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.
English artist and avid sketcher Ruth Geldard took our Etchr Slate Mini out for a night of sketching musicians in situ. Here’s her story.
Sometimes, when I’m drawing in a busy music venue, trying to juggle sketchbook, and drawing paraphernalia, someone will look over my shoulder and say helpfully,
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just took a photo?”
Wouldn’t it indeed? Well of course I could work from a photograph, with the benefits of no time limit and the fact that it’s not likely to move much, or take a cigarette break. But a photograph is after all, a flat 2D image made by a machine in a split nanosecond and If I were to copy one, while I might improve my shading technique, I would miss out on the exciting, physical reality of the “live” experience.
This kind of spontaneous on-the-spot drawing responds to and gathers up mood, light and feeling. It also picks up the intensity of the artist, which is revealed in the nature and pressure of the marks. But most of all it clearly illustrates, for better or worse, the quality of the live, encounter through a connecting dialogue between artist and musician.
In my own case, I have been drawing people live, since I was ten usually as a distraction in difficult social situations. However, the passive portrait set-up where a person sits still and gets bored while you stare at them, can be a burden that I don’t have with performing musicians, especially jazz players. Once they are in their zone, they barely know I am there and their passion for the music is observable in pose and expression.
Since then I have never looked back and am now completely addicted, but years of supporting a sketchbook in one hand and tensely clutching drawing materials in the other for often hours at a time has taken a toll on my body so that I now have to look for a chair or lean on something. This has compromised my freedom to work, so when I happened upon a picture of a new art bag by Etchr, designed especially for urban sketchers, a small frisson of hope fanned a desire to try it out.
When the bag arrived, I felt the kind of new shoes excitement that I haven’t felt about an art product for ages. Aesthetically it satisfies all my artist sensibilities and I knew I would be happy to be seen out with it. The specific design feature that caught my attention was the diagonal shoulder strap, that cleverly takes the weight off your sketchbook and leaves hands free to concentrate on your drawing. The bag absorbed all my gear as easily as onboard tools on a vacuum cleaner and I set off to the Margate Jazz Club, an informal, group of long standing that meet at the Lifeboat pub in Margate every Monday.
The first thing I noticed was that not having to hold or clutch anything prevented physical tension building up and I seemed to get into my drawing quicker than usual. Soon my mark-making synched with the beat as the jazz players riffed off each other and their music began to merge into a satisfying fusion. As I concentrated on tracking the movements of the trumpet player, whose whole body was caught up in his playing, I was so intent on catching his pose, that I found myself gravity-leaning, a la Michael Jackson. That’s when the magic happened, that rare thing when my pencil hand feels as though it’s on automatic pilot and all I have to do is sit back let the line create itself.
There is nothing quite like coming home from a long session of live drawing, when all the elements have come together to create a drawing that you are happy with. Having the right gear, so that you are comfortable and have everything to hand is essential, and if you have been thinking about getting out and about and responding to the world around you with live drawing, this clever bag will go a long way towards making that happen.
My involvement with, The Museum of Object Research, is giving me the chance to explore how an object works within my own art practice. I wanted an object that would relate to previous work, and fit in with the idea of a of the possibility of a feminine, phenomenological response to materials. I chose the handbag, partly because of a mild obsession but also because for me it works as a perfect feminine archetype.
“The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity.” Sandra Mardin
My own preoccupation with them began in childhood, standing at a stall at a Bring and Buy sale, and the dawning realisation that I could buy nine used handbags with my pocket money, equivalent to the price of a Mars bar today. They were all shapes and sizes in different materials; leather, moc croc, plastic and textile. The thing that stuck though and remained with me throughout my life, was the used-ness of them, what today would be described as being, pre-loved. The surface of the bags bore graphic traces that evidenced the previous owners/wearers, their scent and their very battered-ness, resonated and hinted at, other lives. And I loved them all.
