Latest Comments

Residency at the National Trust Bucks Mills Artists Cabin.

 

IMGP2525

The eastern limekiln dating from 1769. The Cabin is upper right.

 

Two weeks of intense heat (>30oC on some days - which was marvellous) and intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. "Majestic"? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland, remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an "Artists Retreat". I should have liked it to have been both a residency and a retreat. It was neither really, one couldn't reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the footfall of visitors past the door made "retreat" impossible, at least for me.

But let me quickly qualify that criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. The outside fabric of the building has been kept in very good order. On the other hand, deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles inside is very difficult but it has to be said that there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing some of the furnishings: the floor coverings and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I'm sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was "original" and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but that cannot be true: a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users - not, I'm sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to disappear completely in honour of their provenance or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a 'time capsule'? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

 

IMGP2542

The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk paper in self-made 'sketchbooks'. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow me a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock's intuition - some kind of instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I'm looking forward to that.

 

Pebble series 15 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm 2

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

 

Pebble series 20 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm 2

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

 

Pebble series 13 Watercolour 23x33cm 2

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

 

Pebble series 06 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm 2

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

 

Pebble series 01 Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

 

Pebble series 04 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm 2

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm

 

Bucks Mills Artists' Cabin, North Devon

 

SONY DSC

Bucks Mills Artists' Cabin, North Devon.

Judith Ackland, a Bideford girl, and Mary Stella Edwards formed a great artistic partnership after meeting as students. They travelled from London and spent months every year in The Cabin, Bucks Mills, hanging on the spectacular North Devon coast south of Clovelly. In 1948 they eventually managed to buy it, for £625.

Ackland-Edwards Judith Ackland (L) and Mary Stella Edwards at Bucks Mills.

The National Trust gained ownership of The Cabin in 2008 and began a series inviting artists to take up residency for a short period of time. This to include ‘Open Days’ in which the public can gain access to The Cabin’s interior. I feel very honoured to be selected as ‘Artist in Residence’ this year, and from June 12 to the 23rd and most days will be there or in the surrounding countryside, depending on the weather. Please come on the Open Days if you can and feel free to disturb me at any other time (if you are able to find me!).Ackland-Edwards0 Held at The Burton Art Gallery and Museum, Bideford from where you can buy a superb booklet about it.

 

As The National Trust say A rare opportunity to see inside this tiny artists retreat which has been left largely untouched since the 1970's. Last used by renowned artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards, the cabin is exactly as they left it over 40 years ago and remains a hidden gem in the pretty coastal village of Bucks Mills. Meet with the current artist in residence, and learn about how they've been inspired by this artistic heritage.

Inspired by these two ladies, I plan to be drawing mostly with oil pastels in black but also colour on the special silk paper I love to use. I'm sure mine will be nothing like their delicate work but I hope the spirit and history of the area will somehow transmute to me.  I also hope to be able to post some results of this tenure after the residency is over. If nothing appears you'll know I've failed abysmally.

The Burton Gallery is a marvellous venue in Bideford, doing important conservation work with this collection. The gallery is currently hosting the annual Westward Ho! & Bideford Art Society Exhibition in which I have the two paintings below: Almond grove in Andalucia (L) and Study of anemones (after Vassyl Khmeluk).

   Almond tree in Andalucia #1, Oil on board 49x73cm

 

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition: I’ve always believed – when younger, without really understanding why – that paintings breathe. Sculpture too. They are the only art forms where there is a tangible link between maker and beholder. Believe me, paintings talk to you! There is nothing in between: no translator, no intermediary, no signer, in short, no interpreter.

 

bottles-and-brushes-oil-on-plywood-49-x-73-5cm-2

Bottles and brushes, Oil on plywood 49 x 73.5cm

 

You confront a real painting (I don’t mean on-line reproductions, postcards or even high quality book illustrations) pretty much exactly as the artist did – at the same distance – as he or she did at the moment when (s)he contemplated the finished work and felt content with it. The visual experience is the same: you breathe on it in the same way and it responds. This is demonstrably not the case with music, film or writing for any medium – all of which require an intermediary and very often several or even a team. You are only reading this because it’s been through several machines.

This is all fine but an exhibition of paintings is a two-way thing. A meaningless exercise if one half of the equation is missing. It is unbalanced, there is no conversation. Paintings without people, talk to themselves or merely stare bleakly at each other across the void.

 

img_0415-3

A corner of the gallery

 

The painter provides the paintings, the gallery provides the space, and both parties promote it as best they can. That’s how it works; the only way it can work. If a painter spends years in oblivion wrestling work out of heart, soul and mind, he can legitimately feel disappointed if the gallery falls short.

