Accidental beauty…



The small group I am part of – Aoradh– have spent years planning activities and events. Labyrinths, prayer rooms, worship spaces, stations, meditation walks through the forest and along the sea front, etc. At present we are taking something of a rest- there is a lot of pressure and busyness around with members of Aoradh, and so the ‘external’ side of what we do has taken a bit of a back seat. I really miss this- not just for the fact that an important dimension of who we are- the collective ‘mission’ outwards- is missing, but also because I miss the creativity.

Having said that, planning creative events is not always easy. Creative people can easily be caught up in their own ‘thing’, we do not easily listen to the other. My experience is that these planning events work best when visible enthusiasm is combined with patience, love and grace. When these are lacking it can be a tough place to be.

A friend posted something on Facebook the other day called ‘Say Yes‘,  written by an American Pastor called Jenny McDevitt. I really liked this;

A few years ago, on a friend’s recommendation, I read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants. Her writing is equal parts funny, crass, and brilliant (and if you can’t stomach all three, it’s probably best to leave this one on the shelf and ask me for a summary). More than a few pages dramatically changed the way I approach ministry, including her explanation of improvisation.


Improv, she says, depends upon four basic rules. First, say, “yes.” Agree with whatever your partner (or community, or congregation) has created. Second, say, “yes, and.” Agree, and then enter into the creative process yourself and start contributing. Third, make statements. This is a gentler way of saying, don’t be the person that only asks questions. That puts pressure on everyone else to come up with all the answers. Once again, contribute. Help create. And fourth, understand that there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Something didn’t go as planned? Look around and see what unexpected beauty has emerged accidentally. It’s almost always there.


Each one of these is worthy of your consideration. For me, it has been transformative to enter each conversation with a church member assuming I will do everything I can to say yes to whatever idea, scheme, or dream they bring with them. Obviously, I can’t say yes immediately to everything. Sometimes it takes conversation and creativity so we can both say yes to an adapted idea. Sometimes it takes questions to understand the spirit behind the idea, so we can find a different way forward that honors the original intent. (And yes, it’s true: there are times when I have to say no. That’s another post for another day.)


Saying yes has changed the way I approach ministry with others, but also the way I approach daily tasks myself. Shifting the evaluative question from “How could this go wrong?” to “How could we make this work?” invites open, positive dreaming and dialogue. It fosters an expectation of creativity. Frankly, it demands that I be more creative, constantly.


For the community, it communicates that we are all in this together. We’re on the same team, working toward the same goals. Saying yes is not blind acceptance; it is shared initiative and creativity. It honors what people bring to the table, and opens doors to possibilities I would have never imagined on my own.


Theologically, saying yes affirms the ministry of all God’s children and reminds us that creation itself is sacred. In the big picture, saying yes is to look at death, and offer life. It is to look at fear, and offer companionship. It is to look at the dark, and offer light. It is to look at hate, and offer love. In a world that is all too quick to say no, to say yes is to pry open the gates of the kingdom a little bit wider every time.


Perfect is the enemy of good…


“If I can not do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Martin Luther King Jnr.

Bear with me on this one.

Our culture places high value on polished excellence. We are schooled to laud our would-be-celebrity-achievers; singers who shine through the harsh (if manufactured) glare of TV trials, sports men and women who dedicate their lives to their pursuit of victory.

Along the way, there is indeed a love of a glorious failure, but this depends still on almost reaching the top.

But the fact is that few of us will ever reach extraordinary heights in any given pursuit- that it why such achievements are called extra-ordinary. Despite what we are sold as some kind of democratisation of celebrity , most of us are (and will always be) different shades and hues of ordinary.

What happens when the gap between our achievement and our aspiration (no matter how unrealistic) yawns wide?

I suppose most creative types live in and around this feeling- it is hard to ever feel fully satisfied with what we produce. Insecurity and frustration usually live alongside all the highs and acclamations.

But those of us who live in the ordinary – who make art, music, sport, etc out of base metal – faced with the obvious imperfections of what we make, the temptation is simply to give up. Then all that is left is to experience life vicariously through some kind of media interpreted version of creativity.

Perfection of this kind is shiny plastic. It is unachievable and often irrelevant to real things, real relationships and the mess of real life. It serves as distraction only.

There are other kinds of creativity that capture much more of who we really are. They tend to be shared in small spaces and to have little or no monetary value. Words will be miss-spelled, chords may be duff, the fine brush strokes of a hand will blur slightly. This art emerges from the ordinary- but is no less transcendent.

