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.

Marly Youmans
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.

Words

From poet Jeffery Beam to Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the matter of Drift:

“So dear Horseman

Are you/Jordan/Mari adrift at the moment in the story? Why does Jordan look so sad?”

From Clive to Jeffery:

“That’s a tough one. Thousands of ‘moments’ of endeavour go into these drawings, and all of them experienced in heightened states of emotion. Choose any one of the moments and you’d have a different answer from me.

It’s like this. New day, new work. Around me a scattering of thumb-nail sketches, some studies and maybe a worked up detail or two that might make it into the finished image.

There are the poems too, printed out from your e-mails to me. Sometimes I cut out a line or a verse, to concentrate my thoughts. These trimmed fragments lie across the table. Occasionally I sweep them aside, or pull out one that catches my attention. They have a life of their own, especially if the window is open and a breeze ruffles the work surface, spinning them in ticker-tape flurries to the corners of the room.

The board is in front of me… the stage on which the performance will take place… and a pencil is in my hand. (Sometimes the right, sometimes the left. Which will it be today? One hand makes me deft, the other, visionary. I usually draw with the right and paint with the left, but mood can make me reverse the habit.) The board is the clean sheet, the screen on which I’ll attempt to project a partially-formed dream.

You ask me why Jordan looks so sad.

Perhaps because his is the beating heart in this universe of dishevelled, snaky foliate-ness and thundering hooves bearing down upon fragile flesh. His face is the still point drawing the eye and begging the question… why?

From Jeffery to Clive:

“So many transformations: the reappearance of the scarf; the reappearance of the one glove and in a purple hue; not only the complete transference of the tulips to the Mari, but also the left arm back in the jacket and the right arm bare; blue seeming to infuse even the scarf and hair more and more; the spots on the horse’s body and the Mari’s now blue color as the tulips have emerged out its red body revealing its blue undercoat; and the severely diminishing head of the Mari (what to make of that?).

You have challenged us all with this image – as stealthfully as you challenge yourself.”

“Tell me. Why Drift?”

From Clive to Jeffery:

I begin with an underdrawing, sometimes faint like smoke, sometimes confident, usually a bit of both, mostly fluid at this early stage. Then the painting and the rendering begin. It feels as though I’m attempting to produce a mosaic from thousands of glittering tesserae, each one of them a different micro-thought flashing through my brain. When I’m working away I have to make the image one tiny tile-of-thought at a time, and it’s as though this flood of thoughts and moods spreads across the board. The thoughts/voices/poetry at this point are a cacophony, and I have to try and catch at the most insistent ones to fathom their meanings, all while listening/watching for the next to emerge. Each takes me where it will. I get buffeted in one direction by playful zephyrs, carried smoothly for periods on the dazzling surface, or dragged down into deep currents where all is shadowy and cold. Sometimes everything slows and then halts. I trace the curved route for the stem of a tulip, graze a petal with the striations of it’s markings. Becalmed, I drift.

Then something pulls at me again, the insistent and unguessable current reasserting, the line of poetry that lightning-flashes in the head, the breeze though the open window that sends all the fragments of drawings and poetry flying, and in a moment I’m away again, off into the unknown.”

From Jeffery to Clive:

“I see all the transformations/transfigurations in the piece from Flowering Skin to Drift as I recounted in my posting comment. But wonder what in your imagination leads to this title. I’m so curious about the change in the Mari’s head size too.”

From Clive to Jeffery:

“Your question had me turning to the pages of Montserrat Prat’s chapter on the Mare’s Tale drawings in the 2011 Lund Humphries monograph. Montserrat writes of the male figures in the series that are…”

“… reminiscent of the ancient Greeks; not ancient sculpture that aimed at ideal form, but vase paintings that portrayed the ordinary and the imperfect. In black and red painted vases, Greek heroes are distorted. Often their heads are small on their invincible, naked bodies, their faces shown in profile to spare expression.”

Study for Burden. Conté pencil on paper. 2000

“Jeffery, it seems to me the beast in Drift is like those Greek heroes, all muscle and power and not a lot of thinking. Visually magnificent, though intuitive rather than reasoning. The horse/Mari is becalmed, and not kinetic as it appears in other works. Here it stands proud and beautiful, enmeshed in red arabesques of parrot tulips, awaiting the impetus for action. Benign protector/muscular anchor for Jordan in a shifting universe, or perhaps the beast within that pauses before attacking.

I see that I’m probably turning answers into more questions.”

Burden. Conté pencil on paper. 2000

And finally, what some of the others have to say.

Marly Youmans:

“Still pondering how different this mythic creature is from the horses in the Mari Lwyd series in your retrospective… And how it is influenced by the patterns you’ve painted on skin in between. And how the red ribbony harness becomes a stem with leaves and flowers–it is good for harsh things to become foliate.”

Above: serpentine ribbon snaps and flows through this detail from Red Flow, 2002

Below: parrot tulips unfurl and writhe across the Mari in a detail from Drift, 2015

Maria Maestre on Drift:

“For me, it is the one violet glove, gleaming near the horse’s rump like a fan with it’s own enigmatic and secret language, which holds the key to the whole painting, telling me story after story, depending of how I look at it.”

Janet Kershaw on Drift:

“I love the shape of this horse and the way she fills the space in this composition. Peaceful and contented. The title Drift suggests to me a floating silently in space, in a vacuum, like a dream. Now the horse is completely patterned, and a glove is off, as if some transference has taken place.”

Phil Cooper on Flowering Skin:

“I’m loving the Borderlands imagery coming into these new Mari images; I was fortunate enough to see those Boderlands paintings in the flesh at the Mall Galleries last summer and I was mesmerised by them, they had such presence.
In this new work, though, those flowers across Jordan’s chest are so sexy!”

Sarah the Curious One on Yarden:

“Who would have expected ravishing parrot tulips and a magnificent Mari as Jordan’s protector? Definitely not me!

All good storytellers know an element of surprise is the key to telling their tale and you have not let us down with ‘Yarden’, Clive. Bravo!”

Liz Sangster on Drift:

“I love the way you have achieved the power and size of a horse, I feel as though I am very small looking up at the head. Jordan literally appears to drift; the violet glove against the blue is an inspiration, and the whole painting is so luminous…”

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Above, vignette for Maze of Blood.

The last of the full-page images for Marly Youmans’ new novel, Maze of Blood, has been completed. Here it is, followed by the full set of images and the cover. So richly rewarding is Marly’s text, that I could have made fifty illustrations from it, but six must suffice. It is not a text that requires images, but it has been a wonderful experience to explore the novel, and to produce decorations for it. Maze of Blood is due out in September this year.

The front cover