• Andrew McIlroy

When old ideas lead nowhere and new ones elude them, artists find inspiration in other artists


Euan Macleod, Reg Mombassa, Luke Sciberras, and Elisabeth Cummings share an intimate friendship, while each forging highly respected careers in an at times tumultuous and unforgiving art world. So when these artists recently emerged from the creative isolation of their individual studios to join together on a trip to Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island to draw and paint their shared view of the glacial landscapes spreading before them, the result was always going to inspire.

Of course their bond is there for all to see, but what intrinsically brings such artists together? Does such collaboration bring forth new ideas, a new way of seeing? Does working with others run counter to the very idea of being an individually creative person?

Often working alone, no artist is free from the frustrations that come from dry periods or mental blocks, when old ideas seem to lead nowhere and new ones elude them.

There are really two aspects to this problem. The first is the feeling of having run out of ideas, which tends to be a temporary condition. The second is a general lack of enthusiasm about creating art itself and losing a sense of what makes art exciting, which can be far more troubling.

Luke Sciberras and Elisabeth Cummings

But while being troubled, as well as being sensitive, moody, strange and depressed, are at times shared human traits to various degrees, more commonly they are wholly ascribed to the artist, as the very mainstay to their creativity.

Artists it must be said tend to find solace in this characterisation. Freeing themselves from the social and educational constraints binding others – that squash desire and motivation, whether intended or not - to instead focus on nurturing their talents. In this way, their characteristic vulnerability liberates them, opening themselves to new experiences. Artists live in a more fluid and nebulous (although possibly more stressful) world. A world that allows them to tolerate ambiguity and disorder, and approach life in a way that enables them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way.

But such traits, psychologists warn, can however lead to feelings of depression or social alienation.

Creative people experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population, but the extremes of highs and lows fortunately tend to be brief, balanced by long periods of normal affect, or euthymia. It can be during these respite periods that artists frequently reflect upon and draw from memories and experiences of their darker times to create their art.

Reg Mombassa, 'Luke and Ferry Hill, Queenstown' (2019) Photo: Luke Sciberras

Artists have it is said difficulty “gating” sensory input that at least partially stems from a problem with filtering or gating the many stimuli that flow into the brain. For this reason, artists organise their lives in order to be isolated from human contact - a phenomena known as ‘Highly Sensitive Introvert’.

So there it is. Artists are odd. Weird. As a consequence, they may find themselves facing criticism or rejection for being all too unconventional. Too much openness it seems means living on the edge, with the potential to live their lives as outsiders.

Paradoxically creative people are more likely to be productive and more original, psychologists say, if surrounded by other creative, like-minded people. The search for a way out of a dry period and perhaps a overwhelming desire to escape from a certain restlessness can lead an artist to look for new ideas, as well as bring new energy to the task.

Luke Sciberras Photo: Luke Sciberras

Euan Macleod Photo: Luke Sciberras

For many artists, the act of creating a work of art is analogous to following a train of thought, developing and reworking ideas

that may or may not come together to form a successful piece. A dry period may arise when artists have not pushed their ideas far enough or when a particular problem has already been solve - leaving artists only to repeat themselves.

Some artists will get solace and sustenance from looking at, seeking out, and working with other artists. There is much to be gained from such a dialogue. It can bring about an end to a dry period or mental block, among other things.

Nonetheless, it is important to distinguish between a dry period - when problems in one’s work need to be confronted - and just having a bad day, when nothing seems to go quite right. The counsel of other artists, the sharing of experience and the creative force that such friendships bring can breathe new life into an artist's life and work and where perhaps once all creativity seemed lost, even if perhaps only momentarily.

Elisabeth Cummings in her Wedderburn studio (2016) Photo: The Daily Telegraph

Main Photo: Euan Macleod, Reg Mombassa, Luke Sciberras and Elisabeth Cummings in Queenstown New Zealand (2019) Photo: Luke Sciberras

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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Copyright 2015