Paper light, snipped from a painted dark

A tool I love to use is a scalpel. I don’t like the word scalpel, with its whiff of surgery and pain, but for operating on paper, there’s nothing quite like one.

Scalpels glinting amongst painted paper & other scraps on cutting mat

These last few months I’ve been through a lot of blades. My priority job once back in London from America wasn’t really a backyard mosaic. It was an immense new book by Marina Warner, called Inventory of a Life Mislaid .

A cover idea for Marina Warner’s forthcoming book.

She’d contacted me about creating vignettes for this memoir whilst I was still away, and sent me the manuscript then. The book recounts her parents’ life and her own early life in Cairo, after World War II and before the Egyptian Revolution. It is full of sharp eyed detail and emotionally rich detective work, alongside scholarly wonderings that emerge from her interrogation of personal memory, real archive material, language and collective myth. Packed with history, it is affectionate, erudite and atmospheric. I loved reading it, and responding to the world it conjures, with sheaves of black paper and my scalpel and cutting mat.

Piles of papercut vignettes queuing up for the scanner

I made over 90 vignettes including five full page section dividers. I will write about it some more when it comes out with William Collins in the spring.

Marina Warner and I will be ‘in conversation’ at the University of East Anglia Literary Festival, UEA LIVE , so do book if you’d like to be part of the event.

In The Old Days, Everybody Smoked.
A chapter header paper cut made for Inventory of a Life Mislaid by Marina Warner. Inspired by an Egyptian cigarette tin lent to me by the author.

This work really sharpened me into new intricacies with my blades, and after the boosting time I’d had in California, working with colour, I decided as well as making very graphic black and white images – I could experiment with distinct colour palettes for some of my projects.

I was pleased to be commissioned by friend and fellow writer Gemma Seltzer , who runs an early morning writers’ organisation called Write and Shine, to make an artwork for her winter programme.

For this I devised a palette, and thought about the ideas she’d mentioned: mystery, mischief, and winter, with its long nights and festivities that counter and also celebrate the dark and the cold. I included six types of steam and a soft red to warm the scene, and I cut some mountains from the last page of an old atlas that I found on my street. So lots of place names beginning with z are built into the landscape to take the reader and writer on a zig zag journey through their imagination.

If you are an early riser, I really recommend Write and Shine with its welcoming workshops and retreats. An inspiring way to start the day.

Winter in the Zig Zag Mountains
My December image for Write and Shine.

I was back in black and white after that, to make a book cover for Nine Arches Press. Poet and publisher Jane Commane had decided to publish an amazing one hundred daily sonnets written by Jacqueline Saphra during the first lockdown, as a special non-profit, limited edition book, to raise money for The Trussell Trust, (as well as raise spirits via its poetry.) I made a papercut cover that will be embossed on the clothbound hardback in an edition of one hundred. I’m proud to be part of this beautiful enterprise.

Book jacket papercut for Jacqueline Saphra’s newest book with Nine Arches Press.

Gemma then also wanted a second image for her Write and Shine January- February programme, something to reflect workshops on the theme of the path ahead, drawing on moonlight and sunrise. I enjoyed creating a new palette around these times of day, using papers that I painted specially to cut, and reimagining the city as a place built of books, pens, pencils and crayons, again with the mind-focusing magic of a hot drink on the horizon to symbolise the waking hour. I’m only sharing a close up detail of this as Gemma is yet to launch the full image on the waiting world!

Working within these strict yet flexible palettes, I was reminded of a time long ago when I worked mixing colours for my mum, Susan Collier, in her textiles studio. I’d just left art college and had no work or idea how to begin, so she took me on as a lowly painter of tints or backgrounds. I had to get these right with a precision I could barely grasp. A tiny drop of Naples Yellow to grey a mauve, no more than a wink of Burnt Sienna or Bengal Rose to nudge warmth into a white. My mother was meticulous about these things, and would shriek if I added great globs of excess gouache in her presence. My paint mixing really lacked subtlety, a quality that often eludes me still.

