Art in wartime

Orchid (detail) (2022 acrylic and graphite 30cms x 20cms)

A writer who, as a child, didn’t like vegetables much, remembered her mother saying, “Eat up your greens! Think of all the starving children in Africa.” “How does my eating sprouts help the children in Africa?” asked the young writer-to-be.

I was reminded of this as I read Jay Rayner’s restaurant review in the (London) Observer newspaper recently: “On the morning my train to Liverpool pulled out of London Euston, the media was full of images of other trains: crowded ones, filled with terrified people, fleeing for their lives, an invading Russian army at their backs. I, meanwhile, was going to lunch.” Rayner followed this with four paragraphs of justification for writing about brown crab rarebit while the suffering continued in Ukraine. He quoted counsellor and agony aunt Philippa Perry’s advice, tweeted in response to a question on this theme, “Stay in the present and not the hypothetical mythical future. Deal with what is, not what might be. Remember to enjoy yourself as much as possible. It doesn’t help anyone if you don’t enjoy yourself.”

Recently, artists on Instagram have also been questioning the point of making art during wartime. Why draw these apples on an antique plate while the bombs fall on Kyiv? Is painting frivolous, irrelevant, even disrespectful when families are huddled in basements, fearful of their lives?

The artist and teacher Nicholas Wilton explained his reasons for continuing to create during these troubled times in a recent blog post: “Making our art is all about making connections — it moves us towards a connection to ourselves and others. Non-artists are also connected to our cherished vision when they experience…our art. This shared experience of what we make helps create a more connected and, as a result, a safer, kinder world. Making art is a practice of showing the world what truly matters. And it makes a difference.”

One of the many supportive comments on Wilton’s blog post, from a woman who had trained as a physician before switching to painting, underlined this point: “embodying what we are for is more powerful than opposing what we are against….Art heals. Living from that place, there is no inclination towards violence, harm, neglect, disrespect. Only love and celebration…generosity and gratitude, and so much more.” A recent clip on Twitter showed a young woman in her Ukranian apartment, the windows blown out, playing Bach on her piano before she left the room for ever, becoming a refugee from the place she called home. It was important for her to play that final piece amongst the devastation, on the brink of her unknown future, dressed in a warm coat in the ruins of her former life.

Painting a picture, writing a poem, playing the piano – all help us make sense of the world we live in and perhaps go some way towards helping to create a better world, one where “love and celebration, generosity and gratitude” are more in evidence. If we don’t do these things, it won’t help the people under fire in Ukraine; doing them, however, might just be a small step forward into the light.

Collage and sausages

In the Studio (A4 ink 2021)

How easy, do you think, would it be for me to loosen up my art practice when I’m the sort of person who arrives at airports two hours ahead of my flight, cooks sausages in a neat row, and arranges his CDs by genre, artist/composer, and then date of release (with compilations, of course, at the end)?

If the sight of a wayward sausage in a frying pan is going to cause me mild anxiety, how am I going to be at ease with wobbly lines and the threat of the non-figurative? Yet the little drawing above, drawn in a matter of minutes with a stick dipped in ink, is one of my most popular images on Instagram.

Well, one way is to allow someone to take you by the hand and lead you into the wild woods. For me, that person was abstract painter Jenny Nelson, and specifically a wonderful free tutorial she has compiled on greyscale collage. Nelson is a superb artist and has the skills to teach some of the tricks of her trade. Her own work is bold and expressive as you can see if you spend a few minutes wandering around her website.

In the tutorial she demonstrates a simple exercise that enables the most uptight person to loosen up. I won’t describe it in any detail because you should really take a look at it yourself. I’d even go so far as to say that even if you’re not a visual artist, but a musician or a writer, the cleansing nature of this 50 minute exercise would help you too.

I produced about four collages after the tutorial, which again received a warm reception on Instagram. One of the four, I think, works well as a composition in its own right, not just an exercise in loosening up:

Composition (collaged painted papers 135mm x 220mm 2021)

I’ve gone back to producing drawings using sticks and discarded feathers as drawing tools, but have also continued to work with collage using painted paper as my basic materials. It’s a practice which I’ll probably continue to develop alongside my other work, simply because it shakes around one’s preconceptions in a rather satisfying way, like lottery tickets in a hat.

That doesn’t mean I’ll stop lining up sausages in a frying pan any time soon. One of my closest and most enduring friendships is with someone who does exactly the same thing, so both of us cannot be wrong.

Expecting to fly

Sunflowers (2021 mixed media and collage 30 cms x 20 cms)

Let’s listen to two artists who coincidentally produce work for The New Yorker. First, Bruce McCall:

“Life in general has treated me better than I deserved. As a kid from nowhere, with no education, no guidance, no money, no formal training, I should have had no dreams, let alone an expectation to fulfil them. But to my continued astonishment, I’ve maintained a nearly four-decades-long romance with The New Yorker and accomplished the only dream I knew I had: to be an artist…Growing up poor and unworldly doesn’t sentence you to a mediocre, artless life (if it did, we wouldn’t have the Beatles) – but it certainly doesn’t help. I don’t think being coddled by familial love and money would have necessarily made me a ‘better’ artist, but it might have helped me see that I was one a few decades earlier. If you ignore the value of your calling out of fear…your greatest fears will likely come true: you will abandon your true calling.” (from How Did I Get Here: A Memoir, Blue Rider Press 2020)

And now, cartoonist Harry Bliss:

“My parents never steered me in any direction in terms of a career path. I never thought about money when it came to choose the path. At 13 I knew I wanted to be an artist and that was that. I never worried about whether I could earn a living, I only knew that if I worked at it it would happen and in the meantime I was perfectly fine working in restaurants to pay the rent. There were a few times though, when my well-intentioned mother…thought it would be a good idea for me to do caricature portraits on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, $10 per portrait. ‘At the end of the day you could be making a lot of money’ she advised. I didn’t take her advice.” (extracted from a post on Instagram @blisscartoons July 2021 – do seek this out: the post takes a sudden turn at this point into a related story that is both astonishing and deeply moving)

These quotes seem to occupy two somewhat opposing viewpoints, even though both McCall and Bliss were convinced from an early age that they would be artists. The former took a series of jobs in advertising and the media which provided a good living for him and his family, until one day after a particularly unrewarding stint as a writer on Saturday Night Live he decided to take the plunge into being a full-time artist. Bliss, on the other hand, was going to be an artist whatever, working menial jobs until he could make it work financially.

