Author Archives: Chris

Fresh eyes and new perspectives

Urban sketching has taken off since last July’s course in Oxford.  Firstly, there has been another 3 day Urban Sketchers workshop based in Coventry, and secondly two of us have organised SketchCoventry, a monthly group that does just what it’s name says.

Although I’ve lived here for over 15 years, I’ve never felt particularly attached to Coventry, so when Jo Roberts and I were working on the ‘home’ project, I was very clear that Coventry was just a place that by chance I had ended up in and no more.

The 3-day workshop was all about perspectives, and it attracted quite a few sketchers who had never been to Coventry, as well as some locals like myself. We began in the Old Cathedral, abandoning any attempt at a classic perspective, which was such a liberating way to begin!

 

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Other challenges included drawing without looking at the paper – the basis for this sketch of the cafe at The Herbert Art Gallery.

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We tried a fish eye lens perspective, which was really difficult for me, as well as wrestling with the more familiar vanishing point version.

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All the while I could hear other perspectives on Coventry itself from my fellow sketchers. Their reactions were very surprising! I expected them to rave about the market, Coventry’s jewel in the crown, but their appreciation of some other aspects came as a shock. My favourite comment came from a Danish woman who described the city as a “fascinating blend of the brutal and mediaeval”!

Seeing the familiar and disregarded through the eyes of others made me appreciate the city in a way that I hadn’t managed before. It’s like taking someone you’ve known for ages to a party and discovering that other people find them new and exciting. We can think that we know someone so well that there is nothing that they can say or do that will surprise us. We are sure we have exhausted all the possibilities, which can be comforting but inevitably dull. Then some one else is introduced into the picture and we realise that, after all, there were things we didn’t know or hadn’t seen.

Put a new member into a therapy group and listen in amazement as some long standing member talks about an aspect of their life that you have never heard of! Watch them shine or shrink and marvel at their transformation! Beware of thinking that you know someone ‘through and through’, whether this is you partner, parent, child – or even long-term client! Other people bring fresh perspectives that challenge our own limited vision.

We put people and places into boxes and are boxed up ourselves. Being able to open them, see round the corners, re-evaluate, is central to psychotherapy . Sketching too is a great way to re-engage with the familiar. It requires us to look at what is there rather than assume we already know what it looks like. And just in case we get too complacent about our new vision, a glance at all the other sketchbooks reinforces that there is always more to see.sketchcoventry 7 - pm drawings

 

PS. There are more sketches making their way onto the Urban Sketching page – I haven’t found a way to post blogs on both pages yet!

 

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What does home mean to you?

What does home mean to you?

We wrote this in the middle of a large blank sheet of paper, expecting that there would be few if any people who might answer the question.

“Home is where the heart is’, I added on a sticky note, just for encouragement.

So began the end of the Home project that  Jo Roberts  and I have been working on for some months. To draw it to a conclusion we had decided  (Jo’s idea) to offer to talk about what we had been doing and display the work that had been created along the way. This was very new territory for me… a sort of road show where the talk and discussion took centre stage, and the “art” was just the backdrop.

Jo planned to talk about how her childhood home eventually became a house, and her ‘grown-up’ house turned into a home – something that involved a real life pilgrimage. We put up the work that we had produced, and failed miserably to take a decent photo!FullSizeRender

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I ‘d realised that I had been drawn to this project because I was already working on related themes, so some of the display featured completed works. There were a number questions I was asking myself and the audience: The acrylic paintings in the “leaving” series visually asked ‘what have we lost?’IMG_0237The grey landscape that stirred up very conflicting responses was in part about searching – ‘what are we looking for?’IMG_0203One response to this question – warmth and companionship, presented itself in the ‘woodburner’ series of sketches and prints:IMG_0230 Another – stillness and that which lies within – found its way into the linoprints. IMG_0233Finally, ‘what do we fail to see’ was illustrated by sketches from my recent ‘urban sketching’ course in Coventry – more about that later!

