As a practising artist, I have spent my life thinking through making and through interacting with materials. But over the past seven years, something has dramatically shifted in how I approach articulating this thinking and I realise, somewhat late, that I now can’t unknow what I’ve come to know. As a result, I sense that I’m experiencing a form of identity crisis as I struggle to find my way back from what feels like an abyss. So, what has led me to this point?
I’ve just completed an art practice-based PhD at the age of 66 and the sense of anticlimax, loss and ongoing depression as I emerge from seven years of self-reflexive immersion, is very challenging. At this point, I had imagined that I would be feeling relief and a welcome sense of freedom, but instead, I feel totally unprepared for the waves of unanticipated emotion I’m now facing.
My PhD research explored how creative practice might offer valuable insight into the ageing process, so you might say that I should have seen this coming – if it weren’t for the arrogance of age.1 By that, I mean our often entrenched ways of seeing and understanding the world can become inextricably embedded as we get older, and if left unchecked, can shut off the potential for personal growth. This might sound overly dramatic, but by way of context, let me share with you some significant parts of the narrative around these past seven years of undertaking a PhD as an older artist.
I graduated from art school in 1975 and since then have existed by means of my studio practice along with some teaching. This will be familiar to the majority of artists, regardless of age. But what is particularly relevant here is that for over 25 years, my creative survival took place on a small island off Scotland’s west coast. Many of you may know the Isle of Arran, often called ‘Scotland in miniature’, with its small population, quiet roads, clean beaches and stunning scenery. But there is another side to this magical island: its inherent sense of spirituality, one of an ancient culture, standing stones and cairns. I absorbed this spiritual connection every day while out walking the dog along the forestry tracks or on the nearby shoreline. The land itself feels almost prehistoric, and if you take time to stand still and listen, it speaks to you of something far greater than the self. This way of being sustained my creativity and sense of identity. But as I approached my 60s, after many years of happily living and working on this nurturing island, I wanted to explore a different path towards personal growth, one I thought I might find on the Scottish mainland. The move away was unexpectedly traumatic, and more than once, I considered going back to live on the island. But so determined was I to integrate into mainland life that I persevered, almost never revisiting the island during this time. However, despite continually feeling like an outsider, my creative practice sustained me during these darker days for, once immersed in it, I knew who I was and what I was trying to do, and this gave me a form of what I used to feel on the island: spirituality. Yet, all the while, I encountered a diminishing sense of self rather than the personal growth I’d hoped for, discovering that the sustaining connection with the spirituality I’d experienced on the island, didn’t appear to exist for me in this bustling, urban environment.
After a year or two, I was presented with the opportunity to undertake a practice-based PhD at the university where I had been doing some part-time teaching. I saw this as a legitimate way to explore the challenges of transitioning from one kind of life into another, in the hope that it might also offer insight into my own life as I entered my 60s on the Scottish mainland, rather than on an island. As I’d hoped, a strong sense of purpose and identity developed as I studiously acquired the skills necessary for this role of novice researcher. But, while I was embracing the exciting challenges of engaging with critical thinking, theory and pedagogy, I didn’t notice that my identity as an artist was quietly slipping into the background.
I can see now how this happened; as an older artist in a traditional university, I wasn’t well versed in the inherent codes of academic life. In my eagerness to prove to myself and others that I was worthy of this new role, I was (unconsciously) ignoring my familiar, creative ways of being. Rather than thinking through making, as I had done as an artist, I now began to write as a way of engaging with this new world of research. My persistent daily ritual of writing out inner thoughts on my lived experience of ageing became integral to this emergent identity. Laurel Richardson suggests that ‘I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I didn’t know before I wrote it’,2 and so this became my mantra. But, herein lies the problem.
