How Konmari and the Japanese Art of Tidying Up made me a better artist
It wasn't just clutter, it was an overwhelming sense of burden
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It was summer 2016 when my dear friend Susan introduced me to the Japanese Art of Tidying Up, through a book called 'Spark Joy' by Marie Kondo. Back then I thought it was all about folding stuff neatly- which was great because I’d loved my old job at The White Company, meticulously folding stuff all day, and I was ready to listen to anyone who was able to reign in the smothering clutter that seemed to dominate my day.
I finally snapped one dark October morning when I came downstairs to my studio, ready to work, only to find it completely obliterated with other people’s mess.
I had had enough.
The stuff. The junk. The piles upon piles. The strain of rushing around to tidy up before guests arrived. Losing things. That sense of guilt that followed me because there was 'so much to do'. The guilt from holding onto things others had given me or because they were too expensive... even though I didn't appreciate them. The bitterness that came from other people wrecking my space and not tidying up after themselves: Why should I have to spend an hour of my day just finding the room to work?
I wanted it all to change.
So I sat down and began reading 'Spark Joy- by Marie Kondo- the lady who brought the world Konmari- the Japanese art of tidying up.
So what exactly is Konmari?
At it's very basic level it is a way of organising. But it’s not minimalism and it’s not micro managing and it’s not just decluttering. Everyone's results will be different. Some people keep a lot of things. Some people don't. It's a bit like Spring Cleaning but you maintain it forever after one big festival of tidying up. That festival is called 'Konmari' and I would describe Konmari as an intuitive, personal way of living your life where you only keep things around you that Spark Joy.
Stay with me.
So for instance. Your jeans. One pair of jeans hugs your bum and makes you feel good and reminds you of that coffee shop in town where you feel welcome and calm. It's soft around the hems from pottering about at home and they never let you down- they always look good, feel good and can be dressed up or down. That’s a pair of jeans that Spark Joy.
However, another pair of jeans you have live forever at the back of the drawer. They're not bad jeans, it's just that they're a tiny bit uncomfortable, the legs are a little too long so they get wet and dirty quickly, and you remember wearing them to that party where you had a fight with your other half, but they were SO expensive and you just can’t bare to throw them away, even though whenever you wear them you feel a bit exhausted, a bit drained, a bit miserable- those jeans DON'T Spark Joy.
With a skip, eBay, and a few weeks of dedicated decluttering this magical little book gave me permission to say goodbye to all those things that didn’t Spark Joy.
Sounds wishy washy right? Don't be fooled. This is powerful stuff.
How do you Konmari?
The process of Konmari is performed by sorting through your entire home in stages. Once you have sorted through those items in that stage you can clean the area and return everything to it's new place.
The stages are set out in a specific order so you can practice letting go of things that are easier first, such as clothes, before tackling more sentimental items like photographs and memento's. This is where many people fall down. They'll tackle something they're not ready to say good bye to, get scared and then give up. The purpose of the book is to keep you focused and moving through it all slowly and at a pace that benefits you, rather then frightens you. I hear way too often people terrified at the prospect of throwing away their kids teddy bears. Seriously- you don't get to that part until you're ready. You let go of things because you want to, and you DO want to, as i'll explain in a moment.
This isn't supposed to hurt. It's supposed to heal.
The first stage is clothing. As with each category you gather every item you possess within that category, dump it all on the floor, and then literally hold each thing feeling whether it sparks joy or not.
You can't just look. You have to hold things. You'll be amazed at the memories and feelings that come from holding things.
To help me process things quicker I put aside some items that easily brought me feelings of joy or the opposite and used them to compare other clothing to them. Did that shirt make me feel less or more joy? Did that dress make me feel better or worse then that dress?
If I came across anything I was indifferent to it went into the NO JOY pile. Even things I knew I could use. Or had multiples of. Or were unworn. Or could be fixed. I had to ask myself honestly- did I need them. Would I fix them? Could I just replace them if I found out in future I did need them? Did I already have something else like that which would be suitable instead? Occasionally I would find something I needed to keep for practical reasons- like horse riding kit, or a fleece- even though they in themselves didn't spark a huge amount of Joy for me, the act of USING them brought me joy. Staying safe. Staying warm. Performing a task. All good reasons to keep clothing or at least keep it, until a suitable Joy Sparking replacement had been found.
I ended up with a huge pile of clothes that didn't spark joy. A little pile of clothes that did. And a list of about 20 items that I wanted to replace or find options for that DID spark joy.
Looking at those piles of clothes, I became aware of a distinct energy difference between them.
One pile of clothes reminded me of fun times, feeling fabulous, looking fabulous, cuddles, laughter, all my best memories... In contrast the other pile hummed with this dark mood so powerful I began to cry. My husband thought I had gone mad. I could see and feel arguments, accidents, pain, illness. I felt ugly or sore just looking at those clothes. I could recall moments of depression. I remembered the blisters, the itching, the hassle. Everything in that pile had hurt me some how. The idea of ever wearing anything in that pile again repulsed me.
