Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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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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‘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

Mr Beam and Mr Hicks-Jenkins

So much by way of my collaborations with poets and writers… and theirs with me… happens through the medium of the e-mail. In this way there there have been repeated couplings with my long-time collaborator and word-smithing muse, Marly Youmans, and with the Welsh poet Damian Walford Davies, both of them writers whose published works regularly bear artwork made by me. (And both of them writers who have written published essays about the significance in my practice of image to written word.) Most recently the American poet Jeffery Beam, who I met through Marly… he’d contributed a paean of praise to Marly’s writing on the back-cover of a book for which I’d produced the artwork… have been conjuring a collaboration from the new work for Dark Movements that’s been emerging from my studio. Jeffery has taken images of the maquettes of Jordan Morley, the Dark Movements Toy Theatre and the first completed paintings made for the exhibition, and has produced poems from them that in turn have ignited my imagination and sent me careering in unexpected visual directions in response.

And so the ideas flow between us via the great electronic highways that connect, and the work for a new exhibition coalesces out of words, photographs, conversations, and shared ideas. A regular visitor to the Artlog, Maria from Spain, joins in the conversations in the blog comment boxes, and adds another layer of ideas to what unfolds there. Maria suggests that the tight-fitting lavender gloves worn by the Jordan maquette, together with the play of the puppet’s hands in the images I posted, remind her of the formal language of fans as expressed in a treatise on the subject given to her by her grandmother. Another friend, Jan, joins the debate.

Clive to Jeffery:

Dear Mr Beam

This is an extract of an e-mail between me and a friend. I think our exchange may be of interest you, seeing as you figure so significantly in it. She wrote:

Jan to Clive:

“The latest version of your Jordan maquette is just beautiful, gorgeously, ravishingly beautiful. He (!) must be taking on a life way beyond that you originally imagined for him and the real Jordan must surely be amazed to see himself so represented and transformed –”

Clive to Jan:

Jordan’s responses are insightful. As a performer he knows that those who watch ‘Jordan Morley’ on stage or on video, carry away versions of him that contain only a part of the truth. He understands the processes of transformation. So while he’s enjoying watching my transformations of him, he’s no such fool as to believe they represent the man he knows himself to be. He was taken aback by the erotic aspects of the maquette and the effect it has had on some of those who wrote about it. My friend Maria in Spain left comments at the Artlog about the erotic aspects of those tight, violet gloves, and Jeffery, having read them, started writing the poetry. I began to see the figure in a different way to how I’d intended originally, but that I wanted nevertheless to pursue. Jordan, meanwhile, smiles enigmatically and rises above it all. I think that he’s enjoying it. He has expressed misgivings that anyone meeting him is going to be disappointed, but he knows what’s what, and I think knows how to separate realities from dreams.

Jeffery to Clive:

Good to know that Jordan knows and knows we know that he has become something outside of himself and yet which is also himself. His gift to us has been giving our Imaginations the freedom Blake tells us to embrace, and there we acknowledge and discover him, but also the him in you, the him in me, the you in me, the me in you, the man/men in which we have MELDED.

Jan to Clive:

“My problem now is trying to reconcile the exquisite, be-gloved Jordan and the idea of the ‘swooning’ poetry you’ve mentioned, mainly because ‘swooning’ somehow conjures up Mills and Boon-type pictures of Barbara Cartland with a rictus smile, swathed in acres of pink! Perhaps unsurprisingly the combination isn’t working at all well in my head – and when it does resolve itself the results are such that I can’t imagine that Ms C would be able to find it in herself to approve!”

Clive to Jan:

Ha ha! Well, let’s say that may have been an ill-chosen description by me, though to be frank it was made in jest, partially because I hesitated at that early stage to describe the verse as homoerotic, though clearly it is.

Jeffery to Clive:

Of course we Queer boys know the joke-ness of “swoon” and understood we were speaking of language of laugh and, simultaneously, a language of mystical mythical experience.

Clive to Jan:

Anyone reading Jeffery’s ‘Jordan’ poems… and there are now several, all of them erotically charged… not knowing who the poet was, would find nothing to suggest that they are the words of one man longing for another. They could equally apply to the longings of a woman.

A while back, Maria from Madrid offered an Artlog comment explaining that the play of the Jordan maquette’s gloves in the photographs I’d posted, reminded her of a book, a treatise on the language of fans, gifted to her by her grandmother. Maria, herself now a ‘grandmother’, had recently acquired one of my preparatory studies of naked young men, made many years ago for the Old Stile Press edition of The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield. In an e-mail she described how much she loved the drawing and the sixteenth century poem it accompanied in the book. She was moved by Richard Barnfield’s erotically charged verse, a heartfelt paean to the beauty and allure of a young man. For Maria, the poet’s sentiments spoke both to her, and for her.

