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Hebridean Idle…Idyll

I thought that for this blog entry I might talk a little about my own life as an artist. Students often struggle with motivation and time management and I wanted to talk a little about my own experiences as these two issues will follow you throughout your artistic career.

Me in a gale defining myself other than through my environment

I am an artist living and working on the Isle of Lewis, quite a large Island in the Outer Hebrides. Living here creates a barrier of time and distance between me and almost everyone else which sets up an unusual environment for art practice as well as life in general. In a lot of ways I have much in common with my students who are all distance learners. We all need to find ways to maintain motivation and momentum and to have the confidence to claim ownership of our own learning whilst being as inventive as possible about taking advantage of whatever is out there for us.
Earlier in the year I decided to take a root and branch review of my practice and the way it fits into my life, with a view to making major changes to improve my professional life and give myself the best possible chance of making excellent work. I am putting more structure and support in place over the coming year and expect to be able to move forward to a more sustainable social practice.
Looking at my students I have found that the most consistent predictor of success on a course has been the student’s own readiness to give the course a chance. Students might be working full time or have children or health issues which might affect their studies, but success seems to depend on whether they have thought through the impact of whatever their circumstances are and found a good place for their art to sit in their lives. I live on a low income in a small solid fuel powered stone cottage with a lot of mud about the place and have a small daughter. This rather isolated lifestyle has affected my relationship with the wider art world since I moved here and perhaps the everyday stuff has slipped in and distracted me from really focussing on my practice and what I am doing it for.
Me inventing cubism rather belatedly

Having studied psychology in the past, I set about researching ideas around motivation and fulfilment. I looked hard at what really made me tick and forced myself to be honest about what kinds of things motivated me both within my practice and more generally. The outcome was that I decided that I needed to build more structure into my working life and furnish that structure with plenty of opportunities for reward and peer interaction.
I decided that living on such a low income was inhibiting and so applied and successfully received funding to run a residency at the Island’s Art Club. I am now putting a proposal together for funding for me as an individual to enable me to work with other artists and technicians. This has provided, for the next 6 months at least, a regular extra income which will enable me to purchase materials and heat the studio.
I have attempted in the past to set up a graduate peer support group on the Island for artists but it hasn’t really worked. This time I approached a senior tutor and colleague and asked her if she would agree to mentor me over the next few months. She agreed and I organised funding for that too so that I now have my own ‘tutor’ in a sense; someone waiting to see what I will get up to. I have been studying Art History of the 20th century with the Open University this year and have used the course to patch the holes in my rather idiosyncratic journey through art history to date. The tutors at the OU, Paul Wood and Frances Robertson from Glasgow School of Art, were a great help and inspiration. Already through these actions I have increased the number of people involved in my work from one to four. It may well be that as my work progresses I will use the blog to ask for input from students.
I have drawn up a work plan, my own ‘course’ if you like and have broken the ideas down into achievable units. I am working on several pieces at the same time and am building a little world of my own in my studio. I am building up my working environment by making things. The objects are not art works; they are subject matter or notes. It’s a stage between the observable world and my own art work. Like a model or filter – a morphing. I start with models (I have made a few but will significantly expand this) and will move into performances or interventions with a view to pulling them apart and reforming them as paintings.
Detail of my studio with maquette

Overall, the process of unpicking my attitude to my work, identifying gaps and areas where I needed extra help and then setting about filling those gaps has been enormously beneficial and I would encourage all OCA students to have a go at it.
No matter how you learn best, there will be things you can do to make yourself more productive. For example I prefer to listen to someone rather than read large amounts of text, and I prefer to hear from the artist themselves often rather than a critic. I have found the Tate channel to be an excellent resource for this. I am also a heavy user of iplayer series record for programmes about art and culture. If you find working alone difficult I would encourage you to use the forum and buddy up with other students whose work you enjoy. Some students even manage to persuade a friend to join up and they do the course together. Art magazines can provide a bit of a creative boost if you find one that resonates with you. I subscribe to the magazine Turpsbanana which features all my favourite painters and is pretty much entirely interviews with artists, usually one artist interviewing another in fact. Your tutor is there for you too so don’t lose contact even if you fall behind.
If any of you have top tips for how to maintain momentum on your course, perhaps you could post a reply to this blog – especially if it’s something a little odd!

