Mixed media: Acrylic and beach sand on canvas 35.5x 45.5 2018
Sand is the texture of childhood summer holidays: warm wet sand squidging up between the toes, and my four-year-old fascination with wormcasts on the beach- where did they come from and who made them? Sand getting onto towels, and blown into sandwiches, mouths and hair by sudden gusts of wind; sandcastles made with bucket, spade and tongue-out concentration, my small hands patting seawater over the walls to stop them crumbling.
Fast forward many years, and the sand is freezing and wet when I take my boots and socks off one December evening on a quiet Anglesey beach, and walk with the sun setting into a red-gold line on the horizon.
I know I'm getting strange, amused looks from the dog-walkers I pass but really, I don't care. The last time I remember feeling sand under my feet was with the heat of a New Zealand summer soaking through my shirt, and someone else walking with me; even though this welsh sand has long ago lost any summer warmth, the feeling is glorious, and I'm briefly back to the freedom of childhood again.
On the morning I go home I return to this beach and carefully pour a handful of sand into a jar. A few weeks later, with a freshly painted canvas in front of me, I scatter some sand onto the still-wet foreground, where it becomes part of this painting's texture, and of its new memory.
'Pluviophile' ...(n) someone who finds joy and peace of mind on rainy days' Well that definitely resonates with me. Those bright sunny days that everyone gets excited about ? Yes, I like them well enough too, but give me the beauty of dark clouds tumbling in over the hills anytime in preference to relentless sunshine; I'd much rather hear rain on the windows than an ice cream van belting out Green Sleeves, and the smell of rain on earth is so much more soul-satisfying than the metallic tang of sun tan oil.
I love rain in all it's permutations: the almost- rain of mist rising up from the valleys on an autumn morning: the brief showers in April with their promise of warmth, the crack of thunder announcing the arrival of the no-messing-around gods of storm and lightening strike; the silent falls of snow in the night turning the familiar into the other-worldly. When sunshine appears on these islands it often comes as a gift, an occasional welcome respite from grey skies, but unrelenting light and dazzle which simultaneously flattens and intensifies whatever stands in it's way, is usually too much, too noisy and obvious for enjoyment, like the loud person at the party you can't ignore. Rain is kinder; it softens everything and blurs the hard edges. In the green and the grey of rain and mist the otherworld draws nearer, subtle, numinous and infinitely available.
I love stormy skies and seas, but mainly when I'm safely indoors and in a warm room with a cup of tea in my hands. I used to listen to the BBC radio shipping forecast late at night, and think of all the people out on the unpredictable seas surrounding this small island. The language is poetic and strangely familiar, (Malin...Hebrides...severe gale force eight imminent....visibility....poor). But out there in the real world I know there are fishing boats and lifeboats, and others who have little choice about going to sea in weather like that. I think about their bravery, and I know I wouldn't be able to do it. Any life demands a certain amount of courage, and we all meet unpredictable seas and rough weather from time to time; this feels especially true at the moment, given the unpredictable nature of world events. So I'm focussing my energies on trying to be a 'still point in the turning world', at least as far as my own small part of it is concerned; trying to stay rooted in the soil of my own landscape, even as the storm rages on around us all.
Once a painting's finished, then it's time for a decision...does it stay or does it go? Do I sell it, or do I never want to part with it? All my artwork comes from the soul, but it's certainly true that some pieces are harder to separate from than others. I imagine it's a bit like re-homing puppies: you know you can't keep them, and the whole point is to find new owners for them, but there's always that one that stares at you from the corner, with big mournful eyes, saying 'nooo, you don't want to sell meee....I'm part of you...there won't be another like meee ever again....'
And maybe that's the fear, that something about this particular painting, that combination of light and colour, this mix of energy, passion, memory and skill that went into making the work will never fall together again in such a harmonious way (even if nobody else can see or feel it). It's a completely personal response to making your own art- of course nowadays anyone can send a photographic file off and get back a very skillful reproduction of a favourite painting- yet it's never quite the same as having the original. Actually, it doesn't even have to be a particularly good painting; this one above I painted about twenty years ago, and it has many things 'wrong' with it - (the white border, the paint is flat and dead in places)...yet it's been with me in every house I've lived in since then, and I would never part with it; for some reason it means something to me which goes beyond objective skill or imagery, and it makes me, simply, happy.
Not that having a deep emotional response to a work always lasts, because it doesn't. Once or twice I've become very attached to a particular painting, and hung back from selling it...only to find a week, month or year later that the way I'm painting now is more interesting to me, and I can let go of past work (fairly) easily. So that's it then, the ebb and flow, making work and letting it go, and trying to remember that the breath always replenishes itself.
I have a dark confession to make...I love painting. I love the dollops of glistening colour on the palette, and the way it slides across the canvas. I love the weight of my favourite paintbrush in my hand, and then swirling it round in the jar, and watching the colour of the water change to rose, blue, purple and milk-white. I even love the smell of paint, brush cleaner, and varnish! Yes, I know that it's possible to create beautiful artwork digitally with the
latest computer gizmo thingy-but the thought of it leaves me cold.
The passion I feel for painting is as much about the sensuality of it, the physical quality of my engagement with paint, paper and canvas, as it is with the end result. That's why I dislike painting on rigid canvas board - there's no 'bounce' in the surface; it feels resistant and unfriendly, somehow as if it doesn't want to play with me...so all my current paintings are on canvas stretched over wooden frames, which allow for a certain kind of movement-based conversation.
