Sunday 3 July 2016

Giants in Thimbles V - Flowers of the Soul

I am happy to say that the first third of the collection is now complete. I spent a long time signing, dating and cataloguing them all. The signing process was a bit tricky this time around as the boarders of these leaves and the empty (or claustrophobic) white space round each leaf is incredibly important to the overall piece and I found that my signature kept interfering with each arrangement. I had been contemplating a signature change of late, as most people seem to know me as 'Inky Leaves' rather than 'Jess Shepherd' these days, but in the end I decided to stick to the old signature. I tried everything from logo transfers and monograms to pictures and name changes and none of them worked with the leaves. They just drew too much attention to themselves. So here I am, I remain to be 'Jess Shepherd' but in the form of a teeny-tiny signature.

Botanical painting of a yellow leaf
Close up on the latest leaf, a Catalpa bignonioides. Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56cm

So with the signatures done I then spent a good few hours transferring both long and short stories about each leaf on the back. Each story included the catalogue number, the pseudonym, their Latin name and geographical locations at point of collection. Occasionally I have written where I painted it or how I was feeling when I found the leaf. Two of the pieces are denoted as siblings (Vincent and Victoria), two are about love (Judas and India) and of course four paintings came from the same tree (India, Indiana, Indie and Indo). Speaking of which, here's part of the mummified leaf of 'Indo' - leaf 100820151542 (above).

I feel that these brief accounts on the reverse of each painting are really important to do as not only do they give each item provenance, but they also reflect my own personality as a story teller and writer. I also rather like the fact that they are hidden and will probably not be found until well after I am dead, rather like the writings and lost paintings found on the backs of Marianne North's paintings in Kew during the most recent restoration project. 

Hidden Marianne North painting
Painting discovered on the back of painting 366 during the restoration of the Marianne North Gallery

I am not sure if you remember, but I decided to start writing on the backs of paintings soon after I wrote my first 'Giants in Thimbles' post about the collection because I wanted the pieces to have a temporal aspect to them as well as a visual. At the time I wasn't sure what I was accessing and why I wanted to do this. I have been always aware of how important the element of time is in botanical art, but back then I guess I also felt that the vastness of time was fitting for a collection such as this which questions scale and life so intimately, and, as time has ticked on (excuse the pun), I now feel much clearer on what it is I am trying to add to the pieces. I suppose it is a sense of nostalgia.

Collection of botanical paintings on leaves
Writing the stories in the UK before framing. 

As I continue ask myself the fundamental question of 'what is it that moves me?’, I start to think about the memory and nostalgia in the context of the sublime - the flowers that make up the flowerbed of our souls and the terror of a time lost. C. S. Lewis refers to this feeling as 'Sehnsucht' - a German world that describes something that is intensely missing. Retrospection is huge - it can rattle through us all of the time to the point that the constant yearning for a time long lost can take over rational perception. One grapples with it - lost time is always there. We are, after all, the product of our memories, but you can't hold them in your arms. Nostalgia, like the memory, is vast and it is infinite in that there is no boundary to it - it is a dreamscape. One cannot simply join all the memories up back to a single point in time like the Big Bang because memories get fuzzy and punctuated the further back you go. There is no beginning or end, mere snippets that hint at a boundary.

Memory interests me on a number of levels because not only is it huge but it also, like a Gothic novel, can be deeply disturbing. The constant searching for a time long lost can bring on great sadness as well as horror and a sense of dread. Our horror over lost time is most likely linked to an awareness over our own mortality. Looking at it under the microscope and focusing on it threatens our sense of self preservation. Thinking however is different, in thinking we rebell against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude (Arendt, 1981). With this I recognise that there is a difference between gentle reflection and nostalgia. However, memory will always have a magical quality to it. It allows us to time travel whenever we want to and it fundamentally, like language, makes us 'us'. It gives us our consciousness. If you can picture your memories, then you can imagine your future. However if you can't remember anything at all, then the future must simply just turn into a blank space, rather like the past. 

