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This week as I continued to explore new directions in the studio I found myself in need of a certain pair of eyes to cast their gaze over the latest works to emerge from this ongoing creative project about my father’s exile owing to fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War. One artist friend, and no other, could help me I felt with the sudden and vertiginous uncertainty which came over me on finding I’d pushed through to a different kind of abstraction where line and colour block begin to take a lead. This was not like me at all.

I suppose any move into new territory can produce dizzying sensations and a temporary loss of identity (as with the exiles themselves no doubt). Lacking a fluent grasp of culture and language an interpreter may be needed. Martin Olsson, himself an accomplished abstract painter, is one such expert in the field, employing his own rather wonderful brand of colour-field based minimalism to brilliant effect. I have long been an admirer of Martin’s work and as I sat alone in my studio amongst painted strangers, not to say strange paintings, I longed to have the studio next door to Olsson. So this blog is about some of the recent changes in my work but will also tell what happened when through the power of the internet Olsson miraculously appeared next door.

Previously, my work focused on an intense exploration of texture and atmosphere related to the internment camps of France in which the exiles found themselves in the Winter of 1939. But after the Exilio show at Wolfson College in January 2015, I began to depart from these gritty textures, and started focusing more on the arrival in England. And so began a definite move towards colour and even line, but the line was subtle and submerged through a working of cotton threads into the surfaces of my paintings. Yet in no time at all something entirely new came about and bold painted lines and blocks of colour sprang to the surface, joining the other elements to sharpen their narrative and visual thrust.

Looking back I see that the earlier Exilio works wander most aptly in the wilderness. They are all meandering looping threads, crusty earth, squally seas and dense fogs. No doubt I’ll find myself there again in time as this is a particular landscape of exile – thick with inchoate emotion, and the peril of uncertain footholds on foreign and shifting soil. These lost landscapes as I called them are all imagination and longing – vanished spaces conjured through touch and at one remove with an increasing sense of distance and dislocation.

So what’s with the new stuff? Martin has been extremely generous with his time and his comments and I’m both delighted and intrigued by the notion that as creatives being online means we can reach one another so easily to discuss work and exchange ideas. I was so impressed with Martin’s easy and ready fluency in reading this work that I asked him if I could share it here. Sit back and enjoy a most interesting interpretation from my trusty guide in colour block and line. Bear in mind that this commentary was delivered at great speed via FaceBook private messaging and that I have omitted my exclamatory rejoinders which here would only gum up the works.

“This, to my eyes is going down a very good line for you, Sonia. This is distinct, yet abstract, military, yet progressive, non-figurative, yet with “wear” added (rather than “atmosphere”) and sits very well with your specific link to the Spanish Civil war. Also, Brown is such an evocative colour when dealing with History! It’s also the colour of coagulated blood. These pictures look indeed like they’ve been travelling for as long as your own narrative…Worn uniform emblems, yet “patterny” and thusly feminine…I get associations of the fabric strips that undoubtedly would have held together numerous knapsacks in the Thalmann batallion…Plus, crossing lines, aka horizontal AND verticals may denote so much traversing nature/people or indeed good/evil or indeed now/then or home/away, you get my drift, I’m sure. You will have, like I did in my youth, been poring over historical photographs from the era in question. You have the advantage of working with a tremendously stark and pervasive narrative, of course, Sonia, and you dare working with politics. Underplaying and controlling your passions in this abstracted manner is, however, very attractive to me, as your force in the ideas seems to increase, rather, from this approach. You have engineered the new layers to be torn and thusly exposing the past, and considering the nature of upheaval your past & present converses through, this seems absolutely appropriate here.”

Who could ask for more? Faster than a pizza, this analytical feast was delivered within minutes, nourishing and sustaining and replete with associative gems I can continue to examine over time. The power of social media to connect us is impressive, but the power of the artist to decipher a specific visual language is even more so. My huge thanks to Martin for lending his eyes and a vast and ready knowledge so willingly.

I’m both excited and daunted by the new ground I walk on in this quest to translate an experience of exile and to disseminate it’s effects in visual forms. My project somehow provide a passport to experimentation and while my subject is often immensely challenging, I’m also enjoying this exploration of visual geography. In the company of artists like Martin Olsson it just keeps getting better.

You can find the brilliant Martin Olsson through the following links and on Twitter @martinolsson7





Blood Lines, mixed media on board, (55 x 38cms) 2015

At BIAB things are in flux. Objects have taken a back seat, painting has resurfaced and research has been on hold. I’ve been on something of a painting jag.

