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Laurie Nouchka: The Creative Process as a Tool for Insight

My guest for the first blog post of the year is visual artist, yoga practitioner and body worker Laurie Nouchka.

Laurie grew up in Suffolk, East Anglia, as a child and was heavily influenced by her father, who is an accomplished painter. She spent a lot of time in her father’s studio, surrounded by his work. With a practical mind-set, Laurie went on to study creative advertising, with the view to become an art director in advertising. She soon realised that this industry wasn’t for her, although the work was interesting as a creative process to develop lateral thinking and bold ideas.

Fast forward many years, Laurie worked at the Roundhouse in London as a youth arts producer, supporting young artists who were interested in all sorts of art practices, such as music, production, dance, and circus. After eight years, Laurie took a sabbatical to travel to Australia and Europe, rediscovering her creative voice. This led to embarking on multiple residency projects, and completing her Yoga Teacher Training.

Laurie is now based in Hackney in East London, where she values the strong community of the people who live there. Laurie teaches “Drawing from Life as a Tool for Insight” classes, currently being held online, and is the co-founder of Walls On Walls, an audio, visual, structural and movement based project that uses creative methods to unearth the stories and voices of existing communities.

This article feels like a small, fascinating peek into Laurie’s multi-layered creative practice that she uses as a tool for insight. Continually learning from the great teachers of our world, Laurie shares her current must-read book list. Read through to the end to find out which books are in her reading pile!

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I primarily work from home, which is also my studio. Unlike a lot of people, I really enjoy working at home and thrive in having everything in one place and not having distractions. When the first lockdown happened, I was already very much in that groove, but I have been doing this for ten years now!

The nature of my practice right now is not necessarily about making things: it’s more about thinking, writing, coming up with ideas, and then nurturing those ideas. Often I will go for long walks or swims, for example, and this is where my ideas become really clear and solidify. My home is my sanctuary, a place to put the ideas into some sort of form. Equally, I find ideas can spark in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

Despite the seeming disparity in my practices, they all thread together in my mind and in my experience. That thread is several fold. Firstly, it’s about immersing myself either in a place, or in a theme of some sort. The majority of my work is generally to do with the body in the broadest sense, or buildings and architecture. When it comes to architecture, historically I would have spent time drawing buildings. I don’t do this so much anymore as I now think more about how human bodies become so integral to buildings, and how the buildings can then become alive and of relevance. Then conversely with the body, there is a process of drawing down on themes that I’m primarily reading about. My space is literally covered in piles and piles and piles of books! I’m invested in learning from all of the great teachers at the moment.

This hasn’t always been the case. Certainly when I was really immersed in my clothing collections, my practice was much more about being in the cities: drawing, absorbing the energies of these cities, meeting the people, and allowing this to inform the designs. Now with my drawing sessions, on the one hand it’s about learning through reading, listening to podcasts, and teachings from other practitioners; but on the other, particularly when teaching online, it’s about getting to the heart of a thread or journey that I can take people on. Often this is based on a lot of the feedback I receive. At the end of each session, I ask people to share their experiences, and off the back of that, I consider what might be relevant for us to explore. This practice is always evolving, but right now it is heavily involved with reading, listening, and finding my own voice through that to translate a message.

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

I feel I can only answer this with regard to what is happening right now, and therefore my current inspiration is about how all these different aspects that make up my practice is a conduit to insight. I continually look at buildings and I see bodies, and how the buildings’ structures and formations only really come alive when there are people and life in them. Yet at the same time, the yoga scriptures really highlight that the body is only temporary, as of course are buildings. My real focus is on insight on a personal level, and how that connects you deeper to yourself, to others, and the world around you. Ultimately, if the ancient teachings are anything to go by, this will lead us to freedom, wholeness and a greater sense of union. Rather than this separation from our individual experiences, or particularly with the current state of the world where views are so often heavily polarised, we can recognise that actually everything is interconnected. This focus is particularly apparent in my teachings, both in my online drawing sessions and in my yoga classes. My encouragement is to continually support people to come back to the present and allow whatever is being felt to be felt, recognising that nothing is in isolation, it is all connected.

"My real focus is on insight on a personal level, and how that connects you deeper to yourself, to others, and the world around you. Ultimately, if the ancient teachings are anything to go by, this will lead us to freedom, wholeness and a greater sense of union."

What are you working on at the moment?

