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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An everyday angel

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Bar fly 1 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

Friday was a busy and somewhat challenging day, so when I found myself at an airport with four hours to kill before my flight home to London I decided to enjoy a salad and a glass of wine in one of the bars.

Sitting at the counter of an airport bar can be fascinating, listening to the conversations between the other customers and trying to determine their relationships. Are they colleagues, friends or strangers? Has it been a successful business trip or a Christmas present-buying binge? Do they interact with the bar staff to a greater or lesser extent?

It soon became clear that there was a drama going on to my right. A woman was trying to discover if the man seated next to her – who clearly wasn’t on his first cocktail – knew when his flight was boarding. He, on the other hand, was doing that thing that inebriated people on high bar stools often do – trying not to fall off. The bartender – let’s call her Janila – discretely replaced his cocktail glass with one filled with water and pushed a basket of bread rolls in his direction.

Eventually he stood and weaved unsteadily towards the door. Janila told me that one of her colleagues would be happy to serve me with anything else but she had to see the customer to his gate. They disappeared into the airport crowds.

Ten minutes passed, then ten more, and Janila hadn’t returned. When she finally did, she sighed, “His flight was at the furthest gate…” “You didn’t have to do that,” I said as she brought my check, “It was so kind of you.” “No,” she said, “I had to – I couldn’t just leave him to find his own way – his flight was already boarding.”

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Bar fly 2 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

This random act of kindness was inspiring. My own frustrations fell away witnessing her going the extra mile to help the man. After all, who knows why he was drinking alone in an airport bar? Perhaps he’d failed to close the sale that would save his job two weeks before Christmas; maybe his wife had left him for someone he once trusted.

Had this been a movie, the shadowy figure at the far end of the bar would have left her a $1,000 tip and slipped away quietly. But this was real life: the man made his flight thanks to the kindness of a stranger and Janila finished her shift and went home tired but, I hope, knowing that she was an angel of sorts.

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The art of the dealer

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Kasmin (15 cms x 10 cms ink and watercolour 2016)

John Kasmin is an art dealer, small of stature (under 5’6”) but not of reputation, who is perhaps best known (to me at least) for launching the career of David Hockney.

He discovered Hockney at the Royal Society of British Artists’ 1961 show, Young Contemporaries, where he bought one of the painter’s most striking early works, Doll Boy, for a mere £40. Kasmin’s interest was unexpected as he specialised largely in American colourfield painters. “I liked the young Hockney’s cheekiness,” is how he described the attraction in a recent interview.

But why have I drawn Mr Kasmin naked instead of wearing one of his elegant suits? It’s the first tentative step in a series of drawings celebrating the wonders of the older body, both male and female. The media’s obsession with physical perfection – as well as causing all sorts of problems around body image among young people – means that the middle-aged and older body, even in art more often than not, is sidelined. Yet the body can be as revealing as the face in charting life’s journey and the curves and folds have a beauty of their own: our life stories are written on the skin.

I’m not the first to have had this idea, of course, and it might well remain in my head rather than on paper like my ‘plastic in the seas’ project. In case you were wondering how I persuaded a legendary art dealer to strip off, I must confess that Mr Kasmin’s chest is based on my own, drawn in front of my bedroom mirror.

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‘If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen’

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John Berger (23cms x 30cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

Saturday was the 90th birthday of writer, artist and thinker, John Berger. I first encountered him in the 1970s, as the hip presenter of the television series on art, Ways of Seeing, by which time he’d already had a career as an artist and a Booker Prizewinning novelist.

He’s one of those people – like Parker J Palmer, Joni Mitchell and Arvo Pärt – whom you want to go on forever. The world feels like a better place for their being in it and you know that when they go it’ll seem a little poorer, a little less varied. His novels are something of an acquired taste, (I’ve never managed to finish one), but his books of essays contain riches beyond compare. Of The Shape of a Pocket, Berger himself writes

a pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement…The people coming together are the reader, me and those the essays are about – Rembrandt, Palaeolithic cave painters, a Romanian peasant, ancient Egyptians, an expert in the loneliness of certain hotel bedrooms, dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station. And unexpectedly, our exchanges strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.

Doesn’t that make you want to rush round to your local bookseller or click on your non-exploitative online retailer without further ado?

One always longs to meet one’s heroes and I did meet John Berger when I worked in a London bookshop in 1979.

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The shop hosted a launch party for his novel, Pig Earth, but sadly I knew him mainly as a TV presenter and I was over-awed by his presence. If I knew then what I know now, there are so many things I would have asked. Perhaps I would even manage a better portrait than the one above. However, we are lucky to have his books, which are like hearing a master storyteller describe his travels beyond the mountains, to the countries of the mind where you follow because he leads.

Happy birthday, John.

 

Face Time

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Finding ourselves without a model in yesterday’s life drawing class, we decided to draw each other. Our teacher warned us at the outset that drawing portraits from life was difficult: it’s certainly very different to drawing someone from a photograph (Jenny Saville, for example, will only paint from photographs, finding the presence of the model a distraction).

