Oxford Bags.

To Keep IV
To Keep IV Stone carving series, working away from the “model.”

So today I was standing staring into the open mouth of Fiona from Mojo’s, yellow, Oxford-bound van, at a collection of  boxes and packages, the culmination of my work for the Neither Use Nor Ornament project, having  a small celebratory moment, a wow, look at all that work, I made that, kind of moment, before realising that I was still clutching the last package, a plastic bag containing my sketchbooks. Without knowing why, I felt suddenly bereft and began to fuss unnecessarily about them getting lost, which was just cover for not really not wanting to let them go…Out of nowhere grew the thought that (god forbid) if something bad were to happen to the work in the van and I never saw it again, I would cope, even though it’s taken months, if not years of sometimes gruelling work to get it finished, but that I would find it next to impossible to lose the sketchbooks. And of course, anyone who has ever read one of my blogs will know, it’s that about now I will need to start back-peddling to work out why.

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I started the most recent sketchbook at what turned out to be the midway stage of the #Nuno project, having previously thought that the work was nearing completion. Having finished nine mixed-media paintings, bag portraits, while gleaning information about their owner’s personal bag behaviour, it dawned on me that the portraits were simply that, a gleaning exercise, a warm-up to the main event. It wasn’t, isn’t the actual work and for a time I felt rather useless and a bit depressed. Fortunately, I had recently taken up stone carving and decided to use the impetus of this fresh, barely- tried medium to push the work forward.

And that’s where the most recent book starts, with the vaguest of brain drawings that had grown out of the mental limbo-fog of depression. And today, I am so glad of its’ mad content: a mish-mash of things stuffed haphazardly in along the way, random thoughts and seemingly irrelevant images, without worrying about order, neatness or consistency.

And that’s the genius thing about sketchbooks, they don’t operate in linear human time or let themselves be constrained by any kind of normal rules. For me the thing that matters above all else when downloading ideas into a sketchbook, (and the same goes for diaries and journals) is to try and use it without any self-regard or concern as to how it might be perceived by an audience, without this premise, it can very quickly become a cold, dead thing. However, once the pact with yourself to not give; a rat’s arse, even the tiniest toss or even a larger, flying f**k (my inner-critic is having a conniption, but you see what I mean?) about what anyone else thinks, is made. Only then will your sketchbook begin to offer up golden diadems in the form of head-opening insights, and aha! moments, all be it in its’ own time, when it’s ready and probably when you least expect it.

But oh, the joy of witnessing the trickle of small idea-streams coalesce of their own accord into a river of intimate knowledge about you and your practice, that leads to new creative potentialities, believe me it’s the holy grail and should really have its’ own saint…oh hang on there is one already, well the patron saint of drawing and against temptation (?) Saint Catherine of Bologna. Coincidentally, her feast day is in March, she’ll do.

So, although of course I would be sad to lose all that hard-won work, I could conceivably make it all over again and the same with the research, it’s all replaceable, but my precious sketchbooks aren’t, so I will keep hold of the book that bears witness to this glorious, unpredictable, unbelievably frustrating but ultimately addictive process, for future reference and that way I know I’ll be fine.

Many thanks to Sonia Boue for instigating and heading up the NUNO project, to her team and to my fellow exhibiting artists.

For further information about the exhibition, Neither Use Nor Ornament at the Ovada Gallery, Oxford. The private view is on Saturday 30th March 2019 doors open at 12 noon. For further information go to:

https://www.museumforobjectresearch.com/nuno/

 

 

 

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Open Carry Part II – To Keep or Not To Keep Old Bags.

 

verb car.ry \ ‘ka-re

carry to have or bear especially as a mark, attribute, or property carry a scar

My work with old bags, undertaken for The Museum of Object Research, is in it’s final stages and will culminate in a group exhibition entitled Neither Use Nor Ornament, #NUNOproject, to be held at the Ovada gallery in Oxford, opening on March 30th 2019.  I have been busy rounding up and reflecting on the process. So in case you havent read Open Carry part 1, to recap, I used the verb To carry, as a focus and to corall some of my more wild ideas. Initially charmed with the physical wear and tear on the bags, that told of their history, I embarked on a series of bag portraits, painted live,  while talking to the bag’s owner.

