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  • claregeeorkney

“What progress, you ask, have I made?…”

What a way to start a sunny Sunday. a new Backstitch episode of the Seamside podcast with Jennifer Mao, where she manages, with Zak Foster, to meander through some of the biggest questions for artists and makers out there and they manage it in 30 minutes. Staggering stuff. Jennifer has not been making much lately but is clearly relishing the excitement of being on the cusp of something new. She’s embracing this stasis knowing it will lead somewhere really positive. The conversation touches on the question about do you have to be making to be a maker, can you break your own rules about how and why you make and does anyone else care if you do!?

I don’t know what it is about the Seamside podcast but it always seems to get to the nub of the meandering thoughts in my own mind at exactly the right time, and far more clearly and succinctly than I manage it!

So, the meandering thoughts that I have been pondering over the last couple of weeks have gone from “is this the most excited I have ever been about being an artist?” to “why isn’t Rik here to see me happy and contented” to “ god the guilt about being happy and contented when he isn’t here is crushing” to “is what I am doing Art with a capital A” to “who gives a fuck”.

The answer to the last question, not surprisingly, is me. I do.

I don‘t know whether it is partly because I have never had the luxury of being able to entirely devote my time to making art, or whether it is because for so long I lived with an artist who was so confident and unashamed that art was his only reason for existing, and he was so damn good at it, that I was frequented by imposter syndrome frequently.

I need to unpack some of this so I can go back to having fun and being totally exhilarated by the making bit.

I have realised that I am in the exact position I currently hold because Rik is no longer here. I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in, I wouldn’t be living in the house I’m living in, I wouldn’t be making the art work I’m making, I wouldn’t have that particular painting of his boldly hung on the wall directly in front of the settee so I constantly look at it if he was here (he really bloody hated that particular painting so I used to have it in my craft room at the old house so he didn’t need to see it). And I am the happiest I have been in years and years. And I feel at times so overwhelmed by the conflict in my head about that, because how can I be happy when he is not here? And how can I feel happy when a few weeks ago I was at my lowest ebb through grief? My default position is that I would rather Rik was here. Everything is qualified by that, as all my friends and family know, but some things are easier now and I don’t have to compromise anything which is weird, exhilarating and totally debilitating in equal measure.

So, to go back to the Artist thing. I have often felt that my ‘art’ is lightweight. It is abstract, often bright, often made from textiles and fabric. I am not challenging the world order through it, frankly I think I mostly make bunting. It’s not exactly pretty but it’s not political, it’s not sending a message. And I know this is the right thing for me and my work. I remember very clearly at art school being told by one of my tutors not to preach to people. Thank you thank you thank you!!! I was 19, I was unsubtle and I wanted to share my continuing pain of a very depressed episode of my life by pushing it down people’s throats. He told me it would be much more powerful to be more subtle and he was so so very right. But can Art made when I am really happy be worthy of the title? Even if the work isn’t politically challenging, surely as an artist you have to be challenged somehow in the making? It has to be hard surely or it’s not worth it?

Far too many questions for a Sunday morning. My existential crisis brought on by happiness is frankly ridiculous and crackers. Isn’t it? Surely I should just ride this wave of creativity and not question it... but here is the rub. What makes us artists is the constant thinking, the constant questioning, the tensions, the fight, the challenge of making and being creative. It is the thing that gives the work meaning, worth and depth no matter how lightweight it seems on the surface. I think… maybe…?

There was a period of time when I hadn’t made anything in ages. I was working - hard - in the day job and I came to the conclusion that if someone asked me what I did my answer could not be that I was an artist. This realisation was so shocking and so horrifying, that I could no longer put myself in that particular box and make that declaration as to who I am that it acted as the catalyst to start making again. I wasn’t mulling, I wasn’t - as Jennifer described on the podcast - in a liminal space between one creative path and another. I simply wasn’t thinking about or making art full stop. So to answer Zak’s question about whether a weaver can be a weaver when they are not making, or whether a quilter can be a quilter if they are not making quilts, or whether an artist can be an artist when they are not making art, absolbloominglutely they can, as long as they still feel like the internal workings are not seized up.

And to answer my own churning dilemmas about whether what I am making is art or not. Yes it bloody well is, because I say it is.

And a massive thank you to Rik. I may be in a new house, in a new job, making different work but that is alot because of you. You may not be here to share it and see it, but equally I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing five years of work that you would have made if you had still been here. You haven’t had five years of listening to me questioning my practice, my ability to call myself an artist. But because I had almost thirty years with you whilst you carefully and gently nurtured and supported my practice, my right to make, your unalloyed joy in the small successes I had, I have enough in the tank to do it without you bodily here to repeat the mantra.

Jennifer Mao quoted Seneca on the podcast. “What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.” Hell yeah.

Another genius quote came from Andy Warhol. One which Rik put in front of me because he knew I needed it. Warhol said “Don‘t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Hell yes.

All images Clare Gee, 2023.

Seamside podcast by Zak Foster available where ever you get your podcasts from.

Follow Jennifer Mao on Instagram @jjj_mao

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Sep 17, 2023

Well said, Clare. And work that really pulls me in. Love it. Sounds a great podcast!

[Cheers, Rik. What a couple you are!]

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