Saturday 13 September 2014

Painting poems, and what happens when it goes wrong

SOMETIMES my paintings take new and unplanned directions, either because I am deliberately trying to break my own rules, or because the project calls for me to step beyond them, as in this case.

These watercolours were done as part of a collaborative project between myself and my good friend, the Scotland-based poet Em Strang. Her poems are wonderful - wild and gentle, quiet and frightening, and I was delighted with the prospect of making images to go with them. 

But here's the thing - illustrating poetry is really hard! A poem, when it really works and has power, makes its images in your imaginal realm, where they can flit and morph as such images should, just beyond the reach of gravity and the crushing weight of collapsing the wave function. Knowing this, it was very hard not to step on the toes of the poem, and to illustrate but still leave space for the unsaid.

Thus I painted outside of my usual edged style, losing myself to the chance happenings in the watercolour, trying to find the hook in each poem that caught my heart.

I ended up with strange images, some of which I really like, and some of which I'm less sure about, but all of which feel very outside my comfort zone.

Having talked it over with Em, we both agreed that these images weren't quite what the poems were asking for, though neither of us know quite what are.

I shall try again one of these days, perhaps, to track down that elusive animal in these beautiful poems, and record its pawprint in paint.

Meanwhile, I continue my learning of what it is to really illustrate words, making companion images that work alongside the poem or story, but do not duplicate it or reveal a mystery that needs to stay hidden.

For now, I have put these little paintings up for sale, along with a few other original paintings and drawings in my shop.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about these images, and about your experiences - both success and failure - of illustrating poetry.

And do sniff out the wonderful work of Em Strang, as well as on her blog, she has a few pieces of writing and poetry at the Dark Mountain site and in the books. In October she will also be running a weekend writing workshop in Cumbria with Susan Richardson ~ Writing Root & Claw.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Summery Summary

DO YOU REMEMBER the days when the buttercups danced across the fields, when the sun was so high in the sky, and the summer days flew by like the swallows, here only for a bit, beautiful in their joyous flight? Having been blessed with two summers this year, this last one caught me unawares, working hard, and thinking there would still be more time to swim in rivers and visit the sea when all these things had been ticked off the list. Well, it seems there wasn't! 

Summer is now ending in a delightful September haze of late warmth, and I've sniffed gladly the autumn on the breeze. But how chaotic and bright and outward the summer always is! I always find it harder to focus on the more tranquil inner tasks of sitting long hours at the drawing board or keeping up blog posts in those heady fiery days. Spring and Autumn - the transition seasons - are much more conducive to a productive and inwardly creative space for me. Summer and its colder opposite seem to be fuelled, on the other hand, with gatherings of friends and more outward exposing of my creative life - fairs, exhibitions and the like.

Nevertheless, we've been up to all sorts of marvellous, colourful, and artful things this summer, which I've not yet managed to tell you about (or even, for that matter, take stock of myself). So here is a summery summary... (you might need a large pot of tea)

Way back in May, when those beloved white blossoms were frothing the hedgerows like the first summer waves, we travelled, as every year, to our favourite fair: Weird & Wonderful Wood, in Suffolk.

This year, my stall had a tree in front of it.

I was pitched next to the beautiful waggons of Candy Sheridan and family.

And this year, I also had with me a few of my father's woodcarvings to display.

It was very hard to choose which works to take, as my parents' house is filled with incredible sculptures of varying styles and media, made by both of them over many years. These are a few small wood carvings, as befits a wood fair. The three small figures at the front are medieval characters - a miller, a musician, and a wayfarer. Behind them stands a woman holding the word imagine, and a carving of King David, in grief at the news of the death of his son Absalom. Tucked into the bottom of this carving at the back is the messenger who has just brought the news. Around the staircase/scroll are carved the words of this particular passage. At the back are three carvings - the first, an intricate and fantastical piece - Forest House - which I remember him carving when I was very small in Germany; it is woven all around with words in many languages about the forest. Inside there's a chair, a staircase and a kettle. Next to that is the figure of Margaret Clitherow - a sixteenth century English Catholic woman who was deliberately crushed to death under her own front door by the protestant authorities who suspected her of harbouring priests. The small carving in front of them is called A Good Girl Sitting Properly and is finished with paint and gold wax. These all were much admired by visitors to the fair, and it was lovely to share my stall with the work of my biggest inspiration - my dad.

There were many more people there this year than I've known before, and the sun shone singingly for the whole two days. As always we gloried in the lovely mix of people and happenings under the wide Suffolk skies, and really enjoyed meeting all you good folk who came to visit my stall and buy or look at my work. It really makes what I do feel more real.

And the array of delights for eye and tongue and ear and nose and heart and hand and tool was even more wonderful than before...

The Albion Fairs Archive was there again - with an exhibition of images and old posters from that magical era of East Anglian fairs which Tom remembers fondly from his childhood. 

We met a charming mad called Glen around the fire on the Saturday night who had brought his knife grinding cart to the fair.

This beautiful and intricate wooden jewellery came all the way from Scotland with Geoff and Fuggo King of Woodland Treasures.

I had visits from friends and family which was lovely - here's my brother Jan and his two little ones.

I even met a distant cousin - Jess - whom I'd never met before!

The first busy day of selling ends when the visitors are trailing home and the other stallholders have started to cook dinner on their various fires. We close up our stall for the night, and sit down to eat our own...

On the Sunday, I spied a magnificent contraption wheeling past my stall...

An incredible sonic wood and metal dragon on wheels!

What a weekend! We hope very much to attend the fair next year in a wheeled contraption of our own, all going to plan, but more on that anon.

