Mountain climbers have it easy, don’t they? When asked why they want to tackle a treacherous peak, they have a pre-packed cliché tucked away between their long johns and the Kendal mint cake.
“Because it’s there,” they say.
So far so smug, but things are a great deal trickier for artists.
“Why do you do what you do?” people ask.
“Because it isn’t there,” they might reasonably respond, although it’s an answer that won’t satisfy many.
Ryan Garry is a filmmaker who wants to know more about why artists are driven to make their marks. So instead of putting up with pat answers, he has turned his camera on 14 creators and given them time to reveal a few truths about themselves and their work. The result is a film called The Creative Process: a Documentary About Art, a 40-minute investigation into the urge to create something from nothing. It gets its first public screening at Liverpool Small Cinema on January 31.
Having previously worked in the world of corporate videos and commercial photography, Garry is well used to the more hard-headed side of filmmaking where the ultimate aim is to build brands. And although it hardly sprang from a cut-throat marketing department wielding sales charts, even this project had prosaic beginnings when Janet Holmes, who runs Rathbone Studio in Birkenhead, approached him with the idea of making a promotional film for her gallery space and workshop venue.
“She put a call out for local artists to come down to the studio to be filmed,” says Garry. “Her idea was for us to make a promo video because that’s what I’d done previously. The event was called Fifteen Minutes of Fame. People were invited to come along and be famous for 15 minutes. Some 14 artists came down. I filmed them, then had the idea of turning it into a longer project.”
It’s in this serendipitous interzone between circumstance and inspiration where interesting ideas find their feet. Garry realised that his self-selected cast of artists –painters, photographers, illustrators and sculptors based around Merseyside – all had their own motivations for pursuing particular paths.
“People always have a reason behind what they do and it’s very personal to them,” he says. “Why make art? I think everybody has something to say, whether or not people are listening, and the people in the film want to express themselves in certain ways. Why is it they choose to paint or photograph, or make sculpture or crafts? For me, it was about finding the human story behind it.”
Since beginning the film in late 2014, Garry has found the subject to be fertile ground for his inquisitive mind and probing lens. Initially, his aim was simply to document the creative compulsions of the 14 artists, but he has already found that the ideas have outgrown his original format. He has recently been interviewing other creative individuals from further afield, allowing them to expound on their muse in a series of video shorts on his YouTube channel.
Given that everybody’s motivations are different, I suggest that it could turn out to be a lifelong project.
“It could, yeah,” he replies. “Jackson Pollock said that everyone who expresses themselves is an artist, whether their instrument is a pen, a shovel or a brush. One of the people in the film says her father’s artistic expression came through building ships at Cammell Laird. He couldn’t afford to go to art school, but that was the way he expressed himself.
“The film itself is all about visual artists, but since then I’ve interviewed Brian Patten the poet, Lizzie Nunnery who’s a playwright, and Arthur Smith, the comedian. So I’m starting to stretch the idea of an ‘artist’. The problem for me is that I think even scientists are people who are expressing themselves.”
For the sake of the film, it’s probably just as well that the number of artists who responded to the original call happened to be a manageable figure. And now that The Creative Process is finished, it is through their varied insights that we build up a picture of the many ways in which self-expression can manifest itself.
Not that the film is meant to be a one-way conversation. Garry is keen that it should be a means to open up a dialogue between artists and audiences – or, indeed, between artists themselves.
“Sometimes I think the creative process can be a bit opaque to people who don’t do that kind of thing. It can seem as if it’s a different world. So at the first public screening, I’ll be there talking about my own process. Then after that, I’m hoping the film will be shown widely in studios and galleries, with question-and-answer sessions with working artists.
“There are so many artistic community spaces in Liverpool and on the Wirral where it would be suitable, especially if you can encourage that sense of interaction and connection. A lot of the artists I’ve interviewed have talked about making connections. I think it enhances the experience to have people elaborate on their own thing in a live situation. It introduces an extra element that people can connect to.”
Although all the artists in the film are based on Merseyside, does Garry feel it could travel further?
“In the short term I’m looking at artistic spaces in this region, but the film isn’t exclusive to Merseyside. Anyone can relate to the themes the artists talk about – things like death, or illness, or being an outsider, or having a sense of place. Or having a connection to God, some spiritual sense of self. So further down the line it would be great to maybe take it online to reach a wider audience.”
It’s a curious thing, this creative process. As a writer, I have my own inexplicable tangle of half-thoughts and notions – mental irritants that won’t subside until they’ve been scribbled onto paper or hammered into a keyboard. It’s to Garry’s credit that as I inadvertently dragged the conversational spotlight away from his film and pointed it straight at my own face, he didn’t stomp off into the sunset. Instead he switched on his inner documentary maker and listened to what I had to say.
As I despaired over the shortcomings of my creative process, he nodded sagely then passed his own judgement.
“Whatever you do, that’s the way you do it. The only thing that matters is what you produce. It doesn’t matter how you do it – you can write it upside down or something, but as long as you get something good out of it, who cares?”
It had begun as an interview, but it ended as a secular confession. When Garry tossed me that casual, “Who cares?”, I knew I’d found the absolution I’d been searching for. I knew that from this unlikely scenario I’d plucked creative vindication – my own reasons to stride out for that mountain summit.
And if anyone knew what they were talking about, it was him.
Where: Liverpool Small Cinema
When: January 31, 2016
More info: www.thecreativeprocess.info