The Writer Takes a Morning Walk
The papercut I made for Write & Shine to use for their January/February season, now launched and thus shareable.
Inherited palettes from my late mother’s textile days

As this month approached, I was contacted by Laura Seddon, creative producer at Manchester Jewish Museum. She wondered if I could make a piece of artwork to give out to subscribers for a Hannukah gift. This was to accompany a series of video conversations with five talented contemporary female musicians, all working with klezmer music.

This detail is inspired by watching and listening to Carol Isaacs play accordion with The London Klezmer Quartet.

All five are asking questions about tradition and innovation and Jewishness too. This music programme, brought together by cellist Francesca Ter Berg, is part of the museums current trailblazers season.

I made a playlist of their music and tried to let my scalpel dance in sync with the sharp turns and inventive rhythms I could hear coming through my speakers.

Working closely with my own parallel inner dialogues re tradition, innovation and Jewishness, seemed to dovetail with the ideas in the music – its timeless weave of gaiety and melancholy.

A papercut for Hannukah/Chanukah. Featuring musicians Francesca Ter Berg, on the cello, Polina Shepherd, singing, Anna Lowenstein on the violin, Carol Isaacs playing accordion and Ana Silvera, also singing. Made for Manchester Jewish Museum.

Paper cutting, like fiddle playing, is a strong traditional form across much of northern and central Europe. I have been inspired by visits to Chateau d’Oex in the mountains above Geneva, where a creaky wooden museum groans with old paper cut treasures made locally by deft scissored Alpine folk. Even my German Jewish grandmother, who was not ‘artistic’, used to snip little heart shaped paper baskets and boxes to put sweets in at this time of year. And thinking of presents, I had a whim to cut some of my papercuts further, so had a couple of them made into jigsaw puzzles online.

Scalpels and scissors are potentially scary – maybe symbolically adjacent to Brexit and social isolation. But before I rest my implements in the name of peace & the imminent cushions of some holiday collapse, here’s one more papercut I made last night.

Number 17, celebrated by Morris & Zippy in our night window.
Holidays paper cut, from inside the house, daytime.

We have some amazing & lovely neighbours on our road in Brixton, and during this year we have been so grateful for their friendliness and local community spirit.

Like on quite a few streets in recent years, our more organised inhabitants decided to plan an advent window display, and though I sighed inwardly in a grinch like way, I took on yesterday’s date, the 17th, to ‘do’, as part of it. I remembered how much I’d liked the all embracing ‘happy holidays’ decorations in Berkeley. With the help of our pets, Zippy & Morris, I managed to get over myself & cut out some fun for our window.

Thanks for reading my blog. May your inner light keep you warm and safe from sharp troubles in this turning sharp-blunt world! Happy Holidays!

Index

Tonight is the prelaunch reading for my new collection INDEX !

Pile of the original cards
Ideas for the reverse of the cards

The Kickstarter campaign set up by brilliant Tom Jenks at zimZalla, has met its target – so the printing can go ahead. There’s still time to register for a pack of prophetic cards at a 40% discount. And there are strange extra rewards for anyone who is inclined or able to pay extra!

Sachet of choice phrases

I’ll be reading alongside the amazing poet Philip Terry whose newest publication, TURNS, is an Oulipian box of surprises also made by poetry object press zimZalla. Do sign up!

Over the last year I’ve been making little cut up poems and pasting them onto pastel coloured index cards. Like a lot of things I do this began as a mild diversion creeping out from the side of a couple of big projects that were claiming my daylight attention.

It continued in this way – every few days I’d find a couple of hours to pore over the collage stash I’d been hacking to bits for my last book: 60 Lovers to Make and Do, and I’d skim the prose for phrases that seemed particularly pointed or musical or visually charged.

Source material on studio floor

I love the drama in old fashioned phrases from the Biggles Annual or Girl: any 1960s & 70s books and journals from the decades when I was a child, full of advice, morality, implicit and occasionally overt -isms of every sort. Favourites that also inspired 60 Lovers, were activity books including craft and recipe books.

