I’ve been revising how to make the audio-artwork to go with the exhibition. I initially scripted descriptions in two parts – giving a straight description of the drawings followed by the context of the making of the image and the narrative it tells. Now, with input from Joseph Young I’ve opted for combining the three facets of the audio-description. I’ve had a go at incorporating the details of the illustration with descriptions of the making of the images, drawing on narratives in the poems being illustrated and the personal stories which were the starting point.
I enjoyed sharing the following script for a creative audio-descriptive piece in the Knitting Time workshop at Pallant House this week:
I had already started this A4 coloured drawing when I decided it would be an apt illustration for the poem Blue Black Feather. It conveys a love of nature in a dream-like landscape made up of birds, faces and human figures, which inhabit a series of hills and pastures. It pictures the encroachment of urban life on the landscape in a series of simply drawn tower blocks which run down the left-hand side of the drawing. It just needed two birds and so I drew a Jay dominating the right hand side of the foreground and a smaller crow further up and on the left, with which it is communicating.
The poem relates to a story from the mid-eighties of when I found a perfect blue-black barred Jay’s feather. Living in North London during the early 1980s was a depressing time. All my efforts at getting somewhere to live were being thwarted at the same time as all social housing was being sold off. Ideals of community and social awareness were fragmenting. I squatted a housing association property. For a time our eviction notices were thrown out of court by the judge because the housing officers were so embroiled in corrupt deals. Everything, seemed bound up in corruption.
I got very excited by the jewel-like quality of the feather. In my fragile state of mind this piece of treasure seemed to be auspicious sign; an omen of better things to come. It glowed, like something from the garden of Eden. On an impulse I showed the feather to a fellow passenger on a tube train. I happened to be following one of the sillier fashions of the time, wearing striped pyjamas. It was a trend started by the Boomtown Rats who I’d seen play a couple of times.
So, when the woman who I’d shown the feather to announced that she was an off-duty police officer, it was not wholly unsurprising that she’d assume that I’d escaped from Friern Barnet, the nearest mental hospital. She took me aside on the platform, clearly debating with herself what she should do and whether or not she could be bothered to take me all the way back to the police station. She wavered – especially as I had nothing on me to identify who I was. On grilling me about where I was going she asked me if I was harmless or not. She realised I couldn’t cause much damage, armed with a tiny feather. And so she then asked if I’d go back to the hospital of my own accord; making me promise faithfully that I would do so. And so I agreed, escaping the psychiatric system by an edge once again.
At the centre bottom of the drawing is a prominent ball shape across which a skeletal figure is draped. And to the left of the figure is a large cross-hatched shadow which is draped from the bottom corner of the picture, across the bottom tower block and up into the fields above. There is sense of underlying fatalism within this drawing. The frightened expressions on the faces in the submerged figures are expressive of a search for meaning and purpose in a random brutal urban environment.
Bird Song: audio-description:
I’ve begun the task of writing descriptions of the illustrations for the book and adding some personal reflections which put the poems in context. I thought I’d share the first of these, which relates the drawing of a sparrow I’ve made to illustrate the poem Bird Song.
An A4 portrait black and white line drawing depicting a side-on view of a sparrow, which takes up the whole of the central two thirds of the picture. The bird is very carefully and delicately drawn, with a great attention to the detail in the feathers and the markings on the feathers. It is a male bird as defined by the dark markings around its eye and beak and down the extent of its wing feathers. It sits on a short branch, which comes towards the viewer into the foreground of the picture.
The sparrow looks upwards with a fragile, slightly quizzical expression on its face, which emphasises a sense of its innocence. Surrounding the bird is a mesh or web of delicate markings resembling a lattice of small interlacing branches. Many of the larger branches are shaded with small dots creating a grey cloud-like shadow around the bird, which seems to pulsate in the background.
The sparrow symbolises a lot of thoughts and feelings in relation to childhood memories. My mum conferred a love of nature and the bird-life in the garden was very important to us. The chirpy little sparrow was our favorite. We’d put bread out and would love to watch these shy, innocent birds hovering around our offerings.
Mischeviously they would peck the aluminium tops of the milk bottles left on our doorstep by the milkman. “Look mum”, I’d say “They’ve been at it again”, and we’d share a smile at their daring do. I think we shared an intuitive connection to their fragile natures. We would delight in counting the numbers of male and female birds we could spot at impromptu moments when a ‘quarrel’ of them would come to visit.
