The centre of inspiration


JEAN APPLEBY has been an artist all her life. Recently she spent time as an artist in residence at the Kanha Shantivanam ashram, near Hyderabad in India, setting up the pottery studio and teaching adults and children about the joys of pottery. She was interviewed by MEGHANA ANAND while running programs with children.

Q: How did you get pulled into this field of art and creativity?

JA: I knew when I was eight years old that I would be an artist, that I was born an artist. In the seventh grade I was encouraged by my teachers to enter my work in a student exhibition. By the time I was in high school I studied art intensely, as well as academics, and I knew that I would major in arts in college.

Q: What inspires you in your work? Also, how does your work inspire you?

JA: I knew that I was born with creative talent, that I was good at making things and sensing what was in my heart and expressing it. I think, in a way, art-making is a form of meditation, because every artist goes inside to reflect: What is it that I want to express? What medium do I use to illustrate what’s really inspiring me?

While studying in college to be a professional artist,
we were taught the fundamentals of design in the same way
that engineers and scientists learn the fundamentals of the

scientific method. To design something is a process,
a very artistic problem-solving process. So it’s that design process
I learnt in college that I have applied to every problem solving activity.

I’ve always enjoyed hiking and camping and being in beautiful places in nature. Nature has been an inspiration; the forms in nature have been an inspiration.

While studying in college to be a professional artist, we were taught the fundamentals of design in the same way that engineers and scientists learn the fundamentals of the scientific method. To design something is a process, a very artistic problem solving process. So it’s that design process I learnt in college that I have applied to every problem-solving activity. Whether I was designing a curriculum, or a new program with community partners, or some training for some students, it was always based on the fundamentals of the design process. It’s a way of thinking and looking and observing. For the problem that’s posed, we come up with a visual solution. It’s the rhythm of work that goes from an idea to something that’s a three dimensional sculpture on a pedestal in an art gallery. It starts with an idea, and then it is executed.

We actually have the responsibility to uncover
our talents
 and where our creativity lies.

All of the work that has been done up till now has taught me how to do this current work. I’ve sold most of it, and so when people ask me, “Don’t you want to hold on to things?” I say, “No, this piece has taught me what I need to do next so I am free to let it go.”

Q: That’s a beautiful insight. Can you share how pottery has evolved through time, both as a skill and an art? Where are we with it in current times?

JA: Men and women have been making pots out of local clay dug from the earth for literally thousands of years. When archeologists excavate important ancient sites they almost always find pots. They are of two types:  functional pots that were used to carry water and oil to cook, to light, used in an everyday way to support family life, and pots or tiles or warm murals that were artistic in nature. They were made from the beginning to tell the story of that culture and that civilization. Men and women have been doing that for thousands of years. In the same way that they drew on a wall, they would take clay from the earth and make a form they could heat in a fire and use to meet their needs.

In today’s world, different terms are used for clay art: pottery, ceramics, and other types of clay art-making. There are people who make functional pieces, and there are those who make artwork using clay or clay and other materials in some combination.

Q: Are there any benefits of cooking and eating in clay or earthen vessels? 

JA: Here in India, there is a sense that cooking in clay is healthier than cooking in different types of metal pots. I haven’t done the scientific research to know specific benefits, but I can tell you that when you cook in a clay vessel it’s a surface that doesn’t add to the food. It doesn’t affect the food and it doesn’t change the food chemically. If I prepare dahl in a casserole, it’s going to cook slowly. It’s an even transfer of heat. And the most important thing is that the glazed surface itself does not combine with the food material. It’s not mixing or changing the food in an unhealthy way. Foods cooked in an aluminum pan, like lemon juice and other acidic types of foods, interact with the aluminum and that alters the food.

Q: After spending many years as an art educator, you are now getting back to making art. Do you see any difference in the way you approach art from then to now?

JA: I’m not too sure what this new work is going to look like yet, but I know that it will be influenced by my historical work, what I have learnt from experience, working with others in the arts and in education, and my meditation practice. So I think my art today will be a combination of these three things.

Q: Can you talk more on meditation and art?

JA: I think that art-making is a form of meditation. Both meditation and art-making are practices. One of my teachers and a person whom I admire, Dr John Carter, has defined a practice as, “Anything that you want to do regularly to get better at it.” So from the time I was young I would get inspiration – ideas would come from my inner life, my inner being. And I wasn’t always sure how that came about, but I was happy when it did. Even as a young person I went inside to reflect, for my ideas to emerge from my inner being, my inner life.

