True use of art as an expression of experience and a reminder that art making can contribute to cultural health as well as personal health given a recent preponderance for ‘parades’ as demonstrations of power.
“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”
A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.
Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.
Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.
He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee.
When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit.
And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:
I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.
It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.
In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:
It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!
Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp.
Curiosity is a key part of experiential learning, art, research and many other domains.
This is about the value of curiosity for health professionals. Just go look at Table 1 below and see the obstacles in the work environment and the attitude of the care givers. They are linked.
Also the closing paragraph describes for me some of the core components of expereintial education. It says
Curiosity should then be evaluated among medical school candidates as part of the selection process and nurtured throughout medical school by interventions that focus on training the eye and the mind as in visual art observation, small-group learning, accomplishing a genuinely patient-centred encounter founded on listening and reacting to the patient and developing habitual mindfulness and reflection.
Part of the key theme is the idea of noticing. That means being detached and present at the same time, which is mindfulness.
This article has been other articles in PMC. cited by
Curiosity is a universal and omnipotent, predominantly human trait.1 It underlies child development and plays a major role in learning, discovery and art. In between, it is the spice of daily life and a strong bonding element between people. For clinicians, curiosity makes the difference between tiresome ‘automatic pilot’ practice2 and keenly expecting to meet a new challenge, a new learning opportunity and a new person on each encounter.3 To feel and be able to impart this element of renewal and enthusiasm is perhaps the greatest achievement of medical educators, and curiosity is the sine qua non of this and of any meaningful research. No wonder that curiosity (i.e. ‘inquisitiveness’) is an established primary goal of medical education4 and an acknowledged component of professional competence.5
Yet, ‘curiosity’ as a key attribute to success is not mentioned during residencies and research fellowships. Although curiosity and Observation (importantly, one begets the other) can be acquired and cultivated,6,7 its ingrained presence must be a valuable asset, but it is not evaluated among medical school candidates. In tandem with the scarcity of curiosity as a focus of teaching or training, but the term is relatively poorly represented in the medical literature. A PubMed search for ‘curiosity’ AND ‘medical education’ yields only few publications, mostly irrelevant. Although highly humanistic physicians identified a genuine sense of being curious about their patients as an essential fuel sustaining their humanism,8 and the patients’ perspective is no different,9 research evidence is practically non-existent. Considering the key role of curiosity in medicine (Figure 1), these deficiencies are surprising.
Five major domains are strongly affected by curiosity (an original perspective): A. Data collection – more comprehensive, better elicitation of the patient’s history, narrative, contextual factors and improved observation and detection of examination findings. B. Learning opportunity – patient-oriented, reflexive problem-based learning. Curiosity facilitates finding the best available answers for the patient, underlies a habit of obtaining follow-up, and ensures continuous professional development. C. Research – potential trigger of formulating a general research question and developing future original research. D. Personal view – understanding the patient’s identity and ubiquitous emotional aspects, whether primary or reactive to the illness. Sensed by the patient, it leads to reciprocal trust, adherence and improved health outcomes. E. Mindfulness, introspection, reflection equal self-directed curiosity that improves indicators of patient-centred care and physicians’ well-being.7 A (data), B (learning) and C (research) are predominantly cognitive, while D (personal) and E (mindfulness) are primarily emotive and promote empathy. A (data), B (learning) and D (personal) are all patient-centred (highlighted). C (research) is science-centred, and E (mindfulness) constitutes self-centred-curiosity. Only excellence in C (research) is considered prestigious and associated with career advancement.
If defined as an innate attitude of sincere, widely applied interest in other persons encountered and in things observed, curiosity is associated with a desire to know more and ideally has seven important characteristics. It is omnipresent, and not just clinical. It is target-independent and applies to numerous everyday observations and encounters, often to small details, and not only to grand or unique experiences. It is a lifelong trait, and not temporary or occasional. It is friendly, and not intrusive, felt by the other person and very likely to elicit a warm response. It is bidirectional, mostly directed outward but also bearing inwards as in introspection, reflection and mindfulness. It is conceived as pleasurable, and not a nagging duty. Importantly, it always leads to thought and action, and is not just passive.
In the patient–provider encounter, these broad characteristics ensure substantial curiosity-driven cognitive advantages for the physician, as well as emotive opportunities for both parties (Figure 1). Their application will yield better quality of communication and elicitation of the patient’s history, concerns and signs (Figure 1A), and frequent search for patient-tailored evidence yielding improved decision-making. Curiosity also underlies tracking belated tests and verifying patient outcomes, establishing curiosity as key to imperative feedback, habitual learning and advancement (Figure 1B). Moreover, the physician’s interest will soon translate to knowing and acknowledging the patient,8,10 and correctly identifying common emotional and contextual problems that need attention. Increasing empathy and commitment naturally follow. Thus, curiosity begets emotional engagement and greater therapeutic efficacy:11,12 patients are quick to sense when their provider truly cares (Figure 1D, bidirectional arrow) and respond by better coping and increased satisfaction, trust and adherence, that may achieve significant improvement in patient’s quality of life and clinically important ‘hard’ health outcomes.12–15 A curiosity-based approach can therefore advance health outcomes by two distinct mechanisms, cognitive and emotive, strongly enhancing a currently hampered patient–provider relationship16 and the provision of patient-centred care, a major Institute of Medicine goal17(Figure 1A, B, B,DD).
