In many languages, the verbs ‘to do’ and ‘to make’ are the same. In Scotland, we call our poet laureate the ‘Maker’. And the question ‘what do you do?’ is polite, introductory conversation. Removed from the satisfaction of making, do we merely function and ‘do’; ceasing to bear witness to each others’ inquiry and interpretation of the world around us?
If the day job description doesn’t make obvious all that we are and all that we want to be (how many know what an ‘arts administrator’ does?) we might choose to self-define our ‘doing’ in other ways, by reference to what we do or make in our non-professional time. Since the economic recession, there has been a reported increase in amateur arts participation. The two hours each week that I spend in a painting evening class are two uninterrupted hours of focused energy away from mobile phones, email and status updates. I have complete absorption in the mixing of paint colours, tonal values and the angles of a still life composition. Everything slows down. I have the satisfaction of beginning and completing something. I feel happy that day.
Sometimes I draw or paint alone at home but I like the regularity and expectation of a group commitment. There is something validating about the social gathering in creative process. Since the first mark-making on the walls of caves in northern Spain and France 40,000 years ago (and now possibly even earlier with recent discoveries in Indonesia) depicting wild bison and spear-hunting, human beings have needed to make sense of the world around them by depicting it in marks and reflecting it back anew. The mark-making matters little if there are no others to bear witness and acknowledge the creative effort. This need for self-expression and a desire for beauty beyond utility perhaps separates us from other mammals. The mark-making might be simply decorative and descriptive of our lived experience (flowers and dogs for my six year-old self) or it might be more instrumental as a way of coming to terms with trauma.
It was in the former industrial heartlands and traditional Labour strongholds of the Lanarks and the Bathgates, the Blantyres and the Livingstones that a definitive Yes or No on the question of Scottish constitutional identity precariously pivoted – all geographic locations where the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing brought unemployment or under-employment for subsequent generations. In central Scotland today, the shipyards, steel works and mills lie barren and desolate or have become museums for living social history. All the while, the need for making sense of the world around us matters more than ever before. It would be wrong to romanticize the appalling working conditions, poor labour rights, and the absence of any individual creative expression in the production lines of our manufacturing past, but are we now in danger of undervaluing the importance of making things, together, in our present-day economic, and social, activity?
Acclaimed author and theologian Richard Holloway spoke at our work conference last year on the theme of ‘Culture, Creativity and You: Why Making Matters’. As Chair of Sistema Scotland, Holloway is well placed to observe the transformative effect that intensive, early-years education and an outlet for creative expression can have for both individual and community. In the case of Sistema – the school and community orchestra model from Venezuela – the socio-dynamics of the orchestra are a metaphor for community and playing music is their collective mark-making.
Holloway reflected on why it might be that the happy, skipping little girls drawing pictures of ‘wee hooses’ gradually shy away from their mark-making as they grow up to become self-critical, serious adults and eventually stop skipping altogether. Inside, I am still that little girl that wants to show her happy drawing to a doting parent or teacher. The artistic talent might not have progressed much but the need for bearing witness continues. I proudly invited my Mum to the Leith School of Art’s Christmas exhibition last month to show her my, quite unremarkable, interpretation of a bottles and fruit still life. She said it was her favorite painting in the exhibition.
Making matters little if there is no one to bear witness to the mark-making. At a New Year breakfast last weekend, my friend Wendy asked us to share our personal intentions for the year ahead. Completing and making were recurring themes (not earning, spending, or working more). Phil intends to release a new music track each month of the year (the punctuation of time by calendar month giving him the discipline he needs in self-employment). Wendy is going to continue singing in a choir. And Simon wants to overcome hesitation at sharing his blog about professional practice as an art therapist so that, in turn, we can bear witness to his expression.
In that magic moment of flow between momentum and effort, the ‘thing’ becomes more important than the ego. We let go of some control. And that is a rare and liberating feeling. More making, whether through painting, sculpting, singing, dancing, crafting, or any other form of creative outlet, might just help to give us back our sense of place and purpose in the modern day cave.