A writer who, as a child, didn’t like vegetables much, remembered her mother saying, “Eat up your greens! Think of all the starving children in Africa.” “How does my eating sprouts help the children in Africa?” asked the young writer-to-be.
I was reminded of this as I read Jay Rayner’s restaurant review in the (London) Observer newspaper recently: “On the morning my train to Liverpool pulled out of London Euston, the media was full of images of other trains: crowded ones, filled with terrified people, fleeing for their lives, an invading Russian army at their backs. I, meanwhile, was going to lunch.” Rayner followed this with four paragraphs of justification for writing about brown crab rarebit while the suffering continued in Ukraine. He quoted counsellor and agony aunt Philippa Perry’s advice, tweeted in response to a question on this theme, “Stay in the present and not the hypothetical mythical future. Deal with what is, not what might be. Remember to enjoy yourself as much as possible. It doesn’t help anyone if you don’t enjoy yourself.”
Recently, artists on Instagram have also been questioning the point of making art during wartime. Why draw these apples on an antique plate while the bombs fall on Kyiv? Is painting frivolous, irrelevant, even disrespectful when families are huddled in basements, fearful of their lives?
The artist and teacher Nicholas Wilton explained his reasons for continuing to create during these troubled times in a recent blog post: “Making our art is all about making connections — it moves us towards a connection to ourselves and others. Non-artists are also connected to our cherished vision when they experience…our art. This shared experience of what we make helps create a more connected and, as a result, a safer, kinder world. Making art is a practice of showing the world what truly matters. And it makes a difference.”
One of the many supportive comments on Wilton’s blog post, from a woman who had trained as a physician before switching to painting, underlined this point: “embodying what we are for is more powerful than opposing what we are against….Art heals. Living from that place, there is no inclination towards violence, harm, neglect, disrespect. Only love and celebration…generosity and gratitude, and so much more.” A recent clip on Twitter showed a young woman in her Ukranian apartment, the windows blown out, playing Bach on her piano before she left the room for ever, becoming a refugee from the place she called home. It was important for her to play that final piece amongst the devastation, on the brink of her unknown future, dressed in a warm coat in the ruins of her former life.
Painting a picture, writing a poem, playing the piano – all help us make sense of the world we live in and perhaps go some way towards helping to create a better world, one where “love and celebration, generosity and gratitude” are more in evidence. If we don’t do these things, it won’t help the people under fire in Ukraine; doing them, however, might just be a small step forward into the light.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called Tom Dykstra sent me a story he’d written for the children’s sermon at his Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. It was a re-telling of the Grimm brothers’ story, The Fisherman’s Wife, although in Tom’s version the fisherman is the architect of his own downfall rather than being able to blame a greedy spouse. Sending me the piece, Tom wrote “I have no intentions to publish and am not asking you to illustrate the story. I just thought you might be interested in reading it and…visualizing wizened old Simeon scurrying over the dune. If you are moved to a sketch or two, I would love to see them!”
From time to time I put together an idea and sent it to Tom and his wife, Lois. They seemed to enjoy seeing them which encouraged me to continue. It became a fun thing to do, and I sent Lois a birthday card with Simeon holding a chubby fish which I hoped would cheer her up a little during a long and difficult series of medical interventions which, tragically, she didn’t survive. In February of this year I was halfway through another drawing for the story when Tom, too, passed away unexpectedly.
Tom and Lois’s daughter agreed to let me publish the story here with the handful of drawings I completed as a tribute to them both. I should say at the outset that I’m not a skilled illustrator of children’s stories but it was a great pleasure to do them, even with my limited expertise. I should also mention that Tom had thought of changing the ending – removing some of the religious references in the final paragraph – so that it could be read by those whose faith was not as central to their lives as his own. However, whether you share Tom’s faith or not, the story is a delightful one with a simple, honest and compassionate message. I’m thrilled and honoured that Tom shared it with me.
