saturating her bones, we’ve reached an uneasy calm in our relationship.  I am no longer the teenager who ran up the stairs crying that I hated her.   Dad, the calm, accepting one, died some years earlier and I feel a duty to cultivate a grown-up, civil relationship.  I have a partner that I love, a career and my own home.  Mam and I have even graduated to saying ‘I love you’, since her confession that she never heard those words from Dad, but it feels so unfamiliar on my tongue that I’m rarely comfortable with it.  There is still tension, but we have ways around it.  My way is to avoid telling her anything that she might disapprove of, or telling her much of anything at all.  Our phone calls – daily since Dad died – last only minutes.

There is no sibling to share the obligations of being the child of a terminally ill parent.  At first, she is sick enough to be dying, but not sick enough for proper care.  Although her doctor talks starkly of power of attorney and whether she wants to be resuscitated if she dies, Social Services talk of waiting lists and expect her to cope.  It’s a time of never really knowing what to do, or who to go to for help.  Though her own siblings support her in practical and emotional ways, and I have my own partner to support me, we’re all lost under a heavy sense of responsibility and desperation.

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They think, at first, she’s damaged a nerve, causing her pain when walking.  She  transforms, over the period of a year, from an independent woman, always looking after someone else, to someone who hardly leaves the house.  It’s only in hindsight that I realise how dramatic the transformation is.  Only in hindsight, reading about secondary forms of breast cancer, that I realise someone should have suggested a scan sooner.  Because how could any of us have known that a painful leg was the signal that the cancer had spread to her bones?

In the early part of her illness, sometimes she’s fine.  I get used to travelling in hospital transport to endless appointments: checkups, scans, radiotherapy, blood transfusions.  She walks with a stick at first, but by the end she’s in a wheelchair.  I never become practised at manoeuvring her around, but, with some indignation, I do begin to realise how difficult the world is for wheelchair users.  Everyone loves Mam, finding her sweet and amusing.  She’s the darling of ambulance drivers and nurses.  I find myself resentful of this, because they never see how demanding and disapproving she can be.

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Looking after her becomes a long round of guilt.  Guilt that I don’t visit enough, guilt that I don’t care enough, guilt about the things I don’t do for her, guilt about the things other people do for her, guilt that others might see me as a bad daughter.  Visits and phone calls become a source of trepidation – how will she be?  If she’s depressed or subdued I feel guilty.  If she’s bright, I’m relieved.  If she’s done nothing, seen nobody, I feel guilty.  Sometimes, if she has had visitors I feel guilty that I wasn’t there.  When she’s in hospital, I take only the occasional night off from visiting.  And though she may have had a posse of visitors during the day, she complains of how long the evenings are when nobody visits, so that the guilt I feel for wanting an evening to myself is doubled.

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Her bones are so fragile from the cancer that she begins breaking them: a collarbone; then a hip; then her other hip.  Our life turns in circles: work, hospital, sleep; work, convalescent centre, sleep; work, struggling to care for her at home, sleep.  There is barely time for a meal in between and no time for anything much else.  Sometimes, I long to yell at her, to tell her how difficult it is for us, working full time and caring for her in between.  She seems to swell with the attention, enjoying all of the visitors and casually distributing tasks.  I remember the critical, flawed relationship she has hinted at with her own mother, when she was expected to look after others without any thought for herself.  Perhaps finally she feels important in her own right and this is why she acts the way she does.  If she would only acknowledge what we do to help her, but there’s no gratitude, only entitlement.

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We become regulars at Accident and Emergency, either because of a broken bone or because she’s so confused or urgently unable to cope that it’s the only option open to us.  But they don’t want her there. I have the impression they think we’re wasting their time; that she’s crying wolf because she doesn’t want to be at home.  They don’t see how she struggles.  She’s sent to a hospice and they send her home because she isn’t critical enough.  A day later the doctor sends us back to A&E because she can’t walk.  A&E tell me they think she wants to go back to the hospice because she prefers being there to being at home.  They talk about a nursing home, but finally, she’s deemed ill enough to return to the hospice for good.  I’m desperate for information, but feel as though nobody tells me anything significant.  And being the good girl I’ve been trained to be, I probably don’t ask enough.  What I really want is the impossible: for someone to tell me when she will die.

