The new issue of Varoom illustration magazine on Wellbeing explores how we can sustain our creativity and enrich our world. Editor John O'Reilly gets some tips from top image makers
(Image Courtesy of Lizzie Campbell. Jean Paul the French Bulldog)
"As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire," said Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in the first Presidential debate, "or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina." I suspect like me, you've never had an 11-hour business meeting, but I bet you've doodled away at meetings that felt longer.
Though the doodle is also an exercise in building stamina (trust me) it's not something we explored in the just released issue of Varoom 34 on Wellbeing. Launching the new issue I was struck by how limited a perspective we have of stamina, and the exercises and tools we can use to develop it.
The new issue explores the variety of creative expressions and strategies professional image-makers - children's books, cartoonists, graphic novelists, animators, illustrators in advertising and marketing, newspaper and magazines - address Wellbeing. How do these images represent and circulate our understanding of mind and body, health and illness? What do these images say about our concerns around sustaining a creative life?
We have some extraordinary historical work curated by Catherine Draycott, Head of Imagery at the Wellcome Library, her selection showing the impact of visual technologies and imagery on our understanding of medicine, disease and wellbeing.
(Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Library. Mezzotint ecorche female torso, back, Gautier d'Agoty, 1746. Muscles of the back in a female. Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty (1716-1785) was a French anatomist and painter, and published a series of anatomy plates using a colour mezzotint process which had first been developed by Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667-1741), in whose workshop Gautier d'Agoty had served as an assistant. The plates are after dissection prepared by J. F. Duverney (d. 1748), a Parisian surgeon and demonstrator of anatomy and surgery at the Jardin du Roy.)
In an age of increasing self-employment, when people are running their own business, spending time on their own, removed from the face-to-face interaction of office culture, developing ways of sustaining psychological well-being is critically important.
Lee John Phillips, whose colouring book The Shed Project has just been published, took on the task of cataloguing the entire contents of his Grandfather's shed. "One small Tupperware housed almost 1000 items," says Lee. "Small medicine bottles inside it contained brass rivets a few millimetres in size. I spent a solid 4 days cataloguing these and both my patience and mental state were challenged. At one point, I simply put my pen down, left the house and walked laps around town!"
The powers of attention, focus and concentration that our jobs require can leave us creatively and emotionally depleted. Being 'professional' requires a degree of emotional detachment but as we know, 'professional pride' includes emotional investment.
In this issue we discovered that one of the ways in which illustrators sustain themselves is through hiring confidants, collaborators, life coaches - specifically, furry ones whose feedback ranges from 'meow!' to a happy wag of the tail.
It was only when María Suárez-Inclán took a full time job in a London advertising agency did the Spanish illustrator and designer realise the extent to which she had relied on her Labrador Beto for his therapeutic effect.
"Taking breaks to take Beto for walks during the day made my mind clearer," explained Suárez-Inclán, "and also made me feel less overwhelmed and helped me focus on the work. Sometimes when you've been looking at the same drawing for six hours you can't even remember your name! So yeah, it's better to have walk breaks instead of fridge breaks, ha!"
(Image courtesy of María Suárez-Inclán. Beto the Labrador opens up the frame of María's world)
We might think of these pets as existential wayfinders. "Jean Paul is a hugely extroverted dog, who's very easy to fall in love with," says clay modelling illustrator Lizzie Campbell, "so I regularly speak with other dog owners and local folks who love seeing this little weirdo out and about each day. I've found these 'forced' interactions with others to be hugely beneficial in lots of ways (mental health included), as it's tough to find ways to converse with others as a home-bound introverted creative."
Campbell's 'forced meetings' as a result of Jean Paul's walks, are an exercise in 'bumping into' her current boundaries. Encountering other locals in a 'time-out' helps her redraw her creative and psychological limits.
This 'little weirdo' redraws and remakes Lizzie through his walks and Lizzie, now creatively invigorated, remakes Jean Paul in clay.
Using pets to exercise our imagination is a way of building up psychological stamina. You might be familiar with David Foldvari's wonderfully brooding imagery he creates for David Mitchell and Stewart Lee in the Observer Review on Sundays.
