14th May 2020 Déja Vu

Just found this journal entry which I had attached in a message to my parents exactly a year ago! It ended up being a pre-cursor to a series of 16 online expressive art sessions that I facilitated as part of a lockdown collaboration with KitaReka Online, set up by the social enterprise HumanKind, based in Malaysia.

14th May 2020

Last night I did one of the strangest things I have ever done in my life.

I facilitated a trial online expressive art making session. This entailed welcoming 5 adult volunteers to a Google Meet screen, checking they had art making materials to hand and setting them off on an hour of personal, intuitive creativity in whatever shape or form they desired it to take.

My role was to create a virtual space similar to the conditions in Arno Stern’s Closlieu – a place of calm, where painting-player participants paint shoulder to shoulder, not in comparison and competition, but in solidarity. Where no comment or judgement is made. Where there is a mutual feeling of moral support, but not instruction. Where the absolute uniqueness of each individual’s life experiences, strengths and challenges is celebrated and cared for.

The participants had actively chosen to carve out an hour in their busy lives to draw or paint and I had taken an hour of mine to be there with them, to accompany them; devoted to be there for them should they need a helping hand to refocus or persevere. I felt like I was actively sending them good vibes, positive energy from my flat in Singapore to their homes in Malaysia: sitting on the floor hidden away in their bedrooms; at tables in their living rooms, chatting comfortably with passing family members (with muted microphones) while they spread colours over paper.

By choice, most of their cameras were angled in such a way that I could not see what they were making. In some cases I could see little more than the top of someone’s head or the side of their face. Most of their microphones were muted for the entire 50 minutes. This was a very odd sensation for me. I was effectively watching a silent, relatively immobile group of people for almost an hour. But I treated it as a sort of mindfulness exercise and tried to be very intentional in the kind attention I paid to them as I watched, all the while projecting love. I felt very privileged to be there in fact, witnessing this very intimate act where they were willingly putting themselves in a position of vulnerability.

It struck me that an online platform for self-expression adds an extra layer of comfort, where participants can choose to share their work – or not. For introverts or those whose education or life story has conditioned them to expect teaching or criticism, this must be extremely liberating. This is something that cannot physically occur in any art studio or even in the Closlieu. Although there is an atmosphere of trust and care in the Closlieu, there is always a slight risk that someone inexperienced will comment – whether by praising or damning – and the delicate equilibrium will be toppled.

The conditions created in the Closlieu are so rare and wonderful, that I was initially dubious about being able to re-create them in a virtual space, but I am feeling energised this morning by the thought that perhaps I can.

Kuala Lumpur returned to lockdown status (MCO) a week ago and tomorrow we return to “circuit-breaker” type restrictions in Singpaore. Although of course this news initially set my heart racing with panic and uncertainty, I am hopeful that this time around we may be more resilient and may find it easier (even comforting?) to click into familiar “Phase 2” routines.

The world has changed irrevocably over the past year. Many have suffered deeply.

Even the luckiest of us have had to adapt and that can be hard – but change really IS the only constant and being open to learning and evolving can bring opportunity and sometimes even joy.

Take the example of legendary 96 year old Arno Stern offering online training for the first time ever – and now even in English for the first time ever.