What are the effects of isolation on creativity?

Inspired by Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s displacement during the second world war, and the new arc in her career this evoked, we explore how isolation and remote experiences may have a blossoming effect on creativity.

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It’s Nice That is partnering with the Tate Modern for its Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition this summer (from 15 July – 17 October 2021). You can book tickets here to catch the exhibition in its final weeks.

Following the beginning of the second world war, Sophie Taeuber-Arp – a Swiss artist who is currently the subject of an awaited retrospective at the Tate Modern – was displaced, along with her husband Hans Arp, from their then home of Paris as Nazi troops took hold of the city. Prior to this, Taeuber-Arp’s practice was a sprawling collection of disciplines merged together, inspired by her involvement with Dadaism, featuring performance, jewellery and textile design but also architecture. After relocating outside of Paris to Grasse in 1940, and later Switzerland in 1942 due to the war, the three dimensional practice that had dominated her output was put on hold while she was forced to create remotely. Instead, an illustrative practice exploring the medium of just a line became Taeuber-Arp’s artistic focus, creating a much-loved body of work that if not for isolation may have never risen to the surface.

Inspired by the way in which this isolated period changed the course of Taeuber-Arp’s career, we set out to explore how more remote locations, or enforced isolation, can affect creativity. In turn speaking to a group of practitioners, some who sought out this experience and others who reacted to it in a wider context.

“I think language is so completely tied up with expression and perception.”

Symy Ong

Ceramicist Symy Ong lives a comparatively isolated life to the surroundings she grew up in. Originally from London, she now lives at the foot of a small mountain in Japan, Kagami Yama (鏡山). Based in Karatsu (唐津), although classified as a city in Japan, “I really live in the countryside,” she tells It’s Nice That. On one side of Kagami Yama (which translates from Japanese as “mirror mountain” in English) is the sea, while further inland, where Symy resides, is mostly paddy fields and polytunnels, with tree-covered mountains cascading above. Where previous journeys consisted of tube trips or buses, her days now begin by cycling up a valley to the kiln where she works while “watching the seasons pass and the rice grow around me.”

Symy is currently living in Karatsu on a year-long ceramics apprenticeship, supported by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese foundation which funds links between the UK and Japan among young people. The ceramicist applied specifically with the proposal to complete a traditional Japanese pottery apprenticeship, driven by a love for Japanese ceramics developed during her prior six years of practising, and catapulted by a field trip to Mashiko (益子) while studying at Stoke-on-Trent’s Clay College. “We basically looked at pots for the whole week,” she reflects. “I’d wanted to apply for the scholarship before that, but that was really the impetus.”

“With a craft I think discipline is sometimes what you need to develop and hone your skills.”

Symy Ong

Her first year was spent in Tokyo learning Japanese at a local university, followed by a month’s homestay outside of the city “to experience what life is like outside the capital.” While learning to speak Japanese isn’t necessarily a requirement for the apprenticeship, this first stage of Symy’s time in Japan was necessary to her. As the child of immigrant parents – Symy’s parents moved to the UK from Malaysia – “I wanted to experience what life was like as an immigrant myself,” believing that to properly integrate one has to learn the dialect “because you’re not just learning the language but how people think,” she says. “I think language is so completely tied up with expression and perception and in that way it’s really important in order to perceive a person, and a country’s, true essence.”

How the ceramicist ended up at the foot of the Kagami Yama mountain however is quite a fortuitous story. While living in Tokyo, Symy happened to go to a particular restaurant, Fushikino (ふしきの), for her partner’s birthday. A tiny place with just ten seats for guests, each course is designed to complement the next and reflect the seasons, with each plate and pot carefully selected to match. The manager soon noticed Symy and her boyfriend discussing each plated dish in detail and a conversation, as well as an invitation to visit 12 different potters across the pottery regions of Hagi (萩) and Karatsu (唐津), soon followed. In Karatsu, Symy met her master, Mitoh san (三藤さん).

“It’s very much about community, and that community before yourself.”

Symy Ong

Although traditional Japanese apprenticeships tend to last three to five years, Symy was allowed to spend one year with her master as a visitor. Nevertheless, it’s a “typical Japanese apprenticeship,” meaning the ceramicist works with her master from Monday to Saturday, from nine in the morning until nine at night, with four days off per calendar year – “the Japanese do not get their stereotype of being hard workers for nothing!” From nine to five Symy will complete her master’s work: “I do whatever she asks me to,” she says, “from cleaning to processing clay or processing raw materials, breaking rocks, sieving rocks, milling rocks, through to making some of the standard ware.”

Then, from five until nine, Symy works on her own practice. Directed by the master, these sessions consist of continually throwing clay, “and then recycling it,” she adds. “I don’t really get to fire anything but that discipline is something I am interested in… with a craft, I think discipline is sometimes what you need to develop and hone your skills.” At the end of the day, she’ll cycle home again “and look at the stars, because it’s always night as I work so late.”

