Coming out of my Covid creative quagmire

My watercolour of Heliamphora heterodoxa
at the National Gallery of Ireland

It looked like it was going to be a good year. As 2020 dawned, the future looked bright, and news from Wuhan, China on New Year’s Eve about a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin appeared to have little relevance here in the west of Ireland. In a year that was to include a number of exhibitions, the highlight was to be the Drawn From Nature exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland – an exciting look at the history of botanical art in Ireland, with the work of eminent artists such as William Kilburn, Ellen Hutchins, Lydia Shackleton, Raymond Piper and Wendy Walsh appearing alongside the work of some of Ireland’s best known contemporary botanical artists. I was honoured and delighted to be included amongst the latter, and looked forward to the opening, which would take place on Friday 6 March.

As the day of the opening approached, it became clear that those pneumonia cases were, in fact, linked to a new corona virus, and would have far-reaching global consequences. The world held its breathe and waited for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare a pandemic. The opening took place as planned – a happy and memorable evening, but we were all anxious about what might lay ahead of us. By then, Ireland had several cases of the virus and Italy had about 3,000 cases and 100 deaths. On 12 March, schools and colleges in Ireland were closed and on 24 March the country went into full lockdown. The National Gallery closed, along with all other museums and galleries. A year on from those momentous days, we are in lockdown again in Ireland as a second wave of the virus sent cases soaring.

Visitors at the opening of the Drawn from Nature exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland
At the opening of the Drawn from Nature exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland

Looking back at those early days of the pandemic feels quite surreal. The spring of 2020 in Ireland was unusually warm and sunny, and for those who were having to stay home – at least if you had a garden or access to nearby countryside, and if you had some kind of income – lockdown didn’t appear to be such a terrible thing. It seemed like a great opportunity to do some gardening, catch up with reading, listen to music, cook delicious meals . . . and for me, as an artist, it looked like a chance to paint all day without interruption – a luxury indeed!

Well . . . it didn’t turn out that way at all. It started out fairly well – I finished off a project that I had been working on, and I started another painting that I had wanted to do for some time. I designed a new book – Sceitse: Irish Botanical Sketchbooks for the Irish Society of Botanical Artists (ISBA), spent quite a lot of time gardening, stayed up late reading books, and changed to a whole food, plant-based diet. But somewhere along the way, it all went pear-shaped.

At first, I told myself that it was OK, that taking time to just chill out and do nothing was quite acceptable. I would like to say that it was a time of reflection, and more recently that would be true, but there were long months of nothing – no inspiration, no sense of purpose, no creativity, no joy. Sleep was elusive as one day merged into another. At some point, I began to realise that I was slipping into depression. It had happened to me before, many years ago, and I recognised the signs. I tried to fight it, and had some degree of success: I ate regular meals, got up in the morning (albeit often quite late) and showered, dressed and put on some makeup. It saved me from sinking deeper into depression, but each time I sat down to paint – if I even got that far – I felt paralysed. I would sit and reorganise my tubes of paint, or sort out my brushes, or look through one of my botanical art books, hoping that inspiration would strike.

I have tried to understand why I went through this period of existential gloom. I know that I was not the only creative person to feel like this, but I also know of others who were able to create in abundance. My efforts to figure it out have come to nothing, and to be honest, I am not sure that it is completely behind me. But I have started on the road back, and I have my daughter to thank for that. In addition to looking after her family, home-schooling two daughters during lockdown, developing her own fledgling craft business and learning new skills, she has also found time for us to talk and to share thoughts and ideas. She has allowed me to shed tears, made me laugh, and boosted my self-esteem when it was at low ebb. On a practical level, she helped me to declutter my space and to plan out my new studio, which has helped to clear my head and to give me a sense of freedom and new possibilities.

My new studio – a calm and sunny place in which to create.

As spring 2021 takes hold, I am ready to go forward and have plans for a number of paintings – more carnivorous plants, some Irish wildflowers, garden plants. There is no shortage of material. It is very tempting to try to make up for lost time by immediately plunging into a large painting, but I know that I am more likely to succeed if I begin with baby steps – some smaller watercolours, perhaps some graphite or pen and ink drawings. I have always been inclined to jump in at the deep end, spending long hours drawing and painting, and then running out of steam due to sheer tiredness. But one of the things that I have learned from my daughter is that I will get much further by breaking my day into manageable chunks, and taking breaks, going for a walk, spending some time in the garden . . .

Starting small . . .

Like many artists, I am not great at promoting and selling my work, which doesn’t help if you have bills to pay! My engagement with social media has always been somewhat half-hearted, but during the pandemic I discovered that for craftspeople and artists, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram can provide not only a supportive network of friends and fellow creatives, but also a way of building a positive, more personal relationship between producers and customers. I have always enjoyed knowing where my paintings, and even my prints and cards, are going – how they will be displayed or used, whether they have some special meaning for the buyer, what prompted someone to buy my work. The process of making a drawing or painting is so deeply personal, and it really matters that each one brings pleasure and even joy to its new owner.

With that in mind, if you would like to purchase anything that you see on this website or on my Instagram page, please do email me at info@janestark.net or send me a DM on my Instagram page janestark_botanicalartist. All payments by PayPal, but you do not need a Paypal account to make a payment. I am in the process of putting together a catalogue of paintings, prints and cards that I have for sale. If you would like a copy, please feel free to email me, or watch my Instagram page for more on that.

If you, too, have been struggling and need someone to talk to, please feel free to email or DM me, sometimes just sharing the thoughts you’re having is enough to help you start feeling better.

All images are copyrighted by Jane Stark
and may not be reproduced without written permission

Stapelia grandiflora – a work in progress

2 thoughts on “Coming out of my Covid creative quagmire

  1. I am delighted to read that you are back on track again, Jane. Your ‘work in progress’ is stupendous. Brega

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