Project Description

June 20, 2021 | Helen French

Looking Back, Sitting Still, Being Gentle

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Helen French in a rehearsal photo by Tom Kramer from “Breathe,” a dance performance in collaboration with the Mickett/Stackhouse exhibit “Expanding Waters.” The exhibition and performance took place at The Gallery at Creative Pinellas in May 2021. 

On June 17 Creative Pinellas held a group conversation with the current Professional Artist grant recipients. This was the first time all of us have gathered together since we were awarded our grants back in the Spring. I am honored and humbled to be in the company of  Cecilia Lueza, David Manson, Donald Gialanella, Gloria Muñoz, Kaitlin Murphy-Knudsen, Kenny Jensen, Sarah Gerard, Takeya Trayer and Tenea D. Johnson.

The conversation started off with a question that invited us to reflect on our creative practice and how it has been impacted by the pandemic and the events of 2019-2020. This isn’t the first time I have been asked this question and it probably won’t be the last. So far, every time I have been faced with this question I am struck by how incredibly difficult it is to find words to express the emotional complexities and nuances of my experiences.

As I sat there and pondered how I wanted to respond, I first had to embrace that am still very much processing the events of the past 18 months. So much has changed in the landscape of the performing arts – theaters shut their doors for months, some will never reopen. Dance artists pivoted to learning how to do everything digitally – take classes, create, rehearse, perform.  The learning curve was so steep and admittedly at times I was overwhelmed and frustrated.

When I reflect on the last 18 months I recognize times of personal resiliency and times of stubbornness when I wanted to dig my heels in against the changes I felt I was being forced to make. I identify joy at realizing I am stronger than I think and weariness with the weight of online teaching and cancelled opportunities.

I see playful and fulfilling times spent with my children and I also see how my own moodiness and resentment affected those around me. I remember feeling dissatisfied with my work and sometimes peaceful with the creative head space I was in.

Helen French’s “dance floor,” fashioned from her sons’ play mat so she could work and teach from home during lockdown

There were intervals of time when I swung erratically between curiously determined and lethargically ambitionless. The depth of my conflicting emotions was intense and I often found myself doing less physically demanding activities (dancing) and more quiet and simple activities like coloring or sitting still and watching the ebb and flow of my breathing.

The more time that passes and the more things begin to “return to normal” the easier it is to avoid actually dealing with my own emotional complexities around the pandemic and events of 2019-2020.  But I don’t believe avoidance is a healthy pathway forward, so I try to remain present and receptive to what emotions come up.

To help me stay present and receptive I do have a few coping strategies that I rely on. I find making a schedule and setting goals helpful, even if I don’t follow the schedule or achieve the goals. Sometimes the act of planning and dreaming is enough. By creating a framework to be in relationship to, I feel grounded.

With that said, I have two young boys and there is a rhythm to our days that can be helpful for schedule-making and creative pursuits, and some days the rhythm of mothering takes all the energy I have.

I’m still pondering and sorting through the myriad of ways my creative practice and my creative impulses have been impacted by the pandemic and the events of 2019-2020. I am appreciating the ability to sit and be still, and as a good friend reminded me, I am taking time to be gentle with myself.

I hope you are, too.

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Helen Hansen French evokes the Moon in the Expanding Waters installation