Hold Still

Sunflower – front and back (A5 Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook 2019)

Sally Mann is probably best known – to those without an interest in contemporary photography – as that woman who took pictures of her kids naked or, perhaps, the one who photographed decomposing bodies at a federal forensic anthropology facility.

She is that Sally Mann, as well as the one who documented her husband’s muscular dystrophy in a series of deeply moving images; who published pictures of the Deep South, “haunted landscapes, battlefields, decaying mansions…and the site where Emmett Till was murdered” (according to Newsweek); who wrote a remarkable, award-winning memoir, listed as one of the twenty best in the New York Times, called Hold Still.

It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and often candid photographs, including ones that Mann thought hadn’t actually worked. One of the book’s many charms is this Gagosian-represented artist’s admission that some of her work, y’know, wasn’t up to scratch. That happens to me. It happens to you as well, I imagine? Well, it also happens to those whose work is on sale in one of the world’s leading galleries.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s unlikely that even the most accomplished photographer will produce spun gold every time she points her camera. Yet how satisfying to read that:

Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it.

Maybe you’ve made something mediocre – there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets – but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.

It’s that passion, those beckoning hands, that keep us moving on. We probably shouldn’t seek perfection as such (and Ms Mann points out elsewhere that this is something with which she struggles on a daily basis) but it’s the moving forward that matters. It’s not just a case of the grass being greener over there, but the passion in creating something is requited more completely when you achieve something like the image – or the piece of writing – you had in your head.

I’m not sure I really needed Sally Mann to tell me that, but I’m somehow pleased that she confirmed it in this very special memoir.

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Fishing with David Lynch

David Lynch (A5 Prismacolour indigo pencil in sketchbook 2019)

I like David Lynch.

I never understood Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive and I wasn’t much of a Twin Peaks fan. His drawings are baffling and his music isn’t really to my taste, despite having titles such as “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)”.

But how can you not admire his creativity? It seems to burst out of him. He’s best known as a film director, but his musical output consists of – Wikipedia tells us – three studio albums, two collaborative studio albums, six soundtrack albums, two spoken-word albums, one extended play, twenty singles and six music videos. That’s more than many people whose day job is music.

In a recent interview in the Observer newspaper, Lynch spoke about his creativity:

You’ve often described creative ideas as fish. Are the fish biting at the moment?
Well, as you know if you ever fished, you have to have patience – some days you catch some, some days you don’t. I am fishing now, and I’m gathering fish together, but I haven’t started cooking them. Right now, I’d say the ideas are in the world of sculpture and painting.

When asked where these ideas came from, his answer was equally charming:

I don’t know where any of them come from. That’s why I don’t think I can take credit for anything I’ve ever done. They’re all little gifts and they string themselves together, and stories come out or a painting comes out. They just come into your head and it’s like Christmas morning.

Or, to quote the Urban Dictionary’s definition of Lynchian (as told in a recent Big Issue interview), “You have no fucking clue what’s going on, but you know it’s genius.”

I know, from reading blog and Instagram posts, that many of us feel that way – to such an extent that it might as well be one definition of creativity. Why does a painting you start on a Saturday come to nothing while the same subject on a Tuesday might be your best one yet? What makes you do that abstract thing in the background of a still life? Where did that doodle come from while you were sitting on a slow-moving train, your mind a complete blank?

I don’t know about you but I would be wary of probing into that too deeply. “We murder to dissect,” wrote Wordsworth and he had a point. Explanation is one thing, but thrashing it until its life blood seeps away is another, and frankly I’d rather not know what lies behind a successful creative act. It would almost be like a pact with the devil if every mark you put on paper, every note you played on the piano, and every sentence you scribbled down was an enduring creative experience.

Better to see it like Lynch does: It just comes into your head and it’s like Christmas morning.

Melancholy stuff

Two things.

First, the publishing company I work for recently distributed a book – now sold out – called Stuff, a photographic record of some of the objects retrieved from the bed of the river Amstel when it was drained to enable a new subway line to be built. The objects range from medieval daggers to pocket calculators. I briefly considered taking a series of photographs of meaningful or interesting objects to make a Stuff of my own, a sort of personal archaeology in pictures.

