Since childhood my art has seemed to be in the service of expressing a story, or a series of events, a scenario. While this has been a deep undertow that has carried my creative vessel out into some rich and varied waters, when I was at art college back in the eighties I started to feel that the relationship between image and what could be described as ‘narrative’ in fine art is problematic.

However, I think I am ready to come out of the closet as an artist who works with story, and to really have a look at what this means I am having conversations with some really great artists and illustrators in Toronto, New York and the UK who hold narrative dear to their hearts.

Starting a blog is a really daunting process, but somewhere near the beginning of this research I said that I would write a blog but I have been putting it off, so… I am diving in and hoping that the waters will become clearer as I proceed.


Thinking back now to meeting Vijay Kumar in New York City last summer here on a cloudy winter’s day in Wales brings the warmth of summer sun to my spirit.  He is a person who possesses an aura of openness, warmth and intelligence, and its not that often that you encounter “the kindness of artists”, unfortunately we are better known for our self-obsession.  A highly skilled printmaker, he is a founding member of the Manhattan Graphics Centre, where he teaches etching.  That’s where we met, he showed me around the well-equipped busy studio, then we went round the corner for lunch.  What follows comes from my memories of our conversation plus a few scribbled notes, I was far too absorbed to remember to write things down.

The first thing to know about Kumar’s work is that it comes from his experience as a child of partition.  When the British left India in 1947 they “also created the separate country of Pakistan.  Mass rioting and killing accompanied this partition as Hindus living in what was to become Pakistan fled to other parts of India, and Muslims fled in the opposite direction, so much blood, so much killing, and so many tears.” (Kumar)  So his parents had to suddenly leave their native Lahore with their children, journeying through chaos and violence, to eventually make a new home in Lucknow.  This terrible experience for one so young, whose parents never truly recovered from their loss, engenders a directness and integrity to the work, he said:

I am not making stories, this was true, my mind got scarred by memories.

Which made me think of how the need to tell your story as you experienced it, the truth, unique, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, ‘his or her-story’, is an important weapon of the powerless, a shout against being subjected to scrutiny as a particle of the mass.  Like Scheherazade, saving herself by telling stories that push forth a fresh one whenever one comes to an end.

It is difficult for children to tell their story, they haven’t yet grasped the language to deal with complex or taboo emotions, a child is more likely to tell their story through visual art.  Kumar’s childhood that held such a traumatic experience of mass migration looms large over his life and formed his artistic identity, so that childhood stories, sounds, sights and experiences are ever-present in the work.  His imagery tells..

How I am feeling,.. really personal.. I am sentimental – I am not going to apologize.

New York City has been home to Kumar for many years now, and partly what attracts him is that people have come to live here from all over the world and for the most part live in harmony.  The narrative of the city, its pulse and constant activity, sounds, music and stories draws out imagery intuitively.

Anger fuels the work too, that man despite all that history has shown us, is still capable of hideous cruelty, smashing up peoples lives, buildings, culture through religious extremism, intolerance and blind hatred.  The India Portfolio of 1993 was a reaction to Hindus tearing down a mosque in Ayodhya, which inspired mass rioting in India leading to the deaths of at least 2,000 people.

These etchings combine newspaper articles about the riots with Vijay’s expressive reaction to reading the articles, his sadness and anger, the marks almost scratched, a personal narrative that contrasts with the cool reportage of the article.  The story of the newspaper obliterated by the story of the individual scarred by violence.

My favourite print is a long thin etching made after heart surgery depicting a linear narrative told on the longest of arms, beginning with dark chaotic angry marks, gradually giving way to  light and clarity towards the hand where an extended little finger invites a tiny horse to climb aboard.  The horse for Kumar amongst other things represents his childhood, looking back to horses pulling tongas on the streets of Lahore a far cry from 21st century Manhattan yellow cabs.


During my drive down to Cardiff to meet  ceramic artist Claire Curneen at her studio I was thinking back over her work since I first met her in the 1990s when she had not long left her native Ireland.  We share an affinity that I suppose could be summed up as the deification of the afflicted expressed through the medium of story!  If I think of my own narratives as sometimes being too strong, like I have to spell everything out in CAPITALS with a bold on just to make sure, then I think of Claire’s art, if it was a font, would be set to extra light.  I feel there is a generosity there, the gift of airy space to allow our own stories to take wing.


