Your Candle Accompanies the Sun

So thrilling when personal obsessions are given the chance to expand into real projects, real objects.

This has happened twice in recent months with two of my sequences making their way into books and exhibitions.

Here’s an account of the the first to appear: Your Candle Accompanies the Sun.

In the spring I had a bout of terrible Mondays, when my teenage son, who has learning difficulties and autism, decided he was never going to school again.
He’d take off around the neighbourhood, and nothing (believe me) would get him on the road to his school, (a lovely place btw, he was fine once he was there.)*

While he was out wandering, I was obliged to stay at home and wait, as when he would eventually find his way back, he needed me to be there.

During these times, I really was stuck indoors, quite anxious, unable to do much. In an attempt to ‘do something useful’ I began clearing out some of our excess junk. I came upon a small 1930s book of duotone tourist photos of Switzerland that I’d forgotten I’d picked up at a flea market years before. ‘Why! This is collage gold.’ I gasped. ‘In fact, it’s the inner landscape of Emily Dickinson!’

I’d seen a Poetry School competition callout on instagram re Emily D – provoked in turn by the new Terence Davies’ biopic: A Quiet Passion.

I began, at the kitchen table, to make one collage after another, glueing and stitching flat turquoise Alps to scraps of photographed kitchenware… and finding my own words to add, after rereading the energetic, mysterious and spiky poems Emily Dickinson wrote so urgently in her many years stuck indoors.

She made some sacrifices in order to develop her revolutionary work. Being a female artist was never a picnic.

This summer I showed a selection of the collages in an exhibition at The Art Stable, Dorset. The work remains up and viewable by appointment, until September 15th. Curator Kelly Ross had had the idea to set me up with brilliant painter Gigi Sudbury, so we could potentially collaborate, and show our work together. This was an added delight, as we share a passion for colour and narrative, the domestic and surreal combined.

We met and looked at exhibitions and forged a valuable exchange. I’d like to write about this more, but for now, here is one of her paintings from the show. We encouraged each other’s image text tendencies.

To co ordinate with the exhibition I again called upon the book producing genius of the Henningham Family Press. They devised a beautiful new binding for a book of the Emily Dickinson collages.

I tried to write an introduction to the work, but ended up writing a little poem instead, which felt less cumbersome.

To accompany the collages I picked out a handful of Dickinson’s poems, a few old favourites and some more obscure ones.
It was fun to choose poems that showed her wit and her visual acuity, her skill in collaging language, her games of scale.

E.g. one starting:
‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time – ‘
And another that begins:
‘The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants – ‘
which made Gigi and I laugh our heads off when we met to compare art notes in my kitchen.

The book is available at £20 from Henningham Family Press. Each copy contains 28 collages impeccably reproduced at actual size, my poem and ten by Emily Dickinson.

Each book is cleverly hand-bound to allow for two different sized pamphlets in one set of covers, reflecting our two voices.

Henningham Family Press will be showing the book, amongst many others of their inventive works, at FREE VERSE: The Poetry Book Fair on September 30th. I will be reading along with David Henningham – times to be confirmed.

It’s a great event in any case, for anyone interested in poetry, and the variety of publications being made by presses on every scale. Take cash and be prepared to wave goodbye to it.

And if you too get stuck indoors – solidarity. All I can say is – poetry can sometimes unstick a person with its odd letter shaped keys!

And happy National Poetry Day on September 28th, for which the theme, as I’ve said before, and cut out of black paper and white… is Freedom.

*My son now has the offer of a college place where his independence can be fostered and encouraged, so less stuckness for all of us hopefully.

residencies round up: last Arvon October

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the hurst

Last autumn I was a guinea pig artist-in-residence for The Arvon Foundation  at their Shropshire centre, The Hurst.

The brief was for me to spend a week in The Clockhouse, neighbour building to John Osborne’s grand and gothic former home The Hurst, and make visual art in response to the place, as well as on any themes I was preoccupied with already.

I was invited because Arvon, working with Jo King at Ludlow Open, was looking for an artist for whom image and text are inextricably intertwined. With the Arvon Foundations expertise at generating all kinds of text, with their incredible year round programme of writers and courses, it was felt that fostering visual art alongside could build in yet more inspiration.

