The following is an extract from Peter Renshaw’s book ‘Young Artists Speak Out: Passion, Compassion and Purpose in arts and education‘. I wrote this about 18 months ago and although some things have changed since (and I feel my writing style has improved) it’s still pretty relevant. And since it’s just been published, thought I’d share it here too!
pp. 24 – 26
My name is Lauren Saunders, and I am an emerging visual artist living in the current UK City of Culture, Hull. I’m not from Hull originally though. I grew up in North London and moved ‘oop nuurth’ in 2012 after completing a Foundation Degree. I’m also a recent graduate of one of the oldest art schools in the UK, Hull School of Art and Design after topping-up with a BA (Hons). Alongside developing my own creative practice at this early stage of my career, I work in the NHS promoting good mental health and meaningful mental health recovery.
But what does any of that tell you, I wonder? As I’m writing I’m also wondering where to start when thinking about how I feel about the world. Do I begin with what I feel affects me as a young person? An artist? A woman? A British citizen? Do I start with issues that concern me locally? Or nationally? Or globally? Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone here. I look at the world around me and my place in it, and I can see where I come from privilege, but also where I face adversity. You need to know where I come from, understand the things I encounter, see the lots I’ve been allocated – so you can understand why I feel so passionately about the things that matter to me.
I am a young, white British female. I was born into a loving family who have always allowed me to make my own choices. I have the best mum anyone could ask for. I had a good education, so I can read and write, and I have a degree in a subject I freely chose and passionately enjoy. I have access to free healthcare via the NHS and access to electricity, water and state welfare. I am able to work, and I have a meaningful permanent job working under a boss who appreciates me and within an amazing team. I am able to start up my own creative practice. I am entitled to vote. As a woman, I can choose what to do with my life and my body, and have free access to contraception. I earn enough to keep a roof over my head and food on my plate. I have clean clothes and am clean. I have no personal debt. I have all the things I need to survive and contribute to a functioning society. I have a loving long-term boyfriend and a beautiful cat. We are all physically healthy and mobile. I feel loved and appreciated by those around me. I am able to pursue my own interests at will. I have a talent for art, which I am recognised for. England has an Arts Council (alongside other lots of money dedicated to the arts) that could fund some of the projects I hope to do. I have an awful lot of privilege and opportunity compared to most people in the world, to which I feel humbled and grateful.
I am working class. My family wasn’t rich enough to send me to a school which would guarantee me respect, connections and security in later life. I was encouraged by the state education system to pursue anything but the Arts. I didn’t fit in at the prestigious Arts school I first got into, so I felt I had no choice but to leave. I have no assets, no savings and I am unable to secure a mortgage, let alone own my own home. I cannot pursue my dream of owning a self-build sustainable ‘tiny home’ in the woods somewhere because I do not own any land, and even if I did, I’d probably be stopped by UK planning permissions. I get ridiculed because I care for the environment and ethical sustainability, and for the choices I make to reduce my footprint. I have genuinely lost count of how much I owe in student loans. I rent a tiny little flat in one of the UKs most economically deprived areas. Because I scrimp and live on the cheap in an attempt to do everything I can to avoid personal debt or environmental waste, I am seen as a bit of an oddball/scrooge by others. Because I rent, I am unable to run an arts business from home. The North does not have the opportunity or wealth the South does. I could never afford to move back into my hometown of London. I have to turn down creative or meaningful personal opportunities, or else struggle like hell, because I cannot afford to take a break from work to focus fully on something else.