We had a really fantastic conversation and I am conscious that I am just going to be skimming over the surface today.  Its important to me that this blog about artists and narrative should travel freely across well-entrenched borders erected between illustration, applied and fine art.  I have an old score to settle from when I was forced to choose between studying fine art and illustration, twenty err, ok.. thirty years ago.


We certainly talked about the restrictions of our own art education, and Claire began by studying Ceramics at Cork, which then was chiefly concerned with mastering the processes of making the perfect ceramic vessel.  However, she was always trying to find meaning in this making of vessels, always trying to give it a narrative, “for me it tried to tell some kind of story”.


I asked her about earlier influences, what sort of art was around during her childhood, and she told me that though her dad went to galleries and had books on art he looked at, nobody else went to galleries, and nor did she, it was a busy rural community, people didn’t have the time.  What they did have time for was the Church, hours spent in Mass, baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and with a large extended family, this was obviously a great deal of time.


“It was that sense of having to sit there, you didn’t want to be there, you were a kid, we were told “just go to mass, you don’t have to believe in it just go to mass”, my mother was quite religious but my father disagreed with it all but he was very philosophical and the Church is highly philosophical so you have something to regale against.  But the idea of sitting somewhere quietly in this big space forced you to develop a coping strategy.  Boredom is such an important thing, its crucial to be bored.”


During the hours of gazing around the high space of her childhood church Curneen’s eyes would frequently fall on the Stations of the Cross paintings, in an academic conservative style, very sculptural, the weight of men’s feet on steps, lots of details, not gory or challenging for a child.


We then talked about the compelling nature of the image of the suffering body and the creation of contemplative space, in particular “The Sacred made Real” exhibition at the National Gallery, which featured Dead Christ by Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636) :

“It was very upsetting, I cried when I saw that sculpture, you know its painted wood but its just extraordinary, an image of the reality of the human body living and then dead. My mother had not long died when I went to that show and I remember thinking how vivid and raw but you can’t help stare.  Maybe the things I make come from that kind of place, maybe I try to make them beautiful, or that you could stay with it”.


Which made me think of the generosity in Curneen’s work again, the sense of quiet control creates space for people to come to terms with death, and other aspects of the human condition, joyful and tragic. On the way to Cardiff I was thinking about the porcelain as skin, the piercings, the sculptures that have the mark of her skin, the fingerprints.  They seem very vessel like, making a virtue of being hollow, and the generic quality of the features enables people to insert themselves, to pour themselves into them, to take them on as another layer of skin.  But they also have an external spatial aura…

Claire: “Yes, I suppose, talking of space you feel its like going to a church sort of place or a gallery, you feel space is such a premium, we’re not allowed to use it.  Particularly where I show work in an applied art context, they don’t like too much space around objects, and I am desperate for space, I have no problem with space!”


Susan: “So you are almost encapsulating in a small object this feeling of a vast church?”


Claire: “That’s it, that’s it exactly.  It is an object, it has vessel connotations, its manufactured from making pots but then moved on from that, trying to create that tension you are talking about, its almost like a spatial field.”


Susan: “On the way here I was listening to Melvyn Bragg talking about Hildegarde of Bingen whose visions were highly influential to the Church in her lifetime and beyond, I have a book about her, but being in solitary isolation as a nun, having food passed through a hatch, lack of external stimulus, caused her to develop this incredible labyrinthine inner space.  We seem to keep returning to space..


Claire: “you mentioned about the figure being quite vessel-like, and I was thinking about that with a recent black piece with these protrusions, which stems from a story because I use story as a starting point, so the story of Daphne and Apollo, I use that as an interesting story, so figures now that have branches or protrusions are very much in the origins of Daphne so its kind of Daphne again and again and again.  But what that story leads you to is a figure with an interior space that you can’t quite access, you can visualize it, this huge massive space, but how to get there is through very small apertures, through the eyes, or through the branches that protrude from figure, leaving white marks that suggest that the inside might be full of white light.”

We also talked for a while about the resurgence of interest in narrative in students and young artists, how the cynicism of the 1990s has subsided and many students have returned to romanticism, searching for the sublime.  Claire confessed to having been driven crazy by “endless paraphernalia about the Celts” in her youth in Ireland but recently she became completely captivated by the Corleck Head (stone, 1st century, National Museum of Ireland) :


I think of that, that sense of being part of a place, and I still think I am just visiting here, which is the wrong thing to say..but I am not part of this place I am from somewhere else, I am from somewhere there!” (pointing to the photo of the Corleck Head)

So many of the artists I have spoken to who are involved with story have left their native land and carry with them a narrative of the “Other” lost country, almost building up a space and peopling it with various characters.  A sense of longing runs through many narrative images, an unseen world made physical that somehow alters the world it inhabits.


