About Clive Hicks-Jenkins

I am a painter, born and living in Wales. I show with Martin Tinney in Cardiff and my work can always be found at his gallery. (Click on second link)

Conversations with Ursula

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I was one of three artists selected by Ursula as her ‘inspirations’ on her GSCE course. (The others were Degas and the sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green.) Questions and answers were through the medium of e-mails and came about when our mutual friend Christopher Hammond-Davies put us in touch. By the time we began writing Ursula had evidently done quite a lot of research on my work. Her questions were well-prepared and insightful and made me think quite hard about working practices developed over such a long period that I sometimes forget I had to invent them in order to be the artist I aspired to.
Ursula and I have never met. I didn’t include her own images here because I felt I should first seek her permission, something I have yet to do.
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins
I have attached some pieces of my work! The drawing is just a picture my mum thought had emotion. The others are some prints, landscapes and drawings of my ponies in the field.
Here are my questions. Thank you so much for letting me ask your these.
1) You often have horses in your compositions. I know from your Artlog that your grandfather was thought to have done rather romantic things with horses. What do they represent for you?

I think horses – and horse riding – represented freedom for me when, in so many other respects, my life was governed by the tyranny of dance classes and rehearsals. I loved my chosen work, but riding was a wonderful release from it.

I remember being on a horse – probably at my grandfather’s – before I remember walking. I always preferred riding without a saddle.
2) Are you a fearless rider?

I was, once, long ago. But at sixty-seven I no longer ride and I don’t have a horse, though I live in the countryside and have land and a stable.

However my time is so consumed with being an artist, that there’s not enough of it left for what it would take to keep a riding horse. Success brings all sorts of things in its wake but time is not one of them. My diary is packed with exhibition and illustration commitments. My husband, Peter, works too, as a curator, and it’s already a challenge, finding the time to do things together. He doesn’t ride, and so it’s not an activity we could share.

3) Your inspiration is often from myth. Your pictures tell stories, but they are full of emotion. Can you say how you get so much feeling in them?
Right, that’s a tough one. When I began painting I was always striving for technique and proficiency and emotion didn’t really come into the equation. But then I began to notice that I only became fully engaged with a subject when it triggered an emotional response in me, and that response was more reliably to be found when I felt deeply about the idea behind the painting.
The starting point for me was still-life, and I began to make better still-life painting when I used items with family – and therefore emotional – connections .
So now I use that technique to invest all of my paintings with maximum emotional content. The viewers don’t have to know how I do it, or even recognise the elements. But for me, they have to be present.
4) Do you know what the result will be when you begin a picture?
Yes and no. The starting point of any composition will always be a series of rough drawings. I don’t worry at this stage about anything other than working out the mechanics, and the drawings are sometimes robust and confident, though sometimes quite fugitive and wispy. And I often make many of them. In them I’m feeling my way with three principal elements:
 
i) likenesses
ii)  shapes
ii) arrangements
By these I mean: 
i) how the objects/people/animals/places will look
ii) what shapes they will make
iii) how those shapes will be placed in relation to each other
My main concerns at this stage are composition and positive and negative space. Colour and tone don’t usually come into the equation until much later.
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In these respects, the works are definitely ‘planned’, whether as easel paintings for a gallery or as illustrations. But when the business of painting begins – when the brushes and/or pencils get busy on the work itself – although I may have very strong ideas, often the image will start to go its own way. I’ve learned not to become too fixed on how the final work will shape up, because there have to be elements that surprise me, and perhaps even take it in an unexpected direction. When this happens, I don’t try to force things back into where I think they should be going. I follow where the painting is leading me. If at the conclusion I feel that the painting is good, though not quite what I intended, then I’ll set it aside to come back and look at again later, when I can view it freshly. I may finish there, and go no further. 
Here’s an Artlog post about making a painting, start to finish. I didn’t use a maquette for this one, but relied on the memory of a man I’d glimpsed at a fish market. It was the ‘memory’ that was crucial. It helped me make the mood of the painting.
I find that if I have a really good subject, then I return to it over and over again, because there is no single, definitive way to depict an idea. I learned that from Picasso, who would paint a composition multiple times and each version was compelling as a stand alone image. But he’d make it over and over, and it would become a series, and the whole series was as satisfying as any of the individual paintings, drawings or prints.
5) Do you have ‘happy accidents’ when the paint seems to do it itself?

