Here’s an excerpt from my recent Q&A with Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, a visual artist (painter), originally from Ireland, who started her professional life as a counsellor and psychologist. She is known for her landscapes, at once both confining and infinite; a source of melancholy and possibility. You can head over to the The Woolf to read the full interview.
I asked her about success, and about working with a visual medium—outside the realm of words.
Tell us a bit about how you found your way to the visual arts, having started your career working in psychology and counselling.
I did want to study art but fear combined with lousy career guidance got in the way. I think the adults around me at that time had a very limited concept of what art was about or what kind of job it might lead to. There was a sort of unspoken ‘painters die poor and lonely in a cold attic studio’ vibe. I’m not sure that their image of psychologists was that much better but I suspect that scenario might at least have included a room with heating.
I realised that denying myself a creative life was bad for my health …
I’ve said previously that at that stage in my life, the urge to understand was greater than the urge to create/express. At some point, some years later, things were simply the other way round. During my training as a counsellor, there was a lot of emphasis on self-awareness, dealing with your baggage—cleaning up one’s own backyard and so on. The red thread in all of my baggage was not expressing myself, not being creative, not using my whole brain or indeed my hands. There was a gradual development from psychology in an academic sense to more alternative and holistic approaches that included ‘flow’ and energy psychology. I was also very interested—and continue to be fascinated by—self-management and resilience, and how people look after themselves—or don’t. I realised that denying myself a creative life was bad for my health. And that I am happier and calmer when painting is part of my routine.
The experience of looking at a painting—and indeed the process of painting itself—is often out of the realm of language. Your paintings in particular are very evocative and tend towards abstract. What crossovers (or counterpoints) are there between your work as a psychologist and your work as a painter, in this regard?
When I paint landscapes it’s definitely more about painting what I feel than what I see. That’s why I never work form photographs. One of my favourite painters, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) said, “painters should paint not only what they see in front of them, but also what they see inside themselves. If they see nothing within, then they should refrain from painting what is in front of them.” I love this quote because it captures the essence of what painting is about for me. In that sense, the key crossover between the two fields is the role of emotions and the unconscious. Using art in a therapeutic setting can enable people to access emotions and deal with problems in a way that is often more playful, less painful and significantly faster than conversations. Having said that, I am a big fan of narrative and storytelling and poetry so I love to exploit all of these and to really draw on both sides of the brain.
On your website, there is mention of the way “Aboriginal artists purportedly create, walk away and move onto something new”, “foregoing the urge to explain or rationalise after the fact”. Can you explain a bit about these concepts? Do they tie in with your definition of success as a visual artist?
This question links to the previous one where you spoke about things being ‘outside of the realm of language’. I’ve read about art projects in Aboriginal communities where westerners were disappointed by the fact that artists did not seem interested in talking about their paintings. I found this quite entertaining and refreshing.
We draw and paint long before we know there is something called an artist and long before we can explain what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
As an adult in today’s world, it’s practically impossible to regain this state of creative freedom where we can just do something and not have to engage in clever conversation about it. If people have questions, I do my best to answer them but there isn’t always a story. Or maybe the painting is the story. *
It’s also about detachment. People I admire (not just in the art world) typically have a healthy mixture of passion and distance. People I consider to be role models usually combine passion and dedication (to their craft/subject/profession) with humility and a reluctance to take themselves too seriously. I like the Buddhist quote, ‘behave as if your actions will affect the future of the universe and laugh at yourself for thinking this is possible’.
As for success, I see it as being able to spend as much time as possible doing what you love and being as oblivious as you possibly can to other people’s notions of how you should live your life.
What would be your advice to those who work in so-called ‘creative industries’, when it comes to making a living?
I would say the following:
- Accept that you are likely to have a portfolio career and that there will be phases where your day job may not be creative – or as creative as you would like it to be;
- Ignore trite advice about having it all; decide which bits you can have and must have and do your best to manage your life accordingly;
- Ignore dominant narratives about what art should be and what artists should do; do what you do; and
- Have a routine. Flaubert said ‘be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be ‘violent’ and original in your work [art]’. I recommend reading Manage your Day to Day: Build your Routine, Find your Focus and Sharpen your Creative Mind, edited by Jocelyn K Glei.