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I can only be glad that none of you, probably, know the three gentlemen pictured here. You might pick them out of a police line-up using these ten minute sketches but I doubt if their loved ones would want them framed and hanging on their walls. It’s interesting to consider how close a resemblence needs to be: an artist I admire enormously, Tom Phillips, has painted the Monty Python team which – to me – fails to capture any of them. As Tom Phillips is a remarkable and innovative artist, I don’t feel quite so self-conscious about posting my three portraits.

On the subject of the importance of a likeness, Lucian Freud, in his only artist’s statement, written for the Venice Biennale in 1954, wrote:

The artist who serves nature is only an executive artist. And since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not depends entirely what it is in itself, what is there to be seen. The model should only serve the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement.

For some other interesting takes on the art of portriature, see Rosie Scribblah‘s collection of baby boomers and Laura’s stylistic experiments over on Pict Ink. My three are all A3, drawn in charcoal or pencil.

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Man on a Train

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Man on a Train (A4 ink and watercolour 2016)

Although the above isn’t a self-portrait – it was drawn from a photograph I took secretly of a man on a local train – on Thursday I will be a man on a train. Having flown over to Rochester NY yesterday, I’ll be travelling down by Amtrak to meet a client in Hudson in the morning, and then on to New York City for more meetings.

The themes of change and endings have been on my mind a great deal lately. I’ve always embraced change with enthusiasm: moving from country to country and job to job with a sense of adventure. There have been some profound sadnesses along the way, but I always believed that we are generally a creative and resourceful species and that in the end things work out. Lately the changes have been somewhat out of my control and, as I heard last week during a course on Well-being in the Workplace, control over one’s situation is essential to peace of mind.

My stay in Rochester has been somewhat piognant, as it’ll probably be my last in the bed and breakfast inn at 428 Mount Vernon. The elegant, quiet Mount Vernon has been my home from home in Rochester for most of my visits there over the past 15 years, but the owners, Phil and Claire, have decided to retire.

It has always felt like far more than a hotel: I usually stay in the same peaceful room with a view out over the garden, watching the northern cardinals on the bird feeders and the chipmunks scurrying through the undergrowth; the breakfasts are, as I’ve described before, the perfect start to the day; and a visit in election year always includes a robust political discussion with Phil even though “Claire told me not to talk politics with the guests but you asked, right?”

Change happens and we are well-equipped to deal with most of it. Sometimes though, change takes with it a little piece of your heart and casts a shadow over one small part of your life.

 

 

Live long and prosper

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Leonard Nimoy (A5 sketchbook page, pencil, 2016)

On Sunday, the Observer newspaper printed an article on Jessie Burton, the author of the bestselling historical novel, The Miniaturist. After what she described as a ‘second-class career’ in acting she returned to her first love, writing, and produced a book that was published in 34 countries, sold over a million copies and resulted in a breakdown as she tried to deal with her own success. ‘Success can be as fracturing to your sense of self as failure: it just traumatises in a less qualified way,’ she says in the article.

The idea of success as a curse is an interesting one, especially to those of us toiling in the foothills of creativity. Wouldn’t we love to see our novel rising up the New York Times bestseller list, our paintings hanging in the Gagosian Gallery? Indeed we would, but what if that success tugged us away from all that we held dear, broke up the support systems that kept us afloat during the lean years, hammered a wedge between us and other people?

Someone who found success to be a very mixed blessing was the late Leonard Nimoy. After years as a moderately successful actor in 1960s TV shows, Nimoy was handed the role of Spock in a new space drama, Star Trek. Initially not particularly successful in the US, the series gathered momentum outside of the country (it was essential viewing when I was a boy in England) and really took off when it was syndicated.

From then on Nimoy, with his striking looks and richly beautiful voice, was Spock. Foolishly, as he admitted later, he wrote an autobiography called I Am Not Spock to try and distance himself from the character that had brought him fame and fortune. The world’s Trekkies reacted badly, threatening to ‘break him’ just as they had ‘made him’. (Personally, there are two groups I’d never pick fights with: Trekkies and fans of Star Wars.)

Some years later, Nimoy made his peace with the character and published a second autobiography, I Am Spock. By then, of course, Nimoy had also become a respected director, a photographer and a published poet, perhaps thereby loosening Spock’s grip on him somewhat.

I’ve drawn cartoon Spocks several times, mainly for my daughter’s birthday cards, but hadn’t really tried Nimoy in mufti until a few weeks ago, when I attempted the above portrait of the actor in his later years based on a photograph in William Shatner’s lacklustre memoir, Leonard.

I also met him once, very briefly. I was walking briskly through BookExpo – the publishing industry’s annual exhibition in the US – when I turned a corner and found myself standing in front of him as he waited for a publicist to take him off to sign copies of his latest book of poetry.  He seemed about nine feet tall and craggier than ever and I could think of nothing to say. I think I managed, “Good afternoon!”, received a gracious response, and then scurried off to my meeting.

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