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Monday 12 September 2011

The Old Age Art Project - An Experiment In Creative Blocks

Elena is one of my closest friends. I've known her for twelve years. Our lives are quite different these days -- she works long hours in a supermarket and I am making films. When we can, we meet up for a tea and catch up on each others lives and chat about days gone by. 

And then we talk about our careers. In fact, we met up this time because Elena is getting a bit restless in her job and wants to move on to something new. We planned to meet up, drink some tea, and then I would help her craft her new C.V, ready to send out to potential employers. We talked about potential jobs and where she saw herself working. 

The thing you need to know about Elena, is that she's a very talented artist. I've seen the stuff she did in her teens -- it was amazing. Extremely creative and unusual -- she really had her own style. But somewhere along the way, the creativity stopped. Life got in the way, and the paintbrushes dried solid. Whenever we meet up -- inevitably we get on to talking about art. We're quite similar in our creative thoughts and ideals. The difference being that I create a lot more work than she does. In recent years, she hasn't been creating anything at all. Whenever the thought arises, she instantly blocks it out, dismisses it, and moves on to other things. Whether it's distractions, commitments, or plain old self-sabotage -- she's never able to be creative. 

As we talked about potential career moves, it was very obvious to me that sitting in front of me is a talented artist. Underpinning all the thoughts about job changes and mortgages and bills is the fact that there's an artist bursting with talent. The problem is, that artist has been stuffed away and lost. Occasionally, she pops up and picks up a paintbrush or a pencil, but she's soon knocked down again by the world, and by herself. 

As we sat there drinking tea and eating pancakes -- I ripped off a piece of paper from my notebook and said "I want you to draw something about an old person and pancakes. You have three minutes."

I handed it over to her. She said no. Dismissed the idea. Her creativity doesn't work like that. I understood; neither does mine. So I ripped out two more pages and said "Tell me what to do and I'll write a two page scene." She said "Old people and feet." I wrote the scene immediately. It wasn't my best work ever, but I'd written it. I completed the task. 

I handed her my pen and offered these words: "Old age. Pancakes." She took the pen and paper and began working. I relaxed and browsed my Twitter feed. 

Three minutes later, she had created this:

What do you think? I think that's talent. Three minutes with my old pen and a piece of scrap paper. I loved it. 

I said that we should do a bigger project. Elena gave me her cute grumpy look which means NO WAY. Elena can be a perfectionist with her work. A huge reason that she doesn't create is because of how demanding her inner-critic is. When she creates, it has to be greatness. So I took the pressure off. I told her that the project will be anonymous and I'll share it on the blog. That way, even if it sucks, you won't know it's her personally. 

I gave her five scraps of paper and my pen. My rules were that she must create five drawings in a one week period, all on the topic of 'Old Age'. I also insisted that she use these scraps of paper and the pen that I gave her. If the drawings sucked? If they were useless? That's fine. The project is not about perfection, it's merely about creating. 

A week later, she gave me back the completed project. Her first art-work in years.

After it was completed, I interviewed Elena about the process. 

Prior to when we met up -- when was the last time you created a piece of art?

To be honest I doodled a little self portrait (from behind) maybe a week before this project. It came out of feeling totally frustrated that I couldn't just DO something. And then I did. It was small and weak looking but that corresponded with how I was feeling at that moment in time.

What has stopped you from doing it for so long?

Whenever I think abut drawing or creating anything my mind predictably connects back to a time in school when things were just awful for me, emotionally. I just cant seem to detach the way I was feeling and the things that happened back then, to make me lose faith in my sense of self, from present day life. It is a struggle to just do something and not stop half way through and tear it to pieces, both mentally and physically.

What is your ideal setting/environment for doing creative work?

I used to think I had an environment. Like I know at a previous time in life it was all about turning the music up and blocking outside family noise and just being with myself and the way I felt. But for this project I found myself doodling in the garden with my coffee and in the company of my fiance while he played me the most recent album on his iPhone. It seems that I needed to be in a calm state, ready for things to flow. Far different from the way it used to be.

How did you feel when I handed you a piece of paper and said 'You have three minutes to draw something about an old person?'

So unbelievably under pressure I could have cried. In fact I felt myself get all teary eyed! Thinking any minute now I am going to explode from this overwhelming fear. All over a 2 minute doodle.

How did you feel after you had created it?

