On the brink

Language (A4 acrylic paint and pebbles 2018)

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.

 

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Simple Gifts

Autumn Leaf (A3) mixed media

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

I sometimes think that the Autumn, knowing what’s coming over the next few months, gives up little gifts as a kind of consolation. Winter’s coming, and where I live it’ll be grey and soupy. Sorry about that, sighs the Autumn, here’s a damaged quince, here’s a leaf containing more shades of red and green than you can name, here’s a late flowering rose.

Last Sunday – after a delightful, celebratory evening with a friend – I walked down to a nearby petrol station to buy a newspaper and a croissant (surprisingly good, believe me). On my way home, the wind blew a dried and twisted leaf in my path. The thing about following most creative journeys is that simple things can mean a great deal: the rotting fruit that I posted last week, for example, and now this leaf – a colour chart of Autumn shades. Almost anything can inspire, it seems.

I took it home and used it as a starting point, painting the colours much brighter than in nature and using broad brush strokes of watercolour. Only after the basic shape of the leaf was laid down did I draw the curling edges of the leaf in ink and add all the rest of the embellishments it now contains.

The leaf – my simple gift from a passing gust of wind – now sits on the table, growing ever more brittle and slowly losing shade after shade. If I had a German-speaking cleaner, no doubt (s)he would ask, “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg (Is that art or can it be thrown away)?” The inspiration for this remark is said to be the famous incident around the Fettecke (Grease Corner) by Joseph Beuys. It consisted of 5 kg of butter installed in the corner of a room. On the day before a visit from a VIP, a janitor removed and disposed of it. As the result of a court case, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia had to pay 40,000 DM in compensation to the owner.

So beware what you throw away. It might just be art after all.

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Found

found-blog
Found objects

When London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741, mothers leaving their babies in its care were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Some of the mothers were so poor that the tokens consisted of simple buttons with an unusual coloured thread or pennies engraved or defaced in some way to make them distinguishable from others.

The Foundling Hospital continued its work until 1954 and is now a children’s charity and museum. Last summer, the artist Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition called Found, which invited sixty artists to contribute tokens of their own responding to both the word itself and the spirit of the museum.

Ms Parker is a remarkable woman – and artist – in her own right. Her best-known piece is probably Cold Dark Matter, a wooden garden shed that has been reconstructed at the moment when it explodes, but she rarely does the same thing twice. So she has produced drawings using her own blood, others using ink made from destroyed pornographic films confiscated by HM Customs, and a gold tooth filling melted and stretched through the eye of a needle. She took a macrophotograph of the seat of Sigmund Freud’s leather chair and called it Marks made by Freud, Subconsciously. She has also photographed an Arab man who makes crowns of thorns for Christian tourists in Bethlehem and exhibited the words crossed out of manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte as rather beautiful semi-abstracts.

I’m travelling this week and have nothing finished to share with you so instead I’ll show you three ‘found’ objects of my own. The first is a pencil I discovered in my Mother’s house, one of the ones I would have been given half a century ago by my aunt who owned a petrol station. With one of these and an order pad I would draw quietly in a corner while the grown-ups talked. There’s also a photograph from around the same time – possibly taken at my grandfather’s wedding to his second wife – where we all look like characters from some historical drama. It’s sobering to discover that photographs from my childhood look as if they’re from another era. And finally an odd, poignant note that I found in my Mother’s bedside table. With her dementia there’s now little point in asking her to elaborate on the sad story that lies behind these few scribbled words.

I’m sure many of you have objects like this that have returned to you in some way. On their own they may have little resonance, but put them together and they start to build up a fragmented picture of a forgotten time. Be careful, though, there are shadows in the corner of the room, ghosts in the recesses of your memory…

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