Saturday, 16 May 2020

Article in May's edition of the South West Botanical Art Society Magazine

Delighted to be featured in this month's magazine by the South West Society of Botanical Artists. Here is the article below. If you'd like to join this superb little group, click on the link. They are strongly affiliated with the Eden Project and have lots of amazing artists on board.


I wake up to a row of giant pansies at the foot of my bed.  ‘It isn’t a dream.  This is really happening’ is my first thought as I go downstairs to make my morning tea.  The village is silent, apart from the starlings and the occasional call from the cockerel next door. I take my tea onto the roof terrace, which is still cool from last night’s temperatures and sip my tea. It isn’t a dream. The world has fallen silent. 

I moved all of my huge pandemic pansies at the foot of my bed so that they would be the first thing I would see upon waking up to remind me of the global situation. My life hasn’t really changed much since the world slowed down, so it would be easy for me to forget that walks are prohibited. The Alice in Wonderland pansies remind me that it wasn’t just a dream; the planet is on pause.

I live alone in a little village on the edge of a national park in Andalucia, Southern Spain. The house sprawls across three floors and is covered from head to toe in my horcruxes. Forgive the Harry Potter terminology, but I don’t really know how else to call my paintings. They are, after all, fragments of me, of my perceptions both inner and outer.  The only rooms where you can escape the lure of the blue flower are the two bathrooms.

A lot of the paintings are half finished. I often take a pause mid painting for several reasons. Firstly, to unfamiliarise myself with them so I can see them anew later on and finish them with fresh eyes. Secondly, in the case of oil paintings, the layers need drying and thirdly to keep the collection ‘whole’. You see, I am making another collection of pieces, this time on the theme of the Blue Flower and I want there to be a synergy across the works when they are all finished to unify the collection as a whole. I am hoping that the collection will be exhibited in 2024 with another limited edition, layflat bound book, but the stars often laugh at best laid plans, so let’s just say ‘sometime in the future’.

The Blue Flower came to me after reading Novalis’ unfinished Bildungsroman, entitled Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a story which has been marked as the igniter of the entire Romantic Movement. In the book, the blue flower symbolises the joining of humanity with nature and the spirit, so the understanding of nature and of the self is growing. In the Romantic Movement, the meaning of humanity was a continuation from Humanism and the Age of Enlightenment, but the focus was on one's own emotions, not on abstract theory. For me, the Romantic Movement was the last time nature seems to hold any significance in the major art scene. Since those times, flowers and leaves appear less and less in major art galleries. Keen to get botanical painting back into the forefront of the visual arts I thought I’d try to ‘re-do’ the Romantic Movement, like a Post-New Romantic.

In the story, a young man dreams about a blue flower and becomes enchanted. He longs for the flower and with this, he goes walking across the Alps to find it. The story encapsulates all that is inherently Romantic – travel, being in the wilderness, dreams, illusions, love, heroism and tragedy.

Ten years ago, I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to work at Kew Gardens, in the galleries there. Sometimes I would do a shift on my own and I liked those days best as after locking up, I’d hide in the Marianne North Gallery in the darkness for hours. I had the entire space to myself and I would look at every painting for hours. She was certainly a Romantic maverick and it’s difficult not to be inspired by her bravery and tenacity as an early female explorer. It has been her influence (and the work of Yves Klein) that made me want to make my search for the Blue Flower global and cross borders.

I started Blue in 2017, and since then I have been globe-trotting, collecting, pressing and studying blue flowers as I go and meeting many new faces and places. It’s been exciting and exhausting in equal measure. To tell you the truth, despite being a huge inconvenience for me and the many and horrendously tragic and scary, I am quite happy in my pandemic pit stop. As the world is left to interact online, I am busy cutting canvas, making guesso and melting rabbit skin glue in silence. I am a rebel and for me there is something so inherently Romantic about that sort of silent, creatively indulgent revolt. The internet is a useful tool, but one has to be mindful in how it’s used. It too, like travelling, can be exhausting and disorientating.

With all of us currently house bound, I am left having to rethink the parameters of Blue. I can’t go gallivanting around the planet as easily, so I have decided to bring blue to me. I have a little roof terrace and I am busy planting it up with lots of flowers. They aren’t all blue, but many of them will be, so my day to day work has shifted. I am back to gardening and for the first time in five years; I am making a home for myself in a little casa with blue doors. I am not sure how long it will last, like all things, the experience is subject to change and there are forces beyond my control, but it feels good to be making something akin to a utopia.

I have just finished my latest painting – Love in a Mist with its back turned away behind a thicket of spines. I am hoping to have it reproduced in my next edition of INK Quarterly (which you can subscribe to using the link below) as a framable A1 poster. Since I started Blue, I have been publishing a limited edition botanical art zine which comes with a farmable piece of art. It’s been such fun to do – I get to work with so many amazing artists from all over the world and it’s really satisfying being able to showcase their work and introduce it to new audiences. Part of the ethos of INKQ is to also give botanical art a stage – to mix it in with other forms of contemporary art so that it has a voice.

I hope I can get the painting to the UK for scanning. It’s difficult to know if printing will all go ahead with the current state of worldwide affairs, but I remain hopeful. Hope calls us to make another world that might not be possible. Where there is no hope there is no action. So I remain poised, rather like my painting, which now sits waiting on standby - another meaningful painting telling a chapter of my life.

