I was glad to be interviewed by William Blake scholar Caroline Anjali Ritchie last year. She is looking at how Blake and London shape each other – the mapping of a mutual imagination that continues to this day. Warning: this is a long interview attached, thank you Caroline, for letting me digress like Blake’s untrimmed vines in his garden in Hercules Road, Lambeth.
Here is her account of our conversation along with plenty of examples of my own work, as influenced by Blake, on the Zoamorphosis site, which is in any case, a fabulous rabbit hole of advanced Blakery.
The Practical Visionary, published in 2018, necessitated some proper inky printmaking. We knew that to connect authentically with Blake, we’d need to inhabit the etching studio, and join him and all printmakers in the back to front thinking that is the hallmark of such a practice. The book includes a series of 7 etchings by Chris McCabe and myself, editioned in Lambeth at Slaughterhaus studios. Each work was photo-etched onto a zinc plate, and each one is signed by us both. They were printed on a press similar to the one Blake himself turned a couple of centuries ago in a nearby street.
The final set of etchings was editioned by master printmaker Rob White. Ten of these sets of the original twenty that we made are still available via Hercules Editions. Printed on beautiful Somerset paper and rather tiny, (the plates are each about A7 and fit in a standard large postcard frame) the whole series of 7 is available for £300. Individually the etchings are £70. Those buying etchings will also receive a free copy of the book in which they appear.
Thanks for revisiting this city of image and text in which we citizens continually collaborate. And for reading my blog.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
Of 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.
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!
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.
It 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.
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.
In October I was one of a group of eight artist printmakers engaged in making a new piece of work to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the world’s first ghetto.
This was a space established in Venice in 1516, on the site of the old foundry there, (making it one of the few campos without a church) that was created as a concession to Jews, permitting them residence in the city.
Originally the word would have had a soft ‘g’ as it was where the metal was thrown (or jettisoned,) a ‘getto’, but as the first wave of incumbents were Ashkenazy Jews, and strangers to the soft ‘g’, they pronounced it like get, and thus introduced the world to the ‘ghetto’!
The commission was to make a New Venice Haggadah, deriving inspiration from a beautiful edition published in Venice in 1609, as well as with reference to the contemporary community, and of course our own personal responses and processes.
The haggadah is the Passover text, and is like a script for use at the Seder table. It conducts all the members of the family through the story of the Exodus, with ritual foods, questions, songs and wine. It is a chance to think about oppression and slavery, and wish freedom to all who remain oppressed. There may be nearly as many haggadot and interpretations of the story as there are families who mark the festival.
We were invited to do this work by Beit Venezia, headed up by Shaul Bassi, (far left, above) and as well as us artists, Vassar professor Marc Michael Epstein, (far right, above) joined our group to show us some of the vast history of illustrated haggadot. We were also lucky to be shown many intriguing aspects of Venice and its workings by our events coordinator Barbara del Mercato.
Right to left (like Hebrew) we are Barbara, Shaul, Frances Katz Levine (a supporter of the project), Kyra Matustik, Josh Baum, then on the sofa, also right to left: Andi LaVine Arnovitz, Nathan Gotlib, Jacqueline Nicholls (lead artist) Hillel Smith, Yael David-Cohen and me.
Our group of eight artists came from the UK , the US, Belgium, Israel, the Czech Republic – and with varying degrees of knowledge and experience in both etching and Jewishness!
Our base for the three week residency was the Scuola Grafica Internazionale di Venezia, a gorgeous and well equipped printmaking studio in Cannaregio. We stayed in apartments about a half hour walk away. My room made a nifty temporary studio.
A peal of bells came echoing out from this jaunty corner tower to wake us promptly at 7:00 each morning.
We read and thought about the text together in detail over the first week, as well as looking at significant treasures in Venice, such as the first printed Talmud there, which I was pleased to discover looks quite a lot like concrete poetry.
