Art as Meditation: Talking to Hamilton House artist Emma Burleigh

Next month, our Wellbeing Rooms are hosting The Art of Wellbeing, a one-day exhibition of prints, illustrations and paintings. I got in touch over email with Emma Burleigh, one of the three artists taking part, to get her perspective on the power of art.

Emma Burleigh, ‘Receiving Light’.

What inspired you to get involved in this exhibition and why do you think it’s important to hold an event like this right now?

Well, so many reasons… I would say that in my own art practice and also in my art teaching at Hamilton House, I am always exploring the question of how can art support well-being. For me, at best, art is a ‘way of knowing’ — a means to leading a more contemplative and imaginative life, which is ultimately going to open up a freer, happier and more meaningful experience of being alive.

Hamilton House itself is all about celebrating and nurturing creativity and envisioning the better, more co-operative and caring world that we know is possible; fostering happier relationships with ourselves, each other and the environment. So I want to support that, especially at this difficult time with the uncertainty about the future. And the beautiful thing is it goes both ways: Hamilton House supports me, and I do what I can to support it. Same for everyone involved in this fantastic, inspiring place.

Could you talk a bit about your own artistic practice and how you go about developing ideas for individual works of art?

Sure. I sometimes start with exploring a feeling in my body or an image from a dream that I’m curious or uncomfortable about and want to investigate. Sometimes I just have an urge to play with a particular colour and I take it from there. Sometimes I have a more specific topic or place I want to paint, such as ‘allotments’, or I have a commission on a theme someone’s asked me to do, and in that case I’ll go out with my sketchbook and make a lot of quick visual notes on the subject until some ideas start to form. I also ‘study’ (steal ideas from) artwork by artists from the past a lot. I find composition a challenge so I often look at how others did it, from Turner to medieval miniatures, and I get a lot of inspiration for colour and atmosphere from being in nature.

Emma Burleigh — ‘Owl, Pigeon & Robin’.

You, Rosanna Tasker and Kate Leney all specialise in different art forms. Had you worked together before? What kind of perspective on wellbeing do you think the other two artists offer through their work?

Gosh, I feel reluctant to speak for them, and no I haven’t worked with them before, but I really love their work and it certainly gives me a feeling of wellbeing when I look at it. When I first saw Kate’s large pieces I felt a kind of awe for the power and depth of nature, and Rosanna’s work, well, I think she’s a superb artist with an amazing sense of humour, colour, form. Some of my favourite pieces by her bring up a sort of mysterious, calm, dreamlike feeling for me. There’s so much to contemplate in her work, you could look at it for ages and keep finding new things.

Rosanna Tasker — ‘Promoting Peace’, from the Hamilton House F(l)ight exhibition.

What do you see as the relationship between art, creativity and wellbeing?

In short, it’s a very strong and potentially very fruitful relationship. But like anything you can also abuse art and make it all about getting commercial success, fame and status. Sometimes I get trapped in that idea but eventually I reconnect with myself and realise that I do art because it helps me to explore and express what’s going on for me. In that way it’s kind of like doing meditation but with the added bonus that I can share some of the images that come from that process with others.

What do you perceive as the greatest obstacles to our wellbeing on a societal level?

Cripes, that’s a deep question! But then again, I just came back from 3 weeks silent meditation retreat and it’s not like that question doesn’t arise when you have time on your hands! I’ve been reading books by Buddhist social activists Joanna Macy and David Loy which I’d throughly recommend — they make clear the links between personal, societal and environmental wellbeing: you can’t have one without the others — we’re not separate from each other and we’re not separate from the earth which is our home either.

On a very fundamental level the Buddhist attitude as I understand it is that the root causes of suffering at all levels are “greed, hatred and delusion”: we’re confused about what will actually make us feel happy. If we feel wellbeing in ourselves we won’t need to self-hate, feel threatened by other people or believe we need to buy more plastic crap from China at the expense of the planet. And the cure is cultivating compassion and awareness of self and others, and doing what we can to ease suffering — compassionate social action hand-in-hand with self-care.

Kate Leney, Loch Na Guline Dubha colour reduction woodcut with linocut key block 40x80cm.

The Art of Wellbeing, which will feature the work of Emma Burleigh, Rosanna Tasker & Kate Leney, takes place on 13 September. Originals, prints and gift cards will be on sale and a percentage of profits from the work sold will go towards supporting the Wellbeing rooms’ outreach work.

For a chance to explore the Hamilton House artists’ studios, make you don’t miss our Open Day on 30 September.

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