I learned so much about bag behaviour during this phase and how this often reflects the value of the bag to it’s owner. Amy, for example wasnt over happy with leaving her bag with me so that I could finish the picture, until I gave her one of mine. Her deep attachment to her owl bag is clearly evident in her text. There were similarities of theme throughout, death came up quite a bit, specifically, the difficulty of disposing of a bag in terminal decline and whether or not it goes to “bag heaven.” I am perhaps the worst offender, as my bags go through many stages of use and are frequently brought back from the brink and reprieved, before being made into an art work.

– After 115 sittings for a portrait of Ambroise Vollard…
I am not altogether displeased with the shirt-front. Paul Cezanne

Making portraits in this way was not without problems, having to turn away from the subject (bag) to face and talk to the owner was often distracting and I began to keep the bags back to continue working on them when the owners had left. The choosing of medium seemed important, a different one best suited for each bag. I began to work longer and longer hours and the work got tighter and tighter untill to borrow from Marie Kondo, it no longer “sparked joy.” Fortunately, my eldest daughter Rebecca, all round excellent person and professional art critic came to visit. She listened to me, looked dispassionately at the work. and said,

“Mum, you sound like a social scientist, that’s not your job – just get back to enjoying the materials.”

I knew what she meant and she was absolutely right. I had got too involved, too invested in the result and having completed nine bags and made copious notes, decided to move the project on.

When you slow down enough to sculpt, you discover all kinds of things you never noticed before.                                                                                                                                      Karen Jobe

Now I can see that this work was information gathering, a chance to quiz my friends for  anecdotes. At about this time I had begun learning how to carve in stone at a nearby workshop and decided to use this fresh, untried medium, to work away from the model and see where it led. The first, and if I’m honest, most frustrating thing about stonecarving in the beginning, is the speed, or the complete lack of it. I set too with a heavy chisel and rather too much enthusisam and ended up making little difference to the inert lump in front of me, even though I was utterly spent. The stone had taught me it’s first lesson, you can only get somehere on its terms.

Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.                                                          Michael Angelo

At this point I began to work with a new verb, To keep, as I  had begun to realise that most of the bag behaviour was simply referencing, pointing to a much deeper phsychic connection.  I decided to literally, go deeper. Donna, the incredible workshop tutor, taught me to coax rather than try to dominate the stone and leave behind all my overwrought theories. Instead I began to trust the stone, let it lead me, so that it felt as if I were mining for something already there.

Abstraction demands more from me than realism. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life. Susan Avishai

The idea of a handbag as a cypher that represents a kind of psychic carry all, took hold and became evident in the work. Stitches grew out of nowhere and then a disembodied buckle. Donna, is a hard taskmaster, but she can always see further. Although the work was slow physically taxing, I kept going and the resulting four pieces; To Keep, I to IV, have I believe, evolved from me having immmersed myself in the study of bag behaviour and in the discipline of acurate representation. The later freedom of abstraction allowed a distillation of the work which in the end encouraged me to go further, deeper.

Where the material ends, art begins. Etienne Hajdu

On the last day, I brought home my dusty tools and setting them down realised that the bag they had been carried in was the original bag, that appears in the charcoal drawing in part 1, at the very beginning of the project, complete with it’s R.I.P. boast, but here it was still in use! I had a sudden flash of intuition and right there, sat down and painstakingly unpicked the entire bag. I flattened it and put it in a frame with a suitable verb, To Skin. It seems as if some bags really are for life.

To Keep IV
To Keep IV Stone carving series, working away from the “model.”

 

 


Neither Use Nor Ornament. #NUNOproject    https://www.museumforobjectresearch.com/nuno/

Rebecca Geldard                                                      https://www.theguardian.com/profile/rebeccageldard

Donna Fleming RCA                                                            https://www.facebook.com/donna.fleming.568

Cafe Society and Why J. K. Rowling has a Lot To Answer For.

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There’s a place I know in downtown Broadstairs, a quiet little unassuming café called The Old Curiosity Shop with a rich literary past. They have skeletons, not in their closets but in an actual well, that sits at the heart of the café, with (probably) real skeletons, a ton of hopeful coinage and accumulated wishes. A generous multi-faceted, meeting place where the winter clientele, on any given day might include anyone; from bin men to foreign students, ladies who lunch and all-weather dog walkers with their shaky, wet dogs wearing coats of many colours.