So, here it is, the story of Simeon and the magic fish that he found in his net one day:
In a time long ago and a place far away there lived a poor fisherman named Simeon. Simeon was so poor that he did not have enough money to live in a house like the other villagers. So, behind a dune, away from the wind and the sea, he put together a small shack made from the wooden timbers of wrecked ships that had washed up on the beach. Simeon’s little house had no door and no window, but only a small space where he could crawl in out of the weather. And, because it was made from the timbers of ships, it looked like a boat turned upside down.
Simeon earned a few pennies each day by taking his net over the dune and down to the seashore. All day he would throw his net into the sea. The few fish he caught he would take to the village to sell. Though Simeon had very little money, he was rich in other important ways. He was kind to other people and always willing to help them and had many friends among the local people. And the children, they loved him. When he came to town he would play games with them, and they would always crowd around him as he told them stories about when he was a child.
Simeon was not happy being poor, but he had long ago given up hope that things for him would ever be any different. Then one day something happened that completely changed his life. He was fishing as usual when his net happened to snare a large, strange looking fish. Simeon had never in his life seen that kind of fish before. And imagine his surprise when the fish began to talk! And as if that was not enough, Simeon was even more surprised by what the fish said. The large, strange fish begged in a loud voice, “If you will let me go instead of selling me in the village, I will give you whatever you wish.”
After Simeon got over the shock of hearing the fish talk, he said to himself: “I have to make a decision. This fish will certainly earn me more than a few pennies in the village. And what if the fish is not telling the truth and does not grant me my wish? I will lose the extra money I could have earned by selling it!” Then he had an idea: “I will make a wish and let the fish go. If my wish doesn’t come true, then the next time he comes I will catch him and then sell him in the village!” So Simeon said to the fish, “My boat shack is open to the outside weather. If you can, I would very much like to have a door and a window in my little house to keep out the wind and the rain.” “It will be done,” said the fish and he swam away. Simeon pulled in his net and sailed to the shore, running as fast his short skinny legs would take him to the top of the dune. And guess what? He looked down, and there was his shack fitted with a nice little door and a large glass window! He was so happy and thankful that he ran down the dune and opened and shut the door and window several times just to make sure they were real. It was an amazing thing: he had been blessed with a fish who could grant his wishes.
The next time the fish landed in his net, Simeon asked if he might please, please have a well for water and a small tree for shade near his house. It would be oh so nice not to have to walk all the way to the spring, and to have a cool place to sit when the sun was hot. And, of course, as you can guess, these wishes were granted. Simeon decided then and there that he would never, ever sell the fish; he knew a good thing when he saw it.
Weeks and months and years passed. Whatever Simeon wished for came to be, and he began to wish for more and more. Slowly his little upside down boat shack grew into a magnificent estate. There was a large, fancy mansion filled with fine furniture and large closets to hold his fancy clothes, a carriage house with several carriages, fields of corn and wheat, herds of cattle, horses, and pigs; and large barns to hold all of his crops and animals. Simeon became very rich. Soon he needed help to do all the work on his estate, so he went to the village to hire those people who used to pay him pennies for his fish.
Through all this time, it was not only Simeon’s house that changed, but Simeon himself became a changed man. Instead of humbly asking the fish for things, he started to demand them; he began to think he deserved them and had earned them. And Simeon became very proud and very vain. He bought fancy clothes; he got a fancy haircut which showed his large ears; he grew a mustache and had it curled into fancy swirls. Simeon’s eyes were no longer soft and gentle as they used to be but became hard and narrowed. His face became anxious and red. (The children thought it was because his new designer clothes were too tight!)
Although he was rich, he became poor in other important ways. He lost his friends in the village because he was no longer generous and helpful, but selfish and always greedy to get more things for himself. He became grouchy toward other people because he thought they were after his money. He began to yell at the children not to bother him. And so, when the children saw him coming, they didn’t flock to him as before but crossed over to the other side of the lane. Simeon thought that because he was rich he was important. And because he thought he was important, he thought he could boss other people around. The villagers began to dislike him and began to think he was just a boring old man who only thought about, and always talked about the things he owned. A few of the villagers felt sorry for him because he had lost the very things that had made him truly rich.
