‘Friends in the frame’ is a highly personal multimedia work – celebrating some of my closest friends, through ‘portraiture’ in three media: film, visual art and writing. This website includes the portraits, writing and film interview highlights for each friend; plus the complete film - a compilation of all the friends' interviews. You can also buy the full colour book of 'Friends in the frame'. And there are details about the exhibition taking place at Goldsmiths College in London on Friday 26 October to Saturday 3 November 2018.
On this page below, there's some background about how the project came about and was made, along with some philosophical and spiritual reflections on a range of related themes emerging from the work: the nature of friendship, the essence of selfhood, meaning and purpose, and the components of the ‘good life’.
How Friends in the frame came about
Let’s provide some context first, with a very brief history of my relationship to art, and my own artistic practice. As a boy I was far too restless and sporty to sit still for long enough to do artwork. I was also quite academic, so I was pigeon-holed both by myself and others as ‘non-arty’. In hindsight, I see now that I was always deeply interested in aesthetics – in colour, shape and composition – from a young age I spent a lot of time and energy making my room look good to me (quite obsessively, in fact). When I first owned a house in my late twenties, this interest in interior décor really took off – I loved getting things looking beautiful to my eye in every room. It was, in its own way, a creative practice; it’s just that I didn’t think of it like that then. The desire to beautify my surroundings spread into the garden, so much so that I ended up constructing a totem pole to cover up the unsightly metal pole that the washing line connected to!
I’d also taken more of a conscious interest in the work of great artists – going to galleries and exhibitions more. Then for my birthday one year in my late twenties, my sister bought me the amazing book, 'Drawing on the right side of the brain', which teaches you to draw what you actually see (right brain), not what your conceptual mind tells you is there (left brain). The method works well – my drawings went from being terrible to passable. More importantly, it gave me a taste of the pleasurable states of mind that can be accessed when drawing. After lots of monochrome drawing, I moved into colour, and then into paint. I experimented with the materials, and with subject matter, ranging from still life to landscapes and abstract.
I enjoyed dabbling in art in this way for about 10 years, but eventually I felt stale with it – my creative practice was piecemeal and stop-start ; it lacked direction, motivation and purpose. I also struggled with self-judgement – often I felt that what I produced wasn’t very ‘good’. Yet I knew that engaging my creative energies more could bring much pleasure and fulfilment. I needed to get out of a rut. So I arranged a session with a creative coach. This helped me see that I needed a clearly defined project, rather than just a vague, generalised wish to be more creative. I needed a container into which I could channel those creative energies. I needed a theme.
Through my coach’s skilful questions, it became clear that what interests me most is people and what makes them tick. That’s no surprise, really, as my professional work as a life coach and mindfulness teacher is about working with people and their minds. But I hadn’t thought of making people the focus of my creative work.
So, once it was clear that my creative project could be about people, the next question was who, exactly? After floundering on this for a bit, it then occurred to me that it could be people I already know – my friends. Who better to put in the spotlight of attention than some of the people you care most about in your life?
The other struggle I’d been having with creative practice was to do with media. I had varying degrees of experience and interest in several forms – drawing and painting, writing and also a tiny bit of film-making. I thought I should be focusing on just one form. I then realised I could incorporate all of them in a single project. After all, this was going to be my project, so I could do what I wanted! Once all this was clear, the format and process for the project rapidly presented itself to me – it would include film, drawing/painting and writing. Friends in the frame was born.
Friends in the frame – subject and form
'Friends in the frame' is a very personal piece of work, as a celebration of some of my closest friends. Its form is portraiture, in three different media: film, visual art and writing. I chose the subject for this work – my friends – simply because they are extremely important to me, and have been throughout my life. More on this shortly.
I chose portraiture as the form, as it’s most obviously suited to the subject matter of people, but also because I’ve always loved it. To me, portraits are deeply captivating works of art, which capture something of their subjects as they appear to the artist in that moment. Portraits can’t capture everything about them or their history; after all, we are all constantly changing: the ‘me’ of today may seem – both to myself and others – substantially different to the ‘me’ of 10, 20 or 30 years ago. At the same time, there can seem to be an element of self-hood and individuality that persists through all these changes. Many branches of philosophy, psychology or spirituality may show us that a fixed self is ultimately an illusion. But it’s a very compelling illusion in our lived experience, and is worthy of artistic study and representation. And while portraits are – in one sense – only ever a snapshot in time, they sometimes seem to capture the experience we have of an enduring essence in a person. Going even further, perhaps they can capture something universal about human nature and motivation.
