Filtering

IMG_2233.JPGIMG_1439.jpgIMG_1941.JPGFor years I’ve made work from doodles made when on the telephone – I kept a note pad and pen by the phone, on a small table, in the front room. With my stammer – often worse on the phone, doodling helped me through some difficult conversations. Two things went side by side: the taking in and jotting down of information, and my own inner thoughts, filtering. Later, I would make installations and paintings from some of the doodles.
Now that phones are no longer attached to a fixed place and have been released from their moorings, there is less conversation: I text rather than phone, or send an email, or chat while I’m on the move. Now I often doodle when I’m taking a break from writing, or sitting at the kitchen table, biro in hand (my favourite is blue, bic). Radio in the background, I might note down what’s being said – a few words or a phrase that seems to resonate, alongside my familiar faces, forms and patterns; the lined paper in my notebook contains the writing, and gives an underlying structure to the curves and filigree of the doodles.
The ‘news’ or radio talk has taken the place of those phone conversations I used to have. Sometimes I listen, incredulous, often angry or sad; sometimes amused or bored. For the first time, the outside world, or politics has entered the work: ‘What did she know?’ ‘When did she know it?’ ‘The niceties of international diplomacy’ ‘…seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed.’ And sometimes, there are no words at all.
Later, weeks or months later, I sift through the doodles and make further drawings. More recently I’ve been colouring in the doodles themselves, with coloured pencils, sometimes following the ruled lines of the page and sometimes the drawing, so they’re transformed, enhanced, and emotional. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so my energy levels are low, and I’m not as mobile as I used to be. But at least I can make these drawings. It’s been a soothing and empowering process.

Recently, I’ve gone on to larger works, projecting Xeroxed acetates from old phone doodles mostly. I like the larger scale – poster sized and even bigger, the vivid colour of the spirit based inks, and the way the paper absorbs the colour (lotka paper, which I can increase in scale by gluing pieces together). These works move from an intimate space to a more public one – on the wall and in your face. I like that.

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The Life Room

IMG_5594.JPGLife Room

I’ve been thinking about drawing, and about life drawing in particular lately – something I was listening to on the radio the other day – two people, a writer and an artist (Grayson Perry) who both worked for a time as life models, got me thinking about my own history or relationship with life drawing.

At art school in London – in the 1970’s, drawing from the figure was on the way out. But somehow, the life rooms were still there, manned mostly by elderly male tutors who’d been relegated to this less prestigious role, although they were not really elderly at all. The young tutors (all men in their 30’s) painted hardedge abstract paintings, using acrylic and masking tape to make perfect divisions between one square or line of colour and another. Life drawing wasn’t their thing at all.

I was drawn to the life room – it was quiet – just the sound of pencil or charcoal on paper. Life drawing had been an enforced activity at Edinburgh, where I’d spent the previous two years, so it was somewhere I felt confident – I felt at home with drawing and observation. The tutors didn’t do much tutoring – they just set the poses up, and gave a bit of advice about scale and proportion.

But getting things right wasn’t really the point. The life room was an escape of sorts – an escape from the ego and posturing of the studio; an escape from ‘ideas,’ because you didn’t have to have an idea – the model was a given. Your ‘idea’ could revolve around how you drew, what you drew with, and looking – observation. It was an opportunity to connect with a living breathing person, and to draw them. You didn’t have to beg a favour from a friend, or catch a quick sketch of someone chatting in the canteen.

The life room is where, interestingly, I was often my most experimental – I painted on paper and tore it up; I described the model in writing, and tore that up – used the writing to depict the model, and I dressed the models up in my own clothes. Mary, pale and Irish with long dark red hair, wore my ivory coloured kimono, patterned with flowers: red, yellow, black, gaping open, framing her bony figure. I drew her, using coloured pencils – a box of creamy textured Cumberlands; her skin was yellow, with purple shadows and green.

The models became my friends – I knew their colours and contours better than I knew my own body. Sometimes I drew them resting, wearing their own clothes: Frances, black-haired from Glasgow, sitting on a chaise lounge, wearing flared jeans and shiny red platform shoes; I cherish those drawings. We went for tea in Rosie’s café on the ground floor, where Rosie proffered tea from an enormous metal teapot, and Frances read my tealeaves – told my fortune.

In my teaching life, I’ve sometimes relegated myself to the role of life drawing tutor. I’ve never been very good at it – I like all drawing, even the so-called bad ones. But I try and encourage students to look – often they don’t look enough – at the model. Sometimes I’ve made them draw with charcoal, taped onto the end a long stick – they have quite liked that, or I get them to place a large sheet of carbon paper over their drawing paper so they can’t see what they’re drawing until they’ve finished.

