This may well be the most self indulgent thing you’ve read today, but it is honest.
Remember when you were a kid, peering over into your neighbour’s garden? What wonders exist in those unchartered lands?? Out of bounds, but damn, so exciting! What did curiosity do to the cat?
As a creative you are forever tiptoeing on the fence, but on one side is reality and the other is unknown. In order to tap your imagination you have to rely on reality for your weigh points, or else you can get very lost. It’s not surprising that so many creative people struggle with mental health issues.
It is exciting though. Scaling fences and bringing back something new from beyond. When the storm clouds roll in I hot-foot it back to the other side and shelter beneath an umbrella of coping mechanisms I’ve foraged over the years. Most days the clouds part as quickly as they form, but sometimes they linger. During extended periods of darkness I can feel crippled with anxiety, actively avoiding people in public for fear of not being able to cope with a simple conversation. Even picking up the phone can feel like an impossible task.
My friend Chris knows me better than most. If I’ve been a bit quiet he will message me and ask “busy, or depressed?” The answer is usually busy, but it is also the cure. He understands that MIA for me means Missing In Art. When I feel myself dipping, often the best remedy is to dive into a new drawing. People sometimes confuse the drawing process with creativity, but that part is the execution. Of course there are healthy doses of creative licence thrown in, but the act of focussing on some drawing occupies my mind and, for the most part, keeps me on the right side of the fence.
Keep calm and carry on is terrible advice. Keep calm, yes, and fire up the Aveling!
Stocking filler? Mum?
Art has always been an escape for me. A welcome escape. A healing one, even. I don’t think I was a prodigy of any sort. These artworks are good, but I’ve been sent enough doodles from friends’ children to know they aren’t exactly Monets.
I just drew and painted more than anyone I knew and eventually got pretty good. What is unique to everyone, however, is a creative licence.
I am quite proud of 11 year-old mART for this one.
I look back on those times as some of my happiest and most creative. My friend Ross, a willing collaborator. We stretched our imaginations as far as they would go, but we always had each other and a supportive family network to keep us in check.
I have always been shy. Large gatherings of strangers make me feel quite uncomfortable, particularly if I’m at the centre of attention. Most days the audience comprises of me, myself and mART, and I often really crave that time alone. One of my earliest phrases was “(I want to do it) all by myself”. By the same token I also used to complain about being "all alone and sadly". A walking oxymoron!
Life as an artist is generally quite a lonely existence. Since no one else can do the job, you are forced into spending time alone whether you like it or not.
At work I listen to talk radio for the company. Hearing conversations going on around me (where I don’t have to contribute) is comforting. I would prescribe it to any creative. My station is BBC Radio 5 Live. As I’m often tied to my desk for long hours, it’s also where I get the majority of news from. Nicky, Emma, Elly, Nihal, Tony, Anna, Phil, Adrian, Dotun.. they have no idea what an important role they play in my life.
This may all sound quite extreme to you, and for the most part I am happy. I am quite good at managing my health, and generally consider myself to be a positive person who looks for the best in others. I have never been on anti-depressants, and certainly don't suffer to the extent that Alastair Campbell does for example. When I shared a draft of this with a few close friends for comment, one recommended I watch his documentary - 'Alastair Campbell: Depression and Me'. He talks about his depression having a colour and texture. I imagined it like a thick, heavy curtain descending over him, blocking out the light and distorting his senses. Mine feels opaque by comparison, like bubblewrap on an artwork.
I have rarely talked about my mental health struggles with friends, let alone in public... I don’t like to burden those close to me with added problems, rather it’s in my nature to want to help them instead. Or is it just deflecting? By helping others to solve their problems because I’m really scared to look in the mirror myself? Woah! Maybe.
Kindness is a choice.
Only my closest friends can tell you if I’m a kind person, but it’s definitely a choice, and one I make for a number of reasons, not least because it feels good. It is also a good tactic if you are a sensitive person who wants to avoid conflict at all costs. I have wanted to write a book called ‘the art of being kind’, but imagine the haters that will attract? Who’s this guy who thinks he’s so kind? Boo!
And rightly so. No one is perfect. It would also be a very short book. Be kind, the end.
Listening to people is my favoured stance, and I enjoy it when people open up to me, which happens a lot when you’re not doing much talking. I’m the son of two animal behaviourists, so it may well be an accidental product of my personality that I favour being quiet. I think it has made me a good judge of character though. I have more research to go on.
