Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.

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Searching for an exotic old fruit

Tomatillos, Rochester NY (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2018)

In this year of rethinking the direction of my painting and drawing – trying to rein in some of the tangents I follow and develop a recognisable style – I’ve more or less decided to follow two paths simultaneously.

First, there is the line drawing path. I do enjoy drawing people wearing animal heads or household items on their noses. I like ‘illustrating’ Carly Simon’s imaginary friends or a woman in love with a fish (a similar idea won several Oscars, let me remind you). It’s fun to draw Benedict Cumberbatch as a vampire, legendary gallery owner Kasmin naked and the lines and folds on the faces of Jasper Johns.

On the other hand, I love painting fruit. My passion for the lovely quince is well known to regular readers of this blog. Occasionally I’ll let my head be turned by a ripe pomegranate or an exotic purple mangosteen, a gaggle of plums or even a delicately-coloured Swede. Fruit favours acrylics or oils, I think: layering on those colours and shades, adding a touch of shocking blue to a red and orange pomegranate or positioning a highlight of purest titanium white – all very satisfying.

This makes shopping in a well-stocked market or a foreign food store even more of an adventure. For me, Borough Market in London is a place to buy overpriced cheese and subjects for painting. That’s where I first discovered the almost comic mangosteen, shaped like a smaller, purple version of those plastic tomatoes that hold ketchup in transport cafes.

My latest hunting ground is Wegmans, a supermarket in Rochester, NY, on my frequent visits to this under-rated American city. For some time I’ve been eyeing the blousy pitaya (dragon fruit), vibrant pink with little green and yellow horns. Only the fact that I’m here without my acrylics has prevented me from dropping a couple into my shopping cart. Then last Saturday, while seeking out herbs for a New York Times recipe which pairs chicken and mushrooms with cognac and madeira sauce, I discovered tomatillos.

Like small green tomatoes wearing diaphanous outer skins over their shiny green bodies, these Mexican fruits are mainly used to make salsa verde. You can gently peel back the delicate husks, allowing them to tear into interesting shapes that describe the arc of the succulent green flesh where they remain joined to the fruit. I drew them in charcoal, in pencil and, at the top of this post, in watercolour pencil and ink. At under 70 cents for three, they’re the cheapest still life models I’ve found.

Now, where can I get a green pomelo?

You say potato…

Things Americans Say

Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]

Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

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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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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A life in black and white

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Do you ever have that thing where you buy a new book – perhaps one that you’ve been waiting to turn up for a while – and when it arrives you can’t bear to read it because you want a time free of interruptions to do it justice? What’s more once you’ve read it, you won’t have it to look forward to any more.

At the moment, Krazy, a life of Krazy Kat comic artist George Herriman, by Michael Tisserand, sits on my table unread until my next holiday. If you don’t know Krazy Kat, there is much online, and if you do, you’ll want this already acclaimed biography.

The subtitle of the book is worth mentioning, George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. This refers not only to the black and white Krazy Kat comics, but also the fact that Herriman, know as ‘The Greek’ because of his swarthy complexion, was actually African American, born to a Creole family that hid its racial identity in the dangerous days of Reconstruction.

Herriman began publishing Krazy Kat cartoons in 1916, but the strange adventures of Krazy, Ignatz the abusive mouse, and lovesick Offisa Pupp still charm and amaze today, seeming both contemporary and timeless. But look behind the main characters in his strips and you’ll see backgrounds that repay careful study. Shifting vistas inspired by Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa come and go, a rocky outcrop in one frame replaced by a shack with a crooked chimney in another.

Herriman Trees blog

George Herriman trees (A5 ink 2011)

I was always fascinated by his trees, however, which twist and zigzag in ways that few do in nature. I was so captivated by them that I filled this sketchbook page with a few examples. Unusually for me, I copied them line for line – after all, who could improve on Herriman? I posted this drawing when I first started this blog, but as I only had about three followers then, I don’t mind posting it again.

Now that you’ve read this, please go down to your local independent bookshop – no, don’t click on you-know-where – and order a copy of Michael Tisserand’s Krazy.

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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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