In retrospect, I think this early, multiple-bag exposure, set in train, a heightened perception of and material sensitivity to old bags. I would give anything to see them again. And this has made me think of the long succession of bags that followed, I remember them all in graphic detail, I could even draw them for you…
“…handbags are in some way linked to the feminine and one would have to see a direct link with the womb…” Rosalind Mayo
The idea of the handbag performing as a cipher for the womb in dream analysis, was started by Freud and continues to seep into the culture today. It seems I have chosen an object which carries multifarious, perceptual and literal baggage and so this stage of the project: to identify and define possible areas of work, has not been easy. During this research phase, I began to notice certain commonalities to do with, bag behaviour. At a party, the hostess noticed that I was carrying a small shoulder bag. She joked with me about this being a safe place to put it down and seeing my reluctance, ushered me to a point under the stairs where there was what seemed to be a whole flock of women’s bags all clustered together forming a circle. There was something so tender about this and memories of being in busy clubs and saying to strangers, “could I leave my bag with yours?” came to mind. Safety in numbers perhaps, but I find it hard to imagine a parallel situation with men and their briefcases or man bags, of which more later.
I couldn’t bear to end up as an Elvis Presley and sing in Las Vegas with all those housewives and old ladies come in with their handbags. It’s really sick. Mick Jagger
Interested in the physical evidence of wear, I began a series of bag portraits starting with my own, I treated it exactly as if it was a human sitter. I side-lit the model and placed it on a white background. Then asked friends to come with their bags and sit with me as I drew, while we discussed their bag behaviour. At this point, the project took on an identity of its own, complete with illuminating anomalies, tangents and emotional projections. One friend was “traumatised” when she put her favourite bag in the post, another was so conflicted, she became unable to choose between two of her favourites. The husband of another woman insisted on her giving me a particular bag that he “loved”, but she herself did not and had barely used. There were times when I found myself cheating and breaking self-imposed rules. Each bag seemed to demand it’s own medium, also, I wanted the bags to face me, all in the same position, to do that, I had to pack them out, to make them stand up properly and found myself filling them with whatever came to hand, glasses cases, candles, baked bean tins…Putting my hand inside another woman’s handbag felt decidedly weird.
“Bags also serve as the portable manifestation of a woman’s sense of self, a detailed and remarkably revealing map of her interior, an omnium-gatherum of myriad aspects of her life…” Daphne Merkin
And then, talking and simultaneously drawing the model, something I have always managed before, now became difficult, as I was forced to turn my head away from the subject. When I did have a bag to myself, (contrary to expectation) I was able to engage more deeply and with no constraints, would work for hours. But insights from the feedback given by the bag-owners, kept coming and helped me focus. One participant recounted fetching her mother’s handbag and having to hold it at arm’s length, not wanting it to touch her body as it would have made her uncomfortable. This brought up something I have often encountered, bag awe, most noticeable around your mother’s handbag, but in a lesser way, an indefinable aura pertaining to all women’s handbags.
“Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” Margaret thatcher
With all this talk of handbags, a memory surfaced, of being at a late-night party and a slightly squiffy friend, unable or unwilling to find an ashtray, found an unattended handbag, opened it, flicked her ash into it and casually carried on smoking, occasionally tipping her ash on the rim. Finally, she ground out the butt with the heel of her shoe, flipped it into the bag and snapped it shut. I have never got over the shock and sense of transgression, how could she…? When I recently recounted this story to a friend she looked suitably shocked and said,
Grandma had gone. Finally having succumbed, to the disease that had long ago claimed her breasts and then slowly eaten away the rest of her. We stood in her bedroom, a disparate gaggle of female relatives and contemplated her enormous, polished walnut chest of drawers.
An aunt squatted down and opened the coffin-sized, bottom draw with staccato jerks. In Grandma’s absence, everything felt flat. All her possessions that had once glowed and shone in her living presence, now appeared dead, as if in life they had carried a charge from her, which had been irrevocably switched off.
We were there to sort out Grandma’s things but I, a gauche teenager, held myself aloof as joining in might have forced me to admit the immutability of this, my first death. The others decided by committee to divide Grandma’s collection of dolls-from-around-the-world (deemed suitably appropriate) between the three granddaughters – my sister, our cousin, and me. They unpacked the dolls higgledy-piggledy, on to Grandma’s sap green, silk eiderdown, man-handling them, as if they were just things. They divvied them up, in a thoughtless, three-way split. The precious doll-families were broken up, separated and divorced from each other. Of course, I couldn’t say anything; it would have been childish.
