Author Archives: Chris

Waste products in the back passage

I have drawn my garden and my street so many times I can’t generate any enthusiasm for yet another try – whereas the back alley is virgin territory – as far as sketching goes, I mean. It certainly doesn’t have a virginal look about it, even though these sketches make it look cleaner and tidier than it is.

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Here the wheelie bin rules, along with difficult to dispose of hard-core, building materials and general rubbish. In my newfound role as psychogeographer-cum-urban-sketcher, I found myself pondering the links between the wheelie bin, consumerism, capitalism, and of course, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, psychogeography, sketching – the words don’t roll off the tongue easily, but there is a fluid interchange between the three areas as far as I am concerned.

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There is probably a long established sociological discourse on the wheelie bin, but apart from this interesting research project[i], I haven’t been able to track much down yet. So these are my uninformed thoughts!

The rise of the wheelie bin could be a metaphor for the rise of consumerism and an encroachment on the public by the private. Somewhere in the 1990’s it came to replace a system where ‘bin men’ – local government employees, collected metal bins, emptied and returned them to our gardens and backyards. Now it is the householders’ responsibility to take the wheelie bins to the public space of the pavement or roadside, and the ‘binmen’, working for private contractors, empty them and return them to any point along the street.

Many recycling centres – shared facilities- have gradually been overshadowed by roadside collections. Rubbish is a private affair, unlike for example, the French system where rubbish is taken to a communal area. Litter in the street is now deemed the responsibility of the council, whereas my grandparents would sweep the pavement outside of their house and expect the neighbours to do the same.

The size of the wheelie bin – about one and a half times that of the old dustbins –has legitimised a significant increase in waste as we buy more and more Stuff, along with its packaging. The way we handle rubbish illustrates the break down of a sense of community and shared ownership, the rise of consumerism and the packaging industry as well as the commercialisation of disposal. Waste is big business.

All this can be discretely ignored if you live in a large enough house to have a side entrance, or a large front garden to conceal your wheelie bins. Those in Victorian terraces with no/ tiny front gardens are forced to live with the bins as permanent plastic Daleks by their front door, who in time become disregarded and ‘normal’.CCI24082015_2

In the 1990’s too, my local alleyways were gated as a ‘security’ measure, no longer pedestrian pathways though the Victorian Edwardian housing stock. They passed from public into private space; a space where by and large, it was possible to deposit and forget any inconvenient truths – like the link between our consumption and climate change, for example. Again, the wider the alley (posher houses) the greater the space available. Poorer people can’t get away from their rubbish so easily, it would seem. If you can afford a new build however, Eric Pickles came to your rescue with new building regulations, which, whilst freeing developers of some inconvenient requirements to consider the environment, insisted that wheelie bins must have their own dedicated space.[ii]

So what about psychotherapy? Putting our emotional rubbish out of sight and trying to forget about it is a familiar story in all our lives. What we most fear to acknowledge is the back story, where our own culpabilities and shameful secrets lie at the bottom of the wheelie bin, concealed by more acceptable rubbish. The bad things people have done to us, traumas inflicted by others, are terrible enough, but our own cruelties and complicities are often more painful to acknowledge.

We are generally ashamed of our bodily functions, of mess, shit, pus, semen, vomit. We have designed a sewage system to sweep these down to the sea and beyond – where they can poison somebody or something else. But there are other things that won’t fit down the toilet that linger in our back alleyways and wheelie bins. Humans are messy, capable of unspeakable horrors that although repressed, damage the self, others and society. [iii]

It is one of the great strengths of group psychotherapy that it can provide a space where this distressing, painful remembering can take place, witnessed by others struggling with their own back stories of mess. Acknowledging culpability, discovering regret, facing up to past actions and the responses of others – not just the therapist – can begin a process of re-integration and healing.

Look again at the wheelie bin. What can it tell us?

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[i] No. 08-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series – ISSN 1479-5124 Hidden mountain: The social avoidance of waste Edd de Coverly, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson

[ii] Architects Journal 13 May 2015 G.Wilkinson 

[iii] Phil Wood writes about Lviv and the related attempt to forget the inconvenient and bloody history of genocide, in Walking Inside Out, ed, T. Richardson.

The urban psychogeographer-sketcher

Sketchers need to have their eyes open; the act of looking closely at the environment is fundamental. But we all see something different, have different styles, and draw a multiplicity of truths about the same street scene. The mantra of ‘draw what you see, not what you think you see’, has limited value, it seems to me, if it carries any implication that there is a correct version that we can all agree on. Of course it is vital to get beyond the assumptions that we ‘know’ what something looks like – but what emerges is never a ‘correct’ version but rather an unlimited number of unique drawings.

As a beginner I have been trying to ‘draw what I see’, and in the words of the urban sketchers manifesto, ‘be truthful to the scenes we witness.’

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But more and more I realise that I want to draw something more. This part of the manifesto I find far more appealing: – ‘Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.’ Telling a story seems to liberate me from the challenge of accurate reproduction; it catapults me forwards into new possibilities, and takes me right back to the drawings that I did years ago … and here we bump up against that word ‘doodle’ – yet again! This is what my sketchbook looks like lately – a mixture of this –

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and this…..CCI05072015

 

All this has been illuminated by my reviewing ‘Walking Inside Out’  a wonderful book edited by Tina Richardson about contemporary British psychogeography. It’s a stimulating mixture of academic and literary contributions, all emphasising the impact of the physical environment on our identity.  Where and how we live, our sense of place and belonging are all bound into our relationships with others, and make us who we are. We all have an internal psycho-social landscape.

Psychogeography encourages us to look closely at what is around us, throw away the map and explore the marginal spaces, opening our eyes to the way in which we have become habituated to surveillance, social control, privatisation and consumerism. Along the way, it is witty, playful and somewhat anarchic – I thoroughly recommend it, especially to urban sketchers with social constructionist leanings.

Psychogeographers are trying to capture the emotional resonances, the social history, the political forces that permeate the streets that they walk. Like urban sketchers, they are physically in the environment they are trying to understand, experience, and describe. It seems to me that there is an alliance here that could be very productive and creative – the urban sketcher- psychogeographer; the psychogeographical urban sketcher. Maybe I could join a group – or even start one up?

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

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!