This is the second year running I’ve been let down by a gallery. Not tuppeny-ha’penny galleries but pukka ones. The exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland suffered from poor gallery publicity before and during the event. As artists, we did all we could: half-page illustrated articles in quality regional and local journals but both galleries did very little. Why that should be must be the subject for another time.  Nevertheless, those visitors who did attend were enthusiastic; words like “stunning”, “vibrant” and “expressive” cropping up in the Visitors’ Book but during most of my attendances, the gallery was often empty. Stairs from the busy shop and café one floor down appeared to be an obstacle too far. To be fair, there was little incentive from the Arts Centre – not the box office, shop or counter – to encourage movement beyond the caffe lattes.

 

wedding-carnations-oil-on-mdf-46x61cm

Wedding carnations, Oil on MDF 46x61cm

 

This was particularly depressing because we were in an Arts Centre and not a café. I felt sorry for my paintings and for Eilean’s terrific sculptures in having little or no human company. They felt neglected. Most artists need interaction with their audience. Imagine live theatre or an orchestra playing to an empty auditorium, or an important football game before no spectators. You cannot expect anyone to be at their best.  In a previous life, I’ve been a cinema projectionist several times, and occasionally had to show films – usually in matinees – to literally one or two aged people. Even though technically it made no difference to putting on a good ‘performance’, it always felt a tad futile.

 

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms.jpg

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms

 

At its most elemental level, art – painting and sculpture – is as much a part of show-business as anything else. People look at paintings to be uplifted, thrilled, enthralled, perplexed, surprised or, if they are of a more educated mind, perhaps technically intrigued. [I will not use the word ‘challenged’ in this context.]

 

Study of anemones after Khmeluk Oil on canvas paper mounted on board 36 x 25.5cm 2

 

Above is one version of two of a Study of anemones after Vassyl Khmeluk. I fell in love with the original of this painting from a tiny reproduction in a newspaper. Khmeluk (1903-86) was a Russian painter who has for me become a favourite (see previous post That loving feeling.  Copying this got me back into painting after my Blighty Girls experience last year (see previous post My dear blighty girls). The anemones remain favourite paintings despite or perhaps because of that difficult time. It was, technically, an intriguing exercise which I hoped might rub off on visitors. Two people did indeed tell me (unsolicited) that they were their favourite paintings but otherwise I noticed little engagement with the more ‘challenging’ paintings throughout September at The Plough Arts Centre in North Devon.

 

Daffodils in blue glass - horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm.JPG

Daffodils in blue glass – horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm

 

Since very few people reading this will have got to the show, I'll include some photos to give an idea of the venue and exhibition. It was an opportunity for me to show some of my 'still-life' studies. In my naivety I thought it the most 'commercial' of the three exhibitions I've had at The Plough Arts Centre, but it's difficult to sell if no-one much comes.

 

img_0417

The Daffodil corner of the gallery

 

Are we down-hearted?  Yes, I suppose we are a bit, but no doubt something will happen to buck up the spirits: Carry on regardless (now that's a film I probably showed once!). Actually, something has come along because I've just sold my third painting in 12 months to America without any opportunity of them being breathed upon by any of the buyers. Why Americans seem to like my paintings more than the British is a mystery to me.  A gallery owner in Cornwall last week said that perhaps it was because they felt French (or was it because of my beret?). I love France inordinately but think I have only two paintings there, and I always feel they are more German than French, but maybe not the still-lifes. Any thoughts? If so please add a Comment.

 

Apple triptych, Oil on panel 16.5 x 30 cm.jpg

Apple triptych, Oil on cherry wood panel 16.5 x 30 cm

 

[Ends]

Toying with a duff idea. Aware of a looming exhibition in September, devoted to still-lifes, I was in my usual New Year blues - devoid of ideas. My 'Starts' had deserted me. These began as a devotion to St. Art, and became my 'Starts' – an idea bank where anything lurks that either grabs my attention visually, or is interesting intellectually. This might be literary or scientific – the latter increasingly less so these days.

 

The visual Starts have never let me down before, and normally Nature provides all the stimulation I need. Well, it would, wouldn't it, because nature is everything. I rather believe that there is no such thing as a purely 'abstract' painting, in the sense that it has no reference to human experience. Even a work that might loosely be said to be from the “Explosion in a paint factory” school of art obeys certain natural laws. Not understanding laws doesn't mean they don't exist, just that we don't understand them.