You have to look carefully at my paintings, they are full of symbols. The choice of flower, the composition, the tone. I don’t just paint flowers. Blue was never about documenting blue flowers as they are. Blue is about the story, my journey and the stories of the lives my own journey crosses over with; the lives of the living, the lives of our ancestors and the land. for more information on INKQ, books and prints. for more information on latest pieces.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Nineteen Conkers

I have started a new piece under the Great Pause of Covid - 19.

I have planted 30 conkers in upside down Mahou beer cans, reminiscent of the Verdan Trees which were planted after the First World War. Once growing, they'll be arranged in a theatre, akin to 19th Century Auricula stages, because plagues extend limits like theatre and are physically transformative and disruptive. The next stage of this project is under development, like all things. Let's hope they grow! 

"The theatre restores us as our dormant conflicts and all their powers, [...] for there can be theatre only from the moment when the impossible really begins." 

Antonin Artaud - The theatre and its double

The Verdun trees are Horse Chestnut trees, planted in the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the First World War. Conkers were collected from trees on the battlefield at Verdun, and sent to England to be distributed and planted as war memorials.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Becoming Blue XI: Epoca Blu

"Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living."
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

It is the morning, and like all mornings I wake up and check on all my seedlings. I feel like the Little Prince and his flower on his lonely little planet. Every morning since October I have walked onto the barren, icy roof terrace in my bare feet to inspect the moist, dewy pots for any signs of life. It's become a habit. Thing is, I secretly know that there is life under the dark soil. A few months ago the wind and rain had exposed a thick white searching root in one of the conker pots. I quickly covered it up again, worried it would get dry. This particular conker still hasn't sent an upward shoot, but to my delight, another one has! The conkers I planted in October on my birthday are now growing.

It's been a funny few days here in Spain. Things haven't altered that much for me since the outbreak of Covid19. I am still in my hermetic studio, but I am aware that the entire country is in lockdown and you are not allowed to leave the house for any other reason than for food and pharmaceuticals. You can walk your dog around the block, but only one person is allowed to do this. Same with food shopping. The rules are strict, but everyone here is happy to abide by them. Spain has a huge sense of what it is to be in a community and they all look out for one another. For me, life hasn't really changed. The only alteration is that I am now no longer able to go on my daily walk in the countryside. 

'Isolation', Meconopsis - work in progress.
Watercolour, charcoal and gouche on paper.
56 x 76cm

It has been 63 years since Yves Klein painted 11 identical blue canvases for his ‘Proposte Monocrome, Epoca Blu' at the Gallery Apollinaire. For this exhibition, each canvas was painted with an ultramarine pigment which was suspended in a synthetic resin that would retain the brilliancy of the blue. Klein sought to challenge the boundaries between art and life. He posed questions concerning the nature of art, what it was, is and might be, and consequently challenged all borders and structures. The world is blue and blue has no borders and here we all are, hidden in the borders of a room, a house, a town, a country, now unable to wander. 

"Procrastination is productive and intelligent. 
Our urge to wander around instead of getting right to it is usually a signal that a deeper creative process is occurring, one that needs time we aren’t giving it." 
Chani Nicholls

"Heroes are usually wanderers, and wandering is a symbol of longing, of the restless urge which never finds its object, of nostalgia" Carl Jung. Blue Flower is a project about movement and wandering. Freedom of movement. An essential right for any human. At a time of Brexit and the rise of Spanish Vox and other restricting forms of politics, I chose Blue as an act of rebellion, like the age-old romantics who'd rebel against social norms and would go wandering fields writing poetry. Blue is a colour that moves and essentially this project moves too. It skips between the vast landscapes of dreams, Dreamtime and the imagination, to the frontiers of our planet. It focuses on the landscapes, above and below us; the habitats, the cultures of faraway places, right into the belly of our homes. The fact we are all now 'trapped' in our homes does not stop Blue.

‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room.’
Blaise Pascal

The flowers for this collection are used specifically to tell a particular type of story - there are many flowers, many stories and many shades in blue. It's about life. A blue life. As I move with blue, the paintings themselves have changed stylistically. As the colour is explored the style changes in order to capture that 'thing'. The thing is essentially about longing. Longing for faraway places that we shall never arrive in. Longing for the perfect, the comfortable. Longing for love, longing for change, longing for a better world. Blue Flower is as relevant now as it has always been. 

'Blue Flame', Puya berteroniana, from Blue Mountain Botanic Garden, Australia.
Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Work in progress.

The flowers I have documented so far chart my own journey up to this point and have all been intentionally picked. Hyacinth for a domestic landscape, dyed Roses for something more unnatural, Forget-me-Nots for their association of not being forgotten. Some flowers were deliberately looked for in places of cultural significance, Covent Garden, Columbia Road, a street seller on a pavement in London in order to capture a moment in time. Others have been located in their landscapes, Orchids and Gentians and others have been found in botanical zoos or gardens, as not all flowers now grow in their motherland. Many now can't be found in their natural places. Displaced. A sign of the times. 

Blue Flower up until this point has been a snapshot of a world in decay and was always going to be about my pilgrimage to the utopian picturesque, as in true Romantic form. Blue Flower, a seven-year project, is reaching its turning point in 2020, just as I felt it would. Borders are closing and everyone is being put on a spiritual retreat if they like it or not. They are having to find new ways of connecting whilst coming to terms with what they need, what they truly want and who they really are. The land needs nurturing like an egg. We need to slow down for a bit. To turn away from the mechanical world outside, towards the feminine, mystical world inside. Science extrapolates but poetry interpolates. Being inside is poetry. Everything outside of us is empirical. The real blue flowers are inside of us. Let's be like quantum thinkers in our profound search for an unseen world.

