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Real Talk

CREATIVITY, MENTAL HEALTH AND MAKING IT IN A NEW CITY: JESS COCHRANE TELLS IT LIKE IT IS

 
Image:    Jess Cochrane

Sipping coffees from her local cafe on a rooftop in a suburb of London’s South East, I caught up with Jess Cochrane, the Australian boundary-pushing artist known for her arresting artworks that blur the lines between what society deems ‘beautiful’ and reality. Her work is an exploration of pop culture, the idea of feminine beauty and how different parts of ourselves are so often disguised by this idea.

Using a mixture of paint and photographic imagery, Jess creates incredibly moving and interesting works that will have you questioning your beliefs long after you’ve left them.

RT: You’ve been away from home for four months now, living in London, how has it been?

JC: Man, this trip has been so eye opening. I’m the kind of person that is so up for jumping in the deep end with my life, and I do that a lot but there’s always a whiplash effect. And the bigger the distance, the deeper the pool (and the bigger that whiplash). I’ve had moments wondering what the hell is happening because it’s such a big thing, but the best part about it is that I’ve had so much reflection time. My ability to deal with my mental health, over the years has become so much better as I’m more self-aware and I’ve actually had some interesting break throughs.

RT: Can you share any?

JC: Well, so often creatives want to be constantly doing (I’m no different), but if there is no solid plan in place, we’ll tell ourselves that we’re not doing enough and we’ll begin to unhealthily compare ourselves to others. I suffer from perfectionism and am so prone to comparison. At the moment that’s with two creatives who are older than me and British, who’ve grown up in London and have built up huge networks and successful careers. So at the start of my trip I tried to match pace by going to see as much art as possible, meet as many people as possible and attend all the right events. This quickly led to burnout and frustration. When I finally got my studio and settled into a routine, I realised that it’s all the same recipe, same method: I know what I need to do but it’s so much slower here for me than in Australia. At home I’m recognised, people know me, which is so cool that there’s recognition. But here I’m a tiny tadpole in the world’s biggest pond. The needing to approach people and getting to know them is more difficult. So I’m trying not to compare myself to people literally born and raised in London and I’ve realised it’s ok to go at a slower pace, it’s still happening. There’s a pressure you end up putting on yourself that’s unhealthy, and I need to constantly remind myself, just to chill.

RT: How else is it different from home?

JC: Being in a big city like London, you realise how small Sydney is (and Australia for that matter). Sydney is not a big city! Coming here puts things into perspective. Realising just how huge a market it is to crack is very humbling and makes you realise how hard everyone works. It’s a tougher and slower process to start somewhere new but that’s ok. It’s really easy to get dejected and think I’m nothing in this city, but you get to a point where you realise the new city has so much to offer, and you start to block out the unnecessary stuff so you focus on the things you want to get out of it.

As a creative that always wants to be doing the most, and constantly needing validation, it’s funny how all those things play on your mind when you’re in a bigger, new city. I think it’s important to reflect on things like this though, so in hindsight, I’ll be able to look back and wonder what did I spend so much time thinking about, what mattered, what didn’t, what came out of it. One things’ for sure I’ll never complain about Sydney traffic again!

RT: How do you feel about social media - how have you utilised it in the past and now in London?

JC: This trip, I’ve loved it and hated it. The main thing that I use it for is as a business tool. I don’t really use it to compare myself to others, more to look at art, what’s going on, scout photography subjects and I tend to see it more as a Pinterest-type gallery so in a lot of ways I have so much love and support for it because it’s helped my career so much and given me so much access to new things. And it’s so easy. But at the same time, in a lot of ways, in the way someone would use it for personal reasons, it’s affected me more. I love photos – taking them and posting them to create a memory board and I think I’ve spent a lot more hours on it personally than for my business because this trip I’ve taken a step back to reassess what I’m doing with my work.

 RT: What are some of the challenges of making a move like this one?

JC: One of the biggest things about being away and being in a new place, like starting a new school you have to make new friends, find your place. It took me about three years to really get that in Sydney and now I’m here at the beginning again which is going to take time. Another thing that’s been interesting is the discovery of London through social media. It’s been easy to feel like I’m not fitting in and trying to learn about it. It’s given me a lot of things to think about – differences between English and Australian culture and different city culture. It’s been a bit of a mind fuck – all the different ways people dress, the music. I’ve felt so out of my depth and not cool enough which is so silly but it’s a lot of life stuff happening as well.