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Nearly four years ago, struggling to write, I discovered by accident that the words came more easily in a neutral, peopled atmosphere, but the most important thing was that it had to be away from home. It sounds sacrilegious I know, but the truth is home comes with identity baggage and to be authentic in my writing I need to slough off the labels of; wife, mother, grandmother and something even more constraining, the guilt monster who manifests in the form of mental, should be’s, i.e. you should be doing something worthwhile, something you get paid for, or cleaning yes cleaning’s okay because it has an end result, serves a purpose, qualifies time spent, with the added bonus that you can see where you’ve been, instead of being engaged in the useless pursuit of creative writing.

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So, I approached Sam, the proprietor of The Old Curiosity Shop to ask if I might, on-a-daily-basis, sit in the corner for hours at a time and write. He not only said yes but welcomed me in, encouraging me to plug my computer in to the café’s electricity supply and reader it was magical! Let me be clear, I’m not saying they have special electricity with creativity inducing properties, but almost immediately I was able to write a sex scene, (I have trouble just writing the words, sex scene so you can imagine how hard it might be to flesh out in words, an imagined one) I had been avoiding for months. Now, leaving my identity at the door, sitting in the steamy, convivial atmosphere, inhaling the scent of excellent coffee, I was able to sit outside myself as my head opened and the words flowed.

At first, I imagined cultivating an aura of froideur, a sense of mystique to prevent unwanted enquiry, the equivalent of hiding your paper with your arm in a school exam, to keep the girl sitting next to you from copying, but that is so not me, I was brought up in a village where you knew and spoke to everyone so I stopped that immediately and thank goodness! Soon I began to put names to faces and through mingling, learned about the lives of the café’s inhabitants and gradually became a part of this very special, shared community with its’ sense of belonging. Now, for a least one special lady I am known as Writer Ruth, a new identity is forming but one I can work with.

People sometimes wonder how I concentrate with all the noise and bustle at busy times, but for me; the voices, the cooking sounds and chair scrapes all coalesce into a wonderful aural tapestry that I drift in and out of as I spend time in my head. Occasionally the sound of a robust debate about for example the effects of; Brexit, gender transitioning or other hot topics, might temporarily drag me away from my Greek island, the setting of my novel, but only ever temporarily, here the call of words is strong.

The only fly in the ointment is having to carry the combined weight of the café’s expectations for me, which are high because J.K. Rowling once wrote a bestseller in one. I realise as I write this, that I can’t blame J.K. Rowling herself, as cursory research shows just what an inspiring advocate of the craft she is, borne out in her considerable personal and financial support. No, it’s her legions of fans who have caused the problem, spinning the myth and embellishing the rags to riches legend. Everyone loves a good story and I can’t bear the disappointment on the faces of the people I have come to care about, when I must answer their tentative enquiries by breaking it to them that I haven’t yet finished my novel, let alone found a publisher.  And although I am fully aware of the foolhardiness of trying to birth a book into the current cold light of day, for their sakes and my own, I will die trying.

My thanks to Sam, Jill and all at the Old Curiosity Shop.

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Why I Never Sketch.

 

 

 

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Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality. Edgar Degas

“I love your sketches,” said my friend with warmth, the other day, having no idea that she had innocently wandered into a kind of graphic no man’s land, with treacherous shifting sands. She couldn’t possibly have known that I have a lifetime aversion to the sketch word. Being fond of this friend, I wished at the time, that I could have explained, but I was aware that launching into a diatribe about the differences between sketching and drawing might be inappropriate and possibly border on obsessive. But this niggle just wouldn’t go away, it got louder, a proper ear worm and I began to recognise it for what it was – a chip. And I am at an age when chips are fascinating enough for me to want to face them down and root out their etymology.

I love the quality of pencil. It helps me to get to the core of a thing.                     Andrew Wyeth

So, I began with the feeling that the word triggered, an annoying twinge, a bit like jealousy and that it had something to do with the difference between: the way people perceive what I do and what I think I’m doing. Over the years, people have sometimes come up behind me while I am working and said things like,

“Are you going to finish those sketches off when you get home, or make them into paintings and sell them?”