This 'silence gives us an opportunity to appreciate a great deal of what we generally see without ever properly noticing, and to understand what we have felt but not yet adequately processed. We have not only been locked away; we have also been granted the privilege of being able to travel around a range of unfamiliar, sometimes daunting but essentially wondrous inner continents.' The Book of Life

Sea Holly work in progress.

Since August 2018, I have been on a journey that is beyond words. I found a deep space inside of me, a whole landscape that I have been mostly happily roaming around in, to the point that I haven't been able to roam in reality and articulate. My issue over the past two years has been that I haven't found myself inhabiting the same place as most people I know. A gap that began to grow from a crack of blue. This has been my greatest upset over the past two years. That a gulf has been manifesting between me and you for months. I've been finding it harder and harder to bridge the distance because our brains felt like they were not in the same place even though our hearts were.

'Everything is delicate'
Meconopsis. 15 x 15cm, Watercolour

However, since Covid 19, I suddenly feel less alone because now everyone is living a life I have been living - an isolated one, a virtual life. Life in another dimension. A life where all of your friends are far away. They might be in the same town, but you now can't 'see' them. For me, some of my closest friends are in different countries, and I am lucky to see them once every two or three years. I live mostly alone in silence. I have been in this place of living since August, but I had a dress rehearsal in Tasmania, where I was isolated in a different time zone without a car due to the devastating bush fires for two months. I was forced to heal in silence, far away from everyone and generally 'get on' despite skirting the edges of a nervous breakdown. I hallucinated and I cried for weeks. I got through it. The same happened this winter in Spain. Again - I got through it.

“No one is ever satisfied where he is.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Now it's Spring and for the first time in months, I feel less alone because everyone else is now going through a similar process to the one I went through. We are all at home, some alone, facing ourselves.

'A desert of discarded antlers. A blue flower hiding in a thicket,
stumped in the complex arrangement of pieces on a chequered board of star dust. Check mate. '

Love in a mist. Work in progress. Watercolour

“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…”
 “It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Living alone for the past year (on and off) has helped me immensely in accepting what's happening right now. Painting, over the past year, has become less important and the land more so. I have been obsessed with soil and rocks since November 2019. I have to sit on it, walk on it, stick my fingers in it. Listen to it, speak to it. Touch it. The land wants trees. Well, here it does. I can hear it. This is why I am growing conkers, acorns, chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts on my roof. Nut trees are good, they feed birds and are less likely to be cut down by locals.

"Hold by confide among the stars 
We could be the lucky ones 
If we could only levitate 
Fly low dear 
Dance beneath the trees 
If only we had oxygen 
And we begin to breath 
And we can watch 
While the beauty takes it's toll"

I am also growing them not just for the land, but for me. I will keep a couple behind to put on my terrace as I don't know when I will be able to leave the house again. Now is the time to create an ecosystem on the roof. Deliveries are not really happening in Spain at the moment, so I am using EVERYTHING I can find. I am drilling holes in the large plastic boxes I used to move house in. Packaging trays for mushrooms, buckets for paint, some plastic pots that had brownies inside from a lunch break when I was teaching in Cairo. I don't have the budget or the delivery system to do it any other way.

Most of the seeds are coming from my food shopping. I have a lump of ginger, peppers, tomatoes and a garlic bulb that sprouted. I have seeds from my garden in London that are ten years old. I planted them last week and they are already growing. Now there's a hopeful sign if ever there was one. A seed, that has been still and dormant for ten years, suddenly growing. We too will grow after this has passed.

This darkness you're in is your eclipse, 
wait for your illumination.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Becoming Blue X: Blue Rose - SORROW

"The fear of being abandoned. The terror of being lonely forever. The anxiety of being utterly dependent upon another. The panic of unbearable vulnerability and exposure. The dread of the looming death of yourself and everyone around you. These are the great fears that come as you wake, as you fall asleep, and as you dream through this life. 

But perhaps the greatest fear of all is the fear of being loved. We don’t really see it this way, though. For when you are really loved, when you are entirely seen, when you are fully held, it is the end of your world as you know it. You will never be the same. You will never again be able to pretend that you are other than perfect and precious as you are. And that is terrifying. 

Life is always seeing you in this way. 

You long to be loved, to be seen, but please know that the implications are immense; they are cosmic. To allow yourself to be loved in this way a part of you must die. Everything you thought you weren’t must be surrendered. You must let go of the stories of the unlovable one, the awakened one, the special one, the imperfect one, and the despairing one. Love wishes to reveal your nakedness, to remove your clothing, and to burn away all that is false and less than whole within you. What you are is a raging firestorm of creativity, sensuality, openness, warmth, and kindness. 

In this way, love is a destructive process, for it comes to re-order everything you thought you knew."

