Resurrecting Trevor

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First there was my father, Trevor. In 1999 I was at his bedside as he died. I had to lean in and watch closely, to be sure of the moment. When it came it was as intangible as the faintest wisp of smoke, half-seen out of the corner of my eye. I looked so hard I almost stopped breathing, and then he was gone, his cool, unmoving hand a deadweight in mine.

From 2000 onwards I drew him into my grief, while my friend and his, Catriona Urquhart, watched and wrote what would become the text for my 2001 exhibition and an edition of poems published by The Old Stile Press, under the collective title of The Mare’s Tale.

I made many images. First the studies, wrenched out of sadness, and thereafter the giant drawings made on the floor of our dining-room in Plasturton Avenue. I begrimed myself with black Conté pencil that stained the cracks in my fingers and transferred in smears as I wiped my sweaty face. I must have looked like a madman, crawling over the images, buffing their surfaces to a slatey sheen with knees getting stiffer by the month. When finally I came to his likeness, I wept incessantly. It was too painful to make. I’d left it as an absence in the black surface, but with the drawing completed save for his face, the task couldn’t be put off any longer. I repeatedly had to dry the paper out, and so I know there’s hidden salt in the fibre of it. Sometimes I wonder whether one day it’ll emerge, like crusted sadness on the surface, the way salts emerge out of old bricks, and stonework. That would be an interesting one for the paper-conservators, charged with erasing grief from an artwork.

Above: Tend

A decade after I’d completed The Mare’s Tale, I was persuaded to give permission for a ‘performance work’ to be created for a chamber orchestra, inspired by the drawings and what lay behind them. This would require a collaboration with the composer Mark Bowden. I agreed, and elected Damian Walford Davies to be the librettist, because we’d worked together before. He knew my story intimately, and through me my father’s story. He also knew and had written about Catriona’s poems. (She’d died too young in 2005, The Mare’s Tale the only volume of poetry published in her lifetime.) Damian’s narrative was a fiction, a psychological ghost story, though conjured from some of the biographical facts of my father’s life. The title was borrowed from the original series of drawings, as were the ‘secrets’ buried in Trevor’s childhood memories. Two key scenes were lifted directly from my accounts of what had happened to him. Though this was hard-to-negotiate and dark terrain, I felt safe in Damian’s hands, and in Mark’s. Trevor became Morgan, in the new story, and he would be played by the singer Eric Roberts.

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In 2013, a single, fully-staged  performance of the fledgling work was given at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. I designed and directed it. Morgan’s nightmares… my father’s nightmares… were given form though the medium of puppetry and animation. The drama was played out on a set I created to reflect the bleached sepulchres of  the original Mare’s Tale drawings.

From drawing (above) to set (below).

Puppeteers Anne Morris and Diana Ford gave sinister life to the various apparitions, and scale was added by an on-stage video crew filming the effects and streaming them to a screen suspended above the action.

Topographical models were filmed and projected onto the screen, to compass Morgan’s cramped world.

From concept drawing…

… to rehearsal.

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I ruthlessly pared back the turbulence of my drawings from the stage imagery. I wanted the production to be visually stark, to give space to the music and text. Mark and Damian built from their own materials what I had once made out of densely-worked Conté pencil.

Eric Roberts was astounding as Morgan Seyes. In the scene where the character, fevered and enveloped in tangled bedsheets, believed that the Mari Lwyd had returned to claim him, the lines between performance and reality blurred, and Eric/Morgan became Trevor.

I didn’t set out to resurrect my father when I began work on the stage presentation of The Mare’s Tale. In rehearsals, as I began to understand where the last scene was going, it came as a shock. The visceral power of Eric’s performance shook everyone present. Our perceptive dramaturge, Helen Cooper, stepped quietly forward to continue helping, while I retreated to the back of theatre to let her, the music, the text, the lighting and the actor do their work.

 …

Chronology of The Mare’s Tale, 2001 – 2015

2001: The Mare’s Tale opens at Newport Museum and Art Gallery. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition

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The Old Stile Press publish The Mare’s Tale, their edition of Catriona Urquhart’s poems accompanied by Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ illustrations

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The Contemporary Art Society for Wales purchases Stumbles and Cannot Rise (below) from The Mare’s Tale, and the drawing subsequently enters the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery purchase The Mari Lwyd Approaches (below) from The Mare’s Tale 

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2002: new works in the Mare’s Tale series form an expanded exhibition at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery under the title The Tower on the Hill

Selected drawings from The Mare’s Tale appear in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, and subsequently tour to four venues in the Czech Republic

2005: Catriona Urquhart dies. Her poetic text for The Mare’s Tale includes Pegasus, in which she reflects on Trevor’s last months and his death. However so apposite is the poem to her own failing health and intimations of mortality, that Clive Hicks-Jenkins reads it at her funeral.

