Paper light, snipped from a painted dark

A tool I love to use is a scalpel. I don’t like the word scalpel, with its whiff of surgery and pain, but for operating on paper, there’s nothing quite like one.

Scalpels glinting amongst painted paper & other scraps on cutting mat

These last few months I’ve been through a lot of blades. My priority job once back in London from America wasn’t really a backyard mosaic. It was an immense new book by Marina Warner, called Inventory of a Life Mislaid .

A cover idea for Marina Warner’s forthcoming book.

She’d contacted me about creating vignettes for this memoir whilst I was still away, and sent me the manuscript then. The book recounts her parents’ life and her own early life in Cairo, after World War II and before the Egyptian Revolution. It is full of sharp eyed detail and emotionally rich detective work, alongside scholarly wonderings that emerge from her interrogation of personal memory, real archive material, language and collective myth. Packed with history, it is affectionate, erudite and atmospheric. I loved reading it, and responding to the world it conjures, with sheaves of black paper and my scalpel and cutting mat.

Piles of papercut vignettes queuing up for the scanner

I made over 90 vignettes including five full page section dividers. I will write about it some more when it comes out with William Collins in the spring.

Marina Warner and I will be ‘in conversation’ at the University of East Anglia Literary Festival, UEA LIVE , so do book if you’d like to be part of the event.

In The Old Days, Everybody Smoked.
A chapter header paper cut made for Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner. Inspired by an Egyptian cigarette tin lent to me by the author.

This work really sharpened me into new intricacies with my blades, and after the boosting time I’d had in California, working with colour, I decided as well as making very graphic black and white images – I could experiment with distinct colour palettes for some of my projects.

I was pleased to be commissioned by friend and fellow writer Gemma Seltzer , who runs an early morning writers’ organisation called Write and Shine, to make an artwork for her winter programme.

For this I devised a palette, and thought about the ideas she’d mentioned: mystery, mischief, and winter, with its long nights and festivities that counter and also celebrate the dark and the cold. I included six types of steam and a soft red to warm the scene, and I cut some mountains from the last page of an old atlas that I found on my street. So lots of place names beginning with z are built into the landscape to take the reader and writer on a zig zag journey through their imagination.

If you are an early riser, I really recommend Write and Shine with its welcoming workshops and retreats. An inspiring way to start the day.

Winter in the Zig Zag Mountains
My December image for Write and Shine.

I was back in black and white after that, to make a book cover for Nine Arches Press. Poet and publisher Jane Commane had decided to publish an amazing one hundred daily sonnets written by Jacqueline Saphra during the first lockdown, as a special non-profit, limited edition book, to raise money for The Trussell Trust, (as well as raise spirits via its poetry.) I made a papercut cover that will be embossed on the clothbound hardback in an edition of one hundred. I’m proud to be part of this beautiful enterprise.

Book jacket papercut for Jacqueline Saphra’s newest book with Nine Arches Press.

Gemma then also wanted a second image for her Write and Shine January- February programme, something to reflect workshops on the theme of the path ahead, drawing on moonlight and sunrise. I enjoyed creating a new palette around these times of day, using papers that I painted specially to cut, and reimagining the city as a place built of books, pens, pencils and crayons, again with the mind-focusing magic of a hot drink on the horizon to symbolise the waking hour. I’m only sharing a close up detail of this as Gemma is yet to launch the full image on the waiting world!

Working within these strict yet flexible palettes, I was reminded of a time long ago when I worked mixing colours for my mum, Susan Collier, in her textiles studio. I’d just left art college and had no work or idea how to begin, so she took me on as a lowly painter of tints or backgrounds. I had to get these right with a precision I could barely grasp. A tiny drop of Naples Yellow to grey a mauve, no more than a wink of Burnt Sienna or Bengal Rose to nudge warmth into a white. My mother was meticulous about these things, and would shriek if I added great globs of excess gouache in her presence. My paint mixing really lacked subtlety, a quality that often eludes me still.