The NHS, the organisation I am proud to work for, faces greater and greater cuts as the demand for need increases, meaning the workforce and I feel the pressure to do more for less. I feel as if my vote doesn’t matter in the country I live in. I voted to Remain in the Brexit vote, yet I will still lose out to important EU Arts funding (amongst a million other things). I would love to move to the Netherlands, but I do not have the resources, or possibly soon, the right, to do so. I feel as if the current government has no interest in the greater good. I see greater levels of homelessness, poverty and disadvantage than I’ve ever noticed. I come from a ‘broken’/non-traditional family. I have suffered poor mental health since about 6 years old. I have tried to kill myself on a number of occasions in the past. And then get labelled an ‘attention seeker’ if I talk about it. I experience disabling episodes which can stop me from living fully. I take medication for it that some months I struggle to afford. I get laughed at for pursuing alternatives. I feel unable to work full-time again because I worry for my mental wellbeing. I get questioned about why I’m not married to my boyfriend and have no kids with him. And I get looks of shock when I say that I’m not interested in either. I don’t fit the modern Western concept of beauty. I feel an internal struggle about it too because I both don’t care about it, and do. I have been bullied since childhood, primarily because of my appearance. The media is constantly telling me what to look like, what to feel, what to buy, how to vote and how to think. I feel trapped by an apparent practical and mental reliance on the internet, especially on social media (even though I know it’s not a true representation of others). I live in a society where the Arts are not valued (and therefore, my skills and offerings are not as valued as they should be).
As an artist, I always get asked why I don’t just settle for a ‘proper’ job. I am too young to have enough confidence, experience or to be taken seriously, but too old to be offered ‘springboard’ opportunities. I cannot afford my own studio space to make work.
I genuinely hope that didn’t sound like one big whinge (it felt like one writing it!). I don’t tend to complain too much in real life, but these are just some of the things that I feel have shaped, are shaping and will continue to shape my life. I am grateful for the great things I have, of course I am. But when you acknowledge that you are denied the simple things you want to achieve because you don’t have the right background, appearance, connections and/or because you have a disability, it’s near impossible not to feel angry.
I’m sure most people can relate to this feeling, whether they share my adversities or experience others (e.g. race, cultural expectations, tragedies). I’m also sure you’ve noticed a common thread woven within them all: ‘Justice’ – or rather, the lack of it. I recognise that stuff happens that we cannot control (e.g. illness, natural disasters), but most of the things that I find wrong with the world on both a general and personal level have to do with human greed, nepotism, control, self-serving attitudes and ignorances. It’s frustrating because these injustices which affect me and many, many others are within human control.
I’ve been told before that I’ve chosen to make life harder for myself because I want to pursue my art (“You’re so smart – you could have been a Doctor or a Lawyer!”). Aye, ta for that observation. Why do I ‘make’ then, if it’s so hard to make a living off it? It’s quite a challenge to pin down exactly ‘why’. It’s a lot of things I think, both things I’m conscious of and things I’m not.
Without a shadow of a doubt, engaging with the arts and creativity can make a qualitative difference to a young person’s life. I say this with absolute conviction because it has done to mine. Allow me to explain… I notice that art-making allows me to explore, develop and actualise my personal values as a textbook INFJ type personality: Creativity, Compassion/Love, Personal Growth, Achievement and Fulfilment, Making a Difference and Personal Wellbeing. My values are important to me as they keep me feeling mentally, emotionally and spiritually well as I navigate the world; ‘Making’ is a vehicle in which I can express my core being, a way to articulate myself and not only to identify my position in relation to other things or people, but also to challenge the injustices I see in the world. It is known that the more you can do to ‘feed’ these values, the happier you will be; with this in mind, I think it becomes clear why I am so passionate about it. It makes me happy!
Art has a tendency to allow you to develop a heightened sense of self-awareness – by looking outward, you learn an awful lot about what is inward. And when you look inward, you learn an awful lot about what is underneath. Then by acknowledging what is underneath, you can better understand how you feel or interpret things when looking outward. Art and visual language helps me to understand myself by developing a dialogue between the part of me that cares about ‘out there’ and the part of me that needs to think about ‘me’. Who am I? What do I find important? What can I do about it? Why do I make? Who is it for? I have also found that art is not only a vehicle for self-discovery, but can also become a very big part of someone’s identity in itself. What is identity? What does it mean to be an artist? Why art? Art, and the processes that lie beyond the paint, so to speak (such as critical thinking, reflection, research and development), becomes a practical tool with which to explore the concept of ‘me’. This can be so useful especially for young people, who often are still developing a sense of identity.
