Leaning on the Goddess

Flying & landing – book collaborators!

Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.

I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.

Laying out the stories with their pictures and post it notes on the floor.

Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.

I was glad to discover a creature called the ribbon seal, lolling about on the internet, graphic as a papercut. And Sedna. Without her, no plenty more fish in the sea!

As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.

Green Tara – a goddess/saint from the Buddhist pantheon – cut from a book called Collectible Spoons.

I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.

Hekate – she looks three ways at once. I cut her from a page in an old cookbook and was gratified to see her turn the puddings into timeless stone.

Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –

Snowdrops for Bridget
The crowned majesty of madam pomegranate

Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.

Diana and Actaeon, by Titian.

We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.

I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.

Actaeon as papercut – turned into a stag and devoured by his own dogs.

There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.

Bear faced chic! A papercut I made for the story of Artemis, whose apprentices accompany the goddess, learn to hunt.

Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.

Sekhmet. Lion headed goddess loves to eat awful human law breakers.

I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.

Isis and her brother/husband Osiris – Lord of the Underworld. Again, I found them in the spoon book.
On the road: I was at some different tables over June, luckily paper, blades and goddesses are portable entities

Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.

Lilith becoming a snake, giving birth to demons

In other news, I was grateful to poets Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson, the editors of online poetry journal Bad Lilies for including my poem Eggs and Bacon in their latest issue. A poem that also skirts around power.

I grew these ones. Amazing colours, quite weird smell!

Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.

Athena: paradoxical and mighty goddess of wisdom and war.

Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.

Hindu goddess Lakshmi has elephants to splash her with water in the heat.

And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!

Poem for Alison & her wasps nest

Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.

Index

Tonight is the prelaunch reading for my new collection INDEX !

Pile of the original cards
Ideas for the reverse of the cards

The Kickstarter campaign set up by brilliant Tom Jenks at zimZalla, has met its target – so the printing can go ahead. There’s still time to register for a pack of prophetic cards at a 40% discount. And there are strange extra rewards for anyone who is inclined or able to pay extra!

Sachet of choice phrases

I’ll be reading alongside the amazing poet Philip Terry whose newest publication, TURNS, is an Oulipian box of surprises also made by poetry object press zimZalla. Do sign up!

Over the last year I’ve been making little cut up poems and pasting them onto pastel coloured index cards. Like a lot of things I do this began as a mild diversion creeping out from the side of a couple of big projects that were claiming my daylight attention.

It continued in this way – every few days I’d find a couple of hours to pore over the collage stash I’d been hacking to bits for my last book: 60 Lovers to Make and Do, and I’d skim the prose for phrases that seemed particularly pointed or musical or visually charged.

Source material on studio floor

I love the drama in old fashioned phrases from the Biggles Annual or Girl: any 1960s & 70s books and journals from the decades when I was a child, full of advice, morality, implicit and occasionally overt -isms of every sort. Favourites that also inspired 60 Lovers, were activity books including craft and recipe books.

I couldn’t use text by named authors – nothing where the notion of authorship vaunts loftiness or self consciousness – this wouldn’t be raw material for my own authorship and would feel more like stealing than repurposing.

When I got to that dream residency studio in Berkeley last December – I had the fun of assembling a transatlantic collage stash – which I wrote about at the time. I found a good selection of index cards and boxes to stack them as well, at the wonderful Elmwood Stationers on my local parade.

When I was finding my big paintings heavygoing – I would just put the colours to one side, and get snipping through the treasures I’d accumulated – with extra delight at the different language opening up from this American material.

I gotta tell you

Dan Schifrin, the residency manager, asked me a good question: What’s it like to inhabit the body of the person who makes these big gestural paintings and the person who makes these tiny cut up collage poems?

Studio with peonies, phrases, painting in progress

I found this impossible to answer, so I wrote a short play in which two very different women have to share a studio. They don’t get on, although they do respect each other’s processes. Gloria, the painter, is full of exclamations about the wonder of nature. She gets on Edith’s nerves. Edith, the misunderstood poet, is introverted and terse. She can sometimes be soothed with a nice coffee and home made cookie from Gloria. I sent the play to Dan, and for fun added this photograph taken of Gloria and Edith on one of the rare occasions when they were in the studio together.

Gloria the painter & Edith the poet

For now, I, London Sophie, have a few things to sort out between now and the reading. Hope to see you there.

Breaking, Making, William Blake-ing: A guest post for Hercules Editions

Poet Tamar Yoseloff, who in her publishing hat published The Practical Visionary, a book made collaboratively by myself and poet/artist Chris McCabe in response to William Blake in 2018, invited me to write a guest post for her press Hercules Editions.