The Writer Takes a Morning Walk
The papercut I made for Write & Shine to use for their January/February season, now launched and thus shareable.
Inherited palettes from my late mother’s textile days

As this month approached, I was contacted by Laura Seddon, creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum. She wondered if I could make a piece of artwork to give out to subscribers for a Hannukah gift. This was to accompany a series of video conversations with five talented contemporary female musicians, all working with klezmer music.

This detail is inspired by watching and listening to Carol Isaacs play accordion with The London Klezmer Quartet.

All five are asking questions about tradition and innovation and Jewishness too. This music programme, brought together by cellist Francesca Ter Berg, is part of the museums current trailblazers season.

I made a playlist of their music and tried to let my scalpel dance in sync with the sharp turns and inventive rhythms I could hear coming through my speakers.

Working closely with my own parallel inner dialogues re tradition, innovation and Jewishness, seemed to dovetail with the ideas in the music – its timeless weave of gaiety and melancholy.

A papercut for Hannukah/Chanukah. Featuring musicians Francesca Ter Berg, on the cello, Polina Shepherd, singing, Anna Lowenstein on the violin, Carol Isaacs playing accordion and Ana Silvera, also singing. Made for Manchester Jewish Museum.

Paper cutting, like fiddle playing, is a strong traditional form across much of northern and central Europe. I have been inspired by visits to Chateau d’Oex in the mountains above Geneva, where a creaky wooden museum groans with old paper cut treasures made locally by deft scissored Alpine folk. Even my German Jewish grandmother, who was not ‘artistic’, used to snip little heart shaped paper baskets and boxes to put sweets in at this time of year. And thinking of presents, I had a whim to cut some of my papercuts further, so had a couple of them made into jigsaw puzzles online.

Scalpels and scissors are potentially scary – maybe symbolically adjacent to Brexit and social isolation. But before I rest my implements in the name of peace & the imminent cushions of some holiday collapse, here’s one more papercut I made last night.

Number 17, celebrated by Morris & Zippy in our night window.
Holidays paper cut, from inside the house, daytime.

We have some amazing & lovely neighbours on our road in Brixton, and during this year we have been so grateful for their friendliness and local community spirit.

Like on quite a few streets in recent years, our more organised inhabitants decided to plan an advent window display, and though I sighed inwardly in a grinch like way, I took on yesterday’s date, the 17th, to ‘do’, as part of it. I remembered how much I’d liked the all embracing ‘happy holidays’ decorations in Berkeley. With the help of our pets, Zippy & Morris, I managed to get over myself & cut out some fun for our window.

Thanks for reading my blog. May your inner light keep you warm and safe from sharp troubles in this turning sharp-blunt world! Happy Holidays!

Tributaries of the River Ink

Ink runs through my work and life, the line it draws connecting many disparate incidents, projects, ideas and approaches. Sometimes it draws the world with a bold swish, sometimes with a faltering scratchy nib, or it might just whoosh into a blob of water and make a new cosmos where it lands.

A drawing started during a two minute silence on the radio in honour of the dead.
I recently sold this drawing and the one that follows as part of the excellent Artist Support Pledge initiative on Instagram

The sheer out of control runniness of ink is a great adjunct to thinking. I rely on its speed & fluidity to outrun the pedestrian metronome of reality. Let the ink get there first, it knows what needs drawing.

Ink has crow chicks, ink is rain.

There is no material like it for tension between spill and control: it’s tendency to spill and stain everything is as sure a promise as its readiness to express ideas with a clean and velvet precision.

One day last year, I was out walking with my young Canadian cousin Miriam – she was eyeing up a density of brambles with a scientific air. When I questioned her, she said she’d been making ink from berries, and alerted me to this book.

Inspiring book! I used Jason Logan’s tips and recipes, and I recommend.

I saw a copy in Moes Books early last spring and I did not resist. The author, Jason Logan, makes sensational inks with mainly foraged materials, and runs an outfit called The Toronto Ink Company.