To strive to be better, to go deeper, further, higher- these are good things, but we can choke on fine food- we also need cabbage and brown bread.

Let the mirage of perfection never steal from us the beauty of what is good.

Creativity and failure…

Workshop bench

I spent most of today sorting out my workshop. I began making things out of wood a few years ago as some kind of therapy to assist with the stresses and strains of my day job. There is something about using your hands to create something that is really special- you begin with chaos, work through an idea, and then for good or ill, it is finished.

Well, not always to be honest as I was discovering today. It was like idea archaeology- each layer held evidence of a project, most of them unfinished rejects, bits of carving that went wrong, sometimes hours in the making, now gathered for the fire.

Some of the work could be recycled- bits were still usable. However, the idea, the moment of creativity had gone. All that hope and optimism and quiet excitement had gone from the object- it was just wood again.

As I rebuilt shelves and sorted piles of carefully collected driftwood into some kind of order, it occurred to me that all creativity is like this. It is necessary to immerse ourselves in the dust and dirt of what we a trying to create- but there are no guarantees of the final outcome. Failure is part of the process.

My workshop is still not sorted out- it needs another day of cleaning and tidying, ready for a season of creativity again. I find that I have to have a blank space- so I can stop worrying about what I used to do and get on with something new.

The other reason for having a really good sort out is that this year we are taking part in an event called Cowal Open Studios

Here is the link to our page on the website.

If you are here or here abouts in September, you can take a look into my cave, or have a go at some pottery…

Here is the photography I did for the website;

cowal arts 2

Is it possible to earn a living from being creative?

marcel creating

A little while ago I was talking to a friend about the life choices we made as young people, and whether we regret them. I was heading towards social work from an early age- my own rather damaged situation made me want to be a helper and a healer of others, and I was convinced by the call to live a life of service, which seemed to me to be the only life possible for followers of Jesus.

A quarter of a century later, social work chewed me up, and if it has not quite yet spat me out, I am like gum without the spearmint, but even so I am not quite sure whether I would have made a different decision with the benefit of hindsight.

Being sensitised and tenderised by life has the obvious effect of making you more inclined to towards being sensitive and hopefully tender towards the other- hence the social work. Having said that, social work these days seems to give less priority to kindness, and the soft arts of gentle encouragement. The best of us still hang on to these skills, but they are not measurable and so do not fit into any performance management plan I have seen of late. This probably explains my alienation at least in part.

This sensitivity also drives you into yourself, resulting in introspection or a retreat into imagination and the rich inner life of the mind. This second part of who I am has been less developed- certainly as a means of earning a living. There ain’t no money in poetry, that’s what sets the poet free as the song goes. I have wondered often about how people actually make a living through art.

There was an article in the Guardian yesterday entitled 10 things about being an artist that art teachers don’t tell you which made some interesting points about all this. It started with a stereotype about the struggling angst ridden artist starving in a garret;

If popular opinion is anything to go by, the creative sector is a huge gamble, braved only by reckless, or masochistic, individuals. But if you’re an art student, you need to know if this “make or break” view bears any relation to reality.

The author then spelled out the following 10 things that they had discovered as an art student;

Here are 10 honest truths about work, life and leisure in the creative industry.

1. Many artists work freelance. A study by the Arts Council finds that 41% of creative workers are self-employed. Temporary work contracts can make for an interesting and varied career, though periods of unemployment between jobs are a reality for some artists.

2. Freelance artists budget carefully. Being self-employed means you are without pension, holiday pay or maternity benefits. Contingencies such as falling ill or having children require pre-emptive financial planning.

3. Artists self-promote. Many showcase their talents on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Linked in, as well as on their own websites. Having a good online presence shows employers that you are self-motivated and digitally literate.

4. Artists love socialising. Networking events are the art world’s equivalent to job hunting, but with less misery and more booze. Whether you’re searching for commissions or trying to advance your career, networking gives you the chance to meet industry professionals and expose yourself to new opportunities.

5. Many artists form collectives to publicise and exhibit their work. Kate Rowland, an illustrator from the collective After School Club explains: “Being in After School Club is great for motivation. It allows us to utilise each other’s skills, therefore we have more resources to help one another. It’s kind of like a creative support system. And lots of fun.”

6. It’s all about your portfolio. The visual arts are less grade-centric than other disciplines. An art director at a graphic design company once told me he’d think twice about hiring someone with a first-class degree, as he worried they’d have no time for hobbies outside of work. In his words, not mine, “they might be really boring”. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t aim high – another employer might appreciate a first-class candidate. Rather, you should focus on making your portfolio the best you can possibly make it. A good body of work speaks louder than grades.

