The increasingly intense exploration of drawing, and the threads between words, sounds, music, lines…


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After my last post about the frantic activity of bid writing, things have turned around a little…

For some reason I always forget what it feels like, The Slump. I know it is coming and I predict it. But somehow I forget those nuances. It isn’t just that I don’t have the focus of the project, or that I don’t have Things To Do, it’s something to do with the work itself, and how I feel about it.

Over the last week I have been playing and experimenting with different paper, different colours and different marks even, but I don’t like any of it. I had forgotten this. The door has closed on Drawing Songs, I feel that was successful, and I’m proud of the work I did and how it was received. But despite having a list of ideas to work through, I had forgotten that this period of experimentation will feel rudderless, pointless, and that I won’t like anything I make.

It is impossible to feel successful and proud continuously. Part of me feels like I should push forward with bravado, and professional confidence, the job has been well done, so here I am… but that isn’t how it feels. There isn’t some smooth even-stepped art career ladder that starts at 22 and gradually climbs. Maybe for some it is. But for this 60 year old woman that feels like she’s only just started, the terrain is rugged. I stepped onto a rock that feels secure, but to move on from here? I’m not even talking about UP (whatever that means) just to move ON…

Over the last few weeks I have been talking to other mature artists (by which I mean over 50) and we all have a sense of weariness sometimes. I stare at the up-and-coming with a sense of scepticism and cynicism and wishing I had their energy, a little bit of that attitude. We are here though, still at it, because we are still at it. With this tenacity, determination and yes, bloody-mindedness, comes that world-weary sigh.

I am actually quite good at telling others to keep at it, that I think they’re great, their work is terrific – because it is! The artists I am talking about have made work that really means something to them and to me. It comes from a real place, their heart and their real lives, not some pretentious art-life. 

But I’m not very good at telling myself. It’s not a thing that’s easy to do once the slump has hit. Although I do have some tools. When people write to me, or send messages saying they liked something I made, I keep it. So that when I have trouble telling myself I can do this work, I can read those words and start to build again, post-project, mid-slump.

I also wondered if I should write this? Because there’s nothing less attractive than self-pity. Especially from someone like me who has had good fortune. Nothing more boring to listen to than moaning. But… this is real life as an artist. It is the only work I can do that makes me happy. Without it I would quickly go down.

I’m not sure it is self-pity really. Perhaps a self-awareness. This too shall pass. In amongst all the crappy work I will do over the next few months, will be little nuggets of loveliness I can build on. I am ever optimistic!

I suppose I write because it is my truth. I have just completed an Arts Council funded project to a great level of personal satisfaction. That’s true. It’s also true that it took me about seven attempts to get it funded.  And now it’s true that I feel that all the work spread out on my studio floor is rubbish. I’ve got out of the habit, over the last 18 months, of knowing this is mostly how it is. Hopefully the tenacity that kept me re-applying for the funding will stand me in good stead and I’ll keep playing, producing crap, until at some point, it’s not.


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A few days on, and despite promises to myself to take things slowly and relax a little into the new year, I found that I didn’t. 

Since the project drew to a close, I have been thinking about all of the things I could do next… and also how to follow them up.

You may have read about my work improvising and drawing in live performance with sound artist Bill Laybourne (blog posts 8th August and 31st October 2021). Both of us have been keen to follow this up, and in conversations that followed, we decided it would be good to find some funding for it, so that we could do it properly and dedicate a decent amount of time to it rather than snatched bits of time between other work. So last week we had a couple of sessions over mugs of tea and wrote a bid for a small amount, just to dip our toes in the water to see how it works. We shall see. It’s going to mean just a few days pay for each of us, but if we are successful it will mean we can concentrate on it. 

Then a few days after I discovered another pot is available and thought as I have just rewritten and updated my CV, I might as well apply for it for myself! This is not what I thought January would be like… I thought I’d be mouldering about in the swamp of slump for weeks yet. But I suppose it means I will have at least six weeks to wait before I hear anyway, so can squeeze in a bit of mouldering then.

Thing is, apart from the workshop at RBSA my earning from anything else is severely limited at the moment. I am not inclined to invite people into my studio for workshops, and not keen on going to places where the space is limited, unventilated, or I am unsure about. So funding pots are the thing to go for. 

We shall see.

After a year and a half of Drawing Songs, abstraction and sound, I feel the need to feed the roots of my drawing practice. I need to do some drawing out in the fresh air… following nature… soaking up some sun… whenever it appears… take a breath…


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I start to get twitchy if it gets to two weeks and I haven’t blogged. I shall call it a holiday to make myself feel better. Not much art has happened over the Christmas and new year break, but that’s ok. I needed the rest. I am still tying up loose ends from the Drawing Songs project, and Laura Rhodes and I are in the middle of editing the project video. Its purpose is a reminder to myself as much as anyone else, of the work done, and the distance travelled. 

