Zoom Collage Industry

My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.

Some of my collage scrap bags, snapped from above

I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.

From a circus art workshop last summer at the V & A Museum

I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.

One of the classes from before times at the Royal Drawing Schools studios in Shoreditch.

The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.

This was a short course in which myself and fellow painter Rosie Vohra, taught two days each, called Drawing, Poetry and Collage, at a virtual version of The Royal Drawing School.

For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)

Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!

Physical consideration & collaboration: Children in Hull, during our National Poetry Day mini residency there in 2017.

I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…

The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.

What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.

One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?

Teachers in Hull practice writing & collage exercises ahead of National Poetry Day 2017

Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.

 

Flowers to fly me home

You don’t need me to say how the world is. There are huge pressures currently on our collective heart, our collective lungs. Whose air is this? How are we to breathe?

Californian tree poppy – Matilija poppy

On a personal level I am in flux – having had six flights cancelled, we now have tickets for Monday, and hopefully we will be back in Brixton a week today. There’s a lot of packing to do. Quarantine awaits.

There are many things I’ll miss about Berkeley. Over the last five weekends I’ve been hosting a socially distant art club. Jane Gottesman and Geoffrey Biddle, who set up the nonprofit Working Assumptions, that supports this residency, their 3 teenage daughters, and their 3 rescue dogs, come over– and we all draw and make things in the garden till darkness falls.

P & P
make collage books at art club

For the last two weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself painting flowers.

Sunflower on red

It’s been decades since I put myself at the humble mercy of a still life, to try to copy what I see. Even working towards a representation of beauty feels quite ‘counter’. I’ve been so occupied with mixing from an emotional palette, making pictures and poems from the inside out.

Sad hat face (detail from virus painting)

But with so much to contend with in the human world, I’m leaning heavily on the flowers, to lend me their grounding version of reality.

Marigolds on gold

I’m hoping they can help with the next uprooting, and make me a magic carpet to get home on, as they sprout in fresh conviction from the dirt. They’re shining extra under these less polluted lockdown skies.

clarkia on pale turquoise wash

Painting them is a spell that conjures home, and memories of a childhood where getting lost in colour was one of the main lullabies.

velvet hum of blue delphinium on lime

Social isolation has facilitated a new kind of close up mode, where time seems to have both slowed down and speeded up, and looking very hard at something small and tangible feels like a secret door to the eternal.

Abutilon from over the neighbour’s wall

Though I often find my shoulders tense, and breath held, as I try to honour some leaf edge or petal convolution with the best flicked salute my brush can manage.

fading delphinium on gold

Flowers! Vortices of nectar, proliferation & reproduction, working in groups, taking turns to bud or droop, emanating energy and attraction. In this warm climate they often dress to the nines, in fancy lingerie, tight Lycra, statement jewellery.

Full blown peony on ultramarine ink ground

Sitting in direct dialogue with them helps me contemplate my own ageing – I love seeing what new colours come through as time lays into their matter in front of my very eyes, bright pink mutates to yellow ochre, violet fades to hazy blues and greys. We are transforming together in the studio, part of a cycle we can only dimly grasp.

Peonies on bottle green

They lead me to colour investigations, I think of Josef Albers and his experiments, what precise shade might I mix to set nature’s colours against? How can I translate the colours of these shadowed dots of pollen into paint?

Peony, detail
Peony

These flower paintings are small as the weeds that burst from paving stone cracks, they can stowaway in my suitcase. Compact curled fists of resilience to travel with. This is a great help towards the awful packing up process.

Marigolds on blue

Also working towards the observation and locking down of a moment, I offered to join in with the portrait project Portraits For NHS Heroes, initiated by artist Tom Croft. Three health care workers got in touch with me via Instagram, and so far I’ve drawn two nurses, Alexandra Crisp and Lucy Quarman. Both wrote me warm and interesting emails describing their lives in the pandemic. They each spoke of the exhaustion and the grim realities of confronting grief daily, of suspended family life, and also their passion for the NHS and for doing this important work with supportive colleagues.