I couldn’t use text by named authors – nothing where the notion of authorship vaunts loftiness or self consciousness – this wouldn’t be raw material for my own authorship and would feel more like stealing than repurposing.

When I got to that dream residency studio in Berkeley last December – I had the fun of assembling a transatlantic collage stash – which I wrote about at the time. I found a good selection of index cards and boxes to stack them as well, at the wonderful Elmwood Stationers on my local parade.

When I was finding my big paintings heavygoing – I would just put the colours to one side, and get snipping through the treasures I’d accumulated – with extra delight at the different language opening up from this American material.

I gotta tell you

Dan Schifrin, the residency manager, asked me a good question: What’s it like to inhabit the body of the person who makes these big gestural paintings and the person who makes these tiny cut up collage poems?

Studio with peonies, phrases, painting in progress

I found this impossible to answer, so I wrote a short play in which two very different women have to share a studio. They don’t get on, although they do respect each other’s processes. Gloria, the painter, is full of exclamations about the wonder of nature. She gets on Edith’s nerves. Edith, the misunderstood poet, is introverted and terse. She can sometimes be soothed with a nice coffee and home made cookie from Gloria. I sent the play to Dan, and for fun added this photograph taken of Gloria and Edith on one of the rare occasions when they were in the studio together.

Gloria the painter & Edith the poet

For now, I, London Sophie, have a few things to sort out between now and the reading. Hope to see you there.

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.

Zoom Collage Industry

My usual methods of teaching are often materials based. I give people assorted random bits of writing to bounce off, and I tip up huge bags of assorted hoarded scraps, and ask them to choose colours, respond and make things. ‘Use your greedy eyes!’ is one of my favourite invitations at the outset.

Some of my collage scrap bags, snapped from above

I love to watch the action. There’s collective energy in the room and it crackles over all our tables as we search for the right thing, to make a thing we don’t even know about yet.

From a circus art workshop last summer at the V & A Museum

I wander around, as the hum of concentration settles over students/artists. Arms stretch up into space to tear escape hatches from red paper, cautious scissors snip new shapes from crumpled old gossip, eyes are lowered as poems are read and read again, pencils are sharpened to their holiest purpose: underlining.

One of the classes from before times at the Royal Drawing Schools studios in Shoreditch.

The last two Tuesdays however, I had to get 22 students through a day of collage and poetry where we were just an assortment of disembodied heads, and where each person had been asked to muster their own scraps.

This was a short course in which myself and fellow painter Rosie Vohra, taught two days each, called Drawing, Poetry and Collage, at a virtual version of The Royal Drawing School.

For a totally 2020 sentence, what about: ‘Sophie, my broadband went, could you assign me a new breakout room?’ (My tight lipped answer – straight from the 80s: ‘hmm, I’ll see what I can do’)

Yes, a new language to learn, and alien teaching devices: being made ‘the host’, creating breakout rooms for tutorials, uploading resources to Padlet, checking the chat column for questions, screen sharing, speaker view, muting myself at lunch!

Physical consideration & collaboration: Children in Hull, during our National Poetry Day mini residency there in 2017.

I liked that we could make every aspect of the course into a virtual collage. The resources & reading lists which went on the Padlet page could be put on by Rosie and I, in a free formation of video attachments and web links and other handy references, built up according to whim as well as theme. Just the teaching itself: a base support of exercises suggested by Rosie, followed by additional thought-shapes from me, layered with ideas manifested by the students, more input from Rosie, the world, me…

The students could upload their work onto an adjacent gallery page, and share the interesting techniques they were discovering, separate and far flung across this collaged world. Also on the plus side, we had a wonderfully wide reach, with students in Ireland, South Africa, France and Germany, as well as all over the UK. All of us were stuck indoors somewhere, and glued, with the PVA of learning, to our screens.

What pleased me in the end, was that concentration and the desire to make analogue creative experiments – did manage to transcend the dreary flatness of the screen, and that between us, there was a very real, if temporary, community built, just by sharing poetry, ideas, work.

