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Heart vs Head

Ginny Koppenhol

Long form Journal article: Photographer Ginny Koppenhol describes her creative journey

A Decision

People told me I was brave, leaving behind an NHS career to start my own photography business.  I’d never worked for myself before, only ever having known the security of an Occupational Therapy career that I’d trained for, in a system with clear pathways for progression.  So, I suppose that to others I did appear brave. However, by this point I was very burnt out and my decision to leave felt necessary to protect my mental health from further damage.   As I’d progressed up the NHS career ladder, I’d also carried a nagging doubt; “What if I’d have gone to art college at the age of 18, as I’d originally planned to do?”

Heart vs Head

Ever since I was a small child, I have loved art. I regularly got lost in the process of drawing and painting. I even designed a birthday cake for a competition on 80’s Childrens TV Show ‘Rainbow’. Zippy showed my cake to the nation and 6-year-old me was excited and confused in equal measures! By the time I did my GCSEs, the art room was my sanctuary and I studied art until A-level, planning to start a foundation course at college the following year. A conversation with a physics teacher (who was standing in as the school career adviser that year), suggested that maybe art wasn’t the most sensible option. He didn’t say this outright, but asked me some pointed questions such as “Where will that path lead? What jobs could you do?” The nature of creative careers and the exploration process I had yet to encounter, meant that I didn’t have a clear answer, and so I exited the meeting with new plans. His wife was an Occupational Therapist (OT) and he suggested that this career could provide a good balance between the people skills I possessed and the creative opportunities I sought (e.g. through running creative workshops in rehabilitation services).

I am not sure what had changed my mind in that meeting. My parents were generallysupportive of my ambitions to go to art college as far as I remember, so there wasn’t any obvious resistance from them. In hindsight I attribute it to a ‘head vs. heart’ decision, opting to pursue a career with a well-defined path and the associated financial income. I did enjoy many elements of my OT career, until I didn’t. I can’t pinpoint when the gradual burnout process started but I can identify where it ended. I took two months off sick, completely overwhelmed by a combination of high pressure, inadequate managerial support, achieving my initial career goals and the ever-present nagging pull towards doing ‘something creative’.

During maternity leave with my first child I found the headspace to reflect on possible new directions. I had always loved photography. The year prior, I’d bought my first DSLR camera and completed a 365 project on the theme of appreciation (taking a photo a day for a year, of things I was thankful for). As well as supporting my mental health at the time, the project allowed me to further my photography knowledge. I wondered if friends and family would be willing initial customers if I started offering my services.

In 2015, I handed in my notice after accepting an 8-week summer job which involved leading photography workshops for young people on a scheme called National Citizen Services (NCS).  This provided a solid stepping stone into freelance life. My husband had regular work as an accountant, so I was lucky to be able to have a small window of time to experiment with what worked from a business perspective, but the pressure was on to start making money sooner rather than later.

However, I wasn’t afforded the exploratory creative time that I would have gained at art college. In some ways I envy those who have a year or more, to play and experiment with technique and style. Then I remind myself that our creative output changes over the years and is only ever a response to our current beliefs, attitudes and interests so now is as good a time as any to reconnect with my artistic interests.

Musical meanderings: A side note

I don’t want to imply that I had neglected my creative life entirely whilst working in the NHS.  I developed a love of DJing, in tandem with my OT career.  I regularly surprised colleagues when they asked how my weekend had been, telling them about my clubbing or festival adventures. My passion for DJing became an escape and I even had fantasies of making it an alternative career.  These days, I aim to find ways to combine my interests in photography and music which gives me a whole heap of satisfaction.

Unearthing lost creativity

My creativity had been buried under years of career burnout, bereavements, house moves and having children.  Unearthing my creativity has been a priority for me, alongside learning how to run a business and be a parent.  Balancing client briefs and paid commissions with my own playful projects has not been easy.  Whilst building a business satisfied my desire for creative work, I yearn to reconnect with the unfulfilled art student within me.

I have taken various steps to reacquaint myself with ‘artist me’...

... I always try to have a personal project on the go. One of these led to a solo exhibition of my photography portraits entitled ‘Ablaze!’ and I organised ‘Analogue It’, a collaborative project with other artists, which started in lockdown.

... Teaching others is an excellent way to connect with my own creatively. I particularly enjoy running smartphone photography workshops, due to its accessibility. Participants find the freedom to play which in turn, has a positive impact on my own practice. I am also learning more about Socially Engaged Photography, through a commission I’ve been involved in with the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool.

... I have just bought my first ‘proper’ film camera (a Pentax MX). I am increasingly drawn to analogue ways of working, and the new darkroom and photography courses that Alan will be offering at Assembly Arts, is the perfect opportunity to learn more. Whilst digital photography has enabled me to start my own business and create imagery easily and with low risk, I am experiencing ‘digital fatigue’ and am excited to explore more hands-on ways of working. The art school vibe that emanates from Assembly Arts, evokes a sense of comforting nostalgia for the path I never took but happily, can now!

