Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

BM05, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm (2)

BM05, ‘The Cabin from the beach’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

After my last entry which was somewhat concerned with the Bucks Mills venue and its interior decay, I showed a few examples of the Pebbles. This series amounted to some 30 sketches and subsequently has developed work in the studio where I am able to work up the drawings both in technique and scale. Below are two examples:

Pebble series 30, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series #30, Oil pastel on silk art paper 32 x 45cm

pebble-series-31-oil-pastel-on-silk-paper-32-x-45cm.jpg

Pebble series #31, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

But the coastline was compelling both on the small and large scale. So here is some of the other work done there. As mentioned before, I felt the urge to disappear into the woodland: 66 steps both east and west, up and down a steep climb. There were some overgrown steps on the western side; coming down first time I did an ungainly skidding swallow dive coming down painfully on my left wrist. Fortunately no lasting harm done and not my main drawing hand. It wasn’t this that deterred me from going back there time and again, it was realising that I can study woodland to my heart’s content at home and that it was the coastline which was the whole point of me being here.

BM06 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM06, ‘Woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM02, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

BM02, ‘Tree trunks’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

At first I was inspired by ‘Bideford Black’ (a pigment historically mined just up the coast http://bidefordblack.blogspot.co.uk/p/history.html) to work in monochrome and while this was satisfying I felt unable to get the quality of the limpid light. Though I did try and these are some B&W sketches.

BM15, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM15, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM01, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM01, ‘Coast westward towards Clovelly’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM18, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM18, ‘Coast eastward to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

After to some extent abandoning this rather artificial monochrome constraint, I did do more work in and around the woodlands in the company of my parasitic arachnid friends…

BM10, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM10, ‘Edge of woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23x32cm

… but concentrated thereafter on the cliffs and shoreline.

BM11, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm (2)

BM11, ‘Cliffscape’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm (2)

BM04, ‘Coast east to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM13, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM13, ‘The red cliff’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM08, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM12, ‘Vegetated cliffs’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

I have subsequently been developing the Pebble series because of its enormous possibilities. I’ll post some of this work later and hope also to show some paintings from these same sources before too long.

 

 

 

 

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Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Two weeks of intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. “Majestic”? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with very little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an “Artists Retreat”. I should have liked it to have been both: a residency and a retreat. It was neither really: one couldn’t reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the continual footfall of visitors past the door made “retreat” impossible, at least for me.

Let me hastily qualify the above criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. Deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles is very difficult but there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing of some of the furnishings: the carpet and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the cabin interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I’m sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was “original” and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users – and not, I’m sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to, in honour of their provenance – ultimately to disappear completely – or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a ‘time capsule’? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

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The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk art paper in self-made ‘sketchbooks’. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock’s intuition – instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I’m looking forward to that. I will post more results soon. Please leave comments, I will greatly value them.

Pebble series 15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32X45cm (6)

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series 13, Watercolour 23x33cm

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

Pebble series 06, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 01, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

Pebble series 04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm

Bucks Mills Artists’ Cabin, North Devon

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Bucks Mills Artists’ Cabin, North Devon.

Judith Ackland, a Bideford girl, and Mary Stella Edwards formed a great artistic partnership after meeting as students. They travelled from London and spent months every year in The Cabin, Bucks Mills, hanging on the spectacular North Devon coast south of Clovelly. In 1948 they eventually managed to buy it, for £625.

Ackland-Edwards

Judith Ackland (L) and Mary Stella Edwards at Bucks Mills.

The National Trust gained ownership of The Cabin in 2008 and began a series inviting artists to take up residency for a short period of time. This to include ‘Open Days’ (17-18th: 10.00-14.00) on which the public can gain access to The Cabin’s interior. I feel very honoured to be selected as ‘Artist in Residence’ this year, and from June 12 to the 23rd and most days will be there or in the surrounding countryside, depending on the weather. Please come on the Open Days if you can and feel free to disturb me at any other time (if you are able to find me!).

 

 

Ackland-Edwards0

This collection is held at The Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Bideford from where you can buy a superb booklet about it.

As The National Trust say A rare opportunity to see inside this tiny artists retreat which has been left largely untouched since the 1970’s. Last used by renowned artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards, the cabin is exactly as they left it over 40 years ago and remains a hidden gem in the pretty coastal village of Bucks Mills. Meet with the current artist in residence, and learn about how they’ve been inspired by this artistic heritage.

Inspired by these two ladies, I plan to be drawing mostly with oil pastels in black but also colour on the special silk paper I love to use. I’m sure mine will be nothing like their delicate work but I hope the spirit and history of the area will somehow transmute to me.  I also hope to be able to post some results of this tenure after the residency is over. If nothing appears you’ll know I’ve failed abysmally.

The Burton Gallery is a marvellous venue in Bideford, doing important conservation work with this collection. The gallery is currently hosting the annual Westward Ho! and Bideford Art Society summer show in which I have these two paintings: Almond grove in Andalucia and Study of anemones (after Vassyl Khmeluk).

The Children Who Wouldn’t…

the-children-who-cover

After writing and having published a dozen adult non-fiction books (mainly under another name), a few years ago I published my first children’s adventure story. I now thought to serialise it here in anticipation of publishing the sequel which I’ve already written and for which I’m doing some illustrations.

