Moth

Moths (A4 coloured pencil on prepared paper 2017)

Isn’t ‘moth’ a beautiful word? It’s almost onomatopoeic in that soft ending, suggesting talcy, fluttering wings.

I haven’t always been a fan of moths. As a teenager on holiday in a Welsh cottage I was reading one night when a beast the size of a small bird flew in and started battering itself against my light. It took me about half an hour to get rid of it. More recently, one laid eggs in a ridiculously expensive winter coat that I bought when I worked for an international German publisher. It now has three noticeable holes.

Many moths share that peculiar single life purpose that one finds amongst insects: they exist only to breed and have no mouths as they don’t live long enough to require food. What’s the point of existing only to breed creatures that exist only to breed? Other moths with more complex missions sip nectar.

Inevitably they have acquired symbolic value for those who like to give themselves animal characteristics. Their single-minded attraction to light suggests  determination, yet their inability to differentiate between a teenage boy’s bedside lamp and a candle flame apparently demonstrates the dangers of blind faith.

They are also symbols of love. The female moth emits powerful pheromones that can attract a male 11 kms away. He’ll fly through the night, making clicking noises to confuse predatory bats, charting his course by his relationship to the moon, until he ends up in the dusty embrace of his one true love.

Talking of which, here’s an excerpt from a poem which I bought from a homeless street poet in New York City for $5:

 

My gentle love

Holds you like a moth

In cupped hands.  Protecting,

Not confining, I release you

To the sheltering night.

 

I’m not sure what the implication of that last part is, but I didn’t feel that $5 covered both poem and explanation.

The drawing above owes a certain amount to the wonderful drawings and paintings of wild things by Cornwall-based artist, Kurt Jackson. It’s drawn in coloured pencil on gessoed paper which gives the drawings their mothy textures.

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Excuse my liberosis

Vellichor (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

If you haven’t come across the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, do click on the link and discover Altschmerz, Adronitis and Ellipsism for yourself. Invented, curated and presented by designer and voiceover artist, John Koenig, the Dictionary is surely something that we’ve all been waiting for.

The idea of making up words that sound completely plausible for feelings that we can’t quite describe is pure genius. Some are simply defined while others are the subjects of beautifully-made short films.

Take wytai, for example, expressed as:

n. a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance, and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do.

The word ‘wytai’ is an acronym for ‘when you think about it’. The film accompanying zenosyne suggests that we should rethink the idea that youth is wasted on the young and that their emotions ‘make perfect sense once you adjust for inflation’. Now isn’t that almost certainly true?

Inevitably, I felt the need to try and interpret some of these in pictures, so here is vellichor (the strange wistfulness of used bookstores) drawn in a picture-book style, and onism (the frustration of being stuck in just one body that inhabits only one place at a time) that I thought required an edgier approach.

Onism (A5 ink and watercolour 2017)

I could get lost in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows for hours. I would like to thank Esther Cook for telling me about it: without it how would I have discovered that the unsettling feeling I’ve had for about a year is probably nodus tollens – let’s hope they soon find a cure.

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‘Keep looking, stay curious…’

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St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall (15 x 20 cms coloured pencil on textured paper 2016)

The poem Hokusai Says by Roger Keyes can be found on the web site of almost every mindfulness practitioner. It encapsulates much that is core to mindfulness but it also speaks, I think, to those of us involved in creative things.

“Keep looking, stay curious” is almost the key to everything in life but certainly true if you aspire to any form of creativity. “Get stuck, accept it…keep doing what you love” – it’s all there, isn’t it?

Here are a few excerpts which relate most pertinently to inspiration and creativity (it’s easy to find the entire poem on the web, as I mentioned, including a video where it is read by the excellent Mark Williams, complete with unnecessary music and images of dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, etc):

 Hokusai says Look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says Look Forward to getting old.

He says keep changing, you just get more who you really are.

He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.

 …

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.

It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.

It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your verandah

or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.

It matters that you care.

It matters that you feel.

It matters that you notice.

It matters that life lives through you.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

More than anything else I could find, this drawing of St Michael’s Mount seems to fit with the sentiments of this poem. A rather mystical place just off the southern coast of Cornwall, it comes into its own when the sun starts to set and the incoming tide cuts it off from the mainland. It’s a place I’ve tried to capture many times, and this small drawing seems to convey a little of its mystery.

This post is dedicated to a dear friend who has done something brave for the sake of furthering her art: ‘Don’t be afraid…let life take you by the hand.’

 

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Three Santas

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Three Santas [Christmas card design] (30 cms x 30 cms ink and coloured pencil 2014)

‘Take a look back over the past 12 months,’ WordPress recommends for an end-of-year post. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather close the door on 2016 and leave it to gather dust in that room where nobody goes.

According to some rough and ready BBC research we lost twice as many ‘celebrities’ in the first three months of 2016 as during the same period in 2015 and five times as many as in 2012. The world is certainly less colourful for the loss of Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood and many others; my own little world of enthusiasms was rocked by the deaths of Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Billy Paul, Dutch cartoonist and illustrator Peter van Straaten, Gilbert Kaplan (who taught himself to conduct Mahler’s 2nd Symphony) and comedian Garry Shandling.

Then there was Brexit and Trump, the inability of the West to prevent the slaughter in Syria, the rise of intolerance and anger in so many European countries, a darkness of spirit that seems to have spread into so many corners of our lives in 2016. On a personal level too, 2016 for me was a year of endings and unforeseen change, of bittersweet moments, of realities that needed to be faced.

