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.

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

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!