Drawing trees and elephants

Never mind: How to emerge?

What about: How to make work? Or, at least, how to think about it? That is the current question. Reading and drawing is often my way in. Drawing is a direct form of visual thinking for me. I need to draw.

My first work day since the ‘big crit’ and I’ve gone from: shall I draw a tree to what about an elephant? Seems a long way away from my usual cheery subject: murder and abduction

Why trees?

Because I took hundreds of photos of blurred winter trees from the car, last winter in Normandy. In the pictures, the grass is very green and the tall spindly trunks very black against an insipid blue sky. I love the way French trees [in Normandy] are so often planted in lines, as wind-breaks, but also very commonly planted in rectangles round the edge of a field, a farm or house as protection from the weather and perhaps, as a form of ownership and privacy. I know there is a name for this special tree planting …

And Elephants … because I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen’s intense, complex and strange, even surreal, 1988 novel Twenty-Seventh City* [before I relax into his supposed 2010 Tolstoyian masterpiece, Freedom]. Describing a decision by one his characters, Martin Probst, to consider himself as an elephant, Franzen writes: ‘Caution dictated that he determine the boundaries of his role right away. He decided to see himself as a costly and essentially immobile fixture. He saw himself as an elephant.

Elephants weren’t very articulate … Elephants didn’t zip around … Elephants were heavy, however, and Probst agreed to trample whatever influentials needed trampling.’ [Franzen, p. 333]

Several times after this, Probst uses the concept to justify and make shortcuts in his decision-making process: [Think] ‘Elephant, he told himself’.

Elephants as a provision against difficulty.

Raymond Carver, in a short story entitled: Elephant, describes a character who is bogged down with responsibility for his family’s debts. In a dream, he thinks back to being a child, and sitting on his father’s shoulders, safe and happy, without cares or responsibilities.

‘My dad went on walking while I rode on his shoulders. I pretended he was an elephant. I don’t know where he was going. Maybe we were going to the store, or else to the park so he could push me in the swing.’ [Carver, p. 86].

Elephants as a larger-than-life form of security – strong and safe.

For anyone who hasn’t read the short stories of Raymond Carver, I couldn’t recommend him more highly. The ittsy-bittsiness (?) of everyday domestic life, relationships, materialism and often a close-up view of blue-collar America in the 70/80’s. There is also a sort of rythmic, dead-panness to his prose, and the stories often begin and end rather abruptly, like you are just catching a glimpse of someone else’s life. Tragically, for the readers, RC died early aged 50 of lung cancer.

A favourite story is Cathedral, where a sighted man draws a cathedral with a blindman, so he might understand something of a cathedral’s magnificence & grandiosity – typically deadpan but equally, moving. See below for link to a great, well-designed Raymond Carver website.

*Franzen, Jonathan, Twenty-Seventh City (London: Fourth Estate, 2003)

**Carver, Raymond, Elephant & Other Stories (London: Collins Harvill, 1989)





On Saturday I was given the privilege of a one hour crit with British artist, Graham Crowley. This much-needed and very welcome initiative came curtesy of Core Gallery, and Rosalind Davis.

Wow, it is seven years since I had a one-to-one crit, with someone who is prepared to look at your work and tell you, honestly, what they see.

I am a great believer in the peer critique, where a group of artists get together and discuss their work. indeed, I ran one called: Talk About The Work at Claremont Studios, Hastings for three years. And it was a great success.

However, the one-to-one crit with an ‘art-elder’ is something else. Something unique. It is a conversation between two people. And when it works one achieves a momentary intimacy and connectivity, relating to one’s own work, that is a rare and wonderful thing. Indeed, the connections, sparks, observations, book recommendations [and temporary euphoria] that arrived out of that hour will nourish me for a long while yet.

Overall, the experience was painful but postively liberating. I now feel energised.

And today, after months of considering: how to emerge? while in actual fact often thinking: what is the point?

I did some things that I didn’t know I wanted to do:

I applied for a new open

I sent off an initial-proposal for co-curating an exhibition I have been thinking about for ages

I said ‘yes’ to giving work to an Xmas Charity auction at WW Gallery, Hackney

I wrote down some tentative ideas for new work

I wrote some lists – always a good feeling!

What happened on Saturday was a sort of purging. I expressed out loud my doubts, anxieties and hopes for my work.

It was a moment when I physically felt myself turning a corner – away from the dark alley I had become lost in.

