By Mira Manini Tiwari
Mira helps run the hugely popular ‘Art and Chill’ sessions at Christ’s College, Cambridge. The sessions are open to students from all colleges. To stay updated with when the next session is, join this Facebook group.
Much to the amusement of anyone watching me speak, I talk with my hands. I think with my hands too – I fidget with my ring; my hand absentmindedly squiggles while reading; or I draw straight line after straight line freehand, filling scrap post-its or full sheets of paper, taking a mental step away from stress and tedium.
“Drawing is another way of thinking,” says Edward Bawden, and Saul Steinberg calls it “a way of reasoning on paper.” Morag Styles and Martin Salisbury argue this might be why art and design have struggled to be absorbed into contemporary university culture or considered academic subjects.
Perhaps, then, describing the love of working with one’s hands as a ‘break from thinking’ needs rethinking. The need to ‘justify’ art lies at the heart of an unnecessary dilemma between art and ‘academics’: to call it a respite is to suggest it is somehow subordinate; to speak of ‘visual literacy’, ‘reasoning’ and the ‘mathematics of art’ is to justify it by virtue of its likeness to Literature, Philosophy, or Science. Art is all of these, and none of them. It is my comfort and my switch-off, my stimulant and my addiction. It is in Maths and Science and Philosophy and Literature and History and Politics, and it just is, as it is.
“‘There is no such thing as bad art,’ we say in every session, in every attempt to persuade someone to let go of their inhibitions for an evening in the studio”
The countless books and theories that seek to define, qualify and quantify creativity leave me frustratingly wary of writing about something I love so much. And although I enjoy the critical angles they’ve made me adopt in thinking about creativity, by allowing myself to be bogged down by them to the point where I am hesitant to engage with it I am falling prey to the same thing we seek to push aside in our Art & Chill sessions.
“There is no such thing as bad art,” we say in every session, in every attempt to persuade someone to let go of their inhibitions for an evening in the studio. Art educators, museums, curators, art critics and art buyers have all come to shape what we see as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. While these may be ‘expert’ judgements, they are also largely functions of the biases of contemporary society, and should not be allowed to determine what can be made, how and by whom.
A friend of mine and fellow chronic perfectionist recently began painting as a much needed break from essay work. She made a beautiful little piece that says “you don’t need to be good at things to enjoy them,” and I couldn’t agree more. That said, sometimes I feel the need to go back to the preschool days – when every crayon scribble elicited an effusive “that’s wonderful!” from teachers – in order to get disillusioned, self-proclaimed ‘uncreative’ young people back to the drawing board…literally. To tell people – who through years of compulsory art lessons were told that their technique wasn’t right or their form not accurate, their skill not natural and their thought process not creative – that they are creative, that their art is good, is not in my eyes a softening or a dilution of art (whatever that might be), but one step closer to breaking that stubbornly persistent idea that our brains and our bodies exist separately, or that art is for some and thinking for others.
“There’s something magical in the paper being shredded, colours being switched, pastels broken and smiling conversation ebbing and flowing through all the movement without judgment or fear or constraint”
Saturday after Saturday I have left the library tired and feeling behind, and leaving to do art feels like a cop-out. Yet time and again half an hour slides into two hours, and I have yet to experience an Art & Chill in which I haven’t paused and looked around, noting the palpable calmness in my mind and body. From fine art to the stick figures or scientific drawings by ‘uncreative’ students dragged along by their friends, there’s something magical in the paper being shredded, colours being switched, pastels broken and smiling conversation ebbing and flowing through all the movement without judgment or fear or constraint. I can’t bottle it up, put it into a pill, or put it in my pocket and save it for a rainy day. But I don’t think I should: whether it’s a break or an intellectual challenge, a way of processing your worries or refining your next idea, doing something creative with your hands makes you consciously step away and savour what’s right in front of you. Just as it is.
Pictures taken at an Art and Chill session. Credit: Mira Manini Tiwari