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I have only one sliver of normality.  My partner and I drive to the river, to a quiet spot we love.  We drink coffee and talk and talk to the gentle sounds of the river and the boats tinkling in the marina.  We watch passenger ferries and cargo ships passing through.  These talks prepare me for everything from Mam’s death to her funeral.  Emotionally and practically, it’s how I learn what to do.  I’ve never been good at sharing my emotions.  I keep everything deep inside, a legacy of avoiding my mother’s disapproval.  But slowly, my partner draws it out.  We live it before it happens and that’s how we deal with it.

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There is a kind of peace at the end.  Before the cancer seeps so deeply into her brain that she can only repeat the same phrases again and again and plead for God to let her die.  She talks about her death with acceptance and asks forgiveness for the things she got wrong.  And in the last days, I sit in her room in the evenings, my back to the window, and watch golden autumn sunsets shaft across the room, steeping the bed and my mother in a warm ochre light.  The worst of the illness, and the worst of her, fades as I’m left in that room, sitting in the half-darkness with the stillness that amber light gives me.

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And after she dies, I begin to paint in colour.  My first colour painting is of the Northern Lights, a vibrant scene of light in the sky.  It sits on the easel, waiting to be finished, as the funeral director visits to plan the funeral and the Vicar comes to discuss the service.  I finish it as life returns to normal.  I realise now that I started painting because my life was too full for words.  Now the words are slowly coming back, but I have the painting as well.  My partner says that, after all those years, we have to start learning to live again.  The words and the pictures are part of that.

My mother died on 29 September 2010.  I wrote this last year as a way of reconciling the experience of looking after her, our difficult relationship and ultimately, her death.  I’ve decided to share this on what is the third anniversary of her death.

Lying fallow

I’ve learned not to panic when my creative inspiration is gone.  Once, I would have strained to catch an idea or a wave of thought just to feel that I was creating something.  This is particularly pertinent, I expect, for those of us who have to set aside specific slots of time to create.  If we don’t use those periods productively, then surely they’ve been wasted.  But now, I accept that creativity works in cycles and the times when my creativity is at its most fruitful are punctuated by periods when it appears to be absent.

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Recently, I took a big step to focus on my creativity.  I reduced my hours in my job so that I would have one day a week specifically to spend time on my creative work.  Obviously this meant taking a pay cut, as well as shrinking the time I had available to spend on my job (since it didn’t get any smaller!), so it was a risk, considering I’m not yet a ‘professional’ writer or artist.  But, I saw it as a way to make a real investment in myself.  It was a statement that being creative was something important for me and my life, whether or not it leads anywhere.  This was something I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do at any time previously.  But, now felt like the right time to do it, and so I embarked on my creative Mondays.

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I knew that there would be Mondays that wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned them.  There would be times when I would have to use the day to run errands or complete chores.  There would also, no doubt, be Mondays when I would want to do nothing more than sit all day in my pyjamas and watch television.  But generally, I’ve found those days to be energising and productive.  In the morning, I take the dog for a long walk, perhaps along the river or to the coast.  This helps me to begin the day by absorbing sights, sounds and smells while thinking about nothing except my dog and our walk.  The walk stops me dwelling on worries or ‘to do’ lists and instead, gives me the necessary mind space to focus on my creativity.  Afterwards, I have the energy and motivation to immerse myself fully in writing or painting.

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But there have also been occasions when I have absolutely no creative inspiration to draw on.  After a week of dabbling, feeling moderately inspired, doing a little painting, a little writing, my creative day came and there was nothing there.  I tend to feel these times, not as a ‘block’, but as an absence.  I knew that I wouldn’t create anything that day, but there was no panic, no grasping for ideas.  I don’t view these periods as empty or blocked times, but as fallow periods.  In farming terms, by leaving a field unsown (fallow) for a season, the land is allowed to regenerate itself, to restore the nutrients that have been leached from the soil by overuse.

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This is a helpful way to view a period of ‘creative block’.  Rather than worrying about it, first, accept that there will inevitably be times when you don’t feel inspired.  Don’t force it, but think of it as a fallow period during which your creative fertility is restoring itself.  It may only be a day or a week, or it could, as in my own past experience, be a period of years.  You might find it helpful to think of your creative mind as that empty field.  Perhaps you’ll see it as bare earth, furrowed but unplanted, with mysterious processes taking place beneath the soil that will act as a perfect nursery for new ideas.  Or you might see it as a patch of land gone wild, colonised by beautiful plants that some would see as weeds and others as wildflowers.