The quiet and concentration can be intense – everyone working from a common subject, but no drawing is the same. Somehow, working from the same source, the life model, differences in their work become more acute. There is something communal and sharing about the experience too. In the studio, they stand facing a wall, with their painting in front of them often wearing headphones – listening to their own private music. In the life room, they face each other, and they share their source, the model, sitting, standing or lying in the middle of the room.

Somehow, away from the studio and their ‘ideas,’ where things have been buried under layers of paint and canvas and stuff, their individuality is more pronounced. Sometimes you can see things in their drawings that you haven’t seen in their painting or studio work. I’ve often been amazed at the beauty of someone’s line, or how well they could see – how beautifully or even how crazily they drew; or how they used colour. One person might draw a miniscule figure, in the lightest of pencil; another can’t seem to get the whole figure on the page.

Things are stripped down to their bare bones. Shy ones who haven’t shone in the studio are often admired for their dexterity – they shine in the life-room. Conversely, the confident ones who stand out in the studio are sometimes hesitant and unsure in the life room, with just a pencil and piece of paper to contend with. It’s a lesson for everyone.

 

Packing up the studio – Beck Rd

Packing up the studio in Beck Road

I packed up my house and studio in Summer 2011. This is where I had lived and worked for more than thirty years.

I put my paintings into storage for a year, and moved to a tiny house in the South East. During that year, I focused on my writing, and on finishing the first draft of my memoir. But I missed my studio – that space where, to quote my Uncle Michael in a letter he wrote to me in 1987: ‘you are liberated from your smallness.’

After a year or so, I found a space in a building around the corner from my house. The joy of being in that space and with my paintings again – greeting them when they arrived from London in a big van, like old friends. And I began to make new work. To quote my Uncle again:

‘Everything becomes possible in that instant when you feel yourself enlarge.’

Surface 2 Air Exhibition – & Model Gallery

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Photocredit: &ModelGallery

 

Group Exhibition at the & Model Gallery in Leeds in November 2015 curated by Mark Wright and Stuart Mackenzie…

“The artists in Surface To Air, different though they are, all share a focused engagement with the craft and material values relevant to painting. Materiality and the way it is articulated through surface and the physical handling of paint is central to an understanding of each artist’s practice. “

& Model Exhibition Archive >

Why I write

I come from a family of writers (a brother and sister who are both journalists, a younger brother who can spin a story like nobody’s business, an Uncle who was an academic, another – my namesake who was a poet). Ive always been the artist.

I cut my writing teeth over the years on short autobiographical pieces, written to accompany my exhibitions. There’s always been a story there, lurking behind my paintings. Then I moved on to short stories in their own right – three were published in an anthology of short fiction by artists, published by Serpent’s Tail, in 2006. The anthology was edited by Eileen Daly and Jeremy Akerman. From then on, I was hooked on writing stories, and it suited my life style. I was teaching a lot – at 3 different Art Colleges, so I seemed to be on trains an awful lot. Painting requires time – lots of it, and a dedicated space, but with writing, as long as I had a notebook and something to write with – preferably a blue biro – my space was there. Then, when I had time, I could bring all these fragments together and process them.

When Im stuck with my writing, movement helps ideas fall back into place – swimming or walking… Walking back from swimming (which I dont do that often) I rush to get back home and write something down that’s suddenly fallen into place. Sometimes, I record it on my phone – afraid the idea will disappear before I return.

My memoir A Conversation About Happiness began life as one thing, and ended up as something else. I pretended I was writing a novel for a long time, but really I was writing about my own life. But I thought novel writing was more worthy. I wrote about a young female artist, living in East London in the 1980’s, and then I wrote a bit about her childhood, and that sort of took over – the childhood became the story, and I threw most of the 80’s away. I thought by writing in the past tense, and using ‘she’ that I would get distance, and in a way it did give me distance. And then I changed the she to I. And finally I moved the I from the past to the present. To recap: First I held the story far away (like a film), and then I brought it closer, and closer still, by putting myself there, in the present – I am. It’s quite hard to keep that up, especially -‘in my memoir, where Im sometimes thinking back from the present (in the past) to the further past!

For my memoir, I used a range of references as memory prompts – photographs, films, letters….And I wrote some dialogue which I never thought I could do, but I did, and it seemed to bring my characters to life. Also dramatising a scene, rather than telling it.

In order to see my writing with a fresh eye, I change font size; I read my work out loud to myself to hear if its right; I print the pages out to ‘see’ them physically on the page; I send chapters and stories to my iphone to get a smaller view – anything to help me ‘see’ what Ive written objectively.

For a ‘fresh eye’ Feedback is invaluable – from a trusted editor, fellow writer, or friend. But they have to be critical – no pussy-footing around! I like a deadline – for short stories and commissions, and it’s often useful to work with a word-count restriction. Cutting down, editing to a required word count can be quite creative in itself.

I’m now working on a Novella/love story – set in East London in the 1980’s, but that could all change!