Such reflections were somewhere at the back of my mind when I embarked on this project. So, on the one hand, I wanted simply to try to represent my friends as they came across to me in the moment of their interviews. I was interested in how each person responded to the same set of questions, and wanted to depict this rather than everything that I know or could be said about each person. The choice of questions (see next section) was designed to do just that – elicit their thoughts and feelings on some of the big questions about life and themselves, rather than getting them to tell their whole life stories.
Then, on the other hand, I was open to drawing out and representing aspects of my subjects’ characters and personalities which might be seen as who they really are – their essential selves (whatever that might mean). Leaving aside the perils of trying to do this, there’s an important qualification I should make here: it’s about capturing who my friends really are … in my own experience, in the ways they seem to me personally. The point here is that I already know my friends well. Most portraits are made by artists who don’t know their subjects, and so might therefore be seen as ‘truer’, more objective representations-in-the-moment – as the artist isn’t influenced by personal experience. My portraits are, by contrast, extremely personal and subjective.
This subjective, even ‘biased’ representation of my friends is an extremely important element of Friends in the frame. The portraits are not forensic or critical studies. Rather, as I said above, they are celebrations. So I intend unashamedly to show my friends in the best possible light – without, I hope, slipping into the sycophantic, saccharine or untrue (though I suppose they should be the judges of that!). This was a conscious choice, reflecting the importance of my friends and friendship in general.
I’ve been lucky to have made good friends quite easily over the years. When I think back over my life, I couldn’t imagine it without friendship. Ultimately, perhaps its significance for me has been about connection and continuity – my friends are people who are consistently there for me throughout whatever I experience in life. So, in times of difficulty they have been great supports – comforting me, encouraging me and helping me to appreciate things in myself. And during good times we’ve shared many enriching experiences together – whether that’s a good conversation, a trip to the cinema, a fine meal, or simply mucking about and laughing. With a good friend I feel I can be myself – without hiding, pretence or effort – and be appreciated for who I am. It’s one of the most affirming things one can experience in life. And so it’s worth celebrating.
In making these portraits as celebrations of my friends, I’m strongly influenced by Buddhism. Friendship is seen as vital in Buddhism, and ‘rejoicing in merits’ – describing the qualities you appreciate in someone – is a formal way to practise it. I spent several years living and working at the London Buddhist Centre – and I made many good friends there. I don’t necessarily identify as a Buddhist now, but many of those friendships have continued. I still find myself wanting to rejoice in the merits of others, and Friends in the frame could be seen as an extended practice in it.
‘Rejoicing in merits’ can have a very positive effect on the mind – perhaps as much as meditation – because reflecting deeply on someone’s qualities and articulating them tends to amplify them, without denying those aspects of their personality that you find more challenging. Indeed, it makes those challenging parts easier to understand and forgive. And more generally, it cultivates an appreciative awareness of other people you come across in life.
I feel that precisely this has happened in the making of Friends in the frame. In fact, it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. It’s enabled me to get to know and understand my friends so much better. In poring over and editing hours of film footage of my friends, or making their portraits, or writing about them, it’s like I’ve been spending time with them in their absence. And in the process, I feel like I’ve really seen them – perhaps including something of their ‘essential selves’ (even if such a concept is a philosophical/psychological/spiritual fallacy!)
How I made Friends in the frame
I filmed interviews with 15 close friends, asking them a range of questions about themselves and their lives (see the next section). I edited the films into highlights for each interviewee, and then compiled these into one longer film (go to: friendsintheframe.com). In order to keep the film down to a reasonable length, it doesn’t include everyone’s answers to every question, but the vast majority of answers are there.
I also made a portrait of each person, representing in the background themes or symbols corresponding to things they’d said in their interviews that struck me as particularly significant or interesting about them, and that I could somehow represent visually. Lastly, for this book I wrote a personal tribute for each person – which accompanies their portrait, together with some still photos (screenshots from the filmed interviews). The writing also attempts to make sense some of what’s going on in the background of their portraits. Quotes from the interviews are also woven into the text.
The portraits are ‘digital’ – they were made on my beloved computer, a Microsoft Surface Pro, which has a touchscreen that responds to the pressure applied with the accompanying stylus. So, using certain software programmes (I use Sketchbook Pro), you can set up ‘brushes’ and ‘pencils’ that produce a thicker line the more pressure you apply. In my experience – after practice – it closely mimics the experience of drawing or painting. This technology is a more sophisticated version of what can be done on an iPad. It was David Hockney’s wonderful iPad work that first inspired me to investigate this technique. In my mind, it is a genuine medium in itself. I quite like gadgets, and I’m fascinated by the way that technology influences art and vice versa. I also love the portability of this method – it’s like I can take a studio with me in my rucksack.
