Wednesday 6 January 2016

El Día de Reyes Magos

As I kneel on the stripy rug in our sitting room individually wrapping our 1930s glass baubles, I am reminded of a former time when I used to wrap 18th century minerals in museum in a similar way. Funny how life can randomly take you to places without you having to move an inch. I look at the gridded cardboard box which is filled to the brim with a mixture of kitchen roll and tissue paper. Each poorly scrunched up ball of white revealing a glimmer of jewel like bauble.  "Beautiful" I say to myself, like I do every year and I remind myself that next year I will take a picture of them in their box. 2016's Christmas will no doubt come and I'll probably forget again. There is always this sense of urgency when it comes to the Christmas decorations for me. I am either desperate to get them on the tree or desperate to file them away and get on with life by the time twelfth night arrives. 

We drove to Fornes this afternoon in a car full of my mothers pots - its time for the first firing for her latest collection which will be on show in London this April. Strapped in the back I had some plates, my mum had the big beetle jar, Andrew was driving. We cruised through the mountains and farms under a bruised sky. It kept changing colour, from yellow to peach to blue to purple and the fields below seemed to reflect the marbling back. I felt like I was privy to a secret conversation between the land and the sky. The olive trees have changed shape - their branches now sag with their heavy loads of fruit and no longer search for the sky with so much passion. Their leaves shone silver against a blackened sky and at their roots the soil had turned into embers of burnt sienna. Yellow fields of feathery asparagus glowed in the random shards of sunlight that escaped the inky air like amber. It was certainly a feast for the eyes. 

Mum's Beetle Jar - a work in progress.
Work by Kitty Shepherd, Facebook page here.
The landscape here in Spain has changed over the past seven days, changing from anaemic yellow to lush green after three days of much needed rain. It really is a welcome break from the never ending sunshine for the farmers and at last the mountain is dusted in icing sugar like the pale pink flowers which are now erupting from the dark skeletons of Almond trees. Being in the campo today was dramatic, romantic and deeply nourishing.

So my back is still not great and I cannot for the life of me work out quite what I have done, but I think it is a combination of carrying too much luggage when in London last October (as its been bad since then), raking too vigorously in November and painting, (but the latter hasn't caused it, just prevented it from healing). So work has slowed down quite a bit... At first this drove me nuts, but I have now let go and am just rolling with it. 

Ann-Marie Evans, a train and the colour green

What a morning it has been! I have not stopped... First I enter a discussion with NASA after I ask Tim Peakes what he is growing in his Space Station Greenhouse - apparently it is Zinnia flowers. Then there's a chat with Emelia Fox about her role as Marianne North - thanks for that one Jarnie. Then I am in communication with a kindred spirit about mural painting (hoping to paint a massive mural this summer) and then I am the luckiest girl in the world as I get a copy of one of Rory's letters. Pinching myself that this morning really did happen, I then spot that Ann-Marie Evans got an MBE - thanks Katherine for notifying me of this one!  

Ann-Marie Evans
Her's and my paths have crossed twice so far in our lives. This is a good story, one of those magical time loops, so if you have the time, do read on it isn't long. It all started on a cold Autumnal day in October when my dear friend and expert botanist, Alex Prendergast and I met up in London. He was on his way to Plymouth from Norwich to see me. We had sceduled a weekend to plant Plymouth Strawberries together and I decided to meet him half way in London (his blog post on the day is here). We usually hit the museums or a garden when we are in the Big Smoke and I remember that usually this time the two of us didn't know what to do because I wanted to see the Mary Delany exhibition in the city centre and he wanted to go to Kew (he always does). In the end I backed down on the condition that we would pop into the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art as it has just opened and I hadn't been before. A massive fan of botanical art, and an artist himself, he agreed. 

SBA coursework Plymouth Strawberry - work in progress shot
As the clouds started to hide the tired sun we made a move to Paddington and hopped onto a noisy train to Plymouth. To my relief it was warm inside. Alex then started reading something on botany and I got my embroidery out. After about 30 minutes into the journey I found myself eavesdropping on a conservation ahead of us further into the carriage. There were three ladies gathered around a table - two with their back to me and one facing me. I recognised the lady facing me instantly, but couldn't for the life of me work out why. She had a book from the Mary Delany exhibition with her and was talking about the artwork - she certainly knew her stuff. I was instantly struck with intrigue and began to wish I had forced Alex to go to the exhibition. I continued to listen in and nudged Alex, saying 'you see that lady - who is she'?! Disgruntled that I had interrupted his reading flow with something as trivial as this, creases starting forming in his brow. I wasn't sure if they were there from the thoughts of working out who this lady was or from anger at me or both. He then looked at me like I had lost the plot and went back to scanning the pages of his book to find his place. Annoyed at this treatment, I then nudged him again and instructed him to get his i-phone out and Google her. Realising that I wasn't going to let this go until I had an answer, he dutifully did want he was told. I then went to the loo and on the way back say that one of the ladies with her back to me was knitting and the other crocheting. I was now completely entranced by this group of ladies and wanted to join them, but shyness got the better of me and I sat back in my place next to Alex.

Mrs Delany's paper cut outs
Then the knitter got up and went to the loo and on her way back, saw that I was sewing and commented. Within minutes we were all having a jolly between the chairs, but the lady facing me didn't move or speak to me. Alex was still Goggling her, she probably knew. At last I heard a name and when the conversation died down I said Alex - "Google 'Ann-Marie' with the word 'illustrator' as that must be how I recognise her and she knows her stuff about botanical art". Sure enough, it was her. I was stunned and took it as an omen. I was stunned because I didn't ever remember having seen or heard of her before. I didn't know what I recognised and took it that I recognised a kindred spirit.  A few weeks before all this I had decided to start taking botanical art more seriously and felt that if I couldn't get a contract after my job at Plymouth Museum had ended, that I would just paint full time and be saved by the grace of adopting such faith in my art. I signed up to the SBA after seeing Ann Marie (I never introduced myself), and embarked on the course. I then left Plymouth when my time had come to an end, broke my right index finger, met Henry and got a job in the very gallery I saw on that fateful day. 

