Leaning on the Goddess

Flying & landing – book collaborators!

Besides a lot of scooting about lately, and the heat, I’ve been staying grounded with some focused paper-cutting in the cool vaults of mythology.

I’ve been laying into sheets of black paper with scissors and scalpel, and summoning a great variety of goddesses, and their assorted props and consorts for the next book. The Mighty Goddess – a collection of 52 myths and stories for adults, gathered over many years with intrepid care and respect, and written in her own inimitable style by old friend and collaborator Pomme Clayton. This is to be published next spring by The History Press. We raised extra funds to create the book via our Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to all who supported that.

Laying out the stories with their pictures and post it notes on the floor.

Some of the stories are very familiar to me. Pomme and I have had four of our children’s fairy tale and myth collections published over the years. I’ve painted Durga, Ama Terasu, Demeter… Our first book together: Tales of Amazing Maidens, came out with Orchard Books in 1995. It featured Inuit goddess Sedna on the front cover. So I enjoyed revisiting her (as an Arctic elder must inevitably also do – or she will be in discomfort under the sea with her tangled hair. ) Richard Price has dived into this material too, in his beautiful collection The Owner of the Sea. Sedna provides fish and poetic inspiration in equal measure.

I was glad to discover a creature called the ribbon seal, lolling about on the internet, graphic as a papercut. And Sedna. Without her, no plenty more fish in the sea!

As with previous projects, like INDEX, & 60 Lovers to Make and Do, I have branched out from using only plain papers, to finding tone and texture in old black and white photographic images, which I use as collage material.

Green Tara – a goddess/saint from the Buddhist pantheon – cut from a book called Collectible Spoons.

I like the playfulness of scale between the objects in the photographs (spoons, cakes, shrubs) and the grandeur of a deity – a being so large it cannot be seen or comprehended, let alone fit on a page.

Hekate – she looks three ways at once. I cut her from a page in an old cookbook and was gratified to see her turn the puddings into timeless stone.

Then again – some goddesses are known through their small scale manifestations, St Bridget is in the snowdrops, Persephone sparkles on in every pomegranate seed –

Snowdrops for Bridget
The crowned majesty of madam pomegranate

Other stories were familiar in another way: Artemis/Diana the huntress, turning Actaeon into a stag for spying on her naked beauty as she bathed… I remember copying Titian’s version of this, that hangs here in London at the National Gallery.

Diana and Actaeon, by Titian.

We Camberwell foundation students of 1982 were each set a painting to study as an exercise in composition. We were instructed to make three versions: reducing it further in each incarnation – eventually making it into a 3 colour abstraction. I recall that laborious absorbing afternoon.

I returned to Titian for help with my papercut, loving how he caught Actaeon’s bodily astonishment at the moment of transformation.

Actaeon as papercut – turned into a stag and devoured by his own dogs.

There’s another Artemis story in the book too – of the young girls apprenticed to the goddess – who dressed as bears to play hunting games in the forest.

Bear faced chic! A papercut I made for the story of Artemis, whose apprentices accompany the goddess, learn to hunt.

Other stories were a total revelation. The violence and incest, sex and torment in many of the tales – from Māori creation myth to ancient Egypt. Stories to make even the most jaded Twitter user gasp.

Sekhmet. Lion headed goddess loves to eat awful human law breakers.

I felt nervous about making images of Isis and Sekhmet, partly because I so love and admire Egyptian art – and did not feel I could add anything to the perfect depictions we know so well from the tombs and the looted beauties I grew up staring at in the British Museum. Of course that made snipping these goddesses and their head dresses all the more exciting in the end. ‘Only do something that you know you CANNOT do’ – as I’m fond of telling my students.

Isis and her brother/husband Osiris – Lord of the Underworld. Again, I found them in the spoon book.
On the road: I was at some different tables over June, luckily paper, blades and goddesses are portable entities

Reading and rereading these ancient myths was a balm in these times. These stories remind us of our own impermanence and solidity at the same time, always useful. Thank Goddess for the power of imagination.

Lilith becoming a snake, giving birth to demons

In other news, I was grateful to poets Kathryn Gray and Andrew Neilson, the editors of online poetry journal Bad Lilies for including my poem Eggs and Bacon in their latest issue. A poem that also skirts around power.