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Following acceptance, the second step, for me, in making best use of fallow periods, is to indulge in what I think of as ‘passive creativity’.  So, I will use the time as a period of reflection, preparation and absorption.  What this meant for me this Monday was walking the dog as usual and snapping pictures just because I found them interesting: the wildflowers on the river banks, the fish quay at work, the shells on the beach.  I may use them to spark a painting or a story, or for nothing at all.  I wasn’t concerned about their quality or purpose.  I used them to observe the world around me without any creative agenda.

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Another aspect of passive creativity for me, is to absorb other people’s work – reading a book that I’ve read before, perhaps, watching a documentary about an artist at work.  I don’t believe that reading or enjoying art are always passive activities, but when I’m in a fallow state, this is what I want: something that won’t challenge me to engage with it too much, but will allow me to gently absorb it to help restore my own creative energies.  Another approach might be to do something you think of as completely non-creative, but for me, a different type of creativity is what works.

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‘Creative block’, or ‘writer’s block’, is only a label.  The words themselves sound harsh and unhelpful.  They hide a host of fears about failure and the sustainability of ideas.  Re-framing these times as simply fallow periods takes the stress out of them, evoking a sense of relief, an acceptance that you don’t have to actively chase your creativity all of the time.  It’s fine to leave your creative mind to turn a little unkempt for a while, to simply be receptive to whatever creative energy is out there, and to return, refreshed with a new crop of ideas.

Forgotten art

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What will happen to the things you have created when you’re no longer on this earth?  Perhaps your artworks will still be displayed in galleries, sold as prints or exchanged as greetings cards.  Your books may still be sold in book stores, loaned from libraries, quoted by readers.   Maybe your works will be kept simply as tokens, treasured by your children or grandchildren as a memory of you.  Or they may be destroyed, turned to dust or landfill or recycled into something else.  Perhaps a single painting will survive, somewhere, loved by someone, though that person will never know who you were or what your purpose was in making it.  Or a last copy of your book will be found in a second hand book shop, loved and re-read every year by a stranger.

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I bought a painting recently.  It was displayed prominently in the window of a local framers, the biggest thing in the window, in an old garish frame that didn’t complement it.  But the painting transfixed me.  I found it strange and unusual, but it was quite expensive so I walked away.  I passed the painting for another two days on my way to and from work and eventually, I had to take it home.  The framer could tell me nothing about it, or the artist.  I tried to decipher the signature enough to research it without any luck.  Not knowing its history doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of it, but it did make me wonder about its history.  Is the artist alive or dead?  How did they feel when they sold the painting?  Was it, in fact, sold at all or did it end up in some kind of house clearance?  Did the artist have any success, did they give up painting because of a lack of it, or were they simply an amateur that painted purely for enjoyment?

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I watched a documentary recently about Dutch art.  It talked about the subsidies given to artists in the past, which resulted in vast quantities of art being produced, of varying quality.  Most of it is now stored on rolling stacks in a huge warehouse, never to be viewed again.  It strikes me as sad that so much art is produced that will never be seen, so much written that will never be read.  This is the lost and forgotten art, work that took so much effort to produce but will never be valued by the world.  Yet I also find it exciting that there is so much out there that could still be discovered, or re-discovered.  I would like to think that somewhere in the ether, there is a sort of spiritual archive of all the creative work that has ever been produced.  A kind of celestial gallery and library of paintings, books and stories where all of these works still exist for someone to discover.  Or maybe all of this creativity just soaks into the collective unconscious, so that we all benefit from it without really knowing it.

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But don’t we all have our own forgotten art?  The old files or notebooks full of stories never finished.  The discarded sketchbooks and canvases filled with ideas that were never realised.  The work that you completed but didn’t deem good enough to keep.  Things you did as a child but threw away because they were too immature to be any good.  Now that I’m older and have more compassion for myself, I can see the value of these things and sometimes feel grief that I no longer have them.  I wish I had kept at least some of them, not so much for the value of the items in themselves, but because they would illustrate my development as a creative person.  They are part of the history of who I am.

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Even now, when I recognise the value of my own creativity, I don’t always treat my work with respect.  I have paintings stacked in the spare room that should be varnished or framed.  Portions of stories written on scraps of paper and stuck in a drawer.  Files on my computer that aren’t backed up.  But in order for the world to value our work, we need to value it too.  Even if the only gallery it will appear in is a heavenly one, it has worth because of the time and effort invested to produce it.  And that’s the lesson for me.  If I want my work to be remembered, I first have to value it myself.