 RT: Also when you’re home you pick up the phone, call a friend or your mum and get through it, but here, it’s much harder.

JC: Yeah exactly. For me, the thing I’ve experienced is a combo of starting my career here coming in from the side and also starting my life here. Trying to figure out the ins and outs of working relationships and where I want to be, what I want to be doing, and my place in it all. I definitely had a point, last month where I was so over it, I was so tired and had so much to process. When you’re putting your trust in a feeling of “I want to be in London, and this is what I want to pursue…” it’s quite scary.

RT: What’s your internal chatter or mental state around this?

JC: A constant push pull scenario that can be really draining! It’s an internal battle and in a few years I know I’ll be so much stronger for it. It’s hard but then I always think of the alternative: I don’t want to sit on a couch at home and be dissatisfied and wonder what might have been. Unless it’s fully happening to you, it’s difficult to understand, the stuff that runs through your head. And people tell you the process should be enjoyable, which it is, and I’m not ungrateful, but I sometimes wish that people would step into my shoes and give me some credit, for moving my entire life overseas. It can’t all be sunshine and rainbows. There’s a pride to it. And the dollar is so weak!! Rough patches teach you so much but they’re so hard to get through mentally. You need to constantly ask yourself, “how much do I really want this and how much am I willing to put up with the shit?” You have to do it because you love it.

RT: And it’s always good to remember that life is life and you find that issues are the same no matter where you are.

JC: The amount of days I want to have the day in bed. But haven’t allowed myself to because the guys I live with get up and go do their successful careers and deal with the city like it’s not a thing, and I think “I’m exhausted”… maybe because I’m constantly trying to match their pace. Then I think hold on that’s stupid, I’m trying to go at their pace, not my own.


“Rough patches teach you so much but they’re so hard to get through mentally. You need to constantly ask yourself, “how much do I really want this and how much am I willing to put up with the shit?” You have to do it because you love it.” - Jess Cochrane


RT: Tell me about the mini series you were involved with for the ABC.

JC: ABC approached me and seven other artists to be in a miniseries, exploring how the self connects with your work – self-portraiture through different practices. It was a real journey through my mental health, which was at its most tumultuous point, and I ended up having a real breakthrough with my art. It allowed me to shine a light on my problems, helped to see myself properly. It was almost like I couldn’t tell people how I was feeling past certain words, but when I painted this thing, it was visualised and I was able to communicate it. People could recognise it and relate to it, that it was from the self and from the heart. I realised that what I was feeling was not uncommon; so many people feel this way so it really resonated. It was hugely therapeutic and cathartic.

RT: How did your art develop growing up?

JC: My dad is an art teacher, I was always art inclined, so many days were spent life drawing and learning traditional art techniques and art history, where women definitely looked certain way. But then I would sit in my room and read every single Vogue magazine and look at the really skinny models, and all the different looks that were in like suddenly it was cool to be rake thin. I spent so long trying to figure out why I felt so inadequate not only as a person but as a woman and also an artist. It felt hard as a woman. We’re fed such contradicting words. We’re just conditioned to feel self-conscious. And making my art which was combining the two – something very glossy and commercialised (how we’re supposed to look in the eyes of the false advertising world) versus the honesty and imperfections of painting and moving paint around, was very interesting to me. It was a meeting of the two binaries, it was my life visualised – it was like I didn’t really realise until this happened, until I had my graduate work. Everyone commented that it was strong, but I wasn’t trying to tick boxes, but rather trying to connect the dots in my own life. And that to me is what makes a good artist. Their work is connecting dots in their own life. It’s always about the artist and the self. So it was interesting. The process of moving on and being in a different city changes the way you work and see things. If you’re away from home, you’re always going to be thinking not just about your own life, but about your work. So it’s a part of being a creative, you’re always putting pressure on yourself because you’re constantly questioning everything. We’re programmed to self-critique: “why is this like this, why am I like this?” If you add your own mental health or insecurities into it, or allow them to take over, it can be really overwhelming.

RT: Do you think it’s important to speak up about mental health in a public arena?

JC: I think it’s important for platforms like this one (Real Talk Project), which is a safe space where you won’t be judged. It’s so easy to feel so much but we as creatives are still always tapped as overly emotional types, like we don’t have real jobs. The stereotype is that we don’t work that hard, but we have to work twice as hard, we have no stability and are putting our whole selves into our work. There’s no switch on and off, making it very easy to get too in your own head. Especially on this trip, I’ve had moments where I’ve just met someone, and I’ve felt like I wanted to pour everything out, which can be a lot to put on people, so you need to be careful. It’s hard being emotional and putting yourself into everything you do all the time. Which is why it’s so important to have safe spaces where there’s no judgement, and you can tell the truth.