Yes. But I also ‘play’ a lot with materials. (Accidents, while great, can be useful tools if they can be repeated.) Each type of material requires a different skill-set and mastery, and playing helps me become practiced and fluent. Acrylic inks work in this way, oil paints in that. Primed canvas has these advantages, but gesso on board suits me better. Watercolour requires one set of disciplines, and acrylic tube-paint, another. This dry pastel fixes well, and this one changes colour when sprayed. The same pigment (colour) will behave differently in different brands of paint, because there are different versions of a pigment, some ’true’ and some ‘manufactured’. (The word ‘hue’ usually means a manufactured substitute of a natural pigment that may itself be too expensive. You have to read the information on the tubes really carefully.) I make up notebooks of working techniques and some of the earlier ones have been my companions for twenty years or more. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. When something works well, I make a note on which brand and how the colour was mixed, or exactly which viscosity allowed for me to scratch through a layer of wet paint with the end of my brush. (A technique called sgraffito.) Materials are chemicals, and you need to understand how they work. I researched coloured pencils for over a year because I discovered that though it didn’t say so on the tins, most were wax-based while only a very few were wax and oil-based, and the latter were better because they didn’t ‘bloom’ when used heavily. Blooming happens when waxes mixed with the pigments manifest as a fine, white, disfiguring dust on the surface of the artwork. When it occurs some time after the work has been put under glass it’s as though white mould has set in. But the manufacturers are often not keen to show-and-tell what their products are made of, and so I had to extensively research to get the information I required, and that took determination. I phoned around the companies tracking down people who would talk to me and eventually I found the perfect coloured pencil brand for my purposes. (Faber-Castell Polychromos.) On another occasion I was dissatisfied with the way shellac-based aerosol fixatives affected the surfaces of my works in dry pastel, so researched until I found a casein-based product that came in pump activated misting dispensers. Sometimes being an artist requires the perspicacity and insight of a Hercule Poirot! 

Of course none of this matters a fig to the man or woman standing in the gallery looking at the work. But the knowledge is a big part of my discipline as a painter, because it enables me to be better at what I make across many disciplines of media. When I have an idea it’s reassuring that I can pick and choose exactly how I might go about making it a reality.  

6) Do you sometimes struggle to get the right gestures in horses and humans? I like that you prefer Stubb’s observations over Munnings’ photorealism.

Yes, I do struggle. This are where maquettes come into play for me. They help with that. But I think too that I should explain my attitude toward the life model. I like having a life model from time to time. It’s a great discipline. But I never make paintings from models because I’m not looking for those levels of reality. I make life studies for eye-to hand practice, and for information. But after the model has gone, I use the studies done from the model to make maquettes, and it’s those I use to make my compositional sketches. The maquettes free me from all sorts of level of distraction that come with the life model.

With the model I’m so busy looking and representing that I can’t focus on what I have in my head for a painting. The maquettes help free me of those distractions, and they help me better find what I’m searching for. In an entirely practical way, they focus me. 

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7) Do you think you need specific talents to be an artist, such as drawing, or is it enough to want to make things?

My methods are particular to my experience. I came to art very late. I was having a mid-life crisis when at forty I began seriously painting, and I because of my circumstances – I had to make a living –  didn’t go to art school. I am self-taught. To begin with I taught myself in in an academic manner, by observation and painting from life. I improved my drawing. I taught myself by practice, landscape, still life and figure painting, and from books, perspective and colour theory. 

It was a long process, and I was still learning when I began to exhibit. But then, as I became more fluent in my disciplines, I realise that wasn’t the kind of artist I wanted to be. I wanted a more visceral, more ‘felt’ approach in my painting. I preferred the art of the early Renaissance, before the rules of perspective had been set. I liked the awkwardness when things looked slightly wrong. I loved ‘outsider’ art. And so I began inventing methods to pull myself away from academic discipline, evolving a practice of working with substitutes: wooden building blocks, constructed paper landscapes, found objects and maquettes. It was like learning the theoretic rules of music, before beginning to deconstruct. So the route was not straight forward, and I can’t say whether it would be right for anyone else. But it was right for me. In retrospect, though I can’t know what may have been had things been otherwise, from this perspective I am very, very glad that I didn’t start painting earlier in my life, and that I didn’t go to art school. I think I would have been a quite different painter had I done so, and not necessarily a better one. It has been quite a lonely journey, but a really focussed one. I love finding solutions to my own problems.
Maquettes of Gawain and his horse Gringolet made in preparation for work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I do believe that drawing is the heart of everything. But not necessarily academic drawing. Expressive drawing is the thing I love, and that can be many things. Awkward, clumsy, questing, delicate, unsure or rough as hell, drawing is the heart and soul, and to do it well, you need to be in touch with your heart. It’s not just about looking, it’s about feeling.

