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.

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 night on the tiles.

Museum curator Poppy Learman, wearing green velvet and an excited grin, led me to see how she and her co curator Liz Stewart, also in a fabulous green ensemble, had displayed my drawings at the new exhibition they’ve conceived and now realised, which has recently opened at The Museum of Liverpool.

Galkoff’s and the Secrets of Pembroke Place

Such a thrill to see the forty one drawings they chose, from over a hundred I listened to and drew, made into a massive wall of Liverpool voices and stories.

They’re pasted up on the reverse of the beautiful frontage of Galkoff’s kosher butcher which has been carefully reconstructed, tile by shiny green tile, inside the museum, as the centrepiece for a show that uncovers all kinds of history of its particular part of the city, once lively home and shopping area to many, including a busy and established Jewish community.

The sixty stories not pasted up, are also available to look at in a flip book which is part of the extensive display.

Every single person I met on my story collecting odyssey in Liverpool had something interesting and surprising to say!

I’m looking forward to contributing to a symposium on the work around this show. It’s going to be on December 9th and I’ll talk about the story collecting process and read some poems.

Galkoff’s Symposium

If you’re in Liverpool, do visit the museum. It’s the perfect spot to take your imagination and do some time travelling, and once you’ve heard Galkoff’s Sausage Song for yourself, maybe also find some lunch.

Wearing shiny green clothes is optional. Or maybe just give yourself a polish and wear a glazed expression?

Tate Modern

Today is the final day of a surreal and wonderful week in my life as an artist.

100 of my ink drawings are up at Tate Modern.

They are part of a residency/take over at Tate Exchange , a public engagement area set aside on level 5 of the Blavatnik building.

A selection of my project ‘Stories collected live in ink’ is there thanks to Wasafiri Magazine in which I’m featured artist this issue.

Wasafiri is a journal of international contemporary writing and is based at Queen Mary University London.

Queen Mary was offered the weeks residency to showcase some of the many cultural programmes that are based there.

This current issue of Wasafiri explores the theme of refuge, with essays, fiction and poetry from global voices on the subject. It’s been guest edited by Bidisha, and I was honoured to read at the launch at Tate on Friday, and participate in a panel with Bidisha and fellow poets Olumide Popoola and Lisa Luxx.

Part of the remit for artists taking part in activities at Tate is that we should do a 10 minute talk in front of a work we choose in the collection.

This really exercised me, so many incredible paintings that I love and grew up on. But for the sheer bravado of it I chose Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann

I also did a two hour story collecting session – which was a blast: intense yet joyful as ever.

One of the great thrills of this opportunity has been to put the voices of all kinds of people into a space where they might not normally be heard, and to create a new set of ‘neighbours’ in displaying the drawings made with people from Southall, Liverpool, Northamptonshire, Devon, Brixton, and many other places next to each other.

I chose these 100 stories from my big archive boxes in the studio in which I have about 1200 drawings collected over the last decade. I decided on home as my theme, so that I could include very ‘settled’ narrations as well as the sometimes difficult stories of people more recently arrived. I wanted to reflect the cosy ways in which we create home for ourselves even perhaps fleetingly, on the road, or the impossibility of that comfort sometimes in long term situations!

Above all I love the collective of recognition such an exhibition creates, I’ve been touched to see people look at the drawings and cry. And amazing feedback such as this!

These pictures are records of real subjective feeling, often described as metaphor or fact to me, who subjectively aims to honour and depict them. It’s all true! Subjectively true.

And of all the extraordinary twists: I find myself (like Marcia the security guard below, I never thought I would) ‘at home’ in Tate Modern!

VOYAGE and other journeys

Over the last couple of years, my story collecting project has been expanding into the rich theme of migration: and I’ve had the chance to hear people tell me about what makes them feel at home: whether it’s a kitchen, a hobby – their body, or a poem…

Londons diversity has always made me relieved to return to it, but many people don’t experience the city as friendly. How do we live in our communities, connect with neighbours, make ourselves heard? These questions seem more urgent than ever, post brexit, where polarities have been amplified, in and outside of our various bubbles.

In Hounslow I was working with Creative People and Places encouraging residents to develop their own modes of story collecting, which we practised by listening, drawing and writing poems together, after initial inky story collecting sessions with me.

IMG_2658

Over at the National Maritime Museum I’d also been listening and collecting, from visitors to the RE*THINK space there, as part of work with The Migration Museum Project. Poet and friend, Karen McCarthy Woolf was writer in residence on this theme. We hatched a plan to collaborate, and make a piece of work to show our findings. This is now manifest as a 36 page book: Voyage, and contains an essay and new poems by Karen, with stories collected and drawn live by me.

As we were addressing the subject of migration, I wanted to supplement the narratives I’d heard at the museum, with some from more recently arrived people, people who might not yet be at the museum visiting stage… so I approached South London Refugee Association, who welcomed me to their drop in. I met and spoke with people there, who shared some of their moving stories with me. Karen and I selected a range of drawings and poems from the work we’d made, the book was supported and introduced by Joanna Salter at the museum, and we in turn were listened to, re paper stock, layout and printing by old friends at Aldgate Press.

We’ve had a lovely article and review of the book, by Bidisha, on the BBC arts website.

VOYAGE reviewed on BBC Arts

There are lots more of the drawings to look at via this link, and a short film of me, made by Chocolate Films where I’m collecting one of the Hounslow stories.

Voyage readings and launch at The European Commission in London:

Europe House, 32 Smith Square SW1

6:30 -8:30 September 15th. Please come along.