Creativity in Perpetual Motion

Lisa Falzon
There is a huge and constant debate over creativity; how some people seem to have an imagination that brings forth countless new ideas whilst others struggle to do anything that is remotely original.  Inevitably the attention of such a discussion turns to children who all seem naturally creative but eventually have that capacity educated out of them.

Whether this is a discussion in which she has been involved before or not, Lisa Falzon puts forward an argument that is very much along those lines when she has to answer question over her development as an artist.

“There was no spark of interest particular to me as if I was born with a special talent - all kids draw,” she states.  “All children draw if given a set of crayons, one of the first thing they figure out is fun to do - after eating them - is using them to leave a mark somewhere. A lot of childhood play is based around make-believe and on-the-fly creativity and role playing.”

She then goes on to turn the tables.  “I just never grew out of this interest in self-expression. Instead of asking me why I draw I should ask you, why did you stop drawing?”

“I think people stop drawing because they get self-conscious. I was always quite indifferent when it came to other people's opinions. I remember the older kids making fun of my drawings in the school van in one particular instance. Maybe if I wasn't so stubbornly self-assured I would have become shy and stopped drawing.”

Quite clearly, for her drawing was a way of bringing her imagination to life.

“It wasn't just making pictures for me it was also making stories, and taping up miniature books, and crafting things out of paper and designing board games and houses out of shoe boxes,” she confirms. “My siblings and I did a lot of arty things. We had a lot of art books around the house and my family encouraged self-expression.” 

Nevertheless it is telling that she’s “always had a problem with structured classes and am really picky about my teachers. Art classes didn't exactly pan out, so I'm largely self-taught.”  One vote in favour of those who argue that the regimented nature of the education system is what stifles creativity.

Whatever the reason, Lisa has grown into one of the most vibrant and visually remarkable Maltese artists.  If you’ve picked up a children’s’ book issued these past few years you’ve probably seen her artwork and, beyond that, she has worked with a number of media outlets all over the world supplying them with illustrations.

For all of that, she is nowhere near as popular and well known as she should be.  Part of the reason for that is what people tend to classify as art.

“I always knew I'd be an artist for a living and was pretty vocal about it but this assertion is not the kind that is usually met with equal confidence by others. While adults around me didn't exactly put me off, they weren't really saying it could be done either.” 

“People who have no real knowledge LOVE to mouth the maxim that artists can only make money after their death because they have this idea that artists are the ones with paintings hanging in the Louvre.  This is absurd when you look around our civilised world and every single thing you see has been designed by someone - who do they assume is designing this stuff?”

“I knew with a certainty I had only one job in this world and that was to be creative. There was no moment of decision or if there was, I made it as a child. Even when I went through the rote-motions of getting a university degree I had no real interest in, I had my own scheme. I always did my own thing one way or the other. I think that's what they'll write on my headstone.”

Lisa’s reference to creativity is not superficial.  Perhaps the most popular body of work that she has done is in the Meluseena series that is very emotionally impactful.  Still she is at pains to point out that this is only a fraction of her portfolio.

“Meluseena is the digital art project I worked on between 2008 and 2016.  It was my most popular work and that which comes up if you google my name. The fact is this is only a fragment of my work, based on a brand I created. Though it's consistent, even this brand has changed its face as the years went by.”

“In actual fact I work in several styles, where each new book and project is entirely different. Some people say they can recognise my work across the board and there may well be something perhaps in the way I draw figures or texture or colour or eyes, that stays the same in every incarnation be it digital or real world or more realistic or less realistic, but if you look just at the last few books I published in Malta you'll see they are each very different.” 

“Comparing 'Mingu' to 'Il-Qtates ta max-Xatt' or even the Irvin Vella books, you will see a large shift in style. For Irvin I even dabble with 'etching' style black and white. A book to be published this year, of collected dramatic pieces for children 'It Tulipan L-Iswed' was digitally created in a chalky, symbolist-era style. A book I am working on right now takes a complete new route and is in watercolour and pencils and collage.”

Even so, she realises that not everyone will see such versatility as a strength.  

“The truth is it's much more desirable to stick to just one style in this world. The artist was always a 'brand' and to make a brand you have to assume a caricature.”

