Thursday, 21 March 2013

An Open Heart and No Fear

With thanks to Neil

I attended a really up-lifting and enjoyable International Women's Day event today organised by a friend of mine, involving women who make or create from all over Aberdeenshire. My friend was saying that approaching life (and creativity) with an open heart and no fear was important and I completely agree with her. Certainly every time I set out to make a new photograph, it is a leap of faith and exposes something of myself. Art is about what we feel. How we feel. Why we feel. It's an attempt to stop the world for a time and say “look – this means something to me and might mean something to you.” We are all in this together.

An open heart and no fear is also appropriate with regard to this piece because I was (until recently) unsure about whether to publish it or not. Not really out of fear, although there is an element of that, but more because I am worried that people may misunderstand my motives. I don't want to over-share and I don't want to elicit sympathy but there are reasons I feel it necessary to talk about things which have happened to me in my life. Firstly, this should (I hope) lead on to the next post I am writing which deals with my take on the art I make and secondly, there have been some recent experiences I've had which have brought things I try to keep submerged bubbling to the surface. Some of these are personal issues which I won't go into but I have also been very affected by the recent tragic death of Frances Andrade -

I believe that there is a profound connection between my childhood and my creativity. There was an excellent programme on Radio 4 a couple of years ago presented by Grayson Perry about creativity. He set out to explore and then explode myths surrounding creativity such as “creative people are a little bit mad.” I enjoyed the programme very much, especially his discussion with a psychologist who had written an article on possible connections between childhood trauma and creativity entitled 'Scars on the Bone.'

Anyone who has experienced something bad in their lives will know that it's possible to stick memories/experiences into a box and tuck that box into a dark corner of the mind where it can lie undisturbed for some time. It never disappears, however, and it only takes a phrase, a word, an image or an event to shove that box back into the light and re-open it. The experience of Frances Andrade (who took her own life after being made to re-live the sexual abuse which she suffered as a child and young teenager in a court case after being advised by police not to seek therapy or help) made me think about the fact that children who are the victims of something, more often than not, believe it to be somehow their own fault. That they were, in some way, responsible. And I have also been thinking that the shame we adults who have been child victims carry with us is actually a continuation of the abuse. It's very easy not to talk about difficult things but this perpetuates our notion that, as children, we did something wrong.

The first 18 years of my life were fairly hard. From being an unwanted accidental conception, my mother's suicide attempts and mental illnesses and consequent stays in psychiatric hospitals, sexual abuse from the age of 5 at the hands of my mother's ex-husband, domestic abuse of my mother by a boyfriend to homelessness whilst I was studying for my A levels. My way of coping was to escape mentally. A solitary only child by nature, I withdrew into books and into worlds of my own making. My imagination saved me I think. I really believe that this way of escaping paved the way for my need to find a creative way to express myself. To bring something into life was so much the opposite of the place I found myself in. I was able to make something positive from the negative, although this process was long and slow and non-linear of course. Now, if I express something true to myself, something genuine then I have created something which takes on a life of its own and which, hopefully, may strike a chord with someone else, or make them feel that they are not alone. The thing is that nothing which touches us deeply (whatever it may be) ever goes away and those things always leave a mark - in one way or another. We can't get rid of them or forget them so we absorb them somehow and they become part of the filters through which we see the world. 



  1. A very moving and open post Lucy. I know you're not looking for sympathy but I'm so sorry to hear about your difficult past and the mental scars that you carry with you.

    I can understand why you might be concerned about "oversharing" but I really don't see that here, and as long as you are comfortable sharing these thoughts (which I presume/hope you are) then that's all that matters IMO. Indeed, I think part of what you are saying here is that not saying anything, feeling like you should keep the box under the bed, is a continuation of the abuse and in some ways writing this post, even if just in a small way, helps a little in dealing with it. Perhaps not quite a weight off your shoulders, and to say a "problem shared" would be rather shallow and disingenuous, but I do think there's real value in sharing things that are difficult for us when, as you say, perhaps we blame ourselves or feel alone. And you will find friends and support where otherwise you might not expect it.

