Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator

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I offered the term ‘illuminator’ to Marly Youmans some years ago when she asked me how I wanted to be described in terms of making images for her books. I went for the word used for the often anonymous artists who decorated early manuscripts with glowing intensity. I love being Marly’s illuminator, and we’ve been travelling hand-in hand for a long time now. I’ll be decorating her Book of the Red King for Phoenicia Publishing this year. There’s an ease and trust between us that’s creatively liberating.

The same comfort is in place with Damian Walford Davies, for whom I’ve made the covers of his trilogy of narrative poems, Witch, Judas and my yet to be released favourite, the ghost story Docklands. Simon Armitage is proving to be another easeful collaborator, leaving me and the team at Faber to get on with things. Trust, of course, is at the heart of such relationships. It’s either there or it isn’t. It can’t be negotiated or contractually enforced, and it’s at its best when the author knows the images don’t have to illustrate, so much as create a mood in which to set the words. Sometimes the images can even play against the text, without in any way disrupting the flow of meaning. It’s a magic thing, and it either happens or it doesn’t. Like all intuitive creative processes, I’m quite convinced that no practitioner could show precisely how to do it. I always know when I’ve got the idea right, and can move forward in confidence to see a book through to completion, but I find it impossible to explain why.

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I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets. Saturday’s exhibition opening at MoMA Machynlleth was the culmination of the close-on three year task printmaker Dan Bugg and I set ourselves to make 14 screen prints inspired by Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of this extraordinary narrative poem, but it was only after the first six images had been editioned and published that Simon saw the work and wrote to me about it. Two years on we’re in the process of adapting the images to Simon’s forthcoming revised edition of the poem, due out from Faber in the Autumn.

After two selling Gawain exhibitions with the Martin Tinney Gallery (Part 1 in 2016 and Part 2 in January this year), MoMA Machynlleth is hosting a three-month-long exhibition of the 14 prints plus preparatory material made over the period of the project, from sketches, maquettes and painted studies, to stage-proofs and the ‘drawings’ made on lithography film that produced the colour separations for the screen prints.

Simon is softly spoken and on Saturday he read from his Gawain translation with deceptive diffidence. Nothing declamatory or overly emphatic in his delivery, but a mesmerising eloquence and intensity that effortlessly bewitched the audience. He gave a masterclass in how to do more with less, and I’ll remember it always.

Below: the most important critics, Dan Bugg’s children, Alfie and Elsie take in the exhibition before the doors open. Both are pretty proficient in the printing studio, and so they have the insiders’ perspective.

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Farewell to 2017

2017 was jam-packed with work and events from start to finish. In the Spring the Música en Segura festival took me to Andalusia for Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time concert, for which I’d made images to be screened during the performance.

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Back in the UK at the Lotte Inch Gallery in York, there was a two-person exhibition with my friend Sarah Raphael-Balme, and in Wales an exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn of all the drawings I’d made for the Random Spectacular Hansel & Gretel Picture Book published in 2016.

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Below: specially-bound cover of Hansel & Gretel made for me by Christopher Shaw

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The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock‘s Toyshop in Covent Garden was launched, alongside a beautiful pop-up card based on the theatre and a handsomely packaged game of Hansel & Gretel ‘Pelmanism’.

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I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University. I lectured and/or taught at Southampton, Hereford and Cambridge, and these were wonderful interludes in an otherwise gruelling schedule of project deadlines. I guest curated an exhibition, Imagined Realms, at the Royal Cambrian in Conwy, and was able to invite a spectacular array of artists I both admire and love, to take part.

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By far the lion’s share of effort went into completing the fourteen screenprint series in collaboration with Penfold Press, based on Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in time for the forthcoming exhibition opening on Jan 10th at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff. The exhibition will be accompanied by an illuminating text from curator and art writer James Russell.

 

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Below: separations on lithography film for The Exchange, and the completed print.

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Below: Gouache, ink and pencil work on board  – The Stain of Sin.

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More news about what’s planned for the Gawain series to be announced shortly. News too of Hansel & Gretel, who are about to embark on a thrilling journey in the company of a whole bunch of old and new friends with whom to enjoy the adventure!

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I’ll be making a visual accompaniment for Daniel Broncano’s Música en Segura 2018, this time to the music of Stravinsky –

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– and there’s to be a sweetly pretty new Pollock’s Toy Theatre project.

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In the US Marly Youmans has produced a scintillating new collection of poems that I’ll be making a book cover and decorations for, and there’s to be an edition of Jeffery Beam’s Spectral Pegasus poems, illustrated with my series of paintings from the Dark Movements series.

2018 is set to be a year of seeing long term projects developing in ways unanticipated at the times of starting them. Plenty of challenges ahead, then. And deadlines, of course. Always there are the deadlines.

 

 

 

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What I’m not

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

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

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

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

The Restless Prophet and his Raven

A detail from my painting The Prophet Fed by a Raven is on the cover of the novel Cai by  Eurig Salisbury, awarded the Gold Medal for Prose at last week’s National Eisteddfod. The book is published by Gomer.

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Eurig Salisbury, winner of the the Gold Medal for Prose, National Eisteddfod 2016.