In the next drawer up, were old nursing supplies; tea-stained, gauze bandages, suspicious looking syringes and unspeakable, black, rubber tubing, all leftovers from her days as a midwife, which caused my aunt to say, “Physician heal thyself.“
Everyone laughed except me. Aunt raked through the contents of the drawer. Deep down, secreted beneath the medical bric-a-brac, were three long plaits, three silken hanks of hair with a ribbon at each end. They were unmistakably Grandma’s and each plait corresponded to a different stage of her eventful life, and formed a natural timeline. The hair breached emotional barriers that seeing her coffin had not. A sudden roaring in my ears bent my head and I tried to block it out by squeezing my eyes shut and clenching my jaw.
No one noticed, they were too busy laughing again, pretending to be appalled at the old woman’s eccentricity. I fought down an irresistible longing to hold the plaits to my face and breath in the essence of her that I knew must still be there, but the words just wouldn’t come. Continue reading →
On a recent weekend away, to walk and think, on looking at a map, I discovered that Monk’s House the previous home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, was only a few miles away. I was unable to ignore the magnetic pull of its pared down authenticity expressive of an essential and pure truth that still lingers from past occupants.
On my last visit, I met Marie Bartholomew, a room steward and giver of garden talks. On the morning in March 1941, when Virginia Woolf went out for a walk and didn’t come back, Marie was there. She was then the gardener’s nine year old daughter, she has rich and detailed memories that extend well beyond that particular day, and she is able to paint an oral picture of the comings and goings of people and contextual flavour of the times, from the general to the exquisitely specific.
On that first visit, I had an instinct to draw her but there was no time. This time, I managed to turn up on her once a week visit to the house. She was wearing a highly patterned jumper and talking animatedly about plumbing, she really does know everything. This time I didn’t want her to get away, so I asked to sit for me. It was soon arranged that another room steward would cover for her and we agreed to meet in the garden in twenty minutes. I decided to warm up my pencil with a drawing of a bust of Virginia made by Stephen Tomlin and located in the green sitting room. The bust is famous for being half finished due to Virginia’s inability to bear Tomlin’s necessary scrutiny which caused her to abandon the sittings.
There is something perceptually marvellous about copying a famous art work. I have always been an inveterate copier, as a child I copied all my favourites, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Vermeer, Van Gogh etcetera but it was only as an adult once I got to see the originals that I understood how much I had been missing. It is my firm belief that some trace/stain/essence remains. In the case of the Tomlin bust, despite or perhaps because of its unfinished rawness, I felt a classical sensibility underpinning the work.
Ironically, I couldn’t finish it because of my appointment with Marie. We sat (Marie’s choice) in the garden in not ideal conditions as we were on the same bench, usually I prefer a bit of distance and Marie was worried about her dark lenses. However, the light was amazing and I could really see her. Marie Louise Bartholomew, named after a pear, is an amazing person and repository of endless anecdotal illustrations. She is a living link with the past and at eighty-seven, I really hope someone, the National Trust perhaps, will tape her memories for future generations.
I continued to work on both drawings from memory at home, something I don’t often do. It made me reflect on why I am driven to try and capture some unspecified, uncanny, ephemeral thing from strangers in passing and how lucky I am that my own process is founded on early study, through ‘A’ level History of Art and History of Architecture and what a loss for artistic young people now, the ruthless incursion into the present educational system, will be.
The land of Literature is a fairyland to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes the charm fades on nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.
It seems I have difficulty with the truth. It became evident when I set out to write a memoir about my Indian adventures, to leave for my grandchildren. Very soon I came hard up against the limitations of truth; real life just doesn’t fit into satisfying, creative shapes, even when you leave out the boring bits. Within six months, I was tentatively exploring fiction. That was nearly three years ago. One miserable and depressingly cold day, I sat down to write in an attempt to cut myself adrift from the truth that was keeping me safely moored in the doldrums. It was so cold I grabbed the dog’s blanket, threw it over my knees and began to write.
And then it happened, like Cixous, I went off writing, the blanket tucked around my knees, was like being in a sleigh, no ordinary sleigh, but one that H. G. Wells might have used for his time machine. The sense of unlimited freedom and infinite possibility, gave me a head rush. Of course, these feelings did not last, but I never forgot that first, safe, physical cocooning that precipitated the mental abandonment necessary for creating fiction.
