All posts by Abigail Cole

As the days slowly brighten and turn to spring, my thoughts turn to spring cleaning and making space for all the new growth about to emerge – both literally and metaphorically. There’s a sense of possibility that opens out in the spring, and in our house that often involves new creative ideas and projects we’d like to attempt as our energy returns after winter.

I used to think of a deep tidy-up and decluttering session as something that happened at certain times of year – spring being an obvious one, but for me, the autumn is also a time to make space before the influx of things around the festive season… but as more time goes on, and I go through more waves of sorting and decluttering, I’ve come to think of tidying-up as deeply connected to the creative process and as forming at least one phase of any given creative cycle. Just as things naturally die back through the autumn and winter in nature, there are cycles within creative life, some of which involve clearing away, tidying up, sorting out, and letting go of projects that are now complete, in order to eventually make space for the new.

I first began exploring the idea of decluttering and its relationship to creativity a few years ago, when decluttering became quite a lifestyle trend, influenced in no small way by the work of Marie Kondo and her best-selling book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, along with her eponymous KonMari method for tidying. After many conversations with friends, I eventually read her book for myself and found her methods for folding and storing pretty life-changing! As a natural ‘collector of things’, space is always limited in our home, and being able to condense clothes, bedding, towels, cleaning cloths etc into much smaller spaces was transformative. It did feel like a kind of magic – such bulky-space occupying items suddenly fitting into a tiny-drawer or cupboard space that was constantly overflowing before. The process of folding, although seemingly time-consuming, I also find quite meditative and relaxing (and I gain my time spent folding back, by being able to quickly find things!).

I also like the concept of storing items in a like-with-like system – it really helps with creating order out of chaos, making sense of your belongings, as well as storing, knowing where to put things, and where to find them when you need them. It definitely helps with leading a busy life – and certainly, this is now a principle I apply to storing our art and craft materials as well, and it does make accessing our materials, using them and tidying them away again much more fluid and effortless.

There are definitely times when a good tidy-up can feel very uplifting and even life-changing!

In defence of clutter

The aspect of decluttering and space clearing that I definitely find most tricky, is the letting go of things! It isn’t just about hoarding and hanging onto material things, but more about the pleasure that comes from being surrounded by trinkets and objects that I either find beautiful, inspiring or remind me of the people I love and happy memories of times gone by… Even a small handful of unusual items or a few pops of colour can spark curiosity… of course, how we fill or don’t fill our homes and spaces is deeply personal, but the more I thought about decluttering and letting go, the more I came to think that the collecting of ‘clutter’ might be intrinsically linked to the creative process and psyche!  

Many artists’ studios are filled with collected curios of all natures, sizes and hues, as well as objects and materials that might one day be useful. There is both a practical and sentimental element to this – objects inspire feelings, memories and ideas as well as being something that hold the potential to be turned into and become a part of something else – a bigger creative venture, project or endeavour. And so, I’ve come to stand firmly in defence of ‘clutter’ as being a source of gentle joy and creative inspiration, as opposed to stressful things that get in the way of life…

Although we no longer buy new things for our home, our collecting tendency remains strong. I am guilty of saving up, arguably, way too many recycled materials for one day crafting with!  My husband loves to collect discarded electrical items, either intact or already dismantled – as he always sees a use for them! Indeed, he has made many amazing things from electrical waste, not least, amazing lichtenfeld carvings, by taking apart an old unwanted microwave and using the transistor inside to conduct electricity through planks of wood. It is a kind of creative and inventors’ impulse that drives him to collect, I think. When my son was young, he would love to collect multiples of the same object; sticks, bottle-tops, rocks, fossils, crystals, conkers, toy cars, gaming cards as he got older… it seemed to be a source of learning – categorising and ordering his world seemed to play a big part in the collecting process, as well as then being able to compare items within each category. For me, the biggest underlying influence in my tendency to surround myself with ‘clutter’, is without a doubt, the feeling of joy and cosiness I get from pretty, unusual, colourful objects of all kinds that inspire in me a sense of novelty, fun, beauty, uplift, familiarity – often also sentimentality, tiny artworks and creations, or little curios that remind me of a loved-one, or a time in my life, an experience with friends or a wonderful holiday.

Amazing lichtenfeld carvings

I think the motivations, reasons and impulses for each of us, as to what compels us to collect and keep hold of items, varies enormously, and that having a full and stimulating space goes hand-in-hand with the creative impulse.

Cycles, seasons and seeking balance

Perhaps it is possible that the appreciation of ‘clutter’, as well as the love of a good deep-clean and decluttering session on a regular basis, can go hand in hand?

I now seem to have several key moments in the year where I declutter and tidy-up. Oftentimes, it is out of necessity, like just after the festive season when I’ve had a busy work season of making. At other times it’s connected to the season in nature, and at different times yet still, it’s connected to family life; a room needing redecorating, clothes outgrown, a school or job transition…  I’ve come to realise that decluttering isn’t necessarily about having one big life-overhaul, although it can be, but about ebbing-and-flowing in tune with other natural life-cycles and seasons. And for me, it also echoes the seasons and cycles within the creative process.

The cycles and seasons might be literal – following the seasons of the year, or more personal seasons in life; reflecting life stages or big transitions of various family members, like changing schools, jobs, or work projects. Sometimes the tidying-up process might follow or fall into a more systematic or ‘external’ schedule, like post-Christmas, once in the summer and so on, or it might arise more organically out of a feeling that it’s time to tidy after a particularly busy spell. I think the most important thing is to find a way, rhythm, time for tidying that feels good, and that can become a part of the natural balance of any creative process. All creative projects have cycles and rhythms of their own; at the most basic level, there is the beginning (getting started), middle (getting into flow/making), and completing (knowing when to stop) of any project, but there are also all the stages in-between; the letting go of a creative project, the pause, breathing space and waiting time before the inspiration for the next project comes in… and the research and investigating stage once inspiration does arrive (to name a few!).

There are definitely times when my impulse to declutter and tidy falls into one of these phases and becomes a part of the creative process. If I’m tidying-up after a project, it gives me the chance to reflect on the project and see things I might not have spotted at the time when deep in the process. If I tidy-up before starting on a project, it is usually when a little seed of an idea is trying to take root and I need to give myself space to put things together in my mind whilst doing something practical with my hands. Sometimes, creative ideas come directly from the tidying process itself! As I discover tucked-away materials that I had forgotten about; it can be something as small as a particular piece of ribbon or button that I base an entire project around, or some decopatch paper that I’d forgotten and then use to decorate some storage boxes.

Beauty in the mess…

Knowing that tidying doesn’t have to mean letting go of the things I love, and connecting tidying and decluttering to the creative process helps me to feel less overwhelmed and more purposeful in tidying up. The prospect of a beautifully restored, decluttered and ordered storage space can be deeply motivating and a spacious, artfully arranged cupboard full of pretty storage boxes or baskets can be a creation to be a joy to behold! Rediscovering lost or forgotten objects can spark fresh curiosity and new creative ideas, and seeing decluttering as a creative process in and of itself, keeping a hold of, valuing and re-organising what we do have, can become a kind of anti-consumerism, fitting with a ‘make do and mend’ mindset, that can be playful and fun. There is invariably more mess before things get better when in the midst of a big sort-out, but hopefully much beauty, surprise and fresh creative energy waiting to be discovered too! If you’re feeling up for some creativity this spring but aren’t sure quite where to start, perhaps a bit of spring cleaning would be just the thing to spark some inspiration! 😊

© 2023 Abigail Cole

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