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.
“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
“This was meant to be.” That’s what we believed.
Susie and I had known each other for 15 years, first as colleagues, then as friends. We’d found ourselves in oddly romantic situations on business trips – a moonlight walk on Venice Beach, watching the snow fall on 5th Avenue from a room full of Rembrandts at the Frick Collection – but we both had other commitments and we lived 3,000 miles apart.
Then she became seriously ill. We met in a favourite bar in Rochester NY during her treatment. This once athletic woman looked pale and thin, her cheeks sunken, her eyes tired from medical interventions. When we hugged goodbye her body felt like a fragile bird’s inside her winter coat. I felt sure I wouldn’t see her again.
Then the wheels turned and the machinery moved. Susie survived, she put on weight and returned to work. My relationship in England collapsed and my company decided I should spend extended periods in the U.S. Now there was nothing to stop us being more than friends. “This was meant to be.”
My days in the U.S. were full of marketing plans, sales forecasts, strategy meetings, forward planning. Evenings and weekends were ours: a trip to Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, a B&B in Canandaigua, a weekend in the Adirondacks, Christmas in Michigan, New Year in Chicago. We were unbearably cute: holding hands while watching TV, cooking together, sitting on the porch reading and drawing. Most of all, we embraced this wonderful and unexpected love.
In September she came to England. We were talking about getting married and living in Yorkshire, a part of the country she loved. We stayed with friends in Paris and Cambridge, visited Versailles and Kettle’s Yard. We went to Evensong in St George’s Chapel on her final night before her flight back to Rochester. It was an idyllic time and the two weeks passed too quickly – we wouldn’t see each other again until December.
The following weekend we Skyped as usual but she seemed weary and in pain. That night her parents took her to A&E and were told that she had an infection that her immune system – still weakened from her illness three years earlier – couldn’t fight. I flew to the U.S. and arrived in time to whisper something in her ear before she died.
Before she died…
Her family are fortunate enough to share Susie’s religious faith, something I can only glimpse through a half-opened door. Instead, I try to find meaning in C.S. Lewis and Julian Barnes: “You tell me ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle touching my circle on the plane of Nature,” Lewis wrote. His rage is refreshing in a world of consolation.
Lewis and Barnes remind me that I’m not alone in this, but their grief is not mine and they can only vaguely signal a path through it. My former father-in-law recently lost his wife after sixty years of marriage. Yesterday I met someone whose wife had died of cancer some years ago and his partner of a similar disease a few months ago. They both carry on, even though, as Barnes tells us, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there – this may not be mathematically possible but it is emotionally.” We are diminished by the death of a loved one: our hopes and joys are taken as well. We carry on though, with our empty hearts and our futures full of blank spaces where the loved person should have been, and, as Lewis writes, ‘there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss.’
So I lie low and wait for the acute pain to become a chronic ache, trying not to become a grief bore to those around me. One friend who knew Susie even longer than I has taken the full force of my despair and stood up to it well, but I don’t feel I can impose that on everyone. Cutting back to essentials means that I’ll have to leave this blog for the foreseeable future: I feel it’ll be some time before I can engage with my fellow bloggers and even longer before I have anything to say which isn’t about loss.
In the meantime, I long for a picture-book heaven where, in future, I’ll find Susie again, sitting under a tree in a landscape reminiscent of the Cotswolds in my mind’s eye, probably reading Adam Bede, and we’ll hug and kiss and everything will be as it was for the rest of time.
I’ll leave you with an interesting thought from C.S. Lewis which he mentions in his book, A Grief Observed: “They tell me [she] is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this?…Why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world and millions in the East believe otherwise…Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonises the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?”
So forgive my absence for however long it takes, Susie and I need to grieve her passing together.
For those of you who are interested, here is an obituary compiled by her family, and here a beautifully moving tribute from one of her nieces.
Sally Mann is probably best known – to those without an interest in contemporary photography – as that woman who took pictures of her kids naked or, perhaps, the one who photographed decomposing bodies at a federal forensic anthropology facility.
She is that Sally Mann, as well as the one who documented her husband’s muscular dystrophy in a series of deeply moving images; who published pictures of the Deep South, “haunted landscapes, battlefields, decaying mansions…and the site where Emmett Till was murdered” (according to Newsweek); who wrote a remarkable, award-winning memoir, listed as one of the twenty best in the New York Times, called Hold Still.
It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and often candid photographs, including ones that Mann thought hadn’t actually worked. One of the book’s many charms is this Gagosian-represented artist’s admission that some of her work, y’know, wasn’t up to scratch. That happens to me. It happens to you as well, I imagine? Well, it also happens to those whose work is on sale in one of the world’s leading galleries.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s unlikely that even the most accomplished photographer will produce spun gold every time she points her camera. Yet how satisfying to read that:
Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it.
Maybe you’ve made something mediocre – there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets – but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.
It’s that passion, those beckoning hands, that keep us moving on. We probably shouldn’t seek perfection as such (and Ms Mann points out elsewhere that this is something with which she struggles on a daily basis) but it’s the moving forward that matters. It’s not just a case of the grass being greener over there, but the passion in creating something is requited more completely when you achieve something like the image – or the piece of writing – you had in your head.
I’m not sure I really needed Sally Mann to tell me that, but I’m somehow pleased that she confirmed it in this very special memoir.