I do have lots of “leads” to follow up… conversations I had during the last year that can now be followed up, and I look forward to that.

There’s a distinction to be made between the end of the funded project period (mid December) and the fact that my practice continues through that and beyond. I did what I said I would do, and more. So I don’t need to worry about that. And now it’s quite nice to know that having answered my own questions, I can continue allowing the work to unfold without needing to document it or justify it. It’s like learning to drive after getting your licence in some ways. Having found out a few things and having had a go at some new things for the project, I can now let them sit. I can continue drawing and writing and singing, in the knowledge that these things have an effect on each other, but I no longer have to watch the pot. So since mid December I’ve drifted into the domestic, the festivities and my wonderful family, and I’ve been able to thoroughly enjoy them.

But now, as I said, I start to twitch and need to get back into the swing of things, occupy my neglected studio, just start doing again. In the absence of a clear focus (which is absolutely fine) I need to just exercise the muscles again for a while. I’ve been doing some observational drawings of some beautiful knobbly gnarly twigs with lichen on, and they’ve really satisfied an itch to draw with purpose. I’ve also signed up for one of Sarah Goudie’s drawing sessions at the end of the month. This offers the opportunity to let go of the reins, and explore in a different way. It also offers the opportunity for conversation, and small collaborations. I will use this session also as a brain and muscle strengthening. 

 

In February half term week I am delivering my first workshop for the RBSA. It has been almost three years since I did anything that comes close to teaching, and I am actually looking forward to it, under the protective umbrella of my new group. I am doing a Drawing to Music one-day workshop. It’s going to be lovely to stretch out to other artists in this way, after spending a year doing it myself.


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September

This month saw loads more zooming, principally because Michael Clarke has moved to Devon. No more popping over to Kings Heath for an hour or so and a coffee! Instead, I went to Devon for three days and we pretty much finished all the recordings. 

I also recorded a podcast for Bill Laybourne’s FIELDWORKS 

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/field-works-extract-intro?si=8d6e1e610eea4e878f4f6f304c014813&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

show on Black Country Radio Extra. This is a real incidental bonus for the project: another assessment point, and a new audience. It’s basically an interview about me, and the project. A good one for the archive, thanks Bill!

October

The Drawing Songs exhibition will open in the last week of October so much of the month is spent preparing the gallery, getting work framed and mounted, getting the lyrics book printed, and the cd duplicated. All the publicity and marketing shifts up a gear and I start to feel excited, but also a little relieved that it will be finished soon. The year since getting the funds in September last year has been very focussed, busy, and absolutely wonderful, but also in places rather exhausting.

One of the people I have met through the Discussion Festival is dancer Mel Simpson… who combines dancing with drawing, so she, Bill and I feel there might be some mileage in exploring some sort of collaboration. We have a chat, but decide to wait until 2022 so we can concentrate on it properly. I don’t have the brain space at the moment.

The exhibition goes well, is well attended and very well received. I do a live performance of six of the songs with Michael Clarke (after three hours’ rehearsal! Eeeeek!); a live drawing to sound session with Bill, equally well received but a very different experience for the performers and the audience. 

November

At one of the gigs I attended earlier in the year I was introduced to Wayne Moseley, a really genuine music lover with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of all sorts of music. He is a DJ for a couple of radio stations. We got to talking about all sorts of things art and music related and he also knows Michael, so turned up at Drawing Songs for the gig, and buys the CD. This lovely man then plays one of my songs 

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/alarms?si=40cfe1ef6fa74f74a0f62b82e1c777e0&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

ALARMS 

on Big City Radio in Birmingham, on Hive Radio UK in Manchester, and Smile Radio Online. The audience figures on my ACE evaluation will be at least double the predicted number!

December started with me tidying up the studio for an open weekend. It wasn’t hugely busy, but some lovely people came, chatted, ate cake, and bought some work. 

The Sitting Room (trio, not enough room for a five-piece band) had an appearance on Black Country Radio to celebrate the launch of our second EP “Sitting Room Only”, singing live on the radio is a weird and wonderful thing, a bit nerve-wracking, but fun.

 

https://soundcloud.com/user-814443750/leftover?si=4a6dddb4fa15462d9a1e712e4874930e&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

LEFTOVER 

Then I shut down the studio really, in need of a break, and with a desire to celebrate our first Christmas in our new home in style, hoping all the time that we would be allowed to.

It has been wonderful! All my family around me, all tested and safe and well thank goodness. I’ve waved off one son and daughter-in-law this morning… the younger son still here.