The sad moment of packing down eventually always comes, when you are really too tired to lug heavy canvas about, fish out dirty socks from underneath boxes of saucepans, pack everything down and drive off, but we did it anyway, as the last sun needled through the grand old trees of Haughley Park.

And before heading westwards, spent a few days with friends and family, old haunts and green men in East Anglia...

Back in Devon, we wended our way through the summer, working hard at our respective arts, as outside the studio the hedgerows reached for the blue skies and put out all the colours of their joys. And some of us dabbled in rivers...

We sat with friends roasting meat around fires, sat stringing beads in the sun, and danced Bourées with dogs...

In June we went to the Green Scythe Fair in Somerset - a friendly, grassy little gathering of familiar people, excellent crafts and stalls and a lot of scything enthusiasts.

This fabulous Tudor shepherd's hut stall is the mobile forge of Dean Aggett - The Devon Blacksmith. The fire blazed inside and metal was worked. One of Dean's ingenious creations is the tiny DK Rocket Stove, which was being demonstrated at the stall, boiling a kettle for tea.

Amongst the hedge-crafts and refreshments, there were puppet shows, and bicycle-powered bubble-blowers, 

Wagon painter Sarah Harvey brought her wonderful signwriting, and stone carver Tom Clark demonstrated his beautiful work (that wonderful lion was actually hanging off his hat!)

Familiar faces brought music to the haystacks. (These are members of the fabulous Breton bands Wod & Red Dog Green Dog who we're going to dance to in a barn in Dorset this weekend coming!)

And most important of all was the scything competition: a long and complicated affair whereby competitors were allocated a square of long grass to scythe with both speed and skill, and without injury to any Achilles tendon!

It was a grand day out, and such fun to be there as a visitor, to be able to leave without any canvas-hefting! As we left, the willow woman we'd seen at the start of the day had by now been dressed in hay and flowers and frolicking children.

And then! For midsummer we drove to Wales, to a cacophony of art and oak and inspiration...

This incredible residence belongs to our friends artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and his partner Peter Wakelin, with whom we spent a delightful couple of days marvelling, slack-jawed at the art adorning every surface and corner of their wonderful home. There was art in the decoration and design of the home as well as all over the walls and beyond. This art was not only created by Clive, but by many other incredible artists besides.

I particularly enjoyed Clive's expressive pottery and, of course, his puppets!

We walked together (with Jack the Jack Russell, too) through the lush Welsh forests and fields and farms and rivers that surround their house...

And, then - honour of honours - I got to see Clive's studio! 

I was in heaven exploring this space of creation at the very top of the tall house, where such marvels are conjured!

And then I was shown envelopes of witches and devils and dragons and birds! These are Clive's paper puppets for performances of A Soldier's Tale by Stravinsky.  If you haven't already come across Clive's work, his artlog is a constant inspiration.

Whilst in Wales, we also spent the solstice celebrating a friend's 50th birthday, and got to stay midsummer night in the most enchanted woodland cabin you've ever seen! This place is hidden in a glorious oak wood, at the end of a hidden trail. It was built as a hideaway retreat, which is sometimes lent out to lucky people like us to spend the night there!

Hexagonal in shape, every little thing had been though of in its building. There was running water, but no electricity, a little Jøtul stove, and beautiful pottery and tiles made by the same man who built the cabin!

We woke in the morning to sunlight streaming in on all six sides, through a cathedral of oak and birdsong. We drank tea in our pyjamas in the utter tranquillity of the first morning of the second half of the year, as beetles crawled through stained glass pools of light spilling onto my skin.

And Time did this...

Sorry to leave this idyll, we eventually wended our way south along the coast, passing cows silhouetted in the sunset across the bays. another enchanted dwelling!

This time, to a traditional Welsh cottage, also owned by Clive and Peter, where we stayed another blissful few days by the sea, yet again surrounded by art and beauty in every room!

White walls, and fresh blues and browns made a friendly and restful space, of which we became very fond.

Upstairs were crog loft bedrooms - low beamed rooms you had to climb a steep narrow staircase to reach, and then duck your head to get into bed. From lying in bed you could see through the miniature sash windows to the sea...

... which is where we spent quiet hours when we weren't reading, sketching, eating long breakfasts or sleeping late...

And just before we left, the dolphins blessed us with a visit. (there is a fin in this photo believe it or not!)

Our wheels brought us back to the moors, where the summer wheeled by faster than we wanted it to. Before we knew it, big scrolls of hay were rolling up the fields, the colour of the sun felt like it was tipping from honey to straw, and Shepherd's Purse was sending up little tokens of love to the season waving goodbye. 

We've had happy visits from family - my brother Jan, his wife Maria and their sweet sparkling brood - Lukas & Anna - came to share some sunny August Devon days with us, pottering by the river, eating cake in cafés, and painting pictures of night-time in my studio.

Since then, Late Summer, not always warm, has taken us out onto the moors, where the granite and heather and gorse and dolmen and mushroom and horse have been waiting for us.

Where the bright wind-blown skies could be seen in Macha's eyes...

Where the great stone rows and old songs of the land have spoken to Tom in poetry.

And now, just as we were once more digging out scarves from the bottoms of drawers, this late warmth has snuck in, to bless this month in which I turn 35 with unexpected dozy picnics by the river, whilst we make lists for the autumn and all the many things there are still to be done, and the once blossoming river plants turn to brown stems awaiting frost, and the river goes on flowing, just as it has done all year, harbouring quicksilver fish dreams, weed-wrapped granite, and jewel-fast reflections of kingfishers...