There seemed to be a collective idea that this type of drawing must be the prelude to something else, not a thing with its own identity. Then when I gently tried to tell them that I do it for pure enjoyment of the process, they would look baffled and rather disappointed.

 It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover, to your surprise, that you have rendered something in its true character. Camille Pissarro

It is no exaggeration to say that I have made hundreds if not thousands of drawings and paintings of people from life, but I have never knowingly made a sketch. But anyone that knows me would say, Of course you have! Aren’t I always the one skulking in the corners of pubs with a 2B pencil, rather than join in with the social melee?  So yes, I do draw in pubs it’s true, but I never sketch and here’s why.

It all comes down to wilful intent, which I shall explore first before getting to the real reason…

The dictionary definition of the word sketch, includes,

As a noun, “a rough or unfinished drawing or painting, often made to assist in making a more finished picture.”

As a verb, “make a rough drawing of.”                                                                                              Also, in this form, sketchy, (just no)Sketchy, “insubstantial, imperfect, flimsy.”

So, to round up, a sketch is a bit nothing, it is a lightweight, fluffy, rubbish word and there is nowhere to go with it except, etch a sketch, ‘nuff said.

 I sometimes think there is nothing so delightful as drawing. Vincent van Gogh

But now we come to the word draw, a different kettle of fish entirely, an expansive, gorgeous, acrobat of a word because, just look,

Draw, as a verb, the method by which marks are made on a drawing.

I can draw; a picture, a crowd, a gun, a bath or a breath. I can refuse to be drawn ordraw myself up to my full height. I can draw on experience, intuition or a pipe and now I am going to draw a conclusion…see what I mean? You can take it anywhere.

I draw like other people bite their nails. Pablo Picasso

It is confusing though as both words tend to crossover. A sketch always contains drawing, i.e. the marks that make it, whereas a drawing doesn’t have to be a sketch, it can take other forms. This is where it gets tricky for me, because in my head when I start drawing, I mean for it to be a thing that stands complete, independent of all else. Once started, it is never my intention to develop it further or for to use it to underpin anything else.

Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad. Salvador Dali

With the image above, called Bigfoot 2013, a drawing of my husband with an injury caused by extreme fishing, there were two complete drawings before this one. They were not good enough and ended in the bin. However even though I may well have learned from their process, neither of these two failures was intended to be any kind of sketch or working out. Each one in my head was going to be the best drawing I had ever done, they were not practise or even a dry run.

It is the same with all my drawings, it is my intention to pick up some indefinable trace from the subject. They are not portrait’s either, not intentionally anyway, just that chosen musician, them in their space and me in mine, both doing the thing we love best.

This is however, only part of the explanation. The fantastic thing about a blog is that you can work it out as you go. So now to the real nitty-gritty. The baggage we attach to words and their meanings is naturally subjective and it is often in the mis-communication of words, that art happens. I am trying to be as honest as I can here, I think the real reason I have an aversion to this word is because for me it has become synonymous with amateur art, with Sunday painters, Watercolour Challenge and hobbyists. It reminds me of the days when people told me how lucky I was to have such a relaxing hobby… It took many years and a couple of degrees to slough off that label. So, forgive my touchiness, what is really going on here is a desire, to be taken seriously and the word drawing just has more heft, more gravitas.

Am I being pedantic? Probably, but more likely it’s a kind of snobbery. I know now that it doesn’t really matter how anyone describes my work because for me a quick draw will always be infinitely preferable to a slow sketch.

 

Creative Drought – Dry Spells and Risk Taking.

Repeating Patterns.
Repeating Patterns (My father’s pipe) 2007

Every artist experiences the chasm between his own inner vision and its ultimate expression. E.M. Forster

Every time I moisten a paint brush or pick up my pen the same familiar fear sits down next to me, ready with its pre-emptive toxic potential that overshadows every mark or word I make. This unwelcome if familiar demon is the lingering effect of having suffered, in the past, two severe and prolonged periods of creative drought. If as an artist or writer you have ever been blocked for any length of time, then you will understand what I’m talking about. So disruptive were these times, that I continue to live in perpetual, if low-grade, fear of something similar happening again. Does all this all sound a bit dramatic, a tad over the top? Well I thought so too and as the triggering event/call to action in my novel, a work in progress called The Denim Sky, is based on an artist’s response to being stuck in a holding pattern of grief that renders her unable to make meaningful art, I decided to call it and do some serious research in the hope that it would either dispel doubt or suggest a rewrite.