I realise I have been on a treadmill – making work, just for the sake of it.

When actually, a bit of quiet reflection will probably pay equal dividends.

To end on a more amusing note: thinking I was being professional, I have recently begun to paint the edges of my stretchers …. something I now remember from art school that is extremely uncool! And, for all that was said in that one-hour crit, that was the only cringe-making moment. I didn’t mind that three months of work was slated, I could see it’s unrelenting vacancy, it’s pointlessness.

But to be caused to cringe at one’s own mistaken, petty vanity …. now that was hard.


Graham Crowley’s paintings can be seen at: http://www.grahamcrowley.co.uk


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It was jolly affair, at last night’s opening of The 2010 Discerning Eye Exhibition at the Mall Galleries. A mixed show ranging from contemporary drawing and painting -Graham Crowley and Tania Kovats – to traditional watercolours and oils. Including examples by Prince Charles, and not many of us have shown with royalty before! As a first-timer, it was great to take part, especially when I found I was in the good company of Core Gallery’s Rosalind Davis [invited by critic, Timothy Barber], Kaori Homma and Marguerite Horner. The overall winner was a hyper-photo-realist painting of a bowl of strawberries & cream, so no surprises there.

However, it is all too easy to be cynical, turning ones nose up at the nudes, still lives, and mediterranean watercolours, when actually, it was rather humbling and, even, democratising, being part of such a variety and wealth of experience and vision. Not to mention the general feeling of bonhomie.

However, the Discerning Eye could not have been more different from a show I saw at Gift, Vyner Street, featuring work by Elaine Wilson & Paula Chambers. Wilson produces elegant ball-gowned porcelain figures, like an elderly aunt might have on her mantle-piece. However, entitled: ‘Ne toucher pas’, these traditional-looking china-figures cum-with-attitude, and make you smile, as they pout in blood-smeared gowns while somewhat, erotically, pointing a gun, at you, the viewer.

Paula Chamber’s exquisite objects [for babies] remind one of Mona Hatoum. Chamber’s chain-mail bonnet made from ‘copper wire stripped from an electrical appliance’ and entitled: ‘For your own good’, and the baby-grows made from stinging nettle yarn, entitled: ‘For the love of God’. Another example of how the choice of title can so brilliantly enhance a work, adding another layer of understanding and cultural context. Ideas hinted at but unexplained, leaving the viewer to ponder.

I am delighted to have been invited by Jane Boyer to take part in an exhibition called Relay at Core Gallery. Jane & I met and became interested in one another’s work through our respective a-n blogs. It is very exciting, to me, that what began as a virtual relationship with many intelligent and challenging questions, on Jane’s part, has turned into showing work together. So I was really pleased to see that Jane’s a-n blog Working in Isolation has been selected and praised by Sarah Rowles for exactly this reason. Jane articulates succintly many soul-searching questions about being an artist today.

And on the same subject, I want to thank Jane for her great comments about my ‘stinkhorn’. [Post 9 – 2nd November]

Jane Boyer writes: ‘I love the use of the stinkhorn image (how can I say that with this work? It is so difficult to separate what you do artistically with such a heinous subject). I’m responding to the stinkhorn because I’ve actually seen and smelled a stinkhorn mushroom and the images conjured in my mind of that memory and experience merges perfectly with Fritzl’s character.

In my painting: ‘Stinkhorn stands guard [The family home of Josef Fritzl, Amstetten, Austria], I used the image of a ‘stinkhorn’ [a phallic-shaped fungi found in countryside] completly instinctually, symbolising Josef Fritzl, and his sexually-predatory presence as jailor to his daughter, Elisabeth. Also, more subtly, as a way of considering [through the idea of fungi, itself and where it grows] what the dark, foul, airless conditions might have been like down there for 24 interminable years. However, I initially felt uncomfortable and shy about using the image. It did take courage. Yet it fitted so perfectly. And a year later, I am able to live with the image as an accurate representation of what I wanted to express, even if at first it comes across as obvious. More recently, I have begun to draw the stinkhorn again [but from books – not a field trip!]

I like the way ‘time’ is such a great and true friend in determining the strength and value of a piece of work. For myself, the pieces that have true meaning, are the ones that I return to and take more things from.

Relay: Core Gallery, 27th November – 18th December 2010.