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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21 thoughts on “Hebridean Idle…Idyll

  • Thank you for your post, Emma. I find it movingly honest about how you are working with your conditions to live your creative life to the full. It’s great that some good developments are coming from your efforts in this direction.
    You ask about how any of us maintain momentum on our course. Here’s one of my ways: In late spring I teamed up with a sculpture student (who is not with oca) to create a piece of work together. It arose from me seeing and being inspired by a dough cast she had made. I found this experience invaluable as through it I realised what it was that I was being encouraged to do in my course work – a flow of ideas to try out and experiments to do as a way to develop the collaborative project. We each had to return to our respective course work once we had completed the project but for me it had served its purpose of opening up to a new phase of my work. We are hoping to do the same again next year.
    Meantime I am focusing on bringing that creative momentum into my course work as much as I can. I find it a tricky balance but I now know how important it is.

  • I agree absolutely with what you say, Emma, about success depending on how the student makes art sit in their life. i live in a similarly isolated spot – on a mountain in the Pyrénées – a fairly busy life dependent on the weather, what our animals are doing, what needs to be done on the land – & the things I see on the morning walk with the dogs set the creativity of the day for me. That way my work gets priority once the animals are fed without feeling that I am ‘fitting it in’. of course chances are I get carried away & forget the time, getting brought down to earth by noisy reminders when it gets to the next feeding time. It feels like a good rhythm to be in.
    i wish I had a collaborative relationship like Roberta, but it isn’t possible. I rely on the internet & things like this for my contact with other people. To a certain extent the animals take the place of people because they are always doing funny or interesting things. I think one needs the willingness to make the best of what is available. It works for me anyway.

  • Thankyou so much for sharing your ideas ladies. I do hope the dough cast work found it’s way into your log book Roberta. There is quite a bit of flexibility in OCA courses and most tutors are only too pleased to see a student run with a project and push it’s boundaries a little. For example the man made forms still life in the level 1 drawing course could be a still life of your dough forms, extended into a series of drawings using forms from within the initial drawing.

  • It’s so good to hear of your working methods and they are really interesting and helpful. I hadn t thought of really sitting down to analyse how to scaffold my work to support motivation and move forward in creative terms. However I do tear up lots of newspaper up into unstructured colour pieces, shapes and text chunks ! It seems to release me from skill problems and prompt ideas,

  • Thanks for your response Emma and suggestion for bringing the collaborative project work into my course (which is in printmaking). I shall be bearing this in mind from now on to see where I can bring it in. That does make good sense and yet up till now I have been keeping it in something of a separate compartment.

  • Thankyou Emma,
    I was pleased to hear your approach coming from such a remote spot, I was wondering where the artists were hiding. I live and work on the western tip of West Wales, St.Davids, Pembrokeshire and am thinking of doing the OCA M.A. It is good to hear about direct contact with other artists and a few links to art and culture online.
    It is great to think of us artists dotted around the coast of Britain, all striving to find expression!
    We are not alone!!

  • Thanks for this. Your experiences and information is helpful to me, as I am a bit isolated and have motivation and time management problems too! I also did an OU short course during the past couple of years!

  • Hi Emma, it’s your Drawing 1 student Fran here! It’s really great to read about how you fit your work into your day to day life. I struggle with this a lot. I’m on the complete opposite end of the scale in terms of your isolation – I live in a very sociable large house with 5 other young adults in a vibrant city, and find I get distracted very easily by the to-ings and fro-ings of other people and events. I work in my bedroom, which I share with my boyfriend so always feel I can’t quite relax and make a mess. I tend to treat my work as completely separate to my day to day life because it seems so far removed. But I don’t want it to be, I just need to find a way to merge the two. Getting involved in art projects (of which there are tons happening in Bristol) seems like a no-brainer, but I’m always so hesitant to get my foot in the door! Confidence issues perhaps?