At that point I understood the power of Konmari
As much as I expected it to just be about folding socks nicely, when you can absolutely FEEL the effect of your possessions on your mood you suddenly discover an intense motivation to get rid of everything and anything that could be possibly affecting your happiness. When you can see how something as innocuous as a pile of clothes triggering subconscious memories and feelings which you don't want or need, suddenly putting those clothes in a black bin bag and sending them off to the charity shop feels like an excellent idea. When you arrange your shoes and clothes in a way that makes you smile and feels like an honour to put on, that's worth the extra time folding and displaying them every day. I even put up little show girl lights in the back of my wardrobe for extra glamour.
Joy was sparking everywhere and it definitely still felt like Me- no hint of minimalist sterility or coldness. Everything felt neat, cared for and organised too. I LIKED being around these things.
Over the following weeks I went through each of the categories and faithfully Konmari-ed my world.
Living with others made it harder- something that sparked joy for them would annoy the hell out of me and vice versa (there was one particular tub of tigers balm Mr W would NOT throw away). Yet when it came to my art studio I had full, delicious control, and this was where I learnt the other magical effect that Konmari has on your life.
Konmari clears mental clutter
You don't just clear away material possessions when you Konmari. You can clear away OTHER behaviours, relationships and situations that don't Spark Joy too. Many find post Konmari their lives and health improving when they finally start letting go of anything toxic that holds them back; junk food, too much wine, smoking, their bitchy friend Hannah... and the more they SEEK joy, revelling in life’s little pleasures, new and wonderful opportunities find their way to them.
For me, when I decluttered my art studio, and was finally able to let go of a lot of ideas, guilt, failure and art materials.
As you may or may not know, I move about a bit because of our property business, and as a result my art studio had to be downsized from a 20ft long out-building with three tables, sewing area, en suite toilet, massive drafting table, gallery and a whole library of books and art materials to squeeze into one half of our new homes living room (Until we move again onto our next project). It meant I'd already shifted a lot of my things, but the space itself was still cluttered and heavy. Every time I sat down I felt stifled. Overwhelmed. Uncomfortable. Haunted, even. Especially by all the half finished projects, materials I'd bought but never got round to using, failed artwork and collections of generally weird things like fabric scraps and old keys, which I rarely used but felt bad throwing away because... One Day, I Might Need Them.
If there's one thing I see time and time again is that artists and crafts people hoard. And I had hoarded way too much. Both materialistically and mentally.
Where to start?
I started with the Books, mainly as that was the next category to tackle after Clothes and then all the household paperwork which was also conveniently stored in my studio. This didn't take too long and was fairly straight forward.
The main issue was getting rid of all the books and waiting for people to collect whatever I'd sold or taking it to the post office. It was tempting to sneak books back onto the shelves or feel stressed about the mess (and it was a COMPLETE pig sty). The whole house looked like it had been robbed for a few weeks but I managed to stay focused. Hiding things I had sorted away in bags/boxes immediately helped me resist taking them back, and getting them out of the house as soon as possible meant I forgot about them quickly when they did go.
There isn't a thing I've got rid of that I can recall anymore. My only regret was holding onto these things for so long.
I buy a LOT of non-fiction and had accumulated a huge number of books which I never got round to reading properly or even attempting the projects inside. Unaware this had been getting me down, I had one book full of craft projects for example, that I had privately promised to myself to complete every craft in it (high expectations or what?!) and every time I looked at or touched that book I felt sick. Sick with guilt. Embarrassed by my failure to even start. Every time I handled that book I immediately wanted to run away. Other books were nice, good books, but just redundant. Books that I believed I 'really should keep' in case one day I might give beading a go, or might want to crochet a flower again, but never did... and they just sat there taking up room and reminding me of all the things I never got round to doing and probably never would.
Not with all the time in the world.
Sitting with the books and only keeping the ones that sparked joy was a revelation
By identifying what sparked joy and what didn't my creative style and my dreams started to call out to me.
I'd had fun with the knitting books and the design books, but their time was over now: My heart was calling out to watercolour, costume and artist anatomy. I could see that now. By sorting through, I could let go of the guilt and say thank you to those ideas that had come to me, but I had not acted on, and release them into the ether, much like Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in Big Magic.
I could suddenly define myself so much easier as an artist. I knew I wasn't an landscape artist and I didn't want to waste energy on that anymore. I could see the gaps in my knowledge on the things I was interested in because with empty shelves I could start filling them with the books I wanted to learn from rather then stagnating the whole space with books on fabric dying and recycled plastic art, which I had no interest in.
I quit pressurising myself to learn and do everything and just focus on what interested me. I gave myself permission to Be Me.
