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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Border Country at the National Eisteddfod

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It’s a sadness not to have been with Peter in Abergavenny for the opening of his exhibition Border Country at the National Eisteddfod. But with time ticking on my forthcoming Gawain exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in September, I had to stay home to work. I’ll see Border Country later this year, when it’s on tour.

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Of the four artists in the exhibition, John Elwyn (whose painting is on the cover of the catalogue above) and Bert Isaac are dead. Joan Baker will be attending the exhibition this week, but Charles Burton and his wife Rosemary, herself a painter, were able to be present for the opening, brought from Cardiff by Dave and Philippa Robbins who live just around the corner from them.

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Rosemary and Charles Burton in front of his painting of a steam train in the south Wales Valleys. (Croeso is the Welsh word for Welcome.)

Peter and I knew John Elwyn, having visited his Winchester home and studio in his latter years. Bert Isaac and his wife Joan were friends, and we visited them frequently in Abergavenny, where they held regular exhibitions of local artists in the ‘orangery’ of their beautiful Georgian house.

We are especially close with Charlie and Rosemary, and when Peter and I lived in Cardiff we saw a lot of them. (We had gallery-visiting holidays together in Paris and Venice, and in Venice we were joined by Liz Sangster, another painter and close friend from my days in the theatre.) That little painting of a steam train usually hangs in the kitchen at Ty Isaf. We purchased it, along with another piece the same size, from a Cardiff antique dealer before we knew the Burtons. In fact it was the acquisition of the paintings that stirred Peter’s interest to trace and then contact Charlie, who had retired from teaching. He was still painting, though not for the most part exhibiting. These days both he and Rosemary show regularly at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff.

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I love the colour red chosen by Peter as a background to the paintings. Beautiful.

Border Country

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Peter Wakelin has curated an exhibition, Ffiniau opening this Friday (29th July) at the National Eisteddfod showground in Abergavenny, and thereafter touring three venues across Wales. He’s produced a fully illustrated booklet to go with the exhibition that will be available from the venues, and from The Art Shop & Chapel, Abergavenny. Peter writes of Ffiniau:

‘In his influential autobiographical novel of 1960, Border Country, Raymond Williams explored the changing lives of people on the Welsh borders, in town, village, farm and industrial valley, from the 1920s to the 1950s. This book is about how four painters who were contemporaries of Raymond Williams similarly reflected the reality of daily life in south Wales before 1960 – Joan Baker, Charles Burton, John Elwyn and Bert Isaac.’

Ffiniau: four painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country

National Eisteddfod of Wales, Abergavenny, 29 July – 6 August 2016

Oriel Wrecsam, 13 August – 3 September 2016

MOMA Machynlleth, 17 September – 19 November 2016

Chepstow Museum, 26 November 2016 – 26 February 2017

 

 

out of the analogue past

Above: an image originally stored as a transparency, now transferred to digital. It’s of Carn Euny in Cornwall. I forgot to add details to the slide label, but judging from the style, I figure it was made in 1997. If so, then I haven’t seen this painting in the nearly twenty years since it was made, exhibited and sold.

Before digital, images of my work were recorded and stored as small transparencies. Peter took the photographs, and it was my job to check the contact-sheets when they returned from the laboratory, using a light-box and magnifier. The rejected images… out-of-focus, wonky or colour-imbalanced… were thrown away. The rest were snipped and inserted into plastic holders. Then began the arduous task of labelling before storing them in fat ring-binder files.

The information had to fit into a tiny space on each slide. Sometimes I wrote on slivers of gummed paper, and sometimes I wrote directly onto the plastic with a mapping pen and indian ink. Neither technique was foolproof. The paper labels could drop off, and the indian ink, even when set, would sometimes stick to the insides of the polyurethane slide-holder sleeves, and would require a wrestling-match to get them out.

Each tiny slide would have to contain:

my name, a unique studio ref number, title, date, measurements and media.

This for every painting, study, drawing, print and preliminary thumbnail that I produced. A red dot denoted that the work had been sold. Other colours denoted ‘out for exhibition’, or ‘on loan’. It was an unwieldy system, and time-consuming and difficult to keep up to date. But it was the only way.