I didn’t get into the recipes in the USA, it sounded distracting, plus the mystery of recognising American plants! Besides, I was enjoying discovering a new palette of interesting shades and tones with Noodler’s Ink from the Artist and Craftsman Supplies store on Shattuck Avenue.

Detail of a large painting, featuring Noodler’s ink in Baystate Blue.

Once I was back in Inklandt, that’s when the bug really bit me. On holiday this August it turned out that the combination of the season and the presence of the family were conducive to ink making as side hustle.

Ink factory

The first recipe I had to try was black from oak galls – the ink used by medieval scribes on their vellum. It’s what the Magna Carta was written in, proper black. I’d been surprised, once I concentrated my search, to find a lot of galls under the oaks in my local Brockwell Park. They are the convoluted husks left by a species of parasitic wasps that like to encrust themselves into innocent acorns. They contain a lot of tannin, which is the secret of their power.

Oak galls collected in August

Once in Devon, artist friend & fellow ink aficionado Alice Leach let on that she’d got a bag of ferrous sulphate, or iron in dust form, and was prepared to share.

Iron reacts with the tannin from the oak galls & the two substances lock together to make the black. The ink oxidizes and the black deepens once the marks are exposed to the air.

Maddie is a Singer & a Cotton Picker

I was mesmerised by the variety of tone and the extra colour within the black – it’s wilful inconsistency, marks dragging an undertow of nicotine yellow beneath their black, the wetter brush marks resting in a shimmer of handbag navy.

Manifestations of oak

I began to compulsively gather stuff I found whilst out walking: elderberries, lichen, rosehips… I found myself unable to throw out onion skins or avocado stones, my eyes darting towards lost pennies & bits of rusty metal on wet pavements. I began grinding up or boiling up all kinds of debris in vinegar. The barn we stay in would smell terrible – there was a lot of flinging open of doors!

Colour swatches, on left one layer, on right two or more layers.

The sample sheets, like this one, were fun to make. Though really I was using drawing to help me see what colours I could find. It was exciting to see the air react with my brushmarks, and reds and greens appear.

Forest of Grudge
Bow down before the Green
Vasilisa and the onions
Making elderberry ink in my kitchen

Since being back in London I’ve had to lay my inkmaking to one side. I have had a couple of story collecting gigs though, and tested my homemade ink alongside some shop bought black.

Listening to Aya, who spoke of her beloved late father.
Photo by Sophie Greenstreet, for Somerset House.

I was invited to listen and draw in the courtyard at Somerset House, as part of a large scale installation by artist duo Yara and Davina . Their project addresses life and death: is called Arrivals and Departures, and so as I sat at a suitable distance from participants, each of whom had booked a slot in advance, I heard many touching stories about love and loss, joy and shock.

Listening to Michelle, who had a truly wonderful grandmother. Photo by Sophie Greenstreet, for Somerset House.
still thinking about magnificent Millicent, Michelle made me miss her too.
Ollie’s story, out of all the things he told me, this touched me the most.

There were many more equally beautiful stories. It feels like a great honour to hear people’s memories, griefs, life changing moments – and to try to listen for the essence of what they tell me and get it down on paper. As ever, each narrator was given a same size copy of their drawing to take away.

The fact that I’d made the ink myself added another layer of connectedness, between me, the narrator, their material, my material – ink as blood, as water of life, as transformation, the black river of mortality we all briefly bob about in.

Eliza, and the shared creative times she loved as a grown woman with her mum.

In these brutal times making things feels like the opposite of severance – even making masks or meals or jokes – helps shift some of the relentless NO that we are all subject to under the pandemic, as well as the current politics.

Lara, who carries the storm

As part of the ongoing experiment in how to connect with others and continue live performance, The Crick Crack Club is offering sessions with me & my inky brush over zoom. I will be listening to personal tales that tie in with fairy tale themes, as I did for them during the summer.