When patterns are broken new worlds emerge. Tuli Kuperberg

It turns out that many artists have channelled their inner diva in response to any stalling of their creative juices. After his divorce and the loss of custody of his daughter, Picasso found he could not bear to look at his pictures because they made him angry. Unable to paint, he changed medium for a while and wrote poetry. Likewise, after the death of his wife, Manet destroyed a large quantity of his work and stopped painting for two years. When he started again, his subject matter had changed. Georgia O’Keefe moved countries in search of inspiration when life events interrupted her practice. And when the right words didn’t flow for John Fowles, he resorted to writing school girl lesbian fiction.

tarot tower

Violence is the desire to escape one’s self. Iris Murdoch

As I write this, a Tarot card image of The Tower, is forming the idea of tearing down all that has gone before to make way for new creative innovation. I wonder, am I conflating depression with the state of being blocked? Perhaps, but I suspect it’s a chicken and egg situation. It is difficult to separate these things as the mind and body are so deeply enmeshed, born out in discernible traces in a person’s handwriting, such as the state of their mental and physical health. Which brings me to some sad, almost elegiac responses to the drying well of inspiration. Iris Murdoch only ever suffered from writer’s block once, she referred to it as “being in a very, very bad quiet place,” while writing her final novel, Bruno’s Dream, which was later found to show evidence of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease that she would eventually die from. The great abstract expressionist Mark Rothko could not resolve the final selection of paintings to complete his commission for the restaurant in the Seagram building in New York. This caused him to pull out and he gave the works to the Tate instead, before committing suicide.

 

I can always get distracted by love but eventually, I get horny for my creativity.      Gilda Radner

Of course, when the great drought hits and our muse legs it, I don’t think we are very good at recognising it. When it happened to me I just felt miserable and empty and because I can always paint, as I have through childbirth, disease and the hairdressers, I just kept on going, repeating myself and making horrible vacuous, images that were meaningless to me but I still I couldn’t stop, until unable to stand it any longer I ran away. Not literally, but in hindsight that’s what it was. Six weeks in India unconsciously putting myself in harms way until eventually my muse caught up with me and we came home together, chastened, but renewed, refreshed and utterly changed.

Comfort marks   Comfort Marks 2012

Those who do not think outside the box are easily contained. Nicholas Manetta

The internet is awash with helpful strategies that come down to: pressing on, (me) avoidance, distraction or both and in mild cases (is there such a thing?) they or may not help but after all my research, I have come to the conclusion that artists, writers in fact all creative people live much more in their imagination that sacred bubble. Along comes reality in its essential, pure form i.e. bereavement, penury, lifechanging illness, divorce etc. It ruptures the skin of the bubble and reality leaks in, the fragile imagination can’t stand too much of the stuff which can result in a kind of abandoning of self to fate, in the hope of breaking back into that precious bubble…

So, no I no longer have any doubts about the premise of my book being outlandish, lite, or frivolous in any way. It’s serious stuff. I just need to get on and convince my readers now…

Life isn’t supposed to be a support system for art. It’s the other way around. Stephen King

Essential comfort texts for those dark nights of the soul…

Writing a Novel Richard Skinner

Drawing on the right side of the brain

On Writing Stephen King

Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande

Light the Dark Joe Fassler

How to Draw horses John Skeaping

Water Baby

New flash fiction on 121 Words. 121 Words Water Baby

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Water Baby

The ever present, chlorine fug above the waterline bleaches the inside of her nostrils. She’s a graceless swimmer but alone in this dark water she points her toes and secretly dances. She worries at her daughter’s umbilical cord not the physical bridge that tied them together in the beginning but the other one, more chord than cord which still holds them. It’s fraying at both ends now, unravelling as the girl outgrows it in clown’s make-up and perfumed bravado.

She once had a dog that when it was in heat attracted other dogs who came howling through the letterbox. It’s like that now feral boys loiter on the doorstep without making eye-contact. Her daughter will be fine, chord-less she keeps swimming.

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