Matt Licata in Many Voices

Christmas Day by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
Christmas Day, Watercolour on paper, 30 x 21 cm, J R Shepherd (2019) ©

The Blue Rose paintings - there are three so far. It is a muse I keep returning to. There's just something about its artificialness. A Rose that has been deliberately altered by mankind using synthetic dyes is for me representative of our unwavering quest for perfection and wholeness and the sorrow this obsession can bring. The first Rose 'Supernova' (bottom of the post) was completed in the summer of 2018, then, after an incredibly painful Christmas in Australia, I completed 'Christmas Day' (above). I thought that would be it, but no... this summer, in the chaos of eclipses and Brexit I returned to the roses again and produced 'Instar', where the blue rose is a mere speck in the throng of insanity. 

"No longer seek happiness—wanting it only separates you from realizing the profound sense of wellbeing that is only present in the absence of desire. "

Desire is full of endless distances. As I continued to paint the texture of longing I put the finishig touches onto 'Christmas Day' after a 7 month break. It was a painting that I had originally begun whilst recuperating alone in a house in Melbourne on December 25th. It's about heartbreak, there's no way around it. I was broken when I did this. It is the sorrow and bitter disappointment of blue. 

 "Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control… Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going". 
David Whyte

'Instar', Blue Rose, Watercolour and charcoal on paper,
56 x 76 cm, WORK  IN PROGRESS

Above and below is 'Instar'. It was painted eight months after 'Christmas Day' and is just as much about longing as all the other works. This piece for me is about being smothered and longing to break free. About being stuck, trapped and hidden. Similar themes to Leafscape and my previous post on 'The Lady of Shallot'. It's about chaotic politics, bureaucracy, a broken English Rose, an Albion with no plan and the dream, the contradictory utopian dream to be free and yet smothered. The dream (blue flower) is almost out of view. You have to squint to find it, but it's still there. A fragment of hope. Alongside all the politics, the painting is also about the responsibility I feel in having to make certain decisions and how we are all the living consequence of our decisions. 

"The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt. The strange redundant word instar describes the stage between two successive molts. Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far." Solnit

"One way you know you're approaching core territory is that your experiences become indescribable. Let yourself stand in an inner confrontation with the unknown within you -- and what, in truth, can never be explained." Eric Francis

Instar by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd botanical art
'Instar', Blue Rose, Watercolour and charcoal on paper,
56 x 76 cm, Jessica R Shepherd (2019) ©

As blue unfolds like Mandlebrot Set I sit here madly laughing to myself. You see, for months I have been thinking about 'longing' and how to possibly overcome it in order to see it for what 'it' is and I am finding it incredibly difficult to write a critique about because it is so ingrained in my existence and my ego. So I have to overcome that in order to see it, which, I guess, is what Zen is and no sooner had I considered this as an option, was I reminded of the text I wrote in the Introduction to Blue Flower:

"On a sunny September afternoon, as tired leaves rustled in the garden beyond her window pane, she opened her book 'An Inquiry into Blue' and took out a flatted, knotted mass of black and brown hair that she had collected from a bed at Kensal Green several weeks before. Then, with her other hand she opened her indigo bound copy of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and placed the hairs between pages 32 and 33. Once closed, she took the Antwerp blue scarf that was wrapped around her neck and tied it around the book before hiding it at the bottom of her wardrobe..."

There it was... staring me in the face, right at the start of my journey into blue petals. In excitement, I once again pace towards the bookshelf in the room of my childhood and my fingers rummage between Encyclopedias, French Dictionaries and Richard Scarry books until they uncover the crushed Antwerp blue scarf and the broken, worn binding it enshrouds. It was on the same shelf as the 2005 diary on longing. Circles, everything is a circle and there are clues everywhere. 

All states of mind are a delusion - transcend them all. 

Studio shot of Instar.

I have reading to do, but I wonder - will this actually help me as a painter? You see, there aren't many of us who live in the present, detached, with no sense of longing and my mission was always to reach out to souls and help them to see the beauty in flowers by making the flowers humanoid. I do this by incorporating the contradictions and complexities of being a human into my work. How we long for the things that don't really exist. If I were to paint something of no longing, would anyone actually want that on their wall? What even is that? Isn't that what botanical art WAS? A mere document devoid of all feeling; a scientific description of a plant? Surely we all want mirrors? That's why we buy smartphones and take selfies. That's why we fall in love. Surely that's why we buy art? It's a type of therapy. 

"Happiness and unhappiness are two aspects of the same thing, which is the false sense of self's search for inner stillness. Happiness always fades and disappears—just as every sort of appearance within awareness does—and in its place, unhappiness inevitably arises."

The cyclical nature of things brings me to the final Rose of my Blue Roses so far. One that I laid out last year... It feels like a long time ago now. The early days of blue, when things felt less convoluted. At the time I wanted to paint grief and the fading and changing of things and this was the outcome, and I called it 'Super Nova', the final stage of a decaying star. But like with all things, when a star dies, new ones are made and supernovae are vital in this, because when they explode, supernovae create shock waves that compress the star material in interstellar space which in turn causes large clouds of gas to form new stars. Such is the circle of things. 

Blue Rose by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd botanical art
Supernova, Blue Rose, Watercolour and charcoal on paper,
56 x76 cm, Jessica R. Shepherd (2018) ©

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Becoming Blue IX: Hyacinth - OBSCURITY

Blue is longing. The colour of solitude and of desire.  
The colour of  'over there' as seen from 'over here'. 
The colour of where you are not,
and where you can never go. 

