Gabrielle Leah New On The Healing Power of Connection and Being An Artist Who Doesn't Paint
This is the third in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.
You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.
Gabrielle Leah New is a practicing performing artist and a senior Occupational Therapist (OT). She runs her own theatre company, The Space Between Performance Collective, and has traveled around the world for numerous residencies, performances, and exhibitions, which can be read about further here. Her OT work, blended with her surrealist costume, installation, video, and live performance works means that Gabrielle is rarely ever still - and never bored!
I had the privilege of meeting Gabrielle in 2010 when we were both interns at Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company in Brisbane, Australia. I performed in her butoh show Creature, and I have been following her work ever since.
F: Tell me a little about your background in the arts.
G: I grew up in Melbourne Australia. I studied art at high school then went on to do a degree in Occupational Therapy. I have traveled extensively living in the UK, New Zealand and India. I feel like I’m a citizen of the world.
My training is quite unusual. I have always had an arts practice but it wasn’t until I was 30 that I began my formal training post high school. I went to the Conservatorium of the Arts in Lismore where I studied dance. I was particularly interested in Butoh (Japanese contemporary dance) which I had discovered the year before by attending community classes. I went on to study Butoh with teachers around the world and working with MAU Dance Theatre in New Zealand. I then returned to Australia and studied 3D Art and did a directing internship with Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre in Brisbane.
My main art form was dance and physical performance for many years and I still train and attend classes regularly but over time my practice has developed to be more of a multi-arts practice. This particularly changed after completing a Masters in Fine Art a few years ago and since then I have been exhibiting more in the gallery space than theatres. I now consider myself a multidimensional performing artist, as performance and the body always underpin my multi-arts practice.
F: Your art has taken you to lots of interesting places. What are some of the most interesting locations you have experienced?
Working with MAU in the early 2000s took me to the 4 yearly Pacific Arts Festival in Noumea, New Caledonia. Here I had a major identity crisis as a white Australian performing Japanese dance for a pacific Island dance company and delegation from the Aotearoa, New Zealand. I have danced in Fjords in Norway, In storms painted gold in Japan, in creeks and the ocean in New Zealand and in a city park in Vancouver, Canada. I love making work in/for extraordinary spaces.
Most recently I exhibited and had a residency in Lisbon, Portugal and am on my way to India and Sri Lanka to make work.
F: You have created many collaborative creative works. What are the benefits and challenges of collaboration?
Collaborating with other artists is my favorite way to work and I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people. One of the challenges is finding people you gel with and can create a shared vision and language with, this can take time. The benefit for me is having someone to bounce ideas around with and I think that the outcome always benefits from collaborating if people are clear on their roles. Sometimes it’s been tricky when creatives disagree but a resolution has always been possible through listening well and respecting each other. I have been collaborating with sound artists Norman Skipp for over 15 years now even though we live on other sides of the world.
Working in theatre, collaboration is a necessity. You need other people to do the things you don’t have the skills for, like sound and lighting for me. I usually have a lot of input and discussion with collaborators but ultimately I trust them to do what they do best. In my extended arts practice I still work with other people who have skills in areas that I don’t. for example I have made two projects with a videographer/editor, I WANT… and ‘States of Being.
F: Did this require you to take on additional training/learning curves?
G: No, as a therapist I had already developed good communication skills. I’m a team player as well as being really comfortable to share my ideas and opinions so collaboration works well for me.
F: What drives you in your work?
G: I have a passion to create. I constantly have ideas forming in my mind. My main interests, that all the content for my work comes from, are from my therapy practice and a deep desire to understand people. Archetypal stories and myths as a reflection of the human condition alongside current contemporary dilemmas such as Greed, a project I created that had a number of components including two video installations, an internet group and a live, participatory, site-specific performance. My work often externalizes internal worlds making the invisible visible.
F: To what extent have you been able to make your creativity work an aspect of all of your jobs? Do you have other (non-creative) work that you engage in? How did you make that choice?
G: I feel that creativity infuses all that I do. In my work as a therapist, I integrate creative activities (which is par for the course for OT’s). I have developed movement therapy groups for people with serious mental illness and a creative art based group for people with mental health and substance use issues. I use it in my work with individuals and with making dinner in the evening when I get home.