The making of this whole piece of work – filming and editing the interviews, making the portraits and writing commentaries – took place over several years (2014-2017). As a result, I should point out that the circumstances of some of my subjects changed during that time, so that their answers and my representation of them may feel a bit out-of-date to them or those who know them. Of course, this would always be the case eventually, whenever the works were produced – it’s in the very nature of portraiture that it captures something of someone in a particular moment in time. Life then moves on, things change and people change. This is just how things are.
The film interview questions
I asked each of the 15 friends the same set of questions, with a few small variations. These questions were designed, as described above, to draw out my friends’ thoughts and feelings about life and themselves. Some of these were quite ‘big picture’ questions. These were interspersed with some ‘lighter’ topics – like one’s favourite food, film or piece of music – though it was interesting to see what came through of people in their answers to these seemingly more mundane questions. As one friend Akāshamitra posited, the ‘themness’ of each of my subjects perhaps just comes through, regardless of the particular choice of questions or even the answers given. I agree with him – somehow we can’t but help each showing up as who we are, regardless of what we say or our particular life experiences. Nonetheless, the choice of questions and answers given revealed something of interest – so for the record, here is the list of questions:
· What matters most to you in life?
· What’s your favourite colour?
· What makes you come alive?
· What’s your favourite film?
· Do you believe in a higher power?
· What makes you you?
· What’s your favourite piece of music?
· How do you spend your free time?
· Who are your heroes?
· What do you find easy in life?
· What’s your favourite food?
· What moments from history most fascinate you?
· What do you find difficult in life?
· What’s your favourite novel?
· What in your life so far are you proudest of?
· What do you hope life still has in store for you?
· Anything else you want to say?
Emerging themes and discoveries
I don’t much like being told what I should think or feel about a piece art before I’ve actually encountered it myself. Hearing someone else’s assessment – about whether the artwork is ‘good’, what its meaning might be or what one can learn from it – can detract from the initial, raw experience of what’s in front of me, be that a painting, film or piece of writing or music. It can prevent me from having my own unique, unfiltered response. It’s not that I don’t appreciate art criticism – I just prefer to hear it after the event. So I’m very reluctant to fall into the same trap here of making observations about my friends’ answers to my questions, or the wider significance of them. However, I can’t but help say something about recurring themes or commonalities I noticed in my friends’ answers – particularly to some of the bigger questions about life, like ‘What matters most to you?’ or ‘What are you proudest of?’. Perhaps this is no great surprise: after all, the subjects of Friends in the frame are a very select group – my friends – and not a cross-section of society. Being my friends it’s natural that they would, to some extent, share many of my values and interests.
So I offer these observations lightly, and if you share my feelings about the dangers of being told about a piece of art before encountering it, feel free to skip the rest of this section until you’ve looked at the portraits, writing and films. With those qualifications in mind … here goes …
What struck me as most significant and revealing was how my friends answered the first big question ‘What matters most to you?’ Without exception, everyone’s answer included people and connection – namely, friends and family, and beyond. And for the vast majority this was, without hesitation, at the very top of the list. This aspect also featured very often in people’s answers to other big questions, like ‘What makes you come alive?’ and ‘What do you hope life still has in store for you?’ Closely allied to this is many of my friends’ pure and simple love of playfulness and laughter (very often, by definition, involving other people).
There were three other striking themes in people’s answers to some of these bigger questions. First, the importance of living in accordance with a set of values. There is much overlap in these values among my friends, but again perhaps that’s not particularly surprising – given that, as friends, we are somewhat ‘like-minded’. What I find more interesting is the central role in life that these clearly-defined values play – they seem to give people a sense of direction and purpose, an ideal which they can attempt to live up to.
Secondly, what seems to matter greatly to all my friends – and gives life meaning, vitality, inspiration and pleasure – is learning and developing the mind: intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. This happens in a number of ways, such as academic study, spiritual practice, engaging with culture (books, music, theatre, etc.) and travel.
A third theme is the essential significance of being able to express oneself as fully as possible. Such self-expression takes many different forms: through the body (exercise, movement, dance, etc.), through creativity (making art or music, writing, etc.) and through people’s work and careers, particularly where that feels vocational.
