For the birds

For the birds blog
The AGM of the American Acclimatization Society (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2019)

On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.

It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.

It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.

It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks  pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.

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The creative everyperson

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The last rosebuds of autumn (A5 ink and watercolour on Daler Rowney Ivory sketchbook page 2019)

Some years ago I stopped drawing and painting: I wasn’t developing, it took up time I could be spending with my new girlfriend, and it was proving to be more frustrating than rewarding. When I married and had children it was fun to draw with them and make them birthday cards, but it wasn’t until I returned to the UK after nearly 20 years away – my personal life and career in tatters – that I started again, this time seeking out evening courses and workshops to help me progress.

In between I’d tried my hand at photography but the area that best satisfied my need to create was cooking. I’d always cooked – I nearly poisoned myself on instant curries as a student and then I lived alone for some years and, as I enjoyed eating, I thought it would be useful to be able to cook.

It wasn’t until I gave up drawing that I really started to improve. The process of cooking a daube de bouef or a good risotto was not unlike the practice of art: it took time, some knowledge of technique and a certain amount of skill, but in order to cook well one had to develop an instinct for the subtleties of flavour, to know when to stop, to feel a part of the activity itself. In short, I transferred my frustrated creativity from the art of drawing to the art of cooking, with the same intensity.

Recently I came across an article in RA, the magazine of London’s Royal Academy of Art, by Oli Mould, author of a book called Against Creativity, which argued against this concept:

Apparently everyone is creative….No longer is creativity an attribute we associate with skilled artisans and visionaries; every person, every job and every place must be creative to survive…The concept of creativity is now so ubiquitous in modern-day parlance that any semblance of what creativity actually creates has been lost.

Mr Mould gets the bit between his teeth after this, roping in the Uber app, the John Lewis Christmas ad, artisan coffee shops in Shoreditch, and high-rise residential housing for the super-rich to show how ‘creativity’ has been harnessed to profit and destroyed as a meaningful concept.

Personally I see no harm in a wider vision of creativity: isn’t your neighbour’s pleasing arrangement of flowerbeds creative? Isn’t a hairdresser creating a style that pleases her customer creative? I work in the marketing department of a book publishing company and I urge my colleagues to be ‘creative’, to go one step beyond their comfort zone, to think of innovative ways to bring our niche programme of academic monographs to the attention of their potential readership. Are any of those less creative than some of the artists I see on Instagram, churning out variations of their single theme time after time?

Let’s not rebrand creativity as the sole preserve of the professional artist or composer. Not all of us can call ourselves artists but we can all be creative. Frankly, if I had to choose between the perfect risotto and Jeff Koons’ balloon dog I know which I’d choose.

Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

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Rosie (Prismacolour Indigo Blue pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook page 14 cms x 21.6 cms) 2019

Mark Dery has bravely published the first full-length biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. It runs to over 500 pages which, bearing in mind Gorey did little except go to the New York City Ballet and draw, is probably too long. Dery is an astute interpreter of Gorey’s art and writing, but spends far too long speculating on Gorey’s sexuality and his shortcomings as a fully-rounded human being (show me a great artist who is).

I used to be mildly obsessed with Edward Gorey, ever since a good friend showed me a copy of The Doubtful Guest, which had been given to her by a New York gay couple who were friends of her father. I started buying his intriguing little books in the pre-internet days when one had to write letters to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC and send them international money orders as payment. I’ve no idea how many hours I spent in my twenties just cross-hatching like the Master.

Mark Dery is also insightful on his friendship with author Peter Neumeyer which was largely conducted by letter, and has since been published as a beautifully-illustrated book. He reminds us of Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory of Art, which is basically:

Anything that is art…is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.

He continues that things ‘that on the surface…are so obviously’ about one thing make it ‘very difficult to see that they are really about something else entirely’ (unfortunately Mark Dery then goes on to say that this demonstrates Gorey’s ‘Derridean-Beckettian awareness of the limits of language’ and ‘his Asian-Barthesian belief in the importance of ambiguity and paradoxes as spaces where readers can play with a text, making their own meanings’).

I’ve spent a long time on this blog trying to pin down the ‘something else’. I think we can agree that whatever we are inspired to draw or paint, that object or landscape is more than just that picture on the paper. Take the drawing of Rosie, the retriever-samoyed cross, above. On one level it’s a drawing of a dog using a Prismacolor indigo pencil on Stillman and Birn gamma paper. The ‘something else’ might well be my affection for Rosie and her owners, my enjoyment of my time with them all, my drawing Rosie as an expression of my feelings about being welcomed into someone’s home and family life over Christmas, how much I miss my own departed greyhound, and so on. What it isn’t, ultimately, is just a drawing of a dog.

