As children, we respond intuitively to situations, and as we develop, we are taught other rules and responses, meaning instinct increasingly takes a back seat. Intellect takes over in order to adopt coping mechanisms. Some scientists argue that our brains have two distinct sides and often opposing dispositions, each responsible for different functions and, therefore, different approaches to how we see and do things. It has been suggested that if we are right-handed, we have a tendency towards a left-brained response; if left-handed, then a right-brain response. Certainly, this school of thought accords with my own experiences.
One of my conceptual art projects researched the unconscious and conscious mind. I distinctly remember talking to my friend in tears of frustration one day, feeling there was a huge piece of the puzzle that I could not see, and without it, I could not grasp the picture. If I had known then that I was aphantasic it would have made so much sense. During my BA, my research led me to create conceptual art relating to the brain, the unconscious mind and sleep. I underwent an EEG (brain scan) as part of this research. Looking back at that time, I was trying to get inside my unconscious head.
I am left-handed (as with roughly 10% of the population); my natural disposition is intuitive, playful and imaginative. I have forced myself to be much more left-brained in my responses, particularly with regard to marshalling and retaining information to cope with situations, especially schooling and working environments. My techniques have enabled me to cope well over the years, but this has been at the expense of inhibiting my more intuitive self.
I recognize two distinct identities within myself and even have different names for them; the ordered, professional, self-conscious one is called Louise, and the creative, free-spirited, uncritical one is Rachel. One of the main motivations for taking time away from my professional healthcare work and embarking on the unknown journey into artistic expression was the need to create a better balance between these two.
I struggled during my fine art degree because I felt the course wanted concepts based on visualization. I could not visualize or create satisfying representational art, which caused me internal stress. I bypassed this problem by focusing on the creation of conceptual art. All these methods entailed working from the outside inward, having a concept, and then finding things to present and illustrate it.
Discovery of My Aphantasia
I started my MFA last year, and within the first few weeks, I found myself even more frustrated and distressed because the sense of ‘wrongness’ that I had all along was now even stronger. During my previous research on sleep and the unconscious mind, I corresponded with Professor Adam Zeman of Exeter College and came across aphantasia for the first time. I realized that this previously unknown condition exactly mirrored my own experiences, but even then, I did not connect that with my frustrations with my art practice.
This connection suddenly hit me during those initial turbulent weeks of my MFA. Very early one morning, when I could not sleep and went down to my home studio in the dark, I started manipulating some clay without bothering to put on a light – without my glasses – and could not see what I was doing. I was almost overwhelmed by the desperate need to produce something tangible, but I didn’t know how to channel it. When it became light, and I could see the form that I had been working on, I was astonished at how it looked and where it had come from. I felt an enormous sense of relief and release.
At this point, the penny dropped, and I realized that my aphantasia was a significant factor in my frustration and inability to express myself. I had suddenly found a simple and uncomplicated instinctive method of expression. Until recently, it was assumed that everybody visualized in the same way. The debate centred around how we interpret what we see. Professor Zeman’s research suggests that our capacity to visualize is fundamental to what we do with certain information, visualization being rather like an internal monologue of pictures instead of words.
“the lack of conscious imagery has multiple implications for artistic practice but none … for the creativity or imaginativeness of the artist. It seems that aphantasia instead can have a more ‘holistic’ effect, influencing one’s self-perception as much as the decisions one makes about how to work. For example, having no ‘plan’ as such you just start making marks and see where they lead …” He goes on to discuss “the diversity of hidden routes to creation.”Adam Zeman
Generally speaking, to produce a piece of artwork, there are three stages involved:
- Stage A – the intention to produce something, some emotion or concept
- Stage B – consideration of how to formulate the idea or concept, either on paper or in some internal visualizing way/preplanning
- Stage C – making the piece of work.
An artist with aphantasia produces work without the stage of advanced planning or the inner mind’s eye. The process is therefore going straight from A-C rather than A-B-C. This is a fundamentally different journey from one made by an artist who plans his/her work in advance and, during the making process, continually assesses their ‘mental picture.’
There is no reason to suppose that aphantasia was any less common than it seems to be now, which means that it is probable that some 3% of all known artists were aphantasic whether they knew it or not.
In my work, I am starting to question ‘visuality’ in fine art and whether this should be at the forefront when approaching a piece of sculptural artwork, either at its inception or as a viewer. If we remove an element of control that stems from our thinking and seeing, does this release a tension in ourselves that is also released in a piece of work?
The discovery of my aphantasia means I can accept my internal struggle and finally understand why. This alone has caused a release of tension which is coming out in my art practice, and this has meant that my intuitive and expressive personality can come to the fore.
Working in the dark reflects how my mind has a dark area. The visualization part of the artistic process does not exist for me, so creating in the dark is a metaphor for my mental processes. Darkness mimics my lack of the mind’s eye and allows me to journey from thought and emotion to manifest work in a tangible form. It is not just aphantasic artists who use this process in their work – many other artists avoid planning. However, even they cannot avoid their mental imagery from arising in the mind’s eye – even if they choose to ignore it.
My work is an instinctive process that pours straight from me directly into the embodied piece. I go straight from feeling through expression to doing; therefore, the work embodies the expression without the ‘visualizing’ stage.
If, for example, I look at a slab of clay before I start working, criteria begin to emerge and constrain me. I create guidelines and expectations within my conscious mind. This overlay of expectation consists of thoughts like ‘how professional, realistic the piece is becoming, how true to the initial idea is it becoming?’ My mind overlays the process continues with assessing and reassessing rather than letting the process unfold in a more natural, purer form. If the work is made without vision, blindfolded/in the dark, I remove some of those preconceived expectations.
Without a mind’s eye, I find that I am drawn to the initial stages of sculpting without seeing at all. It seems to ease my lack of internal vision. I feel that there is peace during this making state – no nagging, pushing and pulling me in other directions. This way of working is becoming key to my practice. There is harmony, hands and brain working together and investigating the material in unison.
After sculpting the embryonic form, I almost meet the piece again but from a different perspective when I see it for the first time. I then work on the piece without changing its form or essence.
I realize that leaving behind my thinking brain is key to my art practice. This needs quiet time and solitude. Getting away from distractions has been very important. I have worked with my blindfold, whether in my studio or outside in the garden. I sometimes put in earplugs – it is as if I want to embrace the space inside my conscious mind that is easier to reach when I cannot see or hear.
I work quickly. It is not something I consider much about at the time; after removing the blindfold, I usually see something fundamental within the piece. I sometimes find myself understanding the pieces long after they are finished.
Being fully behind one’s self is key to the creative flow. If part of us is holding back and anxious, this breeds fear and a lack of confidence. Until we can embrace ourselves as a whole, we are self-limiting, and this creates tension. I am exploring ways of freeing the tension into the sculptural material just as I am learning to release myself from self-imposed protective habits. Relinquishing these is both liberating and bewildering – I am beginning to feel through my art practice that my aphantasia is not a handicap but a blessing.
Knowing my condition has given me a new perspective on my past and future. Side by side with this is the wish to engage and empower others. Aphantasia is very wide-ranging in its effects particularly because it is so often unrecognized. I want to use my art to engage with people about this unusual condition.