I’m still painting and  see writing as tangental and very relevant to it – which becomes more clear as the story progresses.

The original Children Who Wouldn’t is available for a staggering 99p (http://getbook.at/TheChildrenWho or ID: BD00EDNBDSS on Amazon searches).

I’d be very grateful for any feedback and reviews. Please circulate freely.

Anyway, let’s begin the adventure!

__________________________________________________________________

 

plague-house-island-said-david-quietly-sepia

ONE – SHADOWS OF THE FUTURE

Fuming

When misery turns to anger, weird things can happen.

Once, years before on a winter’s day, Sammy had watched the sea, angry as hell, erupt from a clifftop. Great spouts of surf flung high into a battering wind – the whole thunderous din pierced by gulls shrieking hysterically. The gulls seemed to turn into tattered white rags, hurled about like baby ghosts gone mad.

That must have been when she had both grown up and got let down. For instead of writhing on the ground like red hot lava boiling out of a volcano, gobbets of frothy ocean lolled about on the cliff top, getting caught up in the grass and scrub. It reminded her of when Dummy had overfilled the washing machine and suds spewed out all over the kitchen floor! That had been funny…

But that was then. Now, nothing was normal, or funny, any more. Energy, that stuff that makes you angry, was infested with misery. So there she sat, scowling at the sea – not wild anymore but sprawling far below, dead calm, smothered by a duvet of heavy air. It had a buttery look as though you could spread it on bread. But ‘peaceful’? No, Sammy couldn’t be fooled. It was smirking, more like, and still the demon breathed quietly on.

So think of something else! Perhaps she could see beneath the surface? Into that black nightmare world where terrible things slid or crawled or floated or just hung motionless – as though on wires that you couldn’t see. The ocean, she decided, was massive and irritable – a bit like her school – full of cowards and bullies. Right now, deep down, it waited. Anyone could see that. And Sammy knew it, and she knew something else: that nightmares begin with dreams. And her best dream, begun years ago, had turned bad.

But how was this possible – bathed in daylight here on Eyrie Rock – with her twin brother, David? They were perched on a ledge which was high, narrow, hidden and dangerous – all things which seemed good just then.

Air thick as grease smeared their hair. The island’s spirit guardian had become a monster. David was more sullen than angry, or simply not letting it show. Grouchy in his own black mood, he gave the tiniest shrug when Sammy suggested the serpent was near. If everything else was wrong, why not this? Could a spirit, a friendly serpent, become a demon? Just one more thing to worry about.

Being born at the same time, nearly eleven years ago, was where the similarity usually ended. Now though, they stared out together, across the lagoon towards the other twins – the two Giants – dimly aware of the tide going out. The sea was swallowing itself into itself so that a smattering of rocks and smaller islets came peeking up through a dazzle of glittering crisscross creases, as if silver turquoise paper had been scrunched up and flattened out again.

The Giants were the biggest of the little off-islands. Not really big but their craggy heads would stay above the surface when the tide slunk in again, and the sea would lick the hems of the dull green shawls of vegetation which now fidgeted slightly in the spirit breath.

No-one lived on those islands. Did they?

Sammy sighed, her straw-coloured hair curtaining wide eyes which now and then glistened. Sometimes, light would catch her cheekbones, making her face shine; her chin too – a chin which in normal times, was well capable of saying ‘push-off’, but, as we have seen, now was not one of those times. Suddenly, not looking at her brother, she muttered, ‘Those pole things… What are they? What… what d’you… Do you think…’ Her voice stammered out into stagnant air, with nowhere to go.

David, hair floppier, darker, was usually more serious – solemn almost, you might say. At last he grunted, ‘Locos, innit? Gotta be,’ before adding under his breath, ‘Creeps… muggers… saddos!

‘Uh?’ Sammy prompted, glad of the response, of any response. ‘Shadows? What shadows? What for though?’

‘Oh, how’d I know? Peggin’ out new fields… Or summat.’

Sammy kicked a stone off the ledge. It didn’t go rattling and bounding down the cliff in a satisfying way but got stuck in some grass. ‘Lots already,’ she said.

‘Well, I dunno. Buildin’ something then.’ How’d I know?’ he repeated.

‘Must be big.’

‘Look, don’t think about it, right?’ David shrank back into himself. He wasn’t going to visit or even think about The Refuse. In lighter days, it was the name they had given to a secret place forgotten and ignored by the local islanders [who they called ‘locos’ for short – something they had thought terribly funny in the old days.] Now it was forgotten no longer, and the twins had lived long enough to know what that meant.

The Leighwards

This year, they had come earlier than usual – the Leigh family. But otherwise it was as it had always been. Each year their mum and dad went without loads of things to save the money to make IT possible. ‘It’ was a pilgrimage. And every time, as though released from a bully, Sammy and David with Jojo and Freddy – their younger sister and brother – sped to The Refuse. It was always the first thing they did.

But this time, instead of finding a special place waiting patiently – bursting with possibility, buzzing with insects, studded with flowers – they were stopped dead in their tracks by poles stabbed into the ground – painted in garish red and white hoops, so you couldn’t miss them. The world darkened then, and something died.

