Art, Introspection and the Process of Finding Our Lost Selves

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“Life isn’t a support system for art. Other way around.” Stephen King

Story Break

More than a few moments in my day, while sitting at my desk, I fold my legs to my chest and hold them tight, lean back—though not far because there is a cat between the curve of my back and the curve of the chair – and introspect.

“Truth mining,” I call it. All artists do it.

Creativity comes from somewhere. For some, it stems from observation and criticism—the light of life shines on us, and we capture it, filter it through our philosophical lens, and reflect it back to itself. A mirror and a light.

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.” Ray Bradbury

Creativity can also be profoundly internal, introverted. Sometimes, the light shines out of us, not on us. Mining what we’ve felt and thought, tunneling through the everyday to get to the unique. Pulling it into bits and scraps, then sticking it together like wet clay to form a larger something that turns into a character or theme.

I’m the latter sort. My creativity comes from a relaxed mind and quiet, the absence of external stimulation. That’s why I’m able to expand in small rooms they keep unwanted things out.

This introspection, truth mining, is emotional (I accept whatever the subconscious avails), quick (I whip back and forth between my thoughts and my writing), and exhausting (I go through prolonged periods of active thinking).

Most of all, it is effective. If I can relax and de-stimulate, something original comes out. Creativity is there—if I root around patiently, I open those doors of perception.

Until recently.

Recently, I’ve been scrambling around my brain shouting to echoes, a laugh with no owner, a shadow slinking around the corner like a scene from The Third Man.

It is writer’s block of the third order (I believe it exists in several degrees).

This particular one involves the obstruction of one’s self. Everyday thoughts and feelings are confused and convoluted to the point that you cannot get past them to your truth.

Truth is the artist’s philosophy, the world view, the representation of which is the very nature of the art itself. As an artist, I’m always building it, adding to it, testing it. But if I cannot access it, that is something different entirely. Without that truth, there is no art.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

I blame the world. The world is to blame. Am I the only one who feels this way? Everywhere we look, people seem to make choices that pull apart rather than build connections. Always in the name of what is right, what is assumed to be right.

But really, it’s in the name of pain. Yours, mine, ours, theirs.

Pain needs love, and when it doesn’t get it, it demands the next best thing: attention.

So much pain needs attention right now. It feels unbearable, one wants to fold up and sob. But we cannot, ever, can we? We have to choose how to act, how to think. We have to choose and put a stake in what is right.

I know this duty, and yet, I find myself asking, constantly, what is right? I would have said it’s how people treat each other. All people. No matter what.

But I’m not sure anymore.

Pain makes people do strange things and even desperate things. Somewhere on the road to Thebes, terrible things happen. Are they to be forgiven? If they are innocent? Who is innocent? I don’t know. But I feel the answer is there, inside, somewhere.

This matters for our humanity, which we misplace but cannot lose, but it matters more immediately for the creation of art. If you aren’t in touch with your truth or what you believe—out of which pours everything—what do you have?

Silence. Emptiness. Profound writer’s block.

Let’s go back to the beginning: truth starts and ends with introspection. And art.

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Pablo Picasso

Art is a lie because it’s a metaphor – a part of language writer James Geary called ‘a way of thought before it is a way of words’ – but in that, is truth.  A few months ago, my husband and I purchased a lovely piece from the extremely talented, contemporary Irish ceramist Isobel Egan.

Photo by Philip Lauterbach.

Egan has been featured on the cover of Centered Magazine and exhibited at Ceramic Art London and she just had a piece accepted into the permanent collection of the National Museum of Ireland, an incredible honor.

She is also one of the kindest, most thoughtful creatives I’ve ever met. Hearing her discuss the profundity of her work—its technical and aesthetic generosity—and what it means to her, in her understated and humble way, is almost disconcerting.

Her contemplative work depicts abstract thought in a way that elevates and organizes it. I find myself wandering into her art with an open mind and hopeful inquiry. I’ve never been disappointed.

You’re probably thinking, “My, that is a lot to ask from a clay pot!”

