Art and Anxiety: student artists discuss the fears and anxieties of creation

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Rachel Boyd
Deputy Culture Editor (Art)

The nuances between productivity and creativity were what first interested Emma Hislop and Claire McGinlay. After an anxious first year spent studying at the Glasgow School of Art, both artists were struggling to position themselves; between fulfilling objectives as students and keeping up with the domestics of everyday life, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain whatever motivation they had for making. As Emma noted, “That’s all part of what makes art hard work; having the drive to commit to finding that space for yourself, even if you don’t have the time or the energy.”

As term ended, the friends maintained a correspondence, devising a one-night exhibition. (BODY) honed in on the process of producing work in spite of the constraints of location, time zones – Emma holidayed in Australia whilst Claire remained in Glasgow – and the bouts of depression they mutually shared. One series of ‘switch’ drawings were produced collaboratively; small, circular illustrations started by one, and finished intuitively by the other. In making art for the sake of filling the upper floor of The Old Hairdressers, the two artists sacrificed any perfectionism, and any misgivings about how they might be judged by their Art School peers:

“Painting is like a meditation; if you can’t centre yourself, the will to work just isn’t there. Last year I lost a lot of confidence. I’d be in the studio, watching others around me just talking, laughing, a lot of them still making incredible stuff. I’d go to sit down, and pull out a pencil – I’d think about it for a while; I’d end up drawing a face. But it wouldn’t mean anything; it wouldn’t translate with the ideas going on in my head, and that scares me…”

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“Untitled” collaborative piece of switch drawings

Watching Claire talk, I realized her worries could apply to any student. Every working day is weighted with the struggle of what comes next; be it the next deadline for class, or planning ahead, for a future beyond campus. The need to articulate ourselves isn’t just an academic issue, It’s an aesthetic one:

“I like to have a routine. When I’m procrastinating from starting a project, I’ll be making lists upon lists of materials I need, things I need to put in order. I am very into research, meticulous planning, then building up to delivering whatever concept I’ve decided on. But sometimes I’m so in love with an idea that it can be hard to break that barrier between thinking and making. We knew the exhibition wasn’t going to be particularly structured or conceptual, but it didn’t matter. We were seeing something to the end, and making all our quirks and flaws known to people, even just for a little while.”

Claire’s work was fraught with graphite, charcoal, watercolour washes – materials that are easily erasable; not just simple to source. Emma used fragments of lots of flyers, tourist maps and handmade paper from burnt wood in the Mackintosh. The disposable materials in (BODY) could be seen as a reflection on the artists’ lack of self-esteem; a disillusionment from anything that could be seen as acting in opposition to art made by their peers, tutors and influences.  

For a while, we discuss the beauty of peering into photographs of famous Artists in progress; where you can (guilt-free) observe the profound clutter of icons. Emma and Claire have both struggled to be productive in the studio spaces allocated to them – they are “impersonal, boxy” in comparison to the familiar hum of their homes. This insight into personal spaces is what engaged much of the Old Hairdressers space for (BODY). One sculpture, titled ‘An Artist’s work’ was merely a pile of teabags on a plinth, musing at the brief pauses which fuel our day.

In art school, students are often gathered together to critique each other’s ideas in casual spaces, like a studio environment, similar to seminars. In spite of their nervousness, they agree on the importance of speaking first. For Emma, art-making is an act of honesty; a means tackling her emotional insecurities as well as questioning the uncertainties in life:

“I go first; just so I can speak, and I know it’s over with…but people do interpret it as superiority. No, because I speak first, it doesn’t mean that I feel confident or knowledgeable…I want to contribute; my feelings can be as valid as my ideas. People tend to question the value of the arts economically; well, we ask the questions that produce new inventions. If I know I’ve finished a project with the same end product I first imagined, then it hasn’t been successful at all. At some point, I need to feel like I can’t remember where it all came from, because I’ve branched off so much – into new, exciting things. Art makes that excitement happen.”

Whether we are studying in a creative or academic sphere, the anxieties we face are known, but not necessarily documented. We are all afraid of being observed at surface level – as Arts students or not, there is an inherent fear in being seen as a work-in-progress. Too often we focus on presenting ourselves as fully-formed versions of the success we hope to achieve. As a one-night show, (BODY) is a fleeting example of creativity in its rawest form; art as an unconscious act, rather than a product to be graded.