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.

Blake manifests on his own local station

Poet Anna Robinson hosts a monthly programme on Soho Radio called The Poetry Parlour, in which guests are invited to read work and discuss interesting poetic questions live on air.

I spent a very fun hour in the bijou radio studio on Great Windmill Street on Friday, with Anna and Blake scholar Dr David Worrall, talking about William Blake – as a child of Soho, visionary Londoner and all round majestic influence.

We also each got to pick a song to go with the subject, and read a couple of pieces of work. You’ll have to listen via the link below if you’re curious, but here’s a clue, one poem I read was from The Practical Visionary , and the other was a brand new one written over the last month when I lived in a castle, as a lucky recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship.

Listen here:  William Blake in the Poetry Parlour

Thanks so much for having me Anna, for the pretend studio tea (in real pretend cracked floral teacups) and the real hardcore coffee to follow, needed to propel me to a necessary browse at wonderful new bookshop The Second Shelf, in nearby Smiths Court.

As a comedown from the fully catered Scottish castle life, I recommend chatting about Blake & books with nice people in Soho as a good first step!

Poets in Colour

William Blake was happy to sit for me in Lambeth

I have finished this phase of the poetry 101 commission for The Poetry Foundation in Chicago – and now all my portraits of the essential poets they asked me to draw are up online.

If you search the names below with 101 next to them, you’ll find a brand new picture of them by me, a biography and essay about their work and context, and at least five sample poems with a critical analysis.

Here are the poets I’ve drawn since I last wrote about this.

June Jordan

W B Yeats

James Wright

Nikki Giovanni

William Blake

William Carlos Williams

John Donne

Joy Harjo

William Wordsworth

John Ashbery

Edward Thomas

Robert Duncan

John Ashbery, himself a fantastic collagist.

Its been wonderful to have been able to contribute to this free and inspired educational resource. This last batch included several poets whose work I already knew and loved – and a few whose poetry was new to me and gave me a chance to extend my reading and put in research time, which in turn has really fed my writing.

Trying to forge connections between the poets own use of language and themes, and the colours, textures and materiality of the scraps in their collage backgrounds- has been exciting – a good excuse to get lost in the space between pictures and words.

I’ve also relished a return to observational drawing and this work has led me to other commissions and reinvigorated my love for thinking in and about colour.

I hope to exhibit all 30 original portraits one day in the USA or here, meanwhile they’re out there on one of the most informative and interesting websites in the universe! Do subscribe, you’ll have fresh poems in your inbox daily!

Thanks for the gig The Poetry Foundation.

James Wright
Joy Harjo

3 huge drawings in a small sweet shop, 100 little drawings in a vast warehouse: a couple of shows.

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.

Neighbourhood of Stories

Madam Europa

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…

 

Tate Modern

Today is the final day of a surreal and wonderful week in my life as an artist.

100 of my ink drawings are up at Tate Modern.

They are part of a residency/take over at Tate Exchange , a public engagement area set aside on level 5 of the Blavatnik building.

A selection of my project ‘Stories collected live in ink’ is there thanks to Wasafiri Magazine in which I’m featured artist this issue.

Wasafiri is a journal of international contemporary writing and is based at Queen Mary University London.

Queen Mary was offered the weeks residency to showcase some of the many cultural programmes that are based there.

This current issue of Wasafiri explores the theme of refuge, with essays, fiction and poetry from global voices on the subject. It’s been guest edited by Bidisha, and I was honoured to read at the launch at Tate on Friday, and participate in a panel with Bidisha and fellow poets Olumide Popoola and Lisa Luxx.

Part of the remit for artists taking part in activities at Tate is that we should do a 10 minute talk in front of a work we choose in the collection.

This really exercised me, so many incredible paintings that I love and grew up on. But for the sheer bravado of it I chose Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann

I also did a two hour story collecting session – which was a blast: intense yet joyful as ever.

One of the great thrills of this opportunity has been to put the voices of all kinds of people into a space where they might not normally be heard, and to create a new set of ‘neighbours’ in displaying the drawings made with people from Southall, Liverpool, Northamptonshire, Devon, Brixton, and many other places next to each other.

I chose these 100 stories from my big archive boxes in the studio in which I have about 1200 drawings collected over the last decade. I decided on home as my theme, so that I could include very ‘settled’ narrations as well as the sometimes difficult stories of people more recently arrived. I wanted to reflect the cosy ways in which we create home for ourselves even perhaps fleetingly, on the road, or the impossibility of that comfort sometimes in long term situations!

Above all I love the collective of recognition such an exhibition creates, I’ve been touched to see people look at the drawings and cry. And amazing feedback such as this!

These pictures are records of real subjective feeling, often described as metaphor or fact to me, who subjectively aims to honour and depict them. It’s all true! Subjectively true.

And of all the extraordinary twists: I find myself (like Marcia the security guard below, I never thought I would) ‘at home’ in Tate Modern!