The fire inside

A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.

“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.

“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.

“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.

I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.

I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.

Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.

You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.

Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King called The Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.

So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.

Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.

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.

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.