When scouts from two opposing armies stumble up against each other, do they fight or run? Maybe, as now, they just stand and gawp at each other, speechless. Nothing moved – no animal, no living thing of any kind. High spirits dashed and pinned to the ground, just like the stakes in the short turf where the rabbits grazed. It had to be some evil design of man. They just knew it.

From then on, gloom ruled. The serpent watched and waited. If The Refuse was doomed, so was the whole damned place. Damned, indeed! A sanctuary for years – ever since they first came to the islands which trailed the sea and glistened, as though left behind by a giant water snail. They called these islands The Leighwards; nothing else, EVER.

And they never told anyone that the islands were probably the Lost Land of Lyonesse or, even, Atlantis. This special one they called ‘Balerium’, to keep it different from viz-speak and make it their own. For sure, it was the finest hiding place in the world. The best way of avoiding jobs, forgetting school, being nice to neighbours and relatives, and all that.

Now it was different: Easter not summer, and the spirit breathed danger when once it seduced. So, that was it, enchantresses could be bad as well as good.

Not being Outsiders

Now, it is a known fact that oceans mingle all over the world, swapping bits of life and information, and like a moat round a castle, they protect as well. This was why a few scrawny wind-bashed Elm trees had survived the deadly plague that, years before, had killed off their cousins back home. High over Freddy’s head, breathed on by the same spirit, thin leafy branches dashed the sky into messages as weird and unreadable as those coming from the sea; flickering like a TV gone wrong.

Freddy lay back and squinted through half-closed eyes. It seemed to make things clearer. Glistening points of light danced and joined into weird shapes, moving across the blood‑red screen of his eyes, and reminding him of cars in the distance picked out by the sun glinting on glass and polished metal.

Then his brow creased in puzzlement, and turning over, he propped himself up on his elbows, freckly face dominated by green, curious eyes. ‘Hoi!’ he demanded loudly of his sister, who at nine was exactly a year and a half older. ‘How many times we been here before?’

Jojo’s hair was longer and darker than Sammy’s. It forked down either side of her forehead, touching the corners of eyes that one day would mince boys’ hearts. ‘Where?’ she scowled, scarcely moving, brooding sulkiness.

‘Here,’ said Freddy. ‘This island. This one of course.’

‘Dunno. Why? Four maybe?’ Jojo moved slightly. ‘Mad’s been here more.’ [They had once muddled up the names for their parents – Dad had become Mad or something similar – Maddy, Mud or Muddy. It had been their Mum’s misfortune to become Dum or Dummy. Together they were the Elders or Elderleighs or other things, as we’ll see.]

Freddy persisted. ‘So how many times before you’re not a viz anymore?’ [vizare visitors, who come in the summer.]

Jojo continued to smoulder behind closed eyes. ‘You always will be ’cos you weren’t born here,’ she said.

‘That’s stupid,’ pressed on Freddy, regardless.

‘So what if it is?’

Freddy took a run at it. ‘Well if I came here when I was a day old and never went away and died when I was a hundred I wouldn’t be a stranger would I?’

‘No, you’d be dead.’

Freddy glared at her. ‘Look, be serious.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, do I? I told you, the locos’d say so.’ Jojo eased her eyes open, taking in the leafy roof. ‘At home, your Mum and Dad and theirs and theirs all have to be born there.’

‘Still stupid,’ grumbled Freddy. ‘I could be more loco than them.’ Jojo closed her eyes again. ‘They go away and don’t come back.’

‘Good. Why don’t you?’

‘OK, I will, then,’ said Freddy jumping up. ‘Where’re the others?’

‘Oh, go and find them.’

‘Will then,’ repeated Freddy, creeping away on all fours. Soon a stone jabbed his knee and he ran off crouching through the trees.

Threats and Murmurs

A few insects, groggy on an early bloom of spring flowers, stumbled around Eyrie Rock on wings not yet quite up to a summer’s work. The twins scarcely noticed. But what they did see was a huge misty sun slipping down the sky, and they knew that somewhere else it would brighten a new day, while here it just meant darkness. The dying rays slanted across the lagoon picking out tips of tiny wavelets, flickering messages, Sammy guessed, from souls lost far below.

Waves of creamy sound ebbed and flowed in crevices, as the sea monster stroked some far-off beach. That was when Sammy first heard the whispering, like someone lazily sweeping a wet concrete floor far away behind bushes, as though it ‘Sswashed’ up shingle, dragging it back with a ‘swaaaah’ noise. At first it was dim but then louder and nearer: “WOSHhhh ‑ WAAaaah”.

‘Hear that?’ Sammy said. ‘A cry or something? Someone’s calling!’

‘Nah,’ muttered David. ‘Just the sea.’ Then he heard another sound. ‘Don’t look. We’re being watched!’

*

Left alone, Jojo relaxed and opened her eyes, gazing upwards through the filter of swaying branches. She too thought she heard a voice, plaintive, far away, calling someone’s name but she hunched her shoulders and closed everything out again. Alone with her thoughts in the wood with the dappled sunlight, the warmth and zither of insects lured her into sleep. So she never saw the tiny bird creep through the branches and peer at her with its head cocked on one side. Nor, surprisingly, did she hear the burst of piercing song it sang at her.