Networks are very important to me, and I am grateful to be surrounded by positive people (and animals) who keep me anchored in reality. Closest to home is Amy and the rescue terrier, Jack.
Who rescued who?
The network starts with family and grows from there. Some people keep theirs small, others cast a wider net. Both are fine.
Mine is quite large. One reason for that is I decided to be a professional artist. You go at it alone, you’re going to need a lot of friends along the way! I consider my friends to be an extension of my family network, and quite often they are my invested network. I am grateful to any friend who has ever bought an artwork of mine.
Some parallels with my family web are apparent in my social following. My core audience is loyal. They put up with me going away for long periods, but it’s always the same people who engage when I’m back. I don’t know how my Facebook following ballooned to 100K, but it’s shrinking, daily.
So firstly, what do I do about this?!
Awks. That'll teach me!
Loyalty counts for the most though, so I won’t cry tears if I drop bellow 100K. I mean, God forbid!
Generally, I’m a big fan of social media. There are many elements of it I enjoy, but the two things I’ve struggled most with professionally are the time it saps from creating and that feeling of having to put myself front and centre. As well as being an obvious pun on my name the ‘m’ in mART is silent because I mostly prefer to let the art do the talking.
Creator vs creation?
I appreciate that some people are curious and like to know a little more about the person behind the artwork, so I am willing to share certain elements of my life. My views are as relevant as the next person’s, so I try not to preach about topics I know little about (other than being kind, of course. Boooo!). I tend to favour diverting to experts. What ever happened to those peeps?
It doesn’t feel all that natural for me to open up to people outside of my networks, so I try to strike a healthy balance and keep some things in house.
I like Instagram Stories. It’s quick and more authentic. For the most part the posts are less planned. I do try to tell stories with it, but if you’re seeing something from me then I’ve probably had the idea fairly recently. I am quite impulsive when it comes to sharing ideas.
I know I am too sensitive and I am working on it. No matter what, you can’t please everyone, and that’s OK. The best thing you can do is be authentic. Really that should be the easiest path, but fear of judgment can very easily knock you off track. Instagram filters only help to mask those insecurities.
Everyone has mental heath, just like we have physical health. Happiness is cyclical, and what goes up must come down. Naturally we want to share the highlights on social, but the trouble is some people read that as an expectation to be happy all the time, which is not sustainable. I don’t get jealous when I see posts of others enjoying the beach or on safari. I celebrate it!
Social media doesn’t affect my mental health directly, but it takes a lot of time away from the therapy, which is drawing. One spends an awful lot of time speculating when you’re self employed. Sometimes it pays off, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. Social media is not a closed network. It's a giant web with many split ends. We sit on the periphery of other people's networks peering in, but more often than not we're on the wrong side of the cordon. If someone pays me a compliment I feel it's only polite to say thanks. At least with my social network you can be sure it's come from me, as opposed to someone employed to portray my best version. It is sometimes hard to know who is worth investing in though. It's not for a lack of desire, but for a lack of time. Currently my job feels more heavily weighted towards social media than it is towards drawing animals.
The most important job some can do is be a parent. A role I would love to take on one day. Then it’s teachers and life savers. I don’t know where wildlife artist appears on the list, but it’s definitely jumped a few places in recent years.
FRAGILE NETWORKS (raison d'être)
I’m not keeping a healthy mind by watching nature slip away.
Going back to 11 year old mART, at the time this was how I remembered the coral reefs on the Kenyan coast - teaming with biodiversity and colour. 25 years on, my turtle tells a different story altogether.
I feel strongly now that artists are communicators and story tellers. Some people favour words, others sounds. I generally prefer a visual medium, and I want to use it to provide PR for wildlife.
Apart from us, I don’t hear many stories these days about how well one species is doing. Perhaps we’ll allow ourselves a high five with the mountain gorilla? They are now not critically endangered. WOO! Yes. But. They are still very much endangered.
There are countless worthy causes to support, but the environment is one where we all have a vested stake. Even the most ardent climate crisis deniers. Eventually the water line will reach the upper echelons of Trump Towers.
We must act now. We should have acted yesterday.
We can all be influencers for the planet if we just reevaluate our priorities a bit. I don't believe that purism is realistic for many people, and feel that we should be celebrating and encouraging others for the small changes they do make. Mother Nature allows us some give, although it is clear we have stretched her patience to the very limits in recent years. We certainly need to up our game. If we took a more collaborative and kind approach, perhaps we'd all feel a lot healthier for it.