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The isolated artist is a myth. Impossible.
(If you have evidence to the contrary, do tell)

It is only by talking to other artists that you develop.
(Talking to non-artists is good too, but a different beast, to perhaps be discussed in a different post.)

I now share a studio with Sarah Goudie. Our conversations range from the ridiculous chatting with resident pigeons, to the theories and sensibilities that drive us in our various ways to make marks.
Both types of interaction are welcome. We both have a highly developed sense of the silly.
It is inspiring to delve deeper, gleaning insights from the other artist into what I might actually be doing.

Yesterday I spent the day in my studio with Dr Jacqueline Taylor (she worked bloody hard for the title so I shall use it at every opportunity). In talking to someone else about the work, I am challenged to find the right words to describe my process, my philosophy, my connections, rationale. Flimsiness and airy-fairness will not do. We are discussing a future project: we talk of process, materiality, semiotics, visual vocabulary, and searching for the possible common lexicon…
In talking like this, my work takes on a new dimension, extra layers are added to it. The things I am doing rather instinctively while on my own in that beautiful room, suddenly become clear …I know what the purpose is. I saw Jacqueline off on the train, and have spent many hours in deep thought ever since.

The evening was spent at songwriting circle. Up until very recently, ridiculously, I still looked upon my songwriting as a fanciful thing, an added-on thing. Since dismissing that, and taking on board confidently that is a very important part of my practice, I have dived in even deeper. Committing more thought and a mindfulness to that process too. Songwriting is the thing that increases my brain activity, providing opportunity for a completely different sort of intellectual process. I have often mentioned the meditative state that occurs during stitching or immersive drawing. My brain wanders off on its own, making connections previously unknown. Songwriting is nowhere near that, it is completely the opposite. In songwriting I am TOTALLY in that moment, unable to wander off and think about whether we have enough bread for tomorrow’s breakfast… There is no room for any other sort of thinking. I can listen to the piano chords played expertly by Bruford Low, and hear additional suggestions for lyrics and harmony from Nicki Kelly. When I concentrate on these chords, I can really hear, and now, after a couple of years practice, able to sing a topline over it. I hear it, and have now got the confidence to sing it, without fear of making a fool of myself. I am also pretty fast at writing the words, that scan, that pick out just the message I’m looking for.
I absolutely love it. It’s fast, and furious, when you are in the right group of people. Nearly better than sex. It is also exhausting, in that wired and buzzy adrenalin fuelled way. Monday nights leave me with a big grin on my face.

Today, I’ve had lunch with Carol Wild at BCU, discussing all manner of things… Now colleagues, she was once my MA tutor, who had the often dubious pleasure of marking my essays. She remarked on how much she enjoyed reading my blog and how much my writing had improved in the last four/five years. It suddenly occurred to me that what has happened is that the blog is even more integrated into my practice than it ever was, but that actually, very interestingly, my songwriting has had an effect on my blog…

In terms of structure, I now think that when I write the blog I have a greater awareness of rhythm. That my verses shouldn’t be too long. I should use interesting words, include metaphor. It should have humour and/or a bit of weirdness for the middle eight.

The the final verse should somehow reprise what has gone before, make connections.
The connections I have made in the last couple of days have pushed things on a bit further.
I couldn’t do that on my own, without conversation, laughter, music, reflective thought.

As the pigeons coo above me, and I contemplate what they might add to the recording of the song, I cannot help thinking how bloody lucky I am.


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I spend quite a bit of my time talking to artist teachers, and artists with other jobs, about the connections between life and practice, and having to make time for the practice. There is the notion that an extra slot of time has to be found, at the sacrifice of something else, in order to make art, to be an artist. My philosophy over the last ten years has grown into the idea that there is no separation, and that this state is to be aimed for…

This morning I have made some chocolate orange cookies.

(Oooh…. I shall include the recipe below so you can make them too!)

As I smash the softened butter into the sugar, and beat hell out of it, I enter a state of reverie:

The last time I made these particular cookies I was still working in school. I often baked for my colleagues, any excuse to make something into a special occasion. Mothering. Nurturing.

I start thinking about my own mother’s penchant for baking, and the fact it was an activity we joyfully did together when I was a child, and we swapped recipes as I became an adult and moved away from home, visits accompanied by the latest recipe to be tasted and judged, on taste, and frequently whether it was worth the hassle. Anything more than two bowls and two spoons considered a “Faff”, the taste of which had to compensate for the effort.

As I now rapidly approach the age that my mother was when I got married, I see the baking from different perspectives. I was the baby of the family, 8 yrs younger than my closest sibling. With two growing men, and one very strong hard-working agricultural worker in the household, calories and carbohydrates were important. My equally hard working mother was charged with the duty to provide for this. I am now aware that the earning capacity of my parents probably was not that high. I wasn’t then. Blissfully unaware! The only thing that made me think was that Jessica P. had her gingham dresses from Marks and Spencer, and mine were home made. My mum managed to spin this into a tale of how sorry I should be for Jessica because her mum was incapable of making hers. Don’t get me started on itchy home knit cardigans!