    I like the way that you think about using your art and creativity to express yourself, and that others will resonate with that. I guess we all want to "express ourselves" but for most of us our expression is much more shallow than what you share here, and so saying so lacks the triteness that those words normally embody. It gives me a deeper understanding of your work, which I guess is a good, and in some ways a bad, thing.

    Sorry if that's a bit rambling. I suppose one thing I hope for you is that your art helps you deal with that pain but you don't directly associate art with that pain. What I'm trying to say is that I would hope that your art doesn't feel like an extension of your pain, rather a channel to express it - and so you are free to explore and express other feelings (perhapos including all that is good e.g. your children, your life now) without feeling that your art is reserved for the things you share here.

    All the best.

    (I apologise if I appear overfamilar in my comment; it's difficult with "virtual" relationships to know where the line is! :)

    1. Hi Dunc,

      Thanks very much for reading and for taking the time to comment, it's appreciated. Yes, in many ways I wrote this post for me - it's another step forward in my progress out of this darkness: putting it out in the public domain was difficult but necessary. I also did it for the reasons above - because I think it has an effect on me as a person and me as an artist and because I hope that if anyone else reading it has had similar experiences, that they might take something from it and not feel alone. And, yes, you're absolutely right - keeping it all inside and not talking about it IS a continuation of the abuse and it's taken a long long while to reach this stage but I am so glad I finally have.

      Yes, a lot of what I produce / make comes from dark places inside me but, equally, much of it doesn't! So, no - my art isn't an extension of my pain, as such, but it is always going to be bound up in it because it has made me who I am. I think what I was trying to say was more that it was how I escaped which has formed me into the photographer I am now. The books I read influenced me, the imaginative journeys I undertook influenced me and the amount of time I spent by myself thinking and trying to work it all out. Maybe I would have been a self-analytical person anyway and maybe I would have been imaginative and a thinker rather than a doer, but I will, of course, never know.

      And no worries Dunc - I draw very few lines and you've just been very kind and thoughtful. Thanks again for your words :-)

  2. I know we have talked privately about our lives & our creativity but I just wanted to say how powerful & thought provoking this blog is Lucy. I'm not sure what I can add to what you already know about me or my thoughts but I can really understand that notion of putting something in a box - & yet we never really do. I know that something that happened to me that I can't speak about - to anyone - & yet it's not in a box, it manifests everywhere in me - maybe it is manifesting in my work, I'm not sure. I also think though, that those who have lived through something traumatic in their childhood can also see good things really powerfully too - my emotions are always on the cusp of elation & depression - I love life so much, so intensely & yet fight it - something I don't understand. Nevertheless, we are all on a journey & art helps us to discover who we are & how we feel - that's what I believe anyway :) Thank you for such a beautifully honest piece of writing Lucy - I'm so pleased you posted this.

    1. Hi Deb,
      Yes - you're right of course. We don't really successfully put things into boxes, our experiences seep into us and make us who we are - even the ones we can hardly bear to think of. And it's hard, sometimes, to work out what influences us - and maybe we don't need to. We do what we feel we need to do and if it chimes within us then that should be enough.

      You're also correct that we see good things powerfully too. And, like you, I am very much an all or nothing type of person - I feel things VERY strongly and need to throw myself in completely. The end result is often that I am disappointed and/or hurt by things. Aaaarggh - over-sensitive!! I wonder, though, if part of your reluctance to be so intense is fear - I think mine would be. Fear that something will go wrong, that a disaster will befall someone we love etc?

      Yes, it's all a journey and I agree that art helps us to discover those things, for sure. It has enabled me to look within and learn a huge amount about myself and that is a necessary process I think.

      Thank you so much for your kind, considered and thoughtful comment Deb.

