Friday, August 7, 2020

How to be creative in stressful times

A reader asked a very good question in response to my last blog...and, as i think many of us are experiencing similar problems, I decided to write an open letter in response.

She wrote:

I'm having difficulties I don't remember having before the pandemic.
 am paralyzed by too much time, too many choices.
I feel untethered and aimless.
Even when I have all the supplies  for a project, I still can't get going. 
In the evening I feel excited about what I'll do in the morning, but come the morning, I just don't have the creative energy.This isn't like me. 

Reading this I had a lot of different thoughts.  Some of the problems described often occur occasionally, but many of us are experiencing something like this now as a result of the situation we are all living in right now, especially here in the USA.

We are all under a great deal of stress: the result both of fear of the virus, the uncertainty of the future,  and frustration with "them" - i.e. those who could do something about it, and don't...or won't...  Other countries have shown the way, we know what to do to alleviate the problem...but we're not doing it. Actually, I find this creates more tension in me  than the virus itself. We're not all acting together for the benefit of all, but rather infighting.

I think the first step is to address the very real threat of disease and sickness and assure yourself that you are doing all YOU can to be safe...and for your loved ones.  Then say to yourself: I am doing ALL I can, therefore I need to stop reading the news, watching tv or listening to the radio about the virus or politics or global warming etc etc!!

This kind of hot air news with more and more people saying the same thing, but nobody actually doing it is very depressing and it gradually gets you down.  Research has definitely shown that listening to bad news is depressing!

Second, be sure you're getting enough exercise, when we're at home or close to home all the time, it's difficult...but lack of exercise definitely affects mood and drive.  Again, research shows exercise - any kind - here's me dancing by myself!!! - improves mood.  

Third...having eschewed all bad news and started sure to do some good deep relaxation each day.  It's suggested  that right after lunch is a good time.  You can call it deep relaxation, or meditation, or mindfulness...they all involve totally relaxing your body and mind.....ten to thirty minutes. (the cat is optional!)

Don't let yourself feel useless and tiny at the mercy of powerful forces!  Within our own spheres, there's a lot we can do to ensure happiness, creativity and productivity. (yes that's me on his hand!)
Four: More research suggests that getting out into nature is very it's rare that we'll have a chance to have a view like this!! (Maine)...but most of us will have access to some quiet and beautiful natural area.

Five  Social distancing doesn't have to mean social isolation; we need other people.
And we can meet with others, one or two at a time, a little distance apart, friend and I meet to paint and critique in our carport which has a wonderful through breeze.....

Six. Initial inertia. So having take all those steps to feel happier and more does one overcome that initial inertia of getting moving in the studio? Well, starting to move, overcoming the weight of the inertia requires a little more push than usual..a little more gas!

 Don't make the mistake of feeling that you have to wait for excitement and intuition etc etc to carry you gloriously into the task!!  many many creative people have written/spoken about how sometimes it's very difficult  and uncomfortable to get started.  So don't worry about thinking you have to feel tremendous excitement!  Also don't ever feel that everything you do has to be a masterpiece.

A good first step is to set a goal, it can be very small, in fact it's better if it is small.

Some writers aim for so many hundred words, composers so many bars (sorry! not drinks...but measures!), or so much harmonization.

A painter might say - I'm going to paint a very small painting every day...and take a full size sheet of paper and divide it up into little squares or rectangles, one for each day. A choreographer - some steps to the first few bars of a classical piece.

As a quilter, I would decide on a project:  say a small abstract piece, 16 x 10 made from no more than 12 different shapes fitted together.  I would say: okay at 10 am (after the early morning exercise!), I will be in the studio without internet access!!  I will roughly  sketch out 12 different possible designs and pin them up on the wall, and  then I'll have a cup of tea.

yes, you have to push yourself a little to get going...but once you're'll usually stick with it.

I would say to myself (when in the middle of constructing a piece pinned out on the design wall): okay, elizabeth, you have to get just one piece sewn into can stop after that, or keep going, but you HAVE to do that one....often (not always of course, but often enough) I'd find I was onto the 3rd piece before I realised.

