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.

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