2011: the artist’s sixtieth birthday is celebrated with a major retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Many of The Mare’s Tale drawings are gathered for the occasion from private collections and institutions

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Lund Humphries publish Clive Hicks-Jenkins, a monograph. Montserrat Prat contributes an essay titled Metamorphosis of a Folk Tradition, in which she explores the drawings of The Mare’s Tale

2012: The Mare’s Tale, a work for chamber-orchestra and actor, is commissioned by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies. The piece takes its inspiration and its title from the 2001 series of Mari Lwyd drawings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

2013: a fully staged performance of the chamber-work The Mare’s Tale, is given by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. It is designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Helen Cooper is the Dramaturge. The role of Morgan Seyes is played by Eric Roberts

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2015: Eric Roberts and Damian Walford Davies read extracts from the libretto of The Mare’s Tale at a special event held during Clive Hicks-Jenkins most recent explorations of the Mari Lwyd theme in Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. At the event Mary-Ann Constantine reads from Catriona Urquhart’s collection of Mare’s Tale poems.

Below: Eric Roberts reads at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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Jane’s Dream, a film by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Pete Telfer based loosely on Damian Walford Davies’ libretto for The Mare’s Tale, is screened in the gallery throughout the Dark Movements exhibition. Original music for Jane’s Dream is by composer Peter Byrom Smith

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The Thank You

My thanks to the collaborators: to Jordan Morley, who modelled and encouraged, to Jeffery Beam, who wrote the glorious poetry, to Pete Telfer, who filmed, edited and supported, to Sarah Parvin, who never stopped believing, to Peter Byrom-Smith who made the music, and last but not least among the collaborators, to Maria Maestre, who inspired and cheered all of us from afar.

The Arts Centre staff have been wonderful. Eve Ropek, together with Tim Walley and Jen Loffman, worked tirelessly to produce, present and run the exhibition to the highest standards. It looked fantastic, better than I dared hope.

My framer, Anthony at Oriel y Bont, danced around my crazed schedule of delivering new works right up to the finishing line. His care and attention to every detail of the presentation of paintings and drawings, meant that I was able to pour my energies where they were most needed.

Finally the exhibition was ready and it was time to throw open the doors to the gallery.

Poet Gillian Clarke enthralled guests with her opening speech. Mary Ann Constantine wrote the preview for Planet Magazine, and later during the run of the exhibition expertly guided the evening of ‘Conversation’ in front of an audience in the cinema auditorium. Francesca Rydderch introduced Dark Movements in the handsome fold-out presented to visitors to the gallery. Eric Roberts, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine read the poetry of Jeffery Beam and Catriona Urquhart to visitors at a gallery event, and Damian read an extract from his libretto for The Mare’s Tale, the 2013 chamber-work by composer Mark Bowden based on my Mari Lwyd drawings. Eric, who had performed the original piece, sang to close the event, and we were all without words after his hauntingly beautiful performance.

Finally, I come to Peter Wakelin. Without his support there would be no Dark Movements. Let’s face it, there wouldn’t be anything. He is and has always been my rock. When I’m preoccupied, driven and obsessed, I know I cannot be an easy person to be around. Most of you see the best of me, but he gets all the dark stuff too, and yet he continues, unwavering.

On Saturday July 25th I’m to give a maquette-making workshop titled Illusions of Life at the Arts Centre, and at the end of business on that day, the gallery doors will close and the exhibition Dark Movements will be over. I’ll try to organise a few minutes alone in the space before I walk away from it. I imagine it will be rather like taking leave of a group of friends brought together for a special occasion. So many of you are tied up in the exhibition in so many ways, and your presences have been felt there… even those of you who because of great distances weren’t able to come… woven into the warp and weft of the work.

