Finding time to create

Mashael Ishaque, Medical student at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Published in JHH18.1 – Flourishing in Medical Education

I am a third-year medical student and have always loved creating and exploring art. I like to sew, paint and play the piano. As a student feeling overwhelmed is not uncommon, and I am always curious to find new ways to relax and reflect.

As children we spend hours creating, praised for drawing shapes, people with jumbled faces, and inventing creatures that don’t exist. However, as we grow up these artistic activities are replaced with academic assignments and each year I find it increasingly difficult to find windows to create and explore art in conjunction with my ever-increasing workload.

Witnessing a pandemic while being a student, with deadlines approaching and assignments piling up, can make me wish for an opportunity to truly slow down. In times like these, when normality seems to be something of the past, moving further away as if in a rear-view mirror, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be difficult to reflect when anxiety lingers – like the constant hum of TV static, or a bright light you can’t find the switch for.

While in my first year at university I took part in a creative arts course for medical students, exploring the convergence of art and reflective practices in healthcare. Over the two weeks we were immersed into myriad dynamic and mindful activities such as acting, poetry, sculpting and even dancing, while dissecting a range of themes from wellbeing as a student to the doctor–patient relationship.

I found that creative enquiry is not about one’s artistic ability but rather providing me with unique tools to express myself. I discovered the healing nature of the creative process and the potential to feel heard and understood and explore uncharted feelings.

In one session we entered the room to see a table overflowing with arts and crafts supplies. Almost instantly, amid all the materials, a packet of clay caught my eye. I began to mould the crumbly clay. As it warmed in my hands it became easier to manipulate and without consciously deciding to do so, I began to sculpt a person sitting on the floor. It was rough and unbalanced, but in some ways it was a self-portrait. I bent paper clips, small golden split pins and wire into a structure for my small person and soon a strong skeleton supported its thin arms and delicate neck. I was focusing only on myself and what I was creating. In the serene silence of the room there was only the sound of paper ripping, scissors cutting and pens scratching, people busy at work, each consumed by what they were creating, in a state of flow.

Now more than ever I try to give myself time to focus on myself. Creating art without the intention of making something beautiful is a practice I’ve started to incorporate into my life. Simply filling a blank piece of paper with whatever thoughts bubble up to the top of my head or painting without obsessing over details like I often do with my other work or assignments.

I have always loved the imagery associated with fish; tranquil sounds of trickling water, sunlight flickering on the foam, the vivid colours of their scales – so calm yet vibrant against their dark green environment. Peacefully doing laps in the shallow water, unaware of life outside the pond. Over the summer I made Shallow Pond, depicting a collection of monochromatic koi fish swimming down the page, just beneath the water’s surface, their bodies distorted. They glide as dark, murky water swirls around them, froth effervescing up to the surface, and ripples fanning outwards. I used photographs of Koi fish as a reference, and at times translating colour images into black and white was complex, but I was committed to persevere. In some ways the subject is unidentifiable, everyone I have shown this to sees something completely different at first. The whole image is made of tiny individually coloured segments. I outlined each area of light or dark like a puzzle piece. It essentially became my own paint-by-numbers. Every so often it was difficult to decide how to differentiate details and portray depth with such a limited scale of shades, but although this was time-consuming it was gratifying to see what I had envisioned come to life. While making this, I went through bursts of energy where my sole focus was on the piece, followed by lulls where the fish lay untouched for weeks, (the three progress pictures show the evolution of this work – top opposite.)

Quiet reflection can do wonders. Above all, making art gave me peaceful and necessary breaks between studies and other stresses. Creative enquiry allows me to rediscover some of the innocent, child-like qualities we so easily lose as we move through life.