*

David’s voice sounded bored. ‘Oh, c’mon, do you think we don’t know you’re there?’

A lump of pinkish granite appeared to speak, ‘Rats,’ it said. ‘How?’

Sammy’s voice was flat. ‘You need to be cleverer than that. Don’t come near the edge.’

Freddy flumped down, cheeks red and blotchy from his climb up Eyrie Rock. He’d pushed through furze and bracken, dodged behind boulders and skirted vicious brambles. ‘What you doing? Can I have an ice-cream?’

Sammy was about to snap but relented and glanced at David. ‘Go to the store, I suppose? Before it closes. Try and see what’s going on?’

Yeah,’ Freddy urged. ‘Come on! Get ice-creams.’

‘Where’s Jo?’ said David.

‘Miles away,’ Freddy shouted, already clambering back down the hill.

Come on,’ said Sammy. ‘She’ll be OK. Get her one too. Shove it in the fridge.’

Mrs. Bell’s Lair

The store was also the post‑office and everything else of everyday importance on the island. It squatted at the far eastern end like a fat cat. David and Sammy slouched along the mile or so of narrow road built ages ago by prisoners‑of‑war, bleached concrete pitted and weedy, scarcely wide enough for the few clapped out old cars and vans which were no longer safe for the race-track roads back home.

Here the fastest thing was the occasional early swallow looping overhead chasing weak-winged insects. Granite hunks, piled up into thin walls, reeled and tottered off into the distance. Waxy bright yellow flowers winked from emerald blades of grass in the verges. The earth was warming, buds were plumping and deep in the debris of years gone by, autumn rains had brewed goodness, fermenting old leaves into fresh life. Mysterious scents seeped up to sweeten the rancid breath of the playground bully.

And so as the Earth mother was giving birth to the child of a new summer, clouds gathered overhead merging into a veil through which the sun grinned wickedly. Even so, Freddy ran from side to side like a puppy off its leash, every now and then stopping to squint through the straggly walls. He saw rows of long narrow fields, arranged, not like his favourite football team’s red and white stripes but green and chestnut brown.

Each field was bordered by wind-raked dusty hedges which towered over the stone walls. Sammy thought these walls were supposed to keep stock in (or out) but surely any half-decent cow could rub its rear end on one and send the whole lot tumbling down like rows of domino teeth in need of a dentist. Actually, livestock was tethered and she’d been told that the hedges were there to provide shelter from the wind for the early spring flowers which still helped to give some of the islanders a living. She preferred to think of a lazy cow leaning on them.

Mrs Bell was franking stamps on early season postcards. No automatic machines here, she did it all herself, clattering and banging as though each stamp was not the Queen’s head but someone she really hated. Glancing up as they came in, she resumed her banging. The store was empty save for a tall thin man with grey hair and a short beard. He was no ordinary viz and checked them over before returning to a shelf of old books – the sort you see in charity shops. Sammy never found the book she wanted in those shops but reckoned his bright eyes, narrow, tucked in either side of a beak‑like nose would do much better.

David got the four smallest, cheapest ices he could find deep in the deepfreeze, and dug almost as deeply in his pocket for the remains of money lurking there amongst sand and bits of screwed up paper. Ice cream was better than sticky coins.

He said, as casually and politely as he could, ‘Um, excuse please but, er, do you know what’s happening on the other side of the island?’

What! Where’s that m’dear?’ said Mrs Bell in a voice as loud and ringing as her name seemed to demand.

David only just stopped himself from saying The Refuse, stammering instead, ‘The… er, the other end, you know? By the old quay?’

Why, that’ll be ’e new ‘otel,’ said Mrs Bell giving back two small brown coins that seemed pointless to own. They wouldn’t buy a ticket to a toilet, let alone a Big Giant. He gazed at them blankly then flashed a startled glance at Sammy.

‘Aye,’ said Mrs Bell, ‘money don’t go so far now’days, do it?’

Um, yes, no,’ muttered David. ‘Thanks.’ He pushed the coins into a charity box on the counter, called Island Development. Fat lot of good (or harm) his contribution would do.

Retreating outside, the three Leighs sat on a low wall and morosely licked their ices. Northwards, the ‘Daymark’, built in the 17th century to guide sailors home, pointed at the sky. It could have been a toddler’s fat pencil, painted in red and white bands… like the poles stuck in The Refuse.

‘Brilliant!’ said David. ‘A sodding great hotel. Smack in the middle of it!’

All over it more like,’ moaned Sammy. Her eyes swung towards the store. From between the shelves the grey man watched. ‘Some Reservation!’

Freddy shrugged. ‘It won’t be one any more, will it?’

‘What?’ snapped David.

Reserved for someone else,’ said Freddy.

Zombies,’ spat David contemptuously. ‘The living dead!’

Rape’n pillage,’ added Sammy.

‘What’s that?’ asked Freddy.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t know,’ snapped Sammy, irritated by his relentless curiosity and good humour. ‘Why would you? People and things ruined. Never the same again.’

Trail of havoc,’ said David. ‘Trampled all over. Spoilt. Knackered.’

‘Could be a nice hotel,’ suggested Freddy.

David turned on him. ‘Don’t be an idiot! It’ll kill what’s there now. It’s “nice” already, and he waggled his fingers as if to imitate a genteel bewildered old lady.