These substantial multiple benefits contrast with the often-prevailing cursory history and examination; infrequent search for evidence-based solutions; inattention to patients’ concerns or feelings; and inadequate patient-centred care or shared decisions.17–21 Expected providers’ gains are no less important. Up to 60% of physicians report symptoms of burnout (defined as emotional exhaustion, low sense of accomplishment and treating patients as objects) impairing their quality of life and the quality of care they provide.22 Arguably, a curiosity-based approach (including self-directed curiosity as in reflective, mindful practice; Figure 1E) may constitute an effective antidote,7 infusing daily practice with experience and meaning: physician’s job satisfaction is likely to increase together with diminishing stress, burnout and fatigue, improved wellbeing and enhanced professional performance involving fewer errors and greater empathy.
Given the immense impact of the five domains of curiosity in medicine (Figure 1) and its manifold prevalent barriers (Table 1),23 bland declarations4,5 need to be supplemented by action. Curiosity is conspicuously absent from either the Royal College of Physicians report on ‘Changing doctors in changing times’ (2010) or the General Medical Council ‘Good medical practice’ update (2013), although central to their imperative goals. Curiosity should be much more in the currency of educators’ and providers’ thoughts, since current medical education may in fact have a suppressive effect on curiosity (Table 1).24–26 However, no tools exist that capture this intangible qualitative aspect of the patient–physician interaction. Further research is clearly indicated, since current evidence on methods of measuring and cultivating curiosity throughout medical education remains in its infancy.
Postulated major obstacles to the expression of curiosity in today’s clinical practice.a
I. Educational deficiencies
• Curiosity ‘below the radar’ – poor awareness
• Too little time spent at the bedside
• Too few role models
• Deficient training in communication and ‘narrative competence’
• Impaired cultural competence skills vs. increasing diversity
• Overwhelming clinical information and detail vs. poor preparation
• Over-emphasis on efficiency, focus and restraint
• Exam-centred learning
• Passive ‘spoon feeding’ ≫ independent learning
• Atmosphere promoting anxiety and detachment
II. ‘Culture of medicine’ factors
• The ‘Hidden curriculum’ – no marks for Curiosity-driven excellence in patient-centred care
• Technology-focused and test-focused encounter, not really patient-centred
• Patient-centred care perceived as time-consuming, unrewarding and non-prestigious
• Patients perceived as wanting prescriptions, tests and referrals – not a ‘Curiosity’-driven encounter
• Defensive practice
III. Work environment factors
• Overburdened schedules vs. time constraints
• Stress from frequent interruptions, administrative burden
• Short ambulatory encounters and short hospital length of stay; poor continuity of care; fragmentation of care
• Diminished sense of control; regulators stressing form-filling and restrictions
IV. Physician’s personal factors
• Preoccupation with personal problems
• Focus on other preferences (e.g. remuneration)
• Poor tolerance of uncertainty
• Worry about possible malpractice litigation – seeing the patient as a potential adversary
• Build-up of unvented work-related emotions (faulty feedback and reflection)
Based on extensive literature on patient–physician relations, clinical excellence and medical education.
Curiosity should then be evaluated among medical school candidates as part of the selection process and nurtured throughout medical school by interventions that focus on training the eye and the mind as in visual art observation,6 small-group learning,27 accomplishing a genuinely patient-centred encounter founded on listening and reacting to the patient14,25,28–30 and developing habitual mindfulness and reflection.2,7,16 Reading Fitzgerald’s classic monograph31 often leaves a deep impression on students. Since true curiosity that is detached from the patient is hard to envisage, increased exposure to bedside teaching rounds is likely to foster curiosity,32,33 particularly when led by effective clinician role models.29 Curiosity could be evaluated by using standardised patients with ‘half-hidden’ clues amenable to curiosity. The common accumulating barriers to curiosity (Table 1)24,31 can perhaps be overcome by Continuing Medical Education programmes incorporating interactive quiz-based folding case presentations,34 simulation exercises,35improvisational workshops,30 Balint groups,36 reflective writing and narrative-focused exercises37,38 which need to be more widely disseminated.6,7,38 Training providers to non-verbally express curiosity, interest and empathy is important and feasible,39 although most nonverbal communication is subconscious, and sincere curiosity will be instinctively felt by the patient (Figure 1D). System changes are also called for (Table 1, III) but may take more time to implement.16 For now, educational changes, awareness, self-training and a change in attitude can readily accomplish much in reinvesting medical education and our patient–provider relationship with more curiosity.
Not commissioned; editorial review
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Great article form Ciara McCabe from The Conversation (links below) with a UK focus, about having a hobby as a way to improve mental health. Ciara has provided lots of links to other sources including SAGE, and other great articles from The Conversation.