Part of the arrangement was that I’d donate a piece from what I made, which could then contribute to the development of a contemporary art collection for the house.

It was bliss to stay at the newly refurbished Clockhouse, which is run as an untutored retreat space, with four tranquil apartments, and homecooked meals in one-person sized portions to heat up on whim.

It happened that three Ukrainian writers: Halyna Shyyan, Volodymyr Rafieienko and Lyubko Deresh were my excellent housemates, over at the invitation of the British Council and Writing West Midlands. Having already toured and read in Birmingham, they were on the second, ‘now you have time to write stuff’ leg of their tour.

We shared the big kitchen and sitting room for breaks, and traded ideas about poetry, vegetable preparation and the world. Halya’s English was brilliant and we worked on translating a piece of her punky writing together, which we then read from in turn at a presentation later in the week.

I covered my nice carpet and desk with dust-sheets in case of paint, and made the study into a studio. I walked in the redwoods and got lost in the enveloping fern/oak/cloudscapes of the Shropshire Hills. Away from domestics, my mind flickered over into making things mode. Into the emptiness jumped my dead parents, as well as all my living relationships. There’s nothing quite as welcome: engulfing, freaky, disorientating – as some peaceful, paid for nothing.

shropshire hills

studio desk at the Clockhouse

dead bloom everywhere

never get a job

Getting lost in those luminous hills set me off too, and I have yet to edit the small clutch of poems it inspired, especially as in visual artist capacity I was trying to steer my imagination mainly into paint.

Here’s a chat that I couldn’t resist documenting though,  in both types of inky line: me trying to encourage Lyubko to set foot outside, though I knew I’d only seen him in dainty fawn loafers…

Lyubko and the London Boots

At The Hurst next door a group of 16 writers were hard at creating Young Adult fiction. We ate with them and their tutors a couple of the nights, an entertaining bunch. It was interesting to listen to talk of plotting, pace and character, the practicalities of narrative… how they were (and weren’t) progressing.

After myself and the Ukrainian writers had given our talk/readings on the Thursday evening, introduced by Natasha Carlish, who runs the Hurst, it seemed a fun and connective addition to offer myself in story collecting capacity the next day, and collect ‘young adult/teenage stories’ from all who wished to share one.

I brought my ink and paper through on Friday, and lots of people came. One by one they told me about rites of passage: times of shame, triumph, love, discovery, rebellion – from their adolescent years. Jo though, the Arvon gardener, wanted to tell me a much younger formative story, (I grudgingly allowed this!) Having heard and drawn it, I too will go and pay my respects to the snakes first, whenever the chance arises.

Jo's Black MambaOf course I loved all the stories. Me and this Clapham Rachael laughed so much together I could hardly operate my brush.

Good, I’m glad I told you that, she said. I’m going to frame it and put it up in my loo.

tucked in kilt story

Most of the week I worked in ink or gouache, and on the Friday drew about twenty of these teenage stories, I collected some from myself too, as a friend helpfully suggested that for every twenty I hear I should draw at least three of my own!

french exchange

I particularly enjoyed Natasha’s swirling plumes of fuggy cafe steam. With my many stranded brush those flourishes pretty much draw themselves. It’s a great tool for corduroy trousers and heavy rain as well.

natashas patisserieIt was hard to tear myself away on the Friday, surely I will return! For now, I will let the chosen painting hover in Shropshire on my behalf, also feeling glad that the label (and the name) for the new enterprise of THursty home grown apple juice from the Hursts  orchards bears the stamp of my inky paw. Thanks to everyone at Arvon for really knowing how to look after people, and to Jo King and Natasha Carlish for giving me such a dreamy opportunity.

juice label

 

 

 

VOYAGE and other journeys

Over the last couple of years, my story collecting project has been expanding into the rich theme of migration: and I’ve had the chance to hear people tell me about what makes them feel at home: whether it’s a kitchen, a hobby – their body, or a poem…

Londons diversity has always made me relieved to return to it, but many people don’t experience the city as friendly. How do we live in our communities, connect with neighbours, make ourselves heard? These questions seem more urgent than ever, post brexit, where polarities have been amplified, in and outside of our various bubbles.