8) I really enjoyed working with a horse made of individual paper pieces, an idea borrowed from your Gawain and Gringolet. Do you develop an idea using a range of techniques in an organised way, or is it different every time?

Maquette of Gringolet under construction. I work in paper when creating the pattern, and then transfer to more robust card that I can work on in paint and pencils.

I takes time to build maquettes, and I’m always looking for different outcomes and improvements. The earliest ones were utterly simple, and they served me well. Now they’re much more complex, because I’m always looking to make them more flexible and articulate. These days there are all sorts of things going on behind them. Sliding bars and swivel joints allow me to reconfigure the maquettes so as to be more useful as compositional tools. Essential pivot points are no longer fixed, but can move around. Where once I had a half dozen maquettes, I now have many. Boxes and boxes of them. Ranging through animals, mythic beasts, saints, angels and knights in armour, I make new ones for every project. They’re my actors.

 

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Moreover sometimes they become tools for other disciplines, and over the past years I’ve used sets of maquettes to produce animated films.

 

 

An animated film to accompany orchestras playing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is performed all over the world, and more recently, I used shadow-puppet maquette sequences in the Goldfield Ensemble production of Hansel & Gretel.

 

But inspiration can come from many places. I have a particular love of German Expressionist cinema, and that too spilled over into Hansel & Gretel:
(I add these into my answers, because for me being an artist embraces many disciplines, including those of stage director and designer.)
Right, I think that’s it. But I’ll happily expand if there’s anything I haven’t answered clearly enough. Just tell me what you want. And I have yet to make a list of outsider artists for you, but I promise I will.
Very Best
Clive

Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of ‘The Golem’

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I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)

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Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.

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Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.

 

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Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.

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Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.

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For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.

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Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.

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The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of  The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

 

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Reinventing Count Dracula

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On the cover of the myths and legends-inspired short story anthology These Our Monsters just out from English Heritage, I depicted Dracula because both the undead Count and his creator, Irish author Bram Stoker, appear in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Dark Thread. Burnet’s brief Whitby-set conjuring of Dracula as imagined by his author sent me to my bookshelves to take a look at how the Count is described by Stoker in the 1897 novel. In films Dracula has been depicted as darkly handsome with a deadly allure and sensuality. But that’s simply not the way Stoker introduced him:

Below: the first ‘Dracula’ sketch in my These Our Monsters project-book

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“His face was very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth.”

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From Christopher Lee in the 1958 – 1973 Hammer franchise to Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) via Frank Langella reprising his Broadway success as the Count in a Dracula (John Badham, 1979) with a distinctly erotic charge, the ‘Prince of Vampire’s’ cinematic appearances have been constantly in flux, endlessly reinvented to suit the tastes of the age. But the bushy eyebrows and the mouth-obscuring moustache were left between the pages of the original novel, film-makers preferring the undead to be smooth-faced. (Gary Oldman sported a trim moustache and goatee with shoulder-length curls as he pursued Winona Ryder throughout much of Coppola’s film, more dreamy musketeer than vampire Count, so she understandably buckled at the knees when he swooped in for a lick!)

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The changes wrought in translation are understandable. A film is not a book and an illustration doesn’t have to follow to the letter the text that underlies it. For my own Dracula I invented an ancient-parchment complexion, criss-crossed with lines. I ditched Stoker’s description of pointed ears (too Spock-like for a post-Star-Trek generation) but stuck with the straggly moustache because I liked the idea of the unholy trailing and dripping mess it would make when the vampire fed. I retained the unibrow, though replaced Stoker’s description of the Count’s sombre dark garments with the dandy’s delight in exuberant colour. My sartorial Dracula has a very fancy waistcoat!

Below: the cover art underway. Whitby Abbey is just an outline at this stage.

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Stoker can’t have known and couldn’t possibly have imagined the popularity of his monster reinvented into a plethora of iterations, and that’s not including the Dracula-inspired inventions that go by other names in cinema and fiction, starting with director F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu which unwisely drew on the novel without acquiring permissions from the author’s widow. First she lobbied the producer with demands for compensation, but when it turned out there was no money to be had, gained a court order requiring that all the prints of the film be destroyed. Today there would be no Nosferatu had a few prints not slipped through the net.