My experience reflects this, in that I found art making and walking art pleasurable, and the walking bit also promoted physical health and wellbeing.
With depression one of the features for me is overthinking, often expressed as free floating anxiety that seems to just come from nowhere and be about nothing. I worry about worrying.
But also the act of making stuff means that I get to think about something that is pleasurable, and outside my head and not inside it. It is also real stuff I can do and touch. It is grounding. And I end up with an art object or do a walk with a purpose to seek experience to make art or my walk becomes performance. Out of the experience, I learn something and make some real concrete thing, and that is affirming.
So the depressive thoughts that I would have had that have no purpose, get used up with doing things that become purposeful.
The art object, be it performance or an art object becomes a container for personal experience and personal material. Culturally, this always was a purpose of art. An undue focus on art as ‘Fine Arts’ and art markets has undermined this purpose.
Make art and don’t beat yourself up that it is not ‘good’ art. Bad art is still art, and you can be the only witness to your art making. Don’t give in to embarrassment. Stop making sense. Nobody will ever know what you made.
For some, having a hobby may even prevent depression.
The pandemic has taken its toll on many peoples’ mental health. Given the fear of the virus and the government restrictions on movement many may understandably be feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed than usual. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even issued guidance on how people can look after their mental health during this difficult time. Key advice includes trying to keep a regular pattern of eating, sleeping, hygiene and exercise.
But a less obvious recommendation is to make sure you’re still finding time to do the things you enjoy. In fact, research shows that having a hobby is linked to lower levels of depression – and may even prevent depression for some.
Losing interest and joy in things you normally like doing is one symptom of poor mental health. Known as anhedonia, this is a common symptom of depression and is something patients say they would most like relief from – possibly because the drugs used to treat depression target other symptoms and don’t seem to alleviate it.
So, finding time for your interests and pleasures – such as a hobby – during lockdown could be one way of avoiding anhedonia and depression. In fact social prescribing is a treatment method where doctors can ask patients with mild to moderate depression to take up a non-medical intervention (such as a hobby) to improve their mental health. As antidepressants can be less effective in those with mild depression, this treatment strategy may still help patients with depression find relief from their symptoms.
So far, some studies have shown that social prescribing programmes that ask patients to take up hobbies such as gardening or art are beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.
Evidence also shows that even for those with clinical depression, certain psychological treatments – like behavioural activation, which requires patients to schedule in time to do things that bring them pleasure and joy – improve symptoms of depression. A wide range of activities and hobbies may play a role in social prescribing and behavioural activation, such as exercising, playing an instrument, drawing, reading or handicrafts.
The reason that finding time for hobbies can work has to do with how they affect the reward system in the brain. When we take part in a hobby that we enjoy, chemical messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) are released – such as dopamine, a chemical which helps us feel pleasure. These feel-good chemicals can then make us want to do the hobby again, and feel more motivated to do so.
So even though we may not feel motivated in the beginning to spend time on a hobby, once we start it and feel the associated pleasure, this will kick-start our reward system and subsequently our motivation to do it again. This is something we’re researching in greater depth in our lab.
Alongside pleasure and motivation, hobbies can also bring other benefits. Physical hobbies can, of course, improve your fitness, and others can even improve your brain function. Research suggests that some hobbies – like playing a musical instrument – can improve your memory, while artistic hobbies (such as reading or board games puzzles) are reported to prevent dementia later in life.
So if you’re feeling lower than normal during the pandemic, perhaps try to find time to re-engage with some hobbies that you may have enjoyed in the past – or try new ones. You can also seek help or guidance from your GP or a therapist to find the best treatment for you.
On the Solway, so flat and otherworldly I walked and remained fixed in space. The sea, the sand, the storm approaching over Glasson Moss moved past me as I rotated the Earth with my feet.
Looking closely and photographing, I moved slowly. But on my turn and return to Browhouses walking faster, the same thing occured. The white windmills in the sun sped towards me. The earth turned under me like a ball under a circus dog.
In the Renault it stopped. Feet no longer on the floor. The pedals, a, b, c were depressed, and the car sped past Metal Bridge and the services, back to Brampton and my house.
In the house, out of my boots in slippers the crockery in the cupboard rattled and chinked with each step. I toyed with a short sprint. The milk in the jug rocked like a storm… in a milk jug. Teacups were the same. Tea sloshed over the rim. Little waves on a bone china shore.
I filled the bath and on walking from the bog a tsunami formed. I walked the dog round the block, and the planet rolled in a raggedy right turn the size and shape of my neighbourhood, back to where she started. I sat still at last to watch the news. Natural disasters around the world. Unexplained tectonic movements unforeseen by experts.
I went to bed. I awoke. And it had gone.
I moved. The Earth did not.
I retuned to the Solway to seek the spot where it happened, and in it’s vastness the spot was lost.
But somebody some day will find it. And the earth will move again.
