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Can lockdowns have upsides for creativity?

Can lockdowns have upsides for creativity

Last night I dreamt I was making a turquoise green rug.  Odd as I have no plans to make a rug.

We have all shifted from being bit-part players in the Hollywood film “Contagion”  to being Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”. Although numbers of new cases have fallen in Wales,  Covid is still very close. Our neighbours came down with it two weeks ago.  So lockdown still feels very necessary, even if it seems unending. There have been times it has felt unbearable.  When my parents’ second Pfizer vaccination was moved from early January to March I was very disappointed. When I read that the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley (who has broken lockdown rules more than once), got his second jab in mid January I was very angry. I had to cook some scones to distract myself from my feelings of anger, fear and frustration. They still haven’t had their second jab.  Who knows when our vaccinations will take place. Online calculators predict mid to late April for the first one and then July for the second one. I seems so far away so I try and put it out of my mind and live in the day. It’s not always easy.

During the first lockdown, I couldn’t leave my bedroom, as I had a leg in plaster. Then in the summer, once I was able to get back into my studio, I was kept very busy with a series of painting commissions. I worked on them one after another using other people’s images. I  had to squeeze “my own” work in between them. I did not have a lot of time to reflect on what I was painting until now.  I haven’t had a commission since before Christmas and this has given me a lot of freedom.

This freedom has also presented quite a few challenges. Lockdown means that I cannot go out and take new photos of Gower, and I definately cannot leave South Wales. I am working from photos taken over a year ago. Some of the images are much older than that.  I trawl through my collection again and again, hoping for something to the catch my eye, something that I had previously missed. I recently painted a series of  “rural minimal” paintings based on the island of Gola, off the coast of Donegal.

Paintings of Gola, Donegal
Some of my recent rural minimal paintings

I have also been looking at the paintings of American artists such as Fairfield Porter, Lois Dodd and Randall Exon.

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Lois Dodd
Randall Exon
Randall Exon

Then I try and forget them as I dont want to copy them.  I decide that I need to achieve both simplicity and “depth” in my work. I am not exactly sure how to do this. So I keep painting.

All the time I am thinking and ruminating. I have recently returned executing underpaintings in red ochre and sepia.  I have done this before.  It’s not a straight forward process. Sometimes, I feel like I have made a small but important breakthrough, and at others I feel like I have hit a dead end. Often I feel like I am hitting my head against a brick wall. It’s like that uncomfortable feeling of boredom, before you think of what to do next.

Painting of Tenby Harbour
Sketch of Tenby Harbour  from 2019 using red ochre and sepia paint
Back Lane, St Thomas (2021)
Back Lane, St Thomas (2021) – on red ochre/sepia underpainting

Boredom and forced inactivity is very good for creativity, so long as you put away your phone. Scrolling isn’t good for creativity.  It seems that in the absence of stimulation the brain will fill in the gaps for you. Maybe brain was keeping me busy by making a rug in my dreams? People with something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which involves visual hallucinations for people who have lost their sight, have had worsening symptoms during the pandemic. Not so good.

I also read this week that scientists believe that about 42,000 years ago the earth’s magnetic poles flipped and flipped back again. This event is known as the “Laschamps excursion”. It had a catastrophic effect on earth as the protective shield magnetic fields, which usually provide protection against damaging cosmic radiation, was disrupted. This resulted in huge electrical storms, widespread auroras, and lots of cosmic radiation. It possibly also played a role in a major events ranging from the extinction of Australian megafauna, accelarating the growth of ice sheets,  shifted rain belts and helped bring about an end to the Neanderthals!

Researchers have called this danger period the ‘Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event’, or ‘Adams Event’ for short – a tribute to science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that ’42’  (i.i. 42,000 years ago in this case) was the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Why? Because out of this apocalyptic era came the emergence of red ochre handprints left on cave walls in places like modern day Spain, France and Argentina. Red ochre – the same pigment I use for my underpaintings.

Red Ochre

It has been suggested that humans may have used the pigment as a sunscreen against the increased levels of ultraviolet radiation hitting the Earth as a result of the depletion of ozone. The ancient greeks and romans used kohl eyeliner for a similar reason, although the ancient Egyptians used it for fashion purposes too.

Kohl Eyeliner
Kohl Eyeliner – Not just fashionable!

There seems to have been an increasing use of caves between about 42,000 and 40,000 years ago. This was  possibly as shelter from the more intense sun. We know that something important happened around the same time, as there was a surge in figurative artworks, including cave paintings, rock sculptures, and bone, antler and ivory carvings that date from this period.

Swimming Reindeer carving

It has previously been argued that this was due to a change in the human brain (listen to the episode on the Swimming Reindeer carving in the BBC’s series History of the World in 100 objects) but it may well have been that stone age people experienced a form of lockdown sheltering in their caves from the extreme sun.