But it’s funny how things twist and turn on this project. An exceptional book has arrived my door and suddenly another window has been opened onto my father’s life, taking me deep into the wound that was that ‘national slaughter’- the Spanish Civil War. My research cap is on again and I begin to see more clearly the truly ghastly complexity of this tragic conflict.

The book is a quite brilliant critique of Constancia de la Mora’s memoir A Place of Splendour. It is called A Spanish Woman in Love and War: Constancia de la Mora, by Soledad Fox. Having read the original memoir this deconstruction has proven fascinating and most revealing. Nothing is as it seems in la Mora’s account of her trajectory from the old order Spanish ‘aristocracy’ to Republican heroine.


The case of the Republican José Robles Pazos, whose execution in 1936 by ‘uncontrollable elements on the left’ proved to be a final schism between Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos is detailed by Fox (and it is one of many such vital contextual omissions in la Mora’s book). I read these pages in wonder. José’s widow Márgara, and his son and daughter, Coco and Miggie, were among my father’s dearest friends. Their friendship dated back to this time and extended throughout my father’s life. I remember them fondly from when we visited them in exile in Mexico, but I remember Miggie especially for she seemed to be one of my father’s most beautiful and glamorous friends. Miggie also visited us in England when I was in my teens.

I didn’t know about this darkest of histories back then. I knew only my childish sense that the bond between my father and these vivacious and charming friends was one of deep affection and kinship. A special bond, you might say, the kind which infants notice, an impression that holds fast over time. How dreadfully shocking to find this history, which did surface recently as a fragment of oral testimony through my mother (vague and without much detail), so clearly outlined, and to learn of it’s terrible celebrity at the time. Often written about in terms of the rift between two American authors – the personal anguish of a cherished branch of my exile ‘family’ all but stunned me.

Here is one of the articles I found which focuses on José Robles rather than the literary friendship his execution is said to have split asunder. José Robles was never a fascist spy nor a fascist sympathiser, this I know (with all my being) and it feels of the utmost importance to say so. Yet the fact remains that José Robles – so loyal to the Republic that he refused to return to his academic post in Baltimore but chose to stay to defend Republican ideals was killed by a faction on the left – and the ‘mystery’ behind his capture and killing was whitewashed.


It’s in this context that a new painting arrived, demonstrating something of the way research impacts practice – sometimes in dramatic and very obvious ways. It contains new elements and surprises. The title is Blood Lines, which refer of course to kinship, but also to the letting of blood in that terrible war. The lines I’ve been gradually etching into the surface of my work most recently have now broken out entirely in Blood Lines. I don’t feel like being subtle I guess. There is huge symbolism in this painting – a kind of compacted narrative which is much clearer than in previous paintings. At first this troubled me. Usually I prefer oblique approaches.

But I am now right in the middle of the deepest wound perhaps – the self-inflicted blows from within the Republic. So shameful and delicate it pains me to even speak of them, and yet I must. So I do it in pictorial form and in honour of José, Márgara, Coco and Miggie I must say it out loud. In doing so I leave partiality behind me and speak up for humanity.

One pictorial surprise was to learn that I had created lines which run from a suitcase inspired block of brick red to a marbled floor-like block of warm light yellow and orange hues. This then was both a Retirada suitcase and the entrance to my grandmother’s flat. I had conflated two eras and two surface spaces, without realising it at first. The lines run through time and history – the echoes ran through my childhood and are felt even now. The line continues and there is both blood and ink. As I stood back from the final decision to paint the second part of these lines a truer red (knowing that this was blood) I drew breath. Scrabbling through studio drawers I finally fished out a bag containing an old typewriter ribbon I have been keeping for assemblage – red and blue lines run through it of course! The history is here, the history runs through it and must be spoken. In Blood Lines I do.

Rest in peace familia Robles.

José Robles Pazos


Well, no I’m not feeling animated. Far from it actually. But I am preparing for animation, that is I’m working on the character and set for an animation of the poem I wrote in 2014 called ‘Flying Sands’, which you can read here:


The poem was written during a downturn in this post memory project, where I questioned quite deeply the point of it. “What use borrowed memory!” I ask. And it’s a valid question still. A few weeks ago I gave a talk to some Cambridge final year students about the post memory endeavour, in which I tried to convey the compulsion behind the work, and it’s impulse towards healing, not only on a personal level but also in terms of the recuperation of National Memory.

It’s delicate work however, and there are times when private sensibilities or political sensitivities can feel like extremely significant bumps in the road. Enough to stall the project? No. But enough to call for a pause and yes, in that moment of hiatus you have to wonder about whipping a full stop out of the punctuation armoury. It hovers there, like a blackened full moon threatening to fall out of the sky onto the inky page calling time on it all.

Canoe 2015 – an uncanny experience of unconscious processes at work.

