If you subscribe to my newsletter you’ll know I’ve been rediscovering my love of books over the Winter, and that I’ll be sharing some of my favourites here in coming days.
Today I want to talk about Wheesht by my friend Kate Davies of KDD&Co. First published in December 2019, Wheesht has recently been reprinted after finding particular resonance with the collective themes and challenges many of us faced through 2020.
Having loved this book when it first came out, I’m now re-reading it because I’ve been thinking a lot about one of its key themes. Namely, how can we learn from artists in ways which are not about imitating their end results, but which are engaged, instead, with celebrating or emulating their process or approach? And how can we read artists’ work in ways which are about appreciating the frameworks they give us for understanding the world, rather than thinking merely in terms of their style or surface appearance? It’s a subtle but important distintion which has been on my mind because of my teaching work, in which I share my creative methods for translating and celebrate everyday life in stranded colourwork. This process often involves trying to make a visual affinity between inspiring source material and resultant knitting. And there’s nothing wrong with being visually-guided: on a practical level, it’s a really good idea to turn to an artist whose work you like as a starting point for developing your own designs, and as a way to build confidence around picking colours for a project.
Yet there is another more oblique way of being inspired by artists in our work; it’s something to do with letting artists show us new ways to encounter and interpret – or read – the world. For instance it’s one thing to try and make something which looks like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, but quite another to try and practice using colours and ways of looking at the landscape which reflect Georgia O’Keeffe’s use of colour, or her way of viewing and recording her favourite places. I’m thinking a lot about what happens if we are moved by artists’ processes and perceptions, rather than focusing only on what artists produce. This question informs my own creative, teaching and publishing activities, and it also runs through Wheesht like a golden thread.
In twelve refreshingly practical essays on creative process, Kate explores different approaches to making things. Each approach is richly-illustrated with examples drawn from the practice of a particular artist. Presented alongside these essays are practical suggestions for repurposing these practitioners’ different creative approaches and incorporating them into your own practice of making – whatever form that takes.
I love so many things about Wheesht. I love how this book directly challenges the often trite and lazy assumptions about artists and creativity; I love how it demystifies creativity and presents it as a practical – and accessible pursuit – A PRACTICE – and I love the enabling exercises which can be downloaded from the accompanying Wheeshtbook website. Perhaps most of all I love the appreciation and genuine love for the skills and labour of the artists Kate explores through her writing and the intersectional feminism at work in her careful efforts to situate each artists’ work in relation to race, gender and ability.
In reading Wheesht we are invited to think expansively about what it means to mend things and to contrast careful and intentional acts of presence and repair against the disruptive and destructive forces of late capitalism. These ideas are discussed through a thoughtful discussion of the work of artist Celia Pym, concluding that “this is the kind of creative care we might consider extending more broadly to the broken material world that now surrounds us”.
Another chapter – Within Limits – challenges the oft-cited idea that “boundless” “limitless” and “out of the box” thinking are helpful for our creativity, proposing instead that bounds and limits present much more useful conditions for innovation. I think about this all the time in terms of stranded colourwork, as I really enjoy the limitations of the medium – only two colours per round; avoiding super-long strands etc. – and often feel that removing these constraints would ultimately produce less interesting results. But this chapter goes beyond such basic considerations to explore the concept of limitation in reference to the amazing work of the artist Frida Khalo. Kate examines the rich and varied creative practices which Frida Khalo developed around dressing, maintaining and managing her disabled body and its limitations and demands as well as telling its stories in her paintings. I especially appreciate the perspective on disability offered by this chapter and the insightful interpretation of Frida’s work as something which was not made “in spite” of her disabled body, but rather in concert with it. There are far too many essays which talk about how Frida “overcame” the obstacles of her impairments, and how she used dress to conceal them – but Within Limits imagines selfhood and disability beyond these ableist frameworks and instead respectfully considers Frida’s work and dress on their own terms: as the practical, sensuous and brilliant inventions of a gifted and inventive disabled woman maker.
