I love this word. It was born in our TOTEM art group (with parents and children affected by sexual abuse) to describe the rising feelings of being flustered and frustrated when an artwork was not going to plan. Although flustration is a common feeling in participants in the artgroups I run at SECASA and Connections Uniting Care, it is not an uncommon feeling to have during the creation of any new artwork either. The longer a person creates, the more likely it is that you grow to understand that these feelings of flustration are a normal – if not an infuriating – part of a creative process. However, with people who have experienced abuse, these feelings have a different source and can be heightened as a result.
In all the art groups I run at SECASA and Connections there are murmurings amongst adult and child participants for things to be perfection, and “not to make a mistake”, of being hopeless, a failure, a work not being good enough, of not being able to succeed in creating the work that exists in their mind. Where do these feelings come from and why are they so prevalent amongst abused people?
The aspiration to perfection becomes habitual for some victims of abuse, while for others it is a way of maintaining some semblance of control in their lives. One participant explained: We sort of think that we weren’t good enough before and something bad happened, so if we are better, we will be safe. But this desire for perfection is not useful to art-making, and it is clear that it is not useful in other areas of their lives either. Participants admit that for all their justifications and efforts, their striving to be perfect had failed to guarantee their feelings of safety or comfort.
Adults and children in our groups have already endured many difficulties in their lives: exposure to family violence, abuse, cruelty, drug and alcohol addictions, low self-esteem, and struggles with school, friends and family are some. Whilst some children have not experienced abuse themselves, they live with the consequences of a parent who has.
Adult participants join the classes because they want their boundaries challenged, they want to break unhelpful desires and behaviours. For children, I think the issue is different; they are perhaps seeking some boundaries (ie instruction) and but also the invitation to extend beyond some existing boundaries to enjoy freedom and playtime. We want the art groups to be one place where participants can enjoy themselves but also learn a few things that can be carried into their lives to help them cope and manage better.
We know that people who have been abused in childhood often miss steps in their developmental learning and struggle to successfully undertake and complete tasks. One counsellor explained it as: a child in a ‘normal’ home would start off with a junior jigsaw of a few pieces that they would do with their parent; when the parent could see the child was able to do that jigsaw, the parent would give a jigsaw of 25 pieces, then 50, etc. We don’t start with a jigsaw of 2000 pieces expecting a child to manage it. So it is with other skills, including art; early and intermediary steps are necessary as building blocks to undertaking and managing more complex tasks. When these early steps are not present, many participants have no resources to call upon to create or problem solve. Flustration results.
Participants are often unable to recognise the space between their desires for their artwork and mastery of skills: that creative space in which one learns, experiments, sometimes falters, tries again and improves. My role as artist is to help participants, especially children, navigate their feelings and complete the art session with a work that leaves them feeling satisfied at some level; that may be with the artwork itself, with the skills they have learnt, or just that they managed to persevere and complete the project
So developing skills is crucial. In the art groups we focus on step-by-step instructions so that participants learn such things as how colours work, how to get clayworks to be stable and durable, how to experiment, and how to manage tools etc. Once they understand a few basic principles, they are then able to work through the frustrations to complete a satisfying artwork.
Another step is in the process is encouraging practice and perseverance. Hard steps to learn, particularly if the participant has confronted criticism and abuse for any mistake they might have made or were seen to make in other areas of their lives.
We know from the research that has accompanied these groups, that art is a very useful way to learn and practice a range of skills that can be applied in everyday life as well as learning and practicing how to managing emotions before they become overwhelming and perhaps destructive.
In this series of works you can see the products of step-by-step learning. The class started off with an introduction to clay making with the pinch-pot technique. On the same day we expanded this technique to create animals, there was quite a big jump once the basic skill had been learned.
The following week we glazed the pots.