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.