Monday 24 May 2010

Wagons and Weirds and Wonderfuls

SUMMER GREETINGS, Friends! Here in the left foot of England there is gold dust on the warm air, and the verges hum in the delight of sunshine and Good Things. Since last weekend's tremendous fair, I have been in my burrow painting like billio for today's deadline, and my fingertips are still golden from the gold wax I have been applying over the oil paint. I shall show you these works in good time, but for now, the Weird and Wonderful Weekend...

I made it in good fettle to Suffolk after that penniless episode, a fair bit of chaotic sign making at my parents' house en route, and an early morning clock-collection in Long Melford.
And there followed a wild weekend of non-stop talking and meetings of lovely people left, right and centre! My till was ker-chinging non-stop too, I am happy to report! And so I came away bulging-pocketed and grinning!

I was delighted to meet some lovely readers of this here web-log in the flesh, though I probably appeared rather manic and spinning-of-eye, if so - I apologise! My lovely friend Poppy and her whole Snippetygiblet family came all the way up from Colchester on the train to the fair. Anna who came to say a hello, bought a print of my The Bells, and has since written a delightful little tale inspired by it. Aaron Main presented me with a wonderful hand forged iron candle holder as a thank you gift for my ramblings, which was a very lovely thing indeed; and I was touched to hear from a man who came to tell me he'd been moved to tears by my work, and was so choked as to have to leave the barn! - These are things far more valuable than all the pennies made! I saw many other friends too, old and new. The sun shone outside, but I barely had a glimpse of it during the days for all the selling and chatting!

This year I made my display in the medieval barn, a beautiful building where many talented crafts people set up their stalls. There were basket makers, pole-lathes, musical instrument makers, furniture, sculpture ... and outside in the grounds yet more wonders, far too numerous to list here!

Here you can see my wares adorning the little stage at one end of the barn. My display was a hotch-potch of bits of old furniture - wooden window frames, old book cases, bed ends, picked up at a local recycling centre here; and slices of logs (clocks-to-be), oil lamps and twig trellis, ivy and linen. I even brought my home made lamp and rocking chair, in which I sat grandmother-like and thought up tales...

(click to enlarge - photo by my neighbouring stall-holder Dennis Hales, woodturner extraordinaire!)

From my perch I had a wonderful view of proceedings, and grinned at passing musicians .. these two Weird & Wonderful regulars playing foot-stomping heart-twisting gypsy music all around the fair:

And I sold an original painting too! Martin and Michelle had had a postcard of my Picking Up Sticks on their wall for several years, found apparently in Cambridge (but heaven knows how it got there!) .. and so they were delighted to find the actual painting, and bought it there and then! I always feel a pang when originals sell, and I leapt to take a last photo before it went on to live on a new wall.

And they took a photo of me with it too, with my name above my head and the grin that I have been wearing a lot lately!!

Weird & Wonderful Wood, I have decided, is my favourite of all the festivals and fairs yet! It is organised by the tremendous Tarby Davenport, who somehow manages to conjure the right sort of magic. This fair is a perfect mix of wonderful crafts, wood in all its guises, without exception lovely people, just the right amount of vagabonds, and realness, peaceful and good :)

(do click to enlarge - there's Sarah cooking dinner by the wheel!)

On the Saturday evening I was invited to share fire, food and friendship with a lovely family of wagon-painters, Ash & Sarah and their two young'uns Tilly and Lewis. They were there with one of their beautifully restored gypsy vardos. Ash is a signwriter and restores and repaints these wonderful wagons, whilst Sarah is the gilder, gold-leafing all the scrollwork and flourishes. They plan to make a museum of these wheeled wonders in East Anglia, the seeds of which can be glimpsed here at Wagon Time. Young Tilly even has a wagon of her own (of which I am decidedly jealous, actually), made by her father, and from it she sells Matilda Bishop's Scrumyumptious Sweets - in jars, of course, with her name on.

We had the most delightful evening of food and wine and accordion-playing by the fire, with tales shared through the woodsmoke. It was, in fact, almost too romantic a scene... look... you couldn't make it up, could you?!

(this excellent photograph - do click to enlarge - is by Richard Ieian Jones
who camped with his family in that lovely smoking scout tent above)

Firelight on gold and wheels! What could be more perfect than that?! I am in silhouette, playing one of three squeezeboxes we had between us!
And so I returned eventually to the West, heart-full and pocket-heavy, delighting in the open road, finally relaxing into driving again after so long, and singing within at the sight of the little green lanes winding over hills towards my village, and at the yellow yellow fields beside...