Catalpa bignoinoides leaf, 76 x 56cm, watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP

“The future enters into us” (Rilke)

"The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. " (Woolfe)

Clockwise from bottom left: John Randall Turney 1834 – 1905 (great, great, great grandfather), Nancy Lord b1825, (great, great, great, great, grandmother),  Arthur Fincham Turney 1874 – 1969 (great, great grandfather), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Grace Crowther (great, great, great grandmother), Jessie Pretoria Nicholson 1900 – 1978 (great grandmother), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Dora Shaw (great, great grandmother),  Frank Turney 1903 – 1988 (great grandfather), middle: Harriett Fincham 1840 – 1919 (great, great, great grandmother)

When I was young I used to work for the Weald of Sussex Lacemakers making lace. It happened quite by accident. I used to watch them do their demos at the museum and eventually they asked if I would like a go. I took to it like a duck to water and in a matter of a few weeks one of the lacemakers called Janet bought me the entire kit for my birthday. I felt so lucky. My mother then commissioned the local woodturner to make some personalised bobbins for me. These were indeed magical times.  I was drawn to the complexity of the lace as well as it's delicate nature. Things become as delicate as a memory with time, items fade and break. I feel our fascination with the intricate and fragile comes from us acknowledging our own fragility. There is a level of appreciation that comes from the intricacy of lace too. It is as if these complicated items condense time because they take so long to make. Intricately handmade items are reservoirs of time and despite being heavy and dense with time, they, like us, are defenseless to decay.

Greg Dunn's drawing of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for memory 
and navigation and coincidentally looks a bit like lace.

As a painter I am steadly becoming interested in how the 'vision' of nostalgia manifests in our minds as 'imaginary perception' or 'virtual perception'. For example, I am fascinated when people say that after seeing one of my big leaves they are instantly transported to the dens of their childhood where they can see the leaves up close. Often they deliver this very rational response after an irrational gasp. With time I have come to realise that this gasp is markedly a response to the memory rather than a simple reaction to a painting. The gasp is nearly always a deep rooted, primal gasp - its shrouded in shock, horror and pain - like a pinprick. Its an interesting reaction of horror and surprise and I wonder if it is the emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time. Unsuspecting, the observer wasn't ready for time travel, caught unawares they are harshly reminded of their mortalty and perceive it as a threat. Nostalgia, the type that can creep up on you, reminders that come out of the dark without you calling on them, are always perilous.

Greg Dunn's fantastic drawing of a cell in the retina. Twitter: @GDunnArt

After hearing about the 'den memories' of my clients I started to think about what one 'sees' when one remembers. I was surprised that the leaves, all supersized, took them right back so acutely. After much analysis I have come to realise that when I remember an occurrence or scene that happened long in the past, I,  like my clients, can only focus on the 'objects' and not the landscape. That object, so fully charged with sentiment, totally takes over like a landscape. Textures become magnified in their experience. As I sit and recall one of my biggest memories, which is of a place where many events occurred, I can't see 'the place'. The 'place' is instead represented by a myriad of tiny objects that reveal themselves in the form of a well organised kalaidoscope - one which refuses to be captured and contained but is organised nonetheless, and everything is blown up out of proportion. For example, I try to remember an area where I used to play - I try to remember the trees, the leaves, the map of the land, but all I can see is an old water butt in that area and pictorially the only thing that is in focus is the dried, green moss growing on it. There is a bigger landscape around me but it is blurred and out of focus. This seems odd to me as I have no real sentimental attachment to this waterbutt, but the moss does draw me in.

"Memory, that guardian of time, guards the instant alone. It preserves nothing, absolutely nothing, of our complicated and artificial sense of duration." (Bachelard)

I wonder if the blurring of the landscape is a result of my myopia (I couldn't really see as a child but this wasn't picked up on until I was 14 years old) and so attempting to test this further I think of another den, only the leafy floor with all of its crevices is in focus, or the bit of graffiti in one of the old metal huts. The rest is a blur, obscured by filtration. The fish pond - only the rough texture of the concrete container and the intense heat are memorable, not the fish. Behind the electricity building - only the flaking paint of a red telephone box and the smell of baking chalk is well defined. Only the flakes where my hand touches are in focus, or the textures governed by heat and smell, and I wonder if that is the answer. Is what one can only perceptively focus on in a state of nostalgia are the things that touched another sensory gland - be it sound, smell or touch - along with the eye and not just the eye alone? I am unable to focus on the wood as a whole, only the bark of an individual tree which I probably touched.