In Hounslow I was working with Creative People and Places encouraging residents to develop their own modes of story collecting, which we practised by listening, drawing and writing poems together, after initial inky story collecting sessions with me.

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Over at the National Maritime Museum I’d also been listening and collecting, from visitors to the RE*THINK space there, as part of work with The Migration Museum Project. Poet and friend, Karen McCarthy Woolf was writer in residence on this theme. We hatched a plan to collaborate, and make a piece of work to show our findings. This is now manifest as a 36 page book: Voyage, and contains an essay and new poems by Karen, with stories collected and drawn live by me.

As we were addressing the subject of migration, I wanted to supplement the narratives I’d heard at the museum, with some from more recently arrived people, people who might not yet be at the museum visiting stage… so I approached South London Refugee Association, who welcomed me to their drop in. I met and spoke with people there, who shared some of their moving stories with me. Karen and I selected a range of drawings and poems from the work we’d made, the book was supported and introduced by Joanna Salter at the museum, and we in turn were listened to, re paper stock, layout and printing by old friends at Aldgate Press.

We’ve had a lovely article and review of the book, by Bidisha, on the BBC arts website.

VOYAGE reviewed on BBC Arts

There are lots more of the drawings to look at via this link, and a short film of me, made by Chocolate Films where I’m collecting one of the Hounslow stories.

Voyage readings and launch at The European Commission in London:

Europe House, 32 Smith Square SW1

6:30 -8:30 September 15th. Please come along.

alone in the forest

Finishing projects is nearly as hard as starting them. This current one is one I’ll be sad to see the back of. I’m in the grip of editing the book I’ve been gathering firewood and acorns for since last July, sifting through about a hundred stories collected from members of the public around Corby in the East Midlands.
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Stories about nature and what happens in the local woodlands, what thoughts and feelings lurk amongst the oaks and hawthorns.
As a born and bred inner city Londoner, I’ve found the residency with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art a thrill and a revelation. I’ve spent many, many days alone in the forest, where the arts organisation have a little house that visiting artists can stay in for the duration of their research. In order to write the poems that are going to be at the core of the book, nestling in their own section between the inky stories, I gave myself an agenda: to get properly lost. Witness my unsuitable shoes and handbag.
2014-09-20 16.29.12
This was easy really, as I have a very poor sense of direction and there is no signal there for map apps to work! I am not a camper or scout and can barely tell the time, let alone use a compass. The woods in the area are vast.
Arriving lateish one evening, I’d stopped at the coop in Brigstock, the nearest village, before driving the slow two and a half miles up the rough track to the cottage, and bought supplies, including a piece of ‘stickered’ meat that needed urgent cooking. Next morning I put it in a very low oven with apples from the trees and a load of onions, spuds, garlic and woody herbs. I’ll go out and get lost, I said to myself. When I find this place again, that will be delicious!
I walked all over England: to Lyveden New Bield and Fermynwoods Country Park (again and again) and looped through a million trees, trying to learn their names and admiring their astonishing variety, was startled by sudden birds and laughed at my default veering towards the sound of traffic. Occasionally I’d stop and write in my notebook, or record sounds and observations on my phone. Lost though? Certainly! For hours, for all time…
Eventually I saw a young man in a Forestry Commission shirt, Hurray! A fellow human! I greeted him to his alarm. We had a chat, reluctantly he let me see the beautiful buck he’d just despatched as part of his daily rounds, 2014-10-08 14.33.19 (you wont like it…) then he picked up a twig and traced me a top quality short cut through the forest on the ordnance survey map I’d been carrying, hitherto pointlessly.
I’ve learnt to really love the trees, but people, well – they’re the cats pyjamas!

I will post more details nearer the time – but there will be a launch party in the woods in Corby on May 2nd, with mushroom soup and nettle pie, drawings hanging in the trees, a chance to hear the poems, and, touchwood-tree of knowledge, a finished book.