One of the questions asked of a visual artist is to explain what the work is about, or where the inspiration for a particular painting or sculpture has come from. These are hard questions to answer. For me, the work that goes into a painting or drawing is always more than the sum of its parts. By that I mean they have a little bit of everything in them; every new painting is the culmination of what has gone before. For me, painting and drawing are explorations of the life we live and the life that we have lived. The person I am now has been shaped, carved, by my past and all its hardships, joys, loves; disappointments. My paintings are the same, each is the result of what has gone before, each reaches for new understanding. Because my paintings tend to be a personal exploration, in each I can see fragments of houses I have lived in, thoughts I have had, places I have visited. And each moves one step forward in that journey. They represent a sort of map of life, in some ways disparate perhaps, but connected back to one place. What I hope for is that some of those elements resonate with the viewer, and that they find something of themselves and their experiences there in my pictures.
My first love was a flurry of snowflakes, a dive into a warm Bajan sea, the first snap of the advent calendar. We cycled summer lanes to watch jersey cows then picnicked by the river. We cycled to Lovelands Ford to watch car syrup through the water and we cycled back from parties late at night in too few clothes. We ate tinned spaghetti on toast and custard creams for lunch. He bought me a porcelain rose and a plastic jewellery box with a gold and garnet ring hidden inside.
We met in town after school and drank coffee at the top of the department store with its dribbling windows and Chelsea Pensioner in one corner. The train station was the backdrop to our love, a deep and brooding presence that would sever us. It lay there quiet and gloomy, stalking us and waiting. Sometimes we flirted with it, climbing aboard to spend a day walking the embankment, but mostly we cycled same roads over and over like a meditation, a mantra, an attempt to forge ourselves into the earth.
My son is begging me to put the Christmas tree up, and because we are going away for two weeks over Christmas I have relented. There’s something about getting out the decorations that immediately takes you back in time. Memories of childhood trees that were so big you thought they might topple on you, with huge stacks of presents arranged below the bottom branches.
We didn’t give much thought to colour or theme, it was a matter of piling on tinsel and ornaments to whichever branch was within reach, leaving bare holes in places and branches bending under the weight in others. We suspected that our mother re-arranged things after we had fallen asleep, but she never let on. Then close to Christmas would be the magic day our father brought home the perfume and jewellery, telling us stories of men with suitcases setting up makeshift shops in the middle of Leather Lane market. I could clearly see their furtive glances, the dark corners and suspense-filled air, and the look-out man who would call out a warning that the police were coming, causing the suitcase and its owner to melt into the crowd.
Once home our father would proudly stand in front of our tree to hang the fake jewellery from the already overloaded branches. When a small child came with its parents to drop a card or present off he would take them through to stand in front of the tree, just the two of them together, my father, baggy trousers and homemade jumper, next to the tiny, awestruck child. Above them glistened the gold and silver chains, hearts and angels, twinkling against the fairy lights. The child would hold their breath as he told them to choose one for themselves. And my father would be solemn as a judge as he reached up for the chosen trinket and handed it to them.
I’m alone today and decide to walk to the sea to do some drawing, but as soon as I start out it begins to rain. Nevertheless I keep going, down the steep path that zig-zags to the waterfront. Nobody is about today and because it’s December the town is mostly closed – just a few coffee shops and the pub. The gift shops are all shut for winter, trapping mermaids and fairies in their snow domes that will remain unshaken until spring. It’s sort of depressing but in a familiar, comforting way. Melancholic I suppose.
It’s too wet to do any drawing so I take some photographs to work on later. I am thinking about doing a series of paintings based around the harbour but as usual it is the small marks that draw me in, the lichen, the scratches on the pavement, the harbour walls marked by the rising and falling of the tide. Then, on the way back up the hill I find this door at the back of a building. The weather has coloured it so that the wood veneer looks almost metal. Surrounding it are remnants of a room; the floor was once covered in black and white squares and the lower part of one wall still has tiles clinging to it.
