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.

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

European in America, continued.

I’ve been slowly getting the hang of where things are in Berkeley. I have a borrowed bicycle to skidaddle downtown to get gouache and oranges, or raid the library. What a library! A huge poetry section for a start (I haven’t even set foot in Fiction yet.) ‘How many books can one borrow at a time?’ I asked ‘Up to 85’ the man said… I opted for a cautious four.

American poetry section in Berkeley Public Library Library

There are also tiny box libraries out on peoples’ front yards, a great idea where neighbours get to exchange books. I’ve been helping myself. Back in the studio I rearrange fragments of these texts to create newly voiced poems, guessing my way to more index card text collages. I’m pleased to say that amazing poet Tom Jenks is going to publish 56 of them as a pack of cards with his innovative press/project Zimzalla this summer.

A couple of ‘American’ index card poems
One of Berkeleys ‘little free libraries’
A selection of my index card poems.

It’s a booky region. I went to San Francisco earlier this month to hear poet DS Marriott read at legendary bookstore, City Lights. I’d been impressed by his work before, having been asked to draw him for the cover of Poetry London in 2018. This time I could draw and listen to him live. He read poems re Grime music and the Grenfell tragedy, amongst other things, his poems glittered: images, musicality, truth impeccably spliced. A thread of humour lit up the afro-pessimism, a theory he talked about in the Q and A at the end. Haunting poems and ideas, appropriately, I bought his newest book: Duppies.

David Marriott reading poems at City Lights, San Francisco

Back at HQ last week it was my turn to read poems and show some of my work in progress. I put up new paintings in the studio, and Dan Schifrin, who manages the residency locally, organised the party. We had borscht & a reading, and a rainy night was enlivened by art, poetry and plenty of interesting people.

At my first salon in the residency studio

The chance to develop further as a painter is perhaps the chief thrill of this residency. I haven’t had such a luxury combination of time and space to myself for a few decades. I like working at night in the studio. Feelings and sensations are amplified by solitude and the novelty of being in this new place. I stare and stare out walking in the day: lemons on trees, house sized cacti, purple houses with pink camellias, capricious typography neoned on corners.

I try to lock down the sensations as they hurtle past my eyeballs & into my head.

Eg – this blue, this magenta
and what about this pairing of neons, Judaica then LIQUORS, a daily spell to chant on my local parade.

I’m trying as usual, to find a correspondence between what I see and what I think and feel, but trying is not an effective way to paint. I have to screw myself up like a scrap of paper and twist myself through the keyhole, then hurl myself at the wall using only my materials. Here’s a picture of how that’s going.

Current studio wall with five new paintings, more detail of the latest one below
Working title: River of Impossible Relationships

Here I have added rain in the form of strips cut from sacrificial book waste, and last night the orange ribbon edges.

I hold on to the idea that creative work is resistance. Today I mark what I hope is a temporary severance of the UK from Europe, by carrying on with my very European painting & dedicating what I do to the spirit of unity, neighbourliness & internationalism.

working title: The Grower The Radical and the Dreamer Murmur Dissent over many Time Zones

Thanks for reading my blog!

residencies round up: last Arvon October

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

 

 

 

Why it was helpful to paint their coffins!

Coffin painting – an inspiring story

 

This link is to a guest blog post I wrote for Claire Turnham, the funeral director who took on my dad’s funeral in the spring. If you want to find out more about alternative and holistic approaches to death and dying, she is one of the good hearted pioneers. I’m posting it here with a few extra pictures, today on dad’s birthday. I’m so glad he was with us to celebrate his 90th at The Poetry Cafe last year with cake and singing.

img_2435

me and dad po caf