Art and Soul

How are you? Firstly thanks to all the amazing writers who took part in #onesmallthing during lockdown. It was a joyous series and so many people have said it raised their spirits. I hope you enjoyed it.

Now, as lockdown is easing in the UK a lot of people are getting used to a new normal and coping with all the emotions change brings - fear, anger, confusion. But if you're not ready to venture into the world yet, from Grayson's Art Club (still available from Channel 4) to museums and theatres throwing their virtual doors open the arts can show us a way through. I believe the arts are vital for our mental health and we need them more than ever now.

FOCUS ON DETAILS One of my favourite places in Cambridge was Kettle's Yard. You can visit virtually here. The house is a beautiful tranquil space full of modern art and carefully selected natural objects. In its time it played 'open house' to students wanting to learn about art and literature. Jim Ede placed circles of stones around the house and they are every bit as beautiful and potent as the 'official' sculptures around them. Getting out of the house and into nature each day is one of the best lessons in the elusive beauty of simplicity - and at this time of year it is a great excuse to make a nature table with your kids, or emulate Ede and make one of his beautiful stone circles.

KEEP IT SIMPLE In my previous job curating art collections, you could almost time to the second how long it took for some wise-guy to say 'My kid could do that!' as we uncrated the paintings. There's a memorable story about the photographer and Surrealist muse Lee Miller hosting a dinner party where she showed her guests a new Picasso she had bought. Inevitably someone said 'Rubbish! I could do that!' Miller was prepared, and flung open the doors to the next room to reveal canvases and paints awaiting her guests. Sounds fun. She proved her point - it looks easy, but it's not. Maybe you've heard the story about the woman who asked Picasso for a doodle on a napkin? He rocked off an exquisite sketch and said 'that will be a thousand Francs'. She said 'What? For that? It took you a few seconds!' He replied 'No Madam, it took me a lifetime.' Visit the Picasso Museum Barcelona for a virtual tour, or join in one of Grayson Perry's Art Clubs.

TUNE OUT On social media in the arts we hear all the good stuff: who has great new deals, hot new agents, brilliant new books out. We hear about the reviews, and launches, and lunches (pre lockdown), and who is on Richard & Judy, and ... it can all get a bit 'where are my croissants' as a writer friend said the other day if you are working away in your pyjamas with your cat for company and feeling at all fragile and uncertain.  If the online world is getting noisy and putting you off your stride - if it is taking up too much mental space, turn it off for a while. Enjoy the silence and recharge your batteries with something which will refresh you. As Miss Rebecca Chance pointed out, The Metropolitan Opera has nightly streams.

CLEAR THE DECKS What is it that you have been putting off? You know, that thing. What nagging tasks keep popping into your mind taking up valuable creative space? For me, this week I tackled filing. A horrible job, but you know what? It has cleared a big physical and mental space. I feel present, and ready to move on. So - what small steps can you do to clear your mind and your space? While you are doing that, why not listen to an audio book of something on your teetering TBR pile which you  haven't had time to read? Being told a story throws you right back to childhood somehow. If you can't face the filing, forget it, and just curl up with a comforting story. Try Audible's free 30 day trial.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF Not all artists and writers are 'mad, bad and dangerous to know ...' The majority of us hold down day jobs, run households (and several of us regularly write late into the night only to be woken up at 5am by bouncy dogs and children). As Wendy Cope said, with poets there's rather more brown corduroy than Byronic passion - and very few of the successful writers I've met conform to the romantic ideal of half god/addict. I know that Hemingway used to leave his cat babysitting his infant son, but would you? If you are taking care of people, or coping with being alone you need to take care of yourself first - a simple routine, watching your consumption of coffee and alcohol, eating nutritious food, getting decent sleep. Practicing mindfulness - focussing on the here and now when your mind starts spiralling away helps too. Mind has tips and exercises to try.

LET IT GO As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: 'In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted.' We've certainly got disaster and financial chaos all around us - where the arts can come in is countering this with beauty, excellence, and simple pleasures. Get creative - dust off that notebook. One of the most interesting writing exercises I've ever tried was this: write a dialogue between yourself and something - an object, a person, a part of you. Anything that's been taking up mental space or bothering you. For example, if your caffeine addiction/your cronky back/your tiresome relative is causing you grief, you might begin: 'What is it with you coffee/back/etc?' then write their response. Just let the words flow - it's surprising what comes up, and children love this exercise too. This kind of personal essay as debate has been used since Seneca's time, and it's a valuable tool.

As we take small steps back to our lives it can all feel rather overwhelming. But you are enough as you are. Getting through each day is enough. Perhaps focussing one One Small Thing every day is the way to go. Look for one thing bringing you joy, or that you're grateful for. Or perhaps finish one small task which will make your life better. Some fallow time where you let the arts work their magic could be just what you need to lift your spirits. And if you are looking for something to read with art at its heart, why not try TheHouse of Dreams which is 99p for a limited time. Inspired by the true story of the 'artists' Schindler' it gained a Booklist starred review: 'Brown brings a cinematic sensibility to her writing, making the long-ago exploits of Fry and his cohorts pulse with life, with an ever-present sense of danger looming overhead. There is much to admire about this novel and its strong cast of characters, most of all its portrayal of the cost--and legacy--of real courage.'

Just as we need art, our galleries and theatres need our support to survive. If you've come across an amazing art resource during lockdown, perhaps you'd like to share it in the comments? 

Take care, stay safe, stay well.


  1. Oooh, some delicious links and ideas here... (That dialogue with an inanimate object sounds just right-sized. A further challenge: it cannot be an inanimate object one normally talks to, curses at, etc. No arguing with the computer! No fulmination over the toaster which persists in forgetting the light/dark setting you painstakingly adjusted it to last time! Etc.)

    Thank you, Kate!

    Art resources, well, I signed up for the paid version of the Great Courses (streaming) program. While the lectures I've got queued up and am periodically diving into aren't exclusively art-related, I have signed up for a follow-along-with-me course in drawing (!trepidation!), and several exploring one aspect or another of photography. And then there are cultural-type courses, e.g. on Greek history and cultural, which are heavily salted with lots of art exploration.

    Thank you again for your continued inspiration. I know I don't comment often, but your bits cropping up especially in the Instagram feed are a genuine highlight!

    1. Thank you, John - good to hear you are enjoying the posts


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