"Touch fills our memory with a detailed key as to how we're shaped, a mirror would mean nothing without touch. We are forever taking the measure of ourselves in unconscious ways. Touch teaches us that life has depth and contour; it makes our sense of the world. Without that intricate feel for life there would be no artist, whose cunning is to make sensory and emotional maps" (Ackerman, 1992).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields

As you are aware, our brains are able to interpret two-dimensional drawings as representing a three-dimensional objects. To do this, our perceptual system uses a series of educated guesses to fill in the gaps. Apparently, our brains use the same guessing process to reconstruct the past. Like with a puzzle, we piece together our memories, based on both what we actually remember and what seems most likely given our knowledge of the world. Just as we make educated guesses in perception, our minds’ best educated guesses help 'fill in the gaps' of memory, reconstructing the most plausible picture of what happened in our past. One of the things that interests me is something called ‘boundary extension’ – a remarkable phenomenon where our visual memories consistently recall seeing a more wide-angle image of a scene than what was actually present. This is due to our brain filling in the gaps and its role is to help us engage with the world that around us and beyond what we see. Rather predictably, boundary extension is reduced when we are emotionally roused or anxious, which resonates well with the cut-off edges in my botanical dystopia. So could boundary extension be another reason why the scenery is often blurred and why things like leaves and moss appear so crisp? Is this why in our memory, scale frequently reveals itself in a confused and chaotic state comparable to being in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland? 

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” (Bachelard)

Botanical Art by Jess Shepherd
As a work in progress on the easel: Large Catalpa leaf, 76 x 56cm,
watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP in the UK pop-up studio

With my Alice in Wonderland leaves, I am also beginning to observe how the temporal quality of botanical art can be intensified with changes in scale. The manifestations of time in this branch of work are numerous (inclusion of life cycles, time to complete a piece etc.) so it is always there, lurking in the paint. Equipped with this understanding about the connection with scale and time I am reminded of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity and the discovery of 'spacetime' - a four dimensional description of our world that incorporates basic Euclidean geometry with time. It is beginning to feel as though the perceptive power of our memories is more closely linked to the four dimensional parable and I wonder if this is why our memories can also be so terrifying and subliminal - because they don't fit into our Euclidean 'interpretation' of the world. Is it that our memories not only remind us of our mortality and a time lost, but that it also connects us to the seemingly impossible, forcing us to question what is real and what is not? If we sit and think about it, consciousness has to be at least four dimensional, if not more, and maybe this is how art helps us to transcend our 'being'. I remember touching on this briefly before, but it is only now where I am starting to understand this from a more formulaic standpoint. 

"Time is a reality confined to the instant and suspended between two voids. Although time will no doubt be reborn, it must first die. It cannot transport its being from one instant to another in order to forge duration." (T. S. Eliot)

Whatever the case may be, I am happy to say that ten pieces of a rather large, muddled, botanical dystopian puzzle are now being put in their cages in a little shop in the backwaters of leafy Surrey.


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Arendt, H., (1981), 'The Life of the Mind', Harcourt Publishing Ltd.
Bachelard, G., (2013), 'Intuition of the Instant', Northwesten University Press
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Experience of Time', Brain Pickings
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Papova, M., (2015), 'Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time', Brain Pickings
Rilke, M., (2011), 'Letters to a Young Poet', CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Smith, P., (2015), 'M-Train', Knolf Publishing Group
States of Mind (2016), 'Tracing the Edge of Consciousness', Wellcome Collection Exhibition Booklet
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Woolfe, V., (1985), 'Moments of Being', Harcourt Publishers Ltd.