F: How do you use your performance skills in undertaking “non-creative” jobs?
As a group facilitator and therapist, I need to be able to perform, improvise, listen and respond. My ongoing training allows me to be constantly developing these skills. I think a lot of my training is about being present. In my work I need to be present with people who are in psychological pain and also be available to them authentically but without my personal shit interfering with the process. I think my practice as an artist and therapist feed and support each other.
F: Yes! Your ability to be seamless between Artist and Occupational Therapist had a profound influence on my own career.
What does your creative process look like?
G: My creative process is a lot of thinking to start with. I create things in my head before making them in the real world. I tend to create in bursts and I work best under pressure, when I have deadlines. Also if I make dedicated time and space. Physical training and writing are important ongoing elements of my practice. I flood with ideas; I’m never short on them. It’s a process of sifting through them, which ones stick, which are practical and achievable and starting them and seeing where they go.
F: Gabrielle, you have such an impressive list of endeavours, performances and exhibitions. What are your proudest accomplishments thus far?
N: I think my biggest accomplishment is supporting people to move through mental and emotional difficulties to create a better life for themselves. It’s a real privilege to be able to work with people at their most vulnerable and see them rediscover their personal power.
I am also immensely proud of making CREATURE- a shapeshifting journey in butoh wonderland with the company I directed - The Space Between Performance Collective.
More recently, it has been my solo exhibitions, residencies, and receiving an award for my video performance installation Persephone 7 of which I am proudest.
F: What role does communication, performance, and using your voice and body to connect to others have in your life? Why is it important?
G: I believe one of the key elements in healing trauma and addiction is connection. Often verbal communication is difficult initially so having other ways of communicating through movement or drawing or other creative forms can be great initially and I use these creative tools a lot in my work. OT is about healing through doing. I think that doing, action, being in the body allows one to find their voice. We all have multiple and individual ways of expressing and as a therapist, it is important for me to be able to offer a range of meaningful alternatives to my clients. My job is to be creative in what I can offer my clients and not to be stuck in one way or one thing that I offer. When working with trauma clients memories are often stored in the body (differently how regular memories are stored) moving in new ways can help move clients through these stuck emotions and give them more options for responding to events and their environments in the future.
F: Working so intensively with people, how do you prevent burnout?
G: By not working 9-5, 7 days a week and taking lots of holidays. Having a balance between my personal, creative and work life. Having a supportive partner. Staying healthy.
F: My own work is founded on the belief that an arts education not only makes people better citizens (heck, better human beings), but that training in art gives individuals concrete and adaptable skills.
N: I definitely agree. I think anything that makes you more tuned into your own creativity gives you more options on how you respond to situations, we break out of habitual patterns and understand ourselves better,
F: What skills have you gained through your art form that you apply in other contexts?
Improvising. Trusting my instincts. Listening (half of communicating). Self-reflection. Giving feedback to others generously. Being grounded in my body. Facilitating groups. Creating activities to meet a particular investigation. Trying new things. Dealing with failure. Persistence. Acceptance. Intuition is a daily part of my life. Everything is based on my intuition. It is strong. I trust it and I listen to it. My aesthetics are present in my home environment, how I dress and the art I make.
F: How do you set boundaries with regards to managing your personal from your creative spaces?
G: I’m not sure that I do. They often merge. I have really clear personal boundaries and sense of self which helps me to create balance in my life. My boundaries often blur but I don’t have a problem with it and I don’t question it. I think it’s difficult when we compartmentalize our lives. My life is my life it’s messy and not in little boxes. I don’t separate my creative skills with my life skills. It’s all blurry. I am what I am not what I do.
F: Do you have to behave “differently” depending on the environment you are interacting with?
G: Yes and no. I’m always just being me but at the same time using Improvisation Skills and Being present to the moment, the person, the situation so what I do is different and individually tailored.
F: Tell me a little about your teaching.
G: I teach butoh when I’m asked to do so. This includes performance/art professionals and novices. I also facilitate groups for people with trauma, mental health and addiction issues of all ages and stages. It's rewarding when students discover something new in themselves and they change habits. Or as one of my teachers used to say ‘Find another way.’