After such an intense period of collaboration and sharing, I know it will feel very odd indeed when the curtain has come down and the show is over. There will be a crash for me of some sort, and I must work out strategies for getting through it. This one feels as though it will be painful. I have never before in my practice as a painter worked quite so extensively and so enjoyably with so many. It will be the oddest sensation not to be daily in the company of such a group as this one has become.

Your support and creative energy have been fuel to the work. Your streams of e-mails and messages have kept me fizzing. There are other projects to look forward to, and the friendships will continue, I know. But this particular party, which I have so enjoyed, will be over.

Work begets work, and ideas develop from what gets made. I intend to continue building on what was started in Dark Movements. I feel the dance isn’t quite over yet.

Dear Jordan

Dear Jordan

This letter is by way of a thank you. Last night in the cinema auditorium of Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Mary-Ann Constantine and I had a ‘conversation’ about Dark Movements in front of an audience. We sat on the stage in comfortable armchairs, a table between us laid with glasses and water-jug and a multi-directional microphone that allowed us to speak conversationally, and yet be heard by everyone. Peter and I know Mary-Ann and her family quite well now. We live about a twenty-minute drive from each other, and we have all become friends, spending time in each others company. She is insightful, eloquent, sometimes enigmatic, and occasionally challenging. It is her way. Mary-Ann has the capacity to come at you with a razor-sharp intellect that takes no hostages, and when she casts those blue eyes questioningly in your direction, you’d better have a good answer. But she’s also very funny, and has a way with a put-down that can make me bark out loud with shock and pleasure. Mary-Ann has had much to do with this exhibition. She wrote the preview of it for Planet Magazine, and she was one of the readers in the gallery poetry event on June 13th. So it was her I asked to be my interrogator in the cinema auditorium, and she agreed. Moreover, I advised her not to tell me anything of what she planned by way of questions in advance, so that my answers would be fresh.

She was brilliant last night. She set the context of my work so cleverly… and so thoroughly… that for a while there I though I might not have to say anything, but just smile benignly and nod. But when her questions came, I was off like a rocket, because she’d so cleverly opened the door for me to pass through. Moreover she handled the audience skilfully, and when the time came for questions toward the end, there were none of those embarrassingly long silences that can make such occasions rather unnerving. (I’ve attended many a question-and-answer where the participants on-stage have been reduced to begging their audience for questions!) Mary-Ann coaxed them masterfully, and the hands began to go up.

She spoke of you, as did I. I tried to describe the way we started working together on the later-to-be-cancelled Barcelona exhibition. How I sent you a script that I suggested you ‘enact’ for the camera, and how you’d returned photographs, not just of your responses to the script, but unexpected images posed as ‘twisters’, re-workings of shapes you’d seen in the Mari Lwyd drawings in the book I’d sent you.

Last night, as giant images of you from the completed Dark Movements paintings were projected onto the cinema-screen behind us, they combined in memory with my recollections of how we originally responded to each other (when was that now? I can’t recall) leading to friendship, trust and creativity. I realised that in some way this version of you… blue, naked, armoured, tulip-emblazoned and comet-tailed with hair, floating spectre-like over the event, intriguing all onlookers, simultaneously geographically distant and yet dynamically present… this ‘gallery’ Jordan is less the version that is significant to me, than the man behind it, who’s funny, mischievous, practical, supportive and emotionally generous.

Jordan, I wish you could have been there. I imagined you, sitting in the front row with John, your faces alight with the spectacle of what was unfolding on the screen:

Jordan as disarticulating maquette…

Jordan as silver-armoured centaur/knight…

Jordan as horseman of the apocalypse…

Mari-wrangler…

 revenant…

 and Muse!

Sending love to you and John from Wales,

Clive xxx

‘Dark Movements’

Moving toward Dark Movements

 …

In 2002, when I completed the drawing On the Mountain in the series The Mare’s Tale, I believed it marked the end of my work on the theme of the Mari Lwyd. The series had absorbed me for two years. There had been, in short order, two big exhibitions of the work in Wales, and some of the drawings had thereafter travelled with a mixed exhibition, titled Dreaming Awake, to the Terezín Memorial Gallery in the Czech Republic. The poet Catriona Urquhart and I had collaborated throughout the process of making the drawings, and she wrote a series of poems about my father that became the text of The Mare’s Tale at Newport Museum & Art Gallery in 2001 and an edition for The Old Stile Press which I illustrated.

