serious play

The work you do as an artist is really play, but in the most serious sense […] Like when a two year old discovers how to make a tower out of blocks. It is no half-hearted thing. You are materialising – taking something from the inside and putting it out into the world so you can be relieved of it.

Quote by Leslie Dick, from Seven days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton


Haiku of grass and sky2

 Haiku of grass and sky, 2014


As I try to move forward with my practice, I find myself reflecting more and more on what it is I am doing, and to what purpose. I read the book Seven days in the Art World last year (kindly sent to me as a gift by a fellow blogger). In an attempt to unravel the elusive workings of the art world, Thornton tries to engage various academics with the question: “What is an artist?”, to which she receives a range of answers, mostly disparaging and dismissive, as she records, presumably because many found the question naive, distasteful or even irrelevant. An obvious question it may be, but it is a pertinent one, and one to which it seems to me someone involved in any way in the discourse of art and art practice, whether as scholar, producer, seller or critic, should have an intelligent sounding answer.

The writer Leslie Dick, however, does have an answer, and one which is somehow obvious and clever and thoughtful and disarmingly simple all at the same time. I have a terrible memory for quotes (and most things), so when I do remember things other people have said, or written, it usually means that it was something which resonated deeply with me and was apposite to me or my situation. Indeed, I was, at the time, spending a lot of time pondering this creative impetus and the overwhelming necessity which I was feeling to express it.

I was asking myself a lot of questions, and the internal monologue went something like this: Is this normal, to feel the need for space to just ‘be creative’? If so, why don’t other people around me get that? Is it selfish to want time away from my friends and family to satisfy this craving? Why do I find it awkward to talk about? What is it I am trying to achieve, though? Is it art? Is it a hobby? Or is it something else entirely? How do I know? How do I find out? Does it really matter?

So you see, when I read these words, they just seemed to slot so perfectly into my thinking, like missing pieces of a jigsaw which had previously brought nothing but sheer confusion and frustration – it suddenly all transposed neatly together to make a perfectly whole picture of where I was at. Which made perfect sense. Because here is the ‘guilty’ stuff which was also going through my brain:

1 – I am being indulgent (there are so many other useful things I could be doing – like the ironing, or sorting the cupboards, or baking nice treats for the family, or volunteering my time for a charity… I could be so much more organised! And charitable!)

2 – I am wasting my time (just playing around – who cares about my pictures and my confused ramblings anyhow? Why bother?)

3 – I just need to do this.

And with that efficiently eloquent turn of phrase I was able to, if not exactly answer my questions, place them, settle them, and realise that the questioning in itself was a perfectly normal, even essential part of the process. Because it does feel like being a toddler at play, in the sense that you are gifting yourself the luxury of time (and we all know how precious that is) and sometimes money also, to play. It does feel indulgent. But no-one would ever dream of accusing a toddler of wasting her time building a tower of blocks, because we also all know that play is an essential part of a toddler’s development. What is one day a tower may the next day become a bridge, then a castle, and then, when the necessary motor skills are in place, only the child’s imagination and opportunity to practice is its limit. And her mother’s (or father’s) little squeals of joy and rain showers of kisses are all the feedback and encouragement that child needs to know that she is on the right track and should continue in her modest endeavours, which will eventually become greater ones.

It’s a bit more complicated as an adult. We tend to seek recognition from a wider audience for one thing, and that toddler’s world is yet reassuringly simple and primitive, in the sense that the meeting of basic human needs and impulses are of primary concern over social ones. We cannot always seek to satisfy our desires so freely. But why do we as a society tend to advocate that play should be ring-fenced for childhood?  Adults need play too, and they need it in the most serious and fundamental sense. Just like the toddler, they need time and space to explore and experiment; to practice and develop ideas and processes; to put them ‘out there’ so that they may then have the opportunity to evolve into achievements for which they can be recognised and of which they can be proud, however small or big they may be.  Inside every adult is a little toddler desperate for a high five or thumbs up for good effort, or even a small squeal of joy.