One day this rich, unhappy man, bored with all his stuff, had a crazy idea. He thought, “Because I am the most wealthy and important man around, I deserve to have a house like God has! I will go to see the fish.” Simeon hitched up his best horses to his chariot (he never walked anywhere anymore.) and drove to the seashore. He was surprised to see the fish already there, waiting for him. The fish said to Simeon, “I can indeed give you a house like God had. But this will be the last wish I can grant you; because in God’s house there is everything anyone could ever want.” Simeon let out with a nasty laugh, “That’s just fine with me. Be gone and don’t come back. Who needs a stupid old fish anyway, when he has a house like God’s?” And with that he drove his chariot as fast as he could to the top of the dune to look down on his wonderful prize.
But when he got to the top of the dune, he could not believe what he saw. It sent him into a panic which stopped his breath and seized his heart. Everything he owned was gone! His magnificent house with all his precious possessions, his barns, his fields, his orchards, his crops and herds of animals, all gone! The only building was a ramshackle shed that looked like a place where animals lived. Instead of the fruit orchards there was a single dead tree with two branches that stuck out sideways, sort of like the arms of a cross. There were no fancy clothes; just a single large piece of cloth caught in the tree and fluttering in the wind. In place of his animal herds there was just one small, skinny donkey standing patiently by. Well, Simeon was so angry that his red face turned purple. He leaped out of his chariot, jumped up and down, screamed, and shook his hands at the heavens.
Then a very loud voice said, “SIMEON! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?” It was so loud that Simeon was stunned into silence and the six white horses ran away with the chariot. When Simeon finally got his voice and his courage back, he shouted, “I asked for a house like God’s house and the fish said I could have it! All there is here is this stupid old shack, a dead tree, and half-dead donkey!” There was a long silence. Then the voice said, “Simeon, Simeon, you did not know what you were asking for. When I came to live on earth I was born in a stable like that. My clothing was a simple cape. I never rode in a chariot, but on a donkey. And in the last hours of my life I hung on a tree like the one you see. And Simeon, … I did it all for YOU.”
Simeon realized that the voice was the voice of Jesus. The poor man did not know what to do! He wanted to escape the voice but he knew he never could. He wanted to make excuses for himself but could not think of any good ones. He wanted to blame others for what he now realized was his own very bad behavior, but there was no-one else to blame. At last, he was overcome by a feeling of deep, deep shame, and guilt, and sorrow. He realized he had become a terrible person: greedy and jealous and grouchy and unkind and proud and self-centered, and on and on. In the end, all that this miserable, lonely man could do was to lie face down in the sand and cry. He cried so hard that his tears formed little mud puddles in the dune. And then the voice returned, more gently now: ”Do not cry Simeon. I came to forgive and to heal all those who have a sin-sick soul. And by my Spirit I have come to live with such people in shacks even worse than the one you see. I have come to live with them in caves and trenches and foxholes, in hospital rooms and jail cells, under bridges and in sewer pipes. And if you will have me, I will come to live with you in that little shack below the dune.” Slowly, very slowly, Simeon raised his head from the sand. His voice was weak and wavering: “Oh please, please, if you would, I would like very much to have you come into my house and live with me.”
And thus began the happiest days of Simeon’s life. He was a new man. The villagers welcomed him back as a long-lost friend, and the children once again ran to him for games and stories. He whistled his way through his days of fishing and was happy never to see the magic fish again. One evening as he lay on his cot, there came to his mind the tune of a song he had learned long ago as a child. As he hummed the tune the words of the song slowly came back to him; and he sang: “Into my heart, into my heart; come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart Lord Jesus.” It was a song that would become Simeon’s theme song all the rest of his life. The very next morning he hurried into the village and instead of telling the children a story, he taught them his song.
Text (c) Estate of Thomas Dykstra; illustrations (c) Michael Richards
How easy, do you think, would it be for me to loosen up my art practice when I’m the sort of person who arrives at airports two hours ahead of my flight, cooks sausages in a neat row, and arranges his CDs by genre, artist/composer, and then date of release (with compilations, of course, at the end)?
If the sight of a wayward sausage in a frying pan is going to cause me mild anxiety, how am I going to be at ease with wobbly lines and the threat of the non-figurative? Yet the little drawing above, drawn in a matter of minutes with a stick dipped in ink, is one of my most popular images on Instagram.