Unsure, and nervous awaiting your reaction. It seems I'm not happy with having just done something creative; it has to be approved of and liked and blah di blah... But after I took a few deep breaths and realised that I liked it even if you didn't, (I did..), I felt elated! Thrilled that I'd managed to not run away from the paper, pen and expectation.

When I first mentioned doing the 'Old Age Art Project' and handed you five scraps of paper, what did you think?

'Is he being serious?'

'Doodles on scraps of paper? Is that really art? Especially if it was done by me. A no-establishment trained ''artist'''?

Then I thought, Fuck it! Why not. Even if they never get seen by anyone else other than myself I will know I did it. I was set a project and I did it.

Was you confident about doing it? Did you think you'd complete the task?

Initially I was excited and positive and full of this self belief. I never doubted that I could complete the task. The resistance I felt towards actually drawing on the last piece of paper was surprising and almost silly.

Where did you get your ideas from?

Some were memories, some were from what I saw around me and some were just from my mind. The old man with his iPod and the carnival queen came about from thinking that these ''old people'' were us. They were youth and they have these whole lives that we disregard or don't even contemplate.

What was it like working with a deadline?

Good. Exhilarating. 

Are you happy with what you created?

Yes. Some I'm more proud of than others.

Which one is your favourite?

The old man and the seaside couple.

Has this project helped you/your art in any way?

It has made me want to devote more time to creating. I still find it hard to make myself sit down and not allow the distractions of everyday stuff whisk me away from self-development

  • The hardest thing is sitting down to do the work. 
  • Have a deadline. 
  • Don't let your imperfect location/mindset be an excuse for not doing the work. 

Elena is a great artist. It's a shame to me that she's been stopping herself from creating for so long. This is what we do as artists. This blog is richer for having published her scrap paper drawings. Art matters. The drawings exist for the mere reason that she drew them. If she didn't draw them then she wouldn't have drawn them and you wouldn't have seen them. Think of all the things that you've never seen because artists stopped themselves from playing, experimenting and creating. 

You don't need a big canvas or an expensive camera or a big money offer to create art. Use scrap paper. Use a camera phone. Use things you find in the garden. 

Now some questions for you. What do you think of this experiment? What do you think of Elena's work? 


  1. I'd say that everyone got to create during this experiment. It was a win-win for all involved. Elena had to go back to drawing and creating, that's obvious. She is talented and has a "voice," expressed through her drawings. As for you, you created a very unique post on your blog, based on an interview, but it includes so much more. Very entertaining and motivating read for me. Merci. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. I think the experiment worked well for Elena. I know I couldn't create what she did if I was given a whole month. I can understand why she felt under pressure at first and did not want to initially do the project but it's good that she was pleased with her work and achievement. Sometimes it takes someone pushing you to bring out your creative side. I would love to see more of her work.

  3. I think she has a talent that I hope she's got the spark back to explore further. And I think you are an awesome friend and the kind of person I'd want to be. This is a truly wonderful blogpost from many different aspects. Thank you for writing it.

  4. This is fantastic. Such a great idea, especially since your friend is such a talented artist. Totally inspiring for others who feel like they want to create, but just can't get past the "want" stage.

  5. I like this idea. Sometimes all you need is a good kick in the pants to get your creative juices flowing, and it looks like it worked well for Elena. Who cares if she didn't create the Mona Lisa? These works are thoughtful and fun to look at, and best of all, they never existed before!

    You should set up an assignment for your blog followers this week! I'm up for a challenge.

  6. Fantastic! Great idea, awesome outcome!
    Thanks you two for the inspiration your art and writing has given me today!

  7. Wow this thing is like a greatness and one of a kind post!! Truly inspiring to read and the drawings are actually very good!

  8. I think this has to be one of the best posts you have ever done. It spoke volumes to me, not only Elena's drawings but the interview that followed. I identified completely with what she had to say, about the blocks about making a living are put in your way. The lines about how it used to be about turning up the music and blocking out family particularly meant something to me. In a large family (I'm the eldest of 7) I could do that as a teenager so easily.

    It was only by moving to Ireland I could get away from the things blocking me. I hope Elena doesn't have to take such drastic steps.

    She is lucky to have such a good friend as yourself, to challenge yet understand what is holding her back. I wish her lots of luck and I would love to see more of her work. Please tell her "She had the softest hands" really moved me.