Seven.  The use of time.  Many of us are used to schedules and many different activities and for some of us that structure has fallen away because it was externally now is the time to build one's own structure or time table.  It is very helpful to spell it out.  When you get up, go to bed, eat.  When you exercise, when you meet with a friend - zooming or car port!  or gazebo!  Time on emails and internet activities.  Relaxation time.  Studio time. Nature time.  Draw out your schedule, try it for a couple of days, then you can adjust it as necessary. The most creative people have the most discipline and structure.

Eight.  Accountability.  I find this helps a lot - having a critique session with a friend or friends - that's something you can do on Zoom and would be fun, or joining a class where there is a weekly requirement, promising to send somebody a piece for their anniversary.


I hope these ideas help.  Remember you are not alone, many of us are feeling this...but there is a lot we can do. I'd love people to write in Comments and describe their own ideas or experience!

if i get more useful cogitations (it does happen from time to time!), I'll add them and put revised at the top so you know I did!

If you have been, thanks for reading!!!  Elizabeth


From my readers...some extra possibilities:

1. Start with something easy, like following a pattern...that will help to grease the wheels!

2. Divide the day into segments, so you're flowing forwards always.

3. Leave what you're working on at an enticing point, so you're dying to get back to it!

4. Tell yourself you HAVE to stick with it 20 minutes, or so, before giving up!

Thank you!

Friday, July 31, 2020

Isolation pursuits....Learning

I know many of us are staying close to home these days...and this may go on for a long of constantly reviewing the dire numbers...compulsively watching people spouting hot air on tv, or worriedly eating and drinking and stacking piles of toilet paper (for who know when it might be in short supply again!)...let's figure out what benefits there are to our situation.  For one  thing, think of all those dreary appointments and visits that you don't have to make!!!  There's so many things we do that really don't have much point to them, or, even worse, much enjoyment!

And there are so many things for artists and cogitators to enjoy....making art, observing nature, watching dvds about making art, taking on line art lessons (there are a lot of those!*), reading and learning.
Slow cooking, slow pursuits like embroidery....the quilt below is covered in little stitches in the of my favorite quilts to make, and to look at too.
Reading, going through old photographs and making digital copies before they fade any further, but thinking about the people and places and times depicted.
And learning learning learning.... improving and exercising those "little grey cells"!!!!

 I love taking lessons so much - especially one on one..but any lessons really - from a good teacher...not one of those frustrating ones that tell you everything you do is wonderful - I'm sure we've all been in workshops like first it feels good, then you think "I'm not getting anything out of this!"
Some, but not all, online classes have good feedback from the teacher.  I make a point of answering all questions from students very carefully and I can also work with you one on one if you so desire **.

Thinking about why learning is so good I realise I really enjoy learning new things, or - even more -  learning how to do/make those things I already do, better and stronger. I love learning more about art, and music, and more about learning itself.  I'm particularly interested in finding out the best ways to learn. Robert Bjork is very interesting on this - he's made lots of You Tubes.

And, yes, there's the 10,000 hours idea...but this number has been challenged on many levels.
If you haven't heard of it, a popular science writer summarized a number of findings on learning - (particularly with respect to music) and concluded that 10,000 hours of practice would make you an  expert.However, many researchers dispute this e.g.  Macnamara et al (2014) examined all the relevant research and concluded:
" deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued."

The original research was carried out by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer in 1993 on violin students in Berlin. They noted that the best students had practiced around 10,000 hours by the time they were 20.  However to conclude from that research (as has been done)  that 10,000 hours is both a necessary and  a sufficient amount of time to become an expert is invalid. 
In 2017, Ericsson and Pool wrote a book about the limitations to the 10,000 hours idea **. (by the way there are a lot of negative reviews of this book too!).  One of the big problems with the 10g hours theory is that the variation of the number of hours the students had practiced was great, some of the better ones had done less than 10g, some more...10 g was only the average. And, there are other studies suggest that it takes 10 years  rather than 10k achieve a good level of mastery of whatever craft/acitivity you wish to learn.

