Now here’s an unlikely connection – the film My Octopus Teacher and an artist’s preoccupation with one particular tree.
I’ve just watched the film, made by film-maker and free diver Craig Foster, who rediscovered swimming and diving in the kelp forest close to his South African home at a time that he was going through a profound personal crisis.
When he came across an octopus that was behaving in a very intriguing way, it triggered the impulse to swim every day, to watch and to observe.
He became enamoured of the octopus, and bereft when he lost her at one point. In his efforts to find her again he gradually learnt to become more observant and more sensitive to the entire environment that she inhabited. Quite extraordinarily, they became friends, and it was through this unlikely friendship that he found himself beginning to connect again with people.
‘I realised that my relationship with humans was beginning to change,’ he says in the film, and talks of how the encounter helped him to forge a new and better relationship with his own son.
His enhanced sensitivity to the underwater world and all its fine nuances and interdependencies as he tried to grow his friendship with the octopus was making him a better person,
But what he learnt too – and this is where I see a connection with art – was that those truly careful observations gave him a sense of belonging. ‘You are part of this place, not a visitor,’ he says at the end of the film.
Craig Foster found his connection with ‘home’ in the ocean. By ‘home’ I mean that big sense of connection and belonging that we are all yearning for; that sense of at-oneness with the universe and everything within it. That ‘thing’ that we think we have found every time we fall in love.
Anyone who reads my blogs regularly will know that I, as an artist, find my ‘home’ when I am creating. The connection between art and what Craig Foster discovered is that time taken to observe carefully is what increases our understanding and empathy.
It is something that I find myself having to say repeatedly to my students, who so often want to surge ahead to complete ‘something’ – where that ‘something’ is what they have in their head that it is, rather than the thing that is actually in front of them.
It’s the difference between listening and really hearing, the difference between looking and really seeing. It’s the difference between responding appropriately and reacting impulsively. It is the gift of realising that you no longer need to be a visitor.
It’s a skill that everyone can learn, if they take the trouble to, and it’s a skill that is needed in this world now more than ever. We need it to make better environmental and social choices; we need it to make better political choices; we need it if we are ever going to end the senseless slaughter of millions in unnecessary wars.
It is another compelling reason to encourage people to draw from observation more.
So, as you are interested in art – and I take it that you are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article – dig out that old sketchbook that has been gathering dust for years, (I bet you’ve got one somewhere), find yourself a few pencils, and an object that has deep meaning to you, and start drawing.