Above: transparency transferred to digital. This one is of Tretower Castle, where I once worked.

It was boring and damnably fiddly work, and I hated it. But if I didn’t do it regularly, the backlogs became massive and disheartening. Occasionally I’d spend two or three days working non-stop to get everything up to date. I always resented the time spent on it, but Peter was insistent. (He was, of course, right.) The worst thing was when I’d get the top-copies ordered into the ‘archive’ ring-binders, and the duplicates for ‘sending off’ into even bigger ring-binders, before discovering that I’d missed a pile of slides. Then I’d have to move all the images in the transparency sleeves to get the missed ones into the right numerical places, which could mean moving on hundreds of slides.

Then the ring-binders had to be carefully stored. If they weren’t, and light got to them, then the colours of the slides would quickly fade or turn yellow.

There was also the inconvenience that nothing could be ‘touched-up’. Today, with everything digitally recorded and edited in i-photo, images can be ‘tidied’: trimmed and levelled, errant specks of dust or hair removed and the colour adjusted to better represent the original works. It was not so back in the days of slides. Daylight could colour-cast images too blue, and electric light too yellow. It was a constant struggle to accurately record, and the results were often too ‘approximate’ for comfort. Black and white were hell to get right. Blacks, no matter how dense in reality, would look grey in the slides, and white could just look… well, not white. If I added up the hours, I think I’d find that Peter and I have very likely spent months of our lives trying to generate and then store good images of my work.

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The duplicates were the slides for sending to galleries, publications, competitions etc. I always put in stamped SAEs for them to be returned, which meant a fiddle at the post-office getting the SAEs weighed with the slides in, before packaging the entire thing in another envelope to the recipient. My trips to the post-office always included taking packaging-tape and scissors with me. Every part of the process was time-consuming. At the end of all this, I probably got one set of slides returned in every fifty that I sent. Somewhere in the world there’s a landfill-site where my transparencies went to die. But the ones I kept are still with me, filling a chest of drawers in the studio.

Very few have been transferred to digital. To do all of them would be weeks or more likely months of work. But this week Peter did a little clutch, and I shall shortly make some posts of them for the Artlog. The fact is that there are hundreds of images of work made, sold and gone from my life so long ago that I look at them now with wonder, barely remembering having made them.

Above: the detritus of a defunct system, piled higgledy-piggledy into studio chests of drawers.

Below: analogue to digital transfer of an image. The painting is of Carn Euny, and probably dates back to 1997.

May Day Morning Thoughts

I have been working with poets and writers for fifteen years. The first was Catriona Urquhart, my friend and  collaborator. I had read poetry throughout my life, and it was probably no accident that when we met Catriona and I became friends, because poetry was one of our many shared enthusiasms. Later we worked together. It wasn’t so much a plan… at which she would have balked… as an evolution. The creative dialogue we enjoyed – poems, drawings and ideas, batted between us like shuttlecocks – set the pattern in me for what came later, with other writers after she had gone. Catriona had been writing poetry since she was able to hold a pen. But she was secretive about it, hiding away the results in boxes and drawers. Though it was as plain as day she had a wonderful way with words, it wasn’t until my partner Peter Wakelin cornered her into writing him a story for his birthday (she had perhaps unwisely asked him what he wanted most) that she produced Palmyra Jones, a book later published in a small edition by Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (You can read how it all unfolded, HERE.)