Alexandra Crisp, NHS nurse

For centuries portraits have mainly been made to record rich or high status people. With this project key workers are painted, and given the original artwork free of charge by the artist, as an appreciation of their contribution at this time. I drew these two from photos they sent me. I used soft pastels and I put my best colours around their faces as added energy and protection.

Lucy Quarman, NHS nurse

I have seen many stunning portraits emerge from this project, including new work by old friend Martin Grover.

Sunflower with delphiniums

A large bouquet and good health to you dear reader, solidarity, and thanks for accompanying me via this blog, on my California journey this year.

European in America, continued.

I’ve been slowly getting the hang of where things are in Berkeley. I have a borrowed bicycle to skidaddle downtown to get gouache and oranges, or raid the library. What a library! A huge poetry section for a start (I haven’t even set foot in Fiction yet.) ‘How many books can one borrow at a time?’ I asked ‘Up to 85’ the man said… I opted for a cautious four.

American poetry section in Berkeley Public Library Library

There are also tiny box libraries out on peoples’ front yards, a great idea where neighbours get to exchange books. I’ve been helping myself. Back in the studio I rearrange fragments of these texts to create newly voiced poems, guessing my way to more index card text collages. I’m pleased to say that amazing poet Tom Jenks is going to publish 56 of them as a pack of cards with his innovative press/project Zimzalla this summer.

A couple of ‘American’ index card poems
One of Berkeleys ‘little free libraries’
A selection of my index card poems.

It’s a booky region. I went to San Francisco earlier this month to hear poet DS Marriott read at legendary bookstore, City Lights. I’d been impressed by his work before, having been asked to draw him for the cover of Poetry London in 2018. This time I could draw and listen to him live. He read poems re Grime music and the Grenfell tragedy, amongst other things, his poems glittered: images, musicality, truth impeccably spliced. A thread of humour lit up the afro-pessimism, a theory he talked about in the Q and A at the end. Haunting poems and ideas, appropriately, I bought his newest book: Duppies.

David Marriott reading poems at City Lights, San Francisco

Back at HQ last week it was my turn to read poems and show some of my work in progress. I put up new paintings in the studio, and Dan Schifrin, who manages the residency locally, organised the party. We had borscht & a reading, and a rainy night was enlivened by art, poetry and plenty of interesting people.

At my first salon in the residency studio

The chance to develop further as a painter is perhaps the chief thrill of this residency. I haven’t had such a luxury combination of time and space to myself for a few decades. I like working at night in the studio. Feelings and sensations are amplified by solitude and the novelty of being in this new place. I stare and stare out walking in the day: lemons on trees, house sized cacti, purple houses with pink camellias, capricious typography neoned on corners.

I try to lock down the sensations as they hurtle past my eyeballs & into my head.

Eg – this blue, this magenta
and what about this pairing of neons, Judaica then LIQUORS, a daily spell to chant on my local parade.

I’m trying as usual, to find a correspondence between what I see and what I think and feel, but trying is not an effective way to paint. I have to screw myself up like a scrap of paper and twist myself through the keyhole, then hurl myself at the wall using only my materials. Here’s a picture of how that’s going.

Current studio wall with five new paintings, more detail of the latest one below
Working title: River of Impossible Relationships

Here I have added rain in the form of strips cut from sacrificial book waste, and last night the orange ribbon edges.

I hold on to the idea that creative work is resistance. Today I mark what I hope is a temporary severance of the UK from Europe, by carrying on with my very European painting & dedicating what I do to the spirit of unity, neighbourliness & internationalism.

working title: The Grower The Radical and the Dreamer Murmur Dissent over many Time Zones

Thanks for reading my blog!

California, dreaming

exuberance is beauty says William Blake & look at the light hitting this ginkgo tree on Prince Street, Berkeley.

I’m 10 days into a 6 month art residency in Berkeley, California. I feel so lucky to have been invited to come and make work in this beautiful part of the world.