Potatoes, bread, cakes, home grown veg were plentiful. I managed to grow big and strong, very well fed thank you. Being fed well was a synonym for love. Mothering. Nurturing.

My art practice has grown directly from this, my “career” in a wide range of settings, has always had an element of nurturing, care, education, even when I resented and rejected education for a while. As soon as I had my own sons, their nurturing, education, experience of the world was paramount. I truly believe now that they were my art practice then. I thought about the world through them, about what sort of adults they should be. The experiences I provided for them were not of the generic Marks and Spencer’s variety, but the home knitted variety. Parties were at home, with jelly, not at McDonald’s with “happy” meals (sorry, can’t do it without quotation marks).

Since my sons have both reached adulthood, and now both parents and parents-in-law have all died, my art practice seeks to examine this relationship, the effects we humans have on each other, and how we are in the world. The baking of chocolate and orange cookies, my examination and rumination of my childhood memories is therefore all part of that practice. The memories are possibly skewed by later experiences, and no doubt remembered differently by my family, but those differences are interesting don’t you think?

My “career” (actually, I could happily remove those quotation marks if you consider a different meaning of career. I have careered about, crashing into people and experiences until coming to an exhausted pause…) My career then, has been so far, one of helper, parent, carer, mentor, teacher, partner, friend. My career and my art practice is always about the relationships… the mothering and nurturing, and sometimes the lack of that.

So, as I talk to new students about where they locate their practice, I encourage them to look at the place they are already in. There is evidence there of the makings, they just have to recognise, acknowledge, and publicly state which are the important bits to them. That…. that’s the tricky bit.

 

CHOCOLATE ORANGE COOKIES
(one bowl, two spoons)

250g butter – softened
50g caster sugar
100g light brown sugar
300g self-raising flour
2- 4 tablespoons milk
1 Terry’s chocolate orange chopped, but not too small

Preheat over to 180 deg, or 160 deg in a fan oven, Gas 4
Beat hell out of the butter and sugar, with wooden spoon.
Add the flour, with 2 spoons of milk, adding more if required to bring the dough together.
Add the chocolate and stir in till evenly distributed.
Break off pieces of dough about as big as a golf ball, you should get about 24
Bake for 8-10 mins, keep an eye on them at the end, as they can suddenly turn to the dark side!

This cookie dough is really good, I have substituted the choc orange for all manner of fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and different chocolate and chunks of fudge/toffee too… or just had them plain, if the cupboard is bare!

mother… nurture…


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As a wet-behind-the-ears sixteen year old, recently freed from grammar school, as they didn’t want me cluttering up the sixth form, I trudged up the hill from Hereford railway station to the Art College at the top.

Because I had been a pain in the bum school pupil, I came away with the bare minimum O levels to enable me to get there, but not do a foundation course. That was for the cleverer people who had paid attention in geography, instead of drawing maps of fictitious places. So having also been a pain in the bum primary school pupil who could read before she got there, I decided books were my thing and I was going to do illustration, so enrolled on a graphics and illustration course.

Turns out I was also a pain in the bum graphics student, as I fulfilled the year’s briefs in the first term… and having resorted to my favourite boredom relieving tool of disruption, it was decided I should do the Foundation Course as I would be more challenged. I look back at this now with a wry smile. I was as a child/young person, the sort that would be my favourite sort of pupil when I became a teacher…

That was a bit of a detour, as what I really was going to write about was graphic design.

I’m doing a little bit at the moment, and I’m really enjoying it. I do a bit here and there, usually for my own projects, because I am always a pain in the bum client for anyone else. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but I’m finding that all my old obsessions are coming back to haunt me.

I have very particular requirements when it comes to font choice, alignment, layout, colour…

and what I find is that I like it if it looks like no one has actually designed it. Plain, simple, clean lines. Perfect alignments, even borders… I can usually spot something that is out, a mile off!

I cannot bear twiddly bits.

As I reflect on this, I realise these tastes manifest themselves across my practice:

I like crisp line drawings.

I like simple stitching (see a previous post about not doing fancy embroidery)

I’m not keen on unnecessary embellishments.

And as I reflect further, I realise I don’t like frilly songs either. I love that editing process of stripping things back, and building up again… questioning what is added…

I’ve just sent my preliminary/draft designs to Nicki Kelly for her perusal…

As a design for a logo for a project for visually impaired people, to be used by a visually impaired project manager, I thought I had designed something simple. A circle inside a square with white text on a black ground. Nicki’s feedback stripped it back further “Can it be a simpler font, that one is a bit blurry? And can it just be a square without a circle?”

Yes it can.