Such rigorous self-study has consequences and it should be stressed that such an immersive but rewarding path is not for the faint-hearted. Over time, this form of intense self-examination has the capacity to change both the writer and the writing in that, what becomes known, cannot then be unknown; we encounter and inevitably expose our vulnerable selves. At times and with no visible handhold, I found this overwhelming, literally feeling as if I were drowning in myself. My need to confront my self-preconceptions severely tested my resolve to continue with the PhD. But this compulsion to delve down into who I was becoming and why, also helped to sustain me. However, I have to stress that I also had a critical friend, a colleague who was also a psychotherapist, and it was his insight and experience which gave me that extra push towards the finishing line. I also found reassurance in others who had walked the path of self-interrogation; in 1926, Marion Milner, a psychoanalyst, began to keep a diary, where she realised that her life ‘…was not what it ought to be, although from an external viewpoint it was going very well’.3 She wrote in her diary to find out what it was she really wanted out of her life, but her writing astounded her by revealing the power of her unconscious thoughts. What is particularly relevant to my own self-study writing is that, over time, Milner found:
‘[…]the effort of recording my experiences was having an influence upon their nature. I was beginning to take notice of and seek ways of expressing occurrences which had before been lost in vagueness.’3
Not only that, but she also found her diaries revealed a woman who was full of self-doubt.4 Similar to my own experience during my research, Milner had been particularly interested in her realisation of what she described as the ‘creative tension between subjectivity and objectivity and the importance of perceiving with all our senses [...] felt experience as well as intellectual knowing’.4 What she observed was that ‘there exists … in each of us a hankering after the opposite attitude, an unconscious attempt to restore the balance and become a both sided personality, complete’.3 Her writing both fascinated me and resonated with my ongoing inner tension in exploring the interrelationship between my objective understandings of my ageing self and that of my intuitive, subjective and creative self, where I felt in touch with the spiritual. In being both the psychoanalyst and the observed, Milner taught herself that through intense self-study, she might ‘change the self who is observed’;3 but in my limited experience, this proved to be far easier said than done. Hélène Cixous, an academic and writer, when commenting on her process of writing, that quiet space for reflection, phrases it beautifully: ‘as if I were writing on the inside of myself’.5 Milner and Cixous both capture how writing of my ageing felt for me as an artist, trying to illuminate an internal world of transition and turmoil.
I found that uninterrupted periods of solitude helped me to connect deeply with myself as I ploughed my way through the self-study. Kim Etherington, a counsellor and supervisor, also comments on her own transitioning self as she ages, and her preference for being alone: ‘Writing for me has become a way of working myself out as I go along. [...] I take great pleasure in spending solitary time grappling with concepts or ideas that challenge me.’6 Ultimately, I came to see the writing of my self-study as a constant internalising process of knitting up words, then unravelling and re-seeing them, understanding that they had become crucial components in a continuum of interdependent thought on my ageing. However, immersive periods of self-study can also lead to a sense of disconnection from that innate sense of being part of something far greater than the self. That, for me, had been engaging with the spirituality of creative practice, particularly during my life on the island.
So, how have I endeavoured to confront my anxiety of becoming a hybrid, one who writes as well as makes? A large part of my concern is recognising that I have become disconnected from my intuitive, creative way of working, and I feel that my sense of spirituality has almost dried up completely. I feel like a highly articulate husk.
Unable to see my way through this challenge, I eventually sought out the help of another artist, one who is familiar with the rigorous demands of academic life. With her empathetic guidance and light touch, I now think that I see a glimmer of a possible way forward. What brought this about was that in her studio, I created tiny 3D forms out of wire and handmade paper which, without my realising it, all embodied my inner tension, fear, insecurity and the longing to reconnect with my former life as an artist and to reconnect with my sense of spirituality. This clarity felt like a threshold to a new way of knowing. Reflecting on this, I can see that my (researcher’s) need to separate out ways of thinking into clearly defined boxes, is now obsolete. Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenological philosopher, suggests that ‘My body is not a collection of adjacent organs but a synergic system, all of the functions of which are exercised and linked together in the general action of being in the world’.7 Similarly, Shaun McNiff, a creative arts therapist,8 speaks compellingly of his integrated practice, and so I wonder whether, if I stop struggling and accept who I have become, thereby allowing all my selves to work in harmony, might I just end up where I need to be?
Clearly, it’s early days yet, but I feel less anxious about my identity and much more interested in what might emerge from this. I have hopes that along with new way of being, this, my sense of spirituality, will return. I’ve learned so much these past seven years and am very grateful for the opportunities the PhD experience has offered me, as an older woman artist. Perhaps self-acceptance acquired through intense self-study has been both the hardest and the most valuable lesson; but it is one I can take forward into my next stage of life with a sense of optimism, rather than despair at feeling disconnected.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Alison Bell has also recently completed an art practice-based PhD. As a practising artist, her research interest areas involve how creative practice informs our search for self-understanding, and exploring how we might reconfigure our evolving identity as we age, in ways which encourage autonomy and a sense of wellbeing.
1. https://www.academia.edu/37080362/Exploring_the_ embodied_experience_of_ageing_through_creative_practice/ (accessed 27 August 2018).
2. Richardson L. Fields of play: constructing an academic life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; 1997.
3. Milner M. Eternity’s sunrise: a way of keeping a diary. London: Virago; 1989.
4. Edwards, D. On re-reading Marion Milner. Inscape 2001; 1(6): (2–12).
5. Cixous H. Rootprints: memory and life writing. London: Routledge; 1997.
6. Etherington K. Becoming a reflexive researcher: using our selves in research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2004.
7. Merleau-Ponty M. The phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge; 1962.
8. McNiff S. Art as medicine. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications; 1992.