The Small Things

I’ve been away from home a lot. Preparations for Hansel & Gretel are in that stage of pre-production count-down once so familiar to me when my career was in the theatre, but which became a distant memory after I’d made a new life as an artist. (There are countdowns for exhibitions, too, though they’re as nothing in comparison to what happens when preparations for a stage production are in the final throes, and particularly so when there has been the commissioning of new music and text.) However these last two years have seen the blending together of my past and present practices as Hansel & Gretel evolved from a picture book to a toy theatre, and from a toy theatre to a stage-production-in-the-making before somewhat unexpectedly transforming back into a new though entirely different book, this time based on Simon Armitage’s reinvention of the fairy tale into the poem that became the libretto to Matt Kaner’s music.

The last two stages of the journey – rehearsals for the stage production and preparations for the new book – will be described in detail in Artlog posts yet-to-come. My absence here has been caused by the congested schedules of many projects coalescing, and there being no time to digest and write about the experiences as they’ve happened. I will make good the deficit later by way of recollection, when life slows down to a more manageable pace. But right now there’s the endless packing and unpacking of suitcases, the planning and booking for many train journeys, the changes of work spaces, the various beds and the hustle and bustle of editing suites and rehearsal rooms and getting across London in rush hour and trying to find the time to eat and sleep. Right now I must concentrate on the business in hand because very soon we’ll enter the final stages of rehearsals for Hansel & Gretel, and what has been planned for two years will be in performance, rather than existing only as a series of ideas in the minds of the collaborators.

Throughout all this, absence has lain like a shard of ice in my chest. My journeys home are are conflicted because though I always long to return Ty Isaf when I am away from it too much, that longing is now wrapped in sadness.

The past couple of days at home have been a welcome respite from the recent pace and intensity of work, but they reveal too the small absences that cut: an empty window-seat where Jack once kept vigil over his domain, and none of the smears on the window-glass that were the evidence of his enthusiasm for barking welcomes and warnings. The cushions on the sofas are neatly arranged, no longer reorganised by him into his preference for high-vantage sleeping platforms. No dog-hair-tumbleweed on the painted floorboards or stairs, no splashed puddles by his water-bowl (no water-bowl) and our bed now smoothed and pristine when it’s time for sleep, no longer subject to Jack’s habit of retiring early to make it a cosy nest ready for Peter and me to join him. No dog-lead and harness on the back seat of the car. No towel at the ready in the boot-room. No red frisbee on the grass waiting for throw and fetch. On waking, no weight of dog on my chest, or across my legs or neck, or tucked into shoulder, elbow or armpit. No dog-hair on my clothes any more, and no Sellotape in my pocket to remove it so as to look halfway to presentable.

I miss all this. I miss, I miss, I miss….

 

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Jack and the toad he made friends with.

 

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In Rehearsal on the Stage of Milton Court Theatre at Barbican

 

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Hansel & Gretel in a workshop rehearsal at Milton Court Theatre last week. Puppeteers Diana Ford (left) and Lizzie Wort (right) play the roles, and interestingly swop puppets during the process, so each plays both characters.

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Poet and author of the Hansel & Gretel text, Simon Armitage, drops in on rehearsals at the Milton Court Theatre, Barbican and meets Gretel, here being introduced by her director!

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Photos courtesy of Phil Cooper

Wood Into Flesh and Blood

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In my designs for the tabletop-puppets of Hansel and Gretel, made to guide master puppet-maker Jan Zalud in the complex task of building our wooden actors, I sketched unclothed versions so that the proportions of the characters could be seen.

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Items of clothing were of the stick-over variety used for old-fashioned paper dolls, offered more by way of a starting point for puppet wardrobe supervisor, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths.

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Costuming puppets is a rather hard to define and alchemical skill. It’s the final, transformative stage that comes before entrusting the wooden actors to the puppeteers who will give them life. Flesh and blood performers can take ownership of what’s worn on stage to the point where the warmth and shape of bodies moulds garments so that they stop being ‘costumes’ and become clothes.

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But for the inert, wooden actor, the wardrobe supervisor has to take things several stages further in order for the illusion of the character’s history to be present. It requires a forensic approach to detail, because all the clues of subtle ownership and everyday wear and tear have to be crafted into garments worn by actors unable to add any history of their own. Care must be taken so that miniaturisation doesn’t become a distraction. Meticulously crafting a miniature zip, while impressive at a technical level, has the potential to be a distraction from the puppet’s performance. So there needs to be a careful shorthand, paring away extraneous detail while leaving just enough to be convincing. It’s an illusory craft, because it mustn’t draw attention to itself, which is harder than it sounds.

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Oonagh and I will meet our puppet actors for the first time in London later this month. We’re greatly anticipating the moment. I’ve wanted to collaborate with Jan Zalud for the longest time, but the stars didn’t align for us to do so until this project. Oonagh and I will be able to closely examine Hansel and Gretel and take measurements of them. Her task of compiling photographic references began several weeks ago, but once she can see exactly what she’ll be costuming, the work of bringing wood to life can begin.