One morning between my Tuesdays I walked over to Clapham with my daughter & went to get a takeaway coffee in my mask. ‘You’re my teacher!’ said the barista. ‘Really?!’ I said, ‘but look at you. You’re so… so… three dimensional! Arms legs, everything!’ – ‘you too!’ she rejoindered. Had being online excessively dulled my imagination or fostered it?

Teachers in Hull practice writing & collage exercises ahead of National Poetry Day 2017

Either way, it’s a different way of looking and engaging, and hopefully learning like this will enrich the process, for when we come back to the physical, as well as imaginary, spaces we use and create by making and teaching art.

 

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

What’s the difference between an Artist’s Residency and Social Isolation?

Newest painting, in which flowers multiply at a greater speed even than viral droplets.

Since I last wrote, the world has joined me in retreat. My residency has changed, from having been a rare opportunity for me to make work away from my usual roles and pressures: family and projects, it has now become a space in which I am marooned from these, and must consider what my distance means from another perspective.

I can still paint and draw and write. In fact, I must. This is the first time I’ve been paid a regular stipend to just inhabit a studio and make work. But I’m necessarily encountering new themes, with the world in pandemic mode. How to be locked down & yet remain open enough to respond- how to not actually shut down?

In a Casual Voice, a new COVID-19 related index card poem.

‘Stay there! Stay well!’ Insists our wise daughter, ‘London is chaos!’ She is socially isolating at home in Brixton with a cousin, a friend and our dog and cat. Although I really, really miss her, and our son, who remains at his special college with an incredible care and support team, practically, if we came back now it would be a greater risk to our health and theirs.

We speak to the kids every day, so thank god for technology. We were really happy when our son rushed off FaceTime to see a goat give birth on the farm where he lives.

I say ‘our’ because Adam is here too. He took study leave from work so that he could base himself here for a bit, and the corona virus has meant that it is safer for him to stay until the risks of travel begin to abate.

Obviously the social side of the residency has been curtailed. The libraries are closed, the salons crossed from the diary, readings cancelled. Efforts are being made to still engage with other artists here online, credit to residency manager Dan Schifrin again for being patient & setting up interesting conversations on zoom.

A blizzard like this – from the COVID-19 series

London poet friend Amy Key found her trip to the AWP in Texas was no longer viable due to the first wave of cancellations over the virus. Luckily for us she diverted to Berkeley for a few days which included making the most delicious aubergine parmigiana I’ve ever tasted. Here’s a painting I did of her on her last night here.

Amy with Anemones

Also before shut down, I had a great meeting and conversation with Peter Maravelis from City Lights , about the possibility of doing a book and an event with them, which would be, will be, a great thrill. He had many innovative ideas about the way forward for books and booksellers in a changing world. It looks like I might have to come back!

Incidentally, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, who set up City Lights, was 101 this week. May poetry, art, books and ideas keep us all in such excellent nick.

Freesias growing in profusion, previously only known to me as sparse treats in cellophane.

Berkeley in spring is not a bad place to be stuck. Leggy freesias spill across sidewalks, camellias simmer in crimson and pink, tossing their crumpled silk hankies to the ground, wisteria knots itself up with jasmine all over clapboard houses floating perfume harmonies onto the empty air. There’s hardly anyone around. The architecture makes me sigh.

Camellia scrunchies

The sense of scale that’s always interested me has taken on new meaning here, this huge country, this global illness, the distance home, how can I accommodate these big things in my little eyes?

So I try and ‘see a world in a grain of sand’, or magnify the prehistoric looking succulents that cover front yards here, until their bold structures tower over the straggling pedestrians in my paintings.

New painting: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Detail from: Museum of Mistakes and Ideas
Painting: Old Europe takes a walk in the New World

Or I cut tiny phrases from broken and discarded books and release these onto airy pastel coloured cards where they can tap-dance away from their cramped former paragraphs.