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For the last 15 years I have spent most Friday mornings life drawing. It has always been a discipline and exercise I love. But I’m not really getting anywhere with it, I’m not concentrating hard enough on it to make a difference. So I think I have fallen out of love with it a bit. This shows. My last year’s drawings have been on scrappy paper with scrappy materials that I grab on the way out of the door, or those that happen to be in the boot of the car and never see the light of day between Fridays. The drawings are a bit shit.

I think, moving into a studio with Sarah Goudie has had an effect on how I look at my drawing – as it bloody well should!

So over the last couple of weeks I have spent a bit of time choosing and buying new materials, and have started drawing other things in the studio, and at home. Drawing from observation still, but just other stuff… fabric and clothes mostly, projects I am working on. This feels more relevant to my practice than the life drawing at the moment. And I am finding that I worry less about what it looks like. When an arm is in the wrong place, that is all I see when I look at the drawing of a human figure. When a sleeve is in the wrong place, I shrug it off, and think about the drawing as the thing that matters, rather than the accuracy of the figure. This I feel is a step forward, not back. I know that when I concentrate properly, I can draw a figure well… I’ve even sold a few in my time!
But it is a thing that needs love in it.

But when I just draw “stuff”, I do observe, but it flows better, I feel I am involved with the materials rather than the subject. Because of this, it becomes a much more immersive, internal process, and I’m loving it.

And because I’m loving it, the drawings are better, and I’m looking at them, rather than immediately discarding them, or shoving them in a bag. The new drawings are informing my practice, and my thought processes. At the moment, the life drawing isn’t hitting the spot.

 


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It’s all research isn’t it?

Today we went to see the MA show at Birmingham City University’s School of Art in Margaret Street in the city centre. It is a very special place that becomes a very big part of you if you study there, or work there, or like me, lucky enough to have done both.

It has become an annual ritual, since before doing it myself. As I walk round I am curious – probably it’s the teacher in me – about what sort of marks the work gets, and to my shame, I find myself wondering if the given marks would coincide with my own thoughts, mostly not knowing the students, or the work that has led up to this.

As we walked round there were a couple of artists showing work using domestic settings, furniture, crockery… some of this is interesting, some of it bores me, in a “seen it all before” way. Of course I’ve seen it all before because the domestic is where much of my work is situated. It is familiar, and I have to look carefully in order to see the new, the different angle. I can’t help thinking that ebay sellers must do quite well out of art students looking for the perfect fire surround circa 1976. I don’t mean this to be a criticism of the work, I mean it to be a criticism of me. I am in awe of the marking tutors who remain open to these things, to enable them to see each student’s work as fresh, and treat it and mark it accordingly.

Then we go to see other work that is so far from what I do, I struggle with it. Often I struggle with paintings. Occasionally I see something that I can really relate to in terms of the artist having an affinity with the medium, and an obsession of some sort, and I get it. Otherwise I tend to walk past paintings in the manner of the regulation march required to see Van Gogh in the Royal Academy.

I also have difficulties with work produced very quickly using rubbish… enough of my prejudices…

What I’m getting at is work that sits between. This is why I go to the MA show year upon year… to find work in my Zone of Proximal Development. Something that will draw me in, where there is a point of access, but that which challenges me enough to make me think, and hopefully move me on a bit.

I usually go around looking for this magic combination, and declare work in this area to be my favourite. I also go around with an editor’s head on thinking “avoid tautology!” and there are often installations I stand in front of where I think “too much” and want to remove several items. Of course I have no authority, as I don’t really know why the artists have made those choices, but it is a game I find myself playing. It keeps me sharp. I am prone to overstating, so find myself in front of my own work being strict with myself and saying “What can I remove, that still allows the work to speak how I want it to?” It’s a difficult thing to do, because what I have found is that quite often, the piece that needs to be removed is the work that has taken the longest, or is the “prettiest”. These are hard to let go of, if like me, you have a craft background where Time + Skill = Worth.

This year I have come away feeling that I have actually moved on a way since my show. I have also I think found a voice and a vocabulary that works for me, and I have around me the sort of people that will continue to question me, and challenge any lazy thinking. I’m feeling a little smug, that four years on from my graduation, I am still working as an artist, I am earning a meagre living, I am with the people I want to be with, doing what I want. I have an amazing studio I share with an amazing artist in the top of another (rather tattier) Victorian building just a few miles away from Margaret St.

Looking at other people’s work is always challenging. Questioning your own work afterwards is even more so, if you look properly. So, tomorrow I will head back into the studio, look at what I have been making and doing and ask myself:

Is it too much?

Is it obvious?

Is it too comfortable and easy?

Is it all a waste of my time?

Is it pointless?

Is it juvenile nonsense?

Is it showing off?

Is it actually saying anything?

Is it smug middle class comfortable self-examination?

Is it getting me anywhere?

and probably a dozen more…

There will undoubtedly be a few uncomfortable answers, but hopefully I can be aware, and address them somehow.


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