The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life; which helps us regain our equilibrium. Norbert Platt
After a while, I began to seriously miss making art, and drawing, which I always somehow maintain, was not enough. I decided to make a blanket in the evenings as a counterpoint to the daily mental effort. And mindless crochet was perfect, muscle memory meant not having to look or even think much about what I was doing. But the decisions about colour and texture were another matter altogether. My source materials were a disparate collection of leftover wool from various projects, plus, ancient family inheritances with their accompanying emotional attachments. I chose and applied colour harmonies, with runs and reversals, according to my mood.
Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. Franz Kafka
In the beginning, the words flowed easily and I thought they were great. After initial success, I was felled by pride: What am I doing? It’s all rubbish and any way I could never be as good as, (Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, et al.). And then it got much, much harder, bleak, anxious days where words were policed with self-doubt. But gradually I applied myself to writing craft through the explorations of generous authors. And always a voracious, if eclectic reader, I reread all my favourite books, through a deconstructing lens. In the evenings, the blanket grew, but I still had no idea of its final shape or function.
I start with the idea of constructing a treehouse and end up with a sky scraper made of wood. Norman Mailer
Eventually I decided that the blanket must be for my mother, who at ninety-six still finds it difficult to relax during the day, so I thought this might help. Deciding on its function, determined the ultimate size and shape of the final blanket. And suddenly it was finished, a whole, a thing in itself with its own identity. I had never taken two and a half years to do anything, much less commit myself before starting. Up until that point, I had never really believed that I might actually finish the book, now I could see that it was possible. The blanket ran parallel to the book and mirrored its process, it insulated, and protected tender budding ideas, it was my cloak, my mantle, my security blanket. The finishing of the blanket was a timely fruiting, a natural end, and now that it’s gone (not literally, it’s in St Albans with my mother) it’s time to finish the book.
Writing is not something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert A. Heinlein
I should say right from the off that this post is interactive and demands your concentration. When reading the quotes, it will be necessary for you to on occasion, mentally substitute the word “painting” for the word “sex” and then all will become clear. In reconnecting with my graphic past, I re-visited all my old painting heroes including Emile Nolde and Schiele whose works on paper I have much admired. With a view to painting again I sent for two books as inspiration. When the Egon Schiele one arrived I was surprised to find his brilliantly graphic and highly erotic images, not the ones I remembered. At the same time my insatiable paint lust kicked in after a long dormant and what has begun to feel increasingly like (in painting terms) a period of cellibacy.
“The artist’s experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, to its pain and its pleasure, that the two phenomena are really just different forms of one and the same longing and bliss.” Rainer Maria Rilke
Buying new paints, and poring over paper samples was painfully exquisite and excitement began to mount at the prospect of painting again. I chose a time when I had the house to myself and laid everything out with military precision. And it really is like riding a bike; you don’t lose such an engrained and loved activity easily. I spent the next seven hours oblivious to everything except my hand holding the brush and the feeling of a cycle, previously broken, knitting up and beginning again.
“Sex is the most profoundly selfish of all acts, an act which they cannot perform for any motive but their own enjoyment.” Anne Rand
These new works were intended to be mark making exercises, process driven but felt more like automatic drawing in paint, where the work seemed to have its own agenda and all I had to do was let it happen.
“Sex is a spiritual experience.” Deepak Chopra
The paintings opposite are a selection of that evening’s work-evidence of my renewed love affair with paint. The works were all constrained by rules in some way like for example the number and length of strokes in batches and the lines having to interconnect and bleed in to each other. However the use of colour was unrestrained random preference.
There’s nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex.” Billy Joel
I used a disciplined approach with the idea that constrained rule based work followed by working with no rules, would enhance freedom of expression. Things didn’t quite work out like that however as the latter pieces (not shown) became chaotic. I still went to bed in the early hours feeling elated and satisfied with a knowing certainty that the flow would come back in its own time.
When people read erotic symbols into my painting, they’re really thinking about their own affairs. Georgia O’keeffe
Today I have a new but very familiar callous that has recently appeared on the second finger of my painting (left) hand, I will make sure that it never goes away again, through lack of contact with pencil or brush.
“When it comes to sex, the most important six inches are the ones between the ears.” Dr Ruth Westheimer