Of all the paintings I’ve made, this one has probably been on the most interesting journey. Since it was shown at MoMA Machynlleth in my Saints and Their Beasts exhibition in 2007 it has lived in the home of its owners in the USA, though thanks to their generosity it returned to Wales for my Retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in the Summer of 2011.

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In 2010 the painting had a surprising outing onto the cover of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. (This was at the suggestion of a friend who would be embarrassed to be credited for her kindness here, but it must be acknowledged nevertheless, albeit without revealing her identity.) Some time later the painting appeared in a calendar issued by the journal

When in 2013 Oxford University Press published a collection of essays and covers from the EID, The Prophet Fed by a Raven was selected as the cover image.

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Back at home in North Carolina it came out of it’s frame to be photographed –

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– to generate an image large enough for a display in the exhibition of EID journal covers at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum in Association with the Smithsonian Institution. (More thanks here, this time to the owner of the painting who went to untold troubles to get it to the photographer and back.)

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In 2010 it appeared between the covers of a a weighty tome, Biblical Art from Wales, edited by Martin O’Kane and John Morgan-Guy.

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Anita Mills, who wrote so thoughtfully about my drawing practice in Clive Hicks-Jenkins: a Monograph (Lund Humphries 2011) presented a swift, entertaining and insightful deconstruction of the painting that completely took me by surprise. Click on THIS link to read  it.

Marly Youmans wrote a beautiful poem in response to The Prophet Fed by a Raven that can be read HERE.

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I like the idea of a painting of mine travelling and having adventures. I’m gratified that people see it who have no idea who I am. For them there is just the prophet, the flaming raven and the scattering of sheep on the Welsh hillside beyond. I don’t think an artist could ask any more of a painting than to be out there and speaking for itself.

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For Z.B., M.Y. and A.M., my friends across the ocean.

Head

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Above: Study for the cover of Marly Youmans’ Thaliad

Sarah Parvin recently commented at the Artlog on a post about the forthcoming print, The Green Knight’s Head Lives.

Paul Jacobsthal writes on the Celtic cult of the head: “Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.”

That brought me up short, because I’ve only recently begun to realise just how much the head has become a recurring motif of my work. Not in the sense of portraiture, which I’m not all that interested in, but as an isolated object, often with a sharp terminating horizontal, as though separate from a body. The head as a subject in its own right.

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Study for the illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, The Old Stile Press

Study for the Green Knight

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Study for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head

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Study for Gawain Transfigured

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Paper-cut project in collaboration with Peter Lloyd

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Page decoration for Marly Youmans Maze of Blood, Mercer University Press

Study for the Green Knight

Gawain Transfigured

Cover artwork for Marly Youmans’ Maze of Blood, Mercer University Press

Cover artwork for Marly Youmans’ Thaliad, Phoenicia Publishing

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Decorated page for Marly Youmans’ Thaliad, Phoenicia Publishing

Study for an unmade book

Illustration from The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, The Old Stile Press

The Green Knight

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Unused decoration for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head

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Page decoration for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head, Stanza Poetry

Study for an unmade book

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Paper-cut project in collaboration with Peter Lloyd

Cover artwork For Marly Youmans’ Val/Orson, PS Publishing

Poster design for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale

The Princess from The Soldier’s Tale

Page decoration for the illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, The Old Stile Press

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Decoration used on the back cover of Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head, Stanza Poetry

‘Maze of Blood’ arrives in Cooperstown, New York

Marly Youmans has taken delivery of copies of her latest novel, and has e-mailed me photographs. Here’s a box full of Mazes. That’s Marly’s foot bottom left.

Mary-Frances Glover-Burt has done a beautiful job on the design of the book. Judging from Marly’s photographs I couldn’t be happier with the result. For one of the page decorations I’d used scrolled paper-streamers to form the convolutions of a brain, and it was Mary-Frances’ idea to use the scrolled motif on the title-page. However she needed some extra drawings in order for the streamers to flutter horizontally, and I was happy to oblige by making and sending them. She also deftly lifted the lettering I’d made for the cover, and used it on the title-page, unifying the jacket artwork with the interior of the book.

But beyond the sensitive book design, underwritten by the excellent production values at Mercer University Press, lies the fact that Marly and her publisher trust me implicitly to produce the work. Before I begin we barely discuss what I might do for her, and for the most part she doesn’t know what’s going onto the cover of whichever book I’m collaborating on, until the finished artwork arrives.

This process suits me perfectly. I’m a painter, and like to get on with things in pretty much my own way. Luckily I can choose my projects, and work only on those that interest me, and with people I trust.

Making images for the covers and the pages of books, is a long process. I read texts repeatedly to find my way into the authors’ worlds. I have to ‘cook’ the material, let it simmer away in my head like a stew until the images begin to float to the surface, where I can retrieve them and go about my work. After that there’s the process of designing, which is not my job, though I like to be a part of it. Finally there’s the printing, and the new work comes into the world, hopefully as I’ve been expecting it to look. Sometimes the results are better than expected, and thanks to Mary-Frances, Maze of Blood falls into that category.