Essex: a short inky epic.

Yesterday I was invited to bring my ink and brush along the tracks eastward out of London, to Chelmsford in Essex, where next to a car park in the grandly named Marconi Plaza – I’d been allocated a table in a domed tent – as one practitioner among several sharing ideas at the British Science Festival.

Setting out my stall in a tent beside a car park in Chelmsford. That’s poetry for you.

I was to work at a table with two women, Alice and Kayleigh, who run a project called Snapping the Stiletto, which aims to debunk the stereotypes around the much mythologised Essex Girl and engage with the stories and lives of real women from or living in the county. My remit was to collect lockdown stories from visitors to the festival.

As this was a science based event – most of the other tables had really interesting ideas to explore, and were offering demonstrations of research based findings from Archeology to Zero impact food production. The helpers and volunteers were mostly science students, and I collected a couple of stories from them. Both these ones, from Allegra and Fatima, had little twists that I didn’t see coming!

The first narrator of the day was eminent scientist Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain and herself originally from Essex. Here she is.

Talking books with Gina Rippon, behind us you can see the warm & funny author & comedian Rosie Wilby who was offering spoof relationship counselling, including time based kiss graphs & other scientific notations!
“Suddenly everyone wanted to listen to scientists” Gina Rippon

After Gina, I had a constant flow of people, some alone, some with other family members, all taking the seats opposite mine and ready to talk to me about their experiences over the course of the pandemic, and the varying effects it had had on their lives. I listened, asked questions, drew. I encountered people full of reflections, humour, will to connect, contribute, mend the world.

Holly & I had a great conversation about textiles & sustainability.
Pic by Holly of me with her story.
Work in progress
Leanne works with Rothamsted Research and loves to communicate scientific ideas in schools and other educational settings. She taught me something new about ants & aphids!
One of the thoughtful Essex teenagers I spoke with yesterday.
And another… brave girl dealing with disrupted schooling and health challenges.
This mother and daughter helped each other find new ways through strange times. I found what Myk said about working with homeless people really interesting and touching.
Natasha’s adorable babies
Three more lovely kids on the path of learning (via drawing, of course,) they stared at me & I stared back!
Three teachers talk about work and life.

My final storyteller of the day was a woman named Jacqui Mulville, from Guerilla Archeology, I started by admiring her perfect pale pink hair and then really enjoyed and related to her stories of family life under lockdown. Being a mother and having a mother. Sigh.

Anyone who makes narwhals from tissue paper is alright with me.

Usually I have a photocopier whisperer who can make a copy for each narrator to take home, but in these times it’s extra hard to get an A3 copier & my heavy old machine has bitten the dust. So copies will be made this week and go out in the post to all who shared a story.

Alice, from Snapping the Stiletto, unpegging the days drawings at 5 o’clock.

Thanks to Anna Woolman of the British Science Association, who found me and had the notion to get me along. A delight to exchange stories with inspiring Essex Girls.

Objects that speak: on making the pictures for Marina Warner’s Inventory of a Life Mislaid.

A Zoom backdrop taking shape, for our UEA event this Wednesday, Marina Warner’s Inventory

I wrote about paper cutting in a previous post – and now the book that these were made for is out in the world and getting the excellent reviews it deserves.

Front cover: papercuts by me, lovely design by Jo Thomson for William Collins

Inventory of a Life Mislaid is an ‘unreliable memoir’, a complicated layering of memory, research and invention – that re creates the world of the author’s early childhood.

Marina Warner tells the story of her parents – who they really were, as people, experiencing the love and trials of a flawed romance against the backdrop of a bombed out London and then a bustling colonial Cairo just after the second world war.

Each chapter is conjured by a real object found amongst Warner’s late mother’s possessions. These are the items from the inventory of the title. It was these that I was asked if I’d consider making paper versions of for a series of chapter header vignettes. I’d worked with Marina Warner a long time ago, making ink drawings for her collection of seventeenth century French fairy stories: Wonder Tales, (Chatto and Windus, 1994.) Back then she’d found my number on some wrapping paper I’d designed as one of my doomed post art school money-making schemes. I traded briefly as someone who made cards and wrap for Paperchase, code name Sybil Tongue. She’d been given a present in my ‘waltz wrap’ and tracked me down as she had a hunch about whoever’d drawn it!

A scrap of my 1990 wrapping paper… (on recycled paper note) waltz wrap! Please excuse poor image quality as raided from internet…

We spent a good ten minutes on the phone in my old studio before she told me who she was. When she said her name, I became suddenly polite. Marina Warner! Being a life long fairy tale aficionado I was already a fan.

The Marquise at her Toilette, an ink drawing/collage for/from Wonder Tales. A fairy tale of cross dressing and gender subversion from the 17th century. Please excuse poor image quality, I’m a long way from my books at the moment.

When I came back from Berkeley last summer, I drove over the river to have a reunion cup of tea with Marina. We sat on two chairs she’d arranged on the pavement outside her house, where she’d organised a little card table piled high with the mysterious objects of memory. It was a very special jumble sale. Each thing held aloft in turn and it’s place in history talked about.

Covid safe reunion to look at things together last summer

I had already read the manuscript and understood the gravity of the film canister, the futility of the brogues as means of transformation, the promise of the powder compact… Marina put her mother’s two worn out rings on her own fingers and the project began to sparkle into shape.

How to translate the astonishing light-shooting behaviour of these rocks that had magicked Ilia from the bright sun of southern Italy to the black soot of London?

Cutting ice from black paper is the kind of impossible task I like. I was pleased to locate in my stash of collage books a little volume I’d already hacked up due to its treasure house of phrases: Practical Gemmology (1948) A page describing the different cuts of stone seemed just right for showcasing Ilia’s jewels.

The great thing about working in graphic black and white is that light is one of the most exciting tools one can play with: whether by leaving it to the blank page to furnish it, as in a silhouette, or by using reversals such as these above, to imply the solidity of three dimensions. I also enjoyed expanding my repertoire into found printed material as with the rings, or as below with these movie star hoopoes.

I combed the usual sources (my studio floor, charity shops and peoples’ front walls…) for old books and magazines that fitted the period or place, and tailored them into the story as it unrolled. I had lots of great conversations with Marina, who understood my process intuitively and allowed for my intermittent departures and translations back and forth from the objects themselves into my parallel imagination.

We had a wonderful time, like two girls poring over the strange ingredients of a spell.

If you’d like the chance to hear Marina talk about her beautiful, long and heartfelt work on this book, and more about the ways we found to collaborate to make it a worthy offering to the ancestors, we will be live online this coming Wednesday night at University of East Anglia as part of their lit fest: UEA live, click here to book. We’ll be hosted in conversation by poet Alison Winch , whose brilliant work I also recommend.