Where there are endings there are also beginnings. I’ve been blessed by the support of friends this year, surprised by the kindness of strangers and buoyed up by an excellent meditation course. Nothing can bring back Leonard Cohen, but his life remains an inspiration for second chances in later years and his music is there for everyone who wants to hear it.

So 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 to those whose support and help has meant so much during the year, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Thanks to all the artists who have provided such inspiration and helped me find my way forward.

To all of you, I dedicate these jolly, naked Santas. You know it’s what you were waiting for.

 

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An everyday angel

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Bar fly 1 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

Friday was a busy and somewhat challenging day, so when I found myself at an airport with four hours to kill before my flight home to London I decided to enjoy a salad and a glass of wine in one of the bars.

Sitting at the counter of an airport bar can be fascinating, listening to the conversations between the other customers and trying to determine their relationships. Are they colleagues, friends or strangers? Has it been a successful business trip or a Christmas present-buying binge? Do they interact with the bar staff to a greater or lesser extent?

It soon became clear that there was a drama going on to my right. A woman was trying to discover if the man seated next to her – who clearly wasn’t on his first cocktail – knew when his flight was boarding. He, on the other hand, was doing that thing that inebriated people on high bar stools often do – trying not to fall off. The bartender – let’s call her Janila – discretely replaced his cocktail glass with one filled with water and pushed a basket of bread rolls in his direction.

Eventually he stood and weaved unsteadily towards the door. Janila told me that one of her colleagues would be happy to serve me with anything else but she had to see the customer to his gate. They disappeared into the airport crowds.

Ten minutes passed, then ten more, and Janila hadn’t returned. When she finally did, she sighed, “His flight was at the furthest gate…” “You didn’t have to do that,” I said as she brought my check, “It was so kind of you.” “No,” she said, “I had to – I couldn’t just leave him to find his own way – his flight was already boarding.”

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Bar fly 2 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

This random act of kindness was inspiring. My own frustrations fell away witnessing her going the extra mile to help the man. After all, who knows why he was drinking alone in an airport bar? Perhaps he’d failed to close the sale that would save his job two weeks before Christmas; maybe his wife had left him for someone he once trusted.

Had this been a movie, the shadowy figure at the far end of the bar would have left her a $1,000 tip and slipped away quietly. But this was real life: the man made his flight thanks to the kindness of a stranger and Janila finished her shift and went home tired but, I hope, knowing that she was an angel of sorts.

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Academic Conferences

Academic Conference blog

Conference delegates (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2016)

During my career in academic publishing I’ve attended numerous conferences. As a marketing person I’ve rarely had the pleasure of attending a session or hearing a paper, instead my view has always been from behind a table loaded with books. I’ve met some of the world’s leading doctors, scientists, musicologists and historians at these events, but always with about a meter of books between us.

There have been some memorable moments: the leading American surgeon who asked me three times where his book was, when a pile of them stood right in front of him (should he really be operating with eyesight like that?); the Romanian paediatrician who told me that our policy of reducing the price of our books in Eastern Europe had saved children’s lives (we both got a bit tearful at that point); and the chemistry book exhibition I set up in Bratislava the day that the borders to Austria were thrown open – after an hour of my own company I closed it up and went off to celebrate the end of the totalitarian state with the organiser.

Two of the things I most admire and enjoy in life are curiosity and enthusiasm, and these you encounter in spades at an academic conference. Never ask delegates what they’re working on if you were about to visit the bathroom and unless you really do want to know. Earlier this year at a medieval conference someone told me that once a month he liked to get together with some friends, get in a few beers and settle down to an evening of translating early Nordic texts. Then, after a pause which a stand-up comedian would envy, added, “Sometimes for a change we switch to modern Icelandic.”

Well you would, wouldn’t you?

For another view of the conference crowd, see my colleague Rosemary Shojaie’s blog post here.

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Birds

Birds blog

Birds (A5 mixed media on a Moleskine sketchbook 2016)

Something pretty grim must have taken place in our garden in the early hours of Saturday morning.

When we went outside to breakfast in the pale sunshine of an English summer morning, we found a perfect young female blackbird dead on the lawn. A few metres away were the scattered feathers of a male with more under the mulberry tree. Who was responsible for this carnage? A sparrowhawk? One of the evil cats that stalk our quiet road?

For me the blackbird’s song is the sound of summer. That melodic trilling they do when seeking a mate is so evocative of warm summer evenings, of peace after a long day, of lying in bed as a child while it’s still light outside. To see a dead blackbird with its song forever stilled is heart-breaking.

Here’s my contribution to Draw-a-Bird Day, which happens every month on the 8th. One month I’ll draw a ‘proper’ bird – mine always seem unconvincing, like they’re made out of painted concrete or something – but here are some that I did to test a Moleskine storyboard notebook.

‘Angry crow’ is almost tautologous: have you ever seen a crow that isn’t highly annoyed about something or other? The Scribble Bird was drawn with one of those multi-coloured pencils you see in museums (Quentin Blake actually does beautiful drawings with those things). Road Kill is self-explanatory and the Gulls owe something to my new hero, Felix Scheinberger, who wrote a whole textbook on illustration in German themed around birds.

I hope you’re as happy as a seagull with a stolen chip.

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