I can sympathise with McCall. Like him, I wanted the trappings of material success: a nice place to live, books, foreign travel, bottles of wine, pictures on the wall – and although my chosen career of book publishing was never going to make me rich, I’ve been comfortable enough all these years. Unlike Bliss, I was never going to be happy in a bedsit in the Manchester suburb where I grew up, stacking supermarket shelves, drawing and painting at night and over the weekends until my genius was recognised.

More than poverty though, I was fearful of having this artistic calling devalued. I used to work, at the beginning of my career in a London bookshop, with an inspiring man whose first love was jazz. He was a bass player who played gigs and recorded a couple of albums with a quartet, but he never wanted it to be his job. Some years later, in the back of a taxicab in San Francisco, the driver told me that he too was a jazz bassist but he loved the instrument so much he wasn’t, as he put it, “going to be told by some asshole pianist what to play” so instead he took up the saxophone and that’s the instrument he played in bands. Finally, a few years ago I did a short course in oil painting where I met a woman whose day job was an illustrator. “My dream job,” I told her. “Not if all you do is draw people playing tennis and football for sportswear companies’ annual reports,” she replied. Not Maurice Sendak then.

I was never certain that I would be good enough for art to make me a living, even a modest one. As an illustrator you need a Gruffalo or a Very Hungry Caterpillar; as a fine artist you need to catch the eye of one of those high profile gallerists who’ll sell your shark in formaldehyde or your vacuum cleaner in a vitrine to hedge fund managers. I can’t see my acrylics of quinces hanging in the Marlborough, can you?

Of course, you can make a decent living following your artistic calling without having to pickle sea creatures. My partner gave up a career in nursing to become a textile designer and made a good living from it. Turning then to fine art and printmaking, she regularly sells her inspiring and beautiful work via her website and galleries. It makes me think of baby birds discovering why they have wings: they stand on the edge of their nests and launch themselves into the void, expecting to fly. How do they know their untried wings will carry them aloft and not send them crashing to the ground?

I can’t complain though. Now I have the time and opportunity not only to create, but to play, to experiment, as with the drawing of sunflowers above. This is a new departure for me: using collage and monoprinting to create imprecise areas of tone – no pencil underdrawing – using a piece of twig rather than a nib or a stylus to create living, breathing lines.

Learning to fly!

PS This painting and many others are available to buy on my website at michaelrichardsart.com.

Entre chien et loup

Summer Rain (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2020)

Entre chien et loup – between dog and wolf – is simply a term for twilight or the golden hour in photography, but what an evocative phrase.

I feel it could apply to any transitional stage when things are lacking in clarity, don’t you agree? That point on the path from agnosticism to faith, perhaps, when you want to believe but still entertain doubts. Or playing a musical instrument when you can’t quite get through a piece from beginning to end without pausing to re-arrange your fingers on the keys. Or, as this is an art blog, a point between one stage of your development and another when you can’t quite throw off the old or fully embrace the new.

For some years now I’ve tried to loosen up my drawing and painting style. I’ve enrolled on courses at places like Seawhite Studios, where I’ve been taken firmly by the hand and pulled outside my comfort zone; attended life drawing classes, where the teacher would tell me – 20 minutes before the end of class – to rub out my dreary charcoal drawing and start again, producing something rushed, yes, but also free-spirited and dynamic.

In the end though, the decision to take the next step has to be one’s own. Like a baby bird on the edge of its nest, you have to make that leap and expect to fly. With me it works intermittently: a year ago I sat in the autumn sunshine in the gardens of Versailles and drew crows pecking around for crumbs. As crows don’t stay in one place for long I had to draw quickly and the resulting sketch was lively and bold by my standards. A few hours later I did a drawing of a rotting pear (which moves less often than a feeding crow) and fell back into my old ways.

Versailles crows (A5 sketchbook page, pencil, 2019)

But once you’ve made that leap the results are wonderful to behold. A few weeks ago I watched painter and printmaker, Rosemary Vanns, drawing artichokes. Barely looking at the paper, her hand moved with confidence producing firm lines that suggested rather than reproduced the vegetable in front of her. Of course this is practice, but it’s also confidence, knowing you can do it before you start. It’s recognising – intuitively perhaps – the path you want to take and boldly moving one foot in front of the other.

Rosemary Vanns’ charcoal drawings of artichokes on her studio wall,
September 2020

That is the secret you need to know to take that important next step on whatever journey you’re engaged upon. That belief that you can do it, that you can keep your gaze fixed on the artichoke and allow your fingers to move and they’ll produce something that suggests what you see before you. Believe, just believe.

So from where you’re standing, is it a dog or a wolf?

Art in a time of plague

Wild Orchid (178mm x 127mm acrylic on board 2020)

“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”

I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.

Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.

I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.

It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.

I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:

“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith.  It’s easy to give in to despair.  There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said.  We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch.  Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. ⁣It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”⁣

I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.

Stay safe.

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.