All these questions, in various guises, come up again and again in any long term psychotherapy.They are fundamental recurring themes in the attempt to make sense of our lives and those around us.

Amazingly, over thirty people turned up. …some at the Althorpe Studios in Leamington, and some at Rugby Art Gallery.. and we explored a fascinating range of topics. People shared their experiences of feeling at home, whether in houses or landscapes or with loved ones, and touched upon moving memories. We discussed our attachments to places, people and things, intrusions and invasions, domestic objects, and cars!

We thought about how emotional security has become entwined with the physical home, the cultural and historical baggage around home ownership and the changing patterns brought about by the financial downturn. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity and the challenge to think more about the cultural, socioeconomic, political and historical context for the identification of house with home.

I came away with the big sheet of paper, now covered in sticky notes. Home means ….

“ where my partner is”

“deciduous woodlands”

“inside”

“rural England”

“where all the family come together”

“woodlands”

“somewhere I feel comfortable”

‘my safe haven where people I love live”

‘my stability, a power base and ultimate comfort and joy”

‘a half forgotten place far away in time and life’

“memories, emotions, investment of love”

‘security, warmth, love, safety”

“a yearning to close the door”

and finally

“comfort, security, and a place to grow beetroots”….

 

 

These are some of Jo’s works – more on her website.IMG_3212 IMG_3213

 

 

Searching for home in dark places

The word ‘home’ is dripping with emotional colour. It evokes so many images, tangled with family, security, memory – and all so different for each one of us. I’ve been collaborating with Jo Roberts on a project called just that – ‘Home’ – and it has led us down some very diverse pathways.

I am interested in the feeling tone, the emotions that the word conjures up; a sense of security, of comfort, of being held, of belonging, of things being alright, for example. Because of who I am and what I do, however, it is the absence rather than the presence of these elements that strikes me most forcibly. Most of my working life is spent trying to come to terms with and ameliorate the effects of the lack, the loss or the inadequacy of the emotional ‘home’.

Psychotherapy as I understand it is a relationship between therapist and client that emotionally involves all parties. As a therapist, my own personal experiences are very relevant – although I don’t usually talk about them, they inform my understanding and responses. I can travel to some dark places with people and feel ‘at home’! In the world of therapy, that all seems unremarkable, and it is only recently that I have begun to appreciate that these dark places, translated into my new ‘art’ world, have a different impact.

Maybe it’s a peculiarity of the art groups I belong to, but there don’t seem many gloomy or miserable images in the room. Cheery blue skies, winding lanes, sun -dappled paths, copied holiday photos, and a spattering of flowers. It took me a while to realise that I was a bit out of step.IMG_0203

Searching for Home

‘Hope you’re not still feeling like that’, someone said, looking at my grey landscape.

There has been a lot of publicity lately about mental health, and how as a society we need to be more tolerant and less fearful of the wide range of psychological struggles that are going on in those around us – and how we need to invest to create a decent healthcare system that responds to this need. There is still a stigma lurking around ‘mental illness’ despite efforts to overturn this, and once outside of my familiar world of counselling and psychotherapy, I can sense it. It has taken me by surprise, this subtle pressure to tidy away the darker and messier bits of myself lest they cause any disturbance to others.

Much of the pressure comes from myself of course, because I have internalised those unspoken rules about what makes an acceptable person. We absorb these rules in the process of becoming a member of any society, without even being aware of it, and this process of internalisation is brilliantly efficient at maintaining the existing definitions of who and what is acceptable. The gold standard person is still white, male, heterosexual, of a certain social class, of ‘sound body and mind’ – and those of us who fail the test in any or all parts have to struggle with our own harsh self judgments.

Maybe an important part of the definition of ‘home’ is a sense of acceptance; home is a place where we can put down the burden of self-criticism and feel comfortable, however and whoever we are. How on earth do I do that in a painting, I wonder?

 

 

 

Safety in numbers? Sketching with the group.

