Navigating authenticity

The struggle for authenticity in this work was the last thing I was expecting when I entered into the Living Words process two weeks ago. As an artist and animator I am used to a solitary, controlled studio existence, so I was prepared for an emotional and physical response to such a different new working environment, but certainly not for an existential crisis!

The first question I had in my mind before entering the Butterworth Centre was: how do you navigate? As a visual artist working outside of the defined parameters of the Living Words ‘scribing’ process, I was given free reign to discover my own working methods, so I had no established routes to follow. Shazea and Pippa said they see me as an explorer, charting new territories, a notion which is equally thrilling and terrifying to me.

The first three sessions were filled with clumsy attempts at discovering a good approach: observing Shazea with A and Susanna with B from a distance, feeling like a lurker and trying to catch floating words and images; sitting with Susanna and C and frantically sketching everything C was describing, a kind of literal-drawing version of scribing; and working one-to-one with D using the observed Living Words technique, just writing her words with no drawing. This last method felt the least authentic to me – introducing myself to her as a writer at the start felt like an outright lie and added a layer of discomfort to the encounter. I began to question what I was doing there, what benefit I was to the participants or the project.

During the fourth session, I had a revelation. My mechanical pencil ran out of lead, so I switched to pen. One of my stated intentions last week was to ‘follow the line’ and I found by switching to an indelible medium I was able to do this. I sat with Shazea and E, and was able to clear my mind and connect to the emotions behind what E was saying, and let the drawing flow. The drawings were simple, clean, metaphorical and surprising, almost like they didn’t come from me.

Authenticity is such a slippery fish, and mainly defined by inauthenticity, which always seems much easier to recognise. Authenticity in my own art has never been an issue for me, as I view my work as flowing freely from my character, uninterrupted by external influences. But when you are interpreting somebody else’s emotions, how do you know if you are hearing them or feeling them correctly? Especially when listening to people who may use words in an unusual or confusing way, sometimes you may not understand their particular lexicon until the third or fourth time you see them.

I can only trust that when something feels right – like it did with E – it IS right and authentic.

Astrid Goldsmith