 

Anyway, in the germination process, an image – either a photograph, drawing or another work of art – can set up a re-imagining of this in the studio; perhaps some natural phenomenon will spawn a re-creation. Or it might be the sight - maybe no more than a glimpse - of a person (usually female, but that's a subject for another day) that will set me off trying to recreate it with a live model. Other times it is a literary source, perhaps even the line of a poem, a lyric in a song, or an overheard remark.

 

However, the new year found me lagging. 2015 had been difficult (if I'm honest, most years seem to be difficult).  But I'd been concentrating on still-lifes and actually feeling quite relaxed, for it was months away and I already had a number of works – including some old ones which I was revisiting. But as 2016 rolled in I felt increasingly bereft, and desperate to be working. There was nothing there. The natural world seemed bleak and uninviting – it wasn't of course but so it seemed at the time.

 

Mij, as so often happens, came to my rescue, suggesting I work on some toys of Isabelle's, my 2 year old grand-daughter. This seemed a good idea and I rapidly set up a random composition of some chunky brightly painted wooden vehicles overseen by a knitted teddy bear to provide a bridge from inanimate to ‘figure’. This was January 3rd.  Five weeks later after an increasingly perplexing struggle, I abandoned the idea.

 

Prove me wrong, why don’t you, but I can’t think of a good original painting which has children’s toys as its main jumping off point (not counting the purely illustrative of course). Why should this be? Eventually, after much head scratching, I came to this conclusion, which I offer for your consideration and possible amusement.   In a nutshell: just as much as a child is not to be messed or interfered with, no more perhaps are his or her most precious possessions. I found it impossible to wrestle with and shape these precious objects into my own image without it becoming a violation.

 

Why then, for example, do not Chaim Soutine’s paintings of actual children seem ‘wrong’? And indeed, paintings of adults, distorted and wrangled to some perceived identification of character or self-image, why are not they also ‘beyond the pale’?

 

ce26308bf51d825e66e46928921dda64

Chaim Soutine (1853-1943), Child, Oil on linoleum

 

To me, there is something inviolate about a child’s world. All my interpretations just got farther away from the essence, from the charm of the objects. They refused to be manipulated into something else, something adult. The last of my ‘finished’ attempts, when cropped into abstracted images, weren’t too bad but nothing like what I had wanted.

 

This idea might have been ‘duff’ in my execution of it, but it gave me much to think about. I wonder if it has you?

 

These are just three details of a failed painting.

 

IMGP2448

 

 

IMGP2453

 

IMGP2452 2

That loving feeling.

 

Here's a pretty fundamental question: why do we do what we do - if it's not a job I mean – and Bill Roseberry (Smithsonian Institute) says, “Art is either a career or a vocation, it cannot be both.” I agree, so what drives passion? Naïve? Maybe, but I challenge you for an answer and, sorry, “Because I enjoy it.” is not good enough!

I ask because I've been struggling through mud. Post 'Blighty Girls', blues settled on me like a cold shroud. To some extent it was chucked over me by the extraordinary attitude of a gallery (which must remain nameless). It is something to spend years producing a baker's dozen of, I think, exciting paintings and to give them away free gratis to a damn good cause, and then have a gallery i) not even give you a name check; ii) to produce a poster advertising the show while leaving your name off it; iii) not to mention you on their website but to refer them as “our” paintings; and iv) on social media to thank everyone (even down to local traders) except the poor sodding artist who did the things and whose idea it was! To add insult to injury, when this was pointed out to them by a puzzled purchaser, the gallery responded by saying “If we omitted...”. IF!!! The evidence is plainly there. So that was pretty lame. And just to top it off, when I published a letter of thanks from the charity, I had a furious call from the gallery objecting in the strongest terms to me for doing so. I was and remain flabbergasted. Incidentally, no-one, least of all the charity, can explain it either.

So how does one dig oneself out of a hole without just going deeper into it? For me I try to re-find the passion that drives me to work day-in-day-out for no money, and to deny myself and my family some of the good things which others apparently take for granted. It's what artists (an over-used and demeaned word, another is 'genius') do, because they are driven by a passion that fights vulgarity and work to see money tossed into a bottomless pit.

Survival is sufficient, and even that is threatened at times. From mystified depression not helped by an evil mix of ouzo and whisky (not to be recommended), I came to consciousness lying on the grass outside my studio drenched in beautiful summer rain and thinking, “This is rather nice.” Isn't drowning supposed to be comforting? As an Aquarian who carries water but doesn't go near it unless he has to, I'll never knowingly go for that option. Hypothermia is also, I'm told, a rather nice exodus though I haven't tried that one yet. Ah, but winter is here!