And what does "practice" actually mean?  Making or doing the same old same old just doesn't cut it.  Everyone does agree that you need to push yourself further, take risks, make the tasks progressively harder, get lots of feedback about mistakes or weaknesses and then devise specific strategies to work on those.  As the athletes do.
People who are very honest with themselves about their work, and who gain good feedback - even if difficult to hear - (and believe me I've been through that!) -  do improve faster than those that keep repeating the same stuff.  Often it's when you hit that brick wall and struggle and struggle and really think about what you have to do to overcome it that you make the most progress.

The research on so-called brain games also suggests that it's not just using our brains that makes the differences, it's taking on ever more difficult tasks.  So, if you want to get anywhere, it's probably not going to be easy.   But are in good company!  If you learn a new brain game and then just settle into playing it over and over,  the brain begins to make things automatic. That doesn't lead to more cognitive strength.  which is why most "brain games" are completely pointless once you've got the hang of it.
NOW...we have the time to excuses!  No dashing around on all that mindless stuff!
We have the time to learn, to listen, to look, to absorb...let's celebrate that instead of bemoaning what we have lost.
So ...what do you think?   Is there a way to consider Isolation positively?
Please comment!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading.   Elizabeth
*I have ten different online workshops with the academy of quilting - reasonably priced...and low numbers in the classes so you can get plenty of attention!
** I do private tutoring too.  Please write me: elizabethyork100 AT for more details.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Lockdown projects

Lockdown can actually be good!!!  Believe it or not....
though it can be tedious...and sadly, no dancing!, it is a great opportunity for new projects!
And for this one, you don't need a pattern, or a drawn design, simply......a closet full of old clothes!

Stuck at home with a sewing machine and no chance to go fabric shopping...hmm time for a little death cleaning!

okay, now "death cleaning" doesn't mean getting rid of the bodies!  well except for the squashed long dead cockroaches I keep finding (we live in the woods)...'s actually a very positive thing.
It involves getting rid of all that STUFF you thought might come in useful one day, or has sentimental value that has diminished over time.  And somebody else would have to clear it out for you if you died without doing it!!!!

The term is translated from ?Swedish where apparently death cleaning is a national pastime!!
Now if you live in Sweden, you can correct me if I'm wrong!
But the spare Nordic look is only achieved by minimizing accumulation!
Not accumulating minimalization.......

So ...staying at home...I'm not even grocery shopping, though I'm very glad our local pool is open to little old ladies trying  to keep fit!......staying at home, I decided to tackle The Cupboard in the Study!!!

This bulging closet has had "might come in one day" stuff shoved into it for years....
my first find was a huge box of garments made from Liberty fabric. When I was in England, I lived near the mills  that produced Liberty fabrics and bought yards and yards.  These fabrics are renowned all over the world for their classic tiny flower designs.  They were printed onto regular cotton, onto fine lawn and onto a beautiful fine wool.

Thanks to changes in fashion, to say nothing of changes in shape!, and a much warmer climate, I don't need any of these are just a few of  them....

I cut off collars and cuffs and elastic waists etc etc...and ended up with some good chunks!!  different rectangles of many different colors....together with my friend who is just learning about quilts, I then sewed these chunks together to make a summer quilt...just one layer of fine wool, enough for the middle of the night when it cools a little and you're sleeping under the fan....

and here is the result....

The big red piece was one huge gathered skirt...I must have looked like a giant potato sack in it!!
Did contemplate cutting it up - but then I decided I like the bold statement it made, and I could arrange the other fabrics around it.

We were really pleased with the result...something both beautiful and functional out of a box of old garments that even the thrift store wouldn't want, and out of Liberty Laine fabric, probably impossibly expensive now...
and all thanks to being stuck at home!!!!

Now I'm embarked on another summer quilt - this time we're going to use all the fine lawns ... smaller pieces...this is going to be fun!!!  Sure hope the virus keeps us at home a bit longer!!!

oh, and the quilt on the wall behind???  I made it a while back, I was intrigued by the illusion of basket's a lot of half-sewn seams if you want to know the technique.

If you have been, thanks for reading!
and do write and tell me about your lockdown projects....


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Art Changes Your Brain! Coping with Stress in our new pandemic world.