I grew these ones. Amazing colours, quite weird smell!

Those bad lilies sure got a nose for a poem. One they published last summer in their second issue: Pollen, by the amazing Clare Pollard has been nominated for best single flower in the Forward Prizes.

Athena: paradoxical and mighty goddess of wisdom and war.

Congrats to the wondrous Chrissy Williams too, poet and editor of online journal Perverse. Two poems first published there have made the same auspicious list – one by Louisa Campbell and one by Cecelia Knapp. No shortage of goddesses in this post as it turns out.

Hindu goddess Lakshmi has elephants to splash her with water in the heat.

And nobody creates new work entirely alone. We only get good by reading/looking/listening to/rubbing shoulders with other people who read and make, so this goes out to all those who aren’t on a shortlist either… and who are slogging away anyway! May Lakshmi’s elephants cool you & may Athena’s owl toot wisdom instead of war!

Poem for Alison & her wasps nest

Here is a non prize winning wasp poem I made from phrases clipped from a child’s encyclopaedia I found on a wall near my house. I made it for my poet friend Alison Winch who inspired me with her wasp poems. They’re not published yet, but watch out! Thanks for reading my blog & strength to all creative resisters in the long hot jam of now.

Graphic Habits in Familiar Palettes.

The book I worked on last autumn, making many paper cut vignettes: Marina Warner’s Inventory of a Life Mislaid, is soon to be published in the USA by New York Review Books.

For the cover of the UK edition, a handsome hardback out with William Collins, a compromise was reached between my twirly analogue suggestions and the corporate giant’s thwack that was needed to pitch the book squarely into the mainstream.

One of my original cover roughs: I really wanted to avoid the use of black, to contrast with the strict monochrome of the inside pages.

Luckily this was arrived at through the great skills and collaborative decency of their in house jacket designer, Jo Thomson, whom I knew to trust, because I’d seen her work on some of the most striking jackets of books I’d actually read.

Part of the original jacket design, with Egyptian column spine, frock and jackal
Playing with legibility is not usually seen as a good idea! Pink space for text on flap & asemic letter with shadow from my original wraparound papercut.

I always stare at the tables laid with the latest sellers in bookshops and play games with my eyes and their graphics. Which are the books that cry out to be picked up? Is it the ones with lush colour, or a touch of the handmade, or a stunning dose of clever, succinct type?

My stack of copies

Jo T used my papercuts and swatches from my painted palette and devised a ‘mid century Cairo shopfront’ lettering for the long title, which needed to occupy the central space of the front. The use of gold in the lettering, and an embossed black for the papercuts around the words, really made for a stand out design, and once I’d got over the ‘kill fee’ (which halved my payment for the jacket work) I was pleased with how the book ended up looking.

For the US edition of Marina’s book – I am designing a new cover. I can have the freedom of the whole rectangle for imagery – as NYRB has a uniform house style: with the text along the bottom in a clean san serif upper case.

The editor of the US edition, Edwin Frank, also proposed a change of title: so it will become Esmond & Ilia: an Unreliable Memoir. It is to be a paperback, another change in terms of the look, less grand, more portable.

All jackets involve many conversations – often between editor and sales team, rather than necessarily with the author. They’re not called jackets for nothing, they’re the clothes a writer’s words are dressed up in to go out alone and make their way in the jagged, crazily book-laden world.

Too many layers!
Colour try outs – fun to play spot the differences between these images?
A rogue nasturtium leaf – a sharper hoopoe beak…

Marina quite rightly persisted in nudging me until I’d got the tiny approximate portraits of her parents right.

Marina wasn’t keen on the portrayal of her father here, nor the brown arabesque frame, – I knew in my heart that the hoopoe’s beak was wrong, and that the hatbox needed better definition.

This was a breakthrough for me, as I really don’t think I’d imagined lively likenesses possible in the medium of papercut, preferring to concentrate on objects – things with their own inherent graphic qualities like coffee pots and envelopes!

Attempting to capture real people through a few incisions in some painted paper
Blue and orange laid on layout paper painted gold – fancy!