Well, one way is to allow someone to take you by the hand and lead you into the wild woods. For me, that person was abstract painter Jenny Nelson, and specifically a wonderful free tutorial she has compiled on greyscale collage. Nelson is a superb artist and has the skills to teach some of the tricks of her trade. Her own work is bold and expressive as you can see if you spend a few minutes wandering around her website.
In the tutorial she demonstrates a simple exercise that enables the most uptight person to loosen up. I won’t describe it in any detail because you should really take a look at it yourself. I’d even go so far as to say that even if you’re not a visual artist, but a musician or a writer, the cleansing nature of this 50 minute exercise would help you too.
I produced about four collages after the tutorial, which again received a warm reception on Instagram. One of the four, I think, works well as a composition in its own right, not just an exercise in loosening up:
I’ve gone back to producing drawings using sticks and discarded feathers as drawing tools, but have also continued to work with collage using painted paper as my basic materials. It’s a practice which I’ll probably continue to develop alongside my other work, simply because it shakes around one’s preconceptions in a rather satisfying way, like lottery tickets in a hat.
That doesn’t mean I’ll stop lining up sausages in a frying pan any time soon. One of my closest and most enduring friendships is with someone who does exactly the same thing, so both of us cannot be wrong.
We’re told that we have ten years to slash the emissions that lead to climate change before it will become impossible to reverse the process. The pollution of the world’s oceans disturbs me more than any other environmental crisis, possibly because it’s easier to observe its effect than rising temperatures or melting polar icecaps.
This drawing was inspired by two events. Recently I walked along a holiday resort beach at the end of a sunny day, when families were packing up to go home. The amount of rubbish they left behind was unbelievable: polystyrene food containers, plastic wrappers and carrier bags, all sorts of junk they could have taken home. Some helpfully put all their garbage in a plastic bag and left it on the beach for seagulls to tear apart and the tide to wash away.
The other event happened 25 years ago off the coast of Mumbai. I was on a boat with about 30 others when the engine stalled. As the crew tried to fix it and the boat drifted aimlessly, I wondered if we might have to swim to the shore. The water was brown and uninviting, dotted with the untreated detritus of a large, densely populated city.
Let’s listen to two artists who coincidentally produce work for TheNew Yorker. First, Bruce McCall:
“Life in general has treated me better than I deserved. As a kid from nowhere, with no education, no guidance, no money, no formal training, I should have had no dreams, let alone an expectation to fulfil them. But to my continued astonishment, I’ve maintained a nearly four-decades-long romance with The New Yorker and accomplished the only dream I knew I had: to be an artist…Growing up poor and unworldly doesn’t sentence you to a mediocre, artless life (if it did, we wouldn’t have the Beatles) – but it certainly doesn’t help. I don’t think being coddled by familial love and money would have necessarily made me a ‘better’ artist, but it might have helped me see that I was one a few decades earlier. If you ignore the value of your calling out of fear…your greatest fears will likely come true: you will abandon your true calling.” (from How Did I Get Here: A Memoir, Blue Rider Press 2020)
And now, cartoonist Harry Bliss:
“My parents never steered me in any direction in terms of a career path. I never thought about money when it came to choose the path. At 13 I knew I wanted to be an artist and that was that. I never worried about whether I could earn a living, I only knew that if I worked at it it would happen and in the meantime I was perfectly fine working in restaurants to pay the rent. There were a few times though, when my well-intentioned mother…thought it would be a good idea for me to do caricature portraits on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, $10 per portrait. ‘At the end of the day you could be making a lot of money’ she advised. I didn’t take her advice.” (extracted from a post on Instagram @blisscartoons July 2021 – do seek this out: the post takes a sudden turn at this point into a related story that is both astonishing and deeply moving)
These quotes seem to occupy two somewhat opposing viewpoints, even though both McCall and Bliss were convinced from an early age that they would be artists. The former took a series of jobs in advertising and the media which provided a good living for him and his family, until one day after a particularly unrewarding stint as a writer on Saturday Night Live he decided to take the plunge into being a full-time artist. Bliss, on the other hand, was going to be an artist whatever, working menial jobs until he could make it work financially.