After the publication of Palmyra Jones, Catriona was encouraged to the point that she suggested the way forward for our next collaboration. She had grown to know and love my father Trevor in his last years. They had become friends and confederates, hatching plans and going off on adventures. (I later found out they’d regularly headed off in Trevor’s car for lunches at his favourite Monmouthshire pubs.) Catriona loved stories of family histories, and Trevor’s long, rich life was full of them. Catriona had encouraged him to share his memories with her, and she’d soaked up his accounts like a sponge. At the time I used to joke that she held more of my family history in her head than any other living person. She pieced together the genealogies and understood the connections better than I ever had. To me it was all just a muddle of quaint names and his half-remembered accounts, but she made sense of it all, and joined the dots to make coherent histories. in 2000, the year after his death, Catriona saw the drawings that I was producing based on Trevor’s childhood experience of the Mari Lwyd, the mid-Winter mumming tradition still practiced in the rural Wales he grew up in. She suggested writing a poetic text to accompany the planned exhibition at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, and the work began. Just a few weeks before the exhibition was due to open, Nicolas chanced to see drafts of Catriona’s poems on our kitchen table, and what had been intended as an accompanying text on wall panels throughout the gallery, became in addition a hastily planned though beautifully conceived and executed Old Stile Press edition of her poems, going by the same name as the exhibition, The Mare’s Tale. I made the illustrations to meet Nicolas’ incredibly tight deadline, working an all-nighter one Sunday in order to have them ready for him to collect on the Monday morning.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. Palmyra Jones… which had been little more than a pamphlet… and her volume of Mare’s Tale poems, were the only works published in her lifetime, a fact ensured by the fact that the poems we had known to be hidden in drawers before her death, were not to be found after it. Her partner Ian believes that she may have destroyed what she considered to be ‘juvenilia’. It fell to Peter, who had so encouraged Catriona as a writer, to produce the eulogy for her funeral. It’s a fine piece, and catches as well as anything I know the mercurial, dazzling girl I have missed every day of the past ten years.

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Witten and read by Peter Wakelin at Catriona’s funeral.

“We have carried with us for years now fears that we would one day lose Catriona; but still, when the news came, it was impossible to believe.

So many friends have talked about the special, golden glow Catriona emanated. We all bathed in it. Catriona was one of the great ‘appreciators’ – especially of good company, gardens, the seaside, books, old china, poetry read aloud, paintings, and thoughtfully-prepared food, which we were always sharing. She adored to give gifts, her generosity leading her to spend days potting cuttings for other people’s gardens or seeking out the perfect book. She received gifts with infectious enthusiasm, too. When things were right, her pleasures seemed amplified far beyond those most of us can feel. Every time one discovered something beautiful, it was the reaction to think, ‘Ah, we must show Catriona this!’, ‘We must bring Catriona here!’ And so, until we learn to remember rather than grieve, every taste and every pleasure seems to turn to charcoal in our mouths, because she is not here to share them.

She seemed sometimes to know everything – the origins of words, the name of every rose, the biographies of writers, even the history of one’s own family. If she had bothered to go on Mastermind with these as special subjects she would have been a champion. She possessed the strong opinions and the disarming insights of the brilliant mind. She could dissect the frailties and foibles of everyone she met, whilst cherishing them as part of the rich and piebald world we all inhabit.

She had talent falling from her fingertips; though she wore it so carelessly that many never realised. She was an affecting singer and musician, though there are few recordings. She was strong and sporting. One of her father’s ciné films of his young family preserves an image of her fleet as an amazon, golden hair flying, leading out her sibling tribe; and she told us how she used to run with utter confidence the terrifying sheeptrack over ‘the elephant’, a rocky promontory near Ferryden that had us sinking to our knees with vertigo. She was a star at school and university. Her teacher the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney told her always to keep in touch and come and stay; but she never liked to bother him.

We knew that she had once been good at languages. With hesitation, we introduced her to Julia, a Russian girl working here who was all-at-sea and lonely through her lack of English. We believed Catriona could speak a little Russian, which might be nice. Within a minute they were chattering away like old friends in a Moscow restaurant, Julia laughing and smiling for what seemed to be the first time in all her visit. Catriona picked up languages like most of us pick up colds, recently gaining fluent Portuguese on two visits to Brazil.

She told stories with such vividness and ease that I badgered her to write them down. She said for months that she was writing a story for me. Finally, she announced that it would be my birthday present, and it was nearly finished. When she and Ian arrived for dinner, there was just the little problem that she had not put pen to paper! Trina locked herself away, and an hour later, there the story was, without so much as a crossing-out, perfectly formed in her head and transcribed unhesitatingly. What a gift she gave me; and what a gift she had! She was persuaded to read it out, and I will always hear it in her honeyed singer’s voice and Scottish accent (even though the narrator in the story was in fact an Irish seaman). Like Alan Bennett, Catriona was the exception to prove the rule that authors are poor readers of their work. Among those rapt by her magic that birthday evening were Nicolas and Frances McDowall, who later published the story, Palmyra Jones, at The Old Stile Press, and later still her cycle of poems, The Mare’s Tale.