The Count from Transylvania has stuck like a burr in the imaginations of creators and audiences. We can’t get enough of him. I loved honouring the tale on the cover of  These Our Monsters. I read not only Burnet’s story in order to make the cover, but Stoker’s novel too. (Twice.) I’d illustrate it in a heartbeat were the offer to come my way.

Below: my first version of the cover, with the lettering given more space and the EH logo placed bottom left.

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Below: wrap around dust-jacket in a storm of my trademark oak leaves.

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Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed

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Frances McDowall, who died on Friday morning, has been much on my mind. Twenty years ago Frances played a significant role in bringing the Old Stile Press edition of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd to fruition. Every time I open my copy of the book Frances is present in it, our work together literally bonded into the pages.

Nicolas McDowall had been taken by examples he’d seen of the printmaking technique known as Heliography, and asked me to produce images for the Barnfield project by those means. He felt the process might be an interesting way to capture much of what he’d been so attracted to in my drawings. As I proceeded with the work I discovered there were endless difficulties that Nicolas hadn’t identified at the outset, and as I struggled to originate drawings by his suggested technique of scratching into emulsion-coated sheets of glass, Frances began the epic task of making the paper for the entire edition of 200 books.

Below: a surviving fragment of a glass plate and the image as it appears in the book.

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Frances was heroic. It took forever to complete the vast amount of papers required and the processes were painstaking and physically exhausting. Later Nicolas too ran into problems at the press, so it might be fair to say that on The Affectionate Shepherd we all three suffered for our arts. (For a couple of years I was never without elastoplasted fingers because the thin glass plates persistently shattered under the pressure of my styluses. By the end of the project I had broken approximately eight glass plates for every one brought to completion.)

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Though the journey was fraught with problems at every stage and it’s a fact that we never again made a book in that particular way, somewhere along the pathways of agonising frustration, wrong turns and undependable techniques, the magic began to happen. Today when I look at the book, Frances’ ravishing sheets, striated and wrinkled and patterned with the marks of the organic ingredients and the drying processes, make a wonderful ground to the meanderings of my lines impressed into their surfaces. In a raking light the marks of my hand and her craft merge into a book the like of which I’ve never seen before or since. Sometimes the ink lines look almost like dark hairs looped and curved and trapped into the paper.

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In the colophon at the back of the book, the paper is described thus – perhaps by Nicolas or perhaps by Frances:

“All the paper used in this edition (including the endpapers) was made by Frances McDowall. The furnish used consisted of a mixture of Abaca and Jute, with an admixture of reeds and irises for the endpapers.”

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It’s a crisp and matter-of-fact account of a process that was fuelled by energy, passion and the overwhelming imperative by all of us to create something beautiful to frame Barnfield’s poem. Published originally in 1594, the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Affectionate Shepherd available in the UK to view is at the British Library, which is where I went at the outset to examine it. ( I had an alarming encounter there that nearly scuppered the entire enterprise and that you can read about here: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

To my knowledge the Old Stile Press book published in 1998 is the only illustrated edition of the poem.

 

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Below: pencil study made in preparation for The Affectionate Shepherd

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‘The odds are high in the making of any book: here the choices entailed a far greater than usual amount of experiment and work by the artist, paper-maker and printer. The result of their collaboration is a triumph.’

Jeremy Greenwood for Parenthesis Magazine.  1998.

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Edward Carey’s ‘Little’

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Among the contributors to the short story anthology that’s being published by English Heritage this month, is Edward Carey. When I saw his name on the list of writers responding to some of the English Heritage sites with mythic/folkloric associations, I recalled reading a glowing review for his novel Little. I duly acquired a copy and read it.

Edward is both a writer and an artist. He makes images to accompany his novels. Little, illustrated throughout with many drawings, is a staggering feat of research married to imagination, a compelling, page-turning history of Anne Marie Grosholtz, better known today – thanks to waxworks attractions around the globe bearing her name – as Madame Tussaud.