    • Hello Fran,
      Attending a view private views and events will give you a feel for what kinds of things you could pursue in your area. If you turn up and think ‘I could have done that’ then next time you should! Bristol is bound to have lots of subsidised studio space available too but often these things have awful waiting lists so it might be worth looking at studio space availability and putting your name down.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience with us Emma. I live and work in a village in the south of France. It’s not an isolated spot, but I am a very solitary type and work alone by choice. I have two school aged children and the usual daily commitments that revolve around family life, which often ambush me and lead me away from coursework (drawing/painting/printmaking), but here are the ways I try to counteract distractions:
    1. I set reasonable working times, I tell the family what these are and I stick to them rigidly
    2. I totally ignore the telephone during my work periods
    3. Every night, I set an achievable target for the next day
    4. I do work that demands light (working in colour) or energy (printmaking) early in the day and then do much of my reading and writing at night
    5. I always leave my workspace in a ready-to-go state so that I can pick up and get going without delay
    6. I try my level best only to pick objects/scenes/subjects that really, really interest me so that I stay fully engaged while I can and if I get pulled off task, I can get back into it quickly
    7. I read each module through thoroughly in advance, so that I can be thinking and planning even when I’m playing, chauffeur, shopper, chief cook and bottle washer.

  • Hi Emma
    Remember me! It is so good to read about your work and how you personally manage your life as an artist. Reading this and the other comments puts one’s own experience into context.
    Thinking about this, it seems to me that it is not a matter of time and how much you have of it. I have studied with the OCA when I was in a very demanding job and now when I have retired and the issue of using time productively is the same whatever the life style. I am coming to the conclusion that for me personally, the productive use of time is a mental state, not a physical one. It is the passion that drives me. When I am fired up about an idea and pushing the boundaries of my own understanding, then the time spent in the studio is so productive. I can’t wait to get there and don’t want to leave it. All the other commitment (and there are many, many in retirement!!!) just fall into place. They get done at odd hours and my whole life becomes more organised.
    The ‘killer’ for me in terms of being productive and using time well is when I seem to have no ideas or when I am just going through the exercises in the course in isolation, without real involvement. Then nothing gets done in the studio or in my life.
    I guess it’s all about inspiration for me.
    Good to be in touch again……….

    • great to hear from you Patricia – yes I agree, once the work achieves its own momentum and the ideas are working together and developing in ways that could not be predicted it all gets very exciting.

  • Hi Emma! there’s you at one end of the British Isles and me at the other (in deepest darkest Devon). Wouldn’t it be great if everyone involved with the OCA posted an image of themselves in exactly the same pose?

  • You say “Earlier in the year I decided to take a root and branch review of my practice and the way it fits into my life, with a view to making major changes to improve my professional life and give myself the best possible chance of making excellent work. I am putting more structure and support in place over the coming year and expect to be able to move forward to a more sustainable social practice.” I thought “I don’t understand a word of this, especially the last sentence. phew I’m glad she’s not my tutor!”
    Unfortunately, I know what I need to keep momentum on this course is discipline, which is not necessarily what I’m best at. oh and I’m so mean, I will make sure I finish my course before the time runs out because I’ve paid!!

    • oh dear!! I’ve re read the offending sentences but am not sure which words need replacing to make the ideas clearer. This was me trying to be quite straight forward so maybe remember my name and avoid me if the option to be my student comes up!! Never mind, it’s good to get a variety of voices and input and you are bound to gel with some tutors more than others.

  • Hi Emma, Thank you for being so open and honset. I live in Ireland and find that working alone is very hard -life and family get in the way and always seems to come first and last. My time management skills are none existant. Your have given me a new way of looking at my course (painting 1) which I will start as of today.

  • I lived on Benbecula for a couple of years and don’t envy you with all the wind and rain.
    Although I still have my sketch books from when I was there, it was the most amazing place to go out and sketch and paint. The most beautiful beaches and views.

  • Hi. as a fairly new student with OCA (printing1)i’ve found the blog and replies very inspiring, thank you to every one.

  • Hello all. I agree with the student above who says ‘Wouldn’t it be great if everyone involved with the OCA posted an image of themselves in exactly the same pose?’. I think this would be great fun, giving us an idea about where you all are: so many in outposts across the UK and the world! If you would, please send me photos of you in your environment, wherever you are, if you can (but not necessarily) out there with a poster in the way that Emma has, so that we can create a micro site of images of OCA students in their settings. Please send your images to me, janehorton@oca-uk.com

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