I think it’s in my nature to always be working on many things at once! At first I found this quite challenging because it’s hard to feel as though you are giving everything to everything if you are spinning all these different plates. I have found peace in this now as I recognise that I couldn’t be one thing without another – again, they are all interconnected.

The main thing I’m currently working on is my drawing from life classes and developing this concept in terms of delivery. When I’m delivering these online sessions, I’m working out how I can enable greater insight for participants through various different means. I’m now developing this further to take the concept to communities who otherwise wouldn’t have access to this kind of work, which ties in with the work I do as part of Walls On Walls.

With Walls On Walls, we have historically worked with a lot of housing estates around Camden. To merge the two areas of my work, I am once again partnering up with Camden Council to support the delivery of Drawing from Life, especially post-Covid, to those who are isolated. We are hoping to take the project to the nominated estates over Spring and Summer 2021 to run the sessions at a distance outdoors. To further develop the idea, I previously worked with a choreographer, and I would like to bring them in to this next phase to support residents to find ways to move in response to their environment, and then discover ways in which we can draw in response, collectively finding a sense of community. I’m really excited about this as it’s a new element to the process! The idea came about as it dawned on me that in my online drawing classes, a lot of the dancers I work with, who are also life models, deliberately move a lot during the sessions. People always comment on how freeing that is when the model is moving. I find this interesting and I think it would be wonderful to find this freedom on both sides of the viewpoint: the participants also as the movers as well as the drawers.

Alongside this, myself and the other two Co-Directors of Walls On Walls are spending time developing a five to ten year plan. We recently recruited a new co-director who was a participant for many years. It’s really exciting to have this new development happening!

In terms of the project itself, the art work that comes out of a Walls On Walls project is designed and created by the residents. We respond to whatever the residents bring to the fore. It’s really evolving now in that we are no longer just doing walls. We are now bringing in many different practitioners, from movement practices, to architecture, to 3D work, and this gives the residents a broad range of artistic mediums to work with to generate ideas, and then collectively decide what it is that they want to do with these ideas. This might be a wall or something completely different. This goes back to the idea of emphasising the process rather than the outcome, and giving agency to the participants, rather than the result being pre-determined.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

This question jumps out at me and feels quite loud. Historically, I have always referenced this term “sense of place” in my work. I haven’t used this phrase in a while and I wonder if I have moved beyond this idea? To me, sense of place relates to identity. For example, when I’m working on the estates for Walls On Walls, one of the reasons why we wanted to help residents create these pieces was to get people to take ownership of the place and create a deeper sense of connection with it. This intertwines with sense of place: this idea of being part of something, which as a human being is fundamentally important.

There’s a danger that is explored within yoga philosophy, which suggests that becoming attached to your identity, your ego, is at the detriment of your true self. We give ourselves labels, such as “I am a painter,” “I am a mother,” “I am someone’s daughter…” These are all factual things but they are not really who you are; they are archetypes that you present yourself as.

Ultimately, I’m now interested in exploring the question: how do we get to a place where we no longer need to identify with anything? Instead, we recognise that we are everything and we don’t need to put labels on things. In that sense, when I walk down the street, whether I know the place or not, whether I live there or not, I still feel connected to it. In my experience so far, this can only be done by transcending all those identities, and being present with who you are and where you are at. Sense of place has taken on a very different meaning for me in recent times. It’s no longer about finding a connection to a specific identity; it’s about maintaining the connection to the present moment or the present place.

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

We are nature. I don’t distinguish between the natural world and myself. The natural world is the most important thing and we are it. It’s very easy when you are living in an urban environment to think that you are not connected to nature. Very early on in the first lockdown, I remember my meditation teacher saying, “Look out of your window. See that building over there made of concrete? That’s nature. It’s not something that has been conjured out of nowhere, it started off as sand.” It’s about how you shift your perspective.

During the last Walls On Walls project we did, there was a huge amount of dialogue and discourse around an area of woods that was essentially being closed off to the residents over health and safety concerns. Through the process of engaging with the participants, it became more and more evident that they wanted to establish this area as a place for people to regularly visit. Through the project we started to explore what it meant to people, through sound, movement and visual exploration. More than anything, this work starts a dialogue and a re-engagement with things that are actually important. As the project develops, I hope to bring in more of the yogic philosophy into the general field of awareness. Within that, we are nature, in that sense there is no separation between us and the woodland. That sense of separation is something we have entirely created.

