Creativity as Presencing

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When I was 22 I moved to China for a year, teaching English language and literature at Peking University. It was one of the hardest times of my life. I was in at the deep end, alone, and felt like I was swimming against a very large crowd. I found Beijing to be over populated, over polluted and overwhelming. I did not speak Mandarin and I was teaching about 250 undergraduate and graduate students at the top university in China with no curriculum and no idea what I had got myself in for.

Looking back now it was art that helped me get through it all. Art- namely writing and photography- gave me a window out and offered me vital breathing space to make sense of it all. And when I say vital I don’t just mean that it was important, I mean it was a way to breathe in new life and connect me to my own vitality. Not only that but it also helped me to find beauty in the broken bits. Art was grace. 

This was in the days before I could afford a digital camera (they were expensive things back then!), so I got myself a whole pile of simple disposable cameras. They were a saviour. Through all the noise, commotion and craziness I started to look for things that pleased me and started to take photographs: the unusual shape of ginko leaves; the way the rushes in the lakes bent and froze; the interweaving patterns the thousands of bicycles made in the snow; the steam from a bowl of street noodles; the ping pong bats used to reserve tables in the canteen. I started to notice the little details, and in the little details I found solace and belonging.

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That was during the day. At night, I wrote. In fact, I couldn’t stop writing. The simple act of writing helped to connect me to my body. I wrote by hand, page after page, each page allowing me room to find myself. I wrote my first novel in a couple of months (a book that will gladly stay in my drawer), a whole series of poems, a collection of short stories including one little children’s book (which I still love) and an English language learning textbook, which was even published!

Through the taking of images I was able to stand on solid ground and through the writing process I was able to connect with my inner world. Together they brought me back home to myself and to a quality of presence which for a while I had lost.

Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed’- Mary Oliver.

Presence really is the key.

Creativity, I have come to realize, is not so much a series of technical skills as a way of being present, and a way of capturing the quality of that presence. 

Now, as a photographer, when I feel present at an event or in good relationship with the object or person I intend to photograph I know it makes a massive difference to the type of photograph I am able to take. When I do not feel that my photographs are good enough or I have not learned from the experience, it is usually a sign that I was not fully engaged with the creative process to begin with, and certainly not with the moment when the image was taken. However, when I can plug into that presence, everything changes.

Learning how to be present is a skill set which we can acquire and practice over time. The mindfulness revolution, yoga techniques and centuries of meditative practice have a huge amount to offer this process, as too the simple act of noticing.

So here is a little practice for you… Next time you are feeling a little ungrounded, start to notice what is around you right now. The little details, the way the light falls or the curvature of shadow. Take a pen and write about it for 5 mins- no need to edit or review, just write. Or pick up your camera (maybe the one on your phone) and photograph just for a sake of seeing, and being.

In the noticing is the act of presencing, and in the presencing is lies the seeds of transformation. 

Looking back now I am so grateful to that time in Beijing. It has helped to make me who I am. It helped me to shed old layers of myself and it forever brings me back to the page and my camera, to notice, connect, and at times, transform.


Art & Auction : Badger & Robin

If you have been following along my blog this year, you will have see that I have been back painting again- with lots of little creatures and birds making an appearance. Many of these original paintings are available for purchase over on my Etsy shop, alongside an original limited edition print.

I also want to offer something back and have decided to auction two of my paintings for two organisations which I admire and which are very worthy causes.

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SO…

Mr. Robin is going to fly the flag for the Capuchin Day Care Centre for the Homeless in Dublin, which I have come to know a little better through the amazing work of my friend Brother Richard Hendrick who I first met through Trailblaze (you can see his talks here and here). There is a massive housing crisis in Ireland right now, and the centre is flat out serving the needs of those most in need. Their dedication is outstanding.

Mr. Robin is beautifully mounted and framed and measures 16 x 20 inches.  He is an original pen, ink and watercolour painting with gold acrylic and heavy, acid free watercolour paper.