Susan Stewart writes in “On Longing : Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection”

“Because fiction “occurs” in a world simultaneous to and “outside” everyday life, it interrupts the narrativity, the linearity of that life.  The weaving of fictive genres throughout this linearity lends to everyday life a lyric quality, a quality of recurrence and variation upon theme”.

Narrative art, and particularly Claire Curneen’s work, can offer this quality of repetition, of acting out, of transcendence to another world of metaphor shadowing our everyday life, suggesting there is meaning and coherence to life while with gentle humour acknowledging that this might not actually be the case.



I came across the work of New York Artist Margaret Withers while I was looking at the New York NURTUREart website, and was immediately caught by its poignancy and wit.  It seems to hop in and out of story-telling and a love of just letting marks, shapes, paints and inks do their thing without the imposition of a controlling mind.  This is particularly interesting to me as I am trying to understand how different levels of consciousness within the mind engage with narrative.  I was really glad when I tracked her down to her loft studio in Brooklyn, as even though it was late in the day, she was generous with her thoughts and we covered some interesting ground.

Most of the works are on paper, using ink, vinyl paint, and watercolour.  A variety of spatial languages meet cacophonously and you would be blighted in your attempts to read a single pictoral image as you are concurrently looking at a map, side elevations of houses, the insides of machines, dismembered eyes and mouths, abstract swirls of colours and endless tracks, wires and cables connecting and disconnecting elements within the painting.  Yes, I suppose you get the feeling of a chattering switchboard wherein true communication is a rare commodity.

The idea of misinformation, what gets lost in translation, is important to Withers, and she carries this through into digital works, in particular, a piece that exposes US state mottos to the vicissitudes of Google Translate, e.g. Maine’s “I lead” after transliteration 6 times reads “I say”.  She said

There is a lot of art based on satellite images, so to make it interesting and unique I tried a lot of things, but it was more the translation thing that was interesting to me because Google Translate does not actually do grammatical translation, its just a huge database that does phrase and word matching and translates that way, and so to me that produced more interesting results.

She puts repeated forms in her paintings through a similar system of “noise”.  In several series the naïve outlines of houses are bizarrely inserted into what could be more or less gestural abstract paintings.  Its as if she again translates, this time the abstract marks into another language, that of landscape and story.  She has a really interesting and complex relationship with this need to bring an intuitive way of working round to a conscious rendition of the narratives of home and communication.

It’s a weird thing because you don’t want to tell people what this is about, it’s a battle because if I wanted to tell you something I would be a writer, …But its just the truth that people need stories, its just the truth.  People need a story, they need to know something that connects them to it…  And I struggle with that, I struggle with that a lot because you just want people to spend some time looking at it and come up with it themselves.  I think that that is why narrative – it might be like the ugly step-sister or something – but that is why narrative in reality, its actually what everybody wants, they want something they can grab hold of and connect.
And it is this reaching out to other people that Withers is really interested in doing.  She wants to break beyond the hermetically sealed art world and communicate to people who are not fluent in the language Artspeak.  But I suspect that her use of narrative goes beyond a spirit of egalitarianism and need to expand her market, at least for now there seems to be a compulsion to discover stories through her process.

Withers told me she had “a childhood unencumbered by parental supervision, I was left alone a lot to my own devices”.  And her own devices included playing on her own in half-built apartments on building sites – “I’m amazed I didn’t kill myself”, making furnished houses out of cardboard and found stuff, acting out stories through a cast of characters in play and generally building a very active imagination along the way.

Longing and Narrative go hand in hand, the story of home, elusive and out of reach, a state of mind rather than bricks and mortar.  In my conversations with artists it is often childhood experiences that have engendered a creative mind and particularly a love of creating narrative.  The following childhood memory I think approaches this beautifully:
It was funny because I always wanted a doll house and didn’t get one, so I would just build these doll houses out of cardboard.  Then my dad finally built one for me, I think I was like12, and I just stopped playing, because the fun was in building the house, making the furniture, once it was given to me I had no reason to build so I stopped playing.  So leave the kids alone, let them do what they’re doing.  but I had wanted this doll house for ever, it was so nice of him to make it finally, and it was not at all what I wanted.