Archaeology

Archaeology: Anglo-Saxon Pots (A4 charcoal and watercolour 2015)

Drawing in a museum can be enormously rewarding, if only because you have access to a range of still life objects so very different to those cups and vases you have at home (unless you’re a member of the Getty family).

It’s also interesting to compare the reactions of other museum visitors in different countries.  In the US – New York at least – people will come right up to you and stare at your drawing, sometimes even offering advice and comment. In Europe, they’re more likely to ignore you, at the most letting it be known through complex body language that you’re somewhat in the way.

In England, dear land of perpetual embarrassment where it is customary to apologise for things you haven’t done, your fellow visitors will stand ostentatiously to one side, staring hard at the object, letting you know that in no way are they looking at your drawing because from this angle it would be nigh on impossible to see it. Even if they wanted to. Which they don’t. Not because it isn’t any good, you understand, but because it’s none of their business. You carry on drawing – I’ll stand over here. Sorry.

These pots – don’t you love a grid? – are developed from some Anglo-Saxon objects in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. I was able to draw them, unhurried and unmolested, over a number of visits and then assemble them in this minimal yet graphic style.

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Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!

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Suffer the children

Refugees (20 cms x 40 cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

It’s always the children, isn’t it? It’s always the kids who get it.

When the strutting despot, Putin, decides to help out his old pal, genocidal tyrant Bashar Al-Assad, before too long hospitals and schools and aid convoys are bombed; the UN Security Council gets angry and the usual suspects play their veto cards like this is some bizarre game where the person who wins is the one who does the least. Before you know it, Iran is implicated. The EU discusses sanctions but somehow nothing happens. The British government says it’s OK to sell fighter planes to countries where human rights mean even less than women’s rights. Refugees pour over borders and citizens panic: far right-wingers make a play for government by stoking up fear and dread in the electorate. Desperate people cram boats made of scrap metal and hope and drown in the Mediterranean, their bodies washed ashore in Greece and Italy. For some reason we cannot remember the lessons of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the killing fields of Cambodia.

Then, in a town called Khan Sheikhoun, government aircraft drop bombs one Tuesday morning while everyone sleeps. Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a charity ambulance service, tells the BBC that his medics had found people, many of them children, choking in the street. Blue lips, foaming from the mouth, eyes reddened and sore: it seemed certain this was a chemical attack. Putin condemns the ‘groundless accusations’ of Syrian government responsibility. Trump slams the stable door knowing the horse left long ago.

Once again, there they are, wrapped up in blankets torn from someone’s unmade bed or held in a weeping father’s arms – the children. The collateral damage. Twenty-seven short lives lived in fear snuffed out, just like that.

Some time later, Bashar Al-Assad wakes up with a start in the middle of the night; all around his bed are the pale, ghostly faces of all the children he caused to be murdered in order to cling on to power. They do nothing but stare, the room feels airless with pity.

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Socks. Jockeys. A string vest.

Erotic (A4 mixed media and collage 2017)

Along with the Everyman Library book of Love Poems that I used in an abstract a few weeks ago, came the anthology, Erotic Poems, from the same series. In it I found The Woman Underneath by Robert Maître, a poet about whom I know nothing and who seems to be strangely absent from any Google search. Here’s an excerpt:

But, somehow, it was the synthetics,

hitched nylon, an erotic mechanics,

that set us light years apart.

What did we have when we undressed?

Socks. Jockeys. A string vest.

But when they stepped out

of shoes, blouse, and skirt –

voilà!

Inspired by the illustrations of John Cuneo, this collage features a certain type of man: you know him – he holds all sorts of opinions about how a woman should look but allows himself different standards. He has money, thanks to a business that owes its success to never underestimating the ability of the buying public to pay over the odds for something they don’t need. Unfair employment contracts meant that he didn’t have to worry about taking care of his staff and provide him with money enough to treat himself to expensive suits, a red Z4 and an all-year tan. If only he’d paid more attention to his underwear.

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Excuse my liberosis

Vellichor (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2017)

If you haven’t come across the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, do click on the link and discover Altschmerz, Adronitis and Ellipsism for yourself. Invented, curated and presented by designer and voiceover artist, John Koenig, the Dictionary is surely something that we’ve all been waiting for.

The idea of making up words that sound completely plausible for feelings that we can’t quite describe is pure genius. Some are simply defined while others are the subjects of beautifully-made short films.

Take wytai, for example, expressed as:

n. a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance, and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do.

The word ‘wytai’ is an acronym for ‘when you think about it’. The film accompanying zenosyne suggests that we should rethink the idea that youth is wasted on the young and that their emotions ‘make perfect sense once you adjust for inflation’. Now isn’t that almost certainly true?

Inevitably, I felt the need to try and interpret some of these in pictures, so here is vellichor (the strange wistfulness of used bookstores) drawn in a picture-book style, and onism (the frustration of being stuck in just one body that inhabits only one place at a time) that I thought required an edgier approach.

Onism (A5 ink and watercolour 2017)

I could get lost in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows for hours. I would like to thank Esther Cook for telling me about it: without it how would I have discovered that the unsettling feeling I’ve had for about a year is probably nodus tollens – let’s hope they soon find a cure.

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‘A day which lay sly and unseen’

Life drawing (A1 charcoal 2017)

The London Book Fair starts today and my mind is on meetings and future publications and sales forecasts. I therefore offer you a recent life drawing and three excerpts from The Book of Barry*.

First, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualised by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?

My admiration for novelist Colm Tóibín knows few bounds. He was one of the many who paid tribute to the painter Howard Hodgkin, who died last week. Unlike most of the other obituarists, however, Tóibín, understood that

[Hodgkin] found a style as a painter that matched who he was as a man, and he stuck with that. There were times, he must have known, when the emotion in the work seemed to exceed its cause. That was part of the risk he took. Each painting was a balance between released emotion and something coiled, concealed, withheld.

And finally, two quotations from writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012:

Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,” my grandfather said, “A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

* The Book of Barry is a small Moleskine filled with newspaper clippings and things I read and enjoyed in books or magazines and wanted to keep. Some are mean, some are moving, many are funny – at least to me – and some turn a light on human folly or pretension, while others are simply weird or just too good to forget. I once gave it to someone as a gift but she found it less engaging than I, and kindly let me have it back. Really, everyone should keep a book like this for all those fleeting things one reads online and in print.

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Valentine’s Day

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Valentine’s Day (A4 ink and watercolour 2017)

She held the hand-painted card, turning it over like an artefact from a past age  – which, speaking metaphorically, it now was. Looking up finally, she said, “There’s something I need to tell you…”

Valentine’s Day can go either way.

If you’re fortunate enough to be celebrating with someone, may I wish you the happiest of days. This post is dedicated to those whose love is perhaps less than conventional: imagine the reaction of this fish’s family when he told them of his new love…

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