The metaphor of a river as life, is not a new one. It is embedded in our language as all metaphors are and speaks to part of us that doesn’t like to be limited by language and descriptive terms. My obsession with “river as life” started around 2004 when I discovered the Kawa model in Occupational Therapy:
“The Kawa (Japanese for river) model uses a familiar metaphor of nature as an effective medium to translate subjective views of self, life, well-being and the meanings of occupations” www.kawa.com
The aim of Occupatinal Therapy intervention is to enhance the river flow to enable meaningful occupation and engagement to take place. The river bed represents the environment – physical and social; the rocks “Iwa” represent life circumstances; the driftwood “Ruyboku” represent assets and liabilities; the water”mizu” is life force, flow, energy, chi; the spaces between the rocks, wood and river bed are “sukima” these gaps are small places where flow gets through – the promise and potential for recovery, expansion and change.
The model illustrates “the complex dynamic that characterizes an Eastern perspective of harmony in life between self and context”. www.kawa.com
Around 2007, my river started to experience turbulence. Turbulent mental wellbeing, turbulence in my home life and relationships, turbulence that threatened to wash away my life completely. I sought help in both mainstream services and adjunct therapy and support including coaching. I also started to attend a supported art studio. Somehow, I continued to work although work had always been both a cure and cause for my fluctuating relationship with myself and life.
During this time I started to explore my “river” further. I started to use the Kawa model to help me understand what was going on and find a place in my river, where “sukima” (spaces) still existed. During this time, I also fell in love with the work of Kurt Jackson an artist who is also obsessed with rivers and charts their course in paint, from it’s source to the sea. Life and its path suddenly became very clear. What follows is an ongoing visual and in places, written journey of my relationship with my river – its twists and turns, its low flow points and turbulent periods, its push and pull, its major blocks and the way it finds it course regardless. Please enjoy.
2008: I start exploring my river:
“There seems to have been much turbulence of late. Look at all those rocks and boulders over the last few years – no wonder its been difficult. I am craving a period of flow and gentle, clear water. I wonder when or if that will ever happen. Did I put those rocks there? Did I create those obstacles and challenges? Probably, possibly, definitely, maybe not – that is too blaming. That’s the problem with all this stuff that says ‘you create your reality’ it just gives me another opportunity to blame myself”
Letting go of blame is hard. Understanding the nature of life, existence and death is no easier. Exploring my river further helps: The current rocks and driftwood are immediately identified and the blockages they cause, become obvious.
At this moment in time, I was unable to focus on the “sukima” the spaces between the rocks – the places where flow was still taking place – I am fairly obsessed with the rocks and my liabilities. Theorizing and conceptualizing takes over – this is one of my assets and also a liability: my ability to detach, analyse and observe also restricts my emotional connection and intuition.
One solution is found. Reconnecting to painting. It has been a long time since I emotionally engaged with my own painting or the painting of others. A natural ally is found in Kurt Jackson and his series of painting tracking the River Avon from its source on the Oxford/Wiltshire/Glos border. Joyce’s Pool speaks to me and is acquired in a haze of manic excitement, justified by intuition. This tiny but exquisite picture costs me a small fortune, but marks the start of relationship with “The Source” which has continued ever since. This is the source of the river, in this case The Avon.
In Kawa, the source of the river is where life begins: the source of the river of life. Sometimes high in the mountains, but in this case, the source rises up through the rock and mud and forms as a muddle, wet puddle, which shines in the moonlight and is captured by Jackson in this little miracle of a painting. The black and white reminded me of the dark and light energies, the yin and yang, the collision of differences that cause alchemy and creation to occur. I own this little miracle and it is a constant reminder to me of both a troubled time, but also of how I can reconnect to the “Source” when I need to.
2008-2009: trying to clear up the river
This is indeed a troubled time in my life and is marked by periods of deep depression, anxiety, fatigue, troubles at home and wrecked relationships. There is little flow. I start painting. The words “no flow” sum up how I perceived my life at this time. The turbulence has been replaced with sullen, “staticness” and is summed up in this painting “Cannop Stranger”.