For me, if people can look at my work, and what I have to say and can think, “I can relate” and “you’ve helped me”, then that’s all I want. But at the same time, there has to be a balance. Especially this year, I’ve been doing so much talking but not much making that’s relevant or personal enough for me. So in speaking about it, I still don’t feel like it’s enough because I’m not delivering all I want to deliver. So it’s a catch-22. But it’s really important to have the safe spaces to put your whole self on the table and get it out of your body, which takes a lot of bravery and courage. Creatives are the last people to say that: they’re the hardest on themselves. If you’re feeling too much, too overwhelmed or very self-conscious about what you’re doing in a new city, it’s easy to not feel like you can make anything. I had a few weeks of not knowing what to do. You have moments where you overthink everything and forget that it’s something that comes naturally.


It’s a part of being a creative, you’re always putting pressure on yourself because you’re constantly questioning everything. We’re programmed to self-critique: “why is this like this, why am I like this?” If you add your own mental health or insecurities into it, or allow them to take over, it can be really overwhelming. - Jess Cochrane


RT:  What’s one of the biggest challenges of being a creative dealing with mental health?

JC: One of the cycles of being a creative is that if I’m loving what I’m doing, I end up overthinking it, then fear what others think. Then I realise I don’t care so much what people think so I go back to making it and it becomes a cyclical thing. And the further from home comforts, the more intense it feels. It’s ok to feel drained though. Going on big trips or doing big things, it’s all self-discovery really. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself to be doing everything in that moment, but really the benefit of that experience is only felt post-experience. So you leave it and reflect, and look at everything that’s happened, then you have the capacity to create. It’s real time research.

I’m also so aware. I wish sometimes I was less aware, I’ve never been at a point in my life where I’ve questioned so much and thought so deeply about things. It’s all happening at once and is so full on. I feel like I’ve lived two separate lives – going to a foreign place is very liberating, I had a huge overwhelming sense of freedom when I first arrived, free of everything people think of me, but at the same time I went from the elation of freedom, to complete isolation, because everyone’s so busy here and I can’t see my friends, and it’s the rat race. It’s almost like bipolar, you feel everything in full effect, the highs and lows. You learn to balance out the feelings but it’s so hard, especially in constantly “on” cities like London. It’s hard to find the balance and neutrality to just stop.

Image:    Jess Cochrane

RT: What’s next?

JC: I’m not sure what my life is going to look like – it’s blurry. It’s a funny feeling like I don’t have a clear path of what next year looks like, I’ve been trying hard to figure it out, but I just don’t know, the unknown is scary, but having said that, I have a goal in mind and that’s to get back to London as soon as I can. I have so much to do in the meantime, which is terrifying and exciting all at once.


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Real Talk is an online wellbeing project for creative people, written and curated by me! Through a monthly newsletter we share original articles (like this one) and exclusive curated content that we feel will compliment the topics we’re discussing in our articles. Things like TED talks, podcast episodes, videos, wellbeing exercises, worksheets and many more inspiring resources. Sign up to our newsletter to get your monthly dose of Real Talk and be empowered to improve your wellbeing so that you can lead your best creative life!

 

Real Talk

SURVIVAL TIPS FOR BUSY PEOPLE

 
We visited the Seven Magic Mountains installation in Las Vegas. Very inspirational and a great way to get into holiday mode!

We visited the Seven Magic Mountains installation in Las Vegas. Very inspirational and a great way to get into holiday mode!

Hey everyone!

I'm writing this from a little apartment in Mexico City, where I've just woken up to my first day of a 4 week vacation around this amazing country. I've just spent a week in LA and Vegas, and while it feels like I have been away for much longer, it still feels surreal to be on holiday. Maybe this is due in part to jetlag, but mostly because my mind is still well and truly stuck in work mode. I feel guilty at the prospect of being away from my business for so long and for my work flow to suddenly come to a halt when I'm so used to riding that momentum from one job to the next. 

I think it may take some time to shake this mindset off and decompress from what has been a truly insane few months. From July to October it feels like I literally did not stop once or come up for air. I barrelled through project after project, juggled multiple insane deadlines, and pulled countless all-nighters to get stuff done (something I hate doing), all while working my day job 3 days per week. I literally feel exhausted just from writing that! Now, I'm not attempting to glorify this extreme workload situation, nor would I ever want to promote busyness as some kind of badge of honour. This scenario is just a reality for a lot of freelancers, or those balancing design work with other life commitments. Sometimes shit just gets crazy! 

