Resources Article

On a word I forgot to remember

Inclusive Cultures 2023 participant, Ali Clarke considers the implications on her artistic practice and her leadership of giving herself grace.

Over many years I’ve built a habit of filling notebooks with words scribbled over words, doodles in margins, diagrams and graphs spilling out over one another, all to help me digest the complex thoughts and ideas that arise as part of my work. There’s a bookshelf in my living room with row after row of mismatched notebooks, battered and tired from months spent in backpacks, on planes, on boats, on trains, on hikes. This particular day I opened a fresh crisp notebook, the front cover boldly declaring, ‘WORK IN PROGRESS’. This particular day with blank white space staring back at me I wrote one word, in all caps, and scribbled back over it again and again and again.


I’ve always battled with the pull between two inner worlds, on one side the draw to create art, on the other the need to offer myself to a greater cause of advocacy. I like to think I found myself teetering on the tightline between the two in the past few years, using my art for activism and my activism for art. At the center of this love triangle a desire to hold empathy on a deep level for all beings. I know many of us share this aspiration, even in today’s bruised and war-torn world many of us still dream of peace.

Until recently this is where I stood, balanced gently on this fine line, each passion at odds with the other in this my internal battlefield. I could never really understand why others didn’t feel this tension, why when quizzed, other artists didn’t feel their artistic passion compromised their sense of duty. For a long time I figured they must all be wrong. The only explanation that I could find was that I had discovered some dark truth they hadn’t, that art was inherently selfish, and we were all just kidding ourselves. Superiority or foolishness (both applicable in this case) led me to believe that there was no alternative but to live in a tug-of-war, back and forth for eternity between these two apparent enemies.

On this particular day, however, that one word seemed to shake me, knocking me just enough to wobble and fall off of that mental tightrope. Grace is a term that is often accompanied by images of celestial beings and rays of light, imagery which is far from my own mental catalogue. I can only assume this has been the reason why the word has never landed with me before, or perhaps I was just never really listening. On this particular day it landed, and it landed hard. Like a slap to the face I sat tracing over the letters on the page of my notebook over and over slowly digesting what I had just heard.

For those who, like me, have never paid head to the cadence of this word let me just offer a gentle reminder of what grace actually means.

Grace: a chance, the ability to make mistakes without punishment, forgiveness.

Grace was what I offered everyone, empathy, time, forgiveness. As an artist, as a leader, as a person, I know how to give others grace. It is my strongest value, one which has guided my work and personal life for many years. Yet, suddenly we were talking of giving oneself grace. Offering a chance, offering forgiveness and patience to oneself and somehow this felt revolutionary.

As an artist and leader living with a disability, I’ve felt that burning desire to make things better for everyone else, wanting to build a better future for everyone else. I’ve prided myself on taking care of others’ sensitivities and yet not once has it occurred to me that my inability to offer the same grace to myself had in turn created a breeding ground for contempt within myself, the advocate rejecting the artist and the artist condemning the advocate.

On this particular day, I drew a simple line-drawing beneath the word grace; two hands outstretched, meeting in a gesture of good faith for the first time. A rift finally closed inside myself. A moment to reflect and realise I had been the one who had been so wrong for so long.

Finally the two halves of me stopped pulling and started pushing. Together pushing away the self-doubt, the judgement and allowing space for the knowledge that advocacy and art are not at odds, they are in fact one and the same.

Themes Inclusive Leadership Practice