A life in black and white

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Do you ever have that thing where you buy a new book – perhaps one that you’ve been waiting to turn up for a while – and when it arrives you can’t bear to read it because you want a time free of interruptions to do it justice? What’s more once you’ve read it, you won’t have it to look forward to any more.

At the moment, Krazy, a life of Krazy Kat comic artist George Herriman, by Michael Tisserand, sits on my table unread until my next holiday. If you don’t know Krazy Kat, there is much online, and if you do, you’ll want this already acclaimed biography.

The subtitle of the book is worth mentioning, George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. This refers not only to the black and white Krazy Kat comics, but also the fact that Herriman, know as ‘The Greek’ because of his swarthy complexion, was actually African American, born to a Creole family that hid its racial identity in the dangerous days of Reconstruction.

Herriman began publishing Krazy Kat cartoons in 1916, but the strange adventures of Krazy, Ignatz the abusive mouse, and lovesick Offisa Pupp still charm and amaze today, seeming both contemporary and timeless. But look behind the main characters in his strips and you’ll see backgrounds that repay careful study. Shifting vistas inspired by Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa come and go, a rocky outcrop in one frame replaced by a shack with a crooked chimney in another.

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George Herriman trees (A5 ink 2011)

I was always fascinated by his trees, however, which twist and zigzag in ways that few do in nature. I was so captivated by them that I filled this sketchbook page with a few examples. Unusually for me, I copied them line for line – after all, who could improve on Herriman? I posted this drawing when I first started this blog, but as I only had about three followers then, I don’t mind posting it again.

Now that you’ve read this, please go down to your local independent bookshop – no, don’t click on you-know-where – and order a copy of Michael Tisserand’s Krazy.

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Socks. Jockeys. A string vest.

Erotic (A4 mixed media and collage 2017)

Along with the Everyman Library book of Love Poems that I used in an abstract a few weeks ago, came the anthology, Erotic Poems, from the same series. In it I found The Woman Underneath by Robert Maître, a poet about whom I know nothing and who seems to be strangely absent from any Google search. Here’s an excerpt:

But, somehow, it was the synthetics,

hitched nylon, an erotic mechanics,

that set us light years apart.

What did we have when we undressed?

Socks. Jockeys. A string vest.

But when they stepped out

of shoes, blouse, and skirt –

voilà!

Inspired by the illustrations of John Cuneo, this collage features a certain type of man: you know him – he holds all sorts of opinions about how a woman should look but allows himself different standards. He has money, thanks to a business that owes its success to never underestimating the ability of the buying public to pay over the odds for something they don’t need. Unfair employment contracts meant that he didn’t have to worry about taking care of his staff and provide him with money enough to treat himself to expensive suits, a red Z4 and an all-year tan. If only he’d paid more attention to his underwear.

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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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Dreaming

Darling (A4 mixed media and collage 2017)

I dread people telling me their dreams. I never quite know how to react: of course they’re surreal and strange, they’re dreams – not reality.

So let me tell you about one of mine…

I hardly ever remember my dreams unless I wake up in mid flow laughing or in a state of utter terror. A couple of nights ago I was putting the finishing touches to the picture above when I realised that its subject could in fact be a ghost or a corpse. With that thought I went to bed, read a few pages of Stacy Schiff’s book on the Salem witches and awoke a few hours later, disoriented by the following dream which I’ve tried to convey in the chopped-up way that I remembered it:

Where would the path have led us if we’d followed it to the very end?

You, holding my hand as the sun rises over the tree tops, the start of a new day that I sensed we wouldn’t see through to its conclusion.

Paper, a pencil, just a few lines before the effort became too great.

A book face down on the floor. A telephone ringing somewhere deep inside the house. And the corners of the room are still dark as soot from smoking candles.

What was the point of all those words, I wonder, if so many of them weren’t true? Your hair spread over the pillow, notes of blue and grey amongst the brown.

We’d always assumed I’d be the first to leave.

Birds sing like it’s any other day. A door slams. A car drives down the hill.

I was pleased to wake at that point. Even now I’m not sure what was part of the dream and what rushed in to fill the gaps when I awoke.

Later, in the morning sunlight the picture seemed less sinister: a pale-skinned woman thinking of past loves, travels and her childhood, nothing more unsettling than that.

A last, lighter word on dreams. A 12 year old British comedian called Grace the Child won an award for the following joke at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015: “People say to me, you’re young, live your dream! But I don’t want to be naked in an examination I haven’t revised for…”

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Valentine’s Day

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Valentine’s Day (A4 ink and watercolour 2017)

She held the hand-painted card, turning it over like an artefact from a past age  – which, speaking metaphorically, it now was. Looking up finally, she said, “There’s something I need to tell you…”

Valentine’s Day can go either way.

If you’re fortunate enough to be celebrating with someone, may I wish you the happiest of days. This post is dedicated to those whose love is perhaps less than conventional: imagine the reaction of this fish’s family when he told them of his new love…

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Darkness, Darkness

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Darkness Darkness (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2016)

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow
Take my head and let me sleep
In the coolness of your shadow
In the silence of your deep

Darkness, darkness, be my blanket
Cover me with the endless night
Take away, take away the pain of knowing
Fill the emptiness of right now

A song written by Jesse Colin Young for the Youngbloods and recorded by numerous others. The illustration was inspired by Chris Ware’s comic strip diaries,  as seen in Danny Gregory’s intriguing book An Illustrated Life.

There seems to be a great deal of darkness in the world at the moment. We mustn’t let it defeat us.

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In praise of celeriac soup

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Celeriac (42 cms x 59 cms pastel and ink on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Last week I bought a celeriac. Supermarket celeriacs are washed, topped and tailed and shrink-wrapped in enough plastic to kill a dolphin. I bought mine from a greengrocer: it was a knobbly, earth-encrusted thing with rather unpleasant roots dangling like dead tentacles. Ideal for drawing, in fact.

I find myself buying things to draw which I either don’t know what to do with after the event or don’t have the time to make into jam or chutney. Happily, I always know what to do with a celeriac. It can be made into a very tasty remoulade which really needs to be eaten almost immediately as it absorbs the mayonnaise and becomes a claggy mess. Or it can be made into a wonderful soup – ideal for this time of year – as in this recipe from Thomasina Miers.

Finely chop an onion and sweat it in butter on a low heat for a few minutes, along with a bay leaf, fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Peel and chop a large potato and the celeriac into chunks, stir into the buttery onions and add one litre of good quality – home made preferably – vegetable stock, bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer.

Allow the vegetables to cook in the stock for about 45 minutes until tender and then blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Season to taste.

Add 100g of crème fraiche, the juice of half a lemon and about a tablespoon of Dijon or wholegrain mustard. Stir to combine and add water if you prefer a looser consistency. The soup should be served with a few more fresh thyme leaves scattered on top and grilled cheese toasts on the side (smoked cheddar cheese is especially tasty).

You can’t say you don’t learn things on this blog.

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