Botanical art Hyacinth by J R Shepherd
'The Breach', Hyacinth sp., 1m x 1m, Watercolour on paper, Jessica Rosemary Shepherd (2019)

"Let us go then, you and I, 
When the evening is spread out against the sky"
T. S. Eliot

The name of the Hyacinth flower has the most interesting meaning. In Greek mythology, Apollo the sun god and Zephyr the god of the west wind compete for a young boy’s affections. At one point Apollo is teaching Hyakinthos how to throw the discus and Zephyr gets so angry that he blows a gust of wind in Apollo’s direction, which sends the discus hurling back in the direction of Hyakinthos, striking and killing him. Apollo, brokenhearted, notices that a flower springs up from the blood that was spilled and names the flower Hyacinth in honor of the boy. This symbol of the hyacinth flower has remained pretty simple throughout history.

"Every love has a landscape"

Therefore it seemed appropriate for me to finally decide to venture towards the Hyacinth during my summer of silence where things started to go so badly wrong in my head. The discipline I needed to adopt in order to keep in equilibrium was really hard to maintain. And so now, with everything sloshing about, no lunch hours, everything seems to now be about boundaries, my own and everyone else's. The myth of the Hyacinth is also about borders and the disaster that can unfold when things are pushed. A gust of wind, it's all it took. 

My Hyacinth painting is about a breach. It's a crack, a cleft, a penetration. It's a line drawn and a line crossed. Something mischievous has found a way to creep in, be it a feeling, a notion or a thing. It's possibly unwanted, I am not sure. Doesn't feel good if I am honest. It could be something that is much more dangerous than it seems, something that could chip away at structures like dry rot. This piece is deep. It comes from buried chronic feelings from a long, long time ago. Something that's resurfacing in me as I sit in silence.

Hyacinth, work in  progress

Dutch Hycathins always look hideous to me and I have often found their smell just as overbearing. I never was a fan. My mother is allergic to the bulbs and I remember as a child associating some form of fear of them just from that alone. 

Diary Entry:

"This time I am reigning everything in. I must remain as silent as a nun. I must devote my energy to a higher power. Remain open, slightly lost and thus vulnerable. This is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Nothing feels balanced. Just painted in the giant leaves of the hyacinth, they look rude and suggestive. everything looks like something other than what it should be. The watercolours are disintegrating. Maybe by this time next year the shapes will take over and the petals and leaves will no longer be fully recognisable? The leaf looks like an antler I dreamt about only a few days ago. My dreams. Blue is increasingly becoming about my dreams. As I look at every painting, what is coming out are my dreams and how I see plants in them. "

Hyacinth, work in  progress

I am now high on blue Hyacinth. the smell of my childhood and of Abbott and Holder. However, unlike most, my Hyacinths are always mixed with the scent of Brasso and furniture polish. Hyacinths leave me with an image of a desperate 1950s housewife or of a house that's gone wrong. Dry marriage beds, dysfunctional families and that perfumed mask, the pretense - everything is ok on the outside. I knew when the time came for me to paint the Dutch Hyacinth, that I would play on not only it's hideousness in terms of its own real morphology, but also the associations I have in my head. All of the flowers of blue have associations -  I am not just painting a flower. Every painting is a deep exploration of my psyche, it's memories and projections. With the Hyacinth, I knew from day one I wanted something monstrous - the elephant in the room that no one is prepared to discuss. 

Hyacinth, work in  progress in the new studio

I started the piece back in June 2019 and during that time I had to leave it behind in my studio in Spain while I visited my old childhood home in Sussex. Seemed apt in a way, to return to that space of heady Hyacinths. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was rummaging through my bookcase looking for a scrapbook because I wanted to make a Romantic Herbal for one of my disappearing men who'd I'd not seen in a while. As a consequence of not having seen him, I was also drafting out (and struggling with) a blog post about absence and how it makes the heart grow fonder. So, there I was rummaging in my childhood bookcase, and as I foraged between Encyclopedias and French dictionaries, an old diary of mine fell out and opened itself onto s specific page. A page I'd written in 2005 on my ideas surrounding 'longing', after my boyfriend at the time had disappeared to work off-grid in the jungles of Kenya. Oh, un coup de des! It seems enduring love is something I encounter a lot. Freud would have a hay day with me! 

Hyacinth, work in  progress, close up - needs more layers

In ancient civilisation, longing used to be about longing for otherness. Of what it was that put us on this planet. As ancients, we would watch the sun, moon and stars and wonder who or what put them there. What it was to be a human. The longing was for knowledge, for understanding. Nowadays, however, longing seems to have morphed into something else entirely. Now, equipped with so much knowledge, I find humans are having to place their longing onto other things - materialistic things, or for other human beings, animals, popularity, times lost, times yet to come, other places or for identities, religions and political notions. The Blue Flower is about longing, to long for the places we will never arrive in. In order to continue deciphering the illusionary nature of Blue, I am now considering what it is to long for something, and how I can generate that effect on the canvas. I am currently looking into peepholes, time-lapses and the miniature. Works I probably won't start until 2020.

Hyacinth, work in  progress, in the studio

"There father and son
Shall mingle in dust
As if life itself
Had been mostly illusion but partially real
And partially pain...