The forest has muddy pools, tiny trickles, dark peaty bogs. The reflections from the trees on the watery pools are beautiful but the forest is thick and there is no clear way out. A dark stranger seems to be leading the way out, but who says this is the right way? Do I trust the stranger? Is the water is trying to go in that direction? There may be very little flow, but the soil is fertile and given time a clearer stream may form if I stay.
I go with the stranger “Builth Wells”. We stay enclosed in forest. I stay in the forest, staring through the gate at the lovely sparkling flowing river, which feels magnetic. The gate has a “Keep Out” sign across and I feel that I am not allowed to be in flow; I’m not allowed to get into that lovely river. But I also wonder whether I will just be taken away by the flow and not be able to control it. This paradox paralyses me for much of the following years. In this painting, there is a letter written into the tree on the right.
It is about “Flow” and my internal battle: I say I want ease, simplicity, but do I feel I deserve it? I am getting in my own way. I am creating the lack of
flow in my life. My 10 yr old daughter has this picutre and asked “Mummy can I finish it for you?” Being far too pleasing, I said yes and the first thing she did was to make the words “Keep out” darker and stronger!
Its around this time that I decided to hold my first exhibition. Bit tardy considering I had been painting for around 25 years, but better later than never. Most of the work around this time, is focused on trying to make the river calmer but with flow. The experience of showing my work for the first time is nerve wracking but proves worthwhile and I start toying with the idea of calling myself an “Artist” for the first time.
Life is calmer and painting calm images seems to helped heal various areas of my life. Home is more settled. Relationships start to mend albeit it slowly and with caution. My physical and mental health struggles but starts to improve.
I start to get over the “Exe” which is a play on words: the first is obvious, the second meaning the River Exe in Devon, which we visit during the summer and I enjoy sketching, whilst sitting on the beach with my family. Several painting arise from one tiny sketch! One of them marks the start of a more abstract exploration. “Nearly over the Exe” marks a significant shift in my painting. Its the point at which I start to return to a more conceptual representation of the river and elements of the Kawa.
2010: A return to form
Three days immersion in the studio on a workshop at the RWA allow me to really embrace the river model in paint. My mentor and I explore the Kawa model and various propositions that arise. Smaller, more compact, more “technical” images arise. I focus on two areas: mapping my every changing view of my life, my mood and my blocks using the cross section of river; simplifying the elements in drawn and paint forms. I have constant discussions with myself regarding my “Rubukyo” personal assets and liabilities. Mostly these circle around the issue of my creativity. Awareness of how my creativity both enables me and blocks me, often at the same time and in all sorts of different ways, proves fascinating, but also highly frustrating.
“My creativity defines me. It wakes me up in the middle of the night, makes me say “yes” with enthusiasm to all sorts of things, leads me to produce dozens of drawings and paintings which may never see the light of day. My creativity has led me to create website after website and business ideas and products that also may never be seen or manifest into money. My creativity is blocks me furiously by giving me so many choices that I freeze and become unable to move. I lack focus. I lack backbone to follow one thing through. I mourn the lost ideas and discarded projects. Half finished paintings, books, blogs, projects are everywhere – they block my river”
What happens if I move my creativity to the side? Does the water flow better? What if I try and shrink it? What happens then? Can I ignore it? If I accept it, will it grow out of proportion and take over completely? During this time, I not only produce numerous drawings and paintings based on Kawa, but start many many other painting projects and many many business related work. Its not helpful being a creative person, trying to run a business!
I can really sympathize with work teams that have a token creative in them and even more empathize with the creative trying to “fit in” to a normal job. I have struggled with it for years and felt that self employment would allow me the freedom to create. I think I was more than naive in that expectation and have spent the last 3 years trying to create a business which doesn’t need a steady, accurate, methodical person at the helm.