Four years had passed and on a unusually warm Spring day a very well dressed, small grey haired lady walked into the gallery - we clocked each other straight away at the entrance and she walked in. After an hour my colleague went up for lunch and I was left alone. The lady came over to write in the comments book and I said finally felt after all this time that I could say "hello", so I did, and went on to explain about the fateful train journey. She seemed very kind and talked about the colour green for about 20 minutes. Apparently, according to Ann-Marie, no one has got it right. It was after this moment in time when I made it my mission to capture the colour green and, two years on I am still trying...

Saturday 2 January 2016

Cacophony of Green

As a botanical artist I feel it is important that we think about what we are doing with our art. It is lovely to be able to sit back and paint a flower just as it is like an Edwardian Lady, and that is absolutely fine, but I feel very passionate about trying to develop on this hobbiest approach to our work to give it some gravitas. I know I am not alone - there are many botanical artists who think very deeply about the meaning of their work and its evolution and this is superb as it benefits not only the art form, but all of us - from painter to observer.

Making pictures with soundwaves
Not long ago I was asked by someone how I would paint our Lord, Jesus Christ. Firstly, I thought - this is a very good question as I am now completely stumped. Unusually for me I couldn't find an answer and was left speechless. At the time I was with several other people and I could feel their eyes and hearts desperately trying to pull an answer out of me. I felt the weight of responsibility crushing down on my shoulders. With the knowledge that I could not just stand there in silence I was becoming aware that whatever answer came out of my mouth it had to delivered in an honest, heart felt and nourishing way. After what seemed like a lifetime of silence (but was probably only 30 seconds) I realised that the reason I couldn't answer was because there was no answer (this is a difficult concept again for me to realise as, like my father would say, I have an answer for EVERYTHING).

A Grid of Audio Speakers That Shoots Fleeting Patterns of Fog by Daniel Schulze 

I found myself merging a thousand catholic-based images of him dressed in linen robes or nailed on a cross with his wispy hair and sorrowful eyes. Then I was seeing him as white light and thought - yes a circle of white I would do that, but then I found myself revisiting all this stuff I have been considering about space, white and black, light and shadow, and realised that white wouldn't do. In the end, around a table where you could hear a pin drop, I found myself saying "I cannot depict him. I thought that it would be possible to draw him as a circle of white light, but that wouldn't work, because he can be there in the darkness. With this in mind I would have to describe him in sound - like a constant hum". To me, like the souls of all living things, he belongs to that part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's the subtle hum of life that is observed only through dedicated listening.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March, 2006
 "I heard myself close my eyes, then open them"
Loys Masson, Icare ou le voyageur

Sound in botanical art

Since that chilly autumnal evening in Chichester I have not stopped thinking about this conundrum and how I ended up, quite unexpectedly, communicating something this profound! I came to realise that at the time I must have felt that did not have the skill to make such an image that could capture something so broad and satisfy so many needs, but  I know that some artists can. I realise everyone has a different take on spiritual matters and so I am not going to go into that, but what I am interested in is if pictures can communicate sound or something beyond the image. For example, when you see a Monet, can you hear a sound? Obviously, not a real sound, but one in your 'being'. It could be a single frequency, or it could be a cacophony but something internal. What do you feel in sensory terms and is what you feel beyond touch, smell and taste? I am particularly interested in this from a botanical art point of view as for me, when a botanical painting is executed incredibly well, I can, on a spiritual level, 'hear' it. The plants sing, there is movement, there is time beyond our sense of it. For example, I am sure many of us would agree that Rory's pictures sing, you might not have noticed it, but there's a frequency there, it is beyond the audible.

Van Gogh Sunflowers - National Portrait Gallery

"Her secret was
Listening to flowers
Wear out their colour"
Noel Bureau, Les mains tendues

In science, we attempt to explain the universe objectively, that is, without a viewer, and therefore in my mind, science fails to explain art or the unique effects artists can synthesise from it. As a scientist, this has always fascinated me because in this day and age this is fundamentally where the pseudo-dichotomy between the two hemispheres begins. During my training I always found science too impersonal and felt that this unnatural treatment of observation was, and will remain to be, its greatest stumbling blocks. However, like in all things there are exceptions to this, for example, Quantum physics is one branch of the sciences where great discoveries are being made. I feel that this is because it focuses on the power of our observation - it is personal. Other pure sciences are more clinical in their approach. In every truly creative idea or discovery it should be noted that there is usually some form of fundamental discontinuity. For great art or science to happen, the methods in which the projection of images and sounds enter an observer need to involve more than basic logic or synergy. 

"You can hear the prattle of the flowers on the screen"
Rene-Guy Cadou, Helene ou le regne vegetal. 

So as botanical illustrators/artists, sitting all over the place on the spectrum of 'science art', from the representationalists right through the stylists, it is important for us to consider our imaginations and how they can always form something that is beyond reason to transport our audiences. We need to remember that our existence and our reactions to it cannot be explained in simple quantitative terms - something I think many of us forget as we try to capture 'form' (see previous blog post where I discuss 'emotion' in botanical art). I believe that it is in understanding this phenomenon that will make our art, in all of its forms, great.                                                    

"I live in the tranquillity of flowers, summer is growing"
Thoreau, Walden.

In her 'background coloured in' pieces, I believe that Margaret Mee was another one of those botanical artists who knew how to paint something could transcend itself by getting us to use our imaginations - playing on our senses to enter something quite primal in our being.