The Malta Independent 19 June 2021, Saturday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Back to the drawing board

Marie Benoît Sunday, 16 May 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

The past months marked an unexpected return to creativity and painting for illustrator GRETA BORG CARBOTT. She shares her COVID diary with us.

"Over the past months, time seeped out of the boxes on calendars, schedules and diaries to take on a more gaseous form.

The mainly blank paper in my COVID diary records a period of brain fog, zoom calls, homeschool and restlessness.

But while my diary is empty, I am surrounded by new artwork which sprung into being during this strange, dark period. So instead of sharing my Diary, I will focus on my return to art-making. Perhaps this will help other frozen artists to get back into action too.


Like most parents - and especially mothers - my mind and time is splintered by calls, interruptions and demands which make deep thought impossible outside my formal working hours. This is a problem for artists, as a lack of solitude and headspace forbids us from reaching the deep level of concentration which is essential for creative work.

When I create visual artwork, I feel that I am accessing a source of energy beyond myself, visiting a communal, spiritual place. This is described beautifully by the writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

"Each [individual] has potential access to Rio Abajo Rio, this river beneath the river. She arrives there through deep meditation, dance, writing, painting, prayermaking, singing, drumming, active imagination, or any activity which requires an intense altered consciousness. A woman arrives in this world-between-worlds through yearning and by seeking something she can see just out of the corner of her eye."

And one day - three precious, bouncing children later - I realised my beloved and magical paints, brushes and canvases had been abandoned for eight years. Yet it felt unspeakably selfish to even suggest that this was in some way sad.

I know that this is a very common experience - behind the personal, there is almost always the universal As a young professional, I made sure that while I built a busy career, I kept my route to the 'river' open by following constant art workshops in Malta and UK, taking on commissions and illustrating books.

But in time, the path was blocked by a profusion of leaves and plants. My oil paints and white spirit were packed away eight years ago, when I feared their fumes might affect my unborn child. My acrylics and easel disappeared soon after, as they were toxic, messy and made me feel guilty and incompetent.

Better artists than me have encountered similar dead-ends.

Yet change can trigger new ideas, as shifting shapes produce new patterns. Cracking the ground can allow green shoots to break through.

This is what happened during the past year. The sudden freezing of our schedules and lack of commuting provided me with a few, tiny pockets of time during which I could glimpse "something out of the corner of my eye". I managed to enter that special dream-like state even in short bursts of time - something that had never happened before.

During the COVID months, artists from across the globe turned to the web to reach new audiences and markets for their work. From within my chaotic home, I found a range of art courses and tutorials which was beyond my wildest dreams.

Whilst the children were out with my husband or hovering outside their grandparents' homes, I joined artists from across the globe, from Israel to California, Spain to the UK. There were so many generous souls sharing their knowledge on online portal Domestika, on Youtube, Pinterest and other portals - the opportunities were endless.

I came across a technicolour world of artists I'd never heard of, like the American portrait artists Hope Gangloff and the late Alice Neel, illustrators Adolfo Serra and Este Macleod, mixed media artists Lorri-Marie Jenkins and Rakefet Hadar. I had found my river tribe again.

And at last - once I silenced my cynical inner critic - I returned to my paints and canvases with such a feverish amount of activity that I surprised those around me as well as myself.

Best of all, I finally discovered art techniques which made it possible for me to produce art using the short, interrupted time slots available to me as a working mother of three.

One lovely technique I learnt from mixed media artists involves working on canvases in layers, each of which takes a short time to complete before the composition must be set aside to dry. Each layer shimmers through the next through translucent varnish giving the whole a dreamy, almost hallucinogenic effect.

I also learnt how to use all sorts of ephemera - discarded shopping lists, leaflets, textbooks and tickets - to make mixed media collages. I am a total hoarder and have collected beautiful cut-out images from brochures and magazines practically since childhood, so at last I had a way of using all these cut-outs in my artwork.

Over the COVID period, I produced so many pictures that I actually had enough material to organise a mini-exhibition, which I launched in Valletta exactly on the day our second lockdown was announced!

I was also delighted to fill the walls of my home with quirky framed artworks, marking my return to creative life as an artist.

As (hopefully) the COVID months are nearing their end. I am honoured to be back in action, working on a new children's book by a wonderful new author who is also a history lecturer. This book is due to be published this year and I can't wait to talk about it.

And now, to quote artist LM Jenkins' mantra: "Go play, go create, go have fun!"

Some of Greta Borg Carbott's work can be viewed at Michael & Guy's Hair Salon & Art Gallery,201B Old Bakery Street, Valletta. Opening hours: 8.30 to 6pm


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