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October's inspiration

September was a busy month - the 17th marked ten years since I moved to the UK, my parents were visiting London at the end of the month, and the new academic year is starting which means work is fairly hectic, but also exciting.

Halloween decorations

Halloween mask

One of my favourite things about October are my kitschy Halloween decorations. A lot of these were bought when we visited the U.S. last September. Some of my favourites, like the sequin Mardi Gras masks and the St James Infirmary Jazz Band poster were bought during our trip to New Orleans which I’ve written about in a previous post.

The British don’t seem to go as all-out for Halloween as Americans do. In the suburbs where I grew up, most houses who expected trick-or-treaters would put up decorations. These could range from a simple Jack-o’-Lantern to full-on haunted house display to terrify the kids.

Although I’ve been exploring more about the origins of Halloween and ancestor worship, I still love the superficial, scary-movie-type side of Halloween. I had a thoroughly enjoyable day of pottering around the house yesterday (ah, I’ve become so Anglicised). I put up my origami bats and cut-out sugar skulls, and spent the afternoon sitting in bed reading Walking haunted London by Richard Jones. Luckily, there’s no section for our part of southeast London, so I will remain blissfully ignorant of whatever horrible things may have happened on the ground beneath our housing estate (probably just posh boys from the nearby private schools playing cricket or something).

I've written more about London's dark history here.

New Year in September

The autumn equinox was on the 22nd, and in some belief systems, this marks the new year. For me, this makes more sense than the new year beginning in January. In a traditional agriculture-based society, this time of year was the harvest, and I think that translates well to our information-based society, especially when talking about the academic year. For students, teachers, and support staff, we’re all starting the next cycle.

Wallas’ model of creative thinking

I’ve spoken before about my interest in inspiration as a research topic. Researchers in the field of creativity often define different ways of thinking that facilitate creativity. One of the older models that I find compelling is Graham Wallas’ four stage process, first proposed in 1926. Wallas’ four stages are preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Inspiration or illumination is often the product of looser, relaxed, undefined thinking that happens during ‘incubation’. Inspiration can tend to come at an unexpected time, when you’re taking a walk or in the bath, when you’re falling asleep or just waking up. Although I don’t necessarily think that incubation directly leads to illumination, I do think that setting the problem to the side and doing something else can often lead to inspiration because of the relaxed and loose thought processes that come from doing other activities.

You can read more about Wallas' model and the work that came before and after it in this article from Maria Popova's Brain Pickings.

Verification is the next step, and often the one that I fall down on. Although Wallas’ use of the term is more geared towards scientific discovery, it could just as easily apply to art and design. Essentially, it is working through the problem to see if your solution works. Taking a project from the stage of an idea through to a finished work is much more difficult than it seems. When it comes to long-term projects, I usually get a bit bored half-way through, and want to move onto my next project.

I think this time of year is especially helpful for the preparation and verification stages of the creative process. This process usually demands focus, concentration, and persistence. Over the summer, it was great to wake up early and see the sun at 5am, but there was also a lot more outdoor distractions. I remember how tough it was to be working on my MA dissertation over the summer of 2013 and be indoors researching while everyone else was on holiday. Now that the weather is colder and greyer in the UK, I think most people would naturally prefer to stay indoors with a book or their laptop on the weekend.

Autumn still has it’s share of opportunities for illumination or inspiration. It’s a great time of year to take long walks, which can be perfect for ‘incubating’ an idea that may lead to illumination. In London at this time of year, we’re spoiled for choices when it comes to events and exhibitions.

Last weekend when my parents were visiting, we spent a lot of time taking walks around Forest Hill and Dulwich. We had a requisite visit to the Horniman Museum to see the over-stuff walrus, and enjoyed the musical instrument collection where you can hear samples of everything on display being played.

Horniman Museum walrus

Margate’s Shell Grotto

I took Friday the 29th of September off of work and we went on a day trip to Margate on the Southeast coast of England. We headed directly from the train station to the beach and walked until it started to rain. We then retreated into the nearby Turner Contemporary museum. They were in the process of setting up for new exhibitions, but we did get to see some interesting graduate work on show, as well as Antony Gormley’s Another Time sculpture before it disappeared below the tide, and an installation by Jyll Bradley called Dutch/Light (for Agneta Block).

Margate beach

Margate seagulls

Antony Gormley's Another Time

Another Time in the rain

Jyll Bradley's Dutch/Light

We had a fabulous lunch at Handwerk & Found, which satisfied Alexej’s need for oysters (have a of read Jay Rayner's review in the Guardian) After lunch, we sought out the famous Shell Grotto.

When Alexej first mentioned visiting Margate and the Shell Grotto years ago, I had envisioned it as a sort of twee Victorian feature tucked next to the seaside, like some relic along Brighton Pier. This was so different from what I had imagined.

First of all, the grotto is actually on a hill, quite a walk from the coast. Secondly, although we know the grotto was discovered in 1835, no one has any idea who created it or why. You can read more about the various theories on their website, but there’s something quite unique about a place that’s so mysterious and unexplainable.

Shell Grotto

Shell Grotto detail

Shell Grotto altar

Shell Grotto skylight

After a thoroughly amazing trip to the Shell Grotto, we finished our day in Margate with a trip to Transmission Records (where Alexej bought me ‘Puss in Boots’ by Adam Ant and a Japanese reissue of the Ghostbusters soundtrack, because I’m super cool like that).

By that time, we were in need of tea and cake, so we stopped by the Seaside Cake Parlour for some fabulous vegan cake. No one in our group is vegan, but the cake shop was so alluring and everything tasted so good, that we didn’t miss the non-vegan ingredients.

House of Dreams

Having now lived in London for 10 years, I can confidently call myself a Londoner. In some ways, it’s typical of a long-term London resident to start accidentally overlooking all the great things this city has to offer. It takes a visitor to point out something that’s right around the corner, but we never really knew about before.

This was certainly the case with the House of Dreams. Alexej and I have lived in the Forest Hill/East Dulwich area for two years now, and we hadn’t heard of this gem until my Mom found an article about it on the Guardian and realised they were having an open house the weekend that they were visiting London.

One of the first things that the artists’ partner, Michael, said to us when we came into the house was that this was a testament to what you can achieve if you work on something every day. That really reverberated with me because I need to cultivate that persistence in my own work.

Artist Stephen Wright started collecting found objects and making them into mosaics until over the course of many years, working through personal turmoil, he turned the whole ground floor of his home, the front and back garden included, into a work of art. Stephen and his partner Michael are so welcoming and open, it was such a moving experience.

This time of year is a time of connecting with one’s ancestors and dead relatives in a lot of cultures. The origins of Halloween or ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ revolve around this connection with the dead. Stephen Wright’s work deals with family connections and loss. Our family has been dealing with the loss of my uncle who passed away suddenly in mid-September. I think this visit came at a time when we really needed it.

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