Closely connected to this is a common desire among my friends to make the most of themselves – to fulfil their potential. Very often it seems that this is about consciously completing processes that have been started (consciously or not), and this can manifest in all sorts of ways: getting further in one’s career, mastering a skill, starting a family or relationship, or just living more simply and peacefully.
So, at risk now of straying into the dangerous territory of drawing broad-sweeping conclusions, let me just offer this. It seems that when we strip things down to bare essentials (at least when it come to my friends, but perhaps more widely), ‘the good life’ consists of three main things: strong connections with other people; living according to a set of guiding values; and having the opportunity to learn, express and develop oneself, and so to fulfil one’s potential. Make of all that what you will!
There are two other elements of my friends’ answers to my questions that struck me as noteworthy.
First, it seems that almost all my friends are ‘spiritual’. Once again, this is not surprising in itself – as a spiritual soul, I am drawn to others who are also. But what’s particularly interesting is that I include in this definition some friends who don’t really self-define as spiritual. To be clear, by ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean ‘religious’ (though some of my friends would define themselves this way). Rather what I’m talking about is the principle of transcendence – some sense of there being positive, meaningful forces at play in our universe that go beyond our ordinary human understanding and capacities. Some people give to this principle the name of God (to which they may also attribute creating or controlling powers), some call it ‘the universe’, and others have no name for it.
I’m mentioning all of this because it surprised me to hear some of my atheist/agnostic/rationalist friends – in answer to the question ‘Do you believe in a higher power?’ – speak about some kind of universal energy or wisdom that we can tap into, or a sense of things happening for reasons that we may not understand but that we do ultimately submit to.
Allowing myself again briefly to make some universal observations – I wonder how many people this might apply to in the world, particularly in the modern West: people who have no inclination towards religion or spiritual practices, and who subscribe wholly to a rationalist, scientific view of the world. How many of them, when invited to reflect more deeply on their experience and beliefs, would find themselves naturally attributing the cause and meaning of events to some kind of universal, transcendent principles which science and reason cannot account for?
A second element worthy of comment is how the question ‘Who are your heroes/heroines?’ was answered. There are two emerging themes. First, and perhaps the most striking, is courage: many of my friends most admire people who take a stand for something (or against something) at considerable personal risk. As one friend Lorna put it, these are ‘people who are prepared to stand up and put their head above the parapet rather than going with the flow.’ Drawing together other people’s answers, it seems that a true hero is someone who has the courage, commitment and determination to challenge established opinions and norms, in pursuit of a vision rooted in deep moral conviction.
Secondly, there’s the everyday hero. Several friends made exactly the same point: a true hero doesn’t necessarily need to be a great and renowned figure from history – those who have achieved public recognition for their accomplishments. There are many people in the world who, through no fault of their own, have to contend with very challenging circumstances in their daily lives, such as illness, disability, tragedy and loss, and poverty – but do so with great dignity and strength. Such people can be as much an inspiration – indeed, for some, even more so – than the celebrated names from history or the present day.
I find these two elements of my friends’ answers to the hero question both inspiring and deeply perceptive. It also links, in my mind, to how several friends answered the question ‘What in your life so far are you proudest of?’ Rather than this being achievements in work or their personal life, they spoke about how they had recovered from setbacks and overcome adversity. In essence, this boils down to their ability to work creatively and courageously with their own minds, to change themselves and their experience of the world from deep within.
This leads me to wonder, as a parting thought in these musings, if the highest prize of all for human beings might always ultimately be connected to the life of the mind, and our ability to master ourselves. I just wonder …
And finally, my thanks to …
I’d like to finish by saying a very big thank you to all my friends who kindly agreed to be subjects for this creative project. I know that for some this wasn’t an entirely easy or comfortable experience. Ironically, I think I would have found it tough being a subject myself! So I’m particularly grateful to them for having the courage to be put in the spotlight. I’m also grateful for how open everyone was in their answers – and willing to dig deep to find authentic responses to some quite challenging and soul-searching questions. Most importantly, I’m grateful to all my friends – not only those featured in this book, but also those who chose not to be included here, and other friends from the past that I’ve not stayed in contact with, and new friends I’ve made since I started this project.. Thank you to all of you for being my friends, and enriching my life in the process.
I’d also like to thank Katie Rose, the creative coach mentioned in this introduction for a remarkable coaching session during which the idea for this project was born; Barbara Vesey for proofing and editing the copy; and David John for design and layout advice. Other friends provided useful tips along the way, as well as encouragement and motivation to keep this project going. Thank you to you too.