Nick’s Ink

 

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I’ve had a long-standing plan to work with a number of collaborators who’d agreed to be tattooed with images produced by me from ideas supplied by them. The original plan was to make an exhibition of my scale-drawings, together with ‘selfies’ of the collaborators being inked. The final part of the exhibition was to be a series of small, intense portraits I planned to paint of my subjects and their completed tattoos.

The exhibition was always going to be a logistic nightmare of scheduling, in part because of the number of subjects and the availability of the ink artists. It was to be down to each ‘collaborator’ to research and then book an ink artist of his or her choice and to manage the process of the inking. As it became increasingly clear to me that it was going to be almost impossible to make a stab at a project completion date in order to bring on board a gallery committed to an exhibition, I found myself drifting away to other, less problematic subjects. In time I realised that, good idea though it had been, I’d effectively ‘set aside’ the exhibition, moving it into the lumber room at the back of my mind labelled ‘Future Projects’.

Alone of all the collaborators, Nick Yarr was the one who persistently enquired about his design and when it would be finished. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that we’re friends and see each other regularly, so the subject has often come up in conversations. I’m afraid I kept him waiting a long time because of other commitments, though I can’t discount my hesitation as being in part down to the anxiety that whatever I produced could not, once transferred to Nick’s skin, be walked away from in the same way as he might walk away from a painting that he grew tired of. I guess that ink artists are familiar with the responsibilities inherent in their practice. But for me all this is new, and it has made me slow. Though the design has been on the go for some time, it’s now been finished, making it my first completed work of 2017.

Nick wants a full-sleeve inking. He’d requested a design featuring a clematis ‘orientalis’. It’s a beautiful plant that I’ve painted several times, and Nick and his partner Martin own a small still-life featuring an orientalis that I made in 2006.

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Here, then, a detail of Nick’s design, with the the bell-shaped flowers and silky, fronded seedheads of clematis orientalis and a scattering of oak leaves blowing through. The drawing references the stylised, foliate diapering of Elizabethan embroidery and the botanical decorations found in Books of Hours. I’ve laboured long over it. I wanted the drawing to be as beautiful as I could make it.

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I’ve heavily shadowed the design to add illusory depth to the intentional flatness. To make sure my made-to-scale drawing would exactly fit when transferred to his body, I instructed Nick to bandage his arm with kitchen wrap until a flexible shell was formed. The shell was sliced through in order to remove it, then boxed and delivered to me. Flattened out, it’s provided the template on which to create the design. (See image at top of post.) Nick did the work well. I guess what I requested was a little like plastering a broken arm, and so as a GP he was well placed for making a neat job of it!

Nick will now take the design to the tattoo artist of his choice so that the process of inking can begin. I’ve frequently been asked to design tattoos, but to my knowledge, this will be the first artwork of mine to make it onto skin! The responsibility weighs heavily and I don’t expect my underlying anxiety to let up until the work of inking has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

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Of course there’s some possibility this might reinvigorate the tattoo project. Some of the original collaborators may return, or new ones emerge. But I think that I’d defer commitment to an exhibition until a group of the designs had been completed and executed, and in this way remove the scheduling pressures that had dogged the project in its earlier incarnation.

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)

The Toy Town Theatre

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It’s been a long year. For me, and for my partner Peter too, our various projects have kept us hard at work. Peter curated two exhibitions and wrote the catalogues to go with them. Moreover he’s just delivered his manuscript to the publisher on the art of Roger Cecil, and there will be an exhibition next year.

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For me 2016 was largely taken up with three projects: the ongoing series of prints on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in association with Dan Bugg of the the Penfold Press, the halfway point of which was celebrated with an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery earlier this year. There was the publication of Hansel & Gretel (Random Spectacular), which had been two years in the planning and making, and the completion of my work on a forthcoming toy theatre being produced by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

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2017 promises to be just as busy, with a yet to be announced project for the stage – which for the present time I must keep to myself – and the continuation of the Gawain project, due for completion in March 2018.

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For now, and in the sprit of the season’s greetings, the images in this post are of the Toy Town Theatre that Dan Bugg and I produced as a Christmas card for the Penfold Press. Working with Dan has been one of the great pleasures of 2016, and though there were times when we both thought we’d never make our deadlines, of course in the end we did. In the coming year there will be more Gawain work, plus a few surprises, forthcoming from the Penfold Press. Watch this space.

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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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A Feast of Marshmallows

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My  book of Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular, has been beautifully produced under the watchful eye of Simon Lewin at St Jude’s. The scans by Saxon Digital and the printing by Swallowtail, both in Norwich, are perfect. Every etched line and fleck of the original drawings, meticulously reproduced. The book’s six colours plus black have been created as Pantone separations, consistent in colour throughout and printed onto a matt paper that is so much more pleasing for being without the sheen of many illustrated books. The covers are a slightly heavier card than the pages, and the construction of the book cleverly ensures that every double-page spread opens flat, so that no part of any illustration can become lost in or distorted by the ‘gutter’.

