A Sombre Luminosity

It’s now just a month till my residency officially finishes, and I’m trying to accommodate both my anticipated homesickness for this place, and a current one for my actual home.

The residency studio, Berkeley

In a parallel twin arrangement, I carry on with the two main prongs of work I’ve been developing here: cut up poems, and the series of gouache paintings.

Gin sodden gabble

I’m happy to say that poets WN Herbert and Andy Jackson are publishing one of my index card poems re the pandemic each weekend, on their current iteration of political poetry blog New Boots and Pantisocracies, this time under the heading Postcards from Malthusia.

Keepers from the asylum

Do follow the blog for a variety of quality poetry dealing with COVID-19. There’s a fresh post daily, a great help in lockdown.

Cheer to the dead

The two most recent paintings I’ve been making, edge towards themes of home.

All the Houses that Bloom Between us

In this painting, versions of family members appear – together, connected and also apart. Houses grow on trees and our parallel weather drips on everything.

The residency house here is intentionally pale and neutral, and in a way I’m finding this to be an unexpected stimulus.

In these Berkeley paintings I seem to be manifesting my colour-saturated London home, whereas over recent Brixton years I’ve made a lot of work in black and white.

Load the patterns onto each other’s backs and wear them as warnings like bugs do

I’m looking for the sad song in the brights, I love how joyful colours can sometimes be played for their sobriety, becoming more subtly dark even than monochrome, especially as this might run counter to a first look, might create a vibrant source of jolt or layering.

At a distance from my textile-rich background, I’m also finding a new freedom to play with pattern. I let the paint itself dictate. The paint knows so much that I don’t. When I go along with its drive to spill, drip, splodge and fret the surface – I find myself nodding to the capacity it has to be properly complicated, like the tangled density of thought, of the world.

Nature is a disciplined but messy painter

Another bright/melancholy side project has sprung from my walks. Each day I look for a rose that’s on the point of collapse as it’s petals splay groundwards. I cup the silky chosen head-sized, hand-sized, heart-sized bloom, knock then stash the fallen petals in a pocket. The scent and texture are at the delicious melting point between ripeness and decay.

The first set of such petals I helped myself to, I laid out on my blue notebook as a fleeting shrine to ‘the fallen’. It had been an extra sad day as a close friend of a friend, an NHS nurse, and mother of three daughters, Aimee O’ Rourke had died from COVID-19. One of the many dedicated and under protected key workers whose death seems so unbearable and untimely.

I let my eyes sink into the luminous heart-shaped petals laid on the stiff forget-me-not blue of my notebook and I breathed in the comfort of these colours.

A fleeting monument to the fallen

Since then I’ve been making more of these transient monuments, spreading the days dying rose in a fresh layer over yesterdays, in an aluminium saucepan I found on the street (and thought I’d make ink in.) Again, I like the contrast in colour/texture: organic matter placed on manufactured shine. An evolving shrine.

Ring a ring o’roses, & other plague inspired tunes.

By home time perhaps I’ll have enough pot pourri to sew into a Berkeley pillow, with a scent to transport me between cities.

The pandemic makes it tricky to think about the future, so I’ve been reading old books, writing about the past, and stomping about in the present. Yesterday I wandered down an empty side street and couldn’t work out what the weird noise was, not exactly deafening, but insistent. I realised it was a street full of bees humming.

Nature has turned the volume up – I hope it is keeping you going too, and thanks for reading.

Detail from new painting: All the Houses that Bloom Between Us

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!