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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week I was the other side of the zoom screen as a student at The Royal Drawing School, as opposed to teaching there as I usually do.
I’ve always dreamed of making a graphic novel ever since I first read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. And who better to learn from than my lovely friend and teaching colleague, the prize winning writer/drawer Emily Haworth Booth? When she tipped me off that there were places available on her summer school, I dropped everything and signed up!
We began by drawing four panels about our mornings activities. We changed the sense of these by writing a series of alternative captions. A revelation. We also had chances to collaborate with another student and make a comic strip about how they’d ended up on the course. I was listened to and drawn by a young man called Tom – who’d captured me with psychic accuracy – taking a poetry book off a shelf. This is just one of the eight little pics he made.
On Tuesday we were able to draw from a model, the amazing Lidia. Emily had us draw without looking at the page, flip the pose onto our paper, draw poses from memory, all kinds of playful ideas and approaches.
The sensation of working from observation all day using an ordinary pencil was strangely Proustian – it scribbled me back to a time last century, when my ability to reproduce a complicated corridor full of plaster cast gods using line alone, was enough to earn me gratifying astonishment from the teacher-gods on my foundation course.
I’d practiced drawing continuously as a teenager, in the then flourishing local authority subsidised adult education classes of the late 70s. Life drawing evening classes were my self inflicted ritual transition to adulthood. The eventual realization that being able to describe in pencil the distance between a shoulder and a toe wasn’t actually a job, sunk me into a depression that put me off the HB line more than I knew. Then here was Emily, gaily suggesting that we drew familiar locations from life as we walked around our areas. Stopping and drawing the endless wheelie bins, hedges, kerbs and parked cars on scraps of paper, made me both swear and dream of moving house. But it was a good reminder as well as triggering! It made me think about the paths I’d taken, and how learning to draw really has served me quite well as the backbone to my strange career, even four decades on. Proper drawing can’t help but convey emotion – just the raw immediacy of hand to paper, applying different pressures, frustrations, textures, variety of line.
The next exercise showed us how to slow the reader right down by looking at some simple Jeffrey Brown comic images, choosing one & extending it across several panels.
I loved doing this. This blue pencil and a spot of invention took the edge off my graphite pain.
By Wednesday we were looking intently at story structure, with Emily’s great selection of clips from rom coms and classic movies. We began work on our own stories, encouraged by sharing bits of them with fellow students in breakout rooms.
We were to think about a problem in our lives and consider the ups and downs of its narrative arc. The ‘problem’ I told my fellow student in our breakdown room more like, was about my son. He is not a problem, he is a beloved child, now aged 22. But learning to parent him when he has a range of disabilities under the general banner of learning difficulties and autism has been a major challenge. Raising him has shaped me, as a person and as an artist, but I doubted I’d get to a place where it would feel okay to write and share this story – yet I’ve always wanted to, partly in the hope that some of what we learnt along the way might be interesting and useful to other people who face similar situations.
By the time the week was over I was firmly into this project. I have been drawing panels ever since, and a book seems to be on its way. Hopefully it will find a publisher when the time comes, so I won’t put too much up here yet. I will leave you with my thanks for reading – and a wave from a puppet called Party Pig, who narrates much of what is to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’m proud to be a ‘distinguished friend’ of The Migration Museum Project and was recently invited to hang 100 of my drawings collected live in ink on the theme of home, in their current premises on Lambeth High Street.
If you’d like to see them fluttering along the high walkway like inky washing, they’ll be up until September 2nd. I’ll be at a special late opening there on Thursday 26th July. Please come.
I was invited to make an installation for a unique space in the lovely town of Lewes.
Come to a private view and reading of three massive collage poems that are hanging in the window of this sweet ex sweetshop. I’ll read the windows and there’ll be milling and chatting under the sherbet lemon sun… right round the corner from Lewes Station, you’ll find the Lansdown Sweet Shop and opposite that is the Symposium Wine Emporium where there will be a table and a glass of something chilled…
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!
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.
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.
The project that catapulted me into Nature and away from my habitual London scenery: The Listening Forest, is now up in another form, as an exhibition at the HQ of the Poetry Society at 22 Betterton Street Covent Garden: The Poetry Cafe.
About thirty of the original drawings are on the walls, chosen from the hundred or so that make up the book, which in turn, were chosen from perhaps twice that that I made whilst in residence for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire.