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Next up…

Mr. Badger is going to try to raise some money for the second organisation is Gatoto Community Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya.  My connection with Gatoto goes back over 10 years now, to when we were sending volunteers there with the Suas Volunteer Programme. It was a wonderful school, working in very tough conditions, and run by one of the most resilient and tenacious women I have every met, Betty Nyagoha. It is a very special place offering a lot of hope and real educational benefits to children.

Mr Badger also comes beautifully mounted and framed, measuring 16.5 x 23 inches. He is an original pen, ink and watercolour on heavy, acid free watercolour paper.

How the auction will work. 

Bids will be taken on my blog and directly via email.

Please let me know what painting you are bidding for (Badger or Robin)

Submit bids via email to clare@claremulvany.ie or over leave a comment below with your bid, what painting you are bidding on and a way for me to contact you. If I receive a bid via email, I will put a comment in the blog with the amount, the time the bid was received and the initials of the bidder.

Starting bids at €100 (please note that my direct sale price for these is €275)

Deadline for bids is 12 noon on Wed 16th December.

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Shipping: If you are Dublin based, I can meet with you to deliver the image. If you are outside Dublin we can arrange shipping/ delivery. Depending on your location there may be an additional shipping fee- but we can chat about this.

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I am really excited about this and hope Mr. Robin and Mr. Badger will do some good work for some very good causes.

 

 


On the ache and the longing…

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Do you ever feel an ache in your heart? It is both a longing and a void. It is dark and alluring simultaneously. I feel it. I feel it all the time. But it is the kind of ache which spurs you on. Prod a little deeper and it tells you there is more. Ask it ‘why’ and it will lead you down another track, to more questions, and later, more choices. For the ache is a choice, a choice to create, and to create is to be led into that void; that undeniably frightening quest to discover. Each time you show up to the blank page, or a viewfinder or an empty canvas, or to where the ache is calling, each time you show up, the quest becomes richer, deeper, more alluring because you move deeper towards your soul and find some meaning, some connection, if only for a moment.

Right now, as I write, I can physically feel the ache. It is deep deep in my belly, or is it my womb. If I dare to feel it fully I know it will make me cry, not with pain, but with the exquisite vastness of fear and that inexplicable longing. It feels like there is a universe within there, with a life force which I can never understand but can only approach. I write to touch this. I paint to touch this. I take photographs to touch this. I may never understand it, but I know it will animate.

To create is to animate that force too- to provide depth, dimension, form as we dive into that creative cosmos to pluck forth a poem, extract an image or carve some words of tenderness and hope. When we create we begin to experience that sense of belonging to something wider, beyond ourselves, and in showing up to the page we participate with the unfolding of meaning and experience. It is reciprocity in action.

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But sometimes we only have a glimpse of it; a brief moment during the creative process that you don’t know who is writing or what is that force surging as you paint. But you feel it, a power beyond yourself. The brevity is the ache too. The painting comes, then lands. The words congeal, settle, form. The image becomes fixed. We do our best to catch them. But what we catch will never be enough, it will never quite get there, because all the time we are in dialogue with what ‘there’ actually is. And yet we trust, that there will be more words, more paintings, more images, more creative possibilities. We show up again and again and again, to animate ourselves, and in doing so we animate the world.

The ache is longing and the longing is life.

So what do you long for? And what are you aching to create today?

 

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The Art of Remembering

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Sometimes things take you by surprise and tell you something about yourself which had long laid hidden. That something can be a good thing; a thing that was with you all along but you had unintentionally ignored, or even chosen to ignore. Or even it was just time passing which took you away from it, further and further until it became a dot on a distant horizon, hazy and doubtful.

If you had said to me 11 months ago that I would be having an exhibition of illustrations I would have laughed. Me? Sure I haven’t drawn in years.

I used to, back then, somewhere along that hazy horizon zone of time. But I had forgotten. I had forgotten the feeling of inky hands and the organic, unpredicable relationship between paint and water. I had forgotten the gentle undulating feeling of textured watercolour paper or the way you need to carefully navigate a nib from an inkwell. I didn’t remember that I had once so enjoyed the feeling of the exact moment when the pen touches a surface with the intention to draw. Or how time can slip away; hours feeling like glimpses. Or the concentration it takes. Or the sense of having to let the image speak to you. Or what it takes to know when to stop. I had forgotten.

