As anyone who knows me, will know that the journey of illness changed my course, some-what drastically. I was prepared to dedicate my life to trying to navigate the art world path, and that alone. And I was having a good go at it too. But getting sick made travelling that rocky, unstable road of unemployment or quiet freelancing months difficult. Then the goal posts changed.
I’ve been doing art – dedicated to it since I was 14/15 years old. You’d think half a life would be enough to get into a groove, but no. I went from a kid drawing scooby doo, to graffiti artist, to art school student who played around with architecture and socially engaged practices to institutional critique drawer, to an artist who helps to facilitates ideas for change. Age and maturity give you the eyes to see how you differ in subtle ways. But so does impending potential death sentences. One of my big insights from this year is that my polarities are inverted when it comes to knowledge in art and life in general.
Up to a few years ago, I had never been to the doctor. I lived a relatively carefree life. I had little empathy geared towards illness because I had never really experienced anything that hindered how I felt or what I wanted to do that wasn’t in my control. I was a night-owl. I stayed up late, all night, multi-tasked until 3am. I tried to make sure no stone was left unturned. I look back on my ability to juggle things almost effortlessly, and my never-failing energy levels with nostalgia, frustration and even a bit of jealousy at my current state of not being able to stay up past midnight (if i’m lucky) and needing to sleep/not having any real proper cognitive function for hours between 5-9pm because I’m so damn tired.
Art was (is) key. The most important thing to me. I wanted to be an “art-star”. I wanted to be respected. I wanted to inspire, make people think about changing the world for the better. I wanted to make a living from doing this thing. I wanted to be in coffee table books, on blogs, I wanted YOUR job because i thought i could probably do it better. What an ego! Naturally, with wanting to be the best (lolz), or at least acknowledged, comes a big side plate of ego. I was starting to get somewhere too, and this just made me worse. People would give me compliments, stop me on the street. And I, not prepared for this part of my personality, would write my name all over anything that I was a part of. I needed recognition. My personal relationships suffered from all of this because all I would talk about was art, my art, who was doing what wrong. My priorities had no perspective, no context. No depth. I thought art could change the world (which I still believe it can) because it had changed my life so much. I was just the small, stupid kid from the Donx who had never left South Yorkshire until I was 17, who was the first in her whole entire family to go to University. And here art was, giving me a passport to see the world and its beautiful people and cultures. Art made me feel smarter than I was (am). People invited me in and it changed me for the better. But it also made me loose sight on what was really important in life. (Which happens to the best of us, in everything). Plus, I was young and reckless. I never went home, never realised just how much support my friends and family gave me in order to follow this narrow art path. I Never really offered support back to those who supported me, just kind of took and never gave back because I never really thought about it. My eyes were on the prize. Never really understood others personal plights, just the external structures/systems of which affected them. All of the time, missing the point – Mary Kelly once said that, “the personal is the political”. I always thought that my practice was personal because of where I was coming from, underdog-thicko, poor, working class northern kid. But now, I’m not sure it was as personal as I thought it was.
But as I got sick, and I lost all that time during being undiagnosed too. I couldn’t be the force I wanted to be. I couldn’t balance all the plates. I couldn’t be present at all the art openings. I couldn’t even be present in person because I constantly felt (and still often do) like I was in a daze of pain/general unwellness/fatigue and heaviness. I lost my competitiveness. I’ve lost days, weeks – even months of my life. People forgot who I was. I was starting to forget who i was too. I felt angry at myself for not being able to shake off what was happening to me, for not being there, or being able to process the same amount of things. I stopped being able to do residencies. I kind of stopped applying for opportunities…. How do you even come back from such a thing? All of the promise that I had shown. Gone. Forgotten. Fickle. Meaningless. A performance of holding yourself together.
But strange things started to happen. People started to share my work for me. I started to get more work opportunities through than I ever did when I was trying to be obnoxiously pushy, granted these opportunities weren’t immediately within the art world. I chose projects that were meaningful. That could really help to make a difference in the world, like working with the NHS or on TEDx. I realised the amazing support network that surrounded me. My personal relationships began to flourish too because I was no longer fully neglectful. I became a better friend, a better teacher, a better sister and daughter. The pain I feel was transcended into new full blown up empathy. I relate to people better now. Possessions and money lost all meaning. I now crave time & space. I feel happier. Art feels a little bit lighter. The sky feels bigger, the seasons more beautiful. I have a few scars but most marks are left on my psyche..
The thing is. I never asked for help. I was lucky enough that I had surrounded myself with amazing, loving, courageous, smart and kind people who never once thought to give up on me, or resented how much I talked about (my) art before who all helped without me ever needing to ask. I am now forever indebted to those who have and continue to help me, support me, help nurse me back to health. Who continue to help me navigate my art practice, and who send me work to keep me finically alive, who are helping me to slowly try and come back from this unexpected departure. I’m not sure if I will ever re-bound back into the real art world. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make a full recovery – both career wise and health.
Most people use time to hone down and specialise. But specialising bores. It’s just a way to pigeon hole us into parts so other people know how to think about you. your place in societies cogs. Art for me has always been about closing the gap, turning the elitism on its side, helping the dark matter reveal it’s true potential. Allow the powerless to have some agency. I don’t believe it can be bound by discipline or industry. I always loved that about art. I’m using this extra time, my new found empathy, my obsession on cancer, my need to make a change, gain some stability in a life which seems to be dominated by so much uncertainty to gain new knowledge in a new area, and combine both things together – radiation oncology and art!
By refusing to choose sides, you open yourself up to the idea that the relationship can be symbiotic, not combative. How can they be made at the same time, so they shine on one another, too?
These are interesting questions. The kind you could spend a life pursuing. I tell you all this because the thing I’m left thinking is: how many people are out there are struggling? Who need help, who feel like they can’t ask for help? How many of us are out there on our daily grinds, just trying to make it, who aren’t paying attention to those who hold us so close, who could need help too?
So, if that’s you, and if you need help, ask. We can’t do it alone.
It is a privilege to be here, alive, with you – my amazing friends.