There were short-lived times when ill-health took away Catriona’s ability to be the things she was, but she fought back courageously. She used every ounce of concentration to write her Mare’s Tale poems through a haze of anxiety and depression. They are masterpieces.

Catriona was unforgiving of the second-rate, the lazy and the puffed-up. Perhaps she avoided writing because she knew how gruelling it is to achieve real quality, but that excellence was how you showed proper generosity in giving things to others. I for one was influenced by Catriona to try harder, not to take the easy route. And I believe many of us will go on to seek the best in everything – propagating all the best plants in the garden for our friends, caring for each other, and sharing around a table food that warms the cockles of the heart.

Sometimes Catriona loved to be the princess, served by those who brought her flowers and sweetmeats, answered her whims, made her comfortable. For nearly thirty years Ian was her hero, her young Lochinvar. He undertook quests for her, fought monsters, brought back treasures: commissioning an alteration to the alterations to the house, buying an old piece of furniture that needed her to love it, or taking her on a journey literally to the other side of the world. Of course she was no princess at heart, and she cared for Ian and others in return, especially her friends and family, and her nephews and nieces, whom she adored. But in her last illness she accepted care with calm contentment. Her family wrapped around her like a warm blanket of love. It was heart-rending to watch her brother Roddy gently cradling her head in his strong hands, Ishbel, face swollen with tears, leaping on her bed with cheerful cry of ‘Hi Trina’, and all of them at her side – Alasdair, Rhona, Cathy, the partners and the children. Catriona floated above the houseful, as she always liked to do in the bedroom at Ferryden or the croglofft at Penparc, knowing all was well, listening to the gentle tinkle of the tea-cups, raising an ironic eyebrow to things overheard, dozing, dreaming, waking with a smile to those who visited.

This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We all come to our ends, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were so many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.

We must follow Catriona’s guiding light. She showed the joy there is in life. Even in her death, she tells us life is not for ever, and we should do the things that count, particularly those that cherish one another and the world around us. We will still hear her laugh sometimes – that irrepressible, mischievous, clear laugh; and we will still think often, ‘Ah, Catriona would love this!’

She will be strong in our memories. And she knew better than anyone that memories turn into stories. Stories sometimes transform to myths. And one day in future I know Catriona will be just that – the myth of she who glowed with love and wonder at the world and taught others to appreciate it: “Golden Catriona”. I think she will rather like that.”

Peter Wakelin 11 May 2005

Page decoration from Palmyra Jones

A.P.W. to be Director of Collections and Research at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

My partner Alexander Peter Wakelin, who frequently gets name-checked at the Artlog and has been known to make the occasional appearance here, is about to begin a new adventure. We moved from Cardiff to West Wales eight years ago when he became Secretary of the Royal Commission for the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. In December he will be leaving the Royal Commission to take up the post of Director of Collections and Research at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Above: National Museum Cardiff

This is a wonderful opportunity for Peter to stretch his wings. He will be responsible for all the museum collections spread over a multiplicity of sites: National Museum Cardiff, St Fagans: National History Museum, Big Pit: National Coal Museum, National Wool Museum, National Roman Legion Museum, National Slate Museum and National Waterfront Museum.

Above. Saint Fagans Castle at the National History Museum just outside Cardiff

So, lots of exciting challenges lie ahead. I have an exhibition in 2014, Two Tales, for Martin Tinney at his Oriel Tegfryn Gallery in Menai Bridge, preparations for which will keep my busy in the studio here while Peter gets his feet under the table at the museum. (His office will be just beneath the dome shown in the top picture.) He takes up his new post in January. Ty Isaf will continue to be our home.

Below: the gallery under the dome. I understand Peter’s new office will be through one of the doors leading from it. There must be the most wonderful view down from the gallery to the concourse below.