I think it’s so important that we guide our children, so that when
their questions come up we can provide an answer, facilitate them
using the materials and tools safely, and allow them to have the full experience.

Since I’ve been meditating for the last 26 years, I now understand and appreciate how much I have an inner life and an outer life. And part of my work in my daily life experience is for those to be in balance. Because I meditate, go into my heart and become absorbed in my inner being, I understand how to go there for inspiration to come. So both meditation and art-making are a practice. My meditation and my art-making are two practices that are merging into one actually.

Q: That’s fantastic, Jean. What does creativity mean to you? And how do you use it to connect with the world around you?

JA: I am passionate in the belief that we’re all creative. We’re all born with talents to use in this life. And we actually have the responsibility to uncover our talents and where our creativity lies, and to use that in our work and in life, because it helps us reach our potential. So from time to time when I meet people and they say, “Oh, I can’t draw a straight line!” or “Oh, I’m not creative,” I smile and say, “Of course you are. Everyone’s creative; our job is to identify.”

When children receive interesting material to work with,
and some
 direction like, “This is the project today,”
 a caring, kind adult who is creating this
experience for them, they naturally respond.

So whether we’re good at working with people, riding, leading teams, or we feel passionate about performing, exercising, cooking, parenting, or volunteering to accomplish something for the community – those are all creative acts. And when we see them as creative acts I think we’re much more likely to produce our best work, our best outcome.

Q: Have you come across any boundaries while exploring your creativity?

JA: A couple of things come to mind. I think it’s important for someone who wants to be a serious artist and develop skills and a particular approach to create some boundaries, because we can’t do all the different art forms and do one really well. So a part of accepting boundaries is acknowledging, “These are the parameters that I’m going to work within, so that I can get really good at this approach and type of work. This really intrigues me, it really calls me, and so I’m going to focus.” It’s about the focus, a conscious choice that feels right. I will then put my effort, my mind and my heart so that I’m successful.

Q: How do you inspire children to explore creativity in their lives, especially in today’s fast-paced technology-driven world?

JA: I think whenever there is a major change in our culture and lifestyle – such as technology that has changed all of our lives – we can embrace that and learn from what we can now do because of it, without being captivated solely by it. For example, when I watch young people use phones and games and other devices, their capacity to move from one focus to another seamlessly is a very wonderful trait for being creative. You can be responsive in the moment to what’s actually happening as you’re creating something. You’re not bound by a drawing or a sketch or an idea you had.

Because I meditate, go into my heart
and become absorbed in my inner being,
I understand how to go there for inspiration to come.
So both meditation and art-making are a practice.

Generally, no matter what’s actually unfolding in the moment, you miss it because you’re so tied to that original notion. Because art-making is a very active process, so things will happen differently than you anticipate and you’re constantly responding in the moment. I think today’s children have an amazing capacity to do that compared to when I was young. Whether you’re throwing on a wheel or you’re dancing or you’re doing a meditation walk in a beautiful natural place, you need to focus in order to have the full experience, and to really put all of your energy and intention to the production of the work. So I think children can leverage the capacities these tools are developing, for seamlessly being responsive in the moment and also being able to focus.

I would also say that when children receive interesting material to work with, and some direction like, “This is the project today,” and a caring, kind adult who is creating this experience for them, they naturally respond. I think it’s so important that we guide our children, so that when their questions come up we can provide an answer, facilitate them using the materials and tools safely, and allow them to have the full experience. Even if it means the particular piece is not finished or does not turn out well, the experience is part of the learning. So I feel that the right combination is for children to have the full experience themselves with loving and kind adults guiding them.

Q: How do you encourage your students to get over their superficial inhibitions and be open to exploring their creativity and potential to the fullest?

JA: When we offer all the different education and training programs, workshops, one-day sessions with families and children, we always include a relaxation technique. Our thought behind that is you can’t be both relaxed and fearful at the same time. So a process of relaxation brings the heart and mind into balance, and it’s a wonderful way for creativity and inspiration to naturally come to the surface so you can tap into it on any given day. So that simple form of relaxation is how we usually start our day, because it puts us in a good place to begin our work, full of inspiration and joy and excited to see what we will produce today.

Q: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Jean.

Interviewed by MEGHANA ANAND


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