Soon after I wrote the first draft of this post, I went away to a music festival with (husband) Alex for the weekend. We try to get away and do this every year, just the two of us and our tent, to indulge our shared love of music and escape (just for a while) from the trappings of a terribly bourgeois existence. There was a young unsigned American band who were all over the festival and generally working really hard, but having a great time. We saw them play a couple of times, and on one occasion the lead singer introduced a song called “Innocent” saying that as people get older they often feel the need to get all serious and tortured about creativity, but that really, well, it should just be about having a whole lot of fun. Yup. And that “fuck it, let’s just have fun” vibe of a festival is just generally the best kind of atmosphere to spawn creativity. Even tonight, I start to reprimand my children for blowing bubbles in their milk and making a mess all over the tablecloth, but whilst launching into the familiar rhythm of weary chastisement, I suddenly stop and check myself. Because I realised they knew. They were already getting the cloth to clear up the mess they had made (even if they made a terrible job of it). Play is good. Play is experimenting. Play is learning. But like anything good, it must have its limits, and as adults and educators, that is our job, in our wisdom and experience, to gently and sensitively educate our children in the seriousness of play, and thus instil a sense of individual responsibility for any mess they may make in the process. And maybe next time they will know exactly how hard they need to blow to get maximum bubble fun without spilling the milk over the edge of the cup (here’s hoping at least).

Answers to my questions? I haven’t really found them. What I have found, I think, is some reassurance that what I experience when I need to ‘create’ is derived from a most basic and natural human instinct. Whilst other people may feel the need to pigeon-hole my outward self as one thing or another and may find this confusing, really it is OK for me to be ‘just me’ on the inside and to continue to play with serious focus, energy and passion and a self-reflexive approach in order to push my practice forwards. All the rest is just a fine balancing act (and that, of course, is a little more complicated).


This image is part of a new investigation into photography and poetic expression, in which I am exploring the relationship between photograph as both surface-object and subject-referent. I don’t really know if it’s art, or if it’s any good, but I’m definitely having lots of fun playing.


© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014


28 Comments on “serious play

  1. so agree. I love children’s creativity, and we should hang on to it. Have you read the children’s picture book ‘Time to Get out of the Bath, Shirley’ by John Burningham? I love the way he grabs the child’s imagination.

  2. Wow does your post resonate! I will say Hans Georg Gadamer’s essay The Play of Art and the Grammars of Creation by George Steiner sanctioned that need and purpose in me to make art/be creative. They both understand that the more serious the stakes, the more strict the limitations and yet still experiencing freedom/fun (and losing oneself) is the place to be. And yet, for me it is the hardest place to be. But you have reminded me to at least stop scolding my son as he flings milk, paint, blocks in his experimental ways. Thank you!

    • Hi Summer – thanks for the reference I will have to check out that essay. It is a hard place to be, especially when you have so many other demands on your time and attention, but somehow that makes it more rewarding when you find it. I often wonder if I would be so productive if I was less busy. Being pulled in lots of different directions can be strangely energising, although exhausting at the same time! I have to admit to finding it difficult to allow my children full creative freedom though… the mess can be a little overwhelming :-/

  3. I so get this Emily. You have the inherent need to make things. These things have meaning, or they reflect something you feel, something you are thinking deeply about, or they are thrilling experiments. Play and work-creating fills a need, quenches a thirst. Artists understand others may not. The time to make art was an issue when my kids were young. But as you so beautifully stated, they benefited greatly from creative play. Also watching their parents indulge in making art. One thing that growing older has done for me is to allow me to shed the questions that you have posed. I asked them too, but knew I’d never give up my practice even if I found negative answers to my questions:) When I think about the broader implications of art in our world, I am reassured that what we do is vital and necessary. I love how well you have articulated your thoughts-much more elegantly that I have just tried to. And I love the new piece.

    • I worry sometimes about the impact of me taking time out for my photography on the children. I feel constantly guilty that I should be doing more with them, especially as my son has extra needs, but they are getting older now and are starting to understand that I need this time apart from them as much as they sometimes need time apart from me and it’s a part of me which I completely neglected when they were small and their demands were constant and urgent. Personal space has always been important to me, and I see that in them too. My son once listed ‘thinking’ as one of his hobbies on a poster that he made about himself. He was perfectly serious about it too! I like that he values taking time out to think and reflect at such a young age. I also think it’s really good for them to see me pursuing creative goals. I hope it teaches them the value of creativity and of hard work in general. Thanks so much for your thoughts and feedback – so thoughtful and generous as always, and much valued, Elena.

  4. Seriousness is the limits of freedom you need to play in. Nothing more difficult to create in total freedom, at least it is my experiment
    Keep on playing Emily ! ;O)

  5. I totally understand the feelings of guilt! I feel it all the time. I think artists, musicians etc are very undervalued, in the UK particularly..I’m about to start recording a new album and going through all the same feelings – the last one made very little money, but I still get emails from people who bought it telling me what it means to them, or how much they loved a particular song for one reason or another – making that connection is just vital to me, and also for me to be able to express my inner world. My explorations in photography gave me the same feelings – a friend sneered once that she could pursue photography too but didn’t have “the time for HOBBIES”, which put me on hold for ages, feeling a bit stupid that I was spending so much time on it (even though I did hope to make a small living with it once day in the future potentially)…the guilt will go on and people will all have their opinions, but in the end, if you have to do it, you will always have to, and no good will come from attempting to crush it down! I’ve warbled now! In short – keep on creating, play as much as you like, and ignore the critic(s)!! You’ve inspired me to carry on recording! x

    • I remember listening to one of your songs once and I thought it was beautiful! I’m so glad you are making more music! You are right – you really have to develop a thick skin. It’s a brave choice to go your own way especially when there is so much competition out there. Still, if you are doing it for the right reasons, then you are doing the right thing. xx

  6. Being creative is as important as breathing. The only caveat is this: always remember to breathe first.

    You just need to do this. Yes.

