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.
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.
Recently, a new book by pianist Susan Tomes (published by the company where I work) was reviewed in a prestigious classical music magazine. “[The author] is now in her mid-sixties but her tone of voice is that of a much younger person – inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” wrote the reviewer. Personally, as someone much of an age with Ms Tomes, I hope that the day that I’m no longer inquisitive is the day that I’m no longer breathing.
Interestingly, I read this the same day as my copy of Parker J. Palmer’s new book arrived, On the Brink of Everything. In it, Palmer explores the questions that age raises and the promises that growing older holds: it is, he writes, “a time to dive deep into life, not withdraw to the shallows.”
For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. Those of us who are able should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about.
PJP has a few years on both Susan Tomes and me, and his spirit and joy in the wonders of everyday life as he approaches 80 are inspiring. He’s the sort of person you’d like to shuffle up close to, hoping that by standing next to him you could see the world as he sees it.
Then, earlier today, driving around Rochester, NY, I heard a programme on public radio about older people who’d picked up the thread of their creative activities – or started something completely new – after a long break. There were storytellers, stand-up comedians, painters and musicians (“I’m supposedly too old to rock,” said one, “but I’m too young to die”): one had given up art to found a business but discovered her life was lacking something without the smell of linseed in her nostrils.
What all had in common was the sense of relief in their voices that they’d returned to “whatever [they] care about”. Certainly that business was important, they’d enjoyed fulfilling careers, but it was the sound of an electric guitar being tuned or that first mark on a blank canvas that was truly important, the thing that fed their souls.
I’ve nothing against the young, of course, but I resent the idea that anyone over 50 should put on a cardigan and dispense toffees to grandchildren and leave life to others. If you can’t be “inquisitive, energetic, entrepreneurial and gently provocative” when you’re older there is something clearly amiss. In fact, the young and the old share a great deal: when you’re young you think you have a whole lifetime ahead of you so why not try something new? In later years, there’s a feeling that if I don’t do it now, I never will. Certainly in my own personal, professional and creative lives I’ve come to relish the leap into the unknown, the heady feeling of free-fall, the rush of adrenaline that comes with a sudden turn away from the expected or the familiar.
The image at the top of this post is a collage. I had a yellowy-orange sheet of paper ready to work up into something, and then scooped up a handful of pebbles from the beach which, I thought, looked like hieroglyphics when laid side by side. It seemed to capture something of the intrigue of a language that I don’t know.
Quinces (21 cms x 29.7 cms acrylic and collage 2018)
“A painter should be able to see space as a flat plane. The viewer should be able to see a flat plane as space.”
The Czech painter Vladimir Kokolia is also a teacher, one who is generous with his ideas about drawing and painting. His own paintings, now on view at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, are beautiful, shimmering evocations of nature. They’re the sort of pictures that critics and art historians struggle to describe, their clumsy words bumping up against his luminous paintings like moths against a light. They exist in that beautiful space between the figurative and the abstract: a place that is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to reach but once you’re there it’s as radiant as a spring morning.
Laura Cumming, who I think is one of the most evocative writers on art, says of his painting, Looking at Ash Tree, that “while the tree may be present, in the tangle of marks, the emphasis is entirely on the sensation of seeing; specifically, the way that leaves percolate sunshine and breezes shift leaves.”
My life drawing teacher, growing impatient with my attempts to draw the woman that was in my head instead of the one sitting in front of me, once said, “I pay for the f***ing model – you might want to look at her now and again!” Why don’t we look? Why can’t we see? Why do we struggle to describe what is actually there given that the language that we use is one we have devised ourselves?
That’s why I love to paint fruit. I strive to describe the ‘quinceness’ of the quince, the ‘pomegranteness’ of the pomegranate, as I see them. Not that my way is any better than yours but it’s surely different, and to me it feels somehow important. Kokolia’s way of looking at the ash tree, all shimmering greens against a grey and white background, is (probably) more interesting than a photograph. He invites us into his world: he has transformed this ash tree in rural Moravia into a flat plane of twisting colour and form; we on our side must interpret this plane as a three-dimensional tree in that world between what we see and what we feel, between the figurative and the abstract.
The quote from Kokolia that opens this post stopped me in my tracks as I leafed through the disappointing, over designed catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which I haven’t seen, by the way). I love the idea of a bargain between artist and viewer, the artist saying “Trust me, this is what I know” and the viewer responding with “Yes, and this is what I understand.”
Many years ago I went to a party in the house of a famous rock guitarist in London. I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. For a while I wandered around with a glass of wine in my hand and even, for a while, hid in one of the bathrooms wondering how I could make a dignified escape. Then, in a distant room in a dimly-lit corner, I came across my two best friends (who had invited me). “Where have you been?” they asked, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Sometimes creativity feels like a you’re a guest at a party where everyone knows each other and you know no-one, then you turn a corner and find that, yes, you do belong here after all.