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There are four, three-leaf fold-out spreads scattered throughout the book, and these took a lot of effort to get right in the early design stages. In the finished book the illustrations across each closed fold-out are perfectly aligned, which can have been no easy task for the printers.

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Technically this is just about the most accomplished book I’ve set myself the task of making. I told the story with little recourse to text, and such words as I allowed myself had to be woven through the images as though a part of them. I worked in a technique of colour separation that is relatively new to me. Indeed I was already over halfway through the project when I began learning from Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press the process of producing colour separations.

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I am unapologetically proud of this achievement. I have always believed that inexpensiveness should be no impediment to producing a commercial book with all of the attention to detail that might be expected from an expensive private press edition. I love the art of paperback covers – particularly in Czech and Poland – and have collected vintage and contemporary European children’s illustrated books for more than forty years. While Hansel & Gretel is not intended as a children’s book – it’s a tad too dark for that market – it nevertheless honours the traditions of the children’s book illustrators who have given me so much pleasure over a lifetime. I can hardly believe that at sixty-five, I have finally made my first illustrated book!

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Poet Damian Walford Davies writes of Hansel & Gretel:

‘Just amazing. Beautiful, terrifying. What a piece of work. The blues and pinks and whites have the smell and texture of marshmallow, which is fitting. ‘Eat and get fat’ might be the epigraph for the reader, too, who will verily feast.’

Artist Ed Kluz writes:

‘I pored over your Hansel and Gretel last night – such a wonderful and wicked piece of work. The drawings are at the same time lush and cruel.’

Purchase Hansel & Gretel HERE

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Hansel & Gretel

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My picture book of Hansel & Gretel is now available for pre-ordering at St Jude’s. It’s being launched at the St Jude’s in the City exhibition at the Bankside Gallery (next to Tate Modern) on November 23rd, and orders will begin shipping the first week of December. Click on the link below for details .

St Jude’s

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The Boy and the Wolf by Callum James

Callum James wrote his beautiful poem, The Boy and the Wolf, in response to paintings I’d made on the theme of Saint Hervé. In the way of these things, after I read the poem, I began painting again. Now the paintings are inspired by Callum’s poem.

The Boy and the Wolf

I. Hervé is Born.

Born in November
in the short days:
born leaning against
the slanting rain:
born from a frozen prayer
to a bleak God.
Knitted in solitude
in a womb
pricked by a vow and
surprised into swelling.

II. Hervé’s First Sight.

Pushing aside dark earth,
a milk-film
over his eyes:
this small stone of a boy
ate dirt, while the
glory danced white
on blank, black retinas.

III. Hervé Learns About the World.

Grasses by their hissing
and sharp cuts:
fur by its musk
and static crackle:
snowdrops by their tinkling
on his fingertips;
the world attacked him,
was a lightning strike
inside his chest.

IV. Hervé Has Visions.

And in his twilight
a light more sumptuous
seeped in;
a bending tree and he
was fighting dragons,
the broken sun on
rough-topped rivers
and he was rich in diamonds,
smiling mad.
He fell to pray
before the hilltop shepherd
who flexed an angel’s wings:
a cloak that rippled
threadbare in the wind.

V. Hervé Sees The Wolf.

He saw,
the day The Wolf came,
he saw the threat
and the salvation.
He saw the shape of undergrowth:
thicket-dark, triangular,
he saw a head
the shape of a snarl
in heated breath.

VI. Hervé’s Dog is Killed By The Wolf.

What did he see
in the smell of hot-iron
from the slaughtered dog?
What bright colours,
what beauty was in his hands
slipping through
spilled intestines?
What overwhelming, pungent
touch of heaven came?

VII. The Wolf Attacks Hervé.

And The Wolf turned
with the world
around the boy
and teeth the temperature
of ice pushed through skin:
here where the heavy pelt,
muscle-packed, pressed
the boy and his skin tore
breaking the line of holiness
that runs around a saint.

VIII. Hervé Redeems The Wolf.

A blinding alleluia of light
as from the boy
love tumbled,
burst like river-diamonds,
mingling with The
Wolf’s breath,
flooding the grasses, fur,
the snowdrops,
heating the prayer
that made him.

IX. Hervé and The Wolf Together.

That moment hung,
a stopped raindrop,
a never falling leaf
within his soul: quivering.
It abided there.
The Wolf abided
at the centre of him.

X. Hervé Prays

Unable to contain it
all inside, the boy
began to howl;
a voice of red and gold,
a passion, sung like petals
spewing, uncontrollable
from God’s own lips,
and everything that heard him
leaned and swayed
and healed a little
as he lay his head
forever
on the shoulder of The Wolf.