My visit to the Solway was prompted by a need for a large space without physical barriers to explore what would happen if I walked a drawing of an model of experiential learning through the arts. In doing so my idea about my model changed.
The original model
Models are slippery things. Their appeal is that they appear to give a fixed image of a thing, but in practice whilst they serve as a very useful signpost about which way to go when you set off, the thing you find when you get there is never fixed. So the walk was undertaken as an experiment ‘to explore what would happen…’
What the model predicted was that a number of factors would contribute to the art making. In this case my thoughts were that source material would be Richard Long and the walking and land artists. My personal arts practice or art made included using a GPS and walking to make a mark on the landscape and experience of film making as a means of exploration, reflection and expression of experience. I drew on ongoing research and theory about the outdoors as a liminal space and art making as adventure, as a journey of uncertain outcome, and Shaun McNiff’s ideas about witnessing in the arts therapies1.
The model was correct in that my path would lead in to and out of the art making on the day and on to more art making, research, source materials and theory, and that the generic coloured blobs would be specific to the art making experience. My initial thinking after the event went to ideas about performance and the epistemic object and further trips to photograph and film, reporting this through blog posts.
At the centre of this, an act of art making and poiesis occurs. Something comes into existence that did not exist before and it is called art. It is art by convention, because all this could describe the making of a cup of tea. To this conundrum ’Why is this art?’ one asks the question asked by artist John Baldessari, “Why is this not art.” It is art because it was my intention to make art and my act was guided by research, reference to existent artform and artists, theories of art and my experience of art I made before.
But there was something incomplete about the central concentric circle structure. I was interested in the model showing how each experience of art making occured within a loop of experience, like in Kolb’s learning cycle.
But like the Kolb model is an ideal form which would be expressed differently depending on the setting, the strict concentric form may vary depending on the setting. My experience of art-making was, however, that in making art I stepped away from the day to day life experience and went to a different place. This could state is sometimes known as a ‘Flow’ state from work by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. You get in the zone of concentration and attention, of doing and the senses. But for art-making as experiential learning or personal research or art therapy, you enter a state that is similar to a meditative state, like flow with awareness. You are focussed on making art but also on what it is that you have made and what happens when you make it.
So in the model, as well as cycling through an iterative learning process, there was a linear path away from the world, into a creative state where something happens in partnership with your artform, then back to the world.
Reflecting on how the model changed
On return home from the Solway and recollecting the emergence of performance I went back to my Dramatherapy training. In a dramatherapy session you work with a basic three part structure. ‘It begins with a physical warm-up leading to the Main Event, the place where the real action is. It concludes with the ‘grounding’, returning people from the ‘Land of Imagination’ to their own everyday selves.2’
During the walk recreating the drawing, the shift from walking to dancing, from recreating the drawing to improvising and performance emerged unbidden. One could say this idea came out of my imagination or my unconscious, or it was the product of a state of flow, or having danced in the past, I simply remembered something from my past related to what I was doing in the present.
So there are two things here. One is a linear journey into a place with some degree of separation from the everyday world, into ‘flow’ or ‘Land of Imagination’, followed by a return. This is a linear journey in an iterative looping cycle of learning. The other is the experience of being in ‘flow’ or the ‘Land of Imagination’. This is an experience of art making as somewhat separated from ones day to day life.
Something like this three-stage process occurs in many settings. In story and in film and theatre there is a thing called the ‘Three Act Structure.’ On one hand, this is as simple as a beginning a middle and an end or it is sometimes understood as set-up, confrontation and resolution. Many interpretations exist and there are examples to be found of its use in say cinema, but it is not without some contention. Like one article says ‘The true three-act structure isn’t a formula, it keeps your beginning separate from your middle and your middle separate from your end. That’s it.’
But the ‘beginning, middle and end’ could be seen as a universal or archetypal structure. For example at Outward Bound, in experiential learning, you worked with a ‘training, main and final expedition’. Your training expedition was where you taught skills, the main expedition was where you had the conflict as you got the people to move from being a group to being a team. Final was the unaccompanied independent journey.
In care, we worked with a conflict model and resolution tool called ‘ABC Charts’ meaning A – antecedent, B – behaviour, and C – consequences. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has a specific expression and detail but is also a three-stage form, the call to adventure, the test and the return.
But the simple, warm up, main event and grounding of dramatherapy mentioned above can be also seen in a form described by Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep as Rites of Passage.
The above diagram is from Victor Turner a British anthropologist who theorised the above from studies of non-western settings at the top, and western settings at the bottom. This is a three stage journey of return that is linear and cyclical and has a central liminal or liminoid space somewhat separated from everyday life called The Land of Imagination in the dramatherapy model.
Art as liminal space
My proposal is that art making and experiential learning could be understood as having some some elements of the above structure in their practice. I don’t think it is coincidental that after a while on the Solway Walk, I spontaneously rediscovered that I could do the walk as performance. This could be seen as me, albeit briefly, entering a mild ludic state.
There is a lot to this seemingly simple experience of walking in circles on a beach like an idiot. Not least the idiocy. I was being playful throughout. I was in the land of the Trickster or the Court Jester, at once playful and challenging, the one who can perform recombination and inversion.