Have you ever noticed how energized you feel after making art?  While at the same time being relaxed and calm, there is an excitement underneath?

And, in these times, the "new normal" as everyone is calling it,  we need energy to adapt to our new way of life and also calmness to cope with the many anxieties.

Other countries are going back to the "before"...but we are surging ahead with the need to be separate from each other.
Socializing (except within the bubble) is probably going to be a thing of the past. can we make this work for us?  How can we actually GAIN from this rather than lamenting what we have lost?

The question is:
Can we use art to learn to be less stressed?

Instead of going back to our old ways, can we actually gain from spending more time making art and less time running around town, shopping, socializing, see the latest shows, attending lectures and concerts and dances...?
Surfing around the 'net, I came across a fascinating article that was published in 2014 by Bolwerk et al called How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. 

In the Introduction, they point out that research has largely focussed on the  psychological and physiological effects of making art in clinical populations i.e. the basis for art therapy in psychiatric hospitals.

Making art has consistently been shown to help to reduce stress, increase thoughtfulness and miindfulness, and also to help to bring heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels towards normal.

It's not known, however, if these effects are lasting...can art affect the functional neuroanatomy of the healthy human brain.  also does this work for everyone as well as for people in hospital.

So this is what they set out to study.  It is clear that art is 
 a powerful resource for mental and physical well-being, but there's very little known about 
the underlying effects at a neural level.

 They took 28 normal people of retirement age and divided them into two groups.  The control group attended art appreciation lessons in a local museum.  (not sure where this was, but the authors names suggest Holland or Belgium).
The experimental group attended art lessons where they were encouraged to make art.
The study lasted 10 weeks with the subjects going once a week to museum or art class.

Before and after the experience, they were given various cognitive tests and MRIs.
Both the tests and the MRIs showed that the subjects who actually made art demonstrated great ability to cope with physical and psychological stress.

By the way, I also found that another strategy for stress reduction is engaging with you can see from the images I've posted...I've been walking in the woods AND making art!!!

Just some thoughts.....and, if you have been, thanks for reading!
Please comment!!!   Elizabeth

PS do check out other fiberart blogs:     and then - go make art!

Friday, June 19, 2020

Errors with color

"I'm terrible with color!"

How often have you heard someone  say that?  And you can see when you look at their work, whether it be an art quilt aka a fiber painting aka fiber collage....or a watercolor....

And yet, following a few simple guidelines, color is probably the easiest thing to fix!!
And there is so much that we CANNOT you can feel really good about finding something you CAN fix!!

Here are some of the major errors I see with color:

Problem:  Too many different colors! oh my!!  In Yorkshire (from whence come I many moons ago!) we call such work "cor blimey" pieces!!!  Literally "cor blimey" means God Blind Me!!!  and frequently those mixes of colors do.  I'd love to go surfing on the 'net and find examples but with my luck it would be a piece by somebody really famous and litigious that I would pick! BUT I would encourage you to go and look!

Solution: choose a color scheme at the outset! There are several different ways to choose a color scheme and it's always best to do these BEFORE you begin making your art in color - I'm presuming of course you have a value sketch to follow!!!

Problem: art looks drab and mousy.
Solution: Almost certainly you don't have a good range of values...check to see if everything is medium value.  Much commercial cloth is mid value.  Best way to check is to take a photo and then convert to grey scale....

Problem: Art looks messy and confusing, no real direction.
Solution: Again it's most likely you've got too many different colors and there's no real color theme to the work.  It's really helpful to have one basic color and then build on that.  count up how many different colors you have!!!

Problem: colors don't look good together.
Solution:   Colors, like people!, interact and have an effect upon each other.  Adjacent colors can dim or brighten the partnership!

Problem: Everything appears to be of equal importance, no focal point.
Solution: If all the fabrics are equally saturated in color, then nothing will stand out - whether the level of intensity is great or minor...
The best way to indicate focal areas is by the use of contrast - of one or more of the properties of color: hue, value, saturation and temperature.