As well as being physically isolated from her close friends and family in distance, the effects of Covid-19 have of course heightened Symy’s sense of isolation. With borders closed to tourists in Japan, no one has been able to visit Symy since the pandemic started. Its effects on the job market also meant her partner had to travel home, unable to find a job in Tokyo as they’d initially planned. That being said, restrictions in Japan have been relatively small with no lockdowns or strict physical parameters, creating an odd kind of equilibrium. “It’s kind of funny isn’t it, because even though I’ve been going through a physical isolation here, you have been going through a physical isolation as well; you haven’t been able to live your lives as you would have,” she says. “On one hand, I feel like we’re joined in experience through that.”

“It’s been so important to communicate the significance and power of the land to others, so they too can feel the emotional connection to something much greater and larger than us.”

Ellis O’Connor

Nevertheless, the Japanese sense of community is one of the qualities Symy, whose apprenticeship comes to an end this month, will hold closest once home again. Largely she describes how those around her are continually “thinking about other people all the time,” in actions she notices daily. The community’s reaction to Covid-19 has also highlighted this tendency, especially in their adoption of wearing masks without instruction. “In the West, it feels very much about the individual with all these protests against wearing masks and lockdowns,” she reflects, “but here it’s very much about community, and that community before yourself.”

But in terms of how the experience may have changed both Symy as a person and her ceramics practice, it’s living in nature she notes as affecting her most. Having always lived in industrialised cities prior, nature has previously interested the ceramicist, especially “the idea of living really simply.” Due to her hectic work schedule, Symy admits to having little time for leisure, “like seeing people or going for dinner”, a feeling in line with her other fellow apprentices. Instead today she speaks beautifully of her daily life; like the way “sprays of pink” appear across the tree-filled mountain during cherry blossom season, or how, when planting paddy fields, farmers will first fill them with water meaning that, before shoots grow, “the water reflects the entire sky on still days,” she says. “It’s really beautiful, like cycling around mirrors on the ground everywhere.”

It’s exactly this, which Symy notes as “nihon no bi ishiki” (日本の美意識) – the Japanese sense of beauty – that she came to appreciate in the first place. “Japan has a very distinctive aesthetic,” she concludes. “Obviously I was able to perceive this from overseas, but just being around it all the time – being able to go to museums and galleries, eating out of pots every day and making them, listening to the people who make them, the history, the places, the materials, and the formations that those materials have come from – all of that has really influenced my practice, how I make things, and how I will go on to make things in the future.”

Scottish artist Ellis O’Connor too finds nature to be a driving force of her creative practice. Spending the past few years living in North Uist, an island on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, Ellis is a contemporary landscape artist who utilises expansive scenes to create emotionally fuelled observations of the sea and land. After all, on one side of the isle are its sibling Inner Hebrides like Skye and Raasay, but on the other is literally nothing – all the way to Canada.

“If it hadn’t been the Western Isles it would have been somewhere else just as elemental.”

Ellis O'Connor

The artist is actually from the more populated Scottish city of Dundee, “but from a young age I always had a deep instinctual need to be in nature and live in a way where I was able to fully immerse myself in the environment,” Ellis tells us. It was while studying at the Duncan of Jordanstone Art School that more remote locations piqued her interest, realising “how alive I felt in the outdoors” evoking, as she describes, “an almost primal need to be in nature.” Creating landscapes soon became Ellis’ focus, using her canvases to translate the visceral emotions she feels while being immersed in the landscape itself. “It has provided me with source material for my work ever since and it’s been so important to communicate the significance and power of the land to others, so they too can feel the emotional connection to something much greater and larger than us.”

Ellis’ creative sense was first ignited back in 2014 while partaking in the Bothy project. A bothy is a term used to describe remote basic shelters in Scotland, often left unlocked for anyone to use, free of charge. Moving into the project’s purpose-built artist studio Bothy for one week in January – “the depths of winter” in the Scottish highlands – Ellis spent her days painting outside on the frozen ground with “no sound but the wind and absolutely no service,” she says. “It was magic.”

It was Ellis’ first experience of “stripping back to the very core of the practical side of making art”, and post-graduation she looked for further isolated areas to call her creative home; travelling to Norway, Svalbard and the north of Iceland on further residencies. Each an experience “which has shaped my thinking and my need to be in more elemental places,” the artist ended up at her recent home of North Uist while travelling through the western isles of Scotland. While her classmates were switching Dundee for larger cities, Ellis settled into an artistic practice on an island with a population of just over 1,000. “This was seen as quite a unique thing to do,” she reflects now. Yet, “if it hadn’t been the western isles it would have been somewhere else just as elemental. It had always been within me, the need to be in nature before I even experienced life living out of the city, so I think my art practice was always going to follow this path of being inspired by exactly that.”

“It had always been within me, the need to be in nature before I even experienced life living out of the city.”

Ellis O’Connor

Although it’s obvious in Ellis’ vast landscape paintings just how much her environment provides inspiration, the remote locations she’s lived in have also led to personal realisations. “I’ve come to realise that it’s not healthy, nor is it natural, for humans to feel ‘available’ all the time,” she says, noting how social media, the constant news cycle, how easily contactable we are and “the anxiety of daily busy life” can be barriers to the act of creating work. The artist’s experience and lifestyle have allowed her to realise what’s especially important: “Being connected to something greater and what we all need; nature. Quiet moments, connection and not the ‘connection’ to the internet.” She continues: “Our brains haven’t evolved and caught up with modern technology to keep up with the fast-moving pace of the digital world, we are burnt out from it.”