This is also adventure. The journey between departure and arrival. The journey of uncertain outcome with misadventure available. The three part expedition cycle of Outward Bound. On a slave ship, the middle passage. The refugee in the hands of the trafficker. It is not a thing of the past.
To me there is also something in this of being in the Solway, a liminal space if ever I saw one, between two countries, high and low water, land and sea. To me this is also a state of walking. In walking you are between places, outdoors, in a state of flow, and returned to a mode of existence that predates all of the modern world.
So after a few weeks of reflection my research led me a realisation. The experience was ‘like’ a lot of things, from experiential learning, theatre, anthropology, adventure sports, performance art, and conflict resolution, to Outward Bound and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
This could also be applied to many arts based contexts and the model has ART FORM as a liminal or liminoid experience at it’s heart, the same as dramatherapy. But the artform that fits this experience best if what is known as Walking Art.
My exploration of my Solway walk has reached a convenient place to move on and in my next set of posts I want to look at Walking Art with a particular focus on it’s scope for promoting health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies – Theory and Practice – Laury Rappaport ed. ↩︎
Discovering the Self through Drama and Movement – The Sesame Approach. Jenny Pearson ed. ↩︎
Performance Studies – An Introduction. By Richard Schechner. Routledge. ↩︎
An unco sough i’ the gloamin’
An’ a flaff o’ risin’ win’,
A glisk o’ stoundin’ waters
By the weirdly licht o’ the mune,
An’ the fell dark tide o’ Solway
Comes breengin’, whummlin’ in.
Whaur glistenin’ sands lay streikit
Ablow the sunset sky
Noo a wan wide sea is reestin’
An’ the yammerin’ sea-birds cry,
An’ a wheengin’ win’ rings eerily
I’ the salmon nets oot-by.
by Dorothy Margaret Paulin
from Country Gold and other poems (The Moray Press, 1936)
To describe the Solway, it is useful to start at the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway, because from this point, 100 km ENE to the outlets of the Esk and Eden, and 70 km ESE to Bees Head is one interconnected system of sea, sand, rock and river called the larger Solway Basin as shown in the header image above.
But this opened up to a world beyond. From the lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway on a clear day, to the north you look towards the highlands and islands of Scotland, to the west you can see Northern Ireland, to the south the Isle of Man is clearly visible, and if you travelled due west you would arrive in Penrith, passing over Skiddaw on the way. Liverpool is south east. Dublin south west, Due south is Falmouth.
All this connected by sea passages going back millenia. Recent history would have seen highlanders removed in the clearances in the 18th century who would travel through this area from Annan waterfront to America around the same time that travellers and thinkers from France forged links and then divisions between the French and The Scottish Enlightenment. The Vikings came south into this maritime passageway, and the Romans came north. A legend with a grain of truth asserts that the Geodelic Celts came through this water from Scythia via Spain and the Fir Bolg from Greece.
Closer to home, the bit where the Esk and The Eden meet, between England and Scotland there are stories of ancient pathways of their own which give rise to it’s name. In ‘Crossing the Solway’ the writer Blindedbydazzle writes ‘Sol is common to Anglo-Saxon and Norse tongues. It means mud. The Anglo-Saxon woeth or Norse vad (or vath) … is ford. The Sulewad or Sulwath is as it was then, a way of mud.’
So before a bridge was built at the aptly named Metal Bridge, the Solway was a muddy passage way for travellers going between Scotland and England. The Wath’s across the Solway shown below are from Solway Shore-walker, another site worth a visit. The full story of the Waths is available here and a story of an actual crossing by the author is to be found here.
Where are all the people ?
Either speeding up the M6/A74 or driving more slowly round the minor roads, the Solway switches between being invisible, behind hedges and walls, or appearing spectacularly into view with an ever changing mixture of cloud, sun, water and land or vast areas which appear to be all of the above. However it is best experienced on foot. But as stated elsewhere, it is one of Europes biggest unindustrialised estuaries, and as such it is vast. The drive from Carlisle to the Lighthouse on the Mull of Galloway is over 2 and half hours, the same as to Manchester. There are an almost unending number of places to walk.
The terrain is varied with mountains and bays and sandbanks. The tides mean coastal walking varies by the hour. The flatness of the estuary also messes with your sense of distance. My partner and I walked on the estuary below Criffell and could see ‘something’ out over the sand as the tide ebbed. We went to see what it was and after a 20 minute walk, all we found was a plastic fish crate. But when we turned round we realised we were a mile from the beach. As we walked the sky moved under us reflected in the water in the sand ripples. It gives an impression of either indifference to human presence, or when the tides and weather change, a distinct sense of malevolence.
There are other wild and remote places in the borders that do this too. An article in the magazine ‘Live for the Outdoors’ puts the spot in England most remote form a tarmac road in Kielder Forest GR NY 58000 85879, under 30km NW of the Solway. The article is here. It is a land unused to people.
