We meet the endgames of creative process in the quiet indoors, the polite places. Bright gallery, book-lined nook, library corner; dimmed cinema and hushed auditorium. In photobooks, frames and clean matte finishes. But revisit some of your favourite work. Lanyon. Plath. Melville. Look for the watermarks and salt-stains, scuffs of a tussle with the elements. Listen, between metred lines of text, for a howling gale.
Ask any of us here in the (Falmouth-based) Stranger studio. We’ll find you a time when a mental block’s been blasted away by a rush of cold water, a gust of air, hit of adrenalin. Tales of elemental adventures are threads that run through studio chatter. Naturally, they’re the same threads that hooked and tugged most of us here to the edges of the country, in pursuit of saltwater, space and balance. This summer, drenched by sun outside and content collaborations across surf, skate and seafaring inside – we’ve never been more convinced by the connections between creativity and the outdoors.
And so, a feed, and an ode, to adventures ‘out there’, and what they do to our brains:
“A woman stands with a drink
In some polite place
And looks at SARACINESCO
And turns to mention space.
That one if she could
Would ride Artistically
The thermals you once rode”
‘The Thermal Stair’ – WS Graham (for Peter Lanyon)
The words you remember, the images you come back to – they’re the ones that make you see an old world anew. And, in ‘some polite place’ I remember hearing these, W.S. Graham’s homage to painter Peter Lanyon. The poem vaults above the Penwith landscape like Lanyon himself, whose (ultimately fatal) gliding obsession shaped the startling way he saw, carried weightlessly on the whim of thermal currents.
Graham and Lanyon belonged to the gaggle of artists and writers magnetised towards Cornwall in the mid- 20th century. A ferment of creativity arising from obsessions with the land, light and sea. Graham would venture out with local fisherman for long hard nights at the keel, penning his epic ‘The Night-fishing’ with briny hands. And Lanyon’s paintings are unlike anybody else’s, because riding the thermals earnt him a totally novel perspective.
In Lanyon, Graham, and all the artists we’ve encountered this summer; there’s a common thirst for unseen angles. At Firelight in July, we listened to Sam Bleakley – longboarder, writer, lecturer – describe his holistic approach to surfing, travelling and writing. “The view from offshore is a unique one,” he explains. “The surfer knows the perspective gained by distance from land to breaking wave – one of simultaneous cool contemplation and hot involvement.” Cool contemplation and hot involvement; looking from a distance, with your heart still in the game. It’s a neat summary of the creative process.
Some psychologists have it that creative types literally see the world differently, but it’s not something you have to be born with. You can find new ways of looking. Letting aching limbs walk or bike you up to a higher ground, holding your breath to explore underwater, or paddling further from shore: they’re many ways of putting yourself in the path of a fresh perspective.
And you needn’t go that high or far for a shift in point of view. Take 19-year-old Slyvia Plath, writing (with a satisfyingly teenage taste for drama) of her altered sense of time, one breezy afternoon by the sea: “I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.”
Surfing, skating, sailing, gliding, biking… You may bring home Lanyon’s panoramic revelations, but in the moment these things demand sweat. Taking on the elements means navigating your body through an indifferent set of conditions. It’s a head-on approach to the world that’s transferable back into creative work. Bleakley goes so far as to say that he aims to not only write about surfing, but as if surfing , “…where writing captures the fluidity and the surprise of surfing. It is more of a shape-shifting than a shaping, more a dance than an installation…the rich, the frantic, the soulful, the hard-driving, the rhythmic, the open, the graceful, the fluid, the cool, the lyrical. This is writing with surfing’s prescription.”
“Creativity is basically about the flexibility of thought of your mental system,” explains child psychologist Prof. Liberman. And in surf and skate especially, there’s a creative flexibility that’s hard-wired into the sport. It’s something to do with the impassivity of the ocean, the immovability of the ground. The waves don’t care what your plans are. “Imagine, even if you went to the same beach 365 days of the year you would never find the same conditions twice…that lends to creativity and expression. Surfing’s such an ephemeral, fleeting moment. No two waves are the same,” explains Demi Taylor – director of the London Surf Film Festival, so the centre of the ‘surfer/artist’ Venn diagram is her very domain, “The whole notion of surfing is creative.”