The decline in numbers of sparrows in our London garden in the late seventies seemed to parallel the worsening of my mothers health and wellbeing. The disappearance of the birds was inextricably linked, in my mind, with the irrevocable changes in society wrought by the rise of Thatcher. It seemed that the world fast became a harder and more corrupt place with the influence of American Economist Milton Friedman’s free market ideology, that was so important to the Thatcher government. From the late-seventies their policies spelt an end to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that had been a marked feature within society since the Clement Atlee government of 1945. After 35 years of common ownership of all essential utilities and industries, we were subject to policies that established a framework of private enterprise and competition. The idea was that we learn to rely on market forces to ensure the ‘survival of the fittest’, rather than attempt to work together to achieve a fair society. However the political appropriation of the phrase, first coined by Herbert Spencer and then used by Charles Darwin as a synonym for the idea ofnatural selection in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869, was incompatible with the meaning both scientists intended in their search for an understanding of evolutionary theory. Darwin had intended the phrase to be a metaphor for how life adapts to its immediate, local environment, often working collectively to achieve common aims. The political interpretation that Darwin was vindicating the actions of the rich and powerful over and above the needs of the weak and those less well-placed was in fact a fallacy.
As the 1980s dawned, in my mind at least, there was a direct association between the increase in Corvids in London parks and gardens with the harsher pragmatism of the dismantling of the welfare state. The crows, magpies and jays replaced a lot of the smaller more benign birds. The families of finches, tits and sparrows decreased dramatically within a short space of time, never to return in the same numbers. The decline of the sparrow, especially, who my mum and I identified with so readily, was especially symbolic as indicative of our own predicament.
It’s been a while since I updated my blog and as I’ve been fairly busy painting I thought I’d add a photo of this work-in-progress. It’s great to be working on a fairly large scale (4 foot x 4 foot) and am enjoying it greatly. Without planning it I ended up going back to poetry from my first collection 100 Houses as inspiration for this image, which depicts how it feels to have an involuntary out of body experience – something which I was prone to until about ten years ago.
Knitting Time is finally on the horizon
A starting point for the work on show in the Knitting Time exhibition is a collection of poems which explore personal narratives from infancy to the present time. The stories stem from my induction as an infant into the delusionary belief system of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My mum became lost to strange beliefs after the JWs kicked us all out as representatives of Satan come to disturb the flock. One of her beliefs involved the ascribing of animal spirits to individuals and groups of people. As a child I was ‘Mole’ and I still sign much of my artwork accordingly in her affectionate memory.
There are many State-sanctified psychotic belief systems. It just depends how many agree to subscribe to any particular ‘belief’ as to whether it gets labeled ‘psychotic’. If you’re in a club with only one member, the chances are you’ll be in trouble, unless you learn to shut up.
All religious or spiritual belief has an element of ‘psychosis’ about it – not that ‘psychosis’ is necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. In its original meaning the term is derived from the Greek psyche, meaning ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘breath.’ It was regarded as the animating principle in life. From that Greek ideology came the modern hierarchy which places the spirit and the mind above matter. The poor old material world is not giving much credo, which is possibly why we care so little collectively about plundering and destroying the earth and for that matter for torturing the ‘mad’ who as a general rule tend to not like what the human race is doing to itself.
Knitting Time illustrates ‘loss’ as a guiding principle for existence and for creativity. I’ve never fitted into the world, which is no bad thing. I was taught from an early age by JWs that the world would end when I was 17 in 1975. And so I’ve spent 38 years living with a sense of mourning the ‘end’ that never came and in grief for the injustices perpetrated against my mum in the name of psychiatry. Psychiatry – like much of humanity and especially organised religion – continues to be as deluded as ever in the way it treats people.
The audio-descriptive sound installation in the exhibition describe a selection of ten of the works including work made during our workshop programme expounding on personal stories that underpin the making of those pieces. I’ve a history since infancy of getting lost in dreams and hallucinations; of entering a world which is outside of time. Much of the art and poetry here is based on those experiences, which have often been very profound and beautiful.
At the same time as expressing a ‘spiritual’ world, seeing angels and so forth… I’m no believer in the hierarchy we’ve adopted from the early Greeks. As Antonin Artaud put it so eloquently in his essay Shit to the Spirit: “The spirit was never anything but the parasite of man, the ringworm of his worthy body when the body was no more than an animalcule swimming around and having no desire to be worthy of existing.”
And therein lies the dilemma of who we are and why we’re here? Knitting Time is a piece of my dealing with that conundrum.
I hope you find the exhibition thought-provoking and would love to hear your thoughts on these concerns.