Nick Bantock and the art of self-trickery

Anita Willis
Photo: Art Studio 21 Photography

“This is not therapy.” Nick Bantock looks serious as he says this to his assembled class of 13—one of the few times we’ll see him without a grin. Whatever our expectations are for this weekend workshop, he wants us to know: this is not a 12-step program.

We’re here for artistic stimulation, and to tap into the artist/author’s creative genius. “You’re all invited to take a scalpel and cut into my brain and take whatever you find in there,” he says generously.

This is the inventive mind that created Griffin & Sabine, the epistolary novel that made Bantock an instant celebrity when it was released in 1991. A dervish of creativity, he has produced 24 books since—11 of them appearing on various bestseller lists. Most recently, while creating the original artwork for “Nick Bantock’s Saltspring” in this issue, he simultaneously completed illustrations for a new penguin edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


Art is his focus these days, including collage-making workshops at the Forgetting Room, his new studio-gallery on Saltspring Island. I’ve signed on for his combined text and art course, hoping my editorial background may help to compensate for my ignorance of collage techniques.

Bantock quickly proves an encouraging, intuitive, and funny instructor. He gets big laughs while outlining our third assignment—to write a rant against something we truly dislike—by launching into a personal diatribe against airport-security rules.

“What—I’m going to murder someone with my nail scissors?” he says, pantomiming a maniacal manicurist’s attack. “Clip-clip! Clip-clip-clip!


In writing as in art, our goal is to find subjects that provoke our genuine passion, then try to evoke the same response from our audience. For practice, Bantock has us read our pieces aloud. The most successful rants elicit cheers, but it’s the weakest one that gets his attention. At his gentle probing, our classmate admits she’s holding back. She’d like to curse the rude so-and-so at the hotel who kept her up half the night with his door-slamming, but what would we think of her?

Bantock zeroes in. “What would you say to him if he were standing here right now?”

She mouths the word.

“Good,” he urges. “Louder.”

“I can’t!” she says spiritedly. “I was raised in a convent.”

He laughs, but isn’t deterred. “Again, louder.”

She says it again, a stage whisper at best, but her eyes spark with suppressed anger.

Bantock pauses, an impish smile transforming his face. “Let’s all say it together,” he proposes. “On the count of three. One . . . two . . . three . . . (bleep!)”

Laughter explodes through the room. And with that collective curse, our classmate’s fear dissolves. It’s like the classic advice to a nervous public speaker: just picture your audience naked. What power can they hold over you after that?

Much of the weekend proceeds along these lines, sans the swearing. Through entertaining exercises, Bantock shows us how we can stifle our inner or imagined critics, and overcome the paralyzing sight of a blank page or canvas. Most helpful to me, we learn how to trick our relentlessly controlling left brains into allowing the creative right side some real playtime.

“It’s said that the brain is a fabulous tool for getting you on the right bus,” Bantock says, “but don’t use it for important life decisions.”

I enjoy the writing lessons, but it’s the hands-on artwork that pushes me outside my comfort zone. At first, Bantock gives us just 10 or 15 minutes to make small collages, and my heart literally pounds as I work. There’s no time to over-think; just make something, anything! Clip, rip, glue, stick, dapple, dab, blot, blot, and . . . time’s up!

The goal is not to create finished pieces but to rev our creative engines. And it works. Rather than feel confined by the limited time and parameters Bantock sets for each piece, I feel focused into action.

I came to this workshop reluctant to start any art project for fear of botching it. I’m leaving with paint and glue under my fingernails, and a real sense of joy in the process. I will botch things, but that’s okay, because I’ll learn from my mistakes. Until eventually, one day, I’ll surprise myself and create something really good.

And just think what I’ve saved on therapy.

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