Freddy licked his ice, pondering. ‘Will Jojo be knackered too?’

‘We all will.’

‘What about her ice-cream?’

Sammy flared again then looked at the sagging ice. ‘Won’t get it home in time, will we? Dum says you shouldn’t eat stuff you freeze twice.’

She won’t want it if she’s going to be pillaged,’ observed Freddy.

Oh, jeez, you have it.’

If not Outsiders, what?

On the way back there was a threatening silence. Even Freddy stopped charging about, and a chill wind sprang up. David decided that the sun, in or out, was straight and true while the wind snuck round corners and crept up on you. Good things were like the sun: straight‑forward and honest while troubles came with the wind blowing every-which-way, snatching at you, grabbing handfuls of dust to chuck in your face.

A week ago, before the serpent breath had gone bad, none of this had been possible. The secret reservation – their Refuse – had got used to being abandoned. It was settled and content to be a refuge for rabbits and butterflies.

Now someone had thieving eyes on it. But who?

Back at the cabin, there were no elderleighs but they found Jojo, who, surprisingly, had made a pot of tea. There was not much else, just a few limp biscuits – the sort that always gets left until last. They took the whole sorry feast out onto the patch of rough grass that pretended to be a lawn, and sat or squatted there, avoiding the snaking brambles. At least, thanks to the high hedges and sand dunes beyond, it was sheltered. Over one of the dunes, the Big Giant peered in at them.

Why do hot drinks cool you down more than cold ones?’ asked Jojo innocently.

‘What?’ growled David.

Jojo gazed round blankly. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said. ‘Why you all so miserable?’

Sammy sensed her old enemy Grief lurking nearby. She’d heard God Grief mentioned by her parents during some minor crisis. She didn’t really know who it was but she did know that if you gave it an inch, it took a mile and infected everyone. You had to kill it fast. ‘It’s an opposite,’ she said with phoney brightness. ‘Heats you up so you feel cool afterwards.’ She tried to illustrate the idea, ‘Opposites are good.’

Freddy screwed up his face but Jojo pursued the point, ‘Is that why they come from hot countries like India?’ she said, half remembering some old geography.

‘’Spect so,’ said Sammy. ‘Nature’s like that. Mad’s always on about it.’

‘About what?’ demanded Freddy.

‘Oh, about providing things.’

So man can wreck ’em,’ put in David. ‘Nature’s big mistake, I’ve always said so.’

‘Some men,’ said Sammy.

‘And women,’ said Freddy.

No, men!’ Sammy was certain of this. ‘It’s always men. It’ll be men behind that hotel. See if it isn’t.’

What hotel?’ shrieked Jojo. ‘What are you on about? Tell me!’ So they did and right afterwards she surprised them again by saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to do something.’

And then Sammy saw that this was the best way of crushing God Grief in the same way the post-lady had stamped on the letters. ‘Resistance fighters,’ she said.

‘Like in wars,’ said Freddy.

There was a film about them once. I saw it on TV,’ said Sammy.

Oh, there’s been loads,’ grunted David. ‘But we’ll have no-one on our side, will we? In those films the locals are always on their side and help. This lot’ll be against us.’

You don’t know that,’ said Sammy. ‘Mightn’t be.’

‘’Course they will,’ said David. ‘They’ll want the money’.

From those pillagers?’ said Freddy. ‘You said they robbed us.’

It’s the same thing.’ Sammy said patiently. ‘They’ll trash everything and give us money to keep us quiet. It’s a bribe.’

‘Us?’ said Jojo. ‘You mean them.’

‘Well, that’s it, isn’t it? We don’t know, do we? Are we outsiders or what?’

Neither,’ said David. ‘Something in between.’

What though?’ demanded Jojo.

David shrugged. ‘Not locos ’cos we weren’t born here.’

So we are outsiders,’ said Freddy.

Sammy stood up. ‘So? Come on, got to do something. It’s the only way. See what they really think.’

David snorted. ‘Huh. How?’

Well, we could, er, put up a notice,’ said Sammy desperately. ‘In the store?’

‘A WANTED poster!’ yelled Freddy.

Wanted!’ Jojo chimed in. ‘A thousand pounds for the mugger what’s stealing the island!’

‘Who,’ corrected Sammy, not really caring.

‘Dead or Alive!’ contributed Freddy.

No, just dead!’ said Jojo.

‘We can’t offer a reward or anything,’ said Sammy quietly. ‘We just need to know how people feel.’

‘It’s obvious how they feel,’ said David. ‘No‑one ever goes there so no‑one cares. End of story.’

‘They’ll want the money,’ said Jojo.

Make the island rich,’ chirped Freddy.

Then ruin it,’ said David. ‘So that when viz stop coming and it’s just like everywhere else, they’ll be worse off than ever. How stupid is that?’

They’re stupid,’ spat Jojo. ‘If they build a stupid hotel, I won’t ever come again, ever!’

‘Plenty will,’ said Sammy. ‘New viz.’

‘And still think it’s nice,’ grumbled David.

Anyway, got to try,’ Sammy insisted. ‘Call it research. What Maddy does. You can’t decide about something ’til you find out about it. He says it’s “Knowing what’s what” but it’s research really.’