So perhaps I’m lucky that I can’t stop. I’m lucky too that I’m able to move between forms in my work, so that I’m never truly blocked, never not working on something (even when my eyes glaze and my mind can only deal with some pretty inane internet surfing I know that I’m processing). Post memory never leaves me, that’s the point.

Adam Childs is a really talented young animator and I’m so looking forward to working with him in the studio. We’ll be using some of my newest paintings as backdrops and the diptych shown (as detail) above is a curious example of working and processing in the way that I do – always allowing the unconscious to lead. These two paintings were worked on in parallel, but with no intention of them being a duo until the final moment when I noticed they could be placed together in a somewhat unusual way – but one which makes extraordinary visual and narrative sense. My poorly captured iPhone photos don’t translate to this blog so I’ll post some good shots next time round to give the idea. As it is you can just make out that unintentionally, lines from the threads I use in both works match exactly without any conscious thought or planning involved. The spirit within them is of a peaceful journey along a river dripping with foliage, quite specifically by canoe.

I’ve been working on the moment of arrival in England, hence the shift from the arid grit of the camps in the work. There is oral testimony that Alec Wainman (the English Quaker who rescued my father and befriended the Spanish exiles) was generous in allowing the Basque children of St Michael’s colony in Shipton-under-Wychwood, to use the stretch of river by the Old Prebendal House and the Wainman family’s canoes. But this is also about another journey – last week we said goodbye with the heaviest hearts to a much loved brother to the project, Christopher Evans.


As a young boy Chris made a canoe with his step-father and as a consummate maker and designer was planning to make another in his retirement, but his untimely death intervened. Like the Basque boys before him Chris enjoyed skimming the river in a canoe, and my work in the studio was in honour of them both, their spirits joined in my imagination through interweaving histories.

So I imagined those boys, and I imagined Chris on a beautiful journey – not gone, just away in that parallel place we go to when we’re no longer here. In a sense this is the essence of my work. In my unconscious and fragmentary manner I’m not so much in the business of animation as reanimation – reimagining and conjuring.

This can also be a playful and joyful process. And tomorrow in the studio the puppet doll I’ve been developing, a bunch of sand, plasticine and twigs will all come to life in our hands and the magic of the app. My father, the Basque boys, and Chris will be with us.


We’ve been on shifting sands at BIAB. Sometimes it happens that life abruptly pushes us into new territory and you could say that we become exiled in a way. The more I work on the Spanish Civil War, and travel along this curious path of post memory exploration, the more deeply I come to know that exile is essentially about loss. Exile is the after of the before. Exile is a line irrevocably crossed. The door forever closes on what was or might have been on the other side. It’s an end but it is also a beginning. This stimulates, of course, a longing for return, which can never be except for in the imagination.

This small observation is not to dilute or trivialise the anguish and bitterness of exile – it has it’s own pages in the directory of human loss, but it shares the book with all the other losses in our lives, great and small. This idea has come to me a little like the first signs of Spring, brightly yet frozen. A snowdrop peering above a frosty lawn.

When life takes us, through chance and circumstances beyond our control, to new and often unwelcome places we’re forced to face ourselves more directly, and to make what choices are left to us. We may need to be bold. There may be times when the hand that seems so randomly to wrench us also prompts us into action. Here I think about the waves of creativity following on from exile, the passionate writing of a whole generation of exiled Spaniards for example.

I turn in this blog then to the boldness and creative risk-taking acquired through traumatic changes and loss, to the impetus towards action, and to energy as a response and a way through. This is how I understand the recent developments in my painting practice – a re-emerging of sorts after all the object work – as action and energy derived from a new boldness of purpose through loss. So we lose and we gain.

This insight is so apposite to the stage I have reached as I trace the exile journey. In a painting called Arrival

I had begun to conjure the moment of arrival in England and think about the release from the arid camps of France accompanied by a swell of mixed emotion; relief and turmoil combined. These recent studio paintings are also about flight, escape and arrival. This is the narrative that runs through them, and I expect to write soon in more detail about some of the ways in which past research and quite specific narrative elements collide on the picture surface. For now I’m more interested in the vigour and action in these works, which echo I feel the energy of the exiles. It is too easy to think of them only as victims (which they were of course but not only) – I don’t want to just do that. They were incredibly resilient and inventive too, and many felt charged with a mission on arrival to new territory – to conserve and disseminate a Republican vision of Spain.

For me, what powers this energy is ritual. The rituals of the studio and those I’ve adopted for my post memory work to show respect for the dead. I imagine the exiles on arrival also adopting new rituals and conserving some old ones – I imagine the ritual of the writing desk and seize the parallel as fuel to my fire. Ritual. Painting. Action.

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