It's hard to know where to look

Blog Post

March 4, 2024

It’s been so long since I wrote a post. So much of what is going on in the world is dumbfounding.

The main project I am working on at the moment is a collaborative graphic novel. Still under wraps, it is all about what happens when one group of people dehumanise another group. And the re-humanising potential of art, no matter how dire the circumstances.

Painting, poetry: I’ve been relying on them for decades to help get me through unavoidable reality onslaughts from within or without.

Here’s Anja Bihlmaier conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Beethoven’s 7th at the Festival Hall in January. Thanks to Andy for taking me to listen to this.

The graphic novel is heavy, though shot through with odd shafts of light. Alongside this – to my great surprise, I have taken up watercolour.

Bellagio – a picturesque and touristy town by Lake Como, painted from the hillside opposite at Griante.

Painting from life – or direct observation, was something I was trying to learn all through my youth and into my early twenties. I wanted to stare and wonder and get down what I saw as honestly as possible.

Then at art school in the 80s it felt incredibly retrograde and uncool to be assembling still lives, and trying to find and mix the exact colour in my palette to match the shadow on the far side of a jug. It wasn’t seen as an acceptable end in itself, more like practicing scales.

Recent watercolour of my kitchen shelves

Why wasn’t I using video? Finding a way to express my indignation at the sudden appearance of homelessness in my own city? Making work about the miners’ strike? I mean – fair point. So I began to use ink, to document my own and my peers’ daily life as young people in London, trying to make relationships and a living. We still had our small grants, no tuition fees, and were able to sign on and subsist in college holidays, even as Thatcher was dismantling the benefit system (and almost everything else that had been set up for the common good.)

In my art school days – thanks for the pic Rebecca Fortnum ! (I’m proud to say that so many of my peers from those days are wonderful artists now.)

I branched out from ‘straight’ observation to a combination of ways of responding – to the city, it’s voices and the stories I found. Eventually I suppose this led me to all the ways I still work. Writing and drawing the days and the places where words and image meet.

A recent collage zine made from a discarded drawing

In September 2023, I was the lucky recipient of a second Hawthornden Foundation writers’ fellowship, this time in Italy, at the magnificent Casa Ecco, beside Lake Como.

Casa Ecco, is it a dream? (colour me sauce Marie Rose)

And maybe at a writers’ fellowship – where language really is the currency – it was my contrariness that took me straight towards paint again. Well it was partly that, and partly another resolve.

I was to stay there for six weeks of concentrated writing time, with a small group of international writers who also had projects to be getting on with.

L to R: Samira Negrouche (Algeria) Jennifer Grotz (USA) Anuradha Roy (India) Ellyn Toscano (the director of the Hawthornden Fountation), me – and Kimberley Blaeser (USA). That’s a portrait of our benefactor, Drue Heinz, & Ecco her dog, on the wall behind Samira. The decor is from a bygone era, but believe me we all got used to that fabulous wallpaper at aperitivo time.

I was blown away by the landscape, the house and the support such an opportunity offered me. I could devote most of every day to the dark and complicated project in progress.

This Posy Simmonds drawing sums up some of the paradox of my time in Italy- this is from her 2003 book: Literary Life

It was looking around Villa Carlotta one afternoon, a nearby grand mansion open to the public, that I saw something else that inspired me. Some sepia studies of the locality made by anonymous visitors in the nineteenth century – whilst on the grand tour. These tiny ink drawings had an everyday charm – nothing of ‘being an artist’ – just the act of looking. And making a modest record of beauty courted and encountered.

Smart arses of the world – at Villa Carlotta
The cafe at Villa Carlotta

I began painting every day – as counterpoint to war – both as it haunts my book project, and as it unfolds it’s current horror onto the passing days. Painting became imperative. I chose to concentrate on what I could see in front of me.

I bought a bottle of sepia ink for time travel, a nod to tourist predecessors & perhaps a way to be in a timeless or at least – slower – landscape.

As I saw and heard news from Israel and Gaza I had a burning sense of fury, helplessness and shame. I am, as poet Charles Bernstein put it, ‘a Jewish man trapped in the body of a Jewish man’ and although I wasn’t raised speaking about Jewish history, I have done enough work on related projects, including the ongoing one, to know exactly where these spirals of hatred and violence end up. Anything anyone says next to the daily reality of seeing children slain becomes unsayable. The rise of both the far right and the water levels makes it hard to imagine a peaceful future (yet we must.)

The London Philharmonic Orchestra play Dvorak. The collaboration of all the players creates the opposite of war.
French horn players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra

A real help then, that fellow Casa Ecco guest, novelist Anuradha Roy, turned out to enjoy painting too. We both raided the stationery shop in Bellagio, and most afternoons, together or separately – we’d make a small painting or drawing of something or somewhere we could actually look at.

Lake Como, from Breglia

This added the bonus of comradeship to the bounteous sop already offered by the mysterious colours and shifting light on water, on mountains.

Anuradha Roy, with a little portrait I made of her over lunch in Varenna – one of our ferry fun afternoon adventures.

We both found our watercolours improving the more we looked and copied the life in front of us. I posted some of my paintings on Instagram, and the response was encouraging. A couple of nice insta pals expressed hopes that I’d carry on painting even when I got back home.

Trying to keep going once home, portrait of a sofa we found outside & my printer. Turns out I like painting cushions almost as much as sitting on them. Not so much natural light though!

I was back in London for November – and the big catch up: family, teaching, friends and other projects that had been jumping up and down stamping holes in my diary. I found that watercolouring around the edges of my days was still possible, if I got up early or was prepared for the painting to be very rough – just a small attempt to be present to what is there, in my own field of vision.

Eg. – A cedar in Toddington, before a long workshop leading day at the Mulberry Bush Archives making books with an inspiring group from On the Record

Here’s the view from Deborah Alma’s top window at The Poetry Pharmacy – where I went to help launch her latest book, Poetry Projects (for which I papercut – cover, and in which I have an essay that details elements of my path only touched on here.)

View of the Shropshire Hills from a window in Bishops Castle

Slightly acid note: When I take my watercolour set to events or round to friends, it is so tempting to give the paintings away. It’s the hard to vanquish people-pleaser in me. But I can’t afford to give work away, it’s still my work, even if this part of it seems rather like a hobby. If someone offers to buy it however, even splitting the money with a donation to Women Wage Peace or Women of the Sun or Save the Children, I will likely be both pleased and amenable.

Sometimes I make an exception. This young woman was delayed for 5 hours at Milan airport, as was I, and needed to get back urgently to take care of a loved one. Giving her the painting I made of her seemed like the right thing to do.
Delays at Milan airport on the way home

I have a lot of watercolours piling up now, and it would be great to show and sell them in a gallery one day. Another stuffy dream from my art school years was having a dealer and selling my paintings! Imagine! It just seems so old fashioned, like painting from life, fossil fuels and war.

Sheltering from the rain in Griante Cemetery.

If you are a gallerist and have an interest in this or any of my other work, do get in touch. Meanwhile, thanks to all who read my blog, and thanks to all who contribute to sustaining life in its complicated glory, in whatever way is possible with imaginative work: especially in caring or creative practice. We really need it.

A budding magnolia at dusk in the walled garden in my lovely local Brockwell Park, spring coming.

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