Outside In artist and ambassador Clare Gravenell shares how nostalgia has provided a source of inspiration for new work in lockdown.
Watch Clare read her poem – Subtitles are available on this clip, please select the subtitle option when playing if required
Sitting in the lounge alone I feel the elements of life at home, as the wind forces its way through the cracks in the windows and walls and the rain penetrates the bricks keeping me held tall. I’ve had days alone in this inertia of isolation, deserted on the island of an English nation. It seems like something out of a novel but this time it’s shockingly real, not some kind of movie model. Everyday I wake feels the same, no one around to ensue blame. What to do, I repeatedly say... What to do indeed today!! Now that is the big question in lockdown and the answer I find is always locked away in my unconscious mind. Then suddenly out of the blue, I have a moment of remembering days of a different hue. Nostalgia fills the room and I feel to paint something new. Times of freedom, times of fondness with my family spent In the magical snow fallen valleys of Kent.
Back in March 2019 when we first went into a national lockdown, I felt a desperate need to talk and connect with others, especially my family, every day. The weather was so gloriously sunny, my energy was focused on being outside and discovering the delights of spring and immersing myself in the amazing colours it brings. I had absolutely no desire to create. The second lockdown in November 2019, I was immersed in grief, processing the unexpected loss and death of my sister Nina. Again, I found myself with no desire to paint or create.
Suddenly, as we entered 2021, we find ourselves back in our third lockdown in the middle of winter. Winter on its own, has always been a depressive time I find, with the darkness drawing in, the chilly nights and grey wet days are nothing but grim. This time, it’s a double whammy with lockdown and winter entwined as one. Sometimes the toughest situations bring the greatest inspiration as we are forced to find a way to survive.
One of the hardest experiences to endure was not to be with my family at Christmas as they were all shielding to keep safe. After watching countless seasonal movies with snow, touches of romance and families gathering together despite the weather, I realised I was longing to be with mine. After losing my sister I felt I wanted to be closer to my family more than ever.
I missed the countryside of Kent where snowfalls were always heavy, and the fun I had as a child playing with my sisters in the deep freshly laid snow. I was filled with so much nostalgia, as really all we have now are memories of close connection and times shared. Covid 19 has led our nation into complete isolation where we no longer interact in person or gather together. In times past, that is what got people through winters, all huddled by a warm fire sharing stories and food.
The only way I knew to feel better was to create the worlds and walks I remember, and to embody a sense of magic that snow brings. My motivation was pure survival, to be transported by painting back to times of freedom, times of family and fun shared. I felt forced into a corner of despair. Nothing to do, nowhere to go but to stay at home. My way of coping was to rely on memory and dive into the world of nostalgia and find some creative flair. I opened a file of photos on my laptop, like a box of treasures, and memories of 2018 and being in the snow with my family came flooding back. They were like stills from a movie, a movie that I wanted bring back to life. This became the source of my new work and a new gateway to create.
There is much comfort in memories, like having a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night. As you sip, its warmth soothes you through from head to toe. Memories of ‘Walking through a winter wonderland’ was a real and exciting physical experience for me, not a movie on a screen. Rich in palpable sensations from the coldness of the air, the lightness of soft snow caressing my face and the crisp crunch of every step I took. The winter landscape held me in a childlike trance as I painted, remembering every step in the snow, the quietness of belonging. I felt so far away from that at home, more or less alone. It’s the magic of life I long for in these dark winter days and the only way I can touch this feeling right now is through painting the snowfall of the countryside of Kent. It’s the hearth of my new art.
During 2020 we faced much isolation through the lockdowns. I got to a point to accept that New Year’s Eve night was not going to be celebrated in style as usual with masses of people, but this time alone. The only way I could face this fact was to immerse myself in painting. ‘Snowscape’ was based on photographs taken on a walk in 2ft of deep snow in 2018. My family and I were snowed in for almost a week! I miss them dearly, and the beauty and silence of the freshly laid snow. I needed to connect to my family and home landscape that night to help me feel better and productive. Lockdowns can give us a sense of inertia which I loathe, so being creative boosted my mood. While painting, I visited memories of struggling to walk through the snow and returning to a cosy and warm home. It was too dangerous to drive, so walks were the only way to get out. When everything stopped, it was a time when people came together. It was lovely to see many neighbours and locals on our walks in the snow. Those days seem so far away from our current life.
The paths where other people had walked were an important aspect of this piece, as they are an expression of time and the past. This is a reoccurring theme from my landscape artwork exploring The South Downs in 2019, as similarly the chalk paths give us a sense of time – as people walk on them, they deepened and changed shape.
What to do on New Year’s Day 2021?
Something new and different of course I hear you say. Well that’s exactly what I did with this painting, ‘ Fields Of Snow’. I felt like creating a soft and serene feeling, as my artwork is usually colourful and dynamic. What better way to do that with a simple palette of white, blue, black and brown? The more you limit your palette, the more tones you find you can create. A metaphor for life it seems. Limitations can often create new experiences as you have no choice about what to do and have to invent news ways of dealing with limitation. Sound familiar!?
I enjoyed being immersed in a new way of painting, this being more suggestive than realistic. Shortly after doing this new artwork, there was a storm over the UK and like the force of powerful wind and rain a poem came into my mind. I’ve shared it with the artwork as it feels integral to the paintings and their origin. Both pieces are acrylic on watercolour paper and the same size, 40 x 30cm. It was the first time in over a year I had feel strongly to create, and it was a direct consequence of our lockdown state.
These two paintings were created within 24 hours of each other, on the pivotal point from one year to the next! A rare phenomenon and a turning point it seemed on a personal level. Somehow lockdown forced me to look at my inner world and realise its potential to be far richer than our external worlds right now. I was drowning in solitude and longing for something exciting and new. Luckily, art became the boat to keep me afloat.
I had lost a sense of purpose and activity from not working as a tennis coach. I love engaging and communicating in with other people to person. To go from that to nothing but just myself was like someone turning off the lights and being left alone in darkness. I am sure this is a familiar feeling for many people. We have lost our spark somehow. I really encourage you to turn off the screens, as we are so entrenched into living a surreal Zooming life, and discover places deep inside you instead. Art is a powerful source which can bring us back our light. It is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. It’s full of everything we need to get through these times. I was fed up with the endless modes of connecting and communication through apps and social media, it felt a meaningless existence. To stay safe all we have left are our flat screens and nothing much else, so it seems.
We all need a sense of purpose that is more than our job. We all need meaning to our existence that is more than our external world. We all need connection that is more than our flat screens.
While we wait patiently for this lockdown to end, best we find something in between that fulfils our needs. Let your art and creativity be the gateway to the ‘in between’!
It’s a creatively interesting time that we all have, so why not throw yourself into your artwork with passion and see what happens? Making the most of what we have right now is all we can do. I got a surprise phone call today from a dear friend in Australia and infused with great joy she said,
“Go for gold with your art, Clare, use this time of lockdown to paint, dance or sing! Just create, whatever the future brings!”
I hope you find something in between to take you to a magical place or dreamy space to help you get through these testing times. I have a daily routine of exercising first thing in the morning. No matter how I feel when I wake up, it stops me from thinking too much, gets me outside in fresh air and engages me with nature. Usually walking gets my being into a calm and balanced state. I highly recommend it as well as being creative of course!
Enjoy the journey of your creativity and let it take you to an unknown place.
Embrace the time we all have, challenging as it may be,
Ride the waves of this uncertain and rough sea.