There’s been a lot happening on the urban sketching scene since I last wrote. Inspired by the Oxford workshop, we have set up a small group who have met 4 times now to ‘SketchCoventry’. We are lucky to have an excellent art gallery, The Herbert, where we meet up, and it looks as if there may well be an Urban Sketchers workshop here in Coventry next April! This is timed to coincide with the exhibition Recording Britain that is touring the country and which I caught up with last year in Sheffield. It feels good to be involved in such a fascinating project, and amazing to think that it has all come about thanks to three of us pushing at some doors and finding that they opened!

We are a small group so far, but that feels fine to me. We meet up for coffee, decide where we are drawing and sometimes split into smaller groups; then we join up for lunch to look at the sketches. In the afternoon there is another foray, followed by more refreshments and more learning from each other’s drawings. It is very flexible and friendly, with ex-Oxford workshop sketchers making the effort to come from London, Shrewsbury and Banbury. Last 12 Months - 21

The Herbert Gallery was having a WW1 ‘family day (!) so there were lots of children clutching huge tissue paper poppies that they had made.

Sketching out in public is still a challenge, but is transformed by the group effect. I don’t feel nearly so conspicuous or vulnerable when there are two or three people drawing nearby. We give each other a sense of security and confidence; it seems that as a group we are far less likely to be interrupted or criticised than on our own. I wonder whether this is objectively the case or is something that, like a placebo, just makes us feel good.Sketch Cov2

We huddled together on the sofas in ‘Fargo Village’ to draw one of the vintage clothes stall.

The idea that there is ‘safety in numbers’ is set against a range of fears about the dangers of groups and I can see this good group/ bad group split in my therapy group too. The good version brings mutual understanding and support; the other side is the capacity to cut deep, to ignore, reject and challenge. This all reminded me of an article that I wrote for Therapy Today some time ago, and when I checked it out, this is what I found –

“Joining a group is rarely an emotionally neutral event. It holds both a promise and a threat. Depending on the sort of group, it may promise learning, companionship, support, relationship, and intimacy, for example. But it also contains a threat – of isolation, humiliation, lack of autonomy, domination, dependence, and attack. The relative force of ‘promise’ or ‘threat’ is shaped by the particular nature of the group itself, and by our previous experiences of group life.”

As far as SketchCoventry goes, there is a lot of promise and very little threat. Having said that I recognise how anxious any newcomers are about the quality of their own sketches – just like I was in Oxford last summer. The possibility of humiliation feels real, even though it is far more likely to be some internal critical voice of our own than anyone in the group. This I am sure connects with our previous, probably early, experiences in groups. It’s hard to find anyone who does not have a tale of being humiliated at school, for example…. and as for the family, that’s a whole other story brewing up for the next post!

How do we learn anything new?

How do we learn anything new?

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The sketching highlight of the summer for me has been the Urban Sketchers 3 day workshop, ‘Pushing your Sketching Boundaries’ in Oxford. I was quite apprehensive before I got there, thinking I had put myself in a group that were far more advanced – all the usual anxious fantasies that everyone else would be brighter, shinier, more talented, successful etc. etc. As it turned out, some of them were indeed just that, but on the whole I didn’t stand out as particularly incompetent. In fact, it was a great experience, and certainly did what it said in terms of pushing my own boundaries.

As a workshop it had some interesting characteristics that set it apart from the counselling/psychotherapy workshops that I am used to. Right from the start we were assigned groups and given a timetable. No options, no negotiations. I was happy to comply, pleased that it was so well organised – but the expectation that we would work through both the morning and afternoon sessions without a break was a step too far. (After years of group therapy my concentration span is fixed at an hour and a half!) Not that there was any problem in wandering off to grab a drink from the many coffee shops around, but I was consciously trying not to follow my default pattern of group rebel!

But the most fascinating thing for me was the teaching style. I am so used to… ‘ perhaps I could suggest? or… ‘that’s a very interesting way of looking at this, but I wonder if we can refocus upon the topic here?’ or… ‘let’s try to let go of what we think we know for a moment and look again’… and so forth, all set in a context of choices and options. Here we were told what to do, given a time frame and were expected to get on with it! There was a big cultural factor at play: the tutors were all Spanish and although their English vocabulary was fine, they weren’t fluent in the English ways of ‘not saying what you mean’. Recognising the cultural difference was helpful in restraining my inner rebel, and the outcome was that I ended up doing a lot of things that I didn’t want to do. How else do you push boundaries and learn anything new?

