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Review of the Year… a long read… sorry… get some tea and biscuits first maybe?

2020… yes… it’s been a bit crap really hasn’t it, generally? But I don’t want to write a review about a virus, my fury at the government and what hasn’t been done… what I haven’t done… I wanted to look at the sweep of the year for me… what has happened, what I’ve done, and how I have felt about it. And then maybe a tentative look forward?

The innocent(ish) days of January, I was feeling a bit low. I do usually in January anyway, like many people. I had spent most of 2019 trying to apply for ACE funding. Four attempts in 2019. The final of that year being rejected in the week before Christmas. Suffice to say I was feeling weary from it all. I decided to forget about it until Mid January to give myself some recovery time, to re-engage with my practice, which naturally had suffered a little while all that form filling was going on. I found space in a description of the creative process from J K Rowling of all people. The well crafted project draws from a lake of inspiration, then spends time being worked at in the shed. Some projects are in need of more shed, some need another dip in the lake. 

Despite feeling the analogy fitted me quite well, by February I was feeling a real lack of inspiration and motivation. I decided to give ACE one more go, before a complete rewrite was necessary. So I pulled together whatever personal resources I had left in me and submitted another form. Three days before the decision was due, I received a letter saying that all project funding had been halted in order to respond to the needs of the arts community in the fast developing Covid-19 crisis. I descended even further. I was feeling my age (and more) and was feeling a need for connection and mutuality that was about to be pulled from underneath me.

(Be Careful What You Wish For)

In March the goalposts moved and we realised life was going to have to change rapidly, and probably for a long time. I brought home lots of equipment and materials, took over the dining room in an attempt to kid myself I could carry on as usual. I couldn’t, of course. 

In an attempt to retrieve that sense of connection, I went round 12 of the houses closest to me, dropped a card through the door to invite people to join a neighbourhood WhatsApp group, in case we needed each other in the coming weeks. Most people joined, and we found a sense of community we hadn’t had before. I offered my services as an art teacher to anyone who had children, and offered a goody bag of materials if needed. As a throw away note in brackets I said I could supply to interested adults too. Every household in the group had a pack of stuff… they all used some of it, some used all of it. Some of the brave ones posted photos of what they had done. It was lovely. Buoyed by success, I then started up a Facebook group for artists who draw. That’s been great too… a real fellowship… company… reassurance.

But by the end of April I was feeling conflicted with the work… my thoughts being about touch, in an environment where touch had become a taboo. There was a real and a figurative disconnect. I reverted to my sketchbook, found writing hard, and felt an all-pervading sadness that sat on my chest. I cried frequently, without obvious provocation.

By May I was really missing the band, and the singing. 

I dismantled the oldest garden shed that had been the start of the merging of art and music in my life. A sad farewell. The work coming off the dining table was morphing slightly. I had a financial boost from the Arts Council Emergency response fund, which really gave me a psychological boost and I decided that whenever they reopened the funding, I’d be ready to slam in a new, rewritten application. So that’s what I worked on, alongside other bits of drawing. 

In June, when restrictions eased a little I felt confident to head back into the studio, and gradually returned all the materials I had brought home, returning the dining room to the domestic. I had started to write again, and had a set of lockdown lyrics to send out to the guys. Over all this time, I have actually written quite a few things… but after a period of blank sheets… it took a while to get going and then, once I got going, to write lyrics that said a little bit more than “I’m shut in the house and I hate it”. 

Once back in the studio, I began to question my processes again, readdress my rules of engagement. I changed tack, changed materials and set up a few diversionary tactics.

In July, my new funding application was taking shape. Having a smaller sum from ACE had enabled me to undergo a certain amount of research, and a bit of soul-searching too. I felt the new project, although in some ways leading on from the old, felt fresh and exciting. I talked about leaving space to grow. Leaving space for the collaborator, the co-writer, the viewer and the listener. I zoomed with artists and musicians and began at last to feel I could get somewhere, that I could still work.

In amongst all this, we started to get ready to put our house on the market. Madness eh? I sorted out materials, and gave them away to other artists, (even sent some to Sweden!) schools, art groups. I sold some old work, and took loads to the charity shops. July made space, and I finished my application form.

