I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the themes I come back to in my work. I’ve been in a period of artistic downtime and it’s had me trying to come up with different ideas to get the creative juices flowing again.
Part of the process of trying to find something new has naturally involved examining what is old – the concepts that have formed a large part of my creative output in recent years. It’s lead to a curious investigation of the things that I am naturally drawn to but also an analysis of why and what they mean to me and I wanted to really dig into exploring them further.
Exploring My Themes
Fragility and Strength
As someone who has experienced the effects of chronic health issues over the past 10 years, I’ve become fascinated with the juxtaposition between the fragile and delicate versus strength and stability and the ways in which they overlap and coexist.
This is visually represented through my art by the inclusion of a number of symbolic elements. I tend towards delicate fabrics – lace and tulle and vintage pieces that feel as though they are easily damaged but match these with dynamic posing requiring strength and flexibility in the body. I have (what sounds in writing like a slightly morbid) collection of the remains of animal life – feathers, fallen wings from butterflies, shells collected by the ocean and a tiny birds egg. All of these things are now so dangerously easy to break yet at one point they allowed a creature to fly, to have a home and protection, to grow and have life.
One of the earliest conceptual pieces I created was a photograph taken at the museum of the skeleton of a small bird – seeing how each tiny bone came together to create the framework of the body (albeit with wire and pins for display purposes) was a fascinating glimpse into how life is both weak and strong all at once.
Cycles of Nature
For similar reasons I am drawn to patterns and cycles. On bad days when my energy is low and pain high, I often take comfort in the thought that everything passes and I can trust that better days will come.
Nothing represents this better than the cycles of nature that exist all around us. Consider the circling of the earth around the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the seasons, the tides, the lifecycle of caterpillar to butterfly or the budding, blooming and dying of a flower.
It’s been a fairly new realisation for me that so much of my creative work, self-portraiture in particular, deals with self-identity. In each image I take I seek to understand a part of myself better. Some images reveal more than others. In some I am exploring a very specific idea, in others, I am searching for anything I might recognise that I can point a finger at and say “this is me”. Many of my images have also dealt with feeling a lack of self-identity.
I’ve been reading recently about the Enneagram – in testing, I have come up as a 4 and I do see a lot of myself in the descriptions of this type. The Enneagram Institute describes the basic motivation of a type 4 as the desire “To find themselves and their significance (to create an identity)” which aligns very closely with my experiences.
Beauty is an odd theme because in my work it doesn’t often manifest itself in the form of traditional glamour portraits, stunning landscapes or beautiful locations. It’s more an awareness that I appreciate and enjoy things more in life if they are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.
In this way a meal will be more satisfying to me if it is beautifully presented and care has been taken to balance the flavours and textures of the food even if the nutritional value is the same as if the ingredients were hastily thrown together in a bowl. I feel more at home in my space if it is filled with things I consider to be beautiful and that work cohesively together to create a particular mood. I appreciate the craftsmanship of items made in days gone by where the detail and embellishment of an item was just as important as the way it worked, where care was taken and each piece was unique rather than mass-produced.
I used to feel that caring about the appearance of things was trivial, and in some cases vain or showy, now I consider it to be a way of seeing art through everyday life.
Time and the Temporary Nature of Things
I believe that the beauty of things is often because they are transient. Sunset and sunrise, the light filtering through a window at a certain time of day, the burning of a candle, the warm breeze on your skin, the wilting vase of flowers, the steam off the top of a hot coffee, the growing up of a child. The passage of time changes things, and while something may be beautiful at many stages it is never the same beauty each time. If the magic light of golden hour lasted the whole day we would soon become complacent to it – it’s lovely because it is brief, because it passes and then it’s gone.
I am a very strongly nostalgic person – I remember things not necessarily as they were but in a romanticised recollection because I live my life very much by feeling. I love traditions (the ones that mean something, not the ones you do because you’re supposed to) because they come around, are experienced and pass by, but come around again – it’s a temporary joy that also keeps giving, being added to over time.
When I think about time this way I value it, but too often I
find myself thinking of it in terms of too much to do and not enough of it.
Time becomes an enemy and I find myself clinging on to things and being upset
at their passing because I’m not ready to let them go. The antidote to this is
to remember that there will be another moment and another after that – if I
never let go of what I have now I may never see what is to come.
Light and Shadow
Light is literally the instrument of photography, without it, we could capture nothing. Light and shadow are also the areas in my photography that I wish my skills were stronger. I’m often not able to capture it the way I see it and sometimes I fail to see it at all. I prefer a soft moody light, harsh lines and crisp edges feel sharp, rigid and unforgiving, but I like it to have some shape and direction.
I shoot my images using only natural light which means I’m often at the mercy of the day. Living in Melbourne where the weather can change on a whim makes this more of a challenge but studio lights miss the magic. I’ve been taking the time recently to try and really see the light, to appreciate its nuances and this has given me a new appreciation for it.
Working with My Themes
Although I’ve felt like I’ve been stuck in a bit of a creative rut, I’m not sure the answer necessarily means finding entirely new subjects but rather it might be finding new ways to work within the themes I’m drawn too. The exercise of really digging into why I’m drawn to working within these concepts uncovers new ways that they might be expressed. For example, I work a lot in portraiture and nature but I’ve always wanted to try still life photography and many of my themes could easily lend themselves to this.
Finding the deeper meaning behind what I photograph enables me to see the “why” of my creative expression and not just the “what”. Being able to think in terms of motivations, feelings, moods and broader concepts opens up the options while still allowing me to stay true to my style.
Have you ever looked at the themes you come back to in your creative work?
Does knowing why you are drawn to them help in finding different ways to express them?