Ah quite, but Egan is hardly a traditional ceramist. She doesn’t make pots or vases or vessels, she does something else entirely with her medium: rather than use it to define an object within a space, she uses it to define the space itself. It’d be more appropriate to call her an architect, to wit, many of her pieces include inspiration from architecture, such as Oculus, whose round form was inspired by the Pantheon.

Photos by Rory Moore

Egan works with porcelain for its flexibility and form, but that doesn’t stop her from using he technical skills to distort its proportions to form paper-thin sheets and uneven edges, suggestive of an artist’s paper and brush strokes.


It’s a rather complicated piece, isn’t it? You can see why I love it.

My favorite part? The full middle. There is something there, a ghost in the machine. Reminds me of the work of Barbara Hepworth, a pioneering British sculptor who carved out natural materials leaving a hole, a center, which critics have argued was the space for her faith and, occasionally, doubt.

Contemplating Hepworth’s late works at the Phillips Gallery, London

The center of this piece represents truth, and I have to get back to it.

I fold my legs, lean back into a cat, and trace the fragile porcelain lines. I’m at the outside, circling. The furthest corridor, cold and empty. But the walls are thin—would it be possible to break or cross them?

What matters between us, humans? What has always mattered in the world, to me?

Into the next circle, the next layer. The walls are white, off-white, and translucent. It is warmer and brighter.

What is life about, what is that thing if absent, it isn’t life? There is respect, regret, passion, fear … but always, there is love. Compassion. Fraternity and communion. Always.

Deeper inside. Until I feel a tingling epiphany, however small, which allows another shift and another. In the art and in one’s mind.

Am I right? Is this right? Are you right? What is right?

There are no answers. Nothing finite, everything requires thought and process. Especially now. That process is the answer, that form of thinking.

Considering. Testing. Questioning. Challenging. Myself, others.

I will get to that core … back to it, rather. And sit there in contemplation and reflection. In careful thought.

This piece of Egan’s means so much to me for its physical practicalities and its sympathy to my plight. Perhaps she as an artist herself goes through the same process? I bet she does.

Self and discovery, even redemption, through introspection.

I love this piece. Its name, you ask? Oh, I forgot to say. Introspection II.


Story Break

Ceramics are emerging as a top art form in London, with Ceramic Art London showcasing Europe’s experienced and emerging talent. And if you want to drift into heavenly atmosphere of texture and touch, tune into any of the hundreds of Instagram throw videos (that’s people working wet clay while water pours over their fingers, sensual doesn’t begin to describe it). My favorite is Florian Gadsby.

  • An interesting read. I’m glad to learn about other forms of art because I miss a lot of what the artist intended by just thinking it’s ‘pretty’ or something.

    • Hi! Comment came through, thank you for persisting. I didn’t really understand art until I got into film. It was and still is the most accessible art to me. Once I learned more about it, I was able to extend that way of thinking about art to other types, too. Art is so similar across different mediums, because WE are so similar.You know more than you think you do.

  • Michael Huy

    The museum’s artist has searched for TRUTH and tried to place a glimpse of it into their art. At the museum… look at all of the art… just SO MUCH stuff. You go from room to room. In a hurry.

    I strive to find one, two, maybe three pieces of art that reach out to me and I try to understand the TRUTH of that art. What is the glimpse that the artist is striving to portray? I spend time with it. Get beyond the ‘pretty’ (thanks, Gigi) and focus on its TRUTH.

    Good stuff, Ellen, as usual. You related this work of art to your artistry as an author.

    • If you are ever in London I recommend going to the Wallace Collection. There is an interplay of the art and the decor of the house that is an all-together different experience than viewing art against a large, white wall. Much of the nature of art is lost in museums, it was meant to be owned, in homes, and through that, interacted with and that interaction over time is a huge part of it’s ‘truth’. This Collection is one of the few I’ve been to which realizes that art was part of the lifestyle of the inhabitants (though now gone). I wrote about a piece I owned because now I’m part of its story, context. Art has to have context, and that context plays a huge part of it’s ‘truth.’ Don’t just look at the piece, per se. Your comment made me think of that. Thanks Michael.

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