The question of identity has a lot to do with the concept of belonging. How your ideals, values, motivations as in an individual align with others? Stereotypically, artists are these odd-ball dreamers who talk of abstract ideas, dress and behave strangely and create all manner of bizarre things at unsociable hours. Artists are not all like that, obviously, but there is a grain of truth to that stereotype; by nature of their pursuits, creatives do see things a bit differently to ‘normal people in society’.
Creatives do question things, experiment and problem-solve, meaning that yes, sometimes the boat is rocked. The point I’m trying to make is that artists and creators can be on the fringes of society because of how they interact with the world. As an artist, I love being around other artists. Like, seriously. If I seriously contemplated with my dad (a proper football-mad ‘bloke’) about the character of that red line and its relationship with that melancholy shape and if a Marxist squirrel was to sit on the painting would it think that bit there was a bit of grass because of the technical qualities of that area (or other such nonsense), he would give me a funny look, laugh, and then do anything to change the subject. In contrast, I can think about 11 people within my direct art community that would critically entertain the concept before inevitably allowing the conversation to blossom into something bigger and more meaningful.
Knowing I am an artist, knowing that Art is a big part of my identity, allows me to seek out others who share similar perspectives. Art gives me a sense of belonging.
Art really helps me manage my moods and emotions and it has done for a very long time; without sounding dramatic, I would probably be dead if I didn’t have Art. Making is a cathartic process, full of meaning and depending on the situation, full of distraction and/or full of reflection.
For my BA Dissertation, I wrote about the relationships between the visual arts and meaningful mental health recovery. Inspired by my experiences of mental health and facilitating/running art groups within the NHS, I researched into what makes Art a therapeutic recovery-orientated activity. Within my dissertation, multiple approaches were applied to examine the complex relationship between art and mental health. I focused on the role of art activity in mental health recovery, how it aligns with the ‘Recovery Approach’ and existing and potential applications within clinical and personal contexts. I drew upon research across disciplines as well as conducting first-hand research and reviewing first person perspectives. After investigating the development of ‘absolute’ clinical understanding and popular opinion regarding mental health, I examined artist responses to ask if artwork can help to change and shape social attitudes, and investigated the impact of therapeutic art upon Western clinical psychiatry. I used philosophical, psychological and sociological theories about creativity to establish how art could be utilised within mental health recovery and examined clinical research into the efficacy of therapeutic art.
I analysed first-hand research sourced through the production of a special exhibition, statements from services users and staff, observational case studies with psychiatric in-patients and an artist interview, in order to compare this new qualitative data to existing research.
I also presented my own critical conclusions and proposed strategies for implementing creativity within organised and personal care. There were a few observations I found through research that I feel illustrate and support how creative engagement can make a qualitative difference in a young person’s life:
- Informal drop-in and inclusive arts activity provision could build trust between communities and services.
- Artists can, have, and will continue to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health by sharing and expressing their experiences through art-making, consciously or otherwise.
- Independent engagement with arts provision promotes control within a meaningful, satisfying life. – Art is a powerful tool in promoting a meaningful life to those experiencing mental difficulties; it provides the forum for achievable goal-setting and symptom management and control, opportunities for increased self-esteem, confidence and self-awareness.
- The appreciation and identification of successful artists with lived experience can inspire hope and meaning.
- Art-making creates a visual vocabulary in which people can share their experiences to guide others and to educate.
- Art may not be a ‘cure’ for mental health, but it can make life significantly more manageable and can be an effective way to communicate internal realities and experiences to oneself and to the world.
People find a voice through the Arts. They find their own voice, find similar voices and use that voice to communicate their realities and/or speak out against the ‘man’. In my recent Fine Art practice, my work has used a philosophical and mindful approach to question how I experience the world. This has been an invaluable experience for me. I feel that months of exploring the subject has allowed my voice and my confidence as an artist to develop. Moving forward, I intend to use my art, my voice, to speak out against the injustices I see in the world both practically, through funded projects and work, and visually through the production of work itself.