I can sympathise with McCall. Like him, I wanted the trappings of material success: a nice place to live, books, foreign travel, bottles of wine, pictures on the wall – and although my chosen career of book publishing was never going to make me rich, I’ve been comfortable enough all these years. Unlike Bliss, I was never going to be happy in a bedsit in the Manchester suburb where I grew up, stacking supermarket shelves, drawing and painting at night and over the weekends until my genius was recognised.
More than poverty though, I was fearful of having this artistic calling devalued. I used to work, at the beginning of my career in a London bookshop, with an inspiring man whose first love was jazz. He was a bass player who played gigs and recorded a couple of albums with a quartet, but he never wanted it to be his job. Some years later, in the back of a taxicab in San Francisco, the driver told me that he too was a jazz bassist but he loved the instrument so much he wasn’t, as he put it, “going to be told by some asshole pianist what to play” so instead he took up the saxophone and that’s the instrument he played in bands. Finally, a few years ago I did a short course in oil painting where I met a woman whose day job was an illustrator. “My dream job,” I told her. “Not if all you do is draw people playing tennis and football for sportswear companies’ annual reports,” she replied. Not Maurice Sendak then.
I was never certain that I would be good enough for art to make me a living, even a modest one. As an illustrator you need a Gruffalo or a Very Hungry Caterpillar; as a fine artist you need to catch the eye of one of those high profile gallerists who’ll sell your shark in formaldehyde or your vacuum cleaner in a vitrine to hedge fund managers. I can’t see my acrylics of quinces hanging in the Marlborough, can you?
Of course, you can make a decent living following your artistic calling without having to pickle sea creatures. My partner gave up a career in nursing to become a textile designer and made a good living from it. Turning then to fine art and printmaking, she regularly sells her inspiring and beautiful work via her website and galleries. It makes me think of baby birds discovering why they have wings: they stand on the edge of their nests and launch themselves into the void, expecting to fly. How do they know their untried wings will carry them aloft and not send them crashing to the ground?
I can’t complain though. Now I have the time and opportunity not only to create, but to play, to experiment, as with the drawing of sunflowers above. This is a new departure for me: using collage and monoprinting to create imprecise areas of tone – no pencil underdrawing – using a piece of twig rather than a nib or a stylus to create living, breathing lines.
“My favourite people in the world…all rattle when you shake them. They have little pieces that have broken off inside them that are a constant reminder to them, and to me, of how far they’ve come and how much they have learned and what they have survived.” Jann Arden
It was a hectic dash to the finishing line of my career in academic publishing. There seemed to be so much to complete, to wrap up and put to bed before I could decently draw a line under it and retire. Then, at the beginning of April, it finally came to an end.
I had these plans all ready: there were drawings and paintings to be done, a big pile of books to read, things to sort out and put in order, and days of the week allotted to each. I could also take time to recover from an illness – and its treatments – that had slowed me down from late 2019 until the final quarter of last year.
In the middle of the pandemic I had met someone – an artist whom we’ll call R – whose work I’d admired for some time. A socially-distanced meeting one summer’s day in a churchyard in rural Suffolk led to greater things. It was, as those of you who have followed this blog recently will know, an unexpected development. I was prepared to carry on mourning a past that could never be reconstructed in this world, but then a wish I didn’t know I’d wished was granted, a prayer I don’t remember praying for was answered.
But let’s get back to art. The image above is of a village church, whose tower looms up behind two enormous old yew trees. The bark, the leaves and the seeds of yew trees are highly poisonous to cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic livestock as well as people, especially children, so they were often planted on church property to deter people from grazing their livestock there. They’ve therefore become associated with death, yet their fruit can be eaten by birds, such as the blackbird, song thrush and fieldfare; and small mammals, including squirrels and dormice. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.
R and I saw All Saints Church on a walk and decided to each do a picture of it. In the days before retirement I would have had two hours on a Saturday afternoon to finish mine, done something in ink and watercolour and been unhappy with the result. Now I had time to think of the best approach, discuss with R what media to use, paint and cut out bits of paper to use for collage, move them around and leave them for a day or two. I had time!