Many of the drawings on show are those I drew live from local people recounting to me what they get up to in the woods; others are ones that I made away from company, on my own in the cottage I was put up in.
There are also the six paper cuts I made as a structural device to tailor the book into its shape as a mirror to the forest, filing stories as appropriate under section headings: noticings and changes of direction in path, strange sightings and confessions in undergrowth, the ordinary and everyday in shrub layer, revelations and insights in clearing, lofty thoughts in canopy, base material in floor…
New for the space in Covent Garden, I replaced Ralph Steadman’s Byron scribed lampshades with new ones of my own, some written on in loose ink with excerpts from my forest poem sequence, some coloured with streaks of Nepalese paper cut into leaf-spiders, moth-women, crow-huts.
The show opened on my Dad’s 90th birthday, so he came along, and after I’d read some poems, the audience sang to him and we all shared cake!
The same week it was the The Poetry Library open day at the Festival Hall, which took as its theme: The End of the Poem. It was exciting to see the library’s copy of the limited edtion huge version of The Listening Forest in its thirty metre incarnation, laid out on one of the tables, near another recent collaborative work: Collective City, the book we assembled from visual poem collages made by visitors to the Southbank Centre’s Poetry International Festival and made into an inventive street shaped book by the same team who bound the forest book: the inimitable Henningham Family Press
The Listening Forest exhibition runs until February 4th and is open most days and evenings, but please do check the Poetry Cafe website.
Another evening viewing is scheduled for Thursday December 17th, with mulled wine, a chance to buy screen prints, books and original drawings, and a short reading of some forest and city poems by me and some surprise guest poets!
I will also be running a day workshop in conjunction with The Poetry School, called Hide and Seek in the Ideas Forest, on Saturday January 30th. We’ll be working on how to set traps for the unconscious, and turn what we find into art and poetry.
So many people have been involved with this project, big thanks to all who joined me on the path: including Yasmin Canvin and the team at Fermynwoods Contemporary Arts, Kate Dyer and Lorraine Dziarkowska of Corby Community Arts – and everyone who told me a story or listened to a poem or idea. Particular London thanks to Tanya Peixoto of The Bookartbookshop and Mike Simms of the Poetry Society.
My story collecting live in ink process took me to Greenwich last week, where the impressive edifice of the National Maritime Museum, its doorway flanked by huge anchors, made me feel both excited and nervous, with my wheelie suitcase full of cartridge paper and crumpled studio get up – a bit like arriving somewhere new for the first time…
The atmosphere inside was buzzy and friendly, and I loved listening to stories of home and migration from a bunch of local year 5 children, drawing and writing down a small sampling of their great variety of experiences.
We were in the Re:Think space which for now is the borrowed terrain of the Migration Museum Project, set up three years ago to consider our ever changing flow – people and their movement, in and out of the UK and the ocean of complicated facts and feelings that accompany this.
A bonus was that I also had a lunch break with fellow traveller on the poetry seas, Karen McCarthy Woolf, whose stunning book An Aviary of Small Birds has just been nominated for the Forward Prize for best first collection. Karen currently has a writing residency with the National Maritime Museum, and took the photo below, of me drawing the story of her own small but huge migration: from north to south London. (Such a good move, we’re very welcoming in the south!)
We were both made to feel at home in the museum by being allowed to choose and make things to put in our own allocated glass cases, what a dream!
I will be there again on July 7th and 31st, and on August 23rd, which is also slavery memorial day. Come along if you’re free!
If that’s too far along the river I’ll be on hand to help any visitors to the Festival Hall create poetry pages from wherever they might have come from… we’ll be making a new London poetry book from all the contributions as part of Poetry International. That’s on 25th July, all kinds of art materials will be on hand, so bring your most properly colourful language!
Free event with Shazea Quraishi, Ravinder Randhawa and me.
Part of Lambeth Readers and Writers Festival
Do come and hear me and two fellow Brixton writers talking and reading at our local library on May 20th, 7-9PM. As well as reading new work, we’ll be talking about how Brixton and the library have shaped and inspired us and our writing.
We’ve been invited by Marilyn Rogers the chair of the friends group. There’ll be refreshments, time to chat and ask questions, space for library saving ideas!
Shazea’s new collection The Art of Scratching, has just been published by Bloodaxe Books.