PLAY x PLAY: Ben Stubbington
Play by Play is an ongoing series in which we invite a variety of creative minds to explore the importance of play.
Discover how engaging their physical selves helps them to stimulate their creativity while also liberating them from the often stressful and sedentary confines of our technologically dominated era. We hope this series will motivate you to take regular tech breaks and make time to play everyday. It’s good for your physical health and crucial for your imagination.
BEN STUBBINGTON was born and raised in the south of England, he went to design school and pursued a degree in Fashion Design. This lead to his moving to the US in early 2001. He loves the UK and US and calls both his home and has friends and family in both countries. He is currently a creative director of menswear at a fashion house in NYC. He practices art when he finds a spare moment and maintains a social and active lifestyle. www.benstubbington.com
I have been athletic all my life, and sports and fitness are every bit as therapeutic, stimulating (and occasionally frustrating) for me as making art. My artistic work springs from a simple, compulsive necessity for self-expression. I don’t have much choice in the matter. My work is abstract and sometimes formalist and although I begin every piece with a set of rules, each one ultimately develops through spontaneity. I find the process therapeutic and stimulating– and occasionally frustrating. My subconscious takes the control and I lose myself in the process.
Sports trigger a vital balance in my brain since they force me into an equilibrium of physical and mental strength. For most of my life I was a runner, mainly cross country. Team sports never appealed to me because I always enjoyed competing with myself and pushing my own limits. The sports I related to have mostly always been outdoors, often in the mountains / countryside or ocean and endurance based. When I was thirteen I became addicted to mountain biking and racing which meant sleeping in many a muddy field and taking many solo missions into the hills. At 17 my friend and I took a trip from the UK to San Francisco, we camped in the mountains and rode the hills where mountain biking was conceived. While at school I practiced judo and university kick boxing. Board sports (snowboarding / body-boarding) were also a big love of mine but due to accessibility and finances I was not able to practice them as often. Whatever the sport, the rigor of the physical activity disciplines me to step outside of my body, and that discipline becomes a kind of meditation. It’s something that has always brought me peace and compelled me to test my boundaries and push myself further.
Everything changed in 2003 when I noticed an egg-sized lump behind my knee while training for the New York City marathon. I had been running a lot, cycling and discovering a love for surfing. Although it turned out to be a benign tumor, the routine operation to remove it turned out to be anything but routine in its repercussions. Before the operation doctors told me I’d be released from the clinic the day of the operation and running and surfing again within three weeks, but then after the procedure I was told that I might never walk again. Later it was determined that the operation unexpectedly caused severe, permanent damage to a main nerve in the back of my leg and that my life would never be the same again.
I spent a year in indescribable pain, unable to put my foot on the ground. The entire leg atrophied and I spent every night staring at my toes, urging them to move with my mind. It took me nine months just to get twitch out of a single toe. The pain overwhelmed me daily and became almost intolerable. I was in a very dark place but escaped it by drawing upon one of the greatest lessons that I learned in sports: how to mentally separate myself from my body, almost as if I were looking down upon myself. This helped me to find the equilibrium I needed to move forward.
Next I had to learn to walk again. I spent the first year on crutches and the next three using a walking stick. I relied on prescription drug cocktails for years and to this day undergo pain management treatment. I sometimes take strong painkillers and need more rest than most people my age to recover from activities. My energy is consumed with dealing with pain as well as the toll of exercising regularly in order to keep strong and stay social.
Though I will be dealing with the repercussions of the surgery and the associated pain for rest of my life, I have never allowed my leg injury to stop me. The pain has shaped, but never defined my life. I have forged on with my career, with my art, and with my physically active life, and I have never looked back. When people say we learn more from the hard times than the easy times, I can assure you they speak the truth.
These days my body will only allow so much. I necessarily limit my practice of certain sports – especially running and snowboarding – due to risk of further injury. I pursue a delicate balance of being gentle with myself to avoid more injuries while still striving to remain highly active to stay strong and avoid further atrophy. I focus on surfing and cycling because they work best for my body and mind and also do some Yoga and TRX training.
Surfing has become meditative for me, despite also being frustrating and a very tough sport to master. One day I have it down, the next it’s infuriating. But the peace I feel in the water, working only with nature, is a very pure feeling— and no two waves or oceans are ever the same. The waves give me a sense of total presence in the water and sharpen my focus on my surroundings but in a hypnotic manner. In the years since the surgery, I have used surfing as therapeutic experience. My wife would often say ‘you need to get in the water.’ I knew she was right and always made my way back to the ocean to regain presence and perspective. If my leg is having a bad time the pain does not affect me the same way in the ocean. Surfing is the closest practice to true meditation that I’ve found. I’m still lousy at it but what it gives me is incomparable.
In the city, cycling is how I avoid the subway and maintain a sense of presence. Cycling has been and always will be a big part of my life; I grew up on a mountain bike and evolved into a year-round bicycle commuter as an adult. Somehow the chaos and spontaneity of my daily rides through New York, getting lost in the metropolis, in every type of weather, brings me a version of the solace I feel in the water. Commuting around Brooklyn and Manhattan releases the stress of being around all the people and technology. These days in the warmer seasons I also take 125-mile rides to Montauk and 40-milers with friends before work. I find the continuous flow and repetition equally grueling and melodic.
Sports and art are woven together tightly in my life, both force me to step outside of myself to move beyond the pain barrier— to find the mind-body balance I need to keep going and to keep growing.
Published: March 19th, 2015