wolf-boy day four: beginnings

Not a new drawing today, but a story.

Hervé (right) with his disciple Guiharan and the wolf.

I first saw a statue of a monk in the company of what I took to be a ferocious dog, over twenty years ago while touring France with my friend Robin. I recall a good intention to research what the statue might represent, but then completely forgot about it. In 2005, by now a painter and exploring the story of the prophet  Elijah and the raven that fed him as part of my series The Temptations of Solitude, I started to cast my net wider to find other examples of miraculous liaisons between men and animals. The hooded man and the ravening beast I’d been so intrigued by in France was scratching away at my imagination, and two decades after my first brush with him, I found the stories about Hervé. Various legends mark the blind-from-birth saint as possessing a special empathy with animals. One has a wolf slay Hervé’s ox, leaving him without any means by which to till the land. The wolf, chastised by Hervé, meekly submits to the yoke, pulling the plough in place of the ox.  But it was a simpler tale that captivated me, one in which the wolf eats the saint’s dog and thereafter in demonstration of contrition, sacrifices its freedom and wild nature to become Hervé’s lifetime companion.

In 2005 I was part-way into a first painting of Hervé and the wolf. At the time I was working from the basement of a Cardiff music shop where I had my studio. Not yet completely in command of my subject matter, things weren’t going particularly well at the easel. Jack, then still only about eight months old, accompanied me to the studio every day. After work we would walk back home through the large park that stretches from Cardiff Castle to Llandaff.

One evening I was late finishing and the park gates were locked by the time we reached them. Jack liked to run free on the way home, something not possible on the cycle path, but safe to do in the wide spaces of the park. No-one was about. The lights of the city centre gave an amber glow to the horizon, though the dazzle from this made the shrubby arboretum seem even darker. I climbed over the gate and Jack, used to this ‘game’, squeezed through the bars. We headed off across a foot-bridge spanning the River Taff, and turned left toward home. Rough woodland made a wide border between us and the river bank, and we took a path hugging the tree-line on one side, and the featureless sward of empty sports fields on the other. Dusk gave way to darkness, but I was confident that the footpath under my feet meant we were on the right course. As we drew closer to the slender footbridge that would lead us back across the river to join the cycle path again, the sports fields gave way to woodland so that we were hemmed in on both sides by trees.

Suddenly Jack stopped dead. I could see the faint glimmer of his coat as he held his ground, turned now to face the woods at our left. He began to growl, a puppy’s attempt to sound fierce, though not like when we had games of play-fighting, but a serious, bass rumbling. I crouched and put my hand between his shoulder-blades to calm him, and felt him tense and press closer to the ground, ears back, chest vibrating. He started to manoeuvre backwards on his belly, and the hairs at the back of my neck began to rise. I clipped the dog-lead into the ring on his harness, all the while staring hard into the woodland, willing my eyes to make sense of the darkness. We stayed there for some time. I felt safer close to the ground in connection with the puppy, though I didn’t know why. Crouching there my eyes began to grow more accustomed to the dark. Moreover I focussed on one spot, because like Jack I knew with certainty that we were being watched. In the shrubbery, about thirty feet from us, I made out a large animal sitting on its haunches, triangular head tipped down as though it had pressed chin into chest. Twin gleams widely spaced and forward looking, gathering the available light as the eyes of predators do at night. Jack continued to creep backwards, his growling getting more frantic. There was a sudden soft movement behind the animal, a shifting and gathering of shadows. I could see the outline of a man, I think wearing a hooded top because there wasn’t even a suggestion of light on skin. The animal didn’t shift. I rose up, gathered Jack into my chest and walked toward the bridge, keeping an awkward sideways gait so the watchers remained in my sight. The animal’s head followed us, though whether the man turned too I couldn’t tell. At some point I emerged into the open and crossed the footbridge to the cycle path, back toward the comforting lights of Cathedral Road and home.

The most likely explanation is that I saw some gay guy cruising while out walking his Siberian Husky. But because I was so preoccupied with Hervé, my dreams that week were pretty fevered, while by day I attacked the painting fuelled by a fierce inspiration. To this day Hervé and his wolf walk with me, always close by, vivid presences in my imaginative life. Indeed when I’m in one of my more fanciful moods, I can almost believe something extraordinary happened that evening in the park, and that it was no accident.

The painting I was struggling with at the time, became this.


21 thoughts on “wolf-boy day four: beginnings

  1. Pingback: Skin/Skóra: Miszek and his beasts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

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  3. I love this story – particularly your description of brave little Jack, and how his body felt beneath your hand. That made it all so real for me. I am also laughing and thinking that perhaps the two of you encountered some reclusive character such as myself who, when in the city with my dogs, feels so uncomfortable that s/he seeks refuge within the wood’s edge of a park! In any case, a wonderful narrative!

    • Well Bev, maybe you’re right about that figure having been some recluse avoiding contact. Could be. But if you ever see me on a stretch of tree-lined path in company with a little tri-coloured terrier name of Jacket, then please risk saying hello rather than stare hard out of the shadows to give us the heebie-jeebies! (-;

  4. And he even wore a hood! Things do happen to you don’t they? What a marvellous story, what a brave Jack. I remember that Taff foot bridge well, and the lost lands that fringed it. Where is the statue in the picture?

