Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Swan Prince

Last year I made an effort to fulfil some long cherished dreams. I had been promising myself for a while that I would make a wooden bird, with wings that flap up and down when you pull its string, and had started to make a working model of a heron out of cardboard. 

Cardboard is one of my favourite mediums, being free and widely available. Those of you who have ever been guilt-tripped into helping with my shadow puppet shows will know how much I love it. It's such a flexible medium. I was once given ten dollars to make a giant trophy to show on stage that same evening; I spent the money on some scissors and gold paper, then wove a life-size Academy Award figurine out of strips cut from cardboard boxes and covered it with little squares of gold paper to make it shiny. Sadly I have no photographic evidence to convince you that it looked spectacular, but it did.

Most of my last minute projects have gone unrecorded: they exist only in my memory. I made a lot of props and costumes but it didn't really occur to me to take photos: what I enjoyed was the sense of achievement. And the thing about last minute work is that there is no time to hang around photographing it. But cardboard has been my friend all these years, no doubt about it. 

So, I made this model to see how the wooden bird would look but then shelved it pending further inspiration. Something about it was not satisfying me and another project quickly took its place. Once something gets shelved there is usually very little chance of it being resurrected, so this bird was lucky that it was all ready to roll when I was in need of a good idea...

Its opportunity came at Christmas. I was overwhelmed by a sense of pointlessness when choosing a present for my mother this year as I didn't like anything I saw in the shops. But on the day before Christmas Eve I realised that now that the problem had gone from semi-urgent to extremely-urgent, I was in familiar territory. With my extensive experience of last minute projects I could rise to the occasion, defeat my evil arch-nemesis (myself) and make an appropriate present. My mind turned to the wooden bird.

I looked out my original sketches to choose something suitable. I found pictures of parrots, cockatils (both the pink and white varieties), owls and herons: even a dodo. I still want to make the dodo. There was a goose with a golden egg, a firebird, a griffin, a horse with wings, a dove carrying an olive branch and a little image of Lord Vishnu on his giant eagle Garuda.

Some subjects are obviously more suitable than others. One day I will find a client who wants me to make a wooden model of a harpy, but it hasn't happened yet. I also thought it would be a bit of an own goal to make one for my mother, somehow, the connotations not being entirely positive.

The nice thing about my sketches is that they are just that: sketches. They don't pretend to be moments of genius. They are simply a way for me to get my thoughts down before they vanish. They are also my nod to the world of process. At college I had an ongoing situation with my tutors in which they would ask to see the sketches I had used to arrive at my finished piece and I would do my finished piece and then fake the sketches for them. Rather than being actively malevolent I just didn't understand the importance of sketching and it is only years later that, all by myself, I have discovered the joys of planning.

I have seen sketches that are achingly beautiful and clearly going to be difficult for the artist to top in their finished piece, but not mine. A friend once tactfully pointed out that one can have many well-developed artistic skills and still be rubbish at sketching. The funny thing is that I get a lot of pleasure from looking at my sketches, even though they are a bit inept. They feel like an informal conversation with myself and even if they don't portray exactly what I imagine, they remind me of what I was imagining, like a signpost.

I chose the Swan Prince for three reasons: because I remember reading the Hans Christian Anderson story when I was little, because my mother always comments when swans fly over the house and, most importantly, because a swan is mainly white and requires much less decoration, once covered with its white background, than any other bird. Sometimes when practicality knocks you have to answer the door.

So it's as easy as this: mark out the shape you want on MDF and cut it out with a jigsaw, being incredibly careful in the matter of flex, fingers and loose clothing or long hair. I also wear plastic goggles of the chemistry lab variety so splinters don't get in my eyes and earplugs to protect my ears from the racket the drill makes.

In this case I made notches in the wood to slot tail and body together, filing and sanding them until they fitted snugly. Then I gloated over the wooden shapes for a while before getting on with the painting bit.

I actually only primed this wood with a few coats of white emulsion. Next time I will use a proper wood primer but on this occasion I had to move fast and use materials I already owned. I studied the feather patterns on swans' wings and then made my own approximation with a thin oil paint solution. We had now reached Christmas Eve so speed was of the essence, and that worked in my favour as being frugal with time made me bolder and less inclined to rework anything.

