Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.

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Searching for an exotic old fruit

Tomatillos, Rochester NY (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2018)

In this year of rethinking the direction of my painting and drawing – trying to rein in some of the tangents I follow and develop a recognisable style – I’ve more or less decided to follow two paths simultaneously.

First, there is the line drawing path. I do enjoy drawing people wearing animal heads or household items on their noses. I like ‘illustrating’ Carly Simon’s imaginary friends or a woman in love with a fish (a similar idea won several Oscars, let me remind you). It’s fun to draw Benedict Cumberbatch as a vampire, legendary gallery owner Kasmin naked and the lines and folds on the faces of Jasper Johns.

On the other hand, I love painting fruit. My passion for the lovely quince is well known to regular readers of this blog. Occasionally I’ll let my head be turned by a ripe pomegranate or an exotic purple mangosteen, a gaggle of plums or even a delicately-coloured Swede. Fruit favours acrylics or oils, I think: layering on those colours and shades, adding a touch of shocking blue to a red and orange pomegranate or positioning a highlight of purest titanium white – all very satisfying.

This makes shopping in a well-stocked market or a foreign food store even more of an adventure. For me, Borough Market in London is a place to buy overpriced cheese and subjects for painting. That’s where I first discovered the almost comic mangosteen, shaped like a smaller, purple version of those plastic tomatoes that hold ketchup in transport cafes.

My latest hunting ground is Wegmans, a supermarket in Rochester, NY, on my frequent visits to this under-rated American city. For some time I’ve been eyeing the blousy pitaya (dragon fruit), vibrant pink with little green and yellow horns. Only the fact that I’m here without my acrylics has prevented me from dropping a couple into my shopping cart. Then last Saturday, while seeking out herbs for a New York Times recipe which pairs chicken and mushrooms with cognac and madeira sauce, I discovered tomatillos.

Like small green tomatoes wearing diaphanous outer skins over their shiny green bodies, these Mexican fruits are mainly used to make salsa verde. You can gently peel back the delicate husks, allowing them to tear into interesting shapes that describe the arc of the succulent green flesh where they remain joined to the fruit. I drew them in charcoal, in pencil and, at the top of this post, in watercolour pencil and ink. At under 70 cents for three, they’re the cheapest still life models I’ve found.

Now, where can I get a green pomelo?

You say potato…

Things Americans Say

Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]

Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog

Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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Interlude

Pencils (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

I started this blog to motivate myself to complete a drawing or painting each week, something that I wouldn’t be too ashamed to share with a small group of followers. The ‘small group’ is now around 950 and I’ve managed to sustain the pace despite a demanding full-time job and some turbulent times.

At first, I thought I’d just post the images with the minimum of explanation but I soon found that there were things I wanted to write about – some weeks the images even became secondary to the text. The nature of creativity became a recurring theme along with my particular passions for Henry James, Leonard Nimoy, John Berger, minimalist music, quinces and illustrators.

Send me a dozen long stemmed roses
I’ll tell you what I’ll do:
I’ll bend them into a crown of thorns
Then send them right back to you.

Michelle Shocked, ‘On the Greener Side’

During the past seven months I’ve lived through the scrappy break-up of my 15 year relationship and two deaths, my Mother and a friend of some forty years. Grief has been an almost constant companion, but so, too, has gratitude. I’ve come to treasure the support and kindness of good friends and my family. In a rather surprising way I discovered that it is possible to still feel intensely when I thought all emotion had been numbed by grief.

My departing partner left me a poem by John O’Donahue which advised:

This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.

I did about a week of being slow, lying on the couch watching the shadows of the quince tree on the ceiling wondering where it had all gone wrong. You start to feel yourself dying inside if you do much of that. Far better to climb over the wall and let the bitter winds and cold rain lash you back to life. Perhaps I haven’t given myself time to properly grieve for any of these losses, but I have felt alive throughout it all which is the important thing for me. I wouldn’t wish my recent life on anyone else, but there have been more bright spots than one might imagine.

I’ve also taken part in some stimulating art workshops which have truly kept me going through these dark times, especially gestural drawing at Seawhite Studios and life drawing with Annabel Mednick and model Blue King. Both have caused me to think about the work I’m doing and how to move forward.

So for a while I’ll post less frequently while I attempt to work more slowly and on a larger scale (I’ll continue to post smaller things, older work, photographs and favourite art books on Instagram). I do hope you’ll stick with me during this period of recalibration: it’s been a pleasure to interact with so many generous, creative and inspiring people and I’d hate to lose you! Thank you so much for your support – despite it all I’m blessed in many ways.

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Poised between fact and fiction

Pomegranate, the symbol of Granada (A5 Faber-Castell coloured pencils 2017)

I’ve just finished a remarkable book, The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End by Elizabeth Drayson. I read it extremely slowly, not only to savour the elegance of the writing, but because I simply didn’t want to reach the end.

It tells the story of the twenty third and final Muslim king of Granada, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XI, known as Boabdil. It’s a tale of intrigue, betrayal, cruelty, bravery and broken promises, based, we’re told, on considerable new research but with novelistic touches that bring Boabdil’s story vividly to life.

The eighth-century Muslim invasion of Spain began a period of cultural magnificence and political stabilty in the country: in Cordoba, for example, there were street lights, paving and over seventy well-stocked libraries by the tenth century, a time when London languished amid narrow, muddy, unlit streets. Anyone who has visited the Alhambra in Granada will need little convincing of the artistic triumph of Muslim architecture in Spain.

Boabdil is a controversial figure still. In Elizabeth Drayson’s account of his life he emerges as a man of integrity and honour, yet another recent author describes him as “the ludicrous Boabdil…[who] would bear down on Granada with the full weight of his fear and vulgarity”. Ultimately he was betrayed by the duplicity and corruption of his own family and the ambition and insincerity of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The city of Granada had to wait several hundred years before a statue was erected in his honour in 1997 – even then somewhat half-heartedly:

Today, in almost exactly the same place in Granada where Boabdil handed the keys of the city to King Ferdinand, a pair of life-sized bronze statues stand in a flower bed in a small gravelled park surrounded by towering blocks of flats. The park is well off the beaten tourist track, close to a large modern conference centre, and bears no sign or indication of who the statues represent. Their out-of-the-way location and understated tribute and homage belie the historical importance of their subject. In this encounter amid roses and pomegranate trees, a bearded man wearing a turban sits on a throne looking down sadly at a young woman, her head lowered in humility as she offers him a rose…The young woman represents Granada, who offers Boabdil a rose as a symbol of love and in the hope of forgiveness. There is no previous public monument to acknowledge the expulsion, or even the presence, of the Moors who were so fundamental to the city’s historical memory…Its message of love and reconciliation marks a special moment in the evolution of the perception of Boabdil. [pp-140-141]

My image this week is a pomegranate which, along with quinces, is one of my favourite subjects. It is also the symbol of Granada, a city of majestic beauty with, as we learn from Dr Drayson’s thoughtful book, a violent and poignant history.

Ships that pass

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.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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