“We know Picasso for his cubist work, and Maxfield Parrish for this paintings of women lolling about on rocks and swings. But the fact is Picasso did a lot of stuff aside from his 'greatest hits' - and Maxfield Parrish only painted 'women on rocks' for a short period of time and spent the last decades of his life focused wholly on landscapes. People want to get the same thing from an artist over and over as if they were a brand - and publishers do too.” 

“I am lucky that I work with little indie publishing houses that trust me as an artist so they let me try out new ideas - because I simply CANNOT stick to one thing. I'll work for other publishers that pay actual wages and will want work in the style of my 'greatest hits' specifically, in order to be able to work on the side in new experimental ways for indie publishers who cannot afford to pay much at all.”

Indeed, for Lisa this desire to move between different styles – and more – is something of an overwhelming condition.

“I look at artists who have been doing the very same thing for several decades now and I am envious of their focus and their peace with staying put and exploring design or ideas within the same style. I just can't do this. The astrological among us would blame my rising Sagittarius…I am restless and continually trying new things and I am pained every time I have to do something in a style that is dead to me,” she says before adding “but I'll do it for the right price!”

“This extends to the rest of my life.  I've moved country four times, you know me as Lisa but I've gone by several sobriquets all my life and no one really calls me that anymore.  However in the art world it is even more so. I also write poetry, I sculpt, I collage, paint queer erotica in acrylics under a different name that looks miles away from anything I've exhibited so far, design patterns for clothing and silversmith-ing, my latest love affair.”

For all of her desire to constantly experiment, Lisa’s replies belie the reality faced by anyone who works on a freelance basis of having to work on projects that people are willing to pay for rather than simple those that they want to do.

This, however, is not always a bad thing.

“At face value I much prefer to work on my own work, if it is a single image. When it comes to bigger projects however - like illustrating a book that I wrote myself - I find that having complete free reign is a hindrance, and that I'll fall into the trap of endlessly changing and revisiting and ultimately deciding I hate it all and throw the whole thing out.” 

“A commissioned bigger project, apart from having the advantage of being paid - and I am above all pragmatic - is that I have someone specific I need to please and this keeps me from going berserk over detail.” 

“I also usually have to challenge myself with things I maybe don't traditionally even think to draw. Like for 'Qtates ta’ max-Xatt' I had to draw heaps of skylines and buildings, and prior to beginning the six month project I hated drawing buildings. I was super daunted. Now, I am somewhat less daunted.” 

“So it's great too. I learn more and there's definitely less angst when you have a publisher mediating between your need to finish and your obsessive self-criticism.”

This is a common theme among artists and creatives who seem to have an internal critic that is far harsher than anyone who actually views their work.  So much that there is a syndrome – the imposter syndrome – that captures this self-doubting mechanism.  Only the most supremely confident can escape the feeling that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks and that the piece they are working on will be the one where the veil falls off, opening them up to ridicule and shame.

“It's really common to lean away from a piece and hate it. This is a ubiquitous feeling amongst artists although I think I have it pretty bad,” Lisa claims

“It is difficult to explain but there are different grades of disliking something I've worked on - there's knowing that something isn't quite right, and this can usually be worked on with techniques like flipping a picture around to see it with 'fresh eyes' in photoshop if its digital; or taking a photo and flipping that if it is a drawing and working till the problem is eased.”

“But the existential 'meh' feeling about work that invariably settles after it is done, that is just something you have to chalk up to having better taste than skills and keep striving for that impossible ideal in the next piece. You kind of have to make peace with the idea that you suck a bit worse than you'd like to.” 

“It's always somewhat consoling when a picture is well received even when I've come to dislike it because then I can tell myself at least, it's bringing people joy. Invariably and annoyingly when I'm the very most pleased with a work, it's always the one least enjoyed and completely overlooked by the populus!” 

“It's like that Aesop's fable with the man, the son and the donkey - don't even try to please anyone else.”

“Fortunately, and most frequently, we just seem to meet in the middle.

What is also fortunate for Lisa is the lack importance that she places on fitting into the traditional image of an artist as being someone whose work is displayed in an art gallery.

“The gallery world is a little elitist so I can't say I miss it. The people who buy art are treasure hunters. Which is okay of course. But I am interested in art consumers. You can consume and react to art on your phone so to speak.” 

“I get just as much joy exhibiting on Instagram.” 

