What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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Hansel & Gretel at the Tegfryn Gallery, Menai Bridge

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Above: design of a poster for Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit. Gouache and pencil on board.

In September there will be an exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, of all my work made over the past few years on the theme of Hansel & Gretel. There will be illustrations for a German alphabet primer and the collages made to illustrate a Hansel & Gretel short story commissioned from St. Jude’s and published in their magazine Random Spectacular 2, the complete illustrations made for the Hansel & Gretel picture book published by the Random Spectacular imprint in 2016, and the artworks for the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre kit due out at Easter, commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden.

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Above: illustration for Random Spectacular 2. Collage.

The twenty drawings produced for the Hansel & Gretel picture book will form the heart of the exhibition, together with the Pollock’s designs for the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre. All of the works will be viewable and available for purchase from the gallery or the online catalogue at the time of the exhibition. I’ll post the finalised dates of the exhibition when I have them, here at the Artlog, at my official website and at Facebook.

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Illustration for the picture book Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular in 2016. Pencil and collage.

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Above: design for a German alphabet primer. Collage.

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Below: trailer for the Hansel & Gretel picture book, published by Random Spectacular in November 2016.

The Bad Mother’s Death Revealed: a Spoiler!

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In the Grimm brother’s Hansel & Gretel, the children experience in short order, parental abandonment, possible starvation and/or death by exposure, and capture by an apex predator who intends to murder and eat them. When Gretel sees an opportunity to escape, she seizes it, even though it means committing an act of grotesque homicide. So it’s almost inconceivable that at the point she frees Hansel from his cage and the two leave the Witch’s cottage, the place they head for is home, where their troubles originated. But then again, they’re just children, so where else would they go?

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Above: vintage illustration of Hansel and Gretel returning to their relieved father.

From the start when I began reacquainting myself with the story, I was bothered by the notion that they’d return to their abusers, the bad mother who hatched the plan to abandon them in the wood and the weak father who’d complied with her. But then there’s that unconvincing aside offered by way of an explanation at the conclusion of the narrative, that the mother has died in the interim. So that’s alright then. The worst of the two has gone, and so with only a formerly henpecked weak man in charge of things, we can assume that everything will be OK, right?

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I never bought that bit about the mother having popped her clogs. It felt like an afterthought. And there’s nothing to indicate that the children could have known she’d died in their absence, so the fact of it can’t have affected their decision to return. Nevertheless, that’s what the Grimms wrote, and as I prepared to edit the story down to what would work in a picture book, I had to come to grips with the fact.

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I went through many stages of attempting to make the issue of the mother’s death feel less tacked-on. Finally, in the book as published, I lodged visual clues that indicate what happened ‘off-stage’ in the children’s absence. It begins elusively at the start of the story, in the illustration of the Bad Mother ordering Hansel and Gretel from the house. All the reader’s attention is on the raw expression of hate on the woman’s face as she hurls the words ‘Get lost!’ at the bewildered children. Simultaneously her husband, almost unnoticed, turns from the event, walking away while carrying the tool of his occupation, a hefty wood-axe. That axe only makes two appearances in the book, and the second one can leave us in no doubt as to what became of the mother in the children’s absence.

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Above: early maquettes of the Weak Father and the Bad Mother.

When working with the maquettes that I customarily build to work out compositional ideas, I toyed with the possibility of showing more specifically what became of the mother. In the end, I eschewed the explicitness and found a better way to convey the scenario as a mystery. But here, on the Artlog where few will see, are the maquette actors playing out the the mother’s death scene as it isn’t depicted in the book!

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Hansel & Gretel was published in 2016 by Random Spectacular, and is available

HERE

The Witch, the Director and Mr Mitchum

At the start of the project to tell the story of Hansel & Gretel in pictures, I made a single, worked-to-completion, wide-format image to show the publisher, Simon Lewin, how the finished illustrations might look. Here it is.

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The witch hurtles like a bird of prey, pursuing the children in a hail of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts and assorted confectionary. However, much changed between the trial image and the final artwork. To begin with I reversed the action, propelling the momentum from left to right so as to continue the action in the direction of the page turns. Here’s the image as it appears in the book, though without the colour that was added at the printing stage.

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And because the finished design became a spread with an added right-hand fold-out, I had to make sure that the witch and the children were hidden completely when the fold-out was in the closed position, which meant they had to fit exactly into two thirds of the composition. When the spread is first opened, with the fold-out in the closed position, the house stands on the left-hand page, while the right offers a view of the children approaching it across a bridge as the witch, bent and hobbling with the aid of a walking-stick, heads toward them. Here’s a detail of the drawing, photographed before it was finished.

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When the fold-out is opened, the terrifying transformation has taken place. Moreover the viewer has been catapulted closer to the action to see in detail the witch’s awful appearance, clawing at the fleeing children’s backs.

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There are four page fold-outs in the book, and with each I wanted the ‘reveal’ to carry the narrative forward. In two I also included a shock moment, rather like a jump-cut in a film.

The children in the trial drawing are exactly the same as they appear in the finished book. However the design of the witch changed a little, anatomically. The underslung jaw of the early drawing was jettisoned, replaced with the more typical hooked nose/chin profile of fairy-tale witches. I knew that those teeth couldn’t possibly fit into her jaws when closed, and so in the two close-ups where they’re not apparent, I imagined them as being hinged, like a snake’s, folded back into grooves in the gums until required. I even made a witch maquette with a little mechanism that unfolded the fangs from horizontal to vertical as her jaws gaped, and slid smoothly back again as they closed. I didn’t really have need of it for the illustrations, but I always find that I work better with that kind of background information.

