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How I work

There is a randomness to the way I produce my images. The sources are usually two dimensional. Though I enjoy the discipline of drawing from life, I rarely paint from life. When I taught art I would often draw alongside the pupils, but the only paintings were produced in front of still life arrangements.

Like Francis Bacon, I rely heavily on photographs and drawings from the imagination collected in sketchbooks which I often treat as a journal. The images below are collected as sources for a painting I will be starting soon.

 

Skull picture
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Lucy―an Imagining

This post lays down my thoughts on the development of my first poetry collection. It explores the objectification of once living creatures through two characters. Both characters are imaginative creations with some basis in fact. The main character is based on fossilised bones, the second on the man who dug them up. Lucy is the nickname given to these bones. Donald Johanson, her discoverer, built his career around her re-constructed personhood and further discoveries he made. In 1977, Johanson assigned her a new species, Australopithecus afarensis, in honour of the eponymous Sunni Muslim people of the Afar region of Ethiopia. It’s clear from his writing that Johanson had great affection for the people living in an arid, politically and economically unstable country. In the period after Lucy’s discovery, a violent dictatorship ruled Ethiopia. This made fossil-searching dangerous and sometimes impossible.

My interest in paleoanthropology grew from childhood exposure to fossils by my stepfather, a mining engineer, who took me on fossil collecting trips to Whitby on the Yorkshire Coast in England.

I also have a fascination with fossilised skulls as artefacts, a source for my drawing and printmaking and an interest in them as beautiful objects which I choose to celebrate in a richness of line, colour, tone, and texture. Lucy, I hope, would share this sapient enjoyment of the aesthetic for its own sake. Without forgetting that this visual distillation can be a part of an othering process which contributes an uneasy edge to some poems.

One source of my visual fascination is a gorgeous coffee-table book co-authored by Johanson called From Lucy to Language. This book labels and categorises the fossilised remains of distant ancestors. Its attraction to me is its carefully lit photography. These images of astonishing ivory shaded perfections, shards of long dead individuals, captivated the artist within me. This visual enjoyment casts a dark shadow, for death turns us all into objects to be valued in the letting go. My uneasiness intensified as I browsed the glossy photos of skulls, seeing many with category numbers scrawled on forehead or cheekbone. The value of these objects changes in a cataloguing that makes me queasy. Out of this discomfort comes the sassy personality of the Lucy in these poems. She quarrels with labelling. She is a counterpoint to the understandable scientific lust for collecting data; the need for information structured into this illustrated ‘database’ of our ancestry, showcasing these fascinating ivory-stained relics as species representatives finding their ultimate resting place as branches on the family tree of our Homo Sapiens exceptionalism. She is an argument for extending her a form humanity on her terms. Lucy was/is a living being.

I also express in the poems an interest with deep time. I am accustomed to thinking about the fate of our species on a geological and cosmic scale. This results from innumerable readings of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Man when I was an adolescent. Themes expressed in the sequence reflect that interest. My feelings that within the next few thousand years we may have to find the strength to accept our ultimate extinction, perhaps sooner and because of the last 300 years of capitalist-driven growth. If some descendent accepts that fate with grace, I imagine them leaving behind, carved in stone, a distillation of our mistakes, in mathematical and poetic symbols a post human future has a chance of interpreting. Though whatever species follow us may develop a more balanced mentality, is my fervent hope.

I am fascinated by debates about storing nuclear waste and leaving a warning message projected thousands of years into the future as planned for a facility in New Mexico, or burying it in deep stable rock and allowing its location to be forgotten. Homo sapiens struggling to be a responsible ancestor. There is a very forbidding description of the latter facility in Finland in Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. I see Lucy as her own messenger from the depths of time, who wishes to be forgotten.

I base some incidents in the poem sequence on events described in a book called Lucy’s Legacy, which Johanson co-authored with Katie Wong, a columnist with Scientific American. I interpret and embellish these events with views and comments that do not always reflect Johanson’s. The creative interpretation of the facts of Lucy’s discovery and the subsequent fate of her remains are my own.