Back in my 'hole', the obvious way out was, Get back to work you idiot. This is what I've been trying to do, but I was unable to find a lifeline. Where was it? What is it? There was no-one about to chuck it down for me. How could they, if they didn't know where it was or even what it was either.

Eventually I found it in an unlikely place: a very small painting by a little known Ukranian painter, Vasyl Khmeluk (1903-1986), whom I very much admire. I have returned to it again and again over the years, wondering why it moved me so much. Maybe one way of finding out was to replicate it. So I'm currently doing two versions and in the process hopefully re-finding a passion.

This is one of his works, not THE one - I'll keep that up my sleeve for now if I may – but it gives an idea of his work.

TDSC01975

 

Philosophically, this puzzled me. Copying is usually a technical exercise, like a pianist practising scales but this was different. For me, meaningful work requires love in some sense. Whatever catches my eye or mind must contain within it a quotient of love, be it a woman, a plant, a landscape or an assemblage of objects such as the still-lifes currently occupying my mind due to an exhibition (in partnership with the ceramicist Eilean Eland) scheduled for next year.

In music, they talk of the 'tingle factor', in which hairs stand up due to some emotional response. Often we don't know why that should be, and it cannot always be predicted. For me it's the same with visual phenomena. In the absence of an emotional response, I might as well go back to science – which eschews all emotion. Certain visual arrangements arouse in me a frisson of excitement that cannot be denied. This is what I was searching for after the mid-summer hiatus.

Maybe this is naïve of me; I don't know. All I can say is that as a painter (or indeed a writer) the work is a form of love making. It might be at one or two steps removed but the engagement is the same. And at the end of it all, I don't want anyone quoting The Righteous Brothers at me: “Poor you, 'You've lost that loving feeling.'

Blighty Girls - Going going ...

 

My dear Blighty Girls who I have lived with and argued with for four years have finally left me and gone to live in new homes.  I hope they are very happy. [If you want to see them go to the Gallery section here.

The auction, hosted by the greatly enthusiastic Brownston Gallery in Modbury, South Devon, raised about £1,300 Help for Heroes (H4H).

11760048 943484602340969 8169684273268035769 n

 

11745450 943484572340972 7219000392851150 n

 

11779891 944598912229538 3840303860404161156 o

Shan and Mandy

 

11745529 944598828896213 660296862718067965 n

 Before the auction with the Ukelele band


H4H personnel were impressively present throughout during an evening which tried to mix the tragedy of armed conflict with a suggestion of the glamour which helped keep troops fighting for their (and our) lives. The evening kicked off with a ukulele band aided by cider punch liberally supplied by the girls – Catherine, Alison, Nancy and their helpers. My own two 'Land Girls', models Shan and Mandy were gallantly transported down from North Devon by Stuart Fiddes. They were clad (nearly) in authentic costumes, though I must say I've yet to be convinced of their authenticity, but for all that they did look very sexy. Later they visited local pubs with their collecting buckets and swopped kisses for donations. 

 

When the business was due to start, Catherine introduced first Larry from H4H, who gave a very informative and engaging talk about the work of H4H. She then moved on to me and I probably gabbledmy thanks to all the Blighty girls and guys who had helped and stood by me during this enterprise which, as time went on, seemed more and more hopeless and foolish. So my thanks are due principally to Mij and Gaye and Richard Lupton, who is a fine human-being and an inspiring representative for H4H. Richard was ably supported by Larry and Kev Preston – a Coldstream Guard who had been badly injured and who brought some of his fine detailed military art.

 

Following my very poor Oscar-type speech, the auctioneer, another Stuart, was truly magnificent. Without Stuart Cartwright I'm sure we would not have reached our target – which I had pitched at £1k for no reason other than it is a nice round number.

 

All the paintings sold due to his efforts and the willing wallets of those who bid. My eternal thanks to everyone who came and supported us and my thanks also to those who couldn't attend but sent messages of goodwill. I must particularly mention the wonderful Sam, who drove all the way from Guildford to be with us.

 

One thing which did rather surprise and disappoint me was that we received no online bids! As the bids would have come direct to me perhaps people were embarrassed to offer 50 quid thinking I might be insulted. Quite wrong, I would have been overjoyed! As it was most of the paintings went for around the £100 mark – the top bid being £150 (for 'Wand-reaper'). To be honest I had no idea what they would fetch, if anything at all, so it was a nerve-wracking enterprise with no bids in the bag, as it were, to begin with. I have enough faith in my work to believe that every painting sold is a piece of Fine Art in its own right and will prove a wise investment.