Problem: no sense of ambience or atmosphere.
Solution: Two things will help with this:  one is having a dominant color, i.e. one that there is more of than any other color...doesn't have to Dominate!....but does have to have a significant presence.
The other thing would be  to choose an analogous color scheme, or a monochromatic one,  rather than a complementary one.

You're probably wondering - why no pictures!!!!

Well - while I'd love to explore and find all kinds of egregious wouldn't be too polite!!!
But if you want to contact me about coaching etc...I'm happy to look at your color issues....

okay! here's a picture too....
I wanted to show the feeling of coolness and greenness as you come down our heavily forested and twisting driveway...

And, if you have been, Thanks for reading!!!

PS: There's an interesting selection of fiber art blogs to be found here:

Saturday, June 6, 2020

When is it Real Art?

When is it real ART? 
and not just decoration?
not just "ahhhhh"  which is probably what you cat lovers said to the above watercolor!

Well, Renoir said  real art was "inimitable and ineffable".
Since those are words rarely heard today, (alas, our language is often reduced to "whatever"!), I'll expand a little.  Inimitable means something that is so good or so unusual that it's impossible to copy it, it has its own unique presence.   Which of course cannot be said of yet another cat painting!

And ineffable means it's something that is so striking it's hard to find the right words to describe it.

I think many emotions are ineffable, words can't describe the feelings...maybe if one could sing and or dance marvelously, or play an could "describe" the feeling in that way.  In fact that's probably why people who are very skilled at those activities can do that.  But it does take a certain amount of skill I think - awkward clunky movements, off key whining and disconnected unrhythmic notes don't really convey anything much!!

And this is probably why so many people reply (when asked what kind of art they like) that they can't describe it but they know it when they see it.  And I think that's because, they primarily FEEL it when they see it...they feel the emotion - love, anger, desire, torment - that the artist put into the work.

Can you learn to produce work that is inimitable and ineffable?  There's some considerable argument about this - certainly some very famous artists/musicians etc showed immense talent from a very early age...Picasso for example, or Menuhin. And you cannot determine your genes!
But also it's important to have a solid knowledge of your craft...
Goethe: "The artist who is not also a craftsman is no good; but, alas, most of our artists are nothing else".

A good beginning, therefore, is to know your craft...know your techniques, know the art that is already "out there", learn to distinguish the Real from the decoration.  Then undertake the long slow but increasingly fascinating journey that is being an artist.

With a little nod to the odd cat painting here and there along the way of course!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!
And....please comment and tell me what YOU think!!   Elizabeth

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Lockdown = time to do things you've been meaning to do!!!

One day we might be aged crones (and bloke-crones! or whatever the term is!!) and the little ones will ask "what did you do in the time of the plague, dear crone?"

In reply, I shall hoist my half of Guinness and launch into my story!!

Well I did carry on with piano/painting/sewing/scrabble on line .....
but I was really happy about Death Cleaning!!!! I love getting rid of STUFF!
and it takes time!  It's something easily put off when "normal life" is operating.

I had a huge pile of International Artist magazines, which, of course could not be simply just thrown out!!  Against all one's principles!
So I found an artist neighbor to pass them on to but first re-read them all and came up with all kinds of nuggets!  gold !

For example an article  about the joy that comes from making art...for its own sake...not thinking about sales/challenges/workshops/social events connected with it.

While success is one thing, happiness is another.  Studies show that most  young people think that happiness is the result of getting rich and/or famous!!  ha!!! us old crones know actually comes more from creative activities and from relationships.  However, creativity does require work - it's not just filling in colors....but solid internal work.  And then you realise that///

"Internal work - How to use your mind, how to motivate your actions - is far more important than external work because it is this that determines whether what you do becomes the cause of happiness or the cause of suffering".  (Lama Zopz Rinpoche)

And internal work leads to all kinds of discoveries that can be used  to make life and art better and more rewarding.

Creating art based on landscapes and nature - and we have had an amazing spring here in Georgia - brings one more in touch with it, deeper into the beauty and the complexity. 
And once you've spent time gazing, everything gets richer - the colors are brighter, or more subtle, the values really stand out, you enjoy the contrast between soft and hard really SEE!

Happy Lockdown!!
And, if you have been...thanks for reading.
Please comment!!!