I rather like it that three gay men, an artist, a poet and a model/muse, encouraged by a blog-reading grandmother in Spain, can make work that is at once beautiful and erotically charged for both men and women.

Jeffery Beam to Clive:

I am still swimming in glove/fans and wonder if you know of Paul Claudel’s A Hundred Movements for a Fan. It is a work that has inspired me in the past but I have returned to it again, in case there is a Jordan G/love secret therein. The edition I have is actually a British imprint: Translated by American Gay Mystic Andrew Harvey and Iain Watson and published by Quartet Books in 1992.

I’d certainly love to see an English translation of Maria’s grandmother’s book. I wonder if there is one?

Jan to Clive:

“Jeffrey Beam’s poetry sounds intriguing – look forward to encountering it. I so love your multi-disciplinary view of life and art, the dark twists against the child-like (in the best sense, of wonder and fearlessness) innocence.”

Clive to Jan:

In our heads surely all of us are simultaneously many things: child and adult hand in hand, the innocent and experienced journeying together. It’s just that too many forget that, or don’t understand it or express it. But the artists, the poets and the makers… we must express it, if we are to do our jobs.

And here, a brief exchange between me and Jeffery, this time about Maze of Blood.

Clive to Jeffery:

Mr Beam, my long-distance poet/amour/penpal/inspiration, I hope you are well.

Here, the Maze of Blood cover is preoccupying me. I think it likely this will be the only painting I’ll ever get to make of a man who believed his girlfriend to be a cardinal bird, and blew off the top of his head hours before his mother died of tuberculosis because he couldn’t face life without her. Doesn’t bear thinking about too much, though Marly takes even the most unnerving material and stitches it through with the sublime. And here’s me, part way through reinventing her sublime wordsmithing into art for the cover of the novel.

Jeffery to Clive:

Oh that’s a perfect description of what Marly does…”unnerving material and stitches it through with the sublime” I trust she should use that as a blurb.

Clive to Jeffery:

Miss Marly always brings out the unexpected in me.

Jeffery to Clive:

And there you are, as you say, unexpected but perfectly right. Myth and psychology, and psychic tear (read as a rip and a cry).

Clive to Jeffery:

Sending love your way, Mr Beam. I read your Jordan verses and all sorts of heated imaginings roll around in my head. It’s as though you’re standing close behind me, whispering the words into my ear.

Jeffery to Clive:

Well honey, I am whispering… I have been known to do that with soul-brothers over the distance.

‘Judas’ cover complete

The image wraps around the the book, though only the animal’s rump, tail and one leg show along the right side of the back cover, leaving plenty of space for the bar-code, publishing imprint and blurb.

It hasn’t departed very far from the sketches.

I made the cover for Witch, another thematic collection by Damian from the publisher Seren. I intended the cover for the current book to sit well when in proximity with the previous one, for when the two appear together in bookshops or online.

‘Judas’

The next deadline of the month is the wrap-around cover of Damian Walford Davies’ Judas, a series of thematic poems riffing on the title subject in the contemporary settings of Israel and Palestine. The book is to be published by Seren. Here are some of my preparatory sketches:

I wrote to Damian:

‘I became swept away by your poem ‘Fauna’. The biblical notion of dogs and jackals as predatory, feeding on the weak and the dead and being unclean, got tangled in my head with the notion of the dogs of war. Dogs, wolf-like, jackal-like and shit-scary started emerging. Dogs that were twisted by hunger and by bomb-blast, and yet still giving an appearance of being sentient.’

Damian wrote back:

‘Amazing, C. I love it. A Judas dog. Fits so well with so much of the collection — the inner howling, the lurking. And the vignette idea is so exciting. Thank you again for doing this – no one else could inhabit a collection visually like you.’

Beginning the artwork for the cover (detail)

today on Marly Youmans’ blog: The Longing for Depth and Wholeness

 

Marly Youmans at The Palace at 2:00 a.m., June 21st

“Recently I wrote some sketches about fans and paparazzi as part of my current series of tiny stories, since I’m still too busy to start a novel. I’ve never been much interested in the idea of celebrity or celebrities, but I accidentally bumped into a fan site for Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (the way one does on the internet, following a thread through the infinite Borgesian labyrinth) and then explored some more.
 
At first, I felt a tad appalled–the latter in part because a great many fans don’t particularly care about grammar, syntax, clarity, and other tools of the trade most dear to my heart. Of course, I don’t care for a great many other things . . . so I won’t reproach them. Clear thinking for me is made of words in the right order, but it doesn’t mean all that much to a lot of people active on the internet. Neither does proofreading. But plenty of people have lived and died without deep engagement with the written word. For that matter, most of our human time on the planet has passed away without written words.
 