My wife and I went to the nearby Cristianbury Crags and found a large snakeskin and over half a dozen racing pigeon leg tags, presumed to be from the dinner table of the native Peregrines. It was an atmospheric place and after a while we both agreed it was time to go. In the car on the way home we confided with each other that we independently felt like the crags wanted us to go, at more or less the same time. This is weirdly reinforced in a 16m YouTube video of the crags below.
At the 15m mark, on departure from the place, the videographer describes what I think we felt. He says earlier that the mist seems to have followed them about and then says “The whole place is really mysterious with the clag coming through it, really eerie, like another world.” Just a few miles south there was another world, going from the head of the Solway up into the hills to the south of Christianbury.
The Debatable Land
The sparcity of population is a norm for this wild borderland. Between England and Scotland there was one a place called ‘The Debatable Lands’. Where it is popularly portrayed it is as the lawless breeding ground for the murderous Reivers. A 2020 BBC article here gives part of the story reinforcing this with the lurid reference to a decree ’..in the mid-16th Century, some 300 years into the Debatable Lands’ story: (stating) “All Englishmen and Scottishmen are and shall be free to rob, burn, spoil, slay, murder and destroy, all and every such person and persons, their bodies, property, goods and livestock… without any redress to be made for same.” While this decree was made into law, it was more of a legal “out” for England and Scotland. Neither side wanted the responsibility of dealing with the Debatable Lands; and as they could not agree on who owned it or how it was divided, neither could be held responsible for it, either.’ See a map here.
The article points out this deadly decree is 300 years into the story. In ‘The Debatable Land’ by Graham Robb, he writes about how it was originally ‘…a defined area in which no permanent building had been allowed. Animals could be pastured there but only between sunrise and sunset, and the soil was not to be ploughed or ‘opened’ in any way…. ‘Batable’ comes from the obsolete verb ‘batten’. Batable land was rich, fertile land on which livestock could be pastured and fattened up (or ‘battened’). By the 1800s, the word had fallen out of use.”1 As a teen, in Derby in the 70’s you took your food to work in your Bait Box. I thought it was a carry over from the fisherman’s bait box, but they just have the same root. The box for fodder, for the fish or the fishermen.
Ecologically this is exactly how this land should be used. It is in equitable balance with the human population. The Solway is the same. The biggest town, Annan has a population of, say 10k people. Dumfries has maybe 150k, and is connected to the Solway by the Nith, but is not on the shore. Malthus’s idea of a territory having a carrying capacity is seen as superseded in some quarters or resurgent in others. The Solway and the Debatable Lands have a low population density. Neither ids wilderness, both have a history of human interaction. I you can at least see everywhere on earth through Google Earth, or at least 98%, then there is no real, unseen by human eye, wilderness left. We all live somewhere on the urban fringe.
But part of what makes the Solway and the Debatable lands interesting to me is that to a large extent, the native population is not human. In the borders their are hotspots. Hadrians Wall runs a few miles from my house and ends at Bowness-on-Solway, the site of a Sulewath, and in the summer it is (by Cumbrian standards) heaving. But at Walton Moss (another of my stomping grounds), in the 6 years I have been going there, apart from a single busy day of hound racing, I have seen no more than 5 people, all at a distance. So who, apart from the few humans, who does live there.
Natural England has a number of descriptive documents of National Character Areas. It’s summary of the Solway is extensive, available here and describes it thus…
‘The Solway Basin is a low-lying area of gently undulating low hills that grade into the coastal plain and estuarine landscape of the Solway Firth. To the east and south and across the lowlands of the Dumfries coast to the north, the lowland landscape is framed by the uplands of the Lake District, the North Pennines and southern Scotland. The area has a long history as border country, originally divided by the Roman frontier of Hadrian’s Wall, which has World Heritage Site designation, and through succeeding centuries it has been a part of the disputed lands of the English–Scottish border. The area is dominated by pastoral agriculture in rectilinear fields bounded by hedges but with increasing arable farming on the low hills. The coastal zone is characterised by a more open, wind-swept, dynamic and tidal landscape of salt marshes, beaches, sand dunes and intertidal flats along the margins of the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea.’
In previous posts the relationship between images and words and experience of place has been explored. But in terms of who lives on the Solway the Solway Coast Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty website has some great publications with images of birds, sea-life, plants, human habitation and industrial history available by clicking here.
The Solway Firth Partnership has a YouTube Channel here and two videos below which show the range of habitats from cliffs to moorland to estuary.
And as for the people who live on the Solway, the Annan Haaf Netters know the place better than anyone. This great film from 2019 shows the Solway in it’s many moods and the fishermen catching salmon. What is to anybody else, is just a bit of sea and sand, is to the local people an intimately understood place with names and a personality.
Excerpt From: Graham Robb. “The Debatable Land.” ↩︎
I found a number of writers and poets who know the Solway. I want to include them in this bit about the Solway and will post their writings with links for visitors to follow. Please support these artists by paying attention and buying their writing.