Gorey has it spot on that ‘if you just have the something it’s boring’. Have you ever started drawing or painting something and you feel you’re just going through the motions, that what you’re doing is so superficial that you simply can’t face taking it any further? You might be surprised to learn that I’ve occasionally started drawing a piece of fruit and have abandoned it because it simply bores me to death, and if I don’t like drawing it why should you like looking at it? I believe that’s just having the ‘something’ in Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

I once met a painter who gave his landscapes titles like ‘Heartbreak is the end of all of love’s journeys’. That might well be true but it had the effect of not letting you see his paintings of nature as anything other than symbols of his inner turmoil. This is, perhaps, an example of when you ‘just have the something else [that’s] irritating’. It’s frustrating seeing or hearing something that you think is simple and its creator telling you it’s actually incredibly profound. Van Gogh did inner turmoil to a tee, but he called his paintings “Starry Night” or “Crows Over a Cornfield” not “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”, allowing us to form our own interpretation.

That, at least, is my take on Gorey’s Great Simple Theory. You might see it very differently, which is fine with me. And with Edward Gorey, I’m sure.

The two chairs

The final quince of 2018 (A5 acrylic 2018)

Recently I’ve been dipping into a book called Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect by Peter Jonker. I’m not about to write a sermon any time soon and I’m not even particularly religious, but I was told about the book by a dear friend and became interested in the author’s take on creativity.

The Reverend Jonker is himself a thoughtful man and a creative thinker (you can sample his very engaging sermons from LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, online if you wish). One of the images he uses in his book concerns two chairs.

Writing a sermon, he suggests, involves a good amount of time sitting in the straight-backed chair of concentration: checking your text, looking up references, researching what others have said or written about the piece, etc. Then – here comes the good bit – you have assembled a ‘beautiful mess’: all that ‘stuff’ you’ve noted down, cut and pasted, bookmarked online – it’s all there in front of you in its magnificent disarray and on Sunday morning you’ve got to engage the interest of your congregation – some of whom are sleepy from the night before or looking forward to a late brunch after the service.

So then you switch to the comfortable chair of contemplation. You move the pieces around in your mind, you try to pick out a thread from all these post-it notes in your head, you put the variations on your original theme in an order that produces a meaningful melody. It’s a more gentle process than the straight-backed chair phase but don’t let anyone think that you’re dozing because you’re sitting in the comfortable chair – your mind is still working.

The Mindfulness community will tell you something similar: if you keep rushing around you’ll achieve less than if you are able to give yourself space to breathe, to clear the table so you can see the pieces of the puzzle more clearly.

The painting of the quince above (don’t worry, it’s my last one for this season) lay unfinished on my desk for weeks. When I first started painting it, I was determined to dash this off in one sitting: it’s a single fruit, for heaven’s sake, how complex can that be? More than I’d thought, is the answer. Eventually, by sitting in the comfortable chair for some weeks (metaphorically – life isn’t that kind to me), I solved the problems with the picture and in less than twenty minutes one evening, finished it.

“Aren’t you just saying, take a step back?” you ask. Indeed, but that conscious switching to the comfortable chair of reflection is a powerful process, I’d argue. How many times do you feel like a fly in a bottle, banging your head against the glass sides, before you actually say to yourself, let me just sit down and think this through?

My New Year’s Resolution, if I did such things, would be to spend more time switching between the two chairs. In drawing and painting, too, there are straight-backed chair phases, but I know my creative process will benefit from mentally standing up, going into a different space, pouring a glass of red wine (I’m elaborating on Peter Jonker’s image, I realise – but, y’know, it’s my blog), and spending some time in the comfortable chair of contemplation thinking through what I’m trying to achieve.

I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you once again to those whose support has meant so much during the year, despite a rather unproductive rate of posting on my part, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Here’s a Christmas Eve selfie for you:

Kick-starting inspiration

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Horse Chestnut (after Robert Dukes) A5 (coloured pencils, ink and collage on Stillmann & Birn gamma paper) 2018

Do you know that feeling when you’re working on something and suddenly you think, this is so dull? Last week it happened as I was working on a drawing in four panels showing how a quince rotted over time, based on a sequence of paintings by Horst Janssen called Tagebuch der Amaryllis (Diary of an amaryllis).

There are various ways to deal with this but my preferred method is to copy something by someone else – not exactly, using it simply as a jumping off point without having to set up a still life or think of a subject. In my reference file I found an oil painting of a conker by Robert Dukes and started to reinterpret it in ink and coloured pencils, the change of medium ensuring a different outcome (not to mention his greater talent!).