The book nailed my attention. Here was a writer who’d uncannily entered the mind of a known eighteenth century woman, channeling her into a first person account with her character fully formed and vibrant throughout the narrative. The Marie of Carey’s Little feels utterly real and present. Moreover he magnificently and dreadfully sets her down in that bloodiest period of civil unrest, the Revolution. A clammy sense of dread pervades the second half of the book as Paris sinks into malign chaos. The aristocrats and their supporters may have been the first to be rounded up and executed, but in the ensuing upheavals of rival factions, civil dissolution and score-settling, you could go to the guillotine at the whim of a jealous neighbour because you’d violated a dress-code. The world had turned in on itself and gone mad.

It’s been said that in later life – and with her waxworks a famous attraction in London – Marie Tussaud’s published account of her early life may have stretched the facts to better make a story. She claimed to have been a teacher of art to the King’s young sister Elizabeth, living for nine years by invitation of the royal family in the palace of Versailles. She claimed to have known the King and Queen. Later, back in Paris in the cataclysmic turmoil of ‘la Terreur’, the story goes that she was forced to take plaster casts from the decapitated heads of people she had once known in order to make wax effigies of them to be displayed and ridiculed. Whatever the truth of that, Carey makes the idea viscerally plausible, and his accounts of what it must have been like to carry out such grim work are convincingly and startlingly detailed. If Marie Tussaud – a great show-woman and self-promoter – did partially manufacture her history, adding a darker lustre to justify the more outrageous elements of her waxworks attraction, then Carey has done a magnificent job of adding flesh to the bones. She owes him a huge debt of gratitude, because she’s now going to be better known as the Marie of Little, than as the Madame Tussaud of her biography. He’s even made her portrait for the book in a pastiche of her times, which will now be the one I feel most truly represents her.

 

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Ed’s short story for the English Heritage collection gave me wonderful inspiration for the illustration I made to accompany it. A few weeks after I’d completed and submitted it, the editor Katherine Davey told me that he’d asked her to pass on how much he liked the image, and enquire whether I’d agree to be contacted by him. We started e-mailing each other almost immediately, and we’ve been e-mailing ever since. We’ve exchanged drawings. I’m now the owner of a delicate pencil image he made for Little, one of many in the book which are supposed to be the work of Marie’s hand. By way of exchange Ed has the drawing of a ‘goblin child’ I made for his title story of the English Heritage anthology, These Our Monsters.

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It’s a wonderful swop. I particularly like that the drawing I have is of a model of Marie created – in the novel – by the young man she loves. It’s a rather grotesque wooden doll that could be mistaken for Mr Punch’s Judy, so it couldn’t have been better chosen for me given my passion for puppets. What a happy experience working on this project has been, and what a lovely drawing transaction.

 

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Charis in the World of Wonders

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Back in 2012, at about the time I was just beginning to think about the subject of Hansel & Gretel as the source material for a small project (how little I realised what lay ahead), I began work on making the cover and chapter headings for Marly Youmans‘ epic poem about a group of resourceful children surviving in a post-apocalyptic future.

dsc04523Thaliad (published by Phoenicia, Montreal) is compelling in just about every way imaginable. When first I read the manuscript, the narrative, characters and foundation story of Marly’s creation held me fast. I read it over and over as I made the images. For my inspiration I delved into museum archives for examples of the patchworks, embroideries, silhouette portraits, paper-cuts and Fraktur drawings that seemed to me to be the most likely art survivals in Youmans’ vision of an America torn apart by an undisclosed cataclysm.

Above: illustration for Marly Youmans’ Glimmerglass. Mercer University Press, 2014

 

While Youmans is a universal writer in the sense of her understanding of craft and context, there is something so quintessentially American in her creative rhythm, her voice and her vision, that the folk arts of the United States stitched into her DNA have become entangled in mine. After Thaliad I drew on the same resources for her novel Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press), so it’s no surprise that the style of work I’ve evolved for her has become the bedrock of what I’m now more generally known for as an illustrator. After all those practitioners of the early American folk arts – the stitchers, limners and decorators with their European transplanted roots – have a visual tradition I recognise and am at home in. Thinking back, I recall the very first time I set eyes on the arts and crafts defined as Pennsylvania Dutch (and sometimes Pennsylvania German), it was as though I was in the company of old friends.

 

As I begin work on Marly’s latest novel, Charis in the World of Wonders for Ignatius Publishing, once again I’m channelling the artisan, amateur and itinerant folk-artists of Colonial America, and my chapter headings seethe with a bestiary that might have sprung from the pages of a sourcebook for sampler embroidery.

Above: tiny sketch from my Charis in the World of Wonders project-book.