7. Some artists supplement their income with a second job. Doing so gives them financial security while they exercise their creative passions. Take a look at some of these prolific “double jobbers”.

8. Many artists take on internships to help kick-start their career. Working for a company can prepare you with essential industry skills and improve youremployability. The question of payment is a hot potato – in general, the shorter the internship, the less likely you are to get paid.

9. Job opportunities are growing. There are currently over 1.9 million people working in the creative industries. However, by 2016, the government expects this figure to skyrocket, with an additional 1.3 million new jobs in the private sector alone.

10. The creative sector is characterised by high levels of job satisfaction. As a result, the industry is highly competitive and jobs are sought after. If you have the passion and the motivation to stay ahead of the game, then a creative career can be an exciting and rewarding experience.

There you go- perhaps I should have gone down a different path.

Perhaps I still might get there…

Creativity and internal conflict…

There was an article on Bruce Springsteen in the Guardian today. I am not a huge fan- but there is one of his albums, Nebraska, that I have played a lot. It is a spare, bleak collection of songs recorded on a basement 4 track cassette recorder. Some of it makes the hairs on your kneck stand out.

It was both shocking, and yet not a surprise to read this;

While he was working on his 1982 album Nebraska, he felt “suicidal”, according to friend and biographer Dave Marsh. “The depression wasn’t shocking, per se,” Marsh explained to Remnick. “He was on a rocket ride, from nothing to something, and now you are getting your ass kissed day and night. You might start to have some inner conflicts about your real self-worth.”…

The Boss was driven, he admitted, “by pure fear and self-loathing and self-hatred”.

“I’m 30 years in analysis!” Springsteen said. “You think, I don’t like anything I’m seeing, I don’t like anything I’m doing, but I need to change myself, I need to transform myself.

“I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel,”

I was reminded on an old post I wrote, reflecting on some words by David Bailey– he said that he had never known a good artist who did not have absolute confidence in their work. This seemed nonsense to me, as those I had met seemed full of doubts and fears about everything they created, and quite a lot about themselves too.

This may reflect my own skewed perspective of course. Success perhaps belongs to the bombastic.

But then again, creativity does appear to relate to introspection, and no one instrospects like those of us who carry damage. We have been hiding deep inside ourselves, and built all sorts of defences to keep it quiet down there. One of the ways of communication left to us is through art. There is no better example than Peter Howson.

Or Bruce of course.


I watched “The madness of  Peter Howson” on TV tonight.

I watched him spending months and months creating a painting of John Ogilvie, Catholic son of a Scottish Calvinist, who was hanged for ‘refusing to accept the King’s spiritual jurisdiction’.

For Howson, the creative process was a tortuous one- constantly making and remaking the work, whilst struggling with depression and suicidal feelings.

Along the way he was diagnosed as suffering from Aspergers syndrome, and his assets are now managed by a Guardian.

I have met Howson at an art exhibition we staged as part of an Aoradh event- he cuts an odd and rather shambolic figure, but his genius is without doubt. It arises out of his own twisted brokeness which seem to be the compost in which this wonderful art grows.

Which set me thinking again about creativity- where it comes from, and what can set it loose.

For Howson, this is not a risk free joyful process- it is crowded with self doubt and self criticism. But above all, his creativity is driven– he is compelled to create.

My own experience is far more limited- in terms of my creative talent, my drive and thankfully even my measure of existential angst. But there was something in watching Howson tonight that very much resonated with me- and no doubt would do with lots of creative people.

For us, creating things brings life.

But it also pitches us on a rollercoaster of emotion- joy, doubt, uncertainty, crises of confidence.

But not getting on the rollercoaster is simply not an option.

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1st collector for BBC News – Howson completes Ogilvie work
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Creativity, transcendence and God…

Katherina sent me this clip today of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED speech. She had watched it and thought of me, which was really touching- so thanks Katherina!

She is the writer of ‘Eat Pray Love‘, a book that Michaela enjoyed so much that she has bought copies for lots of her friends. She speaks well.

Her subject material is familiar to anyone who lives a creative life. We pursue those tender transcendent moments, seeking to capture and preserve them in some kind of abstract bottle. But they are fleeting, and even if we manage somehow to inhabit them (or be inhabited by them) then what next? How can we live with the knowledge that it has been done, and may never be done again?

In my moments of blundering creativity, I still resonate with her description of being part of some strange collaboration between me and something other…

A conversation between myself and some external thing that is not quite me, and may originate in something that is wholly other.

Something that I understand as…