I wrote this, about my return from California, and how making a mosaic in my back garden helped me get my feet back on the ground.

More about the amazing Tamar Yoseloff, her latest collection, The Black Place, and her small yet visionary press, Hercules Editions here.

Guest blog post below, thanks for reading.

A new cosmos from broken china

I took Blake to Berkeley where he was glad to walk around hand in hand with Allen Ginsberg.

The residency I’d been invited to take up there was for six months from early December last year. During the first three I monopolised the monster of a library, raided the art shop, scoured and scampered in San Francisco, its devil-may-care book palace City Lights and sparkling vintage stores. I invited half the locality to my gorgeous residency house and studio for a reading, showed off my new Californian paintings, served up my best borscht and baked goods — and mostly, had my mind blown by living in a new place, where birds were process blue, Chanukah was as popular as Christmas, and winter lasted two weeks.

My best borscht

The following three months, well, you know the score. No salons, no visitors, no galleries, no bookshops, libraries or museums, no restaurants: LOCKDOWN. Even Blake went paler than usual, though my husband Adam had arrived by then, so things began to domesticate. A game of two halves. What a fearful symmetry. 

It’s almost two months ago now that we returned to Brixton, and were shocked by the loose crowds in Brockwell park wandering round mask-free and wild. ‘William,’ I implored, ‘are we Lambethans really so unruly’? He laughed. He’d acquired a west coast accent. ‘Don’t sweat it honey,’ he quoth, ‘you ain’t sick so quit protesting, Rose’. I put the kettle on and tried to stay indoors. 

The kids had been minding the house, and our small back garden had become sheer overbearing weeds. My studio at home was similarly overgrown, but with bits of my pre-Berkeley project-mad ink-scrawled paper.

How could I land from such a life-changing experience? 

William advised I build on the work I’d made in California, the great connection that I’d felt whilst there, to nature and her colours.

He helped me clear the garden and drag out crates of hoarded broken china from underneath the deck. For twenty years I’d kidded myself that I’d make a broken china mosaic on the back wall. In poetry there are some word that poets snigger at, words forbidden in poems, like ‘shimmer,’‘soul’ and ‘shard’. These were the very things I found in the crates of long forgotten jaunty crockery: plates I ate off as a child, a gold teapot, blue lustreware saucers bargained for in Brick Lane, green plates moulded like cabbage leaves from hefty porcelain, all waiting in chipped and cobwebbed oblivion. ‘Nothing from the famous Lambeth potteries though?’ William sighed. ‘Come on, I said, you never even liked that Doulton mashing clay in your Jerusalem! You’re like me Will and you know it, you need the colour!’

He fetched an old bucket and we mixed up sand and cement.’I like to haunt the tunnels near St Thomas’ he said, ‘those mosaics made in honour of my songs, I’m taking Allen there tomorrow’. ‘Yes yes, I know,’ I said, ‘well stick with me, and we will make a brand new cosmos for you in this very yard, then we’ll say kaddish for you and Allen, the nurses and the unnamed Covid thousands’

The china needed whacking into flattish pieces. Then I made a palette, using trays and washing up bowls for shards of different groups, the greens and blues, the tiles and cups, raised textures and bits of spout… More ghosts were gratified by my restitution of their glorious works, including the unsung painters of the Staffordshire potteries, often women, like those who even rose to fame, such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, glimmers of both these genii found places in my new arrangements. 

The greens

Friends came by with extra bits of cracked yet lovely china too,

Welcome familiars, despite the impossibility of hugs. Something about this, and the rehabilitation of the broken stuff of the past, together with that gritty sensation of earth under my fingernails, helped settle me back into my neighbourhood for real.

‘What if we can never go anywhere again’? sulked William. ‘Oh you of all people!’ I snapped. ‘You, who persuaded me that Poetry was the only type of transport that I’d ever need, and that through printmaking one could visit all the Realms Imaginable! In these times of downgraded A-levels and economic collapse, letting our souls fly where they will on the shimmering shards of broken promises is the nearest thing we have to hope!’

Lustreware starburst

The garden was quiet, gold china fragments glowed in the dusk of an English heatwave. Emily Dickinson floated through the lack of French windows carrying a round of beers. She winked as she lay down the tray of tinkling beverages, international queen of strange weather and seclusion, ‘Back to normal then?’ She said, her sense of irony shimmering like the real butterflies fooled into landing on a glazed art deco flower. ‘Back to normal,’ we nodded, doing our best to dwell, as poets must, in possibility, a fairer house than prose.

Salvage Buddha in red & black

With thanks to Rachel Osorio, for extra incentivising and cement encouragement, as well as all who brought me extra china.

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.

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