The Final Hurdle
Once the books had been tackled and I was feeling more confident and inspired I could begin tackling Komono (or general clutter) which was the 4th category.
This is a HUGE category in itself and in Spark Joy is broken down into smaller areas like CD's, makeup, kitchen utensils, gardening tools etc. For me, Art & Craft materials had to be made into its own little category since it had such a large impact on my environment and life.
Once I had practised sorting Komono by organising my makeup and kitchen I began going through my precious art materials, thing's I thought I couldn't possibly give up, and finding what really sparked joy. I had to approach this as an experiment. I decided to go easy on myself and to just sort things to see what sparked joy. I didn't have to commit to getting rid of anything, I just needed to pile things. And then I could put it all back afterwards if I wanted to.
I can only describe the process as violent.
I aggressively, instinctively knew what I wanted to keep and what I didn't. All the frustration and disappointment and stagnation poured out of me. Art materials were thrown, tossed and donated the very same day. I couldn't get things away from me fast enough.
All those things I felt I should keep because a teacher said that's what you're supposed to use, or the things I kept because I was given them by other creatives I admire, or the things I'd bought and just didn't work or didn't like... More and more stuff was dragged out until I had piles and piles of things I desperately wanted to let go of. And so many questions. Why do I hate my oil paints so much? Why do I want to keep some of the fabric and not all of it? Why am I letting go of these? Is it a sign I want to move on from colour pencil work? Or am I just comfortable with my style now?
I kept a notebook by my side and wrote this all down. Things were changing massively. I was gaining a huge amount of personal insight.
I realised I didn't hate oil paints, I hated the other chemicals involved and I just wanted different colours. So I made a note to try water mixable oils.
I realised fabrics inspired me massively, much more then sewing, so I kept a special selection of my favourite fabrics purely for the purpose of inspiring me and sparking joy. Months later I realised I could use this fabrics to create Burlesque outfits and it reconnected me with my passion for costume.
Finally, once I had sorted through everything, I was left with furniture- some too rotten and damaged to salvage so it was broken down and skipped. The rest was sold or given away. I was left with a fairly barren studio. I had reduced it's content by 2/3s. I no longer had a desk or chair because they just weren't comfortable and I wanted them out of the space to invite, maybe tempt (with the help of the universe) replacements, to fill those spaces.
It took a year to finally find all the furniture I wanted that sparked the right amount of joy.
Now every where I look in my studio I feel comfortable, supported, inspired and like it reflects ME and my ambitions. I've hung work on the wall that reminds me of where I've come from and what I want to achieve next. I have little elements of humour, like my crazy hairy chicken, which sparks joy for me, but would have been thrown away if I'd done any minimalism or standard decluttering program because there's no purpose to him other then the pleasure he brings me. I can sit there and make a mess and not feel overwhelmed because everything has it's own place to return to. And it's not crammed in. Things fit. Thing's aren't damaged. Everything works.
Most importantly, the space is used and respected. Not just by me but the whole family now. This is a creative space.
As time in my studio progressed I was able to let go of old work- we had a bonfire and I destroyed ugly pieces that I had no value for, or couldn't be bother in salvaging or repurposing. Work too amateur to give away but just sat around in piles staring at me. Work I kept because other people had said I should keep all my work even though I hated it. Once it was gone I felt free. I felt no guilt in lighting the flame and thanking that artwork for what it taught me. After, I was able to gather up my favourite pieces and examine my progress and growth as an artist, and I felt good about myself. This was invaluable.
A year on I will occasionally have a 'top up' Konmari- I will find I'm stagnating again somewhere in my life, as we all do, as I always will, but instead of just living with it I've learnt now to root around for what's holding me back and make sure everything in my life is sparking joy. For instance, you maybe have noticed my online life undergoing a massive overhaul and this is entirely due to the influence of Konmari and what sparks the most joy. I'm deleting certain social media accounts, managing them differently, having breaks, exploring different ways of sharing my work online. It's all to find what sparks joy.
So what do I take away from Spark Joy?
It started with wanting to have a tidier house, a place I could easily sort out, clean and return to my work in each day as a self employed creative, but it actually grew into something far deeper and more powerful.
It's a way of life, an attitude.
I look at my relationships and places I eat and the music I listen to and ask myself 'does this spark joy for me?'
No... I don't always fold my socks, but I take greater care in shopping, we spend far less and make better choices. At Christmas and Birthdays it's no longer about buying a gift, it's about buying the right gift, or no gift at all- sometimes people would prefer a meal out or just a bubble bath and an early night.
The most important thing I learnt from Konmari though was finding out about my own needs and giving myself the permission to let go of things. It was scary at times. People said I was crazy. People were worried I was letting go of too much too fast and I would regret it. Honestly, I can understand, but like I explained... I don't recall a single thing I got rid of. Everything was let go of consciously and with care. I gained so much.
Life is still messy but at least it's a happy mess.