Helen Cox has been writing professionally since graduating from her MA in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of York St John in 2006 . Between now and then, Helen has written editorial for TV, radio, magazines and websites providing commentary on a range of topics including film, literature, travel and feminism. The publications she has written for include The Guardian, The Spectator, Film Fatale Magazine, movieScope Magazine and Film4.Com.
Of the Solway, in her debut poetry book ‘Water Signs’ she says…
(the last paragraph is a killer)
I was raised on the edge of the Eden River, at the point where her mouth opens out to the Solway Firth. The Solway is a fault line, marking the brink where two continents once kissed and swallowed an ancient ocean – the Iapetus, a long-lost ancestor of the Atlantic. On a still day, this saline mirror reflects the jagged lines of Scotland, where martyrs were once bound to rocks and drowned, and the English saltmarshes on the other side where the last ammonites laid down to die.
On this windless November afternoon, when the frosts have yet to scratch their nails down the backs of the distant hillsides, you can almost smell the chill in the air. But despite the coldness of this landscape, and its cruelty, despite the firth’s deadly quicksand and the way it hold hands with its radioactive sister: the Irish Sea, even now there is a feverish singing in my blood. A siren call that lures me back to this shoreline.
Like these tides I know of old, I will always return.
Nearby in St Michael’s graveyard, the corpses of Georgian smugglers who pirated brandy and tobacco are buried beneath the Yew trees. Their ears unable to listen to the bells chime in the church tower. Bells stolen from Scotland by English raiders. Bells that sang to me on playtimes and lunchtimes when I was a student at Bowness-on-Solway – a school that stands just a hop, skip and a jump from the skeletons of dead buccaneers.
My old school gate is an Ouroboros; the end and the beginning of Hadriain’s Wall – an eighty-mile frontier where rebels and Romans shot bronze arrows through each other’s hearts.
Here is division, threat and death, and for the time I lived here that is a truth I was never allowed to forget.
Hiking the periphery of the firth, twenty-five years after I left this landscape behind, I watch eroding earth flirt with the dislocated jaw of the estuary. I mark progress by the hazard signs posted every half mile. Warning strangers about the merciless tides that grip and twist the Eden until she no longer looks like her true self. I am reacquainted with the silence that lives here on the outer rim. The only sound: the intermittent rattle of trucks clattering over cattle grids.
When dusk closes in, mauve clouds threaten to smother and in my bones I know I wouldn’t resist. Through the mist, an invisible hand inks the silhouettes of bare trees on the horizon. The only other witness: a creaking gate the farmer refuses to oil. He’d rather save the fuel for his furnace. For the day the hearth wolfs down his last block of fire wood, when he cannot bear to chop hawthorn bark with chapped hands in the snow.
While we walk through the last shred of sunlight, chased by the icy breath of the coming solstice memories wash up on the foreshore like fragments of old pottery and river glass, and with them some dead bodies.
Looking back over my shoulder at the expanse of silver water, I think about the yawning void between information and wisdom. By the age of ten, when my parents left Cumbria for Yorkshire, the universe had taught me everything I need to know. It took me another quarter of a century to truly understand what to do with that gift.
Part of the work of Rewilding is that it is an idea about how place should be understood. A rewilded place is a place that helped along, then is left to make itself.
Given this we could understand rewilding at the urban fringe in art terms, as an artistically expressed idea in which native species make an urban place wilder through their own creative outlet, which is what wilderness, and art is, it creates itself.
You could say than, following this line, that Graffiti art was a way of rewilding urban spaces. An art form created by black and hispanic people in the cities and specifically the bits of cities that were, literally, wild places at the edge of the less wild respectable places, with Graffiti now ironically, partly gentrified as ‘Street Art’. Rewilding, takes place along a continuum, as does the urban fringe.
This is about Ben Wilson. Chewing Gum Man, who makes art from the detritus of human life. He starts his work with an ethos about who should control urban space, and about art as an act of making not selling. Truly an inspiration.
His work promotes a dialogue through art, about place and who controls it and what purpose art serves.
In seeking to report here on my experience of the Solway as expressed through art, what has happened is that I have come to question my understanding of how I experienced the Solway.
In some ways this was a bit alarming. My main contention with Moving Space, is that art making provides an expression of experience that is closer to the direct embodied experience than verbal or written accounts. This remains true, but on reflection the following has emerged.
That whilst being in experience (as an embodied, sensed, cognitive, spiritual and durational phenomena) is encountered as a ‘normal’ seamless thing, retrospectively upon examination through words, images, and personal recollection, the shear magnitude of the simple experience of being on the Solway has dawned on me. It was also something far from normal.
Each artform I have worked with has given a particular account of, or path through the experience. All are valid but all are incomplete compared to the actual magnitude of the experience of being there.
The one bit of art making that came closest to being directly in the actual experience, was the moment I stopped walking an image of an idea and moved into performance and decided to (like KC & The Sunshine Band implore) do a little dance.
This is the one bit of artform that leaves no concrete artefact, like a painting, or a photographic image, of a poem. With performance there is no art object.