This is a fake ceiling in an underground mall at Caesars Palace. It doesn’t sound like it would be a relaxing place but it was surprisingly serene!

This is a fake ceiling in an underground mall at Caesars Palace. It doesn’t sound like it would be a relaxing place but it was surprisingly serene!

As I have previously mentioned, craft-based design is a niche job with a laborious workload that tends to fluctuate a lot. Sometimes I don't have that much on and can be a bit more chill about producing work, but other times I get inundated with great design opportunities that I really want to take on, and no matter how organised I am, how we'll I've managed client expectations, or how fast I work, I all of a sudden find myself with a bunch of big projects on the go, all with competing deadlines. 

This is when I slip into what I call "Deadline Mode", which can kind of feel like a survival challenge. Deadline Mode involves one or more of the following things:

  • All-nighters

  • Abandonment of regular sleeping, eating, washing laundry, seeing friends, hydration, grocery shopping, exercise, free time, and most other daily human tasks

  • Extreme swings in mindset from motivation, determination and enthusiasm to stress, frustration, panic and a whole spectrum of other feelings

  • Emotional breakdowns

  • Binge eating (hate you/love you Uber Eats)

  • Binge watching of Law & Order SVU (let it be known that this is actually a positive, not  a negative)

  • So much craft mess, with no time to clean it up so I'm basically living in craftermath for the entire deadline period

  • Numerous other gross things that adversely affect my mental health 

I know I can say no to jobs to try to minimise this happening, and I know this way of working is very problematic but it does seem rife  across the creative industry, and I often wonder why it is so common. Perhaps this forms part of a greater conversation about why so many of us encounter this way of working so regularly; why we let it happen, and how this could be related to the bigger picture of how creatives are valued; and how there can be a discrepancy between demand for quality output vs the time (and often money) offered in return. (I touched on these issues a little but in my recent interview on the Never Not Creative podcast.

Parks like this one in Mexico are a great place to decompress.

Parks like this one in Mexico are a great place to decompress.


Perhaps this ("Deadline Mode") forms part of a greater conversation about why so many of us encounter this way of working so regularly; why we let it happen, and how this could be related to the bigger picture of how creatives are valued.


Regardless of why this is happening to me (and believe me I'm working on trying to shift the way I work to avoid it) the reality is, sometimes things get stressful, and when that happens it's good to have an arsenal of tools you can use to combat it. After many Deadline Mode experiences I've learned a lot about the way I work, and how to minimise stress as much as possible so these experiences don't overwhelm me or get in the way of me getting the job done. Like everything, this is a work in progress for me, but I thought I'd share some of my current survival tips in the hope that they can be useful for you when you're next feeling under the pump. Here goes!

1. Trust that it will all work out

If you're like me and have experienced many busy and stressful periods, it could help you to remember that you've been through it all before, and you survived! Sometimes just the simple knowledge that you've overcome seemingly impossible situations can reassure you that you are capable of doing it again this time. You got this!

2. Manage expectations 

While it's important to be open with your clients/collaborators  about the realities of your availability and how long a project is going to take to complete, it's also super important to be honest with yourself as well. Be realistic about what you can achieve each day and try to spread the load. Overloading yourself with epic expectations that may be physically impossible to achieve is a sure way to increase stress and make you feel like you're failing before you've even begun.

3. Set boundaries and stick to them

Before heading into a stressful period I find it's helpful to identify my limits regarding how far I am willing to physically and mentally push myself to get the job done. It's really easy to push too hard when you have a lot on, which can lead to burnout, breakdowns, and even physical illness. Setting boundaries for yourself (for example, "I will get at least X amount of hours sleep per night, no all-nighters") can help manage the expectations I spoke about in Tip 2. No job is worth compromising your physical or mental health! This should be a daily motto for all of us. 

4. Learn from past experiences 

After countless creative projects I have learned a lot about the way I work. For example, I know that I spend a lot of time in the planning and development process, with the actual making part happening in a short and super efficient burst towards the end of a project timeline. This happens because it takes a while for my plans to crystallise, but once they do, everything is mapped out to the last detail, leaving only the physical execution to be done. I used to get so stressed about this way of working, viewing this long development time as procrastination, feeling like I was that shit person that always left things until the last minute. But now that I recognise this as my unique way of working and NOT me being lazy, I can ditch the stressing and self-criticism and get on with the job.

