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!

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.