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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Catriona on May Day Morning

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I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.

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In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:

HERE

Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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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

‘The Quickening’: part 2

Work progresses on The Quickening. Four days in and I’ve gone from sketch…

to underdrawing…

to an acrylic, gouache and oil pencil render. (Detail)

The maquette of model Jordan Morley is an invaluable tool, and the time spent making it begins to repay in compositional terms. With its complicated articulation, it’s proven versatile in shaping my ideas.

The image of the Mari is a bit of a departure for me. I used the maquette made for the animation sequences of The Mare’s Tale in 2013, though changed nearly everything about it.

For me the Mari Lwyd is a constantly evolving construct, though this most recent version, flayed, blood red and with vegetation spilling from its abdomen, is the most visceral yet.

The Mare’s Tale at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

It gives me great pleasure to announce that I am to have an exhibition in the main gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre next Summer. The dates will be June 6th – July 25th.

Above: detail of a Mari Lwyd drawing, 2013

It will be the first comprehensive gathering of work I’ve produced since 2001 on the theme of the Mari Lwyd, including many of the large Conté pencil drawings made for my original series titled The Mare’s Tale, held in public and private collections across Wales, plus illustrations I made for the Old Stile Press edition of The Mare’s Tale: poems by Catriona Urquhart, published in 2001. Added to this will be all the design work produced for the 2013 chamber-work of the same title, composed by Mark Bowden with a libretto by Damian Walford Davies.

Deposition III. Private Collection

The Mare’s Tale chamber-work was first performed by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at Theatr Brycheiniog last September, and the exhibition will include stage-designs and graphic design work made for the production, plus all of the puppets, models and maquettes I produced for sequences filmed by Pete Telfer and projected onto the stage during the performance. Puppet and animation sequences will be screened during the exhibition in a dedicated space.

Below: model for the chamber-work of The Mare’s Tale

Below: puppets made for the chamber-work

To bring things up to date, there will be new easel drawings and paintings on the theme, produced since the stage performance and for which I’ve reviewed my original material through the prism of Mark’s score and Damian’s libretto. From time to time I’ll be posting updates here re progress and developments on the project.

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)