I’m still going through lots of hand painted paper in a great variety of shades, turquoise, golds and yellows, blues, corals purples and oranges – looking for post war ex pat Egypt, something to evoke the glamour, the complicated people and histories layered within the pages.

This is perhaps my current favourite for NYRB book jacket for Esmond & Ilia by Marina Warner

I was startled to notice that I’d settled on orange and ultramarine in my favourite version, as I began to realise these were the main colours I’d chosen for the new edition of my own book: Velkom to Inklandt, coming out this autumn.

Cover design as it was, in progress, spring this year
Also experimenting with many colour trials in the search for my own best book jacket – for the reprint of my first poetry collection Velkom to Inklandt. Josef Albers is a helpful ghost.
The final jacket: more analogue papercut letters and envelopes – signifiers of the predigital age that both Marina Warner and I are writing about in these books.

Inwardly I sighed. This orange and blue is a default palette for me, especially if I want to evoke joy. As when I was a child and we went on a summer holiday to France, I was bowled over by the gigantic Orangina posters plastered to the side of buildings. Beautiful, like summer. I insisted on drinking orangina although I really didn’t like it.

One of many orangina advertising posters designed by Bernard Villemot, that I loved from the olden days!

Naturally for the first proper graphic job I did, which was for a charity bike ride in 1989, raising money for AIDS organisation London Lighthouse, I hit on ultramarine and orange. I made a papercut and primitive colour separations which made the printer groan. (That was Steve Sorba at Aldgate Press , a co-op and a London institution, still people l’d always choose to work with. Steve turned out to have been to the same primary school as me in Battersea and once he knew that he treated me with respect, lol.)

My 1989 poster for a charity bike ride. Initially designed as part of a bike repair deal with Paul Hobbs then of (my still local) Brixton Cycles.
More of the same two colour printing for Verso, saving the only 100% reflex blue for the V on the back – and the white card only revealed as ‘Spring’. I love tones & overlays!
Not paper cut this time, (brush work!) a pumpkin poster for the Thames Festival, a couple of decades on.

I see two of these old works are from Septembers, so I expect the leaves turning orange against the blue skies of autumn are also part of why my brush and eye would have naturally turned to this pair of complementary colours.

There’s energy in that orange, a little fire summoned. Even proper ultramarine is from the warm end of blue, up with the purples rather than the icy greens.

Today I noticed that my front window canna lily had sprouted two new flowers, and that the clothes I put on were allied to the paper cuts I was making. If I had to find a cardigan, I think we know where we’re headed.

Cardigan weather, coordination with project, and a canna lily from Brockwell Community Greenhouses

Autumns mellow fruitfulness. Very lovely of course but I don’t much like the way it leads to the awful dark afternoons of winter. All I can advise is that we arm ourselves with books, colour, and a good pinch of paprika in the goulash.

Thank you for reading my blog, and good luck with new terms, and any other changes looming.

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.

Autumns remembered Lambeth gold

Well 60 Lovers to Make and Do came out, and we had a great time launching it at the charismatic Cinema Museum, which occupies the site of Lambeths former workhouse, and still maintains an atmosphere in which the word poetry is allowed to blink out like imaginary dodgy neon from the word poverty.

I impulsively printed myself 4 metres of gold satin with collages from the book, at 3rd Rail screen printing studio in Peckham.

My good friend and former studio neighbour, incredible dress designer and maker, Linda Brooker, cut from it enough to make this dress, and trim it with red pompoms for good measure.

Photo by Andrea Reece

The book contains 65 poems in which women create their own lovers from things they find lying around at home or at work. These are accompanied by collages in which hidden lovers are cut from unlikely and unpeopled pages from magazines or broken books. When I’ve read from the book people seem to find it funny.

Who knows, perhaps they recognise something about the absurdity of love and relationship. The wildness of our projections… Could this make the book quite a nice present for the lover who doesn’t even know that it’s poetry they love? Just saying.

You can get hold of a copy direct from the publishers here: https://www.henninghamfamilypress.co.uk/product/60-lovers-to-make-and-do/, or please order it from your local bookshop. It’s already being stocked by one of my personal favourites, the Bookartbookshop near Old Street tube, as well as Herne Hill Books. Also, soon it will be available at The Second Shelf in Soho, and Circus in Brixton Market.