“What I do miss is creating a single item that 'exists'. I've only started missing this recently this year which is why I busted out the pencils, watercolours and physical paint. It took ten years but 'real paint' is making a comeback into my life. I think it's also the zeitgeist right now.”

“Annoyingly my father predicted this would eventually happen!”

This desire to have a tangible product is hardly surprising especially in a world where vinyl is making a comeback as people are no longer happy with just the digital.  That, however, does not mean that people’s dismissal of virtual images has any impact on Lisa.

“In truth I don't care what the general public thinks at all. Alla’hares toqghod fuq general public opinion, specjalment Malta, ma taghmel xejn! (God forbid that you depend on public opinion, especially in Malta [as] you wouldn’t do anything!)”

“My true clients are publishers and they work in 'print', everything they produce is a reproduction. It's a question of purpose. When people pick up a book they don't angst about the fact that it's a reproduction of something. It's not what they ask of a book. Buying a printed book to enjoy its art is a very different thing than buying a book you love as a first edition.” 

“The people who are into the notion of 'art as treasure' are in the latter bracket and not the first. Sure there can be overlap but it is not as common as you think.” 

One kind of recognition that Lisa does appreciate is awards for her work.  “I'm always pleased to win anything, but I had been hoping to win Mingu the honour last year because I worked hard on trying to do something new with that book. It wasn't just coverwork, it was a fully illustrated book.” 

“I also got the prize for Irvin, which also had interior illustrations and not just the cover.”

Such awards help boost one’s profile even if today a lot of that is done on social media with artists having to be willing to put themselves forward on the various platforms in order to get noticed. 

“Social media is a changing beast and you have to be willing to change with it or have your entire marketing scheme go bellyup,” she professes.  “It can be disheartening because the goalposts are constantly being relocated so one can feel a complete lack of control which is new in what is essentially the field of advertising. You can wake up one day and the entire way that your audience got to see your work is changed overnight as if a wilful god sent a disaster to your village and you just have to deal with the fallout.”

“There's a lot more that I could do to improve my social media but to be honest I have that millenial malaise of secretly hating it. I feel we are in between things at the moment social-media wise, much like when Facebook took over from blogs. I’m just going to wait and see if I can roll with the next punch.”

This attitude very much reflects her career that has fluidly incorporated and, subsequently, sidelined different creative projects. 

Lisa’s writing is a case in point.  In 2008 she published her debut novel Xi Mkien Iehor but, despite the acclaim that received, has yet to be followed up with another book.

“It's not really a very special reason but it's a very typical reason of me... I just haven't felt like writing a novel in the last ten years!” 

“I published two themed colouring books for adults in Australia some years ago that kind of felt like publishing a book because they were story-like and I was very pleased with them at the time, especially one of them 'reach for the stars'.”  
“I've played around a little with short stories, flash fiction and poems when I'm in a writing mood. Visual art somewhat occluded my writing work excepting a few projects and collaborations;   I worked with Ken Young in 2012 who produced my micro fiction stories into soundbytes.” 

“Writing is more emotional for me. I am low-key working on a children's picture book of my own but as I already said, I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to endless revision... till a year rolls on and I decide it's crap and toss it.”

For all of that, books might still be in her future.  “It would be nice to publish a picture book for kids, dedicate it to my twin niece and nephew, and then see it become a New York Times bestseller! I am partially joking though - because I don't think I have to be this way or that way or achieve something in particular I just want to create till the end and have the ability to float whichever way I want to without constraints - this is what I want.”

“I've always wanted to design a shop window. I wanted my work on a billboard too but I got that this year because I did the Malta Book Festival promo artwork I hope my brother remembers to send me a photo of it if he drives by one because I might not be in Malta in time to see it!” 

“I don't really 'tick boxes' sometimes I notice I look back on things I've done and I see I have done a lot of things I wanted to do, and the things left undone I just stopped wanting.” 

“I'm really lucky.”

Get to know all about Lisa Falzon by checking out her website, Etsy Store and Facebook page.  Special mention of her Instagram which is a constant source of wonder and inspiration.

This is another in Snapshots of Malta's series of longform interviews.  If you enjoyed it then you will probably like our earlier interviews.  You will also probably like our Monthly Snapshots, a newsletter where we talk about what we're enjoying and what we're looking forward to.


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