5. Use lists as your lifeline

Stress for me can often occur when I have a million to-do’s floating around in my head and no clear idea of how or when they are going to get done. So lists are everything to me! You might not be a list writer but I encourage you to give it a try because they can really help with time management. I like to map out my entire timeline before a busy period begins and assign tasks to each work day. Getting it all out on paper allows me to sort of switch into autopilot and just methodically start working through the list like some kind of craft robot. The key to lists though is being flexible with them and open to the reality that you may need to shuffle tasks around and might not get everything done each day and that's ok. Also, it's REALLY satisfying to cross something off a list, right?! Use a fat red pen, it feels even better!


Sometimes just the simple knowledge that you've overcome seemingly impossible situations can reassure you that you are capable of doing it again this time. You got this!


With a bit more of this, I think I can finally start to relax…

With a bit more of this, I think I can finally start to relax…

6. Make yourself comfortable 

When you're stressed, the last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable in your work environment. This is not conducive to getting shit done! When I'm in Deadline Mode I always move my work home instead of staying at my studio. Because I often work late, it's way more comfortable to be home rather than at the studio which is in an old warehouse that's quite creepy and desolate at night. While it's not always great to be working on big, messy projects in my little bedroom, at least I am somewhere safe and cosy. Whatever your scenario is, and however you want to do it, making yourself as comfy as possible will help you be more productive!

7. Keep it tidy

Oh man, this one is everything. I am naturally quite a messy person, so I try to reset my workspace at the end of every day during Deadline Mode, no matter how late it is or how much I CBF in that moment. Waking up to a clean, tidy, and organised space, ready and waiting for you to get cracking is a glorious feeling, especially if you're like me and mess = stress.

8. Move your body

Oooh, this one is also a goodie. We know that physical exercise can reduce the effects of stress on our bodies. But often, when you're busy, your normal routine (including time for exercise) goes out the window. Long hours of sitting down with no movement does not make me feel good, so I try to make time for a bit of physical movement every day when I’m busy, even if it’s just a walk to the cafe for a coffee before I start the daily grind, quick breaks throughout the day to stand up and stretch, or time in the evening for a little home yoga session to decompress before bed. Do whatever works for you!

9. Pre-prep meals

When I'm super busy my healthy eating aspirations tend to be replaced by desperate Uber Eats binges or late night scrambling under mountains of craft debris for those 3 crackers I know I left there 2 days ago (and this may be all I eat that day).. These are not good habits! I love a good batch meal prep, so I've recently started doing this when I know I'm about to go into a busy period. It's been really good because I can cook something super healthy and filled with nutrients to help fuel my body so i can survive Deadline Mode, and all I have to do each night is heat it up!

10. Take a break

Sometimes I can become a bit of a martyr to my work, which I hate. When I'm in a busy and stressful time I often feel guilty for even considering resting when there's so much to be done. This is dumb because recharging my brain and body is the key to productivity! If you're a bit the same and find it hard to rest when you're under the pump, it's OK! As weird as it sounds I find that scheduling breaks into my timeline (add it to your to-do list!) is a way for me to make sure I get some rest and gives me the permission to do so, so I don't feel guilty about it. For a mini brain break on the go you might also like to try our mindfulness meditation, it's great for busy people! 

11. Practice self care

I love the concept of self care! It should really be a daily thing for all of us but I feel it's especially nice during busy and stressful times. It can take any form you like. For me, I love a luxurious shower or bath! Water is very cleansing for me, so during Deadline Mode I'll end each day with a super hot shower, then do something nice like put on my most bougie body lotion, light some essential oils, get into bed, massage my feet and wind down from the day. Make time to treat yo'self every day, it's the best!

So there's my top tips for ya. Stress is inevitable, and also a natural part of life, and it's unrealistic to try to eradicate it from our lives completely. I think we should instead figure out ways to at least minimise it a bit and work around it so that it doesn't hinder us from doing our best creative work.


Get some Real Talk in your inbox!

Real Talk is an online wellbeing project for creative people, written and curated by me! Through a monthly newsletter we share original articles (like this one) and exclusive curated content that we feel will compliment the topics we’re discussing in our articles. Things like TED talks, podcast episodes, videos, wellbeing exercises, worksheets and many more inspiring resources. Sign up to our newsletter to get your monthly dose of Real Talk and be empowered to improve your wellbeing so that you can lead your best creative life!