The Discerning Eye exhibition: 11-21 November 2010


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The Photograph

1. What we see

Our gaze scans across a square, flat, modernist concrete building, the windows obscured by foliage. Above the house a bright blue sky shines in the spring sunshine. Our eye travels down to the wooden-fenced roof garden, and stops briefly on what appears to be a blue and silver camera. [The inspiration for a drawing called Mass Observation.] The left-hand-side of the picture is dominated by the hair and head, red and white cap and sun-glassed profile of an Austrian state policeman. Bottom right a fence-post disappears while above the top half of a spiky fur tree can be seen. [The inspiration for the Spiky-Pop drawings.] However, the centre-piece is another conifer, a more elegant and wholesome-looking example, and one which obscures a window on the second floor. This tree is, in fact, The second tallest tree in Josef Fritzl’s garden. [The subject and title of another drawing].

2. Inspiration

I have been making work for over a year now inspired by a single newspaper image. The series entitled: The Fritzl Drawings explores and deconstructs a photograph, taken by the Austrian photographer Heinz-Peter Bader, that appeared in The Times on Monday 28 April, 2008. The photograph shows 40 Ybbs Strasse, the family home in Amstetten, Austria where Josef Fritzl, secretly imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth for twenty-four years, 1984-2008.

3. Image

At first I drew the house, verbatim, as it appeared in the photograph. Then I began to include a ‘stinkhorn’, a common phallic-shaped fungus, as a symbol of Josef Fritzl. In turn this inspired a number of drawings entitled: Josef Fritzl’s Garden. Here the foliage developed a character of it’s own, becoming sharp and jagged. I made paper models of the house, and repeat drawings that concentrated on specific elements, like the trees.

Repetition conveys the idea of time, and the habitual nature of seeing. I wanted to understand what the passer-by might have seen, so innocently but would not have known, so tragically: a normal-looking concrete house, a garden, trees, a blue sky and sunshine.

Eventually, my thoughts turned to Elisabeth Fritzl, and what she did not see for those twenty-four years. This spurned a sub-series entitled: The world outside (what Elisabeth Fritzl could not see 1984-2008). These pen and ink drawings concentrate on single objects like a fence-post or the distant view of a roof and chimney. They are sparse and grim.

4. How to continue?

Like someone standing up high, looking down, and feeling momentarily compelled to jump – I continually return to that original newspaper image.

Might the artist be considered obsessive, or freakish, or the exploiter of a disturbing and tragic tale?

When people ask about being drawn to such a subject?

I think.

Twenty-four years is a long time, perhaps a third of a total lifetime to be trapped in the same place, imprisoned.

While we were free.

What did we do with our 24 years? (apart from ‘collectively’ walking past, unknowing and unseeing)

How did she survive?

40 Ybbs Strasse, and it’s shocking secret narrative is an unseen, unknowable world.

Apparently distant yet personal, as we, the viewer, unfailingly ask ourselves the same questions: how could it have happened? And, if it had happened to me, how would I have coped?

In part, after a year of drawing, it is this tension – how the subject creates questions in the viewer – that most interests me.

6. How to emerge?

Since 2009 I am glad to say The Fritzl Drawings have been emerging into the world, one by one:

1. Josef Fritzl’s Garden, The Ing Discerning Eye Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London, Nov 2010

2. 64 almost identical drawings of Josef Fritzl, blindfolded. Relay, Core Gallery, London, Nov-Dec 2010

3. Mass Observation. BHVU Winter Open, London, Nov-Dec 2010

4. The second tallest tree in Josef Fritzl’s garden. Oriel Davies Open 2010, Wales, August.

5. Miniature paper model of an Austrian townhouse (belonging to Josef Fritzl), Agency at agency, London, April 2010

6. Three views of an Austrian townhouse (belonging to Josef Fritzl), Police & Thieves, The Old Police Station, Deptford, London, March 2010

7. Paper model of an Austrian townhouse (belonging to Josef Fritzl), C4RD, London, November 2009

8. Stinkhorn stands guard, Austrian townhouse. Brina Thurston’s Open Call 09, Frieze Projects, Frieze Art Fair, London, 2009

9. Proto-type paper model of an Austrian townhouse (belonging to Josef Fritzl). Art, Value, Currency, A three-part project curated by Isobel Shirley, The Pigeon Wing, London, New York, London, 2009-10

10. Stinkhorn, FringeMK 09, Milton Keynes, September 2009

11. Austrian townhouse, Travelling Light, WW Gallery, London & Collateral Event at 53rd Venice Biennale, June 2009

For more images see:



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