"We are nature. I don’t distinguish between the natural world and myself. The natural world is the most important thing and we are it."

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

I’m a cold-water swimmer and I swim all year round in lidos or ponds, and I make it a regular occurrence to swim in the sea. I became interested in it as there are a lot of breathing techniques associated with cold-water swimming, and I do a lot of breath work in my yoga practice. I swear by cold-water swimming. I think it’s the most healing thing. There is nowhere else you can be other than there in the water. It’s very present-inducing.

I think it’s that elemental force of being in the water, floating, or being caught in a rainstorm, or staring at a glorious sunset, where you really feel stalled by nature. It’s awe-inspiring, pure joy, total connection. Nature is the most important thing: we are it. In experiencing and realising this, we then start to see or experience our own true nature.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

There are so many, I don’t know where to begin… A lot of the artists I’m currently pouring over are those who really bring the theme of insight into their work:

Kae Tempest is extraordinary. They are a lyricist, spoken word artist, musician, and in general, an incredible, wise soul.

I find Anthony Gormley absolutely fascinating. He was either going to become an artist or a monk, so he has a very interesting view on the world and himself. He uses the body as a subject for his work.

One of my other favourite artists is the dancer and choreographer Hofesh Schechter. I saw him do a talk at the Royal Academy about a year or so ago, and not only are his performances so raw and visceral, but when he speaks, he is incredible. He is very articulate and deeply connected with the process of creation.

Ram Dass is another, and although this moves into the spiritual realm, he is a very creative soul in my mind.

In terms of the visual arts, I think Tracy Emin’s drawings and paintings are amazing. Again, she is very articulate and insightful – her drawings are so raw.

Grayson Perry is another whose work I’m a huge fan of. Through his lens, he looks at himself, but also the world, and people and their different characters. I mean I could go on...

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

Keep your eyes really wide open, and don’t feel as though life has to be a linear path. The path is a really wiggly one and intentionally so. Embrace and trust this. As I have mentioned, I was a youth arts producer, and now I’m teaching dynamic drawing sessions as a tool for insight, as well as co-creating community based art works. I’m also a yoga teacher and trained in massage. We live in a world now where you no longer pick up a job when you are 21 and stay in it for life. Embrace this sense of freedom the world is offering us.

Equally as a creative, honour the constant changes in the ways you want to respond to yourself and the world. Don’t feel as though you need to stick to one thing. Keep evolving as the evolution of your practice is really important. Even if it doesn’t look like it is to the outside world, make sure you keep on checking in on that with yourself. This can be done in a very practical way – keep being interested in all sorts of things, and then eventually you start to find the things that are really loud for you. These things stay with you and you potentially follow them through for life.

Don’t be so concerned with what the outcome is. I think that this can hold people back as they are concerned that the outcome won’t be what they think it should be or what they seemingly want it to be. Life only really presents itself when you put challenges in front of yourself intentionally, and then you get out of the way and allow things to unfold. Keep your attention on now.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

Right now, it is that creativity is the opportunity to gain insight to yourself and the world around you. In my mind, it isn’t about creating something original or surprising, or something that has some sort of value that is seemingly attached to it from an external source. It’s about really listening to yourself. Creativity is the tool for this process, without concern for the end result.

Laurie’s Book List:

I have a very varied reading list, although it’s primarily made up of yoga philosophy books and spiritual texts. Sadly, I don’t tend to read fiction anymore, however I’m very invested in insightful teachings, methods and practices. This is the pile of books currently in front of me:

1. The Upanishads [late Vedic Sanskrit texts]

2. Life Lessons of a Brain Surgeon by Dr Rahul Jandial – this is a super interesting book.

3. Consolations, a poetry book by David Whyte.

4. Be Here Now by Ram Dass – an incredible book.

5. A Garland of Forest Flowers by Swami Nirmalananda – this is the book I have open in front of me right now and I refer to this book a lot.

6. On Connection by Kae Tempest – this is my favourite book of the past year and I would really recommend it!

Check out Laurie's work on her website and on Instagram @laurienouchka

For more information about Walls On Walls, go to the website and find them on Instagram @wallsonwalls

Images 1, 3, 4, 5: George Ellis

Image 2: Lottie Hampson

Image 6: Sarah Talhouni

Images 7, 8, 9: Artist's Own


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