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Finally, here’s an image from Night of the Hunter, the sole film on which actor Charles Laughton worked as a director. It’s a cinema masterpiece, but it was misunderstood at the time and Laughton never directed another film. Robert Mitchum as the murderous ‘Preacher’ scrabbles up the cellar steps in pursuit of his step-children, and I realised even as I drafted my composition that I was remembering Preacher’s clawing hands, hellishly intent on mayhem. In Night of the Hunter, the children escape. In Hansel & Gretel, they don’t.

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Marly Youmans’ ‘The Witch of the Black Forest’

The Witch of the Black Forest

The witch is singing in her swazzle-voice
As she sows teeth inside her garden close;
The little nubbins answer to her call
And sprout and shape themselves to candy cane
Or lollipop—the trees lean down to hear
Her tunelessness and watch the candy grow.
She sings, The world is hard, the world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
The trees seem towers, up and up, with leaves
Like child-drawn crowns, or else are hogweed roots
Set upside down to kvetch and snatch at stars,
Or sulk and dream they are anemones
Beneath the sparkles of a moonlit sea.

Believe this: she no longer has a choice,
Could never sniff out change with her long nose,
Poor marrow-sucking bitch, her hunger all
The all she ever knows, her need the bane
That shriveled soul and made it disappear.
She tells her minion-men of ginger dough
To ferret Hansel-crabs from the sea marsh,
Prepare the cage, the pie tins for mincemeat…
The Father made of shells whistles and grieves,
Bent by the fire, cleaning his axe and boots.
Stepmother’s keeping busy, making scars.
Hansel and Gretel feel the old unease
That seems to fill both now and memory.

Days passed, and there was nothing to rejoice
The belly or the heart: Stepmother’s blows,
The bowl of tears Woodcutter drank, the small
And dwindling meals of bread, the glass of rain.
The tossed-out boy and girl were left to deer
And bear and tree, and to the luring glow
From panes in witch-hat towers. The world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
Something called their names—song or sugared eaves,
The licorice sills, the faery-glamoured fruits.
Cannibal cupboards shrilled of candy bars,
While murmurs from the staring witness-trees
Said oven, cage, and ashes, ashes. Flee.

Marly Youmans
In honor of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’s Hansel and Gretel (UK: Random Spectacular)

G.O.S.

 

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This began as an e-mail to my team, but while writing it I thought how much my friend Ronnie Burkett would enjoy it, and so I’ve re-jiggled it slightly to make a blog post.

Early in my career as a choreographer I worked regularly with a hardened, chain-smoking, drop-dead glamorous stage manager. Old school, name of Maggie. She wore a cocktail-dress, for christsakes, in the prompt corner! Maquillage, perfume, the works. She’d seen it all and didn’t think much of it, though she was a woman who had your back if she believed in you. I trusted her judgement implicitly, even when it was jaundiced. She ran her stage like the captain of a man-of-war.
One day we were hanging out together in the scene-dock during the intermission of a pantomime. She’d had a couple of fortifying sherries sent down for us from the dress-circle bar. Companionable silence between us. The company were in tatters at the tail end of three months of nine performances a week. (Three on Saturdays, which was hell!) Even the three alternating teams of juveniles looked like the walking dead. Peachy make-up caked over the chalky pallors of a cast that had barely seen daylight since before rehearsals. Everyone sick to death of the show and yet anxious about beginning the inevitable rounds of auditions to get the next jobs. Maggie surveyed Cinderella’s stout little ponies in their enclosure, where the groom was gloomily sweeping up what you might expect. ‘Fuck!’, she muttered through a plume of cigarette smoke. (Those were the days! Smoking in the scene dock!) I raised my eyebrows questioningly at her. ‘Well…’, she said, ‘… that just about sums it all up!’ I looked blank. She inhaled deeply, her eyes narrowing and sliding sideways in the direction of steaming manure sprinkled with tinsel shed from a passing fairy. She ground her cigarette under an immaculate high-heel and headed for her corner, break over. ‘Glitter on shit, love…’, she called, disappearing into the stygian darkness of the stage. ‘… it’s all fucking glitter on shit! ‘

And she was right, though perhaps not in the way she meant. That’s exactly what fairy tale is, though generations of adaptations have perhaps inevitably stripped back what underlies the glitter. Almost from the start the story of Hansel & Gretel has been garnished with the gemutlich of lebkuchen, glacé cherries of suspicious hue and jaw-breaking bulls-eyes, to the point where many children see only the surface, and not the skull beneath the sugar-icing.

In the Humperdinck opera, the many children turned by the witch into gingerbread are restored to life in the last act, after Gretel has done her shoving. Everyone sings and dances prettily and happiness prevails.

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This is definitely NOT the story we have from the Grimm brothers, who don’t balk at the horror. Their witch is a carnivore. She doesn’t magically – and reversibly – transform children into gingerbread, but stews them and sucks the marrow from their little bones. At the conclusion of the opera, Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their distraught and loving parents. In the Grimm version the children are duped by their mother into venturing deep into the forest because she wishes them dead, and their father allows it. I have no idea why at the end, having vanquished the witch and taken her treasure, they head for home. Perhaps they feel safer with the devil they know, though as it turns out, mother has died in their absence. So while it’s a cruel, bleak universe that the Grimms conjure, we know that it is not just through the realms of fairy tale that monsters hunt.

Though I’m conscious that my version may not be the go-to option for parents overly-anxious about what their children read just before lights-out, I’m happy to be restoring a tradition that does not pretend life is a stroll in the park with the reward of a cup-cake at the conclusion. No Disney princesses in this fucking wood!

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