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Twenty years later a knowing has returned. It is a surprise to me this, a big one. Yet it is as if a familiar friend has come back with new stories to tell and images to conjure of distant lands. Or even deeper, now that I am painting, I feel fuller again, more me. It is like a chunk of myself was missing and now that it is here, things are starting to make sense again and I am understanding my programming in a new light. I am finding a certain capacity for calmness, and an exhilaration which I knew existed but I had suspected someone had locked away and permanently misplaced the key.

It wasn’t so hard to unlock after all. It just meant following an urge, showing up to a blank page and allowing my hand to remember. It has somehow been there all along. I had just been intent on forgetting.

Things can happen quickly. Time has done that funny dance, distorting what you think might be possible. So 11 months on, my first solo exhibition has been mounted. It is small but attended to with love and gratitude. Plus it serves as a whopping reminder that you never ever know what is coming. Sometimes we just need to show up to the blank page and let the remembering remember.

If you would like to see or purchase the drawings and are in the area on West Waterford head on down to Blackwater Garden Centre Cafe, outside Dungarvan- hosted by the delightful and welcoming Anne McKenna. (Huge thanks to Anne for enabling this and welcoming me and my artwork with such warmth and openness. She serve lovely tea and cakes too 🙂

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Limits & Liberation: On learning to push the comfort zone.

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‘Yes, of course I will do that’, I said, receiving the phone call.

I put down the phone and immediately wondered, ‘Why on earth did I just say yes to that?’

In the past, ‘yes’ has been a brilliant tool for enabling opportunities but on this occasion it nearly pushed me right over an edge; the edge of my comfort zone.

‘Yes’ felt scary, big, and I didn’t feel ready for it.

It? Well it was an opportunity to paint at a festival alongside a musical score by Jim Moginie (formerly of Midnight Oil) with his electric guitar orchestra to a piece called ‘The Colour Wheel’. The idea is beautiful- live performance, live audience and painting in response to the music. However, whether I could actualise that beauty was an entirely different conversation…

My challenge was that I had never done anything like this before. In saying ‘yes’ the critical voice raised a very loud roar, bringing up so many of my vulnerabilities. ‘Me? Painting in front of an audience? In response to music? With everyone looking at me? What if the painting just looks like mud? What it someone starts to heckle? What it I f**k it up? What if… ‘

I have known these voices before; they visit frequently. Thankfully, with experience, I have learned to name them and have figured out that we can reposition to critic too: ‘This is fear speaking, how can I help you?’

Fear can teach us many things. When we lean into it, fear can expand our capacity to act by gradually, gradually, pushing our comfort zone into new territories and calling us to investigate our edges further.

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On this occasion the fear was dense. About five days before the festival I was on the brink of ringing up Cornelia, the event organiser, to say that I was not able to do it. I had started to make excuses in my head. One of those excuses even went so far as, ‘Well, I’m only five foot tall- how on earth will I be able to paint at scale?’ Seriously! Fear really can make the most comical of augments.

Luckily I realised that indeed this was fear speaking. So, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to minimise the fear and bring it back to ‘yes’?’

Two main solutions presented themselves. Firstly, the idea of boundaries– ‘Simplify and reduce your options; create restrictions’. And secondly, an understanding that this is not going to be an exercise in perfection but an experiment with process.

I rang an artist friend for advice too (thank you Eimear). Her kind words of friendship were a balm.

So, with the solutions in mind, and Eimear’s friendly cheerleading, I decided to limit my colour palate and choose a motif to work with- in this case circles (since the piece was called the colour wheel). In setting some ground rules for myself, suddenly came freedom. ‘With those parameters, what can I do? What patterns can emerge? And how can I push the motif to create something new?’

Over the next few evenings I experimented a bit at home- first making small quick drawings in my sketchbook, then larger colour experiments to test my palate, and then creating large scale drawings while playing Jim’s music in the background. On the third evening a pattern or idea began to emerge, one which I knew I could transfer to the real event, and a sense of the possible emerged again. We were back to yes.

