Art and soul: why vulnerability is so often the secret creative ingredient
We speak to three artists and designers about their most personal projects to date and how they find the courage to reveal their true selves.
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Moment of Truth is a series of articles from It’s Nice That, in partnership with Allianz, exploring courage and creativity. Allianz exists to provide confidence in tomorrow, understanding that every creative act requires bravery and faith in yourself.
For as long as there has been art, there have been artists baring their souls. This is never an easy thing to do and takes real courage, especially with today’s armchair critics on social media. Of course, some pieces of work are more intensely personal than others, whether it’s because they reveal the artist’s insecurities or explore their private life and intimate relationships.
The majority of Harry Hitchens’ work is unflinchingly honest and personal, but in one film he is particularly exposed, quite literally. “There’s a reason I’m in Can You Feel It and I’m the one who’s naked,” says the London-based director and writer. “It’s so criminally rare to see a fat person who’s truly loved in cinema. I really wanted fat gay men to see this film. So for all the fat-bois out there: this one’s for you.”
Can You Feel It is a touching vignette portraying a moment of intimacy and tenderness between a couple as one struggles with depression. “The inspiration for the idea came from conversations I’ve had in two previous relationships,” explains Harry. “One where my partner told me to stop wallowing in my despair and one where I was held with empathy, grounded by their heartbeat. The film’s aim wasn’t to say one approach is better than the other, but that those two approaches to a partner’s mental health often come hand in hand.”
Harry hadn’t originally planned to act in the film as well as write and direct it. But it soon became “impractical” for him not to play the role. “Getting my kit off in front of a crew of people and then thousands of online viewers has been nothing short of mind-altering, in the best possible way,” he says. “Learning to love my big fat bod is a journey I’m still very much on.”
Harry used to find releasing personal work much harder than he does now. “I used to wish it would do better than anything else because it felt more important, but now my views have totally flipped,” he says. “I care far less about how well it does in the online world or in the laps of critics because it isn’t for any of them. It’s for me.”
Through pouring his soul into his creative work, Harry is able to process his emotions and experiences. “Writing films is a very formulaic craft: there are rules,” he explains. “So applying a life experience to those rules of drama can help you understand everything that happens to you.” In a way, it forces you to look at your own life and personal history in a fresh light.
“Getting my kit off in front of a crew of people and then thousands of online viewers has been nothing short of mind-altering”Harry Hitchens
For example, he is currently writing a screenplay about some difficult moments from his own past. “There’s a scene in the film where the lead character tells his mum what happened to him as a kid,” says Harry. “For the days that I write her parts of the scene, I get to be my mum. I have an opportunity to comprehend this traumatic moment from her perspective, which has allowed me a level of understanding that I don’t imagine many people achieve.”
Although Harry always likes to create from a vulnerable place, he believes it’s not the only way and that there are plenty of examples of brilliant creativity that aren’t personal. “When you add a sense of vulnerability to a project, what you’re really adding is a sense of humanity,” he says. “What you’re really doing is telling all the people in the world who sit in a similar position that they’re not alone.”
Building these kinds of connections and bridges between people is also what motivates the graphic designer Conor Foran. Another perfect example of courageous creativity, Dysfluent is a magazine about people who stammer, which Conor started in his final year of university. The interviews in the magazine are set in Dysfluent Mono, a typeface that stretches and repeats to emulate the voice of a speaker who stammers.
“It’s rare that someone will ask me about my stammer – so I decided to start the conversation instead,” Conor explains. “If I considered my stammer as visually striking and appealing, how does that impact my own relationship with my speech? If it is seen by another person who stammers, what impact does that have on their sense of self?”
Despite feeling compelled to answer these questions, Conor has had various reservations along the way. “When I started Dysfluent, the vulnerability I felt was not nice,” he reflects. “I felt exposed, judged and fearful of what people would think. Even a few years into it, I still have doubts about creating such personal work. I’m always asking myself, ‘Am I milking this? Is this self-indulgent? Is this all I can offer?’”
“I’m always asking myself, ‘Am I milking this? Is this self-indulgent? Is this all I can offer?’”Conor Foran
Just like Harry, Conor has conquered these fears by reminding himself that unlike other creative projects, he is making Dysfluent chiefly for himself. “If other people like it as well then that’s a bonus,” he says. It gives him access to deeper self-knowledge. “The more I work on the project, the more I get to understand myself and the world around me, and I’m grateful for that.”
Unsurprisingly, other people love Dysfluent too. The magazine has brought people together from across the stammering community and helped bolster the movement towards stammering pride and acceptance. “I’d never met another person who stammers before the project,” says Conor. “Stammering can be a very isolating experience. The more I’ve worked on Dysfluent, the more I’ve seen how valuable it is for not only my own personal journey, but also for the stammering community.”
The impulse to create something new and original is often driven by a deep desire to understand and explore some aspect of one’s lived experience. For photographer Henry Kamara, this didn’t just mean an internal journey, but a physical one too. In 2018, the London-based creative travelled to Sierra Leone to explore his heritage. “Being a child of the diaspora has left me with this insatiable feeling of displacement, that I’m not fully British or fully Sierra Leonean,” he says.
Through shooting the series, Henry was able to better understand what it means to be Sierra Leonean and the different forces that have shaped his own life. Crafted in his typically warm and uplifting style, he wanted to create an image of the nation and its people that both promoted and preserved their culture. “Sierra Leone has generally been portrayed as either poor and in need of aid, or as a war-torn paradise with stolen riches and corrupt leaders,” he explains. “Some of these things are true, but it forms a far from comprehensive picture of the culture and people who call it home.”
While he was there, Henry quickly became aware of the influence of his colonial upbringing and Western lens. “I learned the Krio word for ‘white boy’, a term alluding to my inescapably British tone of voice, Western education and fresh clothes,” he says.
He found himself talking about how much he loves cassava leaves and showing off his best Krio in order to prove himself worthy. “But I found it much easier to build a rapport with people once I was able to recognise my colonised perspective and lens, and work to counter it,” he explains. “Overcoming these conflicts was a personal battle, not just an occupational one. As I started to better understand these perspectives, it became a creative strength.”
Clearly, then, allowing vulnerability into your work can help you connect not only with a wider audience, but also with yourself and your identity. “That is your strength as a creative: drawing on your trauma, deep and dark pasts, and the things that we often avoid speaking about,” Henry says. “There have been a lot of hard truths, but it’s been a healing process for me. And I feel like my ancestors are looking down proud that I’m playing this role.”