  3. [comment in two parts, as my comment was too long to be accepted! Here is part I]

    Hi Lucy,

    I am very moved by this, but not in a sentimental way. My childhood was different, and your understated 'The first 18 years of my life were fairly hard' is quite some way from what I might have written. I think childhood is never easy (Deborah Parkin reminds us of that), but some are undoubtedly considerably harder than others. There is a gendered nature to this, of course, but there is also a lived, contextualised reality that can be very different depending on the personalities involved, socio-economic factors and so on. It goes without saying - as they say, but it usually *is* worth saying - that I feel for you in your account of your childhood, and though there are elements I cannot relate to from my own experience, part of human empathy is the ability to imagine how difficult some of these issues might have been for you as a child and a teenager. And yet: imagined fear is nothing like the real thing, of course.

    What is of note to me here is the courage involved in the direct correlation of your created work with your own history. Ideally, of course, we all create from within - otherwise the creations are just bland representations of prettinesses. Revealing more of yourself and your vision of the world is part of what we are trying to do as artists, but we can all choose how much or how little we give of ourselves when doing so. In a wider context, I think artists do one or more of the following (probably more, but this is what I can think of just now!):
    (a) reflect how members of a society see themselves;
    (b) be a tool in society (this is about e.g. how politics directs cultural activity);
    (c) express opposition in society, disrupting the hegemonic discourse in order to reflect and reform what society could be;
    and related to this:
    (d) offer an alternative in society, e.g. a dialectic between tradition and contemporary reality, seeking to form the contemporary space as well as just reflect or interpret it.
    The artist, in doing any of these, needs to draw on themselves to be able to do these things well, and that brings with it risk, and therefore requires courage.
    [See below for part II]

  4. [Part II]
    Making the direct connection between your reaction to e.g. the awfulness of what Frances Andrade felt driven to, and your artistic output involves great courage. This is not only by stating in words some of the things that have formed who you are now, as you do here, but in creating art that directly relates to that. The interpretations of your work are open, and sometimes *very* open, and that leaves you vulnerable. I often think that deep down we all want to be able to be vulnerable in relation to others, so long as those others do not betray that vulnerability and cause us harm - if they do, we find it harder to be vulnerable towards them, and then often, towards others. Publishing art that openly proclaims our vulnerability leaves us open to experiencing further hurt, but also challenges and enriches those around us (the majority of us will not intentionally cause anyone harm), but it also enables the re-envisioning of how society might work - this is (c) and (d).

    Of course, those who see your work might interpret it differently from what you intend to communicate, but one of the little lights that came on in my head when I saw your photographs 'for real' on the wall in the gallery in Edinburgh recently was something along the lines of: 'ah, this is what Lucy thinks life COULD be' (yes, I'm very slow to only realise that now...). After that, I looked through a lot of your images online, and when I look at the body of work you have assembled, it speaks to me endlessly of possibilities - these are counter-cultural disruptions to dominant hegemonies that you are offering us in myriad forms. I see you holding a mirror up to us, saying, 'look: this is what there is - but it could also be like this, and isn't the alternative something so much better?' In holding up that mirror, you are also making yourself tremendously vulnerable - so much of yourself is visible there, almost as if - and I hesitate to say this, but can't think of a better way to put it - you are doing so in a state of undress, something that we think of as an ultimate vulnerability.

    And for that courage in doing so, Lucy, you have my respect, and more than that, awe. I hope the vulnerability that you are offering to us all is not something that you find betrayed.



    1. Hi Michael,

      First off, I'm glad that your childhood was very different - I am hoping that that's also the case for the majority of people who have read this! Yes, partly gendered, partly socio-economic but, you know - I think the thing is that it isn't really any of those things. I grew up in a family where the past was everything. We "used" to have this that and the other, blah blab, but my reality was a one-parent family in a council flat in a rough area of south Essex. People from all walks of life can have childhoods like mine, or worse. Stuff happens, regardless. Sadly. And I do appreciate your empathy - I think that is a big part of what makes us human.