....As the world disappears"

A Song for Douglas, After He's Dead
Current 93

As you know, I like to turn things on their head. To understand longing maybe we also need to understand what it is to disappear and hide because when we disppear we can create longing in others? When we ourselves choose to disappear, I feel we are trying to center ourselves or to remove ourselves from something that we consider threatening to our existence. But the thing is, we still long for something, be it a resolution, safety, wholeness, control. So in this case, it seems that longing is an overarching theme and the act of hiding is just a spoke from it. So as usual for blue, turning things on their head hasn't helped me to find an answer. I am still lost.

"So many things to see in this old world 
But all I can see is you".
Together Alone 1970

So it seems our life's journey is driven by longing. It is perhaps the only overarching human emotion that connects all of us. Longing has to do with the divine because what we long for the most is a relationship with our destiny and origins. We may not be conscious of it, but we long to know 'why, how what', in whatever guise that might mean to the individual. This in turn brings us back to projection, to possibly thinking that the missing elements of who we think we are can be supplied by another person, or through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, to make us feel whole. But really only a connection with the cosmos and an acceptance of the unknown can fill that hole.

Studio lights on, late night working in the new casa. August 2019

Blue started as a utopian project about hope, and where there is hope, there is longing, and where there is longing there is heartbreak, grief, and tragedy. The joyful-sad that is blue... The original text written by Novalis in the 18th Century, in which this contemporary version of Blue Flower is based on, was about longing:

“It is not the treasures,” he said to himself, “that have stirred in me such an unspeakable longing; I care not for wealth and riches. But that blue flower I do long to see; it haunts me and I can think and dream of nothing else." Novalis

Blue is the longing for the distances you never arrive in, it is the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of  'over there' seen from 'here', the colour of where you are not. and the colour you can never go. Blue is the backward glance, the dream, the illusion.

"Longing is divine discontent. Longing brings the horizon close, it makes it possible. The ache, the humiliation, it is felt as the beautifully familiar. Longing has its own secret future destination and longing is nothing without its dangerous edge. We are a form of an invitation to others and to otherness. We are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing. In longing, we move to the unknown that we think we know." David Whyte

Nostalgia and the postcard:

I have been collecting postcards of every place I visit for Blue Flower for a final piece of artwork I haven't yet planned. For me, the postcard is the best souvenir of all because it ends up taking it's own separate journey from the place you were in to finally reach the hands of a loved one. A loved one you miss and therefore long for. Souvenirs such as this embrace a sense of longing doubly - they authenticate a past or otherwise remote experience and at the same time to discredit the present.  "What lies between 'here' and 'there' is oblivion, the void that marks the radical separation between past and present." (Susan Stewart). Postcards are all about longing, little documents that point towards the obscurity that time and place (and therefore experience) inhabits in our lives.

New view from the terrace, Granada

As I read more and more, longing becomes at its most basic fundamental level about time and space and therefore our connection with the divine. Even moments of 'love at first sight' are about an improbable meeting that happens between souls in a specific place and a certain time. At times, there is more weight given to the space-time event than to the actual soul one has encountered. So to long for something is to have a restless, unhappy, unresolved relationship with the unknown elements of time and space.

"It's quite overwhelming to accept the unknown. especially when there is so much potential."
Eric Francis

Last thoughts:

After much deliberation in the summer of 2017, I decided to embrace Blue Flower as my next project in my attempt to reject a world that is becoming more and more controlled and isolating. Humans are now inhabiting 'invisible environments'. Digital places that exist inside telephones and computers that are not real or grounded and full of longing. In these places, no one has a body - everyone is a ghost in these zones. Dangerous things happen when we lose our bodies because we lose the root of our longing. We loose our connection to the mystical. Things become extreme and desire gets polarised. We become obsessed with the idea and not with the reality. We become nostalgic and rooted in illusions.

"Whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown, both inside you and outside you." David Whyte

The passions kindled by longing must be harnessed and used judiciously, or they threaten to consume our hopes and dreams. Blue was always a political project as well as a personal one. The personal is political and I wanted to paint something that not only resonated with you on a personal level emotionally but also something that picked up on the chaos of the world we are currently living in collectively. The sleepy steps we simultaneously take to make our own little fake utopias. Uncontrollable personal longing has the potential to damage our own experience of the world and our natural environments. "True fellowship among men must be based upon a concern that is universal. It is not the private interests of the individual that create lasting fellowship among men, but rather the goals of humanity. That is why it is said that fellowship with men in the open succeeds" I-Ching. Our current political and environmental crises are rooted in undisciplined longing. and the sad thing is, we've just not worked out that to be creative and connect to others is where wholeness exists. This is where contentment is. Earthly reality is when we wake up and confront our own ideas about the mirage we long for.

"For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love"
Carl Sagan

Watercolour and charcoal on paper, 1m x 1m, Jessica Shepherd

'What is dark clings to what is light and so enhances the brightness of the latter. A luminous thing giving out light must have within itself something that perseveres; otherwise it will in time burn itself out. Everything that gives light is dependent on something to which it clings, in order that it may continue to shine. Thus the sun and moon cling to heaven, and grain, grass, and trees cling to the earth. So too the twofold clarity of the dedicated man clings to what is right and thereby can shape the world. 

Human life on earth is conditioned and unfree, and when man recognizes this limitation and makes himself dependent upon the harmonious and beneficent forces of the cosmos, he achieves success.  The great man continues the work of nature in the human world with respect to time. Through the clarity of his nature he causes the light to spread farther and farther and to penetrate the nature of man ever more deeply.' I Ching

With thanks to Amaya and Vida for all their help and guidance on this line of enquiry.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Becoming Blue VIII: Meconopsis - HIDING

You left me spent in the blue.