I think there’s some cheese left in the fridge…

Happy New Year!

Thanks for reading xxx


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May

Michael Clarke managed to come to work with me in my studio, we sorted out a few things that we could only do when in the same room, recorded a few bits and pieces, and made a big list of things to then follow up when we were on our own, to post backwards and forwards. The need to work remotely has meant a lot of organisation rather than relying on being able to do it “next time”.

I started recording extra voices for the last chorus of the song BUTTONS.

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/buttons-1?si=109e3dc6677c4025ba0615ac34bbb026&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

 A couple of people went to Mike’s studio in Kings Heath, A couple recorded themselves and sent it in to us. But what was really lovely was being able to get Kathryn Marsh, Danielle Cawdell, Carly Buntin and Alice Thomas (yes, related, my daughter-in-law) into my studio to record them. Of course we took the opportunity to catch up, play, and drink tea too. I’ve missed this. 

(Gracie Shaw and heather wastie recorded themselves, Karen swan visited MC in Kings Heath)

I also welcomed Bill Laybourne to the studio to talk about how he might be able to collaborate on some of the sound works for the project. 

Then towards the end of the month Ed Isaacs and Steve Evans visited. They have been so encouraging and supportive of my work over the last few years. They nominated and seconded me for the Candidates Exhibition for the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, so they came over to look at my work to help me choose which pieces to submit. There was much discussion about whether I should submit a sound piece, but then felt that it would not represent my work, particularly in the middle of an ACE funded project if I DIDN’T submit a sound piece. It was a bit of a risk perhaps, but one that had to be taken. I was the first candidate in the Society’s 200 year history to submit a piece of music. It felt like a responsibility, but something I needed to do.

June

June saw the opening up of the music world and my band co-writers Andy Jenkins and Ian Sutherland returned to my studio for rehearsals, and we looked at several songs we had written remotely over the previous year and a bit, while isolated. They are good songs, they are developing nicely and will sit happily amongst the existing set we think. Steve and Ed invited me to take part in a small crit group they hold, alongside fellow RBSA member Linda Neville. It’s always good to present work to new eyes, and this was also a good way to assess the project’s progress.

July

During the very first lockdown, I started an online Facebook group of artists who draw, in order to provide a bit of support, some stimulation to keep working and a forum for conversation about drawing, and a place to post the things that inspired us. This group really took off, and I was delighted when many of the group signed up for an exhibition once we were allowed to hold one at General Office. Around 20 artists from across the UK, and also from the USA and Sweden took part too. It was so great to see many of them in real life and thank them for keeping me focussed.

The Candidates Exhibition went up at RBSA, including my five drawings and one song: 

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/we-are-the-kiss?si=109e3dc6677c4025ba0615ac34bbb026&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

WE ARE THE KISS

Stuart, Kate and I had been talking about the blog writing and had decided to ask each other a few questions, to compare our thoughts and approach to blogging. These questions were taken up and published by a-n.co.uk news. We also hosted a table on Discussion Festival to further discuss the long term blog in relation to the more immediate forms provided by the likes of Instagram. It was an interesting evening!

The RBSA Candidates show ended, and I was informed my application had been successful! So excited to be an Associate member of this prestigious and historical society of artists. To do so as a “groundbreaking” sound artist made it doubly thrilling!

August

The Sitting Room (or at least the trio of Ian, Andy and I) have started gigging… a small set in a local venue, and a longer, double set at an event in the local park. Small beginnings, but it does feel great to be singing live again. I also have been to a couple of gigs myself, and it feels warm and welcome to be hearing live music. Audiences are so appreciative that the art has returned. It’s been emotional.

I managed to spend a bit more time in Michael’s studio too… things are coming together slowly remotely, then take a big leap of progress when we can get together. I am feeling confident at this point that the work will be done, and it will be good! We recorded a really picky and particular vocal for 

https://soundcloud.com/elena-thomas/undertaker-bees?si=109e3dc6677c4025ba0615ac34bbb026&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

UNDERTAKER BEES. 

It’s a really tricky one to sing, and required accuracy and an attention to detail that Mike is famed for. 

At the beginning of August I hire the gallery space for a week, staple a huge length of paper round three of the walls with the idea that I will draw to music on a large scale. I invite in a few musicians, including Andy Jenkins from the band, and Robert Lane, who is not just a musician, but an actor and improvisor too… I thought his input would be interesting, and it was.

But the big deal game changer was Bill Laybourne. He came in for a whole day, with a packed lunch and so much gear! He set it all up and we had such a fun day, making weird and wonderful sounds and doing weird and wonderful drawings. It was while doing this I had the idea to commission Bill to do a live drawing sound piece which we would do live, with an audience, then I would use recordings for future Drawing Songs workshops.


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