“The rich, the frantic, the soulful, the hard-driving, the rhythmic, the open, the graceful, the fluid, the cool, the lyrical. This is writing with surfing’s prescription.” Sam Bleakley
Away from the shore and onto the pavement, the concrete-pounding struggle of skateboarding fosters a tenacity that artist Thomas Campbell takes back into his artistic work too. Talking to Stranger for Kodachrome magazine, he said of skating: “It’s an outlaw activity, the meat of it is creative. Coming up with tricks and trying to achieve them. The determination – falling on your face is totally normal and getting up and trying again is totally normal. Which isn’t normally taught in any kind of culture, ever. Not on that level.”
“Surfing allows me a moment of meditation,” explained artist (and creator of our new window installation) Dan Arnold, when I asked him why he surfed. “I have to focus on the wave and nothing else, and that break from my practice is vital. It’s a reset, a humbling and a recalibration.” More than anything, in our encounters and discussions this summer, we’ve found consensus that getting out is good for the mind.
Novelist Madeleine D’Engle once described the key to creativity as letting go of the self, the kind of un-self-consciousness that, like a child’s, opens up an artist to play. “When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity.”
If there’s one outdoor pursuit that most of us in the studio share, it’s swimming in the cold Cornish sea. It’s impossible not to, when it sits wide and blue at the end of every road out of town. Anyone who’s jumped into the cold ocean on a hot day can tell you it feels good. “That real buzz you get? That’s the release of adrenalin, which is fundamentally what cocaine does for you. It’s a natural way of getting a high,” explains Mark Harper, medical advisor to the Outdoor Swimming Society.
Swimming in cold water releases endorphins and gets the heart pumping. But it’s more than that. There’s a D’Engle-style ‘throwing ourselves away’ that happens. Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In, describes it as “forced mindfulness”, and when we spoke to champion freediver and Finisterre Ambassador Hanli Prinsloo, who’s used to somewhat warmer waters, the sentiment still rang true:
“Once you step into the ocean you experience the most extreme form of meditation and mindfulness without needing to give it any fancy terms. You are completely present, completely connected, and completely in awe. It’s that moment that always strikes me again and again.”
The necessary concentration for holding your breath, the weightlessness of the body suspended. D’Engle’s creativity is based on the model of “the very small child” who’s “still unself-conscious enough to take joy in discovering himself: he discovers his fingers; he gives them his complete, unself-conscious concentration” and it’s this ‘complete, unself-conscious concentration’ that Prinsloo’s talking about.
“This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity.” Madeleine D’Engle
The loss of self-consciousness that gives rise to creativity isn’t reliant on living coast-side. It’s just about getting out into something bigger, doing some “dwelling among primal things”, and letting your body do the thinking. For Stranger co-founder Helen Gilchrist (owner of the feet up the mast, above) when it’s not surfing or sailing, a bike ride will do: “I can sit at my desk, or stare at a notepad, for hours, trying to muster all my creative forces to generate a new idea… But if I get on my bike and tear out around the point; lose myself to the repetition of the pedals pushing up the hills; stare at the sea for a while, the ideas often seem to come thick and fast. It’s an important part of my creative process.”
And there’s science behind Helen’s pedalling process. Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer has spent his career looking at ways that being out in nature enhances creativity: “You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you,” Strayer says. “It supports creativity, positive wellbeing, reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”
“If I lose myself to the repetition of the pedals pushing up the hills; stare at the sea for a while, the ideas often seem to come thick and fast” Helen Gilchrist
Similarly, when I asked him why he swam, and whether it had anything to do with his writing, Stranger writer Dave Waller summed it up in his own inimitable style: “It’s not a thinky thing. It’s a proper lived experience, albeit a wee one.” Dave’s advice to you? Jump in: “Do that till you get cold, then emerge feeling completely grounded and connected to the world, no longer just a weird thought-pod isolated high on an unlikely carbon-based torso.”
As thinky people who do thinky things 9 to 5; perhaps that’s just it. Getting outside is a break for the brain, a release of the artistic ego. Something not working? It turns out you’re like everything else – you might just need switching off and then on again.
Female racing car drivers in the West Bank. Women of colour running for political office in the US. The first female Sharia judge. Award-winning director and cinematographer Amber Fares is interested in diverse stories that give volume to, and develop understanding of, lesser heard voices. Her feature-length directorial debut, 'Speed Sisters' (2015), has played at over 70 film festivals around the world, picking up multiple audience and jury awards, and 'The Judge' (2018), on which she was cinematographer and co-producer, has just won a Peabody Award (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for broadcasting and documentaries). Thanks to her connections with one of our League of Strangers members, we carved out some time for quick chat from her home in Brooklyn...