Friday 14 May 2010

Flowers for May

THESE TINY SAXIFRAGES are my small windowbox garden, planted not long ago, and reaching towards the light that tips on these bright mornings over the top of that oldest thatch onto my paintings as they are born. Through their stems I see the village go by from my desk. Children walking to school, unfathomably huge lorries of logs, texting horseriders, and ladies on bikes... This view was included this week on Terri Windling's window view blog feature, where you can see views through windows of folks all over. Looking from inside out.

I write from the edge of London now, half way to Suffolk where I'll be selling my wares at this weekend's Weird and Wonderful Wood fair. Come along if you are passing by Stowmarket, I'll be in the barn! The journey has been epic so far: relearning my rusty driving skills in a little rented van, and on the way finding myself stranded (and threatened with police!) in a petrol station without enough pennies to pay for £5.68's worth of fuel! I was rescued by a petrol-station-angel in the form of a lady eating a sandwich who crossed my palm with 5 pound coins as she overheard my panicked phone call to the bank! (I then had to go back sheepishly and ask her for 68 more pence!) We exchanged addresses for the return of the loan and I blessed her in my thoughts all the way!

... and stopped for a cup of Verge Tea, teabagless as I was:

Life is a whirlwind of paint and colour this May! I have so much work to complete, and I am fighting not to get buried by it all! But I look forward to June, when days will be clear to walk up hills and look over the edge into the unfolding year... And all the while I delight in every little plant that blinks from the verges: goosegrass, dandelion, nettle, stitchwort.
I leave you in haste with my Summer Crow, painted for Melanie in watercolour as the last in my commissioned series of four crow-seasons. He too looks out across summer fields grasping a sunflower in his claws...

Monday 3 May 2010

Babes in the Wood

THIS BLUE PENCIL that has been sharpened regularly during my hard working spring, sprung once from the branches of a tree, as I was reminded here when my knife met a little knot in the wood. Here in the village we had weekend Mayday celebrations: a fair where I and others sold wares; morrises and maypoles were danced and daffodils yellowed all the shop windows. A little drizzle came in its English way to the fair too. And the maypole ribbons in my brain are still spinning. All the colours of things I have to get done are merging in a mad spiral of panic. Inside my head there are little girls and boys spinning in their beginning-of-summer costumes and their giggles have tumbled out onto my drawing board.
Littl'uns amongst trees has been a theme of recently completed commissions.. and I thought I would show you a couple.

First of all a little watercolour a bit like a gentle nursery rhyme. In it Rue and Noah, two little yellow-haired boys-of-the-woods run through the trees hand in hand. The painting was commissioned by their mum Helen for their dad Jim on his birthday. And a lovely family they are too. The words either side of the illustration are Rue's. He has been singing his own version of a couple of nursery rhymes that don't quite match but which his ma thought would be lovely in the picture.

So there they run. In pencil and watercolour.... Here for you are some of the pencil drawing stages and the painted thing in its completion. I had photos of the boys to work from, but as is usual for me with commissions like this, I like to try to make portrait-ish sorts of images, but they are translated into my world somehow, rather than being slavish copies.

A light spring breeze has blown over this. It is gentler in tone and more playful than my work often can be. Less heavy. I don't know why.

(click to enlarge)

I do struggle with trees when my paintings are not set in deep midwinter. You see there is the problem of leaves, and how on earth to do them! You cannot possibly paint them all, but it has to somehow look as if you have. I am lucky to have the staggeringly brilliant illustrator Virginia Lee as a neighbour and friend, and I must say I would be very happy to be able to paint trees just half as well as she can! I have looked at many different artists' trees, the great Russian turn of the century illustrator Ivan Bilibin for example, who managed to achieve incredible leaved trees with just flat areas of colour, drawing no doubt on his experience as a stage set designer. For these trees I ended up taking inspiration from Samuel Palmer's Early Morning (1825), and for reminding me of Samuel Palmer's wonderful bucolic work I have my dear friend the wonderful artist of paint and felt and melancholic toys Gretel Parker to thank!

(click to enlarge)

No soon as I had wrapped up this little treasure, I leaped into the branches of the next commission, time ticking on as ever and terrifying Eight-Legged Deadlines creeping out of every corner toward me tapping their watches.

This next painting was to be the biggest watercolour I had ever painted, and so I had to order in paper specially, from the excellent Paper People in Devon.