For all the circumlocutions and massaging of egos that might go on in some of my own workshops, I know that the key learning experiences come out of discomfort. Staying in the comfort zone gives security, not growth, and at some point has to be challenged. For that reason I always include some form of role play. I can hear you groan! Yes, I know, so many people hate it … but guess what? In the feedback it is always the most cited example of what has been useful learning. And as the tutor this is the point where negotiation ends. This is what we are going to do, and even if we have to wait for ‘volunteers’ for an uncomfortable length of time, we are doing it!

Do we ever expand our horizons by staying in a familiar and safe place? We need to find a balance between security and discomfort if we are to learn – too much of either can paralyse our capacity to grow.

So in the end I learnt a lot from having to draw in ways I don’t like, which I am not ‘good at’, whilst standing in public places feeling uncomfortable and exposed. I was  really pleased with the sketch at the top of the page –  not my usual style at all!   The tutors all worked hard to give us individual attention and helpful feedback, and gained our appreciation and affection in the course of the 3 days. In fact, we were so inspired that a group of us are now getting together to organise a day’s sketching in Coventry, and even playing with the possibility of an Urban Sketching workshop here in 2015.

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Mad machines, mad times.

Rowland Emmett is probably best known as the creator of the fantastic machines in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, although that represents a fraction of his work. The current exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery brings together a substantial collection of both his drawings and machines, many of which have not been seen in public for many years, if ever.

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Emmett was an artist and designer who had a highly successful career as a cartoonist and illustrator. The collection in the exhibition demonstrates his impressive skills. A child of a comfortable, upper middle-class family, grandson to Queen Victoria’s engraver, he was highly tuned to the distinctions of class. His machines poke gentle fun at the golfers and aviators, the tea drinkers and the toast eaters.

He was fascinated with trains and invented a fantasy railway company that featured engines with personality such as Nellie. After the First World War, he was commissioned to translate his cartoon railway into reality at the Festival of Britain show in London. Initially reluctant, he agreed and his miniature railway became one of the hits of the show.[i]

The exhibition is fascinating, fun, and informative. Although full of children when I went, it was the adults who appeared most delighted, grinning ear to ear. The children looked slightly bemused, for it is redolent with the last century, rather than this.2014-05-28 12.39.40

Anyone with an interest in drawing and design will enjoy this, but it also captures the psychotherapist in me. What was going on in the imagination of this man? He was born in 1909 and lived through two world wars, dying in 1960. He worked in aircraft design in Birmingham during the Second World War and his daily life must have been immersed in war. In response, seemingly, he created a fantasy world in exquisite detail of Edwardian ladies and gentlemen and railway lines. There is no anger, aggression or violence in any of his works: they are gentle, witty, charming, and fascinatingly clever. Cogs, levers, arms and pedals animate a series of characters and repeating motifs: cats, birds, teapots and flowers all wait to be identified in the cacophony of moving parts.

The exhibition includes a televised interview between Roland Emmett and Malcolm Muggeridge, where Muggeridge applied the adjective ‘mad’ to Emmett’s machines. In response, Emmett said that he thought the machines were very sane. It was the people who were mad – and it is easy to see how he might think that living through the times that he did.

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(i) I wonder if the fascination with railways is a peculiarly British affair. Dad/Grandad’s miniature train layout in the attic is the standard cliché of middle class post war England: Thomas the Tank Engine has delighted and entertained thousands of us: The Railway Children must be one of the most successful films made. What about Murder on the Orient Express? Then I think of Turner’s beautiful painting and our national love affair with the steam train. What is it about trains? Whatever it is, it certainly hooked Roland Emmett. The psychoanalytic interpretation of our fascination with trains would make interesting reading. I must do some research here!