Himilaryan Poppies, watercolour painting, Jessica Shepherd
'27 Degrees', Meconopsis sp, (2019), Watercolour on paper,  J R Shepherd

"A Bumble Bee Clambers into her drunken,
fractured goblet— 
Up the royal carpet of a down-hung, 
Shrivel-edged, unhinged petal, her first-about-to-fall. 

He's in there as she sways. 
He utters thin 
Sizzling beats of difficult enjoyment. 
Her carnival paper skirts, 
Embrace him helplessly. 

Already her dark pod is cooking its drug. 
Every breath imperils her. 
Her crucible"

Big Poppy - Ted Hughes

Meconopsis botanical painting
Close up on work in Progress, 1.5m x 1m, Watercolour on paper. 

The symbolism associated with the Poppy are the signs of magic, fertility and eternal life. The Egyptians included poppies at funerals and in burial tombs. The Greeks used poppies in the shrines of Demeter, goddess of fertility, and Diana, goddess of the hunt. Poppies denote sleep, rest and repose,  the loyalty and faith between lovers and the memory of souls lost.

Meconopsis botanical painting
Close up on work in Progress, 1.5m x 1m, Watercolour on paper.

The Poppy - it grows in the harshest of environments. It is the flower of dreams, of fate, of escape, of seduction, intoxication, transformation, transcendence, of fertility, death and of survival against all odds. And so, as I gritted my teeth for a bumpy summer, I plunged into the almost unnatural blueness of the ever mystical Himalayan Poppy.  I needed to survive against all odds. I needed to temporarily escape. To rest. To have faith in the unknown.

Botanical painting of a poppy
Work in progress, Blue Poppy, 1.5m x 1m, J R Shepherd, Inky Leaves 2019

So here I am, post Hydrangea and Sun Orchid, still wanting to find ways of painting the illusion, the invisible, that thing that is unknown to us, and naturally I am finding this impossible. The problem with blue is there are no constraints. To have a constraint is usually a good thing when creating because you are forced to problem-solve and it's usually during these times when good work is made. At the moment, I am swimming in a sea of illusion and possibility - anything could happen.

As I lap on layers of watercolour I start to feel a little silly at having also retreated back to old methods of painting after having ventured out so boldly in oils, but there's nothing wrong with going back and retracing one's steps.  Things change, things fade and with that, I am left accepting the fact that sometimes something or someone, that can feel really significant has the potential to suddenly disappear like Cobalt Chloride ink and consequently become insignificant.

However, as I sat with this, planning paintings that described the blueness of something fading and disappearing, like the hazy blue that rests on a distant horizon, totally unreachable, forever taunting, something else jumped in and blew me off course. A bolt out of the blue. A flash of light. The unexpected. The turning of clocks. And now blue gets even more deliciously perilous and complicated. So I sat for a few days, desperately trying to sew the holes in my battered Tasmanian sails in preparation for the possibility to be blown off course once again. It seemed I wasn't going to paint the fading of lost souls or a haunting.  To paint what disappears will have to wait, for now I am going to have to paint that bolt of our the blue - another 'event' piece, possibly to sit alongside the giant Agapanthus.

Meconopsis botanical painting
'27 degree Cross", (Meconopsis sp.), Work in Progress, 1.5m x 1m, Watercolour on paper. 

Summer set lip to earth's bosom bare,
And left the flush'd print in a poppy there;
Like a yawn of fire from the grass it came,

And the fanning wind puff'd it to flapping flame.
Till it grew lethargied with fierce bliss,
And hot as a swinkèd gipsy is,
And drowsed in sleepy savageries,
With mouth wide a-pout for a sultry kiss.

A child and man paced side by side,
Treading the skirts of eventide;
But between the clasp of his hand and hers
Lay, felt not, twenty wither'd years.
The Poppy, Francis Thompson

'27 degree Cross", (Meconopsis sp.), Work in Progress, 1.5m x 1m, Watercolour on paper. 

However, no sooner had I got my sails up in preparation, did this Promethean-like bolt that appeared also disappear! As I sat wondering how I managed to manifest two really painful disappearing events one after the other I realised that I just had to acknowledge that there were higher forces at play which were beyond my control and this time, unlike in Australia, I really did have to comply and let go. I went into hiding. I escaped. I saluted to wheels of time and I embraced the unknown begrudgingly. 

So here I am back to grappling with the fading of things, their absence and the invisible, and as I do this, I find myself becoming invisible. Like the Anubis, I still feel I am in between worlds. Big, meaningful, yet confusing things keep happening to me and I am becoming frightened and weary. The consequence of this has led me to retreat, something I never used to do. Such a retreating will be why I probably won't publish these blog posts until quite some time as passed since the time I wrote them. It's as if I am hiding in time, using it's constant as a type of shield. I feel too open, too visible. With my presence on the internet almost making it nigh impossible to actually physically disappear, I find myself using time rather than geography to conceal myself. "Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light" (David Whyte). Timing is everything.