The last few days have been extra tough aloneness wise – dealing with the UK election result, far from family and friends. But Berkeley is a liberal city and the fact that people here are saddled with a president who inspires universal loathing made them sympathetic to my despair. This blog post wasn’t going to be about that, but it turns out I couldn’t not mention it.

One of my index card collage poems made long before the election, but political anyway, like all art, all poetry!

Since my arrival here I’ve made friends with some exceptional trees, as well as tentatively, some people.

Maple on Claremont Avenue on day one
This maple wakes me up, it sparkles at me from outside my bedroom window as special emissary from the sun!

The trees aren’t too curious, but the people are. ‘What are you going to be doing?’ follows on from the usual cheerily delivered, ‘Welcome to Berkeley!’

‘What are you going to be doing?’ asks a Mexican angel in a store called Tail of the Yak, full of decorative wonders.

I went to a small publishers fair in San Francisco on Sunday. It was brimming with lively books, collaborations, people. I met some poets! One I warmed to immediately was called Eric Smeathen, (I know, great name, and he even had a pink jacket.) His book Snail Poems, is a hymn to love written by and featuring metaphorical and real snails and many other manifestations of strength and beauty. It even has Matisse’s snail on the front (from my London, lol,) so it was pointless to try and resist it.

A dose of Eric Sneathen’s snail poetry, published by Krupskaya, one of the small presses with a stand at the book fair I went to on Sunday.
Small publishers fair at SFMOMA in SAN Francisco. This table features publications made with 2727 California a public access print resource with art residencies & other excellent, accessible stuff.

I also caught a reading in the Doe Memorial Library on the university campus the other day. A poet called Margaret Ross read in the lunch poems series there, set up and also attended by, former US poet laureate Robert Hass. Margaret Ross had memorised her long and richly textured poems and delivered them slowly and with a kind of American flatness, to great effect. I loved them, there was playfulness behind her sober intonation and the poems looked up close at time, relationships, aspects of our ordinary dust – she lit up question marks in my head, make me laugh too. I was also glad to get a sighting of Robert Hass, as I heard him read in London at Poetry International a couple of years ago and I’m a fan.

People beginning to gather in the grand Doe Memorial library at UC Berkeley, for Margaret Ross’ reading in the lunch poems series.

You can read examples of her poems here,

On my way back I stopped at Moe’s Books. What a cavern of delights! I struck lucky as they had a box of broken publications destined for recycling, so I claimed them as step 1 towards my California Collage Stash. There was happiness all round at the timing. Apparently it’s rare they have such stuff as they only accept books in good condition.

Here’s a new index card collage poem, I made it yesterday – using pages from the broken books from Moe’s.
Continue reading “California, dreaming”

Poets in Colour

William Blake was happy to sit for me in Lambeth

I have finished this phase of the poetry 101 commission for The Poetry Foundation in Chicago – and now all my portraits of the essential poets they asked me to draw are up online.

If you search the names below with 101 next to them, you’ll find a brand new picture of them by me, a biography and essay about their work and context, and at least five sample poems with a critical analysis.

Here are the poets I’ve drawn since I last wrote about this.

June Jordan

W B Yeats

James Wright

Nikki Giovanni

William Blake

William Carlos Williams

John Donne

Joy Harjo

William Wordsworth

John Ashbery

Edward Thomas

Robert Duncan

John Ashbery, himself a fantastic collagist.

Its been wonderful to have been able to contribute to this free and inspired educational resource. This last batch included several poets whose work I already knew and loved – and a few whose poetry was new to me and gave me a chance to extend my reading and put in research time, which in turn has really fed my writing.

Trying to forge connections between the poets own use of language and themes, and the colours, textures and materiality of the scraps in their collage backgrounds- has been exciting – a good excuse to get lost in the space between pictures and words.

I’ve also relished a return to observational drawing and this work has led me to other commissions and reinvigorated my love for thinking in and about colour.