On the Mountain, 2002

On the Mountain, 2002

While The Mare’s Tale was an exploration I needed to undertake, its underlying themes were based on distressing events. A point of emotional weariness came at which I realized it was time to bring the series to an end. Catriona Urquhart’s early death in 2005 seemed to me to draw a line under it.

In 2013, the composer Mark Bowden and poet Damian Walford Davies brought new insights to the subject with a chamber-work for ensemble and performer that was inspired by my drawings and by the poems and biographical events. The libretto was conjured as a new fiction to make a dark and glittering psychological ghost story. I designed and directed the production, also titled The Mare’s Tale. It was extraordinary to watch what had started with my drawings, evolve into a performance for an orchestra and a singer/actor. Eric Roberts played the role of Morgan Seyes, drenched in my late father’s terror of the Mari Lwyd.

That same year a plan evolved for an exhibition of my Mari Lwyd work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, borrowing from public and private collections and adding the stage-designs, puppets and maquettes I’d made for the performance. I had no plans at that time to make new artworks. The exhibition would be a retrospective.

I’d been drawing an American dancer, Jordan Morley, intending a small series of paintings of him for a group ‘portrait’ exhibition I’d been asked to participate in at a gallery in Barcelona. Jordan and I were evolving processes of working together – in New York he acted out scenarios I suggested to him in e-mails from Wales, capturing them in series of photographs that he downloaded and sent to me. At some point we talked about the forthcoming Arts Centre Mari Lwyd exhibition and he began to steep himself in all the work that had gone before. Unexpectedly he produced a set of photographs of himself playing on the shapes and forms of the drawings I’d made fifteen years ago. Using those I built maquettes of him and arranged them into compositions. Ideas stirred. A title evolved, Dark Movements. For me, once there is a title, the art follows.

From North Carolina the poet Jeffery Beam watched what was developing. We were already working together on another project, but something in Dark Movements spoke to him, and new poems came as a result of what he saw emerging from my studio. Those poems inspired further paintings from me. Collaborations, when they work well, fly back and forth between the participants with increasing energy.

Interested parties watched and contributed to the process through social media. Maria Maestre in Spain left illuminating comments at my blog that carried painter and poet in some unexpected directions. Composer Peter Byrom-Smith in Yorkshire prepared his score for Jane’s Dream – a ‘visual poem’ edited by Pete Telfer and me from footage of puppets we’d filmed in 2013 – by watching animated segments posted at Facebook. (Jane’s Dream is being screened in the gallery throughout Dark Movements.) Sarah Parvin (aka ‘The Curious One’) curated a Dark Movements board at Pinterest, that presents her own take on how the project has drawn together many threads from my past themes.

In 2000, my collaboration with Catriona Urquhart took place around kitchen tables, on long walks in the countryside, and occasionally in phone calls when she would read drafts to me. Today the collaborations of Dark Movements have been conducted with social media, e-mails and selfies. I’d set out with no goal other than to visit the grave where I’d left the Mari in that last drawing fifteen years ago, but the habits of ‘making’ can’t be stilled. New collaborations emerge. New words, fresh paints, dancers, puppets and toy theatres kindle a phoenix-flame under the bones, and suddenly the old girl is up and off again, and at a fair old lick. It seems you can’t keep a good horse down, not even after it’s been buried.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

May 2015

Ten

Dark Movements: ten new works, fifteen years on from The Mare’s Tale

Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 11th June – 25th July 2015

One: The Quickening

Two: Yarden

Three: Flowering Skin

Four: Drift

Five: Veil

Six: Pegasus

Seven: Pale Horse

Eight: The Citadel

Nine: Horse/Man

Ten: Birth

“The searching is my dynamic. I don’t believe in the gold at the end of the rainbow, but I do believe in the rainbow.”

Derek Jarman

together, the first five

Many have written to me speculating how the ten new works planned for Dark Movements will look when on the gallery walls. Here are the first five, in the order in which they were painted.

The Quickening

The Quickening

Yarden

Flowering Skin

Drift

Veil

Dark Movement: fifteen years of the Mari Lwyd in the work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

11th June – 25th July

‘Veil’: from start to finish

Veil

Acrylic, gouache and oil-based pencil on board. 59 x 84 cms

Starting point

Underdrawing

The painting begins

Below: working in front of the Dark Movements Toy Theatre

Veil

Acrylic, gouache and oil-based pencil on board. 59 x 84 cms