Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

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Ships that pass

Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)

This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.

When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.

One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.

Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.

Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.

A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.

So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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The Blue Dress

The Blue Dress (A2 pastel and charcoal on paper 2017)

I can’t judge from personal experience, of course, but I imagine that during these summer days a blue linen dress is a wonderful thing. It certainly is to draw.

Following my Seawhite course last week, a portrait I’ve had in mind for a few weeks has changed somewhat in the planning. This pastel drawing of a blue dress is an essential element in the composition and I wanted it to be larger and looser than originally conceived. It has, I flatter myself, some of the feel of Jim Dine’s bathrobes about it if Dine were to entrust his work to a much less talented studio assistant.

I posted this on Instagram last week and it has attracted a positive response which, along with my own feelings after the Seawhite workshop, encourages me to continue with this looser approach. I used about eight different blues from four different pastel manufacturers in this, plus a couple of reds and greens to bring the blue alive, and every one of those off-white Unison pastels I can’t resist whenever I go into Cornelissen in London ‘just to look around’.

So this is the dress. Once I have the opportunity to photograph the subject of this portrait and consider some other elements in the composition I can move ahead. In the meantime consider this an element in a work in progress, larger and looser than before.

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The big picture

Seawhite 1706 blog

Gestural drawing (5m x 1.5m mixed media 2017)

Perhaps all art classes should begin with a guided meditation. We have one at the start of the life drawing class I attend and it puts a welcome line between my day of spreadsheets and schedules and an evening of drawing. It certainly put me in the right frame of mind at Katie Sollohub’s Gestural Drawing workshop which I attended earlier this week.

If, like me, you have problems with the blank white page, imagine if that page would be 5 meters by 1.5 meters. That’s what confronted us at the beginning of the workshop: a page of heroic proportions, hanging from the wall and extending out across the floor, which would be filled with marks of one sort or another by the close of the second day. That initial grounding meditation was an essential start, I thought.

I’m sure someone like De Kooning or Joan Mitchell would immediately feel at home with a surface that large, but we were encouraged to explore, to find our way into it. Touching it, sniffing it (that’s as intimate as it got with me), whatever you felt – all with eyes closed. Then, charcoal in hand, starting to make marks on it, again with eyes closed, just using the arc of your arm movements; or dotting, or scratching, rubbing, scribbling, following your instinct wherever that led you.

Detail of the above

It was liberating to work in an intuitive, emotive, unstructured way. A large drawing without preparatory sketches, without an object to look at and interpret on the page, a drawing created purely out of gestures and marks. The resultant piece was surprisingly dark in places, the tiny coloured squares swallowed by the darker tones, the colourful flower-shapes threatening to entangle.

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Detail of the above

As one worked some of the usual creative responses kicked in: balancing the composition, plotting contrasting lines, adding colour on the second day after re-hanging it lengthways along the wall. It was interesting how others reacted and developed over the two days as well: one who had attended art school in the 1990s and now only did small sketches of her travels produced a work of such vibrant magnificence it stopped me in my tracks more than once; someone who experienced a creative block on the second day broke through by hurling a sponge dipped in white paint at his picture, incorporating the spatters into an impressive piece by the end; another unused to abstraction sailed out into those choppy waters to return to a semi-figurative composition where faces and bodies emerged from white washes and black lines.

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Detail of the above

It was an astonishing experience, exhausting and exhilarating, and although my access to 5m sheets is limited – not to mention the lack of space to work on them – I’m sure it will inform what I do from now on. For example, I’m contemplating a pastel drawing of a friend wearing a blue dress: I now plan this at around double the originally-intended size, and much looser in execution.

Sometimes one recognises that the imagination actually is boundless.

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An Act of Daring

Cracked Bowl (A4 charcoal and acrylic on a sketchbook page 2017)

“You don’t decide to paint. It’s like getting hungry and going to the kitchen to eat. It’s a need, not a choice.”

These are the words of surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, and they’ll resonate with many of us. When things are going well, of course, creating something from the depths of your own heart is magical. When not, it’s an ache as painful as unrequited love. Hopefully the former more than makes up for the latter, but even if not, you continue regardless: it’s a need, as Carrington said, not a choice.

If my subject is an apple, I just want to discover my way of looking at it and how I interpret that with paint, charcoal or pastel. I don’t really know if I have anything profound to say about the apple, I’ve simply tried to say something about the apple in the manner I wanted to say it. It would be wonderful if you enjoyed looking at it, but really, so long as I’m happy with my apple that, in the end, is what matters. If it somehow lets me down, no amount of your saying how delightful it looks will make up for my own disappointment.