You probably won't be familiar with the magical style of storytelling he brings to reflecting on the behaviours of Ginge and Nellie, his two young cats, what he calls his art goblins.
"If at some point you happen to see substandard work from me," explains Foldvari, "it's normally because I've had to ask them to take over. They are not particularly reliable and often get distracted, their ideas are usually bizarre and make no sense, and they have no problem-solving skills whatsoever. They find it difficult to articulate a visual concept or communicate any kind of cohesive message through drawing, and I'm not always happy with their work ethic either, they are quite lazy and I often catch them sleeping, eating or staring when they should be working."
You will though recognise Foldvari's uniquely spooky visual idiom in his portrait of Ginge and Nellie.
In the new issue I interviewed Gemma Correll, a hugely talented 'Tina Fey' of contemporary cartooning whose creative imagination and reflection on the absurdity and emotional challenges of everyday life is often populated by smart cats and daft-but-winning pugs. You might have seen her increasingly popular 'pugs-work' - I saw comedian Russell Howard on the telly the other night wearing a Correll, "Pugs not Drugs" t-shirt.
Now hugely successful, Corell has had to develop creative and emotional stamina to manage the stuff that comes with psychological difficulties. In 2015 she published The Worrier's Guide to Life, a collection of cartoons,
"all inspired by my own anxieties and neuroticisms," Correll told Mashable earlier this year. "I suffer from clinical anxiety and depression and I find that the best way to deal with it is to find humour in it... I honestly think that humour can be a saviour at times of distress or, if you just live with a constant level of anxiety and depression like I do."
(Image Courtesy of Gemma Correll)
For Correll, drawing is a way of relieving anxiety (the popularity of all those meditation/colouring-in books is a testament to that) and she does yoga and meditation.
"But being in California is pretty great," says Correll, "because I can go out all the time, it's not raining - hardly ever. Walking is a good way to clear your head and come up with ideas. And having my dogs."
When we Skyped for the interview, I thought I recognised her two pugs, Mr Pickles and Bella from various drawings, postcards, cups, t-shirts and other items from the growing Correll product empire.
There's an image on a card of Correll's which lead me back to this question of stamina. It's a drawing of a smiling spider, a strand of silk connecting it to its web, telling me, "I made it with my bum". The Merriam-Webster tells us that the word stamina is derived from the Latin, the "plural of stamen warp," stamina is the thread of life that's spun by the Fates and it is that which determines one's length of life.
(Image Courtesy of Gemma Correll)
Like the spider with the artistry of web-spinning with a 'bum' (surely Britain's Got Talent beckons) the thread of life can be beautiful, inventive, imaginative - building stamina is about building the capacity that helps us expand and enrich the world through our imagination and of course making new friends while walking Jean Paul the French Bulldog.
Illustrator Andrzej Klimowski (who some of you might remember from his classic Milan Kundera book covers) reflected on the working process for his graphic novel of Deborah Levy's short story Stardust Nation, about alcoholic Ad Agency boss Tom, and his hyper-empathic colleague Nick.
(Stardust Nation, Deborah Levy and Andrzej Klimowski. Courtesy of Self-Made Hero.)
Sustaining imagination, focus, creative decision-making over the length of a graphic novel is demanding. Klimowski says that in the image-making,
"one is in combat with the flat picture surface. Paint, graphite and collage behave unpredictably. Although once one is in the groove then one is in control and confidence and manual dexterity grows. The difficulty that remains is one of stamina."
Just like physical stamina, psychological and creative stamina comes from occasionally nudging and testing our limits, stretching as we learn and explore new things. It's where old boundaries of our self dissolve and new ones emerge. This idea of exploration, and the disappearance/appearance of boundaries is captured in our cover by Patrik Svensson who has provided images for clients such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post and Sony.
(Cover image courtesy of Patrik Svensson)
Living in an age of political road-rage, where argument and debate has given way to angry tribalism, it will take stamina and creativity for politicians to connect with those who feel like they have been left behind. It will also need politicians to push themselves beyond the boundaries of their familiar prejudices and attitudes, to develop curiosity and empathy. Jean Paul needs to take Trump for a walk.
Varoom Wellbeing can be bought here
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