In my head, the South West of England is bathed in perpetual sunshine. Hedgerows are alive with birds and butterflies, the sky is deep blue with a wisp of fading cloud hovering over the sea. There is a small breeze but not enough to irritate. I’ve never wondered what it’s like on an Autumn day, or winter. In my mind it’s forever summer. It’s not like that of course, it rains here more I’m sure, and the rain doesn’t drain away but hangs around street corners and collects on walls marking them with its inky darkness. Except today. Today is 1st October but the sun has shone longer and harder than I’ve ever known it. I lay outside listening to the unmistakeable hum of summer; a sort of echo, so that the noise of someone hammering on the roof a few doors down seems to stretch toward me with undiminished strength. There’s also a faint rustle that comes from the smallest breeze blowing through the grass. This is not normal; I should be shouldering the wind and swearing under my breath when I get rained on. Buttoning and zipping, dashing for shelter. Instead I lie outside and feel the sun burn my skin. Amazing.
About seven years ago I went back to school to study fine art as a postgraduate student and this is when I fell in love with Cy Twombly. Amongst the people I know there are mixed feelings about his work. Some feel it’s too childlike, that it’s just scribbles and dribbles and scratches. Others have read Roland Barthes and been converted. Perhaps they have been genuinely converted, have found something different in his work after reading Barthes, or perhaps they feel that the seriousness with which he examines the work gives it its substance. And then there are others, like me, who love his paintings and drawings because they give you that sensation; of facing something special – a communication of something; a confrontation with the workings out of a complex problem. It gives me a feeling inside that I don’t get very often – sometimes in the past I have experienced it reading Hardy, Nabokov or Orwell but that was when I was younger and more easily moved – it rarely happens now. I have felt it in front of a painting by Callum Innes, and when I discovered the Dutch artist Mark Manders.
You can get lost in Twombly’s workings out, his marks, his words, his pencil lines. Sometimes he seems to shout out from the canvas in a jarring and discordant way as though he’s trying to wake you or communicate something that you haven’t paid attention to. And he does this with words that are ambiguous, leaving you to make your own interpretation.
In my own prints and drawings I try for that sense of the discordant. There is something refreshing about unexpected trails, lines that disappear behind washes of paint. It’s an antidote to the routines of life, to the boredom of repetition and feels like a splash of cold on a stifling hot day.
The wall surrounding the field where children play football is likely to have been made from the same rock that’s found in the valley. Several houses and the boundary to the graveyard are made from it too. In the valley itself, the rocks form huge towers that thrust upwards, piercing through the grass and bracken. Legend has it that the Devil’s Castle was situated here and one day, while he was away, his wives took part in a naked orgy with a neighbour. When the Devil found out he returned to the Castle where, in an echo of the fate of Lot’s wife, he turned them into turrets of stone, hence their strange names; The Devil’s Cheesering; Ragged Jack. They are covered with lichen and this makes them look like a whitewash brush has been swiped across their surface so that over time an uneven, fragmented layer has been created. Lichen needs undisturbed surfaces, time, and clean air, all of which are bountiful in the valley so it thrives, enduring the beating it gets from the wind and rain even though it looks so delicate and lacy and vulnerable.
The gravestones in the cemetery are also covered in lichen. It spreads over the chiselled words in different hues – fine white with a spidery pattern of cracks; mushroom coloured, white again but a different shade with a chalky texture. It dips in and out of the carved names of those who reside here, and creeps over the angel that stands at the back of the plain square of freshly mown grass. As I read the headstones, most of which date back to the nineteenth century, a sparrow flits by, a usual occurrence here but rare now in the city I have moved from. It reminds me of my father who knew the names of all our native birds. He would have loved the walk around the valley which is so similar to the Scottish landscape he grew up in. He would have been able to tell me the name of the bird that flies low over the bracken and makes a distinctive call. He’d have been able to tell me the names of the trees and flowers that we pass. But most of all he would have enjoyed sitting on the bench overlooking the sea, protected by turrets of petrified women, dreaming of days spent aboard ship bound for Canada, far across the ocean.
Two days ago we walked to the beach we can see from our window. It’s across a stretch of sea surrounded by steep cliffs and seems inaccessible though we’ve been told that a path runs down to it from the road above. From our house I can’t see how this is possible because the drop looks sheer, but we are going to try it anyway. We take waterproofs and a picnic and some binoculars.