All this said, I can’t shake the feeling that I have continued to ‘play it safe’ in my creative projects, rarely going beyond what I know I can achieve. I know I can be bolder and take more risks and I’m getting there. I guess it’s a lifelong journey for all of us.


Learning from Occupational therapy

One of the aspects of Occupational therapy that attracted me initially, was its emphasis on ‘enabling independence and purpose through engaging in pursuits that hold personal meaning’.  Many clients found this meaning in creative activities.  In fact, handmade crafts were employed by the first OTs supporting people in rehabilitation in the 1920s, and later soldiers injured in the Second World War. Many OTs are still called ‘Basket Weavers’ by other health professionals, a name that is often used disparagingly.  The name-caller ignores the multitude of therapeutic benefits inherent in such activities believing that OTs just ‘sit around and do nice things’ with patients.  Crafts involve a myriad of skills such as: cognitive and problem-solving skills, physical such as hand-eye co-ordination, and social skills through the teaching and learning process.  Benefits include an increased sense of agency, relaxation, and an improvement in mood, and for some a renewed sense of purpose and even work skills. (1)  Many of us know the personal benefits we receive from having a creative practice.

The concept of the ‘Just Right Challenge’ in another central tenet of OT.  We worked with our clients to find, and go just beyond, the threshold of their comfort and current experience.  This of course enables growth.  I have recently been reflecting on whether my own personal goals have been ‘just right’ and asking if they could be ‘righter’.


Becoming a parent provides tons of new opportunities to play and get creative too. A few weeks ago, my daughter’s school held a ‘1940s Open Day’ to demonstrate what the children had been learning in their history topic. They invited parents to dress up too. My mother-in- law and I were the only two visitors to do so, but I embraced it as a chance to push myself out of my comfort zone and get creative in a public way. That’s growth right there I reckon.  Children are the best teachers in how to play. My daughter finds it impossible to go for a nature walk, without making it into an adventure involving hidden treasure or monster hideouts. Play and creativity is their means of communication and understanding the world.  Adults can learn a lot from this.


The Artist’s Way

The Artist’s Way (2) is something I have intended to do for years, but only recently got round to. The workbook written by Julia Cameron, is designed to help you reconnect with your inner artist. She sets a series of creative tasks each week for 12 weeks, alongside the ‘Morning Pages’ daily journalling practice, and a weekly solo ‘Artist Date’. Weekly themes include identifying your blocks, recovering your power, and developing your identity. I am doing this alongside other women, reflecting on our progress via a WhatsApp group.  Through this work, a consistent theme of productivity is emerging for me. During a very helpful mentoring session a few years ago, I was introduced to Kahler’s ‘five common drivers’ (1975). These are traits that often motivate our behaviours in positive ways, but they can also go into overdrive and be the root of unhappiness (3). I strongly identify with the ‘Hurry Up’ driver – the need to be productive at all costs. I struggle to spend time playing for playing’s sake, especially now I have a business and two young children to prioritise. But Julia encourages a ‘little and often’ approach to creating. Author Austin Kleon talks about ‘doing the verb’ (i.e. making art) rather than focus on being the noun (constantly asking yourself if you’re an artist). My friend Sally sketches for 5 minutes a day. An ideal approach I feel.

Another emerging theme for me, is that of vulnerability and courage. Connecting with your truth and using this as fuel for your art is important, but that sounds somewhat intimidating. I think that ‘connecting with your truth’ can be as simple as doing the things you enjoy and finding fun in the process of creating. I remind myself that making art for me should take precedence. In fact, poet John Cooper-Clarke said this in a recent interview on BBC Radio 6 Music: “I write for one person and one person only; John Cooper-Clarke”. Whether we choose to share our art is a decision for another time but for now, I commit to making stuff, frequently and consistently and without overthinking it.


A final thought

I started this Journal entry by explaining that my photography business was created through necessity rather than bravery.  However, the bigger challenge has been reconnecting with the artist I feel I left behind aged 18.  Greater courage has been required to acknowledge my blocks and attempts at self-sabotage.  I bang on about not having time, getting bored easily, and not feeling inspired. I talk about not having the energy nor the money to pursue what I really want to do. But these are often excuses.  There is usually nothing holding us apart from a simple and regular artistic practice if that’s what we want.  After all, to make any sort of life change, it’s the small consistent habits that promote growth.

I realise that it’s easy to romanticise the life I didn’t choose, imagining that it would have been everything you dreamed it could be. But that’s fruitless and possibly completely fabricated! The best thing always, is to start from right now. I also acknowledge my tendency to ignore all the positive steps I have already made, in favour of regretting past decisions or focusing on the next goal.

I owe it to my inner artist child to step outside of my comfort zone and start making art, to notice the small details, to watch how my children play, to make mindful decisions, to do it for myself, to do it consistently and in small chunks, to be a rebel, and find ways to fit it into my day when I really don’t have time as that’s when I probably need it most.


(1) Creek, (2010) The Core Concepts of Occupational Therapy: A Dynamic Framework for Practice. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.(2) Cameron, J (1995) The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering yourCreative Self. Pan Books.(3) A Guide to Kahler’s 5 Common Drivers by Totem Consulting (Free PDF)

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