This is something of a departure for me. It’s imprecise. Things are suggested rather than described. There isn’t a line of cross-hatching to be seen. Many of the elements were adapted from abandoned still life paintings. Most of all, it took the time it needed rather than the time I had.
Axel Scheffler, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the Gruffalo, once said in a radio interview that if you can draw, people think you can draw anything. There are, he continued, so many things he wouldn’t even attempt.
As a young man this used to bother me enormously. Why can’t I draw a passable bicycle? If I can draw a dog why do I struggle to draw a horse? These days I simply avoid drawing bicycles or horses, but if my life depended on drawing a bicycle for some odd reason then I’d draw it like Quentin Blake.
I’ve also regretted never learning to play the guitar – or the acoustic bass. Why didn’t you then? you might ask. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I never wanted to be a mediocre musician and I was daunted by the amount of practice required to become proficient.
This is all rather sad, isn’t it? Worrying about what one can’t do instead of celebrating what one can. Not doing something that would have probably given me enormous pleasure and provided great comfort down the years simply because I would never be John Renbourn or Stefan Grossman.
My good friend, Bonny Mayer, recently decided that she’d like to draw and enrolled in a class during an extended stay in Thailand. After a couple of hours the teacher returned her money and advised her to try something else. Most of us, hearing that evaluation of our skills, might never pick up a pencil again. Not Bonny. On her return to the US she enrolled in another course and frequently posts her wonderfully vivid, lively drawings on Facebook (see above).
Let’s celebrate our own potential then, draw wonky horses and raise one of Bonny’s characterful glasses to the art of not giving up. We have one life and it’s frustratingly short, so not filling it with as much as we can would seem to be something of a shame. Wouldn’t you agree?
Entre chien et loup – between dog and wolf – is simply a term for twilight or the golden hour in photography, but what an evocative phrase.
I feel it could apply to any transitional stage when things are lacking in clarity, don’t you agree? That point on the path from agnosticism to faith, perhaps, when you want to believe but still entertain doubts. Or playing a musical instrument when you can’t quite get through a piece from beginning to end without pausing to re-arrange your fingers on the keys. Or, as this is an art blog, a point between one stage of your development and another when you can’t quite throw off the old or fully embrace the new.
For some years now I’ve tried to loosen up my drawing and painting style. I’ve enrolled on courses at places like Seawhite Studios, where I’ve been taken firmly by the hand and pulled outside my comfort zone; attended life drawing classes, where the teacher would tell me – 20 minutes before the end of class – to rub out my dreary charcoal drawing and start again, producing something rushed, yes, but also free-spirited and dynamic.
In the end though, the decision to take the next step has to be one’s own. Like a baby bird on the edge of its nest, you have to make that leap and expect to fly. With me it works intermittently: a year ago I sat in the autumn sunshine in the gardens of Versailles and drew crows pecking around for crumbs. As crows don’t stay in one place for long I had to draw quickly and the resulting sketch was lively and bold by my standards. A few hours later I did a drawing of a rotting pear (which moves less often than a feeding crow) and fell back into my old ways.
But once you’ve made that leap the results are wonderful to behold. A few weeks ago I watched painter and printmaker, Rosemary Vanns, drawing artichokes. Barely looking at the paper, her hand moved with confidence producing firm lines that suggested rather than reproduced the vegetable in front of her. Of course this is practice, but it’s also confidence, knowing you can do it before you start. It’s recognising – intuitively perhaps – the path you want to take and boldly moving one foot in front of the other.
That is the secret you need to know to take that important next step on whatever journey you’re engaged upon. That belief that you can do it, that you can keep your gaze fixed on the artichoke and allow your fingers to move and they’ll produce something that suggests what you see before you. Believe, just believe.
So from where you’re standing, is it a dog or a wolf?
“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”
I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.
Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.
I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.
It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.
I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:
“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith. It’s easy to give in to despair. There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said. We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch. Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”
I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.
A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.
“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.
“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.
“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.
I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.
I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.
Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.
You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.
Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.
I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King calledThe Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.
So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.
Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.