In a new book, my good friend Bálint Varga mentions ‘the loneliness of creative people in the face of their own creativity. They are solely responsible for their decisions, for the choices they have to make – the act of creation is an act of daring.’ He captures the creative impulse so neatly there, I believe. I would never sail the Atlantic in a small boat, or even go up in a hot air balloon on a calm Sunday afternoon, but several times a week I stare at a blank page and risk my peace of mind assembling marks and colour on that sheet, knowing that if the outcome works I’ll be elated, if not, all manner of doubts and uncertainties will crowd in. Sometimes the difference between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is one ill-judged line.

Some time ago I wrote to Bálint that I was more often dissatisfied with my work than happy with the final result. His reply, which I printed out and taped above the mirror on my wardrobe door, was:

Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work are part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you were doing; you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.

Seen in that light, all those crumpled pieces of paper in the recycling bin are steps on the journey, necessary to advance, to move forward. It’s a comforting thought and one I hold on to when I have a whole evening of crumpled pages behind me.

This week’s image is a fairly quick and loose drawing of a cracked bowl, something fairly symbolic of my life during the first six months of this year. I’m fortunate enough to have kind and supportive friends and this creative urge which propels me forward – speeding out of trouble, so to speak!

Next week I’ll be at Katie Sollohub’s Gestural Drawing workshop at Seawhite Studios: rolling around in charcoal for a couple of days is just what I need. The spirit soars.

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Moth

Moths (A4 coloured pencil on prepared paper 2017)

Isn’t ‘moth’ a beautiful word? It’s almost onomatopoeic in that soft ending, suggesting talcy, fluttering wings.

I haven’t always been a fan of moths. As a teenager on holiday in a Welsh cottage I was reading one night when a beast the size of a small bird flew in and started battering itself against my light. It took me about half an hour to get rid of it. More recently, one laid eggs in a ridiculously expensive winter coat that I bought when I worked for an international German publisher. It now has three noticeable holes.

Many moths share that peculiar single life purpose that one finds amongst insects: they exist only to breed and have no mouths as they don’t live long enough to require food. What’s the point of existing only to breed creatures that exist only to breed? Other moths with more complex missions sip nectar.

Inevitably they have acquired symbolic value for those who like to give themselves animal characteristics. Their single-minded attraction to light suggests  determination, yet their inability to differentiate between a teenage boy’s bedside lamp and a candle flame apparently demonstrates the dangers of blind faith.

They are also symbols of love. The female moth emits powerful pheromones that can attract a male 11 kms away. He’ll fly through the night, making clicking noises to confuse predatory bats, charting his course by his relationship to the moon, until he ends up in the dusty embrace of his one true love.

Talking of which, here’s an excerpt from a poem which I bought from a homeless street poet in New York City for $5:

 

My gentle love

Holds you like a moth

In cupped hands.  Protecting,

Not confining, I release you

To the sheltering night.

 

I’m not sure what the implication of that last part is, but I didn’t feel that $5 covered both poem and explanation.

The drawing above owes a certain amount to the wonderful drawings and paintings of wild things by Cornwall-based artist, Kurt Jackson. It’s drawn in coloured pencil on gessoed paper which gives the drawings their mothy textures.

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Election Special

Not Quite Jeremy Corbyn (A5 pencil on sketchbook page 2015)

“The British people are biologically programmed to defy those who threaten them and do not buckle under stress.”

This jingoistic twaddle comes from the Comment page of the Daily Mail website the day after the terrorist attacks in London. The piece also invokes the spirit of the Blitz, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s friends in the IRA’, the shortcomings of Muslim leaders in Britain and a number of other buttons that, once pushed, send the blood pressure of the typical Mail reader shooting off the scale.

This is everything you’d expect from the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre [WARNING: this link contains strong language]. Little of it really hits the target and none of it is helpful. The British people are no more programmed to defy terrorism than anyone else and if anyone buckled under the trauma of living through such an attack they should be helped, not have the Dacre finger of blame pointed at them with all the contempt of a man unable to empathise.

The British people bleed when they are wounded and grieve when they lose the ones they love, just like Palestinian mothers when a school is bombed or Israelis when a bus explodes. Adopting a tone of self-righteous indignation and searching for someone to blame will not stop another atrocity, here in England or anywhere else.

Until all that stops and solutions are found to long-running problems, until we substitute understanding for military might, until we cease trying to impose our imperfect political systems on unwilling nations, until we realise that bombing the hell out of somewhere and then walking away from the resultant chaos is counter-productive, there will always be angry young people willing to sacrifice themselves and innocent others for their cause (however misguided that cause may be).

It may soothe the readers of the Mail to think that the problem lies with Jeremy Corbyn and ‘his ex-girlfriend Diane Abbott’ but I doubt even the most dim-witted and right-wing of their readers truly believes that nonsense. If all else fails, alongside this spittle-flecked Comment on the Mail’s website one can find good old comforting sexism in stories such as ‘Holly Hagan flaunts her assets in a VERY skimpy bikini top as she parties in the Ibiza sunshine with hunky shirtless pal.’

The world still turns.