‘What’ll we put on it?’ said David. ‘This here poster.’

Wanted! Ransom,’ pleaded Freddy.

‘Oh shut up, Fred,’ said Sammy. ‘It’s got to be…’ She searched for the right word.

‘Neutral?’ prompted David. ‘Like a referee.’

‘Sort of. Fair or it’s not worth it.’

‘Look,’ said David. ‘Your idea – you do it.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ said Sammy.

The elderleighs returned so they didn’t talk about it until the next morning. Sammy thought they’d understand but say it was none of their business.

It is though, isn’t it?’ Freddy had said.

Bearded in Bell’s Lair

Later that morning, approaching the post‑office with the poster rolled up in an elastic band, they saw the same grey man from the day before go inside.

‘That’s the guy I told you about,’ said Sammy.

‘Grimbeard!’ whispered Jojo.

‘What?’ demanded David irritably. ‘Who?’

His name is Grimbeard… Sort of grey but serious and wise. Old men with beards are, aren’t they – Gandalf, Dumbledore, you know?’

I can think of some who aren’t,’ muttered David thinking of newspaper photographs he’d seen, but said, ‘Sauron f’rinstance. Anyway, he looks weird. Who cares?’

Hoping the store was not busy they crept inside, and tried to look interested in a row of cereal packets. A man and woman viz were at the counter. Finish and leave before more arrive, why don’t you? Grimbeard, oddly, was at the same shelf as before. Can’t be much to look at there, Sammy thought but decided Jojo was right. He did look all right – kind of dignified and serious, and his hair was not short, as she had thought, but tied back. He wore a long coat and curious sandals.

At long last, the viz left, and Mrs Bell surveyed her new customers.

You ’gain. Two days a‑trot? What now? Not ice-creams again – surely.’ Mrs Bell was going to talk until more viz came. David nudged Sammy. Get on with it. Get it over with. Escape outside. Now, confronted by a real loco, he wasn’t so sure.

Sammy pushed the poster across the counter. ‘Please, can you, er, put this up… in your window?’ She thought she sounded sly.

So what’s all this?’ bellowed Mrs Bell, as though to the whole world. Jojo felt Grimbeard turn his attention towards them. The postmistress was reading the poster. It hadn’t occurred to David she would do that. Mrs Bell glanced up at them in surprise. ‘Why, that’s the new hotel. I told ’e so yes’day.’

Oh, yes… Yes, you did. Thanks,’ said Sammy, flustered. ‘But we’d like to know, er, a bit more, you know. Sort of project.’

‘School, is it?’

‘Er, well…’

No, not for school… not really,’ fumbled David before he could stop himself. Damn! That would have been easier and got them outside again quicker. ‘But we need to know a bit more. Kind of important, see?’ he ended lamely.

No, not really,’ grunted Mrs Bell. ‘Don’t expect no harm in it.’ She had served mainlanders too long to say, ‘Ain’t none of your business.’ So instead, she said, ‘I’ll put t’up d’reckly for ’e… No, no need for that m’dear,’ she added, sounding a bit kinder, as Sammy fished in her purse.

Relieved, Sammy said, ‘Oh, thanks.’ Cash was dwindling fast.

‘Yep, thanks a lot,’ beamed David, glad it was over. ‘Sorry to be a nuisance.’

‘All part the service,’ mused Mrs Bell almost to herself as she watched them retreat outside.

Yuk! Made a right googly of that,’ said David. ‘Should’ve guessed she’d read it and want to know why.’

Doesn’t matter, does it? We want people to read it. It’s going up, that’s the main thing. Now just got to wait and see.’

They had less time to wait than they thought, for coming out of the post‑office, and making straight for them was the strange grey man.

 

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

I’ve always believed – when younger, without really understanding why – that paintings breathe. Sculpture too. They are the only art forms where there is a tangible link between maker and beholder. Believe me, paintings talk to you! There is nothing in between: no translator, no intermediary, no signer, in short, no interpreter.

bottles-and-brushes-oil-on-plywood-49-x-73-5cm-2

Bottles and brushes, Oil on plywood 49 x 73.5cm

You confront a real painting (I don’t mean on-line reproductions, postcards or even high quality book illustrations) pretty much exactly as the artist did – at the same distance – as he or she did at the moment when (s)he contemplated the finished work and felt content with it. The visual experience is the same: you breathe on it in the same way and it responds. This is demonstrably not the case with music, film or writing for any medium – all of which require an intermediary and very often several or even a team. You are only reading this because it’s been through several machines.

This is all fine but an exhibition of paintings is a two-way thing. A meaningless exercise if one half of the equation is missing. It is unbalanced, there is no conversation. Paintings without people, talk to themselves or merely stare bleakly at each other across the void.

img_0415-3A corner of the gallery

The painter provides the paintings, the gallery provides the space, and both parties promote it as best they can. That’s how it works; the only way it can work. If a painter spends years in oblivion wrestling work out of heart, soul and mind, he can legitimately feel disappointed if the gallery falls short.