The trouble is, it's difficult to leave. The light starts fading early this time of year, so I turn on the overhead light in the studio, which has one of those handy blue 'daylight' bulbs which are supposed to mimic natural light (but don't) and I keep going. At some point I remember to make coffee or eat something....and I think I should really stop now...just ten more minutes ...then suddenly it's very late indeed,-why's the time gone so fast?...and I really must stop, just five more minutes......I put the still-wet painting to one side, and wash out the paint brushes and throw away the used water, and think, I'll just check on that little bit I wasn't happy with......
Just like lingering for one last embrace with your lover, painting has the power to call you back, and back again. I've sometimes overworked a piece, because I found it hard to leave it alone, but as Leonardo said 'art is never finished, only abandoned', so I abandon it, until the next time I can get back into the studio And then the process of letting go of the painting begins, but that's the subject of the next post.
It's always nice to learn that there's a word for something you love, and here's a new word I learned the other day:'Petrichor'. It describes that particular smell of earth after rain. This has always evoked a sort of nostalgic yearning for me- memories of the family garden I played in as a child- (a garden which seems huge in my memory, but probably wasn't). I think there is also a German word 'Heimweh' which describes this sort of longing; it's more than nostalgia or sentiment, and is a kind of yearning for something irretrievable, perhaps a sense of place and belonging, tinged with ineffable loss.
Certainly these last few days with summer leaving, and the rains and winds of autumn arriving, there's been plenty of opportunity to experience the particular heimweh of rain soaked earth.
Some time ago I watched a UN webinar on the power of art for peace and conflict resolution. One of the panellists, Lily Yeh, who founded the Barefoot Artists organisation, works with disadvantaged communities across the world, supporting them to create artworks and beautiful spaces within their local communities.
I wrote down some of the things she said:
'Creativity and beauty are powerful means to bring about healing and change'
'Art has the power to transform public space, to transform individuals'
' When we see beauty, we see hope' (Rwandan genocide survivor).
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Beauty isn't a luxury add-on, but a necessity. Along with kindness, peace, compassion and joy, the ability to recognise and celebrate beauty in all its forms, in nature, art, colour, music, inspiring architecture, the face of our beloved, is a mark of our inner divinity, our humanity, and our unity.
This is why extremists of all types always set out to ban or destroy things that are beautiful. They are too much of a threat to their nihilistic agenda. As essential as beauty, and intimately connected with it, is imagination. I think it was Einstein who said that 'Imagination is Everything'. Without imagination we can't put ourselves in someone else's shoes, or feel compassion, (including compassion for terrorists). We can't forgive others, or ourselves. or look towards a hopeful and creative future.
Only new and imaginative responses will work to create a more peaceful world, otherwise we get locked into the old stories of fear, revenge and counter-attack, and the sad cycle perpetuates itself.
I feel more than ever now that honouring and encouraging the creative imagination in others, and recognising and creating beauty myself, is my own small, radical act of (peaceful) defiance and love for our beautiful, troubled world.
This post was originally written and published on a different site in November 2015.
Maybe because I grew up on an island, and live on a larger island at the edge of mainland Europe, I've always been drawn to the sea, while being very respectful (that is, scared) of it. The power and energy of the waves pulls me towards them, while fear and sea-sickness generally keep me firmly on dry land.
So I was fascinated to learn about ocean roads and sea lanes in Robert McFarlane's book 'The Old Ways'. These invisible trackways through the sea are apparently called in Gaelic 'Aster Mara'. He writes:
'Along these sea paths for thousands of years have travelled ships, boats, people, objects and language; letters, folk tales, sea songs, shanties, rumours, slang, jokes and visions'.
I love the idea of invisible channels running between people and places; channels you can see, once you know how to look We always assume that our (very limited) version of the world is the real one, when other people/birds/insects/trees can perceive beyond consensual reality, and inhabit an entirely different world, which overlaps with ours, but is also uniquely theirs.
Same with stories; my inner stories about the world, and about other people (what happens/ why/what 'should' happen instead etc...), are different from 'yours' or 'theirs'. I think I'm right and therefore you/they must be wrong. You think you're right, therefore I must be wrong, or stupid or both.
Acknowledging and accepting that someone or something perceives the world differently is, I think, a good first step towards peace.
After several years of travelling and painting through mainland Europe, New Zealand and the UK, starting this website and blog is a new adventure for me. I'm planning to write about some of my favourite things, like the intricacies of language, the magic of colour and line and how these can capture the fragile beauty of our earth home.
Words, storytelling, poetry, painting and exploring the natural world are all passions of mine, so rather than trying to choose between them, I thought I'd roll them up together and see what happens....
It is said that the Innuit have 100 words for snow.Words can tune us into the subtleties of the natural world, which otherwise we might (literally) not be able to recognise. So here's a new word I learned recently- 'smirr': a dialect for the sort of very fine, misty, mizzly rain, which soaks you to the skin, almost without you realising it...the sort of weather we often have here in the UK in fact. It suggests a combination of murk and mist, as well as rain. I love this kind of weather, and find it very comforting for some reason (but maybe only when I'm indoors, looking out).
And this picture I painted last year, based on many rainy beach walks, in different parts of the world....