This sequence of poems ends with a tribute to Maeve Leakey, from a family of paleoanthropologists, who had some disagreements with Lucy’s discoverer. Maeve shows a respectful but analytical approach to her profession in her book The Sediments of Time. This shows a deep respect for Lucy and her kin in a way which I hope Lucy herself would approve of.

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Gaia

My first poem published in a magazine

The Dawntreader Magazine

An arctic blast in early spring
from Gaia’s violent play. 
No moderation does she bring, 
only gale and gust and fury. 

Her breath slows its hasty harass. 
Silvern frost dusts the swards. 
Daffodils and crocus mass 
and bump their flowery heads. 

Nature sparkles in her bling, 
swift to anger. 
Then she ends her angry fling; 
 becomes serene and tender. 

She’s Greek like some chimera 
 inconsistent, often frigid. 
In Rome we called her Terra. 
Stern in civic virtue , also rigid. 

Complex though seeming inorganic 
she overwhelms the organismic 
with climate, which can destroy, 
violate her play and leave her arid. 

We call it weather and it can kill 
 Inconsistent as the woman patriarch’s defame. 
They call her home—our mother world. 
Then proceed to slow and sullen matricide. 

Printed in Dawntreader Magazine in spring 2019. Published by Indigo Dreams

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Women of pre-history

 

I have never written about my obsessive interest in prehistoric figurines carved from rock, ivory or sometimes modelled in clay. Does it need to be emphasised? Perhaps as a subject of embarrassment? The interest is obvious if you glance through the library of my visual work.

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Lucy in the Sky…

Ancestral skulls

This will be the final version of this image; the fourth screen-print based on a pencil drawing. The source of the drawings were two separate photographs in a book called From Lucy to Language. Both the print and the original drawing are included, for comparison purposes.

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Saint Brexit

As with many people who paint and draw I also write. Much of this is poetry or prose-poetry. I enjoy trying to construct the complex imagery in a poem, without having to rely heavily on narrative, plot and characterisation.

Most of my work strives for imagery and rythmic use of words, and much of it is very personal in subject matter. Some does address wider subjects, where they catch my interest. Unsurprisingly the recent referendum vote which will change our relationship with the rest of Europe at the behest of a narrow majority of petty English nationalists, peppered with a sprinkling of bigots, caught my attention. I have chosen to express my outrage in what I would describe as a prose poem, mainly because my use of metaphor consisting of the religious customs surrounding bones of venerated individuals mixed with the rituals of an even earlier era when individuals were sacrificed to guarantee their god’s favour for tribe and the expectation of a good harvest. The imagery is consistent with the metaphor. The text only has a very loose narrative and is too short to develop a plot.

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Ancestral Skulls

These latest screenprints are based on my fascination with the skulls of our remote ancestors.  The original drawings were based on photographs of fossilised skulls from our deep past. The drawings were then scanned into a computer and operated into six layers

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My Return to Screenprinting

 

I learnt screenprinting at art college. This was in the early 1970’s. It it was a graphic process secondary to the photography which I used to document the environments I was working in. The small number of screenprints I produced used some of these 35mm photographic negatives as their source.

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Ariel’s First Post – the tragedy of Sylvia Plath

And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.
Sylvia Plath, “Ariel” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Editorial matter copyright © 1981 by Ted Hughes..

IMG_1498_edited-1IMG_1537 (1)_edited-1IMG_1698_edited-1IMG_1749_edited-1

The photographs document the obvious stages in my most recent painting. The work is painted  in acrylic paint on canavas. The composition was assembled from three different sketchbook drawings. The drawings were copied lightly in pencil and then outlined in an intense violet mixed with a small amount of Prussian Blue. Two thin washes of colour were then applied over the drawing. A cool lemon yellow from the top left corner diagonally to the centre of the canvas.

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Guest post – Variety of John’s works

Recently, I have had the pleasure to view a variety of John’s artistic works.  The three examples above are in my top favourites, each for unique reasons.   The first is a portrait of a dear friend, a piece of realism. However, the warmth of the colours perfectly capture her big heart.

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