      My work is me. It's as simple and as complex as that. Yes, there is sometimes a direct correlation and I feel increasingly that it's that kind of thing I want and need to explore. Yes, you're right - artists do all those things and probably more. We do not exist in a vacuum and are creating within a social context, if not to say a social construct. Anything meaningful involves risk, I think anyway. I believe it has to. Mostly risk to the artist and their vulnerability.

      Which brings me onto a really interesting point you make - that we all want to be vulnerable. I think you're right. It's a case of saying "here I am, this is me. What do you think?" We don't really want to have to present to the world the personas and fronts which we usually do all the time. We want complete non-judgemental acceptance for who and what we are. I think this is really a lot of what love is about but that's another issue...

      As I said in my reply to Deb, I find it hard to hold things back in many ways - I am by nature an open and giving person, I think.

      I don't mind how people interpret my photographs - if they find anything at all within them which strikes a chord then I am happy :-) It's very interesting to hear how you reacted to seeing my prints and, yes, in many ways you are right. The calmness and far-sightedness of the 'Inner Shore' photos are aspirational as is the desire for flight ;-) Yes - I think you are on to something when you say that, as a body, my work speaks of possibilities. Exactly. Alternative existencies. Which is what I had always dreamed for myself.

      Yes, I do make myself vulnerable and it's very hard for me to put photos out there because they all contain me - in a state of undress as you succinctly put it. But that is what I am driven to do. Your comment made me cry as I told you - not in a bad way, but because you seemed to understand so well - your last paragraph especially. But, you know, I am who I am and I don't want to change that. I wear my heart on my sleeve and feel things deeply but that is what makes me me! If I lay myself open, what the heck!

      Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking, sensitive and perceptive comment Michael, it is very much appreciated.

  5. Photographs open doors into the past, but they also allow a look into the future. Sally Mann said it. But damn it, I wish I had.

    1. Yeah, but Sally Mann hasn't commented on my blog post Jim... ;-) Thank you and thanks for the kind words on FB - I really hope so :-)

  6. Hello Lucy,

    I'm sorry if its taken me a while to respond to this piece, life has been interfering with the ability to think clearly, there's been neither the time nor space to do this justice.

    Whilst taking note that you say you aren't eliciting sympathy, I can't help but feel proud of you for letting this out into the world. It was a brave decision and I hope it has served as some form of catharsis.

    It was when my mother died that I first realised that art could be a form of catharsis for me. It was the opening door on a closure. Since then a whole world of creative exploration seems to have opened up for me, as you say we can ’learn to make something positive from the negative’. That by opening up through our art we can reach others in a far more profound way and share those common threads of humanity.

    I know and I know you know that we share a very deep common understanding of art, more than anyone else I know. Life is not just something we reflect in our work. It is undertaken in the belief that life can be better than this; that there's a profundity in your work which may well be the greatest gift you can share with the world. Which isn't meant to sound like flattery or even a qualitative judgement (although I'd happily admit it!) but is a more simple statement of fact that creative output can be a spur to others. Sometimes this might be in terms of a therapeutic feeling of not being alone; sometimes just a spur to create in the viewer themselves, something with depth, meaning and humanity that you've given.

    I came across a quote by Ursula Le Guin recently ’The creative adult is the child that has survived.’ It's given me pause for thought in more than one way and in particular in relation to this blog. There's the obvious conclusion to draw that creativity is something that we carry with us from childhood into adulthood. And I'm sure your retreat into reading and art has carried you through to where you are now - the creative adult. But let's not forget many leave behind the pleasure of creativity to concentrate on work and necessities and/or being fooled by the market that material accumulation is the only thing of value. So in many ways you're in a good place despite your childhood. Creativity is a privilege we don't all have or can't all access.