I will perform a dead defying magic show 
For those of you who wanna go some place else 
I'm brave but I can't save you 
From the things you won't change for yourself

Angus and Julia Stone 'Death Defying Acts'

botanical art
Work in Progress, Blue Poppies in Perthshire, 1m x 1m, Watercolour and charcoal on paper

Over the course of her life, Louise Bourgeois would emphasize the importance of solitude to the creative process. As an artist who strove to be “a woman without secrets” as she told art historian Christiane Meyer-Thoss that moments of seclusion and silence offered time to reflect on her emotions, which would then became the subject of her intimate body of work. Bourgeois ascribed to Ernst Kris’s belief that “I have to hide, otherwise I will be trapped". The act of hiding offers safety, freedom, and, in turn, inspiration.

'Lament', (Meconopsis sp.) Watercolour, charcoal and gouache on paper,  1m x 1m (2019)

As I hid and made myself invisible I painted two new pieces, two very different from one another. Poppies on white and poppies on black. The Poppies on white I decided to title '27 Degrees' for the petals of the central flower make a cross. A destined cross which is also present in the astrology charts of said event. Poppies on white is about a bolt out of the blue. It's divine intervention. A happy, fated event. Poppies on black, on the other hand, is about hiding and about not being seen properly. Of having to flower in the darkness. As with a lot of my paintings, there's a 'doublet' - two flower heads which have lost their petals. They stand there naked, slightly deformed, with a skirt of anthers, not really looking at one another.

I am a kaleidoscopic flower, 
blossoming inwardly." 

Section of a poem written by J R Shepherd (June 2019)

"Hiding is underestimated. We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure; our thoughts, imaginings and longings exposed to the light too much, too early and too often, our best qualities squeezed too soon into a world already awash with ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others. What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence. Hiding is an act of freedom from the misunderstanding of others". (David Whyte).

Blue Poppy painting illustration
'27 degree Cross", (Meconopsis sp.), 1.5m x 1m, Watercolour on paper. 

As Blue continues, I now understand several important things. Firstly, although traditionally looking for the blue flowers in the Romantic sense of Novalis' book which is about longing and the love for a partner, Blue is predominantly a journey of self-discovery. In these early years of Blue Flower, I am having to learn more about myself than anything else. Learning how to become integrated. and the ways in which we can do this by pushing ourselves beyond our fears and learning more about the hidden aspects of our psyche. I guess that's the only time when we find out what we are capable of.

The blue mountains near my new studio. 

In my retreating of the world, I moved house, where I currently live alone with the swallows and the bats. The silence is deeply nourishing, as is the cleaner air, new walks and space. I have so much space. Space to create. Space to dream.

The blue lake near my new studio

As I sit alone hiding in my 'tower' painting ideas and possibilities I often wonder if I am really living. If this is a 'full' life? During these times, my mind is brought back to the real female icon of Romantic literature, the Lady of Shallot, and how she looks into her glassy mirror, unable to exist in, or see, the real world through her own eyes. I have always resonated with this poem and it's a deep sense of longing to participate in life and to belong. I long to be touched, to be held, to be seen. It's why I entitled one of my Tasmanian pieces 'Elaine the Fair' for that is Shallot's other name. Although the mirror brings the world to the Lady, it's nothing like the real thing. She sees images as a sort of half-world. The mirror in Tennyson's poem feels like a symbol of her intense, terrible isolation from the world. Something I thought painting might resolve when I originally embarked on this journey, and yet still, this poem remains to be something that I resonate with pretty strongly, if not more so.

She's also popped up annually since I started Blue. I remember seeing a painting of Elaine the Fair when I was with the Cheshire Cat back in the summer of 2017 at Masterpiece, and then she was referenced again when I was down under with the Time Traveller on my birthday. I had drunk too much and was laying on a chaise longue and his mother said I looked like the Lady of Shallot. Funny how these archetypes play out...

"For me—this withering flower of dreams"

The Poppy - Francis Thompson

Blue Poppy by Jessica Rosemary Shepherd botanical art
Poppy, Work in progress, watercolour and charcoal on paper, 56 x 76 cm

Tennyson's clear mirror shows the "shadows of the world". This idea of a clear mirror full of shadows is a bit of a paradox, but then what is in the mirror isn't real. I mean, is she even real living such a half life? What has always intrigued me about this hidden lady, is her talent, for she can turn the sights of the mirror into an image in her web. It's because of this that I often think of the mirror and weaving web as metaphors for the life of an artist. As an artist, The Lady of Shallot can represent life, but she can't be a part of it. Artists, in a sense, are always reproducing life from a distance. You can see how, if this went too far, it might make someone feel alienated and lonely and maybe even cursed, like the Lady of Shalot.

As this Romantic poem draws to a close, the mirror, ironically, eventually shows the Lady the thing that will break its spell over her. When Lancelot comes trotting into the mirror, everything changes for the Lady. Even a shadow of him in a mirror is enough to let her know she has to change her life.

A blue Lady of Shallot, painted by Sidney Harold Meteyard in 1913

This summer something cracked the mirror. I saw a magical, intriguing shadow. And as I put the finishing touches on each poppy petal I am left wondering how long must I hide in this tower, or choose to? If I'll ever have the guts to I come out of the tower? And if I will ever be seen for who I really am all the while I straddle a four/five-dimensional world as the medium and artist?

Botanical paintings
The four sun orchids now all framed by Wagner Framemakers in Hobart, Tasmania.
Ready for an exhibiting this July at the Salamanca Arts Centre in Hobart with the Bob Brown Foundation

With thanks to Gareth, Amaya and Nicholas.


David Whyte, ‘HIDING’ From a book of essays 'CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words'