Paleolithic Art in the Roucadour cave
Paleolithic Art in the Roucadour cave

Perhaps they were already doing these things but now left tangible evidence of it amongst the rocks. Not only did they decorate these places, they also made music  and no doubt held ceremonies (or maybe parties) ate, had sex, and left carvings. The time in the caves probably helped bind communities. I am quite envious of the face-to-face socialising they must have had. It may well be that Neanderthals and humans also got it together in the caves as suggested by a jaw bone of part human/neanderthal ancestry that has been found in a Romanian cave, dating from this period.  Afterall, a tiny percentage (1.5 to 2.1) of Neanderthal-inherited genetic material is found in all non-African people.

(Image credit: The University of Tübingen) Flute made from vulture bone

It seems very odd to ask if lockdown can be good for us. Obviously it’s good for our physical health, reducing the levels of covid and deaths in our communities, whilst we wait to be vaccinated. It has undoubtedly done a lot of damage to people’s mental health, not to mention their waistlines. It has ruined a lot of businesses that rely on social interactions. Many people have really struggled with the limitations  of life, my parents have not been in a shop since last March. Many people have also struggled with being forced-fed a daily diet of fear by news bulletins. Young people in particular have sufffered during a lockdown that largely protects their elders, not their peers.  It can have an upside for creativity. I suspect, however, that that thousands of books, essays, diaries, plays, sketches, paintings, songs, pies, cakes, puzzles,  X-box games and even rugs (turquoise or otherwise) have been written, draw, painted, made, read, eaten and listened to during this lockdown. It has been suggested that Shakespeare may well have written Macbeth and then King Lear in plague quarantine. After the boredom and frustration comes creativity.

It’s what makes us human.

Read more about Boredom and Creativity here–RgDass7STe/index.html

Read more about the Adams Event 

(The first two include short explainer video clips)

A magnetic field reversal 42,000 years ago may have contributed to mass extinctions

41 thoughts on “Can lockdowns have upsides for creativity?

  1. Very interesting, enlightening post! One thing you may not know is that in the US, the state of Florida has no lockdown and it has fewer per capita deaths from Covid-19 than other states such as New York. Meanwhile its economy is thriving while businesses, small ones in particular, are slowly going out of existence in states with strict lockdowns.

    1. Thankyou. I guess Florida (The “sunshine state”) has warmer tempertaures than many other states so a lot of socalising can take place out of doors. The numbers went right down here in the summer but when it’s too cold to have the windows open the virus thrives! Christmas get-togethers sent the numbers through the roof! I think you’ve had it colder than us recently, judging by your recent snow photos.

      1. Numerous other states that followed the same less restrictive policies as Florida have fared far worse than Florida. This suggests that factors other than behavioral regulations, such as warm weather, may play a role in keeping coronavirus infections relatively low in Florida

      2. Interesting…variants? Mask-wearing in-doors?

      3. as with everything related to this virus Emma we are all learning on the fly!
        If I were to speculate…….It’s not a variant as that would affect everybody evenly aka badly.
        I think when it’s cold people stay more indoors, there by exposing themselves more due to limited air volume and flow.
        With Florida being warmer people are outdoors more and so are not exposing themselves as much?
        I would like to see data on states close to Florida with the same weather/temperature.
        If the reason for the difference is temperature related that would mean areas like Mexico and further south would have lower values as well. I do not know what the data says?
        Florida has one of the largest number of infections bar none but because everybody wants to be in the sunshine the population is greater than other States.
        They’ll be writing about this for decades!

      4. I think employment conditions also do a lot for spread so that maybe a warm country like Mexico has workers either indoor and/or too close together. Attitudes to mask wearing are also important, now that WHO, governments, et al has finally come round to the idea that its transmitted in the air! I think that government downplayed it at first because they didnt have enough PPE for medical staff. Now we have a problem with disposing of the single-use masks as they cant be recycled and they are made of plastic (who knew)! A problem I dont have the answer for.

      5. all good points Emma and I think you hit the nail on the head with not having an answer with what to do about that PPE? Nobody knows? We can figure out what to do with that after we do a final body count.

      6. indeed, NY was the first state to be hit, which is important to remember – please see news link I attached here earlier

      7. link is in my reply below…

      1. Thank you for the link – its vert informative. I should have thought that being hit was a disadvantage as there was so much that was unknown about the transmission of the illness (ie masks being so important).

  2. Brilliant post, Emma. I confess I have had a few “turquoise rug dreams” myself during this time, and I find that when I’m just sitting around, tired of reading knittingwatchingtvpaintingeatingeatingeating, I suddenly find myself dreaming up new ideas to try in the studio. It is very exciting and I think you are absolutely right that it is a result of lockdown.
    I’ve been reading the articles about the North Pole moving, but hadn’t seen any indication that this could cause danger. This has baffled me, because it seemed likely that it would cause problems. And, I have wondered just why people chose to live in caves when they probably had skills to build other kinds of shelter….along with the sudden appearance of art. You’ve drawn these disparate things together in a meaningful way and I’m delighted.
    Happy creativity!

    1. Thank you, Melissa. I wasnt quite sure what impact it would have had (I thought it might cause extreme weather) I hadn’t realised that they provided the magneetic “shield” that keeps out the sun’s radiation. That’s why they used to think that going into space would kill astronauts!