    Secondly, there's this notion that we all share to some extent; that childhood is something to be survived. For most of us survival isn't as literal as yours, but is about surviving boredom, fear, humiliation, loneliness, the little things that because we aren't fully formed people conspire to make childhood taxing. For me they are probably still a powerful underlying motivation in art and life, that whatever else I won't have to suffer that again too often and life will be more fulfilling and rich. My creativity, I suppose, is my ultimate expression of this. As I'm sure it is for you - along with being a mum to two happy little girls - which is no doubt creative enough in its own way!

    What I'm trying to say (and I suppose this alludes to Michael’s point that our experiences may be different and far less extreme) but that we can still appreciate the route you have taken. Only that our appreciation of yours is so much the greater because that green fuse of creativity has had to burn brighter and stronger in your life. Although it’s had to push through a greater depth of detritus, it is all the stronger for having that well developed root. Let it be your strength as well as your vulnerability which carries you forward to connect with others in the future.

    Thank you,


  7. Hi Rob and thank you. Please don't aplogise for taking time to think and let the words come.

    Yes, a kind of catharsis. It's certainly a big step forward. The very first step I ever took with any of this must have been when I was about 13 and was about to move from the flat where all this had taken place. I remember I wrote down all the bad stuff which had happened to me up to that point, including more than I have mentioned here. I wrote it all down and then I folded up the pages into a tiny tight wad. I found some safe place to keep it where it wouldn't be discovered and that was a kind of relief for a while. As if admitting things to myself.

    Yes, I agree that by allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable in our art that we can reach others in a sometimes profound way. I certainly hope so.

    And, yes, I think I am someone who is still very much in touch with the child I once was. I can certainly easily identify with my own children's feelings and can empathise. I remember all those hopes and daydreams and the wonder children experience - I still very much have all of those. Yes, I think it's almost as if I recognised the true value and worth of imagination and creativity early on and never lost sight of it. As you well know, I am unconcerned about accumulating "things" or buying fancy stuff - it never seemed to matter. I completely agree that I am lucky, despite or, in a way, maybe because of my childhood. I do think it has shaped me into who I am now.

    Thank you very much for your kind, encouraging and sensitive words, they are very much appreciated. xx

  8. Hi Lucy, and thank you for this courageous and thought-provoking post. I am so sorry that all of that happened to you! Abuse thrives on secrecy. You have weakened it by speaking openly. I want to tell you that you don't have to hide any more, although I want to respect that I don't know the whether there are any circumstances that would make that an unrealistic thing to say.

    It sounds to me as if YOU saved yourself through imagination. You truly did transform the negative into positive through art, and through speaking out. And you're continuing to do so. I think that your work not only speaks of possibilities, but in a very real sense actually creates those possibilities.

    I agree with you that we bring all of who we are to our art-making, whether we intend to or not (only you said it much more articulately than I could). It seems to me that that's both a source of vulnerability and a source of creativity. No one else could make what you make. To me, that doesn't mean that our experiences define us; they are only one part of who we are.

    I don't believe in "over-sensitive." I think each of us is somewhere on a continuum of sensitivity, but I don't see a line beyond which there's "too much." It seems to me that sensitivity is a resource for perceptiveness, creativity, and connection. We get to use the information that our sensitivity gives us, to live in the world in the most satisfying and fulfilled way we can.

    Vulnerability and sharing make connection possible. I appreciate your openness - I'm glad that's who you are!

    1. Hi Jacki! Thanks so much for reading this and for responding in such a kind and encouraging way. You are completely right - abuse thrives on secrecy, exactly. And that played a very large part in my decision to get this out in the open.

      I love the idea of my work creating possibilities and, yes, I see that. Certainly possibilities in my head for an alternative.

      Yes, our experiences don't define us just add to the mix of who we are - flawed, imperfect but mostly trying our best.

      I am very sorry for taking ages to respond - Easter holidays here!

      Thank you so much for your words once again Jacki. xx