The fascination I felt lay elsewhere. I was intrigued by the idea that a large group of fans were building a story, collaborating on a kind of fiction, telling themselves a thing they needed to hear. It is a story based on clues, and like fiction, it appears as a kind of lie that is more real and compelling than surface reality. The writers are detectives, the story itself a tale of romance between two people who are considered quirky (that is, they are often surprising in behavior, and they have been part of the mainstream but now swim against it in indie films) and smart and good-looking. The tale is clearly related to their roles in theTwilight movies because it is very much concerned with ideas about the ideal and the permanent.
 
The effort to make the story involves a lot of analysis, the sort of analysis that an engaged reader might apply to a poem or novel or scripture. Every word is scrutinized, every image searched for information–shared clothing, a young woman’s weight gain and loss, sardonic words, tossed-off comments that may or may not be serious. These fragments are compared with other fragments, the puzzle pieces to a larger picture. Tone, mood, and attitude of the characters involved become important and are discussed endlessly. These ‘shippers’ of an ongoing love relationship between the two stars (love, marriage, a new house, a baby) are doing the thing that engrossed readers do. And isn’t that curious?
 
They’re not the only story makers. The ‘haters’ make their own counter-stories, based on a different reading of information or built off dismissing the stories of the shippers. These stories tend to be more perfunctory and less developed because they are primarily rejections.
 
Oddly, this sort of storytelling brings up issues about mainstream culture and deep human desires. Why did an obsessed group of fans need to make that story, one in which they piece together clues to prove that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart live in a private, perfect, joyful world of their own?
 
Our dark age worships a debased mainstream culture dominated by sex, violence, and speedy electronic jumps from one thing to another. It opposes Melvillean “deep diving,” high art, thoughtfulness, and the spirit. In such a time, it is illuminating to look around and see where storytelling takes hold of people and why. In this particular case, the many fans obsessed with two celebrity figures work to uncover, build, and support a dream of love, a dream of wholeness–an old-fashioned dream that love can have depth and permanent meaning and soul, and that a man and a woman can fit together to become one perfect, complete thing. This dream expresses a core human longing for depth and meaning, raised up from a mainstream culture that is increasingly drained of substance.”

 

Marly Youmans

 

My reply, June 23, 2014

“There’s much here to ponder on, not least the whole idea of fan-fiction. I’m engaged by the idea of it. As a child I made a fiction ‘in my head’ about Tarzan. I constructed an inner world that wasn’t written down or shared. It wasn’t based on Edgar Rice Burroughs… I was probably eight or nine… but was stitched together from a mix of films I’d seen, and some of my Tarzan annuals and comics. It was also consciously secretive, because I’d created scenarios I knew wouldn’t be approved of by adults: rather innocent sexual idylls that comforted me in a world where at a deep level I felt isolated and without role-models and shared experiences. We shouldn’t forget what a dark place the pre-enlightened, pre-Stonewall, pre-sexually-liberated world was for children who felt ‘other’. The way homosexuality was represented in films and comedies on TV was not reassuring to fearful, impressionable young minds.

While I’ve never read any fan-fiction, I rather approve of the notion of taking ownership. Better of course if the ownership is of something with a literary level that might spur the fans to improve their word skills, but whatever the expression, I think it’s heartening when people aspire, no matter how clumsily, to creativity.

At the higher-end of the notion of taking a story and turning it into something else, I was excited back in 2012 when the possibility arose of my series of drawings and Catriona Urquhart’s sequence of poems, collectively titled ‘The Mare’s Tale’, being turned into a chamber-work with a libretto. I balked at the idea of any adaptation of the images and the poems into a too-literal narrative, and discussed this with the librettist Damian Walford Davies when I briefed him. So he took the original and biographical underpinnings of the poems and artworks… those being the childhood trauma of my father as described first-hand to me when he was in his eighties, and my later account of the ‘haunting’ the event transformed into in his latter days… and re-imagined it into into a dark, glittering psychodrama of a fiction that entirely honoured the sources, both in tone and in skill. Not exactly fan-fiction… though Damian has been articulate in his love of both the visual and poetic sources of ‘his’ ‘Mare’s Tale’, as has Mark Bowden the composer… but definitely something that touches on the ‘borrowed’.

I would hazard that whatever reservations authors may have about their characters and scenarios being hijacked by fans, and however the results pan out, they must feel excitement that their works have such a potent effect on readers’ imaginations.

On a level closer to home, I privately shared with you some painful events that over the past few years had caused me a great deal of anguish. You quite unexpectedly reworked them into miniature fictions that blew my socks off, so ravishingly jewel-like was the precision of your language, and so insightful your reworking of particular events into a universal mythology. Fables for our age. Moreover they radically changed the way I felt about what had happened to me. THAT’S the power of art.”

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins from Marly Youmans’ novel Glimmerglass

(Due out September from Mercer University Press)