In fact, despite Ellis’ home seeming remote to those of us in larger, more populated areas, “I don’t actually use the words ‘isolated’ or ‘remote’,” as I don’t really understand the concept,” she says. “Isolated or remote from what? If you choose to live in a place where you are much more connected to nature then you have everything around you that you need. You are choosing to have the sea and land on your doorstep and those places are the centre of your universe. It’s a very different way of thinking and being that I’m so grateful to know and live.”

“Isolated or remote from what? If you choose to live in a place where you are much more connected to nature then you have everything around you that you need.”

Ellis O’Connor

Originally moving to North Uist after meeting her ex-partner who lived in the area, Ellis is now on her next adventure. Following her break-up earlier this year, the artist took the decision to leave the isle and has been living out of a van darting across Scotland for the past four months, reconnecting with her instinctual need to explore. Setting off during the summer months to soak up inspiration, the artist’s van set-up, as she describes, is pretty basic, “but I have a big comfy bed, my small gas stove, plenty of storage, and really that’s all I need.” Hopping from place to place, climbing mountains, swimming in the sea, washing in rivers and keeping her phone off for long periods of time, “I have gained so much inspiration for my work and I’m so excited to see where it leads me to next.”

Although an example of a creative who has taken the conscious choice to live remotely and simply to further her artistic practice, there are many learnings from Ellis’ experience an individual can adopt no matter their location. “Life is not meant to be ‘busy’ and a constant production of work all the time,” she concludes. “This season right now, for me, is about slowing down, soaking up new fuel for my work and pausing so I have the energy for the busier times again. It will inform my practice for years to come and it’s all part of the greater journey.”

In the past 18 months the greater journey we’re all on – creative or otherwise – has of course been altered dramatically. Elements of isolation that Symy and Ellis describe have seeped into all our lives due to the restrictions enforced by the pandemic, in turn altering both the way creatives feel about making work and the final output. José Guerrero, Emma Calvo and Irene Llorca, three friends who work as creatives at advertising agencies in Barcelona noticed this in particular, creating the Covid Art Museum as a result.

The “world’s first museum for art born during Covid-19 quarantine,” José, Emma and Irene began this mammoth project – which now boasts a community of 172,000 followers on Instagram – just a few days into the government enforced quarantine in their home of Spain. “Lots of artists, well known and unknown, started pouring out their feelings, perception and point of view about Covid-19 and quarantining into their art,” José tells us of those early days. “We could sense a movement here and asked ourselves, what would happen with all of this art?” Keen to document, save and celebrate these reflective artworks, the Covid Art Museum is a digital-first endeavour created online due to the obvious need to stay inside, but also to ensure it was accessible the world over, its one mission is: “To share this type of art so that all the people who were confined would not feel so alone.”

“We could sense a movement here and asked ourselves, what would happen with all of this art?”

José Guerrero

Across the hundreds of posts shared since its first post on March 19 2020, the trio has witnessed daily the effects this period of isolation has had on creatives globally. Shifting in subject matter or theme over time, José relays that at first there was humour embedded in artworks collected; the sheer scale of what was happening being difficult to comprehend bar making jokes about toilet paper. As the situation became more severe so did the pieces submitted to the museum, raising in emotion with a focus on healthcare workers. This shifted again towards hope with artworks picturing that much-awaited embrace with a distant loved one, or symbolised in motifs of open windows. “Then the works showed the new and strange reality with masks, gels and gloves introduced to our lives as an essential of everyday life,” explains José. “And, finally, the works have focused a lot on vaccination and salvation.”

“To share this type of art so that all the people who were confined would not feel so alone.”

José Guerrero

Overall, however, the works now in the Covid Art Museum’s open collection demonstrate José’s belief that “boredom is a fertile ground for creativity.” Introspective thoughts seemed to naturally blossom through creativity, with even the non creatively inclined picking up various at-home crafts – in the UK alone, retailer Hobby Craft saw a 200 per cent increase in online sales for instance. “Moreover,” adds José, “it is a very human thing to try to express what is happening around you that is transcendent.”

It’s changed the museum’s creators, too. Although already creatives in their working lives, “we have seen how important it is to observe what is relevant for people in the present and try to see how they relate to it,” adds its co-creator. On a personal level, it’s brought José, Irene and Emma closer as friends. A huge commitment “where we have all put in a lot of hours and therefore shared a lot of time together, which otherwise we might not have shared... the project has also allowed us to meet incredible people, which otherwise would have never happened.”

Across these stories of isolation – both those sought out for inspiration, learning or out of one’s control – it’s clear that creativity should be utilised as a medium to lean on. No matter the location or circumstance, it is a natural process for us to use creativity to connect with a new community as Symy has, for personal growth in the case of Ellis, or to reach out a hand in a crisis, as proven by the Covid Art Museum.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.

lb@itsnicethat.com

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