Secondly, the notes accompanying an exhibition of work by Oscar Murillo at Kettle’s Yard discuss the Japanese concept of mono no aware. This, we’re told, translates as ‘the pathos – or melancholy – of things’ – a deeply-felt emotion as we realise everything is transient and exists in its own time and space.

Have you ever picked up something belonging to to an elderly relative and been touched by a sudden sadness; or found a child’s toy, long discarded, and remembered how it used to lie on their sunlit bedroom floor; or taken a book from the shelf and discovered a photograph used as a bookmark, and remembered that you once loved that person but now, no longer?

These two photographs have their own melancholy. The shoes belonged to a friend of mine who died last year: I photographed them as she had left them before she went into hospital. The other is of the afternoon sunlight slanting across a stretch of wallpaper and an old-fashioned light switch in my Mother’s house as I packed up her belongings shortly after her death. It was the last time I would visit a place I’d known for forty years.

But what about this? A solitary cloud in a perfect blue sky, like a drawing by Shaun Tan. I saw it as I strolled through a field close to my office during a lunchtime break and had no real feelings about it other than remarking its solitary existence in an otherwise cloudless sky.

But consider clouds for a moment. What comes to mind? Joni Mitchell, perhaps. Summer holidays? Sitting in the sun enjoying the peace to read a book from start to finish without interruptions. Or the last day of the vacation, flying home tomorrow. Something that happened in 1967. The summers of your youth. The soul of someone long departed looking down on you with love. Waiting at the station to be collected, wishing you’d worn lighter clothes for the journey. Nothing is perfect, and the presence of the cloud makes the sky even more beautiful. Italy. California. The rugged coastline of north Wales. Melbourne in 1998. That distant weekend in Seville with —-, drinking cava in the square, looking up and seeing a single cloud.

It’s a beautiful concept, isn’t it, once you start to explore it? Mono no aware. What things induce mono no aware in you, I wonder?

A creative partnership

Blue King (A1 charcoal on paper 2019)

On Friday March 8th I posted the above drawing on Instagram – with some trepidation – in honour of International Women’s Day. The point of my post was that a good life model works in creative partnership with the artist. I’ve looked at the relationship between artist and model before but it’s intriguing enough, I think, to return to it.

Art history is littered with cautionary tales about (male) artists and (female) models. The beguiling model attracts the eye of the painter and soon captures his heart too, but his heart is a fickle as his eye and before long she emerges as a broken shadow of her former self. Or two artists fall in love and the male half of the relationship decides he’ll paint his lover and somehow her career becomes subservient to his: she is no longer an artist but his muse. Camille Claude, an astonishingly talented artist in her own right, but during her lifetime known only as Rodin’s model, is one of the more tragic instances of the latter.

I say I posted my hommage to the life model with trepidation because there was another hashtag around on that day, #refusetobethemuse. At first sight, there could well be confusion between the model and the muse, especially as they are often the same person. However the connotations of the word muse run deeper.

“As women, for centuries we were not allowed to be artists but we were muses,” artist and self-described muse Coco Dolle has told HuffPost. “We were always venerated in that sense. And I feel that legacy is still prevailing. It’s part of the romantic idea of the art world.” The mythical origins of the word ‘muse’ keep it firmly planted in a fantasy world, perhaps, enabling the exploitative or the unscrupulous to take advantage of blurred lines.

Blue King – 10 minute gesture drawing (A1 charcoal 2019)

The professional life model, however, should never be confused with a muse. He or she might inspire but it’s more of a collaboration, a joint effort to produce a finished piece, at least with the best life models. Certainly in the three years or so I’ve been drawing Blue King, the model in the above pieces, it has been a process of discovery, a dialogue, so to speak, between pose and drawn line. My development to a looser style of drawing, as I mentioned in my previous post, has been encouraged by the teacher, Annabel Mednick, but enabled by Blue’s fascinating, and sometimes challenging poses, which seemed to demand something beyond direct representation. It is that partnership that I was celebrating on International Women’s Day.

