How does academia value new knowledge obtained through creative practice? As discussed in my previous post about myown PhD experience, I felt that it was seen as secondary to the primary, measurable element – the written thesis. What followed was a profound sense of unfinished business with the PhD artwork and this has driven my subsequent need to reflect on the risks to artists and their creative process/practice, when they contemplate undertaking an art-practice-based PhD.
But it’s now over two years since I received my doctorate and perhaps now is a good time to share my thoughts on what this past challenging year has revealed about my experience.
The PhD artwork comprised of a video – ‘Re_connect’ and a textile installation containing 12 pieces/forms which I called my ‘Departing Selves’. These were created by hand using a finely woven, silk organza and metal fabric which I manipulated into 3D forms using a range of textile processes. I wrote extensively about the process of their creation in my PhD thesis and although the artwork was briefly acknowledged by the PhD examiners, it has never been critiqued.
In 2018 I was invited to show the ‘Departing Selves’ and the video ‘Re_connect’ in Kyoto, Japan in May of this year (2020), but due to the Covid 19pandemic, I had to cancel the exhibition. This was to be the highlight of my career as a textile artist and would have gone some way in alleviating my continuing sense of ‘unfinished business’ as regards the PhD artwork.
This has troubled me these past two years and I’ve found it important to try to resolve this in a way which feels affirmative.
In November 2019 I began what has turned out to be a new body of work using the same process as the ‘Departing Selves’ but this time, it was led by my own curiosity rather than as a perceived adjunct to a predetermined text. Now, I just wanted to creatively play, slowly exploring how far I could push the physical materiality of silk/metal fabric, right up to the point of its destruction. This time I used both natural and synthetic silk, noting how the fabric responded to the process I had devised. But what really intrigued me was how it reacted to the introduction of fire as part of the process and the fine line between fragmentation and total ruin. This way of working felt excitingly seductive. It forced me consider my diminishing sense of control over my life as an older woman in a global pandemic. All this making and reflecting helped to offset the undercurrent of anxiety and depression which had entered my day-to-day life. I hadn’t anticipated this positive outcome of an emergent awareness of the subtle interplay between control, imbalance, destruction and preservation.
During my PhD, with ‘Departing Selves’ I continually attempted to impose my will on the silk/metal fabric but its intrinsic, material qualities wouldn’t oblige me. With that work aim had been to metaphorically destroy elements of a much younger self – I even named them my ‘Departing Selves’. But the more I tried, the more I found that I just couldn’t because a small trace of them always remained. Eventually I saw this as symbolic and as a result, endeavored to restructure my thinking around this reappraisal of the self. But that was then.
Now, although the creative process is just as laborious, uncomfortable and messy as before, but my use of fire as a creative medium has intensified. I’m mesmerized as I watch the flame hungrily devour the physical presence of the hours of work that I’ve put in. With fire as my creative collaborator, the forms have been renewed. Through attending to creative process, I’ve learned to let go of my need to control.
This is a new experience and a timely one, I think. I don’t really know what I was expecting, if anything and certainly hadn’t anticipated this meaningful outcome. It’s very encouraging. I now understand how important it is to acknowledge that all the materials I use, collaborate with me, the artist, as we set out to create new work. We work in harmony.
Another unexpected outcome has been the realisation that the origins of what I’m doing now can be traced back to the early 2000s. And so, while I thought that I’d been working towards some kind of resolution, I see now that it is in fact part of a long continuum. In my single-minded drive to find closure, I’d forgotten that nothing exists in a vacuum. Even a PhD.
But my deep sense of frustration at the lack of almost any acknowledgement of my PhD artwork remains. At the start of my doctorate, I was required to learn the normative language of the Academy. It troubles me that even today, throughout HE, the act of making as a way of knowing and communicating meaning, remains in the shadows. Yet this creative language is universal. To me, this is not only a discourtesy to the artist, it’s a missed opportunity on the part of HE. Perhaps there is an intrinsic flaw in the edifice.
 The PhD thesis is available here: https://www.academia.edu/37080362/Exploring_the_embodied_experience_of_ageing_through_creative_practice/. If you can’t access it and would like a copy/extract, please email me at: email@example.com