F: Do you have an "ideal student"?
G: I’m not sure I have one. I suppose one that challenges me, one that I also learn from.
F: With such diverse teaching work, what values underpin your approach to teaching?
G: Growth, trust, exploration, risk, adventure, self-reflection, challenge
F: And what do you say to people who claim to “not be creative”?
G: I think everyone is creative but they have a narrow definition of what creative is. People are often injured in their school education by being told that. I try to help them to see all the ways that they are creative in their lives that aren’t being able to paint or draw or sing. Living is a creative act.
F: How can art, music, or movement training benefit someone who doesn’t wish to be a performer?
G: This is the key question. The answer is ‘In so many ways!’ They are kind of elusive and magical and amazing but include; confidence, self-esteem, personal power, better communication, passion, fun, community, mind expansion, connection with others, self-reflection, self-expression, new friends, using new parts of the brain, new skills, spiritual development, etc, etc.
When I went to dance school I had no interest in being a performer. I went because it was something I liked to do. Over time it grew and grew and grew.
I’ve been lucky enough to have many amazing teachers. I think my favorites have a generosity of spirit and they are always learning from their students and refining their practice through their teaching. They do their job but don’t put themselves above you. They are very positive people and have so much to give that is truly authentic. The training is physically and mentally hard but they remain soft. They are fun.
F: Tell me about your business.
G: I’m not really that interested in business. I do what I do because I love it. I don’t fit the mold and I don’t do things the way others do. I’m just making it up as I go along. I follow my intuition and my passions and dreams. I am unique so what I do is and how I do it is. I like making stuff and helping people find more joy in this difficult world.
I started my business because it was something I needed to try. It’s hard and a lot of it is pretty boring. I’m not sure it’s for me. I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur. I’m not that driven by money or business more by what interests me and challenges me and creating a life where I can utilize my skills and develop them and support others as I do that. It’s about following my passions. I’m not cutthroat and I don’t think that actually serves anyone. I think we all need to work as a community and support each other where we can in whatever way we can.
F: What was the toughest learning curve that you experienced in running a business?
G: Early on I realized that the hardest times were the times of biggest growth. I relish them and use them as opportunities for my personal growth. I always trusted my instincts and faced my fears trusting that things would work out. Never do things that make you feel terrible for too long.
I think self-doubt is part of growth and moving outside of one's comfort zones. Growing is uncomfortable but soooo rewarding. I think my arts practice and training has taught me how to do this and know that it’s safe. It has also taught me how to fail and manage rejection. Being an artist you really need to know how to manage constant rejection and keep going.
F: Do you feel that there are unique challenges when ones' business is so reliant on you? How do you manage these?
G: Yes. I think this is my biggest obstacle as I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe. I find it hard to stay in the same place doing the same thing for too long which makes it difficult to develop my own business. I also find it hard to do things I’m not interested in likes tax and plan for more than 6 months in advance which you need to do as an artist and with your own business.
The environment constantly changing. I’ve been in the therapy business for over 25 years and in 3 different countries. In Australia, customers are wanting more choice.
In my private practice, getting clients is difficult as I often don’t put much energy into promoting my business. When working for others, it's key to find support to take creative risks. And in my arts practice, the challenge is managing rejection as well as finding time, space and resources to continue.
I just keep on trying to do the best that I can do.
F: What are the most useful strategies to support you through these challenges?
G: Having good regular supervision. Having great supports and mentors. Getting other people to do the stuff you don’t like or aren’t good at.
F: Is there a tension between your career as an artist and running a business?
G: Mostly time and splitting my attention but I have made peace with this and do both to my best ability as I know that I need both in my life. Both are of great importance to me. Tension is Ok. I think I could be much better promoting my business. This is one side of the business that I feel I’m not great at. I need a Personal Assistant. There is so much documentation and form filling and rubbish that needs to be done now.
F: Where do you see your business going (eg. is it about consolidation/growth/transforming services)?
G: Currently, I’m not sure. I’ve taken 8 months off to travel and work on creative projects but I want to head more into Community arts and engagement with a healing focus.
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