    • I can’t recall where the statue is. The trip through Brittany when I first saw representations of Hervé was many years ago. I may have photos of other statues of him… if I can work out where I put them… because once he had my attention he started popping up everywhere! And of course I saw him in the piece you did on the Seven Healing Saints for Qarrtsiluni, and I left a comment for you then, which must have been the first contact between us Lucy. Hervé the Connector!

    • It’s crossed my mind Beth that maybe my imagination did make it happen. I toyed with that idea for a while, though eventually came to the conclusion that while I didn’t hallucinate, perhaps imagination heightened the drama after the event. That’s certainly possible.

  5. As always, you have a gift for narrative–and are faced with another unusual meeting. Isn’t it interesting that you received the “when” and well as the “what” in your need? You were given what you needed, the fire of a dramatic and singular and simple encounter, exactly at the moment when you most needed it.

    • One must be careful about looking for significant meaning in every encounter and experience, because it’s entirely possible to go a little crazy attempting that with the bad stuff in life. But it’s a fact that once my attention has been caught, I try to make sense of and give order to my experiences, through the medium of my work. That has happened most powerfully when I’ve been frightened and distressed, as evidenced by the Mari Lwyd series after my father’s death, and working Ludo’s likeness into a Hervé and the Wolf painting after he’d been killed by the postwoman’s van.

      I should tread carefully here. I always felt that the late Sir Kyffin Williams was such a raconteur that the stories of his life had been polished to a dazzle obscuring any truth from a future biographer. I’m in danger on the Artlog of doing a similar thing. It’s probably not possible to excavate memories and present them without some element of making a narrative. Perhaps it should be for others to one day… if anyone is interested by then… connect the dots.

      One of the things I liked so much about your chapter for the monograph Marly, was that it was a piece of fiction in which essential truths were conveyed with more clarity and insight than could be managed in any bald account of facts. This seemed a far truer conjuring of the process of thinking about painting than I would have thought possible. The moment you started describing me having tea with the ghost of Cocteau in the garden, I knew that you had successfully clambered inside my head. The fact is that I love the man’s work, and though I never met him, I have conversations with him all the time!

  6. What a spine tingling story! I love the way everyday events can connect with the imagination and be transformed. I imagine this is how Blake viewed the world. This is something I struggle to hold onto in a city where the banal is thrust upon us continually. A beautiful story beautifully captured in your work. N

    • Then come live in the country, where the imagination can fly free, unfettered by the distractions of a sprawling city. (Though the flip side is that here we are quite the sleepy backwater, whereas you are in the thick of a great diversity of marvellous richness, with much that is inspiring once you have shovelled the mundane out of the way to get to it.)

      i’m so pleased you like the story Nick. Good to know that something has come over as I hoped.

    • Glad to know that you enjoyed this Paul. I’ve endeavoured to do justice to the experience. It certainly caught my imagination.

      Your prints came back from the framer today, both mounted and framed to the same size. They look magnificent. ‘Dark’ has already been hung in the upstairs sitting-room’ , and ‘The Devil’ will no doubt shortly find his place. We’re thrilled with these. Thank you so much.

      • Yes indeed, a great tale, very well told.

        Delighted too that you are happy with the prints. I plan to take our prints from you down to the framers to-day. I’d have done it sooner, but he’s located in an awkward pocket of Walthamstow, in the opposite direction to all my other journeys.

  7. wow! what an intense story. you have such a way with both images and words–i love this artlog, there is always something here that opens the world…

  8. Wow Clive! This is one hell of a story. No wonder you choose to tell your stories as pictures – is it easier to convey huge stuff like this through colour and form than it is through words? I ask because when young I was a poet and as I got older I found that my only available language – English – was being so devalued as to no longer serve as a vehicle for my emotions and thoughts. I suppose this is some kind of ongoing process and before our time (I was born in 1942) it was a force for good, resulting in poets like T S Eliot and e e cummings, but now it seems to be a cesspool. I guess your training as a dancer had given you a means of expressing yourself more directly than can be done in (English) words, and therefore you turned to paint. For the same reason I turned to the Welsh language, which is still a medium for conveying the reality which lies beyond superficial expression and seeks new ways of showing itself. Yo, dude!!!!!!!

    • I tell you, it’s a lot less stressful than trying to express ideas on a stage, which is what I did for so many years in my first career as a choreographer and director. When I walk into my studio I don’t have to worry about dancers with injuries, actors with anxiety issues, producers with attitude or stage managers with scheduling problems. It’s just me and my brushes, and as long as I’m well rested and alert, I can just get straight down to work.

      I enjoy expressing ideas in words, though I wouldn’t want to be doing it for a living. (Too challenging!) Better by far to write for the sheer fun of it here on the Artlog. Painting remains my expression of choice. And yes, I ‘get’ the whole notion of realities beyond the surface of things, and I’m quite sure that being such a venerable language, Welsh is capable of that. Mind you, I think Shakespeare didn’t do badly at it either. Maybe it’s just a debased use of the English language that we find wanting.

    • Interesting. I can see turning to Welsh as freeing. But I imagine that some poets would say that it is not a language destroyed but a whole way of working in words that began to be dismantled in Modernism–some poets prefer to continue shattering in “new” ways, while others want to go forward by restoring things that were lost.

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