After spending what seemed like years trying to convince myself that the song is a drawing and a drawing is a song, at last, the Arts Council agreed with me, and said that Drawing Songs could be funded. I cried about that too. Relief, joy, sadness, worry, a little fear and a little bit more hope… This was an endorsement for my efforts, a validation and a real boost emotionally, professionally and oh my god yes, FINANCIALLY! Wonderful wonderful ACE!

September saw me dig in. I organised, zoomed some more, emailed and phoned.

October saw the re-emergence of my work ethic. I had a wonderful, socially distanced session in the gallery with Sarah Goudie, and lots of drawings and bits of music in progress. I wanted to mark a starting point for the project. I also invited in Laura Rhodes for a photo/video shoot, just to assess where I was and where I wanted to be, and how I envisaged getting there. I thought carefully about the importance of the right collaborator. I’ve been very lucky, especially musically. And this time round with Michael Clarke as producer/engineer and co-writer seems to be right on point. I am still missing the band terribly. But this project will see me at last find and acknowledge my own musical voice, acknowledge the sadness of it too.

November was brilliant. Music files pinged across the internet back and forth as we started work on this pile of sounds and words. I am thrilled with Michael’s input. He has understood my ideas and put things together beautifully. It isn’t the same as working in the same room. But it will do for now, it has its advantages, and when we eventually get into the studio together – his and mine – we will have a packed agenda. I start to realise what my job description is here, as prompted by Laura’s question… it’s a huge curation… how do I put these elements together to make something more than the sum of its parts (I often nod at Aristotle in this way)

In December, Michael and I take a break for children, Christmas, and to be honest a bit of recovery from the whole damn year, with a brief to reconvene in January. I wallow in the domestic. I bake and clean. I let myself draw bees, take risks, record the sounds of rain on the car roof, of leaves and snow underfoot… I pack up some books, and get ready to move house in January (crosses fingers and touches wood)

In my head, January’s plan is to spend time concentrating on sound, rhythm and melody. I have the words.

My hopes are that with a vaccine, we will tentatively be able to get into the gallery and the studio and will carefully start to build on all these ideas hothoused in times of lockdown. There are some bloody good songs waiting, and some bloody big, amazing drawings!

Happy New Year all!

Exx

PS… 2021 is my tenth year of blogging! 


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Here’s the thing about money. And the lack of it.

It inhibits and encourages risk. Risk makes for interesting work. Risk makes failure. From failure comes growth.

Take the large scale paper drawing, and my subsequent expensive paper habit: If you don’t have much money, like I don’t usually, you have to save up for it, then order it, at just over £100 a time. But then it is a precious resource, so you are careful with it. Or you don’t use it until you are SURE. Sure is a dreadful state for an artist… for me anyway… because I am also lazy and will fall into easy patterns of behaviour where the work ends up looking pretty. Skillful, yes, but pretty, and SAFE. But the thing is, when I take my nib loaded with ink to the expensive paper (300gsm Bockingford watercolour paper if you are interested) it behaves differently to when I use it on the cheaper paper. Therefore the drawings are different. 

So… wind forward… the ACE grant lands in my bank account and the first thing I do is buy another load of paper. And I have the money to buy more as and when I need it. Suddenly, I don’t need to be so precious, so I start taking more risks with the ink, paint, pens and brushes, and squirts of water, and pencils too. I can experiment more freely, knowing there is more if I mess it up. Being able to take the risks has paid off.

But the converse can also be true, for me, and I have observed in other people. If you have a disposable income, you don’t enter the state of “What the hell can I do with old newspaper and charcoal and a bottle of gravy browning?” (substitute your own materials of non-choice here). The newspaper/charcoal/gravy browning scenario also allows risk. Approached from the other side, out of necessity.

The urge to create is irresistible. But it follows a cycle of boom and bust, risk and security, confidence and terror. 

At the moment, I am in a position of relative (for me) wealth, a time when I can take risks, and I lurch from the confidence to just do it, to the terror of “what the fuck is this??” And a resigned “well that was £20 worth of paper down the drain!” Which is always coupled with a sense of guilt about being wasteful.*

I’ve started getting scratchier with the old nibs… and I’ve taken a bit of sandpaper to the drawing… I’m a bit of a materials and methods purist, so this does hurt a bit…

*although I have discovered that the expensive paper will take a bit of a scrub, and will dry flat on my table over a weekend, so I can actually use it for another bit of ink-based jeopardy on Monday morning!