  3. I resonated with your experience of going through older photos and trying to squeeze one last bit of subject matter out of them. I got lucky and have managed to get three “good enough” drawings for new paintings. Now I have to wait for a lucky day when it’s warm enough to prep the canvases outside.

    1. Thankfully, my husband and I take lots of photos so we have plenty to look through. It’s been interesting finding images that I initially wasn’t grabbed by but are still pretty good. I have often found that I change my mind about what I want to paint, so I might want more shadows, more people, no people, so I will periodically go back through my images looking for material. One of my cats, Hattie, destroyed an external hard drive (she pushed it on the floor) and I lost half my photos from 2016. Maybe they weren’t as good as I remembered but the loss bugged me for a long time.

  4. Very interesting. I have shared this to Facebook.

  5. As a X Geologist I was surprised to find out that the last pole reversal was only 42,000 years ago? That is very recent geologically! So I looked it up and found it was actually 780,000 years. It’s still not clearly understood why this process occurs?

    1. I didnt know you were and X Geologist! (I could make a joke about special X-man powers here…) I think this is classed as an “excursion” rather than a full reversal. It’s all kind of mind blowing. I had a vague idea that the magnetic north pole moved about a bit (unlike the true north pole) but i had no idea that such huge changes could and had occured (and might well do again).

      1. I can guarantee that the poles will reverse again. When Is the question?
        True North (Polaris) will change slowly too. In 3000 BC the north star was “Thuban”. The earths “precession”cycle takes 26000 years to complete, so Polaris will come back around eventually.

      2. That’s all mind blowing stuff. I think I like thinking about it because all those thousands of years make 2021 a tiny drop in a massive ocean. For some reason I find that comforting.

      3. Very happy to bring some comfort in these trying times Emma!
        Your beautiful paintings bring that sense of comfort to many as well!

  6. I think as far as creativity goes it all depends on wether you see a glass half empty or half full?

  7. Well, Yes. This lockdown is such hard work at times, I was trying to point out the half-full aspect!

  8. There’s a whole history lesson contained in here, Emma 🙂 🙂 I love your red ochre and sepia sketch of Tenby. Minimalism, after a fashion, I suppose. I’m sorry you’re so upset over the issue of vaccines. Portugal is way down the list when it comes to ‘getting it done’ and I suspect it will be September before its widely available here. I don’t really feel threatened by the virus, however foolish that may be, but it is a concern that I may not be able to travel without the vaccine.

    1. Thank you, Jo. I am glad that you are OK about the vaccines. Maybe because you have better weather and are out in the fresh air a lot, the risk is a lot less. Yes, no one can travel anywhere at the moment.

      1. Population density is a factor, Emma. I’m more frustrated by the restraints that forbid us the beaches. Happily my son and partner have had their first vaccines- he works with the elderly- so they should be ok to visit us in July. Fingers crossed! But that’s still such a long time away. And yes- I do think creativity has been boosted during lockdown. Necessity the mother of invention, and all that. 🙂 🙂

      2. Iamdelighted that your son & partner have had the vaccine. I am frustrated that we are not allowed to drive anywhere for exercise. I am very bored of the local area when I have so much lovely just down the road. I preferred the local lockdown when we could travel within the county.

      3. It’s a bit the same here. I live in a beautiful place and you wouldn’t think it possible to exhaust the beauty, but I champ at the bit for my beaches and a widening of horizons. One day soon… hopefully…for us both! Meanwhile, sending hugs 🙂 🙂

    2. I’m just getting over covid & am on a mission to remind folks that it’s like a normal “flu” in name only — it is very dangerous & should be taken quite seriously. it is incredibly easy to contract & spread

      1. Yes, my neighbours came down with it a few weeks ago and I know they have been very ill indeed (lost a massive load of weight too). Not like flu at all.

  9. Emma, this is a great post. I’m so sorry you’ve been challenged with so many things at the same time. I’ve found that as much as I wish covid didn’t exist, indeed, I’ve had more time to get to writing…

    1. Thank you, I think that when “this” is all over people who have been working from home will look back and miss aspects of Lockdown. Obviously there are people who have had to carry on going to work though every day of pandemic (medics, delivery drivers, food shop workers) and their experience has been different.

  10. This is a very interesting post, Emma. Its really good to get perspectives from someone who lives in a different country. I live in Minnesota and the quarantine has been very hard with the cold winter and a slow roll out of the vaccine. Somedays you feel like your going mad, somedays you keep in perspective that it won’t be forever, most days, as you say, its like living through the movie Groundhog Day.

    1. The weather makes a massive difference to my state of mind – gloomy rainy days are the worst. I didn’t mind the long dark nights of winter so much as the gloomy days. Yes, I have felt like I am going mad at times too. I lot of people I know avoid the TV news (and the radio) as they on and on about all the terrible stuff (yet another new variant etc) and it can becomw overwhelming. So I have to try and focus on what is right in front of me and just wait for the vaccine. My morning yoga session helps a lot too.

      1. I can relate so much. Hopefully the vaccine will reach both of us soon!! ❤️

  11. I wow, great discussion all around- I’ve learned so much !

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