The swan has a crown on its head because it is one of eleven princes who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother in The Wild Swans. Their little sister saved them by taking a vow of silence and weaving shirts out of nettle flax to transform them back into princes. Rima had a great idea when I first thought of making this model, that one wing could be a swan's wing and the other be the prince's arm, but the balance of weight had to be exact, so in the end I didn't do it.

The great thing about using white spirit with oil paint is that it dries so much faster: I was able to string the swan up and leave it to dry overnight. I used nylon thread to attach the wings to the body and also to suspend it from a thick dowling rod, pushing the thread through holes drilled in the wings and securing it with little pearl beads. I had to adjust the balance of the model until it hung horizontally but it's just trial and error.

The swan's wingspan is about a metre, so it was too big to wrap up. I left it hanging in my studio and on Christmas morning my mother dutifully walked down there to collect her present. It is now taking up the only bit of free space in her already crowded sitting room. What choice did she have after all my effort? The problem with producing a creative child is that you are obliged to display whatever they make for you. Mission accomplished.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Green is the warmest colour

I was interested to learn that our lovely month of May is named after the Roman goddess Maia, who is connected to all growing things and closely identified with Bona Deia, Flora, and many other fertility goddesses. Her public festival would be held on the first of May, and, as Bona Deia the Good Goddess, supplemented with private rites supervised by the Vestals, which only women were allowed to attend. Accounts of these rites are vague, but branches of vine leaves, blood sacrifice, 'games,' and free-flowing wine all feature. It may be a relief to know that Roman Maia took her name, and many of her attributes from the Greek nymph Maia, an altogether more wholesome prospect, sort of.

Greek Maia is the oldest of the Pleiades, daughter of the titan Atlas and the oceanid nymph Pleione; also niece to Prometheus and to Nemesis. The Pleiades were all maiden companions of the goddess Artemis until Orion the hunter took a fancy to them and pursued them so energetically that Artemis asked her father Zeus to intervene. He quickly turned them into doves ('peleides' in Greek) and hid them in the sky, out of the reach of Orien, but also too far away for Artemis to reach. Zeus then thought it would be fun to transform both parties into adjoining constellations so Orien could chase the Pleiades for all eternity. Finally, with an extracurricular dash of flair, Zeus fathered Hermes with Maia. The moral of this story is: never ask a favour from a Greek god, even if he is your father. 

I have shared my time, this first month of green leaves, between nature and my new studio. I say studio, but it is really the top of a barn, so it's not as grand as it sounds. I am making my home for a while in Suffolk which, for those of you who don't know, is pigs and marshes and lots of tractors! And frogs, obviously. As this happy frog will tell you, after half a year of nature's coldest whites, greys and browns: no matter what anybody says, green really is the warmest colour.

A few weeks ago I visited Redgrave and Lopham Fen with Christine, my stepmother, and as well as finding the beautiful white flowers above, also disturbed this adder. I was very impressed by it's skill in avoiding any close up photos; even such a little one was able to sprint through the grass like anything.

These ponies have been brought over to the fen from Poland as they have just the right kind of hooves to withstand the very watery conditions underfoot. They also have curious markings, similar to donkeys; dun-coloured, with the mark of the cross along their spines and down over their shoulders, called 'dorsal stripes', and very tough and tufty ears, as donkeys have. These characteristics, along with dark, striped legs and tail, are usually called 'primitive markings' and hark back to the dawn of horsey time, when they were much smaller and all had toes instead of hooves!

This is the route I take to get to my studio in the morning, along the banks of the river Waveney. When I was younger we used to swim here. In fact, I remember once swimming at midnight with a friend and being quite scared as it was pitch black with no moon to cast any light and no sound except the water and the trees. We stayed immersed out of bravado rather than pleasure, and just as we were thoroughly spooked, something large swam close to us and made the most appalling 'ooo' sound. As I spluttered with fright and paddled away from the ghastly thing, I saw it had patches of white on it's dark head; it was a Friesian cow.

This area is called Falcon's Meadow, although I have not seen falcons here, but herons, and recently one tree across the river has broadcast cuckoo song so loudly that I think the bird must have grown out of all proportion and be ready to topple out of it's nest.