A lady called Margaret had once bought a print from me in Scotland and wanted to celebrate the first birthday of her baby daughter Anja by placing her inside my painting. She asked for something almost filling an A1 sheet of paper, a horse chestnut tree, in which baby Anja was to sleep, curled inside a conker shell, and gathered all around she asked for woodland animals and fairy folk.

Now I must add a note here about 'fairies'.. though I fear it should take a longer paragraph than I have time to write just now. Many folk assume that my work is fairy-ish. But it isn't. You'll not find a gossamer wing, no matter how hard you look, in any of my paintings! Old wise folk, gnarled gnomes, riddles and stories of strange-goings-on are much more my cup of tea. I find there is far too much pink and glitter, too much superficial fairy (or indeed faery) fancy about these days. You must understand I do feel my work is rooted in an old magic, in stories of oddness, the wild creatures and disappearances, the other realms in the fairytales. But so much nowadays isn't that, and consequently I deliberately avoid wings and all their insubstantial fluff. Perhaps it is a dislike for the flimsy fakery I feel in the depiction of many fairies. I feel they need to be wilder, earthier and more unnerving. And this is pretty much the sort of thing I told Margaret when she asked for fairies. I said well I'll paint woodland folk, I'll paint little men with knobbly noses and funny little hats. That sort of thing. Just not fairies. You see to me these strange little people are indeed people.. the odd ones, the marginal ones, the ones who are not noticed or noticed for the wrong reasons. They are my fairies.

I hope that makes sense? Margaret understood and let me set to work depicting a gathering of these little folk.
It took yonks longer than I had planned... weeks and weeks. And I found it overwhelming at times. I sent Margaret a very rough sketch, as she asked for one, but usually I do much of my workings out in the final piece, it seems to suit me better. Gradually the painting took shape. Little folk appeared in corners and branches offering baby sleeping Anja conkers as gifts. And amongst the roots and branches sat fox and badger and squirrel, owl and mouse and hedgehog.
Anja is watched over from above by sun and moon and a kind yellow bird. It is an honour to make an artwork for one so young. I hope Anja grows up with fond memories of the strange little people who brought her horse chestnuts on her first birthday. I hope she remembers them and is kind to them.

(click to enlarge)

Anja in the Horse Chestnut - print available here

(do click on the images to enlarge and see them all in detail)

This large creation was posted off just in time for baby Anja's Mayday first birthday and I have the astonishingly talented illustrator David Wyatt to thank for the use of his large scanner! Without which I wouldn't be able to show you this in such good quality. David's rather brilliant at doing trees too, and goblins :)

And to complete the forest tale, I bring you photographs from a trip I took a few weeks back with friends Miriam and Damien and their own dear babes in the woods... to Wistman's Wood, the most incredible mossy wonderland of trees I have ever seen. Truly I understood then where all the tales of being pisky-led had come from.

You approach the little forest from across moorland, eventually half noticing in the distance a grey patch of shrubbery... can you see it? Far off where those two hills meet....

That is Wistman's Wood believe it or not. It looks like nothing more than a clump of dry gorse or low shrubs until you get close and step inside. When you do, your whole world turns green.

Green hairy moss covers everything: the granite boulders and tree trunks gnarled as a fairytale. It isn't big these days Wistman's Wood. Centuries ago it covered miles of moorland.
And it was easy to become lost inside.

Now this enchanting copse of stunted and gnarled ancient English oak trees is small enough that you can see beyond it to the moor and river, giving an eerie sense of I'm not sure what.

There are many legends and tales about this Wood. It is an unusual and enigmatic place. I am told that a particular moss grows only here and two other places in Europe. You can read in depth folklore about the wood here. Of particular interest to me is the supposed origin of the name. Wistman's Wood is derived they say from Wisht-Man's Wood, this refers to the Devonshire word Wisht meaning pixie-led or haunted. Others relate it to wissen, the Saxon / German to know. "From the same etymon comes also wise: ‘sapient; judging rightly; having much knowledge' Thus Wissman’s or Wistman’s Wood signifies Silva Sapientium, ‘the wood of wisemen.’"

Whatever it means it was a wonderful place to experience. The trees themselves look like wise men. I shall return there when the weather warms with my pencil and sketchbook on a quiet day, and perhaps I shall come back to show what I drew...

That's the wood, and so to the babe...
I have just enjoyed a happy weekend with my brother Jan and his lovely Maria who came to visit me here in Dartmoor and enjoy the May celebrations. With them came a kicking seven month old bump, my first niece or nephew who will make its little self known in July, and begin wandering in the mossy forest of this world