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It would be easy to keep steam-rollering ahead. Sometimes it’s more difficult to hit the brakes and take a pause. Pauses can be fraught with danger and confrontation. This year has very much been a case of “keep on drawing, keep on drawing, keep on drawing”. (The last three years perhaps? Who’s counting?) God forbid I should take a pause for thought, examine my thoughts and either be overwhelmed by them, or possibly worse, discover I have none!

I have become scared of the literal. Is this a thing? I escaped the figurative, to the abstract, and yet I’m called to the metaphorical and the symbolic. In amongst my abstract drawings, 2D and 3D, I found myself drawing bees. I wrote a song heaped with metaphor  titled ‘Undertaker Bees’ and since then can’t stop. Swarms of them are beginning to take over my sketch book. They are contained there safely so far… but I can feel them starting to push against me. At the moment I am at the stage where I can’t decide whether to let them out and crawl all over, or to keep them in until I know what they are for. I think they are there… at the moment at least… as a placeholder, like the turning hourglass of the computer screen… waiting… giving me time to think. Filling the pause so I don’t get too scared maybe. Who knows…

I am reluctant… extremely reluctant… to include anything figurative in my large drawings. As soon as I do that all is lost. Especially if I do so before I know what they are for. Because then all I will see is the bee. And then I will get “oh what lovely bees!” the whole damn time. These are not drawings about bees. The bees are separate. I do wonder what they are for though… maybe I should let them out, just do one big drawing with hundreds of bees then leave it at that. Constrained by the edges of just one large piece of paper?

I have learned to trust myself. That somewhere in my brain there is a reason for them. But I don’t trust myself yet to talk to other people about them. If they get out into a gallery I want to know what they are. So that when I do get the “lovely bees!” Comment I can challenge it. 

I have become scared of the pause then? I am industrious, the metaphorical bee, I busy myself in the studio. Time for a bit of an inventory:

I’ve got some drawings I like.

I’ve got some pieces of wire drawings I like.

I’ve got some songs/sounds/lyrics I like.

(by “like” I mean I feel they have some value)

I’ve got a lot more drawings and songs that I don’t like, but they enabled me to find what I did like.

My brain is a little foggy these last few days. I think there’s an element of lockdown fatigue. I grieve for a life not being lived how I wanted it. As I’m sure we all are. I feel unsettled… twitchy… sad… bewildered and a little bit pointless.

I think I’ll draw some more bees until I get over myself and it passes. As I am sure it will.


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I don’t know if I’m quite ready to do the end of year review… but in preparation I have glanced through my year of blogging to get a feel for the year. There are the obvious Covid-19 related things, but not as much as I thought there would be, and it’s mostly related to how it has affected the work.

I have only started doing this review thing in recent years. I never felt the need for it, or saw the value of it. I have started to though. I hate New Year celebrations, but I think it is good to take a period of time, an anniversary, and look back, in order to move forward. So why not in the winter, when the days are short and we are biologically inclined to be inward-looking and a little melancholy? We prepare ourselves for the drawing out of days in January, and for signs of life and growth. So I give in!

What I noticed when skimming through was that my constant themes are still there. For which I am glad… because I had wondered with such a massive shift of materials and method, whether they would fall away in some way. And also, given the global pandemic, that forbids touch, how can I make work about touch? And yet I have. I think… to me… some of the work is closer, more intimate… more intense… precisely because we are physically absent…

The music I am making, the words I am writing… the work is feeling close and intense and tight… like there may be an explosion… a climax even? (steady on!)

I can feel my breathing in this…

To come back down to earth, to touch the soil, the water and the trees for a moment, this has been made possible through funding from ACE. The strain and determination of 2019 and the first 8 months of 2020, the closing down, the restrictions, I now feel free. Whatever the restriction politically, physically, socially, emotionally… I feel totally free to think and work and breathe. The touch I feel with my skin might be missing, or less, but I feel it in so many other ways. The communication through art is bigger than ever these days. I feel so connected to some of the people I live and work with. I feel privilege and honour and without getting in any way religious (because I’m not) I do feel somewhat blessed.

Thank you to all those I have touched, and have been touched by.

Cause and Effect.

(That probably was my end of year review, now I read it back)


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