Sometimes I look at some of the artists I follow on Instagram and wonder if they ever get bored, painting the same type of thing day after day. If I paint a piece of fruit today, tomorrow I want to start a line drawing of a man wearing a mask in the form of a fox’s head. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
So the idea of following a seven day online painting project to produce a series of variations on a theme was a little outside the box for me, but that’s exactly the point of Tara Leaver‘s challenge. I started with a straightforward painting of a pomegranate, just to ease myself into it:
My plan was to move from this towards an abstracted version of the fruit but, switching media to charcoal and pastel, I produced something more conventional on the second day:
A fresh approach was needed, so I put together a collage next, just to see what would happen:
That seemed to do the trick, and by the end of the week I was more relaxed and, after a short detour into a painting of quinces, I finally reached the rather more abstract pomegranates at the top of this post. The full sequence can be found on Instagram. As I wrote to Tara at the end of the seven days, it was an exhilarating experience. Exploring different ways to approach a single subject every day for a week was astonishingly liberating. I felt no compulsion to produce ‘finished’ work even though I was posting it on Instagram. The journey was the key, empowering me to experiment. Others, it seemed, had the same experience. Tara was the perfect companion on this journey: her admission that her own theme had gone somewhat awry but she was going to enjoy it anyway inspired and relaxed many of us, I felt.
If, like me, you like to flit from subject to subject, I can wholeheartedly recommend a short period of concentration on one, using different media, pushing your style in new directions, not worrying about the outcome as much as enjoying the process. If we can do that, it would appear, an ‘end result’ suddenly makes itself apparent.
The Park (A5 sketchbook page collage and mixed media 2017)
In January 1946 a fire broke out in Arshile Gorky’s Connecticut studio, destroying two dozen paintings and many drawings. The following month, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and endured debilitating surgery. A couple of years later, he broke his back and lost the use of his painting arm in a car accident; shortly afterwards, his wife moved out with their children, and so, heart and spirit broken, Gorky hanged himself in his barn after writing the words “Goodbye, my loveds” in chalk letters on a crate.
The tragedy of Gorky’s final years was mirrored by the hardships of his early life. Brought up among the persecuted Armenian community in Turkey, he and his family lived as hunted refugees: his beloved mother died of starvation in his arms before, still a teenager, he was able to escape to the United States.
Yet in between, he produced some of the most joyful art you could wish to see. Something of a father to the abstract expressionists, and an enormous influence on Willem de Kooning, he painted sensuous, organic forms, coloured with crayons or thin washes of oil paint. Titles such as Pastoral or Virginia Summer give some sense of his work’s roots in the natural world, as do the abstracted forms of seed-pods, fungi and bulbs that inhabit his paintings.
I was reminded of Gorky by an article by Holland Cotter in the New York Times, a review of an exhibition of his landscapes at Hauser & Wirth, “an exhibition as manic and tender as a Schubert song cycle.” He looms large in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s magnificent biography of De Kooning and his retrospective at the Tate Gallery some years ago was a revelation.
I wanted to do something in honour of Gorky that wasn’t intended to copy him so, being still engaged with collage as much as drawing or painting, I put together the piece that heads this post. The shapes are hard-edged and angular where Gorky’s are sensuous, their positions in the grid formal where his are abandoned, but the curling shapes owe something to his vision, confined as they are here to the background.
If you don’t know Gorky’s work and you’re lucky enough to live near New York City, I would urge you to visit the current exhibition. For the rest of us, there is an excellent biography by his son-in-law, Matthew Spender, and resources are plentiful online. Once seen as a somewhat derivative painter who put together elements of Cezanne, Picasso and the surrealists, he is now recognised as an important figure in the development of abstract art and a painter of subtle beauty. Once seen, his paintings and drawings, born out of his early suffering, can never be forgotten.
The Path to the Sea (A4 collage and acrylic on mounting board 2017)
There are a number of places which, when you’re there, you never want to leave. The cool marble and tinkling fountains of the Alhambra; Rome, where Henry James’ greatest heroine ‘dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective’; New York City in winter, looking out at the snow-filled garden of the Frick mansion from a room hung with Rembrandts.
On a different scale, I’d now add Great Blasket Island off the western coast of Eire. Uninhabited since the early 1950s and dotted with tiny stone cottages in various states of disrepair, the island is a place of enormous beauty and a gentle melancholy. Surrounded by the Atlantic with its ever-changing blues and greens, Great Blasket is virtually cut off from the Dingle peninsula during the winter months when the ocean becomes a fierce adversary. It was the winter isolation with a tragic consequence that finally drove its tiny population from this unlikely paradise.
Some descendents of the Blasket Islanders are renovating and restoring the houses now. Walls are being rebuilt and roofs replaced and a hilltop cafe serves possibly the worst tea you’ll drink in Ireland. In the early years of the last century a number of inhabitants wrote books about their experiences living here which I’m sure are well worth reading, but you don’t really need to.
Just walk down to the beach with its pungent, lolling seals and look out across the ocean which, even on a peaceful summer’s day, peaks and troughs around the coastline. Between you and America there’s nothing but these temperamental waters, stretching away for over 6,000 kilometers. Put yourself in the shoes of those Islanders living on lobster and rabbit and burning peat for warmth; imagine writing your stories or tuning your fiddle by candlelight, a winter storm thrashing at your windows and around your thatched roof. Consider all of that and tell me this isn’t a paradise of sorts where things detach themselves and grow objective.
I’ve been involved in making collages lately, using cut-up pieces of unwanted paintings, as a sort of palate cleanser (apologies, there was no way to avoid the pun) before beginning the task of rethinking the way I paint. There’s something satisfying about finding those corners where a brush stroke takes on true character or a line of charcoal intersects a block of pigment in an exciting way. Building those pieces up into something new is such a thrill. This particular one tries to evoke that feeling of walking to the sea along a lonely cliff path.
A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)
What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?
If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?
Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?
The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.
If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?
Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.
Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.
There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.
I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.
What do you think?
A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.
A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.
Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)
This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.
When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.
One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.
Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.
Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.
A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.
So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.