Of the artforms producing an object that I have worked with at time of writing, the film and the photography, the images of the experience that best get to how it felt, are the least figurative ones. The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.
But collectively, the more modes of artistic expression I explore, the more I get to an expression of the experience as a whole.
Whoever would have thought a one mile walk on a beach could contain so much experience.
Over this post I want to show what I made and pick some of this apart. But first I want to pick apart some art history which is pertinent to my reflections above.
History is written retrospectively and by it’s nature contains many narratives. Historiographically one narrative is that sometime around the end of the 19th C photography ruined painting. In the UK, most Victorian painters were portrait painters. People of sufficient income wanted paintings of themselves and their families that would show sufficient likeness that they could hang them on the wall and not have guests say ‘Who is that in your lovely painting?’ But along came the photograph, and apart from the time it took to expose a photographic plate, the photograph became a means of making an image of total likeness, that was available to everyone, including people who’s income was insufficient for a painting by an artist.
But a theory goes that now photography could simply and quickly make a totally accurate likeness, painting which was hitherto largely figurative became impressionistic. Photography showed the real thing, painting showed an expression of a thing. Painting became an impression of the experience of the painter. Painters went outside their studios and painted ‘En plein air’ in the outdoors. Freud explored the unconscious, artists explored surrealism, science discovered the quantum world, and suddenly we find that the observer of reality changes the reality they observe. The modern era had arrived.
So in recounting my Solway Walk and the art making that ensued I want to start by reviewing my photography on the Solway because this most easily illustrates some of the points I made above.
Long before I did the Solway Walk I climbed Criffel with my wife. Map here. The day we were there, the tide was out on the Solway and the clouds scudded literally just over our heads. We could see and touch the clouds around us and also see them reflected in the ebb tide thousands of feet below us. It was a mind expanding day. This impression of the Solway never left me.
To me these are very impressionistic images because at the moment we peaked Criffell, the whole place gave an impression of a place bewixt and between. The images are accurate depictions of the place. The images have an abstract quality with the sky and the cloud edge below us.
Other images of the Solway, whilst having some aesthetic merit and accurately and figuratively recording a photographic image of what I saw. They are rooted in my sense of sight, but don’t convey the otherworldly aspect of the Solway. They are conventional landscape images that show what I experienced with my eyes.
So working with images, post-processing them on my Mac with Lightroom, I find nice landscape images, because I saw nice landscape shots. But other images I took, which clearly caught my eye at the time, don’t have that nice figurative ‘landscape’ look. They show my experience, but don’t make classically photographic images.
My Amateur Photographer ‘Landscape’ eye judges them to be boring. But my judgement is that they covey my experience of the Solway as a place eternally between sky and sea, between tides, between land and water, but nobody will understand them.
In the end I produced this image which to me most accurately conveys my experience of the Solway.
To me this conveys the idea of ‘The more abstract the image, the less it appears to depict the place, the more it shows how the experience felt.’ I put this image out and make judgement that in ‘landscape’ terms this is not an image easily understood by a person viewing it. It is not really a picture of a thing. It is an impressionistic triptych, and in some ways cubist, showing three views at the same time, like Hockney’s cubist inspired ‘Joiner‘ images. It has shifted away from a figurative ‘landscape’ image that shows what I saw, but it shows much better my experience of the Solway and a place that feels like it is always between things or many things at once.
So in terms of how art making can be used to explore and express personal experience of place, I come back to a recurring theme. There may be a tension between making art that is accessible in terms of being a figurative account, that looks to me and other people like a ‘landscape’ and more impressionistic or abstract images which mean something to me, that show my experience, but may be less explicable to other people.
Furthermore. If the performance of the dance came closest to being directly in the actual experience of being on the solway, but has the least to show, then using art to explore and express personal experience may need to have two threads. One is more personal and connected to process. Art is made that helps the individual process their own experience, but may be inexplicable to other people. The other thread is one in which art is made that is less impressionistic, but makes personal experience more explicable to other people.
All I have talked about here is my photography. This reinforces that both in terms of personal process and the production of art that is explicable to other people, working with a number of artforms may be useful. No single artform can covey experience in it’s fullest. It also reminds me of the idea of the ‘exposition’ in a previous post in which the author describes artform as embedded in a setting which includes some ‘..sharing of thinking processes and the revealing of methodology; and.. invites participation in order to enrich and expand understandings from the inquiry.’
The author goes on to say ‘One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word.’
In my next set of themed posts I want to explore what art is and use walking art as a vehicle to frame the discussion. My proposal is that we best understand how to work with at as enquiry if we work with ‘art not ART’. By this I mean getting away from an approach rooted in ‘Fine Art’ with galleries and sales and judgement on skills. Fine Art informs art as enquiry, but the work is done with art as a verb not a noun.
Relating to the intention to explore a model of art making as experiential learning then the art making is the central component but it is informed by all sorts of other experiences and modes of enquiry. Regards art making it is best understood as being playful, in the serious meaning of the word and the actions. And as such we learn from playing in many different ways.