Creative people need help at work. They need to understand the nature of their creativity and how it impacts on their daily, weekly, monthly cycles. They need help help crafting a position which allows them to create fully and have support systems that take their creations, put them out in the world and make money some how! Google and other forward thinking companies understand this. Funnily enough, the NHS don’t, which is why I struggled so much. I thought I had chosen a job which would allow me to combine creativity with a “real job”.
Occupational Therapy was and still should be about using purposeful, flow activities to promote well-being, engagement and participation. Perhaps if I had been in a job which helped me to paint with my clients or run creative workshops, it would have worked out better for me, but I realized that my heart wanted to paint, not always help others to do so.
A new pathway in my career was desperately needed. Help comes when it is most needed and often in strange forms – Kaisen Muse Creativity Coaching was one such example and fitted my needs in many ways. Developed by an OT (Jill Badonsky) KMCC helped me understand my own creativity and learn to move the “driftwood” skillfully to wherever it was needed in my river. All sorts of changes occurred during my training as a Creativity Coach. I really started to paint much much more and not be afraid of the steam train that sometimes runs through my head, depositing ideas as it goes. Unlocking my creativity enabled me to develop a new business, Discovery Party, something I had wanted to do for years. Working with my natural flow rather than against it, has reduced the turbulence in my river. You can see that the colours and forms in these later images are much softer and I feel, more sensual. I started to have quite an obsession with pink which has proliferated my business identity and branding as well!
2013: working with Kawa
I have long felt that the Kawa model could be integrated with a creative approach and enabled by a coaching process. In this past year, this exploration commenced with a “rough and ready” blog posted on the OTCoach site, aimed at helping people use the river metaphor with more fluidity and with less interpretation. You can see this article here. The Kawa paintings continue to occupy a large percentage of my painting “head space” and I think they always will. The works have become stronger in colour again and now recruit elements of collage and quite freely drawn forms. My attention has also been drawn to the potential for the Kawa model to be used in a corporate setting, with teams and individuals to improve performance and work flow. Whilst this may seem far from painting, working on these two projects in tandem, seems to allow both to develop and strengthen with much greater ease.
The waterfall. or
What to do when you realize you are in the waterfall.
It’s been coming a while – maybe its been building up to this all year? After a period of intense production and seclusion, hard graft and not huge amounts of joy, a change in the landscape of my river is underway. I have been trying to join the different streams together to form a congruent whole, that has momentum and purpose of flow. There have been too many little streams, which lack the body of water required to move forward naturally and carve their own path. In some cases there has been no movement at all, just a pooling and stagnating. I have been calling for the essentializing of Jen to occur. I am tired of being all things to all people. What has been needed is a boiling down all the different elements until a distilled version of me, can exist. Yes I can do that, yes I am good at this, but what is really at the core of all of these different streams? There has only ever been one thing – creativity and the expression in all my work which reflects my creative process in action. Creativity is both rock and driftwood and water. Creativity has caused the necessary environment and circumstances for the waterfall, which occurs as the streams have found their way together, broadening just before the fall. This widening or broadening out has caused me much anguish of late. Perhaps as I acknowledged the streams I wanted to join together, the focus became lost. Tussles for supremacy started to occur and I have been in overwhelm at the enormity of tasks that the “whole” needed. I made a list, naturally, of things to be completed by the end of 2013, so I could start 2014 which my focus and intention clear. However, I think the list just encouraged the individual flows to strengthen their resolve to be the strongest flow. It has been like pulling teeth. And so with one week left and the list looking precariously un-ticked, I spoke with my webmaster and lifemaster rolled into one. (Its quite a good combination actually, to have someone who can remind you of your vision, your hearts desire and intention and show you how to create at the online bit!) At the end of the conversation, I had well and truly tipped over the edge of the waterfall, and gone into to spraying, descending, violent plunge. I have been expecting it for weeks, hence the exploration in these images. In reality, I have been waiting for it for years.