This is the second year running I’ve been let down by a gallery. Not tuppeny-ha’penny galleries but pukka ones. The exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland suffered from poor gallery publicity before and during the event. As artists, we did all we could: half-page illustrated articles in quality regional and local journals but both galleries did very little. Why that should be must be the subject for another time.  Nevertheless, those visitors who did attend were enthusiastic; words like “stunning”, “vibrant” and “expressive” cropping up in the Visitors’ Book but during most of my attendances, the gallery was often empty. Stairs from the busy shop and café one floor down appeared to be an obstacle too far. To be fair, there was little incentive from the Arts Centre – not the box office, shop or counter – to encourage movement beyond the caffe lattes.

wedding-carnations-oil-on-mdf-46x61cmWedding carnations, Oil on MDF 46x61cm

This was particularly depressing because we were in an Arts Centre and not a café. I felt sorry for my paintings and for Eilean’s terrific sculptures in having little or no human company. They felt neglected. Most artists need interaction with their audience. Imagine live theatre or an orchestra playing to an empty auditorium, or an important football game before no spectators. You cannot expect anyone to be at their best.  In a previous life, I’ve been a cinema projectionist several times, and occasionally had to show films – usually in matinees – to literally one or two aged people. Even though technically it made no difference to putting on a good ‘performance’, it always felt a tad futile.

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms.jpgSweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms

At its most elemental level, art – painting and sculpture – is as much a part of show-business as anything else. People look at paintings to be uplifted, thrilled, enthralled, perplexed, surprised or, if they are of a more educated mind, perhaps technically intrigued. [I will not use the word ‘challenged’ in this context.]

Above are two versions of a Study of anemones after Vassyl Khmeluk. I fell in love with the original of this painting from a tiny reproduction in a newspaper. Khmeluk (1903-86) was a Russian painter who has for me become a favourite (see previous post That loving feeling.  Copying this got me back into painting after my Blighty Girls experience last year (see previous post My dear blighty girls). The anemones remain favourite paintings despite or perhaps because of that difficult time. It was, technically, an intriguing exercise which I hoped might rub off on visitors. Two people did indeed tell me (unsolicited) that they were their favourite paintings but otherwise I noticed little engagement with the more ‘challenging’ paintings throughout September at The Plough Arts Centre in North Devon.

Daffodils in blue glass - horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm.JPGDaffodils in blue glass – horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm

Since very few people reading this will have got to the show, I’ll include some photos to give an idea of the venue and exhibition. It was an opportunity for me to show some of my ‘still-life’ studies. In my naivety I thought it the most ‘commercial’ of the three exhibitions I’ve had at The Plough Arts Centre, but it’s difficult to sell if no-one much comes.

img_0417The Daffodil corner of the gallery

Are we down-hearted?  Yes, I suppose we are a bit, but no doubt something will happen to buck up the spirits: Carry on regardless (now that’s a film I probably showed once!). Actually, something has come along because I’ve just sold my third painting in 12 months to America without any opportunity of them being breathed upon by any of the buyers. Why Americans seem to like my paintings more than the British is a mystery to me.  A gallery owner in Cornwall last  week said that perhaps it was because they felt French (or was it because of my beret?). I love France inordinately but think I have only two paintings there, and I always feel they are more German than French, but maybe not the still-lifes. Any comments?

Apple triptych, Oil on panel 16.5 x 30 cm.jpgApple triptych, Oil on cherry wood panel 16.5 x 30 cm

[Ends]

Toying with a duff idea

 

Toying with a duff idea. Aware of a looming exhibition in September, devoted to still-lifes, I was, in my usual New Year blues, devoid of ideas. My ‘Starts’ had deserted me. These began as a devotion to St. Art, and became my ‘Starts’ – an idea bank where anything lurks that either grabs my attention visually, or is interesting intellectually. This might be literary or scientific – the latter increasingly less so these days.

The visual Starts have never let me down before, and normally Nature provides all the stimulation I need. Well, it would, wouldn’t it, because nature is everything. I rather believe that there is no such thing as a purely ‘abstract’ painting, in the sense that it has no reference to human experience. Even a work that might loosely be said to be from the “Explosion in a paint factory” school obeys certain natural laws. Not understanding laws doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that we don’t understand them.

Anyway, in the germination process, an image – either a photograph, drawing or another work of art – can set up a re-imagining of this in the studio; perhaps some natural phenomenon will spawn a re-creation. Or it might be the sight, maybe no more than a glimpse, of a person (usually female, but that’s a subject for another day) will set me off trying to recreate it with a live model. Other times it is a literary source, perhaps even the line of a poem, a lyric in a song, or an overheard remark, can set off the process.

However, the new year found me lagging. 2015 had been difficult (if I’m honest, most years seem to be difficult). I’d been concentrating on still-lifes and actually feeling quite relaxed, for it was months away and I already had a number of works – including some old ones which I was revisiting. But 2016 rolled in I felt increasingly bereft and a desperate need to be working. There was nothing there. The natural world seemed bleak and uninviting – it wasn’t of course but so it seemed at the time.

Mij, as so often happens, came to my rescue, suggesting some toys of my grand-daughter, Isabelle. This seemed a good idea. I rapidly set up a random composition of some chunky brightly painted wooden toys overseen by a knitted teddy bear to provide a bridge from inanimate to ‘figure’. This was January 3rd. Five weeks later after an increasingly perplexing struggle, I abandoned the idea.