I hope to exhibit all 30 original portraits one day in the USA or here, meanwhile they’re out there on one of the most informative and interesting websites in the universe! Do subscribe, you’ll have fresh poems in your inbox daily!

Thanks for the gig The Poetry Foundation.

James Wright
Joy Harjo

A night on the tiles.

Museum curator Poppy Learman, wearing green velvet and an excited grin, led me to see how she and her co curator Liz Stewart, also in a fabulous green ensemble, had displayed my drawings at the new exhibition they’ve conceived and now realised, which has recently opened at The Museum of Liverpool.

Galkoff’s and the Secrets of Pembroke Place

Such a thrill to see the forty one drawings they chose, from over a hundred I listened to and drew, made into a massive wall of Liverpool voices and stories.

They’re pasted up on the reverse of the beautiful frontage of Galkoff’s kosher butcher which has been carefully reconstructed, tile by shiny green tile, inside the museum, as the centrepiece for a show that uncovers all kinds of history of its particular part of the city, once lively home and shopping area to many, including a busy and established Jewish community.

The sixty stories not pasted up, are also available to look at in a flip book which is part of the extensive display.

Every single person I met on my story collecting odyssey in Liverpool had something interesting and surprising to say!

I’m looking forward to contributing to a symposium on the work around this show. It’s going to be on December 9th and I’ll talk about the story collecting process and read some poems.

Galkoff’s Symposium

If you’re in Liverpool, do visit the museum. It’s the perfect spot to take your imagination and do some time travelling, and once you’ve heard Galkoff’s Sausage Song for yourself, maybe also find some lunch.

Wearing shiny green clothes is optional. Or maybe just give yourself a polish and wear a glazed expression?

3 huge drawings in a small sweet shop, 100 little drawings in a vast warehouse: a couple of shows.

I’m proud to be a ‘distinguished friend’ of The Migration Museum Project and was recently invited to hang 100 of my drawings collected live in ink on the theme of home, in their current premises on Lambeth High Street.

If you’d like to see them fluttering along the high walkway like inky washing, they’ll be up until September 2nd. I’ll be at a special late opening there on Thursday 26th July. Please come.

Neighbourhood of Stories

Madam Europa

I was invited to make an installation for a unique space in the lovely town of Lewes.

Come to a private view and reading of three massive collage poems that are hanging in the window of this sweet ex sweetshop. I’ll read the windows and there’ll be milling and chatting under the sherbet lemon sun… right round the corner from Lewes Station, you’ll find the Lansdown Sweet Shop and opposite that is the Symposium Wine Emporium where there will be a table and a glass of something chilled…

 

Poetry 101

I’m three quarters of the way through a really interesting and sustaining commission: The Poetry Foundation in Chicago have asked me to make a series of portraits of some of the most essential poets of the English language.

This is for their education resource called poetry 101, which is a web based series, consisting of a multi angled look at each poet, including a portrait, a critical essay, a sampling of poems, some analysis of their work and ideas about their context and influence.

The approach I’ve taken was partly provoked by the work being required to be landscape format, for masthead purposes. This meant that a head only drawing was never going to fit. This led me to thinking poetically around each poet! What might you see ‘with’ them? Not literally of course, but if they were to be accompanied by rhythmic echoes of who they were or are, their themes, colours, types of language, texture, imagery, tone/intonation…

Eg. background collage for Langston Hughes 

I began to experiment with two textures or types of drawing: the mainly naturalistic, painterly observed likeness – pitted against a more abstract collage technique in which a graphic approach could dominate, creating a tension like poetic or musical counterpoint.