 

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Hansel & Gretel is Coming!

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The Premiere at the Cheltenham Festival is on July 7th.

Box Office open from April 4th.

Words: Simon Armitage
Music: Matthew Kaner
Visual Direction: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Dramaturgy: Caroline Clegg
Producer: Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions

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Puppets: Jan Zalud

Model Sets: Philip Cooper

Shadow Puppets: Peter Lloyd

Puppet Wardrobe Supervisor: Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

 

 

Farewell to 2017

2017 was jam-packed with work and events from start to finish. In the Spring the Música en Segura festival took me to Andalusia for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time concert, for which I’d made images to be screened during the performance.

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Back in the UK at the Lotte Inch Gallery in York, there was a two-person exhibition with my friend Sarah Raphael-Balme, and in Wales an exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn of all the drawings I’d made for the Random Spectacular Hansel & Gretel Picture Book published in 2016.

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Below: specially-bound cover of Hansel & Gretel made for me by Christopher Shaw

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The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock‘s Toyshop in Covent Garden was launched, alongside a beautiful pop-up card based on the theatre and a handsomely packaged game of Hansel & Gretel ‘Pelmanism’.

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I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University. I lectured and/or taught at Southampton, Hereford and Cambridge, and these were wonderful interludes in an otherwise gruelling schedule of project deadlines. I guest curated an exhibition, Imagined Realms, at the Royal Cambrian in Conwy, and was able to invite a spectacular array of artists I both admire and love, to take part.

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By far the lion’s share of effort went into completing the fourteen screenprint series in collaboration with Penfold Press, based on Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in time for the forthcoming exhibition opening on Jan 10th at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illuminating text from curator and art writer James Russell.

 

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Below: separations on lithography film for The Exchange, and the completed print.

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Below: Gouache, ink and pencil work on board  – The Stain of Sin.

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More news about what’s planned for the Gawain series to be announced shortly. News too of Hansel & Gretel, who are about to embark on a thrilling journey in the company of a whole bunch of old and new friends with whom to enjoy the adventure!

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I’ll be making a visual accompaniment for Daniel Broncano’s Música en Segura 2018, this time to the music of Stravinsky –

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– and there’s to be a sweetly pretty new Pollock’s Toy Theatre project.

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In the US Marly Youmans has produced a scintillating new collection of poems that I’ll be making a book cover and decorations for, and there’s to be an edition of Jeffery Beam’s Spectral Pegasus poems, illustrated with my series of paintings from the Dark Movements series.

2018 is set to be a year of seeing long term projects developing in ways unanticipated at the times of starting them. Plenty of challenges ahead, then. And deadlines, of course. Always there are the deadlines.

 

 

 

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The Pleasure of Pollock’s

 

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Wonderful things may be seen at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre features in the Christmas-themed Pollock’s window situated in the Covent Garden precinct, while in the first-floor shop a glass cabinet overflows with the toy theatre, together with a marvellous cast of the inhabitants of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, iced gingerbread men, assorted Harlequins, Punch and Judy puppets, Russian Dolls, Witch’s cats and just about every treasure any lucky child might wish to find crammed into the toe of a Christmas-stocking! Bliss.

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Below: A Covent Garden street lamp sheds golden light to warm the winter chill, while Hansel & Gretel ride safely home on the back of a friendly duck.

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Christopher Shaw’s Bookbinding for Hansel & Gretel

 

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Hansel & Gretel was published last year by Random Spectacular in paper covers, which had always been the plan. I was enormously pleased with the edition as it was extremely thoughtfully produced.

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Nevertheless, because the project had been a long one – it had taken me two years to produce all the illustrations as I was having to work on them between other projects – I was keen to celebrate the achievement with a ‘special’ binding of the book for my shelves.

Bookbinder Christopher Shaw and I talked about the possibility of a special binding at the Hansel & Gretel book launch in London last September, and then over a period of weeks we discussed ideas in more detail. He sent me samples of cloth for the cover, and I began to make some paper oak leaves that he would apply to the cover after blind stamping shapes into the boards to receive them.

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Oak leaves had appeared in some of the images in the book, and so felt like an appropriate motif for the cover.

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We decided to have them looking as though they’d been blown across the covers.

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Christopher’s beautiful binding for the book has far surpassed any hopes I’d had for it. When I opened the parcel from him today, I was overwhelmed by what he had made. The culmination of a long road of endeavour from the first tiny, dummy copy made for Random Spectacular, through the the many stages of creativity leading to this final, much appreciated keepsake, I find that I can’t stop looking at it and smiling.

Below: the dummy copy of Hansel & Gretel, made in 2014, helped establish the layout of the book.

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