I’ve been ill all week, with a chest and throat infection that made me cough a lot and made it hard to sleep and to speak. But somehow, I kept going, grinding through all my jobs and duties. This included spending a day in a recording studio and some energetic singing. Plus, several days in which I needed to use my voice to keep tutorials and seminars etc. working for the students.
I’ve always found it all-but impossible to take a day off work sick, partly because I think it’s good to test your body to work out what it needs to do to get over a health crisis, in the hope that this will make my body wiser in the long term and develop its own strengths in coping with illness. I honestly can’t recall a single occasion, in 20 years of art teaching, when I have ever cancelled a work appointment due to illness. This is also because I don’t make a distinction between my work and my life and my art. I am fortunate enough to have a job, that pays the rent, that is also my vocation, my passion, my life and my pleasure, even when it is exhausting and demanding, as it often is.
There are probably only a minority of people who can say that they love their job and that their job is their life and their art. All the years, between the age of 16, on leaving school with just one ‘O’ level, and the age of 37 when I was first paid for a piece of art writing and subsequently invited to teach. I thus obtained my first professional payment.
During the 21 intervening years I am not ashamed to say that I spent time unemployed, worked as every kind of unskilled labourer, and always tried, by my own clumsy means, to forge a creative career, making art, music and writings. I should say I did feel ashamed at the time, as well as abject, depressed, frustrated etc. but I don’t feel ashamed now, because all those jobs engaged me with a certain reality and knowledge about the many ways in which people strive, struggle and survive.
I can recall rising at 3 a.m. to make sure I was at the bus stop by 4 a.m. to catch a night bus into Mayfair to clean offices and disappear before the office workers turned up for work. All my colleagues were middle-aged black women with families to support, and we came and went like ghostly servants making sure that office workers (on far higher incomes) could make a mess that we would magically ‘disappear’ for them.
Of the many labouring jobs, I did, I never found one that would allow a person to pay their way in the world and save and climb and grow towards something better. It seemed to me rather to only be possible, if you worked hard and concentrated, and had a very thick skin, to stop yourself from falling, falling further, into the benefits system, and, below that, into the homeless system, the charity and legal system.
During that time, I also ‘held-out’ for my dream of an artist’s life, even though so many times it seemed far out of reach or snatched out of my hands by my lack of access to finance, contacts, career ladders etc. Something inside me just always believed that I was someone with something to say, to share and to offer, even when there was no objective evidence with which I could convince anyone else – apart from a few poems, songs, raps, drawings, little pamphlets, photographs etc.
Now I have a job in the arts, a job which actually allows me to live as an artist and to live by my art, I value it so much that, if I am unwell, as I have been this week, it’s almost impossible for me to stay at home and nurture an illness. I just want to do the best I can, to work hard, to share and create with the next generation of artists and art teachers.
I’d like to assure all of them, and all those artists who feel they are struggling and maybe can’t even get into an art college, that they, that you, should keep going, should believe in what you believe about yourself, and ignore people who don’t understand or encourage that spark inside you, no matter how long it takes – and it can – as you can see by my story – take decades of fragility, disappointment and doubt. But that is just the way a career or a life in and as the arts can unfold.
During difficult times, days when I was doing something that I hated doing, and when I so much wished that I was doing something I loved, there would be little events that could give me hope. Sometimes I would hear a song on the radio – while working in a factory, a building site, a warehouse, or while driving a van – and the song’s message would just give me something I needed to get through. One of those things I recall now was the artist Kate Bush passionately singing the words I always heard as: “Don’t Give Up … You’re Only Half Way …” (now I see that was my own ‘reading’ of the lyrics).
Actually, it may be the case that we are always ‘half way’ to something, and so we always need to ‘not give up’. Thinking of every day of your life like that might just be helpful for all of us.
Some more of the inspiring and encouraging lyrics from that song (written by Peter Gabriel) are here:
” I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name But no-one wants you when you lose … Don’t give up ’cause you have friends … Don’t give up you’re not beaten yet … Don’t give up I know you can make it good … Don’t give up you still have us … Don’t give up we don’t need much of anything … Don’t give up ’cause somewhere there’s a place where we belong … Rest your head You worry too much … It’s going to be alright … When times get rough You can fall back on us … Don’t give up … Please don’t give up … Whatever may come and whatever may go That river’s flowing That river’s flowing … For every job, so many men … So many men no-one needs … Don’t give up ’cause you have friends … Don’t give up you’re not the only one … Don’t give up … no reason to be ashamed … Don’t give up you still have us … Don’t give up now … we’re proud of who you are … Don’t give up … you know it’s never been easy … Don’t give up ’cause I believe there’s a place, There’s a place Where we belong