Faces and bodies

Clinton by Nicole Fahri (A5 pencil and watercolour 2019)

I recently visited Thomas Gainsborough’s house in Sudbury, now a museum with a delightful small garden, to see an exhibition of sculpture by Nicole Farhi.

In case you don’t know, Ms Farhi was a successful fashion designer who began her professional career with French Connection but went on to found, and later sell, her own label. Mentored by the sculptor, Eduardo Paolozzi (“He is in my soul, I still hear him”), she began to sculpt in her own right, something which she now does full-time.

One of my favourite blogs here on WordPress is The Sculptor’s Wife. Written by Tamsin, the partner of Sam Shendi, it details the trials and achievements of a successful artist through the eyes of his wife, along with her own attempts to draw and write while bringing up a young family. In one post, she quotes someone saying that sculpture is “the thing you bump into when you step back to look at a painting” – I’m ashamed to admit that has often been my view.

Nicole Farhi’s work is wonderfully tactile: knobbly heads of friends and celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, the wide expressive hand of Paolozzi, the eggshell-smooth expressive arm of a dancer. Resisting the urge to touch and feel, I could have spent hours in that room – and I’m sure I’ll return before the exhibition closes in June. My friend and I both stood in front of our favourite pieces and explored their intriguing contours by drawing them in pencil in our sketchbooks (mine is above). It was wonderful, inspiring work to see and contemplate on an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Suffolk.

Faces and bodies have occupied me for the past few weeks. Most Wednesday evenings I attend Annabel Mednick‘s life drawing classes in Ipswich. They are a fascinating collaboration with her model, Blue King, and cruising is not an option. Close observation and energetic mark-making are the order of the evening: Annabel pushes you out of the secure womb of your comfort zone into the world of taking chances. Two years ago I told her I wanted to draw more loosely, more freely, less prettily, and over the past few weeks I finally feel I’m getting there. It has taken that long to summon the courage to let go and not feel I’ve failed if I haven’t produced something you might want to hang on a wall.

Gestural drawing of Blue King (A2 charcoal on lining paper 2019)

I realised last week, standing in front of a particularly engaging head by Ms Fahri, that what I was trying to do was to achieve in charcoal and paper something of the energy that she teased out of clay and bronze: “I talk to the to the clay, and eventually a recognisable form emerges… It’s a miracle!” In my own small way, I think I’m getting there.

The creative everyperson

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The last rosebuds of autumn (A5 ink and watercolour on Daler Rowney Ivory sketchbook page 2019)

Some years ago I stopped drawing and painting: I wasn’t developing, it took up time I could be spending with my new girlfriend, and it was proving to be more frustrating than rewarding. When I married and had children it was fun to draw with them and make them birthday cards, but it wasn’t until I returned to the UK after nearly 20 years away – my personal life and career in tatters – that I started again, this time seeking out evening courses and workshops to help me progress.

In between I’d tried my hand at photography but the area that best satisfied my need to create was cooking. I’d always cooked – I nearly poisoned myself on instant curries as a student and then I lived alone for some years and, as I enjoyed eating, I thought it would be useful to be able to cook.

It wasn’t until I gave up drawing that I really started to improve. The process of cooking a daube de bouef or a good risotto was not unlike the practice of art: it took time, some knowledge of technique and a certain amount of skill, but in order to cook well one had to develop an instinct for the subtleties of flavour, to know when to stop, to feel a part of the activity itself. In short, I transferred my frustrated creativity from the art of drawing to the art of cooking, with the same intensity.

Recently I came across an article in RA, the magazine of London’s Royal Academy of Art, by Oli Mould, author of a book called Against Creativity, which argued against this concept:

Apparently everyone is creative….No longer is creativity an attribute we associate with skilled artisans and visionaries; every person, every job and every place must be creative to survive…The concept of creativity is now so ubiquitous in modern-day parlance that any semblance of what creativity actually creates has been lost.