The presence of sound as an intrinsic creative material or substance which is ever present in our lives and our creative praxis is evident all the way through Wheesht – from its title, which comes from Scots and norther English dialects and means “to be quiet, to quieten, to hush, to remain silent” – to the glorious and varied examples of the sonic practices of such wondrous women of sound as Ella Fitzgerald; Evelyn Glennie and Alice Coltrane. Yet sound is present in numinous and subtle other ways, as well. In Stay Put – a fascinating discussion of the attention paid to place by the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai – presence to, and awareness of, the everyday landscapes we inhabit are beautifully drawn with reference to sounds and their relationship to the textures of where we are:
Where are you right now? At home? At work? Curled in your favourite armchair or sitting upright at a desk? Does sunlight flood your room or are your curtains drawn against the dark? Do you feel at ease? Do you read these words in complete silence? Or is the space in which you sit defined by sound: a radio in the next room, the whirr of the washing machine downstairs, the hum of traffic in the street beyond, the chatter of your colleagues or your children, birdsong, distant voices, all of the ordinary sonic textures of your workplace or your household? What binds you to where you are, right now?
I don’t want to itemise each of the twelve chapters, nor do I want to spoil the surprise for any of you yet to read Wheesht by introducing all the amazing artists you will meet in its pages here. But it’s hard to pick just a few to talk about when there are so many suggestive and enabling ideas in this book. Elevate explores what it means to celebrate other makers in our work; Have Doubts examines what it means to come to our making work with more questions than answers; Repeat Yourself speaks to the importance of iterative practices, and repeating or varying our approaches to a theme as a form of creative approach; and Be Inauthentic offers vital perspectives on authenticity and selfhood in a world where social media and the rise of the personal brand are rendering those terms meaningless, and co-opting them as capital.
This book is also a very beautiful thing/object; Tom Barr’s gorgeous full-colour illustrations speak graphically to the concepts described in each chapter, and form wonderful visual borders between different ideas. Perhaps my favourite essay in the book is the one which best combines Kate and Tom’s creativity – Feel Uninspired.
This very moving essay is the only one in which Kate specifically uses her own creative practice as an example for discussion. It begins with a sort of manifesto regarding the importance – and gratification – of taking inspiration from very mundane, specific and everyday things, and of engaging our imaginations effortfully when we encounter daily life:
“When I say that creative inspiration is “all around me”, I don’t mean that I find it in a beautiful view: I mean that I discover creative inspiration in kitchen tiles and turnips, in fraying twine, worn fence posts, pebbles, pencils, unruly plants and rocky pools… The idea that we must be creatively inspired by grand or beautiful things has always seemed rather strange to me. For why should creativity prioritise the spectacular or the extraordinary? Indeed, while a glorious sunset may have something of the obvious, generic or familiar about it, the weird luminous beauty of a piece of fishing twine, glimpsed momentarily in the dark depths of a rock pool, isn’t obvious at all. While the sunset may fill me with awe, possess my vision, and bowl me over, I’ve done very little myself to seek that inspiration out. But, on the other hand, when I see the beauty in the twine or the rock pool I have had to pay attention, discover something unusual for myself, and striven to engage with the world around me much more carefully and closely.”
From here, Kate shares her deeply personal aversion to Bracken, her experiences of seasonal Depression, and the imaginative processes – and effort – that enabled her to see Bracken with fresh eyes, and to find a creative focal point which became a lifeline leading the way out of the doldrums:
“…the path out of this dark place is practical, not magical. It’s a path formed of tiny gestures, small actions, commonplace happenings, and very ordinary things. It’s the path of my own material curiosity.”
It’s an incredibly moving essay about everyday things, and our appreciation for them as something we can practice and cultivate as part of building our mental resilience. And I really love the special image by Tom which somehow speaks to all aspects of this chapter – attentive looking and appreciation for detail, yes – but also, somehow, the miserable sensations of Depression itself and how thoughts can seem to pick at and unravel our very sanity. It’s no small feat to find a way to show the darkness and the light together just like this.
To conclude, all the essays in Wheesht are underpinned by a quiet and determined focus on bringing our attention back to our lives in all their messy complexity. This is a book about turning to creative practices as a means to both make things and make sense of the world. Whether you like knitting or singing, writing or building, there are things in this book which will speak to you.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on Wheesht – I am sure many of you already own it but, if not, you can find copies in my online shop because as soon as I heard there was a reprint, I excitedly ordered a box.
I’ll be back soon with a rather different book to review but, until then,
YOURS IN THE JOY OF READING,