A story told by Ben Haggarty, in which all the sisters marry birds, remembered by Krys.
Tracy, who finds herself in the middle of the story of The Handless Maiden.
Gerard rembering the magic of a visit to the Dennis Sever’s house off Brick Lane

You can book a slot via that link if they aren’t all gone yet, and I’ll see you across my kitchen table, almost like we were breathing the same air!

Also I’m proud to say that some of the original ink drawings I made of people’s food stories in Margate in 2011, will be up at great community organisation Our Kitchen over the half term break, as part of a brilliant roll-outable anywhere seaside festival called Back and Fill, which is designed to allow for local arts and participation to continue in fun and COVID safe ways, and as it is happening in a few seaside towns. Do check it out.

one of the many stories I drew in Margate in 2011 with Marine Studios, still surviving to tell its tale, on the 48 metre hoarding that runs along the seafront under Arlington Tower, next to Margate Station.

Ink! It’s led me in and out of landscapes and stories all over the world. Just an unsuspecting brush dipped into a staining liquid made from crushed debris and allowed to lead the way across unmarked paper terrain.

Thanks for reading my blog!

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

What’s the difference between an Artist’s Residency and Social Isolation?

Newest painting, in which flowers multiply at a greater speed even than viral droplets.

Since I last wrote, the world has joined me in retreat. My residency has changed, from having been a rare opportunity for me to make work away from my usual roles and pressures: family and projects, it has now become a space in which I am marooned from these, and must consider what my distance means from another perspective.

I can still paint and draw and write. In fact, I must. This is the first time I’ve been paid a regular stipend to just inhabit a studio and make work. But I’m necessarily encountering new themes, with the world in pandemic mode. How to be locked down & yet remain open enough to respond- how to not actually shut down?

In a Casual Voice, a new COVID-19 related index card poem.

‘Stay there! Stay well!’ Insists our wise daughter, ‘London is chaos!’ She is socially isolating at home in Brixton with a cousin, a friend and our dog and cat. Although I really, really miss her, and our son, who remains at his special college with an incredible care and support team, practically, if we came back now it would be a greater risk to our health and theirs.

We speak to the kids every day, so thank god for technology. We were really happy when our son rushed off FaceTime to see a goat give birth on the farm where he lives.

I say ‘our’ because Adam is here too. He took study leave from work so that he could base himself here for a bit, and the corona virus has meant that it is safer for him to stay until the risks of travel begin to abate.

Obviously the social side of the residency has been curtailed. The libraries are closed, the salons crossed from the diary, readings cancelled. Efforts are being made to still engage with other artists here online, credit to residency manager Dan Schifrin again for being patient & setting up interesting conversations on zoom.

A blizzard like this – from the COVID-19 series

London poet friend Amy Key found her trip to the AWP in Texas was no longer viable due to the first wave of cancellations over the virus. Luckily for us she diverted to Berkeley for a few days which included making the most delicious aubergine parmigiana I’ve ever tasted. Here’s a painting I did of her on her last night here.

Amy with Anemones

Also before shut down, I had a great meeting and conversation with Peter Maravelis from City Lights , about the possibility of doing a book and an event with them, which would be, will be, a great thrill. He had many innovative ideas about the way forward for books and booksellers in a changing world. It looks like I might have to come back!

Incidentally, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, who set up City Lights, was 101 this week. May poetry, art, books and ideas keep us all in such excellent nick.

Freesias growing in profusion, previously only known to me as sparse treats in cellophane.

Berkeley in spring is not a bad place to be stuck. Leggy freesias spill across sidewalks, camellias simmer in crimson and pink, tossing their crumpled silk hankies to the ground, wisteria knots itself up with jasmine all over clapboard houses floating perfume harmonies onto the empty air. There’s hardly anyone around. The architecture makes me sigh.

Camellia scrunchies

The sense of scale that’s always interested me has taken on new meaning here, this huge country, this global illness, the distance home, how can I accommodate these big things in my little eyes?

So I try and ‘see a world in a grain of sand’, or magnify the prehistoric looking succulents that cover front yards here, until their bold structures tower over the straggling pedestrians in my paintings.