Mr Mould gets the bit between his teeth after this, roping in the Uber app, the John Lewis Christmas ad, artisan coffee shops in Shoreditch, and high-rise residential housing for the super-rich to show how ‘creativity’ has been harnessed to profit and destroyed as a meaningful concept.

Personally I see no harm in a wider vision of creativity: isn’t your neighbour’s pleasing arrangement of flowerbeds creative? Isn’t a hairdresser creating a style that pleases her customer creative? I work in the marketing department of a book publishing company and I urge my colleagues to be ‘creative’, to go one step beyond their comfort zone, to think of innovative ways to bring our niche programme of academic monographs to the attention of their potential readership. Are any of those less creative than some of the artists I see on Instagram, churning out variations of their single theme time after time?

Let’s not rebrand creativity as the sole preserve of the professional artist or composer. Not all of us can call ourselves artists but we can all be creative. Frankly, if I had to choose between the perfect risotto and Jeff Koons’ balloon dog I know which I’d choose.

Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

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Rosie (Prismacolour Indigo Blue pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook page 14 cms x 21.6 cms) 2019

Mark Dery has bravely published the first full-length biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. It runs to over 500 pages which, bearing in mind Gorey did little except go to the New York City Ballet and draw, is probably too long. Dery is an astute interpreter of Gorey’s art and writing, but spends far too long speculating on Gorey’s sexuality and his shortcomings as a fully-rounded human being (show me a great artist who is).

I used to be mildly obsessed with Edward Gorey, ever since a good friend showed me a copy of The Doubtful Guest, which had been given to her by a New York gay couple who were friends of her father. I started buying his intriguing little books in the pre-internet days when one had to write letters to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC and send them international money orders as payment. I’ve no idea how many hours I spent in my twenties just cross-hatching like the Master.

Mark Dery is also insightful on his friendship with author Peter Neumeyer which was largely conducted by letter, and has since been published as a beautifully-illustrated book. He reminds us of Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory of Art, which is basically:

Anything that is art…is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.

He continues that things ‘that on the surface…are so obviously’ about one thing make it ‘very difficult to see that they are really about something else entirely’ (unfortunately Mark Dery then goes on to say that this demonstrates Gorey’s ‘Derridean-Beckettian awareness of the limits of language’ and ‘his Asian-Barthesian belief in the importance of ambiguity and paradoxes as spaces where readers can play with a text, making their own meanings’).

I’ve spent a long time on this blog trying to pin down the ‘something else’. I think we can agree that whatever we are inspired to draw or paint, that object or landscape is more than just that picture on the paper. Take the drawing of Rosie, the retriever-samoyed cross, above. On one level it’s a drawing of a dog using a Prismacolor indigo pencil on Stillman and Birn gamma paper. The ‘something else’ might well be my affection for Rosie and her owners, my enjoyment of my time with them all, my drawing Rosie as an expression of my feelings about being welcomed into someone’s home and family life over Christmas, how much I miss my own departed greyhound, and so on. What it isn’t, ultimately, is just a drawing of a dog.

Gorey has it spot on that ‘if you just have the something it’s boring’. Have you ever started drawing or painting something and you feel you’re just going through the motions, that what you’re doing is so superficial that you simply can’t face taking it any further? You might be surprised to learn that I’ve occasionally started drawing a piece of fruit and have abandoned it because it simply bores me to death, and if I don’t like drawing it why should you like looking at it? I believe that’s just having the ‘something’ in Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

I once met a painter who gave his landscapes titles like ‘Heartbreak is the end of all of love’s journeys’. That might well be true but it had the effect of not letting you see his paintings of nature as anything other than symbols of his inner turmoil. This is, perhaps, an example of when you ‘just have the something else [that’s] irritating’. It’s frustrating seeing or hearing something that you think is simple and its creator telling you it’s actually incredibly profound. Van Gogh did inner turmoil to a tee, but he called his paintings “Starry Night” or “Crows Over a Cornfield” not “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”, allowing us to form our own interpretation.

That, at least, is my take on Gorey’s Great Simple Theory. You might see it very differently, which is fine with me. And with Edward Gorey, I’m sure.