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

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)

The Mare’s Tale redux

Up in the studio, there are new stirrings of The Mare’s Tale

The Mare’s Tale began life as as series of drawings exhibited in my first major public gallery show of that name in 2001. The Mari Lwyd was a central character of a once popular mid-winter mumming tradition of rural Wales, and was represented by a horse’s skull nailed to a stick, the man carrying it hidden beneath a ghost-like shroud.

At Newport Art Gallery, giant black and white drawings of my father and the Mari Lwyd that had been his nemesis throughout his long life, fought a final battle to the accompaniment of Catriona Urquhart’s poetic text, reproduced on large wall-mounted panels. The poems were simultaneously published in a beautiful, limited edition book, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall of The Old Stile Press, and launched at the opening of the exhibition.

The following year the exhibition appeared at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, augmented with new work bringing the series to a conclusion. The last drawing was On the Mountain, in which the Mari, so fearsome throughout the series, was shown broken and dying in a winter landscape of dereliction and leafless branches.

On the Mountain. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

After the two exhibitions, the drawings scattered into private and public collections across Wales and beyond. Stumbles and Cannot Rise to the National Museum of Wales, The Mari Lwyd Awakening to Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, and The Friends Gather to MoMA Wales, Machynlleth. Some went into the collections of friends. Deposition III to Nicolas and Frances McDowell of the Old Stile Press, where it now hangs in the hallway of Catchmays Court, and Both Fall to Simon Callow, who had championed my work and had written the introduction to my Lund Humphries monograph published in 2011.

Both Fall. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

Tend, a work I found difficult to live with, and yet one I couldn’t quite live without, went to friends Dave and Philippa Robbins, and hangs in their Cardiff home where I get to see it regularly.

Tend. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

After the Newport and Brecon exhibitions, The Mare’s Tale drawings continued to be seen, out on loan from public and private collections. Two were in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, Czech Republic, three were shown in the 2003 Wales Drawing Biennale at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and that same year one appeared in Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, Meifod. In 2011 many were gathered together for my 60th birthday Retrospective Exhibition in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales.

In 2012, The Mare’s Tale became the visual source material for a new work of that title commissioned by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden. Poet Damian Walford Davies, who had several times chosen me as artist for his book covers, was commissioned to write a libretto that drew on key aspects of my father’s experiences of the Mari Lwyd, reworking them into a new and darkly chilling psychological fiction. In 2013 the piece was performed as a work-in-progress to an invited audience at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon, with actor Eric Roberts as the Narrator, and with James Slater conducting the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra. I designed and directed the production, and the assistant director was dramaturge, Helen Cooper.

The production featured puppetry, animation and filmed sequences of landscape models conjuring London in the Blitz, and an un-named, isolated community in rural Wales. The Mari Lwyd itself was brought to life with onstage puppets, and in projected sequences of animation made with my regular collaborator, Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. This rod-puppet features an adapted maquette that I’d made originally as a stop-motion figure for the production.

Damian’s central character of Jane Seyes was played by two puppets, one of them constructed for her transformation from an apparition to the Mari Lwyd.

As the creative team of Mark, Damian, Helen and I continue to discuss and develop new visual ideas toward the premiere of The Mare’s Tale, in the studio I’m using the puppets and the miniature village built for the filmed sequences seen in Brecon, as the models for a new series of paintings inspired by the music and libretto. When I finished On the Mountain in 2001, I’d thought I’d reached the end of my work on The Mare’s Tale. In fact it turned out to be more a case of having got to the end of the beginning.

Above: model for filmed sequences of The Mare’s Tale.

Here are some of the rough sketches made in preparation for the new paintings.

Below: one of the ‘apparition’ puppets from the production…

… used as a model for this preparatory sketch.

Recent Mare’s Tale paintings will be in

Telling Tales: new narrative works by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Oriel Tegfryn/Tegfryn Gallery

Menai Bridge, Anglesey

Opening May 10th, 2014

apparition

After hearing Mark Bowden’s wonderful music for The Mare’s Tale last week, some ideas that had been niggling away at me coalesced into the certainty that another character from Damian Walford Davies’s libretto would have to be added to our cast of puppets. Shan’t write too much about her here, but she is a significant presence in the narrative.

catriona urquhart and ‘the mare’s tale’

Some anniversaries pass by un-noticed because our lives are such a hustle and bustle of  work, play, duty, deadlines and all-sorts. One passed me by yesterday, so deep into preparations was I for the forthcoming presentation of The Soldier’s Tale with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at the Hay Festival. Odd that I missed it, because in so many ways an unease underlay the day for me, and I realise that while on the surface I may have been pushing away the recollection of a loss, at a deeper and unconscious level, something was definitely playing out.

On May Day 2005 my close friend Catriona Urquhart died, and with her went a large chunk of my heart. In 2001 The Old Stile Press had published The Mare’s Tale, a sequence of poems Catriona had written examining my father’s early experience of the Welsh Mari Lwyd mumming tradition. It was not a happy recollection for him, but all that has been examined elsewhere both by me and by several more eloquent writers, and so I won’t recap here. Suffice to say that Catriona, after his death, produced her poems from accounts my father had shared with her of growing up in rural Monmouthshire, of his terrifying childhood encounter with a Mari and how he carried the experience with him throughout a long life.

Catriona’s poems and my large Conté drawings were shown together at my 2001 Newport Museum and Art Gallery exhibition The Mare’s Tale, and though the artworks have now separated into many public and private collections, and the Old Stile Press book… which I illustrated… stands alone as Catriona’s sole published collection of poems in her lifetime, I think no-one would deny that to a significant extent the poems and drawings have become inseperable from each other.

In 2012 the artistic director of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, James Slater brought together composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies to create a new chamber work inspired by my Mare’s Tale drawings. My only stipulation at the start of the project, had been that without Catriona present to collaborate on any examination of the themes, the libretto would have to be a new text,  based on the drawings alone with no direct reference by name to my father or his experiences. This was not in any way, as far as I was concerned, to be a biographical exploration of what underlay the Mari Lwyd drawings, but a fresh approach using them as the starting point of a narrative structure for Mark Bowden’s music.

Above: a drawing of my father made for the original Mare’s Tale series.

And that’s exactly what Damian has delivered. A new tale as dark and terrifying as the source material, though constructed  as a fiction steeped in the literary tradition of recovered memory as the catalyst of a central character’s psychological disintegration. But Damian is a great admirer of the poems, as was clear from his chapter in the 2011 Lund Humphries monograph about my work, and I can see a number of echoes from them in the libretto, layered in to enrich it.

Mari Lwyd puppet

Mari Lwyd maquette/puppet

Out of the old springs something new, and as an artist I must follow it. The drawings that were the origins of this have been set aside as I create fresh ideas tailor-made for the emerging creation. (See the two images above.)

Long ago I thought I was done with this subject, but it would seem not. The Mare’s Tale as realised in my drawings and Catriona’s poems, and The Mare’s Tale as it now evolves into a new chamber-work for ensemble, while separate, seem to me conjoined in a way that will be quite unique in terms of creativity. The same seeds grew them and the same title unites them, and yet they are separate. I find that strangely haunting and complete as an idea.