    I remember Tarkovsky, the brilliant Russian filmmaker, saying that his film ‘Mirror’ was highly personal and that he therefore thought no one would be interested in seeing it. But sometimes there comes a point when the personal becomes the universal. That definition of art seems to me to be as good as any.

    • Yes, I think you are right – which is why blogging is such a great thing, because you get instant feedback and you also realise that other people are feeling exactly the same way as you/thinking the same thoughts. As for art, I think that’s a good definition. An artist to me is someone who has an ability to effectively externalise his or her personal perspective. This is no easy thing, to pull something from deep inside yourself and present it to the world as a universal truth.

  7. We are experimenting in order to come up with new ideas and after we enjoyed them, we begin to move forward with them. It’s the great cycle of creativity, the best thing we can do is admitting that. We don’t have to care about what others think about that, about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it. It’s just because we have to. We want to. That’s it. Simple as that.
    Thank you for your impressive post, Emily! I totally understand your thoughts and I wish you a wonderful “playing-time”!

  8. This post means a lot. It’s clear a lot of us grapple with the same issues. Creativity is primal. It’s hard work though to block out the sneering and downright jealousy of people that won’t allow themselves the same need. It’s been bred out of them. Thanks for posting this, it’s sheer encouragement. The artworks are amazing. I hope you’re planning an exhibition? Much regard.

    • Hi Petru – I’m sorry you experience such sneering and jealousy. I would say jealousy definitely exists but it’s more from the fact that, like you say, I gift myself the time to do things I am passionate about. It’s not easy though and what most people don’t realise is that it’ hard work too! Nothing comes easily, even if you are creatively inclined; especially when you have a lot of other ‘stuff’ going on in your life. Most evenings I’ll be ‘working’ whilst others are watching TV, for example. I suppose for me my day job doesn’t really satisfy me that much intellectually, and family life can be stressful(!), so this is my outlet. I am thinking about an exhibition, but again it’s time, money, etc. Something always holds me back. Probably fear too. Best wishes to you.

  9. Emily, you express these feelings and challenges so succinctly and beautifully. I enjoy your writing as much as your images! I know what you mean about art making being neccesary. I realize that it is what fills me up the most, so it’s quite possible ngaging in the process makes me better company.
    Certainly your work always stirs my heart in some way!

  10. I really like the image you’ve chosen to illustrate this post – it seems a perfect two-way split between the practical and straightforward and the abstract and playful. That tension caused by guilt, I think, is an important part of the creative process – it heightens and focusses the time spent making the work, gives it weight and meaning.

  11. I grew up in a highly creative family — lots of painting, drawing, exploring. My father, a film director, is skilled in almost every medium, so it all seemed normal to me! Anyone who has issues with those of us who are creative needs to — literally — get a life! I will be offering a 2-hr workshop this fall in NYC on creativity to interior design students and play is key…I took a test (?!) this year, which is designed to measure creativity, and scored in the 98th percentile, so I now feel no hesitation offering to coach others…:-)

    Ironically, my work (journalism) is so formulaic I feel it offers very little room to be creative. I find that in my photography, drawing, interior design instead. One of the coolest moments of my life came this week at a textile trade show — where a German designer and I started sharing all our Iphone images that we snapped everywhere for inspiration. Those moments of sharing the JOY of design seem so rare, versus the imperative to sell it fast and for lots of money.

    • A creativity test? I didn’t know there was such a thing! My parents were, and still are, both creative people but they never made careers out of their creativity. I think that’s hard to do and as you rightly say, when you put money in the mix it often sucks the fun and joy right out of it. Hobbies are so much more satisfying in that sense, as there is no pressure, and no imperative to achieve. Good luck with the workshop I’m sure it will be a lot of fun! I’ll look forward to the blog post…

      • The test is called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, administered to everyone from grade school to grad school…often used now for hiring (at least in the U.S.) I was allowed to take it (on the honor system!) for a story I wrote for It actually gave me a lot more confidence to say YES I am creative! 🙂

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