Garnish calamities – from the COVID-19 series.

Two of the index card poems may soon be available as limited edition screen prints via a supportive initiative called The Off Cut Project set up by brilliant Suki Hayes Watkins at The Print Block, her studio in Whitstable.

Talking of scale, here I am in a redwood forest. These trees are the very emblem of survival, literally encompassing the scars of fires they’ve withstood, and growing steadily upwards forever. This one is over a thousand years old. Breathing in their scented stillness I felt that perhaps we humans really might be able to create a sounder future.

Some books I’ve found here are much too wonderful to cut up. One of these is a kid’s book from 1952 called Let’s Look at the Sky! by Marie Neurath. It’s printed in stunning pre digital luminosity with spot colour. It engages with the scale of the universe – and like the redwoods, it makes plain the paradox we must live with: that we are both tiny and monumental. And how, tiny as we are, what we choose to do from one moment to the next, has a tangible effect on each other and the world.

The final page in ‘Let’s Look at the Sky!’ By Marie Neurath, (1952)

On that note, redwood-sized solidarity & kindest wishes, especially to anyone struggling with health, cash flow, isolation or all three. Thanks for reading this, and for all your actions that contribute to the planet mending that needs to happen next.

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!

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.

Sixty Lovers to Make and Do

Cut out lettering for book cover (but not actual book cover.)
First cover rough

One of my favourite things to do on holiday is to drift about in secondhand bookshops.

Single author collections (alphabetical! detail!)

There’s often good contemporary poetry in charity shops which is heartening and disheartening at the same time, great for fixing holes in my spookily well organised poetry book case though.

Other books I collect are often more elusive, being older, usually early and mid twentieth century publications, fairy tales and activity books.

A few from my fairy tale collections collection

Old activity books, with their dry yet perky instructions for practical creativity also speak of magic and transformation, with a resourceful kind of innocence.

some of my wonderful 20th century activity books

The combined inspiration of these three types of book is behind my new collection of poems that’s about to go to press.

Called 60 Lovers To Make and Do, it is a sequence of poems in which women characters create their own lovers from stuff they find lying about at home or at work. The sixty women all have different jobs which give the poems their titles, and sometimes the lovers they manifest connect with these.

A sneak preview of a few of the poems from 60 Lovers to Make and Do

It’s a homage to the female artist in all of us, as well as to the imagination and to loneliness.

I was delighted that David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, wanted to publish the sequence, as they are artists like me, and always design their books as if each one is a new invention.

I have been making a new type of collage/papercut to accompany the poems, but not illustrate them. For these I have been concentrating on finding and releasing invisible lovers from pages in old magazines and books.

Lovers in a minimal interior
verily a floating knave

There are also images made with collaged words in addition to the salvaged images – some works with just found words and no image, there’s even a bit of drawing.

Mystery female hat prop collage

Working with the Henninghams has been brilliant, they helped think of how to structure the book – suggesting a seasonal approach, like a book of hours.

We all spent a day in the V and A looking in the library as well as at the collection, riffing off the many exquisite and surprising objects, and marvelling at how medieval people made pages with so many dimensions, what we could take from their inventive text handling…

I cut out another type of newspaper collage for the seasonal dividers – here’s an example of one: winter.

Winter lovers cut from mourners

This picture is cut from a newspaper photo of the crowds of mourners at George V’s funeral in 1936.

Henningham Family Press ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign to supplement some Arts Council funding for the book, which means there can be really beautiful duotone reproductions of the collages, as well as an additional colour within its pages. I’d like to thank Gemma Seltzer at Kickstarter, and everyone who supported the book, and preordered a copy through this.

If you would like to order a copy of the book, it will be easy to buy direct from henninghamfamilypress.co.uk from September, as well as by ordering it at your local bookshop. Do please come to the launch party –

Tuesday 17th September at the Cinema Museum 6:30-9, with a reading at 8.

hopefully there’ll be enough room for lots of us, even with our real or imaginary friends and lovers.

The Electric Nothing