At the end of the first week Jacqueline allocated each of us two sections of the text to respond to visually. Mine were both densely emotional passages, one of suffering, one of joy. This was re: We cried out and the one below represents praise (very necessary Hebrew help came from my fellow artists Josh and Jacqueline )
During the second week, we drew and prepared, then etched our copper plates… as well as exploring the city, getting lost and looking at as much art as we could possibly squeeze in around the coffees.
It is such a sensational city: light zipping off the water to illuminate everything from the intricate and wonky palaces to the vegetable delivery boats, and the bridges; more of which seemed to appear daily, like a baffling dream.
Week three saw us unite and print: 6oo sheets of dampened Fabriano paper, many inky rags, many ragged but mainly undampened spirits!
The original copper plates and the editions of 25 prints per etching per artist (we each made 3 plates, that’s why we were editioning 600 prints in week 3!) remain in Venice for now and will be exhibited as part of the ghetto quincentery events. A beautiful version of our New Venice Hagaddah is also in production in Jerusalem, and will be for sale in time for Passover 2016.
You can read more about the project in the current (January 2016) issue of Jewish Rennaisance magazine, or watch us and laugh as we are dubbed in Italian on TV – and see the studio, the ghetto and the other artists.
Thanks to all members of our group, who were wonderful to work with, to Jacqueline Nicholls in particular for inviting me, to Shaul Bassi of Beit Venezia and Lorenzo de Castro and Alan Rogers at the Scuola Grafica for hosting us, and to Barbara del Mercato for showing us Venice from the inside.
I have also written a small stack of new Venice poems, hopefully these will find a home one day, in or out of the poetry ghetto…
Meanwhile, here’s to 2016: ink, friendship and freedom!
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!
Finishing projects is nearly as hard as starting them. This current one is one I’ll be sad to see the back of. I’m in the grip of editing the book I’ve been gathering firewood and acorns for since last July, sifting through about a hundred stories collected from members of the public around Corby in the East Midlands.
Stories about nature and what happens in the local woodlands, what thoughts and feelings lurk amongst the oaks and hawthorns.
As a born and bred inner city Londoner, I’ve found the residency with Fermynwoods Contemporary Art a thrill and a revelation. I’ve spent many, many days alone in the forest, where the arts organisation have a little house that visiting artists can stay in for the duration of their research. In order to write the poems that are going to be at the core of the book, nestling in their own section between the inky stories, I gave myself an agenda: to get properly lost. Witness my unsuitable shoes and handbag.
This was easy really, as I have a very poor sense of direction and there is no signal there for map apps to work! I am not a camper or scout and can barely tell the time, let alone use a compass. The woods in the area are vast.
Arriving lateish one evening, I’d stopped at the coop in Brigstock, the nearest village, before driving the slow two and a half miles up the rough track to the cottage, and bought supplies, including a piece of ‘stickered’ meat that needed urgent cooking. Next morning I put it in a very low oven with apples from the trees and a load of onions, spuds, garlic and woody herbs. I’ll go out and get lost, I said to myself. When I find this place again, that will be delicious!
I walked all over England: to Lyveden New Bield and Fermynwoods Country Park (again and again) and looped through a million trees, trying to learn their names and admiring their astonishing variety, was startled by sudden birds and laughed at my default veering towards the sound of traffic. Occasionally I’d stop and write in my notebook, or record sounds and observations on my phone. Lost though? Certainly! For hours, for all time…
Eventually I saw a young man in a Forestry Commission shirt, Hurray! A fellow human! I greeted him to his alarm. We had a chat, reluctantly he let me see the beautiful buck he’d just despatched as part of his daily rounds, (you wont like it…) then he picked up a twig and traced me a top quality short cut through the forest on the ordnance survey map I’d been carrying, hitherto pointlessly.
I’ve learnt to really love the trees, but people, well – they’re the cats pyjamas!
I will post more details nearer the time – but there will be a launch party in the woods in Corby on May 2nd, with mushroom soup and nettle pie, drawings hanging in the trees, a chance to hear the poems, and, touchwood-tree of knowledge, a finished book.