As in art, so in life.

The whole experience served a huge reminder to me: when we place some boundaries and restrictions, creativity can flourish and freedom arises.

It seems contradictory to limit ourselves to liberate ourselves, but somehow it works.

 

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It was a reminder too of why I continue my own practices- that daily route back to my yoga mat, whether I am in the mood or not, if only for a few minutes. The practice is a boundary to create the freedom and is an enabler for creativity to flow. Practice, you come to realise, does not make perfect. But practice does lead to a place beyond it all, where there is no such thing as perfect, which is in fact perfect in and of itself. This is the circle of things.

So there I was on Sunday, painting in front of an audience. What I produced was no masterpiece, in my mind it was far from ‘perfect’, but it was me showing up with all my vulnerable and stepping right up to the edge of my comfort zone. In doing so I stepped across it and will, I hope,  have forever expanded it, with fear and imperfection at my five foot nothing side.

I’ll raise my hand and confess that I don’t love what I created but I loved the experience, and I love too that I did not let fear take me over. Rather I let fear have its own rightful place, as an aid and an ally.

Plus I got collected that day by a rock star. And I’m pretty cool with that too! Merci Jim.

(Special thanks to Jim Moginie and Cornelia Mc Carthy for facilitating this experience- my edges are grateful and my comfort zone is relishing in its new found sense of space!)

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Photos by Cornelia Mc Carthy.


Childhood Inclinations.

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What did you enjoy when you were younger?

And are you doing it now?

The chance that our natural inclinations or leanings were evident at a young age is high. Did you love to sing or dance? Did you love to play sport? Or do jigsaws? Were you passionate about bird-watching, or whales, or baking? What made you tick as a kid? And is that in your life now?

For me, when I was little, I can remember four main things- writing, drawing, making crafty things, and dogs. I was so passionate about dogs in fact that I wanted to be one. Alas not all dreams can come true! Art, however, I knew even back then was intrinsic to being. I would draw just for the sake of it, make things just for the love of it, without any expectation of the outcome. The point was the making; the doing.

Somewhere along the way I forgot all that.

The turning point had come with having to do my Leaving Certificate (final school exams). I had studied art all the way through school with the guidance of a brilliant art teacher (thank you Sidella O’Brien) and I really loved it. However, when exams loomed suddenly the enjoyment was substituted with ‘I need to get lots of points for this to get into college’, and something flipped. Once I sat my final exams my drawing days came to a sudden halt- it is there my portfolio ended as my focus shifted to college, and more exams. Academia seemed to push away the core my creative expression and as the academic system took a bigger hold on my life, I had less and less time for sketching and playing with clay figures -just for the love of it.

Unbeknownst to me I was pushing back a vital part of myself.

That is, until last year when something else happened which shifted it all again, beautifully so.

You see, I’d had a health scare. Awaiting test results and sitting in the unknown of it all,the vitality which I had pushed away however came suddenly and surprisingly running towards me, calling me back to this forgotten part myself. A deep urge arose, inviting me to my pen and paper, to draw again, just for the love of it.

I was skeptical at first and initially pushed it away. But the urge was strong, so I started to listen. As I did something else started happening too- a sense of calm arose, and much less fear. Time almost stands still when I’m drawing. Hours and hours can go by without me really noticing- I get absorbed. And so it was that I was fully distracted from thinking about test results. Boom. There it was again, that feeling from childhood, which had been with me all along but which I had chosen not to notice. But when I needed it the most it came, as a gift, like a familiar friend- the simple act of drawing.

I’m lucky. That scare turned out to be just that, a scare- thankfully.

But in the jolt was a big lesson for me- to tune deeply into what nourishes and vitalises my creative spirit, just for the sake of it.

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And so it is that these little creatures have started to visit. To me they are welcome guests, each bringing me healing, hope and giving my inner child a home again. I am happy also that a little doggie by the name of Finn is in my life now too, a steady companion to the creative process- in a waggy tail kind of way. She is a dream come true too.

What did you love to do as a child? And are you still doing it?

 

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