Earlier this year we were able to trace and contact Karen Whiteside, who when she was working as a director at the BBC, made an item about my Mari Lwyd drawings for an arts programme. At the time Karen acquired one of the drawings from the series (Stumbles and Falls, made in 2001 and shown above) after which we lost touch with each other. However thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we were able to find her again, and she agreed to the loan of the drawing to my Retrospective. It transpires that at the time of acquisition she had written about the drawing and what it meant to her. She recently wrote to me in an e-mail:
‘Just a couple of weeks ago, looking through some papers, I came across something I’d written not long after we did the filming together and Peter and I drove to Bristol in a van the size of Essex, for the Rostrum shoot. So you were already in my thoughts.
Of course, it may not be at all as you told me – memory does funny things. I’d thought that I’d put it on the back of the drawing some time. Anyway, you might find it interesting.
I hope you’ve been able to bring together the whole series. I remember going round and round the exhibition in Newport, swithering over whether I should/could buy such and thing.
I am so very glad, so very often, that I did.’
With Karen’s permission, I’ve posted her piece about her drawing here.
‘He told me the story himself, how his father, night after night, every week of his life had wakened, screaming from some fearful dream, drenched in a rush of sweat and fear. He said it seemed strange in retrospect that no one had thought to ask what the dream was. The family assumed it was some gruesome legacy of the war and from politeness and respect tiptoed around it. He couldn’t remember, perhaps they had asked, been given the closed door of no reply.
Night after night, the household wrenched from sleep, occasionally startled, but often, in the way of families building it seamlessly into the familiar, unremarkable pattern of their life.
He’d recently begun to establish a reputation as an artist, after years of work in the theatre and the slow roll call of death that was Aids in the 1980s. When he’d first begun to paint and draw he’d returned to Wales, to his father’s birthplace near Crickhowell. He took a job selling entry tickets from a wooden shed, to visitors to Tretower Court. Here, rarely disturbed, he’d spent two years with paper and pencil, honing this new craft, easing the memory of lost friends. And here he’d heard the story of the Mari Llwyd, one of Wales’ lost traditions; a horse’s skull, borne through the streets by a band of men, trading insults with the householders until honour was served and some beer money won. It had caught his imagination and now he was making a series of sketches of the hollow-eyed Mari Llwyd.
His studio was in his home and his father, now in his eighties was visiting. As he told it, his father had entered the busy room, full of the practicalities of paint and pencil and his eyes had fallen on the sketch. ‘I know that face,’ he said. ’I know that face.’
When he was a child, a babe in arms, the Mari Llwyd had come to visit. In the dark streets of the town, heavy boots had sparked against cobbles. The horse’s skull, decked in ribbons was carried on a pole, its bearer covered in a dark cloth. The men, the grinning skull with its long yellow teeth and the glint of bottles in its eye sockets, their loud laughter, all this was more than enough to frighten a child. But they came taunting at the door, extemporising bawdy insults at the top of their lungs, daring the young couple with their small children to join in the fun, to take them on.
He remembered being held in his mother’s arms. He remembered a wide round coin being placed in his soft palm, and the window being opened to the flare of the torch and the rush of the cold and the awful bucking head, the clacking jaws.
He remembered that all had stilled, that the head had turned and the jaws had opened and out from the long yellow teeth, a spoon, red ribbons and a spoon had come towards him, the small hot child gripped in his mother’s arms. She’d held his fist tight in her own, held it out to the leering skull, prised the bitter penny from his grasp.
Night after night, through the long years of his life, that skull, that moment had revisited him. ‘I know that face, he’d said. ‘I know that face.’’
His father had died not long afterwards and his son caught hold of the Mari Llwyd, the small child’s terror and his own loss; friend after friend, strong and beautiful young men for the most part, visited in the dark night by that awful death’s head. Thirteen drawings, thirteen Stations of the Cross. The Mari Llwyd grew from a series of sketches to a series of great drawings, pencil on paper; sometimes the skull, sometimes a heaving mass of muscled horse, men falling naked beneath it, or in cloth caps and heavy boots struggling to master its sinister mischief. He drew black on white, pressing deep into the paper, moonlight catching the ancient tower, transforming familiar objects, a landscape, strange and awesome to mediate the mystery and the fear. He wound in all of them just a single thread of colour, a scarlet ribbon, bright as blood. Thirteen huge drawings, thirteen Stations of the Cross, a journey through pain towards redemption.
I bought the drawing having seen him work on it, and heard this story. It spoke to me of hope.’