The way down is signposted from the road, so we turn from the tarmac onto a grassy path. It’s rained a lot and is slippery and muddy in places. My son holds his trousers up out of the mud until I tell him it’s okay, they’ll wash. The path zig-zags downwards and at the first turning we stop and look at the beach far below. It has a sandy shoreline but then turns into pebbles, unlike our own beach which is made of huge choppy stones and no sand even when the tide is out. The cliff is rock in places but mostly it’s a steep slope covered in lime green grass and brambles, shot through here and there with a deep lilac heather. There are wild flowers along the pathway. As we stop to look at them I make a promise to myself to learn their names. In between the flowers there are hard-shelled beetles, rotund and busy, and huge black slugs. Every now and then someone has shored up the path with logs. It takes us half an hour to reach the bottom where the path turns into concrete steps with no railing. I hold my son’s hand tightly as it’s still a long drop to the rocks.
We spend three or four hours on the beach building piles of stones and then trying to knock them down. We hold rocks high in the air and let them go so that they smash open – we are trying to find fossils but are unlucky today. We walk along the stretch of beach in silence, listening to the waves crash onto the shore. The sea changes colour constantly; today it’s deep green except for the waves which are white crested as they tunnel, but darken to brown where the sand has been sucked up into them. It starts to rain a bit, not the lashing rain you sometimes get here but a light rain, so we eat our picnic sheltered by a cave. Later we walk to the back of the cave and find daylight. Squeezing through an opening with damp running down its walls we find ourselves in another cave and then out onto the beach again.
Before we go we build a huge pile of rocks and place on top of it the yellow duck we found washed up on the shore. Later, at home, we get the binoculars out to see if we can find our pile of rocks, but either the binoculars are not strong enough or the tide has swept it away. And then the rain starts again and our secret beach is hidden by mist.
Every morning after my son has gone to school, I take a walk around the valley and out by the sea. I’m greeted now by some of the villagers I’ve got to know and I’m beginning to realise that the village is made up of two separate but intertwined worlds. There are the people who have lived here for generations and are ingrained in the rocks and stones as if their ancestor’s ghosts still resided in the fields and orchards, grounding them to the earth. Some families have been here longer than they can remember and they own land in a way that seems foreign to me who has never owned anything bigger than a car or the contents of a rented house. The other world is the one I belong to; transient, living on the surface of the village, able to move on a whim. We might stay a year or two, perhaps longer. That’s not to say we’re unwelcome. We’re received with warmth and friendliness and are always greeted in passing.
We may never belong properly, but we make up a straggly band of outsiders who are creating a life in the village. Many are artists, drawn here for all sorts of reasons – it’s affordable and it has a silence about it; an introspection. Along the coast there’s another village where the houses were once fishermen’s cottages and whose front rooms face directly onto narrow passageways and lanes. They have become makeshift galleries, their windows filled with work; paintings, handmade books, ceramics and objects gleaned from the sea and made into sculptures.
The route I walk every morning takes me out of the village and up into hills covered in grass and heather. Huge rocks are dotted about on one side of the path and a steep cliff falls to the sea on the other. This morning it’s grey and overcast with the threat of rain which I can see far out over the ocean as a dark shadow. The clouds look like they are being dragged down, sucked under by the sea. I look out for the dolphins that are sometimes spotted here, but today the sea is empty except for a log that’s making its way around the rocks and a small fishing boat, almost, it seems, on the horizon.
We are something in between, like the whisper of mist hanging over the valley outside my window, floating in the space between the dewed grass and the sky (which can change on a sixpence from so black you feel a pang of fright, to a light blue airy space where swifts dash past so fast you can barely see them). We visited an artist two days ago. As we entered I saw two nests perched above her fuse box balanced so precisely that you felt your footsteps might dislodge them. She keeps them year after year so that her studio is filled with wine glasses, jelly bowls, teacups, each holding a perfect round nest. Feel them she said – they were soft and warm inside, each one made from twigs and hair. They swoop down into the garden when the dog’s asleep and pull the hair from her back, she told us.
We are something in between, my son and I. Between urban and rural. We are trying rural. We both feel a bit displaced. Inside me there’s a space that wants to keep things the same. Impossible of course. My son tells me our bodies change every seven years. Each cell of our body is disposed of and replenished. I will try to embrace this change. I can feel my body adjusting.