For this I wanted to further emphasise the poets as language wielding icons, so I’ve been making them big initials to go each side of their heads, cutting the letter forms out of paper, card or cloth that seemed to me redolent of their own voices…

Martín Espada’s giant M & E cut from corrugated cardboard that I bashed & sullied with marks: to look like hoardings round a building site, or other semi industrial markers one might see and ignore walking round a city… this felt right in the context of his poetry which champions workers, particularly the often invisible immigrant worker. The ripped bits of newpaper, paper bags from corner shops and maps of New York outskirts augmented this urban, everyday aspect of Espada’s political poetry and human subject matter. He wasn’t a poet whose work I knew before I saw his name on the list, so I was glad to discover him. He has just been awarded the Ruth Lilly award for lifetime achievement in poetry.

I’ve always believed that drawing people is best done by meeting them, and with these subjects I meet them all first and mainly, in their poems. This project has been a great way to extend and challenge my reading. The act of imagination is helped by the reading, but it still doesn’t tell me how wide apart their eyes were, or demonstrate relationship of nose to mouth to chin. For that of course, I scrabble about in books and the internet – but then I try to imagine really meeting and talking with the person…

With Shakespeare and Dickinson, for whom there are such well known singular images, I was nervous, but it turned out that the familiarity of ‘listening’ to their poetry made them rather more willing to appear in the studio for ghost sittings!

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For Emily Dickinson, I made a hairdo tree and a cloud volcano to tally with her playful use of scale and natural imagery. There are scraps of ribbon and the insides of envelopes that call to mind her own frugal yet mighty and pioneering way of working within the vocabulary of scrap, and a certain New England puritanism that must have been a great constraining foil to her wild and proliferating imagination.

Alice Notley is the only one of the poetry101s whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet and draw from in person. She has lived in Paris for the last 25 years though she is originally from Arizona, and spent many of her formative poetry years in New York. I was excited to go to visit her and find that she that also makes collages, so I photographed some of them, and made sure that I found similar elements in my studio to use for the background to her portrait. Below a fan collage by Alice Notley.

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Here is the portrait I made. I hope it comes through how much I enjoyed her company as well as her work.

You can hear her read at Kings Place in London on June 21st at the launch of the summer edition of Poetry London, and she’ll also be reading in Birmingham on July 6th, at a symposium on the New York School, at Birmingham University.

Some of the portraits have been very difficult to arrive at. Both Keats and Plath have such strong cult status, and died so young, that to make new icons from their already iconic images was challenging. I wanted to draw them fresh, as though they too just came round to the studio. It took me 6 attempts to get Sylvia, and 5 to get John Keats. Here are some of the versions I drew:

 

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In portraying Sylvia Plath I wanted to capture her wit and colourful aliveness, and show it as being as essential a part of her as her famous destructiveness and depression: the combination having made her a poet of clout, fire, originality. I used these joyful colours in high contrast, as I find spookiness abounds in the extra bright, and I wanted to present her in the context of both the dream and the oppressiveness of a 1950s England and America, and how it must have been to be a woman in that. Anyway, she eluded me, and I respected her for it! It seems a bit hysterical, but the days I was trying to draw her were hard, I felt myself sliding on her thin ice, sometimes sinking, and I longed to get to the safer shores of some plodding old poet who did not negotiate such extremes. One thing I did find comforting was that I could summon Plath up in my city: I imagined her wandering along the Thames embankment arm in arm with Shakespeare, here’s a little joke I drew on that theme…

I was relieved to listen to the kind, flat tones of Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize and a woman who did everything in her considerable power to encourage young people towards poetry. She just marched in and sat down in my messy studio with no fuss at all and smiled.

The portraits up online and not already linked to are in the list below.  I hope you find time to get to read and hear their different voices – it’s been an amazing whistle stop tour for me so far, and on and on I go – through more pastel dust and scrap bags, more mind blowing and interesting reading, more surprising knocks on the literal and metaphorical studio-library door!

Robert Frost

Audre Lorde

E. E. Cummings

Maya Angelou

Walt Whitman

Elizabeth Bishop

Juan Felipe Herrera

Muriel Rukeyser

With thanks to Cassie Mayer and Don Share at The Poetry Foundation, and also the 101 essay writers, particularly Benjamin Voigt, whose voices I also feel I’m getting to know!