Consuming Culture: The healing power of creative endeavour

By November 5, 2020

Community. Leeds.

One of my first childhood memories is sitting in my Nan’s kitchen, drawing at the table. Sat underneath the window which looked onto the backyard of the terraced house in Liverpool, drawing with a ballpoint pen on the bit of card you used to get in a packet of Kit-Kats.

As a child, I was always drawing. If I felt the urge, I would scribble. I loved creating things, painting pictures with colours or with words, making models with Plasticine. If I felt the need, I would escape into a different world or make myself a new one.

I see the same thing with my daughter now, as she expresses herself easily through creativity. Give her a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and she can create a universe. There are half finished novels and stories, cartoon strips, maps, character drawings all over the house. That stuff pours out of her brain whenever she has five minutes.

Sometimes I will be able to sit with her for a few minutes and create something too. I might stop for a short while and do it for her, but never for myself. I just don’t seem to find the time to doodle for my own amusement. The most I do with a blank piece of paper these days is write a to-do list on it.

That raw curiosity and imagination seems to leave us at some point. Our minds are busy with day to day life. Spontaneous creativity is often at the bottom of the list. This is a sweeping generalisation of course, as some people are great at finding the time to be creative for pleasure. People who find the time for hobbies have me in awe.

But this year’s first coronavirus lockdown made many of us stop in our tracks. Our usual lives were thrown off course. Many people found that they needed to focus on something else to deal with the stress of it all or fill their time. There was an inner urge to explore art, writing, singing, even sweary embroidery.

For some it was a return to an old skill, a chance to explore a talent they had put to one side. For others it was an opportunity to try their hand at something entirely new. A long-held ambition, a talent seemingly thwarted at school perhaps, or just a shot in the dark at something they had always wanted to try.

In these uncertain times, small creative acts and making something tangible feels like a small victory. Creativity and the importance of it to good mental health, cannot be underestimated. Through creativity, we can express ourselves when we cannot find the words to articulate our feelings or use it as a way to escape reality for a short while. It is also a chance to get lost in something utterly absorbing and distracting. The concentration involved giving the brain a chance to reset itself.

We can also use individual creative pursuits to connect with others if we choose to. Whether it is the companionship of a virtual workplace drawing club or knitting session via Zoom, or something more organised such as a funded community project, we can share ideas to develop and further artistic skills, or just have a laugh together.

One example of using art to connect with others was the recent East Leeds Gift Exchange project. Run over the summer as a partnership between organisations Our Space, East Street Arts and Found Fiction, the project coordinated a creative gift exchange for residents of the Mabgate, Lincoln Green and Burmantofts communities in Leeds.

Its aim was to connect people across that part of the city through creativity. Each participant was paired with a ‘match’ and asked to create an artistic or craft gift for someone else in the neighbourhood taking part. Every resident taking part made and received an art-based gift from their match. Kind of like a lockdown Secret Santa. Residents were sent a craft pack with creative prompts, and given artistic freedom to interpret them, to express themselves and create something unique.

What the project produced were small tokens of a shared experience, socially distanced. It was a chance to express feelings creatively, identify with another person, or benefit from the value of creating and receiving something, and giving joy to another person. It enabled connection with others during a difficult time.

From East Leeds Gift Exchange project, photo via Found Fiction

When the first national lockdown happened in March, there was a spontaneous response from individuals and households to communicate and connect with each other visually. Thousands of hand-drawn rainbows appeared in windows up and down the country. Some might have thought it a bit twee perhaps, but for others it was a sign of shared experience, of someone thinking of them.

Those rainbows are fading now, and the pavement art has long washed away. A new lockdown now dawns, potentially taking us through the winter months. The effect this time around might be different. We might eschew an evening walk outside, instead wanting to stay inside our homes, seeking comfort rather than stimulation. A gentle creative pastime might fill a gap in the long evening or provide focus and structure when it is needed. We might see more importance placed in it; more value given.

In the longer term, post-COVID in the new normal that emerges, how do we capture that spirit of creative expression? It will be interesting to see if it sticks. During the early lockdown I did not get the chance to use my time in creative pursuit, not of the freely artistic kind anyway. This time around I know there will be a void to fill, and that I will feel the benefit of creating something. I’m thinking I might try sweary embroidery, I bet that would feel incredibly cathartic.