Dukes is a London-based painter and teacher who was educated at Grimsby Art College and the Slade under teachers such as Euan Uglow, Lawrence Gowing and Patrick George. Although he also paints landscapes, his expertise in single object still life painting is astonishing. His own problems with inspiration and trying to fit art around the need to make a living will be encouraging for many of us:

I went to the Slade hoping to be inspired and excited but it had the opposite effect. I left in 1988 and did almost no painting for the next ten years or so. I kept drawing the whole time though. Also, I had to earn a living and as a result I had little time to paint. When I did paint I felt that I had no control over the forms I was trying to depict- and that had the effect of making me not want to paint, which of course meant that when I did paint, I was out of practice so it inevitably went badly.

He has also done his share of copying paintings by others (he was fortunate enough to work at the National Gallery in London for many years) so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my borrowing his horse chestnut to work through my own creative block. It’s an effective way of kick-starting creativity, reinterpreting what someone else has done, observing how they’ve used colour, form and composition, feeling your way around another’s work. What’s more, as Dukes has said, “I do think making copies is a good excuse to spend a long time looking at a painting you admire.”

Season of the Quince

Quinces on a Plate (A5 ink and coloured pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma paper sample 2018)

This year I didn’t have to drive around the country lanes of Suffolk looking for unwanted quinces, left at garden gates with a sign saying “Help yourself.” This year my own tree – encouraged by the hot summer – had its own bumper crop.

I’ve no idea what it is about them that I find so alluring. Perhaps it’s their irregular shape: sometimes bulbous and knobbly, sometimes like tight yellow apples, sometimes golden pears. It could be their range of colour, from orangey-gold to clear, bright cadmium yellow through pale greens, their bruises turning from a rich reddish-brown to the darkness of old varnished oak.

There is also a certain mystery about the noble quince. Is it ripe yet? Wait for the distinctive scent and the pure yellow colour, my neighbours said. But they rot from the inside out: cut open a fruit that looks perfect on the outside and the flesh is already turning brown.

And that scent: so long absent, then suddenly there. The downy skin and the gentle perfume, like the touch and scent of a baby’s head. It smells, too, of the sun and the south, of shady gardens in places where you’d like to be – far away from your computer and your workload and your deadlines. The scent, in short, of contentment, of joy, of delight.

This year I decided not to risk making my own jelly or marmalade, which always results in several jars of quince syrup. Instead a much more competent friend agreed to make it on my behalf. The first results of this arrangement have been jars of golden jelly, fragrant as the fruit itself, looking like a fairy tale gift when held up to the light.

Do I exaggerate the wonders of quince? I think not. It’s very possible I was put under some spell that holds me in thrall to their beauty, that I’ll admit. I never tire of drawing and painting them, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I bet that breakfast in Heaven is quince marmalade on Pump Street Bakery sourdough bread, lightly toasted.

Lunch will be Rebecca Charles’ lobster roll.

The art of baseball

Baseball (A5 sketchbook page/ ink/ 2018)

I have a theory about baseball: I don’t think it’s a sport at all, but rather a type of performance art.

At the risk of offending readers in the US, as a sport it’s pretty unexciting: there’s a lot of standing around, no-one ever seems to hit the ball and, if they do, it’s nearly always caught or they get run out.

Seen as performance art, however, it’s fascinating. The costumes, the many rituals, that weird rule that someone on first or second base can run unless the pitcher spots him, the movements of the individual players, the organ accompaniment that offers an ironic musical commentary on the action (or lack of it) – all of this adds up to a rather ritualistic type of performance.

Have you ever seen a field full of rabbits? It has a similar dynamic: the rabbits appear to move in a predestined way which might appear random at first but soon suggests a bigger pattern. Are they being controlled or do they know when it’s their turn in the game?

I’ve developed this theory after seeing one game. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a baseball game the last time I was in the US, and I expected to enjoy the hot-dogs and beer thing but be bored senseless by the actual play (I’d seen it on TV once and it made drying paint look edgy…). In fact the game was compelling: seeing the field as a whole, instead of just close-ups of the players as happens on TV, was what suggested performance art. What’s more, at one stage I went downstairs to the men’s room and hundreds of people were waiting in line for food and drink – it was like a parallel event down there: a festival of deep-fried food, perhaps?

I drew the two batters (never batsmen, I was informed) above from photographs I took at the game. I would like to thank Jim and Susie for introducing me to this new and unforgettable artform, masquerading as a sport.