This time last year, in the lead up to Christmas, I took some time off social media with the intention of reconnecting with some ‘life ingredients’ I hadn’t used for a long time. The ingredients consisted of cassette tapes, painting, growing plants and learning something new on my guitar every day. I think I was trying to time travel.
At the end of the 80’s/early 90’s and the start of my teens, I listened to music on cassette tapes on my Sony Walkman, painted most days as I prepared for art school, learnt something new on my guitar every day and often helped my mother in her garden to keep all her beautiful plants alive.
Returning to those habits for several months was more than nostalgia. I was in search of something that I was also being drawn to — a feeling or an experience that was valuable to me, even though I couldn’t remember what it was. All I knew was, a process of elimination of my current day to day habits might help me find out what it was, as well as adding some old behaviours from that once upon a long ago. Ancient futures, if you will.
Analogue, Acrylics and Awe
When I look back on those first few months of 2021, it is like looking across an ocean and seeing a beautiful little island. An island that I built, and luckily, one that I can return to now, whenever I need to.
The first clue was listening to music on cassettes instead of streaming or playing files of music on a computer. I still have a lot of my old cassettes. Mostly TDK D90’s with a different album on each side, as well as many mixtapes. Listening back to the old mixtapes was a revelation. Not only did I remember the songs in order, but I also remembered the silences in between each song and could remember myself recording them. I knew when the last song had played, and could calculate when the tape would go ‘click’ and come to the end of it’s spool.
I was remembering songs and remembering silences.
It was as if I was researching the way I had programmed myself as a youngster, and of course, it wasn’t long before I noticed how different that is now. There are no cut-off points on digital libraries or playlists. They just keep going. Not to say that is a bad thing. But, oh the wonder I felt as I began painting for the first time since my teens and getting up to turn a tape over every 45 minutes! My muscle memory instantly became pre-21st century. And with that, my mind became the more relaxed that it’s been for a long time.
Slowing down to be more productive
Turning patience into a super power seemed to be a prerequisite for this new found way of operating at a slower and less convenient pace. When paint needed to be left to dry, I’d stop whatever cassette was playing and begin to learn guitar chords in new tunings that I had been studying. As any guitarist knows; a new tuning means a new way of thinking. What was once up the fretboard is suddenly down and vice versa. Back to front and inside out. I came up with a suite of songs that I have a different affection for than I have for my previous work. I like them a bit more because, they sound like songs by someone else. Someone else whose work I really appreciate.
Art and Artemisia
After recording these songs, I’d tend to the plants I was growing. I’d planted Mugwort seeds in tiny pots. They lived in the front room to catch the afternoon sun through the window all day. At night, when I’d finished writing, recording and painting, I moved the plant pots into the back room to catch the early morning light. I placed them all around the painting I was working on. To keep the painting company through the night I suppose. Or maybe the painting was keeping the plant pots company? I don’t know, but since the painting had come from a dream and Mugwort is used to enhance our dreams, they seemed like they belonged together. I really wanted those seeds to turn into full grown plants, but had no idea if they would.
The Christmas Cat
It was the same mystery for the painting. I had no idea what I was going to paint. I knew I wanted to use gold leaf, I knew I wanted it to be painted on a phalo blue and I knew I wanted to build it on some sacred geometry.
But I still didn’t have a subject.
Until a few days before Christmas when I had a dream.
“I’m flying around dancing with a woman in a cat suit, and I become a cat myself ”
Typically, with most of the entries into my dream diary, this is a tiny detail of a much wider and complicated dream that I rarely have the energy to write down, because, well, I’m still in a dream state and can’t write very well when I wake up.
The woman in the dream (who was wearing a cat suit, a bit like Catwoman), was playful. Like a child. But I do remember feeling I was out of my depth , and that this ‘cat woman’ was running rings around me. Until I became a cat too. A white cat that could fly wherever he wanted. Which, in my dream, I most certainly did. Now had a subject to paint. A Flying Cat.
Remembering Our Dreams
I got out of bed, slung on a dressing gown, walked into the back room, pressed play on the old tape machine (Pink Floyd’s Meddle) and sat down to start sketching The Cat in the bright early morning light. As I did, I noticed that one of the Mugwort shoots had grown overnight and formed the first perfect baby Mugwort plant.
The feeling of satisfaction poured across my being like a warm ocean wave of secret treasures, and I recognised it to be entirely due to allowing time to pass.
Allowing the cassette to run to the end of the spool, turning it over manually, allowing the paint to dry, allowing a subject for the painting to arrive.
Just…letting everything arrive when it wanted to. I felt more as if I was working with the phenomenal world, rather than trying to control it. And the patience of waiting for each process to meet its unpredictable destination made me feel more natural and maybe, more human.
During this period of multiple creations, I found that I had a lot more time than usual. I never felt under pressure or that all the other mundane chores were not being tended to. There was more time for everything.
And everything seemed to have time for me.
The value of this experience for me can be seen another way of course. I wasn’t slaving myself to screens with multiple apps, emails, junk mails, social media, algorithms and other such metaversal madness. That life is designed to let you experience time at a different pace to the phenomenal world. That pace is something driving you harder and faster. It makes us respond at such a perpetual rate of urgency that now, I feel more interested in getting back to my island of natural phenomena and time that does not…punish, but allows.
To understand the phenomenal world is to not control it
Cat’s Out The Bag
I finished the painting. In fact I finished two! My Cat has a companion now.
I also finished recording all the songs which became an album and have since drunken a good amount of Dream Tea using the Mugwort that grew so tall I had to plant them in the front garden.
I presented the paintings, the album and the Mugwort to my partner on her birthday in February. We’ve had nine months since then to get to know the album, the Cat and to drink in dreams to come. But now the Cat’s out the bag and it’s time to him let him fly away. I’ve no idea where he may take the songs, or the secrets he learnt as he slept in the ring of Artemisia every night, but I’m just going to let go and allow it. I hope the Cat finds you too, as he found me; with music, art, dreams and all you are hoping for this Christmas.
You can hear the songs from Tim’s journey in art, music and dreams here.
Tim Arnold is a singer songwriter, film maker and activist.