New painting: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Detail from: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Painting: Old Europe takes a walk in the New World

Or I cut tiny phrases from broken and discarded books and release these onto airy pastel coloured cards where they can tap-dance away from their cramped former paragraphs.

Garnish calamities – from the COVID-19 series.

Two of the index card poems may soon be available as limited edition screen prints via a supportive initiative called The Off Cut Project set up by brilliant Suki Hayes Watkins at The Print Block, her studio in Whitstable.

Talking of scale, here I am in a redwood forest. These trees are the very emblem of survival, literally encompassing the scars of fires they’ve withstood, and growing steadily upwards forever. This one is over a thousand years old. Breathing in their scented stillness I felt that perhaps we humans really might be able to create a sounder future.

Some books I’ve found here are much too wonderful to cut up. One of these is a kid’s book from 1952 called Let’s Look at the Sky! by Marie Neurath. It’s printed in stunning pre digital luminosity with spot colour. It engages with the scale of the universe – and like the redwoods, it makes plain the paradox we must live with: that we are both tiny and monumental. And how, tiny as we are, what we choose to do from one moment to the next, has a tangible effect on each other and the world.

The final page in ‘Let’s Look at the Sky!’ By Marie Neurath, (1952)

On that note, redwood-sized solidarity & kindest wishes, especially to anyone struggling with health, cash flow, isolation or all three. Thanks for reading this, and for all your actions that contribute to the planet mending that needs to happen next.

The Practical Visionary

img_0847
book cover design (rough) with vine leaf and bible cutout London

If the Sun & Moon should doubt,

They’d immediately Go out 

[from the Auguries of Innocence, William Blake]

Poet & collaborator Chris McCabe and I have been sharing and exchanging ideas about one of our favourite genii, William Blake for a few years now, including teaching creative courses on him for The Poetry School.

one of the many Blake works transformed into mosaics by Southbank mosaics, these illuminate several tunnels in North Lambeth

These have involved reading, writing, walking Blake’s Lambeth (including the amazing Southbank mosaics, e.g. above) drawing and collage and also a printmaking component, for which we were lucky enough to get to use Slaughterhaus Print Studios in Stockwell, where students could try the heavy wheel of an etching press, and immerse themselves in some of that engraver’s back to front thinking that was such an essential part of Blake’s process.

L to R: Anne Macaulay, Victoria Grigg, Julia Bird, Me, Chris McCabe, Evalyn Lee, Catherine Jones, Mike Sims, with some of our work, at Slaughterhaus Studio in Stockwell.

This September sees the publication of Chris and I’s book in response to William B: The Practical Visionary, as well as an exhibition at the Poetry Cafe of some of the original work that this has generated.

One of a series of 7 Lambeth puddle collage poems made collaboratively for the book.

Our publisher, the small but heroic Hercules Editions, run by poet Tamar Yoseloff, was named for the road Blake and his wife Catherine lived on in their most productive 10 years, making illuminated books in Lambeth, the borough I was born and raised in and live in still, and the borough Chris is in during his working week, as the librarian of the National Poetry Library at the Southbank.

Do look at The Practical Visionary Kickstarter campaign – there’s more here about the way we created the content and the pages, starting with quite a funny spontaneous video, made at the end of a publishing meeting.  Though I say so myself, there are some amazing art bargains available in the list of rewards for supporters.

We’ll be launching the book officially at the Poetry Cafe on October 17th, but the week before, there’s a chance to come and do some Blakean responding of your own at our evening workshop at The Poetry Society.

Whoever your Blake turns out to be, I hope you catch a glimpse of his colour and fire somewhere in the pages of The Practical Visionary.

Golgonooza the spiritual Four-fold London eternal
In immense labours & sorrows, ever building, ever falling,
Thro Albions four Forests which overspread all the Earth,
From London Stone to Blackheath east: to Hounslow west:
To Finchley north: to Norwood south

[from Milton by William Blake]