Prove me wrong, why don’t you, but I can’t think of a good original painting which has children’s toys as its main jumping off point (not counting the purely illustrative of course). Why should this be? Eventually, after much head scratching, I came to this conclusion, which I offer for your consideration and possible amusement.

In a nutshell: just as much as a child is not to be messed or interfered with, no more perhaps are its most precious possessions. I found it impossible to wrestle and shape these precious objects into my own image. It became a violation.

Why then do not Chaim Soutine’s paintings of actual children seem ‘wrong’? And indeed, paintings of adults, distorted and wrangled to some perceived identification of character or self-image, why are not they also ‘beyond the pale’?

0a8d77e7e95a4f4ab1143007a1ffc8b8

Chaim Soutine (1853-1943), Girl, Oil on canvas

To me, there is something inviolate about a child’s world. All my interpretations just got farther away from the essence, from the charm of the objects. They refused to be manipulated into something else, something adult. The last of my ‘finished’ attempts, when cropped into abstracted images, weren’t too bad but nothing like what I had wanted.

This idea might have been ‘duff’ in my execution of it, but it gave me much to think about. I wonder if it has you?

These are just some details of the failed painting.

Isabelle’s toys,Oil on canvas 20×30″

That loving feeling. Here’s a pretty fundamental question: why do we do what we do?  If it’s not a job I mean, and Bill Roseberry (Smithsonian Institute) says, “Art is either a career or a vocation, it cannot be both.”  I agree, so what drives passion?  Is that naive?  Maybe, but I challenge you for an answer and, sorry, “Because I enjoy it.” is not good enough!

I ask because I’ve been struggling through mud. Post ‘Blighty Girls’, blues settled on me like a cold shroud. To some extent it was chucked over me by the extraordinary attitude of a gallery (which must remain nameless). It is something to spend years producing a baker’s dozen of, I think, exciting paintings and to give them away free gratis to a damn good cause, and then have a gallery i) not even give you a name check; ii) to produce a poster advertising the show while leaving your name off it; iii) not to mention you on their website but to refer them as “our” paintings; and iv) on social media to thank everyone (even down to local traders) except the poor sodding artist who did the things and whose idea it was! To add insult to injury, when this was pointed out to them by a puzzled purchaser, the gallery responded by saying “If we omitted…”. IF!!! The evidence is plainly there. So that was pretty lame. And just to top it off, when I published a letter of thanks from the charity, I had a furious call from the gallery objecting in the strongest terms to me for doing so. I was and remain flabbergasted. Incidentally, no-one, least of all the charity, can explain it either.

So how does one dig oneself out of a hole without just going deeper into it? For me I try to re-find the passion that drives me to work day-in-day-out for no money, and to deny myself and my family some of the good things which others apparently take for granted. It’s what artists (an over-used and demeaned word, another is ‘genius’) do, because they are driven by a passion that fights vulgarity and work to see money tossed into a bottomless pit.

Survival is sufficient, and even that is threatened at times. From mystified depression not helped by an evil mix of ouzo and whisky (not to be recommended), I came to consciousness lying on the grass outside my studio drenched in beautiful summer rain and thinking, “This is rather nice.” Isn’t drowning supposed to be comforting? As an Aquarian who carries water but doesn’t go near it unless he has to, I’ll never knowingly go for that option. Hypothermia is also, I’m told, a rather nice exodus though I haven’t tried that one yet. Ah, but winter is here!

Back in my ‘hole’, the obvious way out was, Get back to work you idiot. This is what I’ve been trying to do, but I was unable to find a lifeline. Where was it? What is it? There was no-one about to chuck it down for me. How could they, if they didn’t know where it was or even what it was either.

Eventually I found it in an unlikely place: a very small painting by a little known Ukranian painter, Vasyl Khmeluk (1903-1986), whom I very much admire. I have returned to it again and again over the years, wondering why it moved me so much. Maybe one way of finding out was to replicate it. So I’m currently doing two versions and in the process hopefully re-finding a passion.

This is one of his works, not THE one – I’ll keep that up my sleeve for now if I may – but it gives an idea of his work.

TDSC01975

Philosophically, this puzzled me. Copying is usually a technical exercise, like a pianist practising scales but this was different. For me, meaningful work requires love in some sense. Whatever catches my eye or mind must contain within it a quotient of love, be it a woman, a plant, a landscape or an assemblage of objects such as the still-lifes currently occupying my mind due to an exhibition (in partnership with the ceramicist Eilean Eland) scheduled for next year.

In music, they talk of the ‘tingle factor’, in which hairs stand up due to some emotional response. Often we don’t know why that should be, and it cannot always be predicted. For me it’s the same with visual phenomena. In the absence of an emotional response, I might as well go back to science – which eschews all emotion. Certain visual arrangements arouse in me a frisson of excitement that cannot be denied. This is what I was searching for after the mid-summer hiatus.

Maybe this is naive of me; I don’t know. All I can say is that as a painter (or indeed a writer) the work is a form of love making. It might be at one or two steps removed but the engagement is the same.

At the end of it all, I don’t The Righteous Brothers singing at me, You’ve lost that loving feeling. That would be sad. So whether its music, poetry, cars, golf or anything else, what drives you?  I would very much like to contrast and compare thoughts.