Towards an idea

by Helen Barker

This week I moved into my studio at Bloc, Sheffield. It was an exciting time, moving boxes and books and bits of wood into a brand new space that holds so much possibility. For quite a while now I have been avoiding the inevitable – the moment at which you stop looking in the mirror and start looking at your shoes, your arms, and your fingernails. The moment at which you confront your work and ask it what it’s really about, and why you really make it. I moved into my studio to ask myself these big questions, and to confront the issue of why I find it so difficult to make anything these days.

Today, I picked up my walking sticks and took my first steps toward climbing the big mountain. I opened a notebook and began to write. When nothing else works, writing fills my mind like language let loose from a cattle ranch, stampeding across the valleys of my mind. I am determined to write myself out of this hole. Whatever is stopping me from producing work (years of counterproductive education, possibly) will be undone. Whatever is tying my mind in knots and shutting down creative avenues with heavy bolted doors and big brick walls, will be thrown over. In writing, ideas join hands like children crossing a busy street, bustling with enthusiasm and wonder. I see them reach the other side and chatter to one another about a multitude of interests. I see them devour their surroundings with gusto. I see them breathe new life to those who pass by. In writing, I find answers to riddles I never knew I had.

Through writing I will work towards an idea.

I began to think about the importance of ideas today when I was writing in my notebook. I began to write and I began to uncover the first few rocks at the bottom of the mountain path….

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Yesterday David Brian Smith started ‘following’ me on Twitter. Today I had a look at who he is and what he does. He is, in fact, an artist. A painter to be more precise, based in London and rapidly climbing the cultural cliff of “ones-to-watch”. Represented by the Carl Freedman gallery, Saatchi owns some of his work and he has three solo exhibitions to his name (as far as my research can tell).

There was something that struck me about David Brian Smith’s work. I found myself lingering over the gallery website, looking through the images of his work again and again. His paintings depicted a repeated image of a Shepherd, with his head bent downwards, stood by his flock of sheep. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking his work somewhat decorative, or ‘sugar coated’. But if you look properly, you will find that there is something of the uncanny lurking in his canvases, and the dreamscapes, broken shapes and artificially injected colour collisions, bury themselves deep beneath your skin.

As an artist, I think there is something remarkably liberating about allowing yourself a parameter to work within. Lines to be reckoned with, sizes to be bartered with, walls to be leaned against. The attraction of the ‘given’ certainly seems to be something that Smith’s work pulls and pushes against. The image of the Shepherd is used several times, and hesitates on the brink of iconography. But skies, grounds, sheep and man are subject to alterations and deviations, as leaking colours open up spaces and blocks of form close them down again. There is a daring quality here which goes hand in hand with the unpredictability of the spiritual, rather than the earthly, dimension.

I wanted to write about David Brian Smith’s work because when I found it, I was surprisingly reassured. Someone out there, it seems, is taking a step into the unknown through the familiar. Smith’s Shepherd stems from the autobiographical roots of his work, drawing on influences from his childhood and family life. Using a striking image to contain the outward motion of vivid experimentation, he allows his subject matter to be both personal and radical at the same time. Recently, I was given a piece of advice; “Work from your feet upwards”.  Smith’s work reiterated this sentence in my mind, reminding me that stepping out with what you know can often be the route towards the great unknown.

Something else I would like to mention, briefly, is the film Inception. I have been meaning to watch this film for some time, and yesterday I finally got around to seeing it. Aside from all the wonderful explorations of dream sharing, which I won’t go into now, I was particularly taken with the film’s notion of tracing or planting an idea in someone’s mind. The movie delves into the world of dreams where rules are bent, abstracted, removed or just broken. Anything can happen – anything can take us by surprise. The film follows a group of people who try to plant an idea in the mind of another so that he thinks it is genuinely his. True inspiration. The mind is a cavernous place in which we can all too easily become trapped. Creative potential is examined in the form of the architect, who has the power to create everything from nothing in the form of dreams. The worlds that the architect launches can sometimes be from memory – but only in part, as to recreate life is to trap yourself in a parallel world from which you can never truly know if you have escaped. These worlds, places or cities are then populated by the projections and subjectivity of those who enter the dream.

As I watched the film, I saw the dream world as a paradoxical work of art – or, perhaps more accurately, an act of creativity in process. Something that an artist might strive to achieve – a new world built from the ruins of an old one. And that world might encompass or provoke or allow an idea to grow. An idea might be the reason we perform this creative act, it might be the pursuit of our creative act – perhaps we are in search of cerebral ecstasy, creating in order to stumble upon true inspiration. And as people witness, participate in or comment on our creative pursuits, they project their own ideas and insecurities onto our screens. But as artist we are not only the architect of our dreams, we are the inhabitors searching for a way to perform our own inception, a way to plant the seed of an idea we can nourish and grow into something even better.

‘The idea’ so easily becomes the stumbling block and the goal of our intentions. In writing I often feel the idea come towards me like a train, whistling at high-speed. I can only hope to catch it. In drawing, I feel its rough form or shape long before I see it, moving much more slowly into view. In drawing I am allowed to push, mould and alter the idea as it comes into view. Perhaps the reluctance of its speed is one reason why drawing, to me, can seem so comparatively precious next to writing. Writing hurtles past me like a freight train. I rarely have to wait. Drawing is shy, quieter, less frequent. I have to seek it out with another tool. The question I am left with tonight is; can a drawing be born from an idea which resides in language?

I am aware that this text has rambled slightly out of frame. But the reason I wanted to put David Brian Smith in the same box as Inception was simply this: they both nudged me into thinking about inspiration as an act of autobiographical hoarding – collecting fragments of individual life and placing them back into the world to look at. In Smith’s work, the origins of his paintings can be traced back to his own familiar surroundings, experiences and inspirations. He enacts his own creative output onto these images and simultaneously discovers his work, whilst making it. When we dream we often find ourselves immersed in images we have picked up during the day, sometimes we even drag up things we haven’t ‘seen’ for years. We encounter life in a different way, whilst hoarding it and piling it up in the corners of our mind. When I try to make work I often feel defeated by the initial idea, or lack of idea. I find myself criticising it before I’ve even begun. Whilst writing this I have begun to wonder if being creative isn’t so much about responding to an idea, or living it out, but rather finding it again through the act of making. Through painting, through dreaming and through writing….towards an idea.