This wooden falcon is a fairly recent addition to the meadow but I feel its gargoylically menacing smirk harks back to another, more hysterical age. Actually, I am not being fair. It is quite sweet, really; hardly disturbing at all. That is, this is the least upsetting photo I was able to take of it.

This is the only bit of town I see on my way into 'work', as I like to think of it. Bungay is a very pretty old market town, mainly famous for the Chaucer Press and the Black Dog Marathon.

My studio!! It may be basic, but it's my first ever studio, so I am very excited about it.

This is at the back of the barn, so if I need to take a break from all my hard work I can do it here. 

These lovely white flowers are called 'Star of Bethlehem' and they shut their petals at night.

Back in my studio, I have just framed a picture given to me by the great and good Rima Staines; artist extraordinaire and, luckily for me, my brother's partner. It is called 'God Learns' and it is one of my favourite of her pictures, and also one of her strangest, I feel. You can view it properly here - it's really worth a closer look. It reminds me of so many things; sphinxes, swallows and something of the desert, and although women with birds bodies are usually harpies this one has a very benevolent air, more like an angelic messenger, the kind of thing that might have flitted down to St John while he was editing Revelations and said, "You know all that stuff about rivers of blood? It's not true." The brushwork is so skilled and subtle, and the colours so delicate, as though Rima personally ground up rose petals, cardamom and cinnamon to make her own paint. Genius! The quote comes from the last chapter of a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Robert Bly:

'Take your well-disciplined strengths
and stretch them between two opposing poles.
Because inside human beings
is where God learns.'

She and Tom were here in Suffolk for the weekend to sell her paintings and prints at Weird and Wonderful Wood; a fair for all things made of wood or just very, very natural. She had just finished painting an amazing new stall sign so here it is, hot off the press, with a wonderful smile thrown in free!

When we visited the stall there were lots of people talking to them and taking photos. Rima's top tip for the fair was to visit the Insect Circus Museum, so I headed straight there.

There was a queue in front of the Insect Circus Museum and, as I have just spent a year and a half in France, I felt a bit uneasy looking at it. My experiences of queuing in France were pretty much non-existent; it just doesn't happen, or if it does then it is not any queuing I have ever seen before.

Avoiding the queue, I walked around a bit and saw everything else. These are made from wood shavings; what a great idea!

See where he's marked the wood, ready to carve it. Lovely. I bought a set of chisels and a couple of clamps in France because I am convinced that I will do a bit of woodwork at some point this century. Also, I find tools completely compelling; it is as though a high pitched whistle that only attracts people like me is fitted to DIY shops all over Europe.

This man said he'd been carving the same spoon for hours because he kept stopping to talk to people, but he reckoned he could do one an hour at a push.

Very tempting; made from a large variety of trees, and they all feel subtly different.

French-festival-weirdos, eat your hearts out! I couldn't decide what this guy on stilts was dressed up as; I thought he was the Green Man, but then I saw another female one, so maybe they are straightforwardly being trees and not pagan gods after all.

Very nice arrows.

Someone was tired and possibly slightly fed up? Or maybe he was wondering if his mum would let him have a throne in his bedroom to control his criminal empire from.

I loved the simple idea behind these designs.

He was working fast and looked like he was enjoying himself, although my attempts at conversation were hampered by the fact that he really needed to concentrate on what he was doing.

And no wonder he had no time to chat; you can't mess about when you're burning something like this.

Finally, the Insect Circus Museum...! It is difficult to describe, and I didn't want to spoil the mood in there by taking too many photos, but if you like the idea of an interactive museum for pretend performing insects then you should definitely look it up here. Every school should have one.

 I wish I'd drawn this.

As well as pictures of famous performing insects on the walls, and vintage posters, there were lots of little boxes with holes like binoculars and when you pressed a button the insects all moved and danced or whatever their thing was.

I'm assuming that the butterfly was a willing volunteer and that no cruelty to animals was involved.

You can see that this little girl thinks I'm completely mad to take a photo, even though she was nice enough to press the button to light up the circus scene for me.

This is Macha, who was waiting at home for us while we were at the fair. When Tom and Rima are away, or even in a different room, she adopts a hunted, abandoned pose but here she is looking merely bewildered.

And now I leave you with some hints of my next blog...

What is going on?

What is this underpainting for?

Who is asleep?

Where can this be?

What is happening here?

And who or what is this?