Friday 31 August 2018

Becoming Blue IV: The Uncoming

'He smelt of bergamot, paper and oil paint. He smelt of galleries, of picture frames and floorboards. Fragrances just followed him, it was part of who he was. From the jasmine flowers in Onslow Gardens to the slightly sickly Hyacinths in Abbott and Holder. There was always a scent to the story.

'She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature', Virginia Woolf

'I feel like a caterpillar. I am still not quite right. Something must have happened to me. Something did happen to me, but I can't understand why I can't seem to compute what that was. Was it Leafscape? Was it finally coming to terms with my break up with Henry? Was it my failed move, my failed funding applications or the PhDs? Or maybe it was just Mr. Bergamot, paper and oil paint?  I don't know. All I know is there are bad days and some ok days. I am full of hope, but I can't manifest. Instead, I am compositing in my cocoon of hope. Disintegrating at a snail's pace, but it is still too fast for me. I am not even half butterfly or caterpillar, just nothing really, a fertile sludge. This is the hardest bit. The structures I have built around me are no longer working. It would be true to say that I found this Spring hard going, but to be honest it's been hard going since February 2017. It's me that's being hard. I can't work out what is bothering me. I feel like a deep sea diver who's lungs can't quite take the pressure of exploring the depths of this iceberg. So I try to just doggy paddle around the circumference, but it isn't really working. I am now coming to the realisation that in order to grow wings I am going to have to take some risks, both in my art, my writing and in my personal life. This isn't going to be easy'. - Diary entry, May 2018

Jess Shepherd
J R Shepherd. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

At the end of May 2018 I was close to giving up. I hadn't felt like that in a while. Nothing was diluting. Everything was still sore and acute and the people I had trusted so deeply suddenly became unfaithful. When I went to bed at night sometimes I could hear voices, or banging doors and occasionally I would open my eyes and I would still be dreaming. I guess this is what can be called a hallucination. I knew it wasn't good. One night I sat and watched a tree growing out from my abdomen. All its roots wrapped around my torso and it grow up and up. I liked how it grew, but I didn't like how it was feeding off of me and that was when I screamed.

"Maybe happiness is this: not feeling like you should be elsewhere, doing something else, being someone else."  Isaac Asimov

As I watch the wind batter the winding Wisteria outside my window on a hot summer's afternoon, I continue to unpack myself like a suitcase. Further and further I go... unraveling, spiraling outwards centrifugally, dissipating, dissolving, or as my Antipodean friend Thomas called it: 'uncoming'. I am not sure if this is good. Surely spiritual paths should be about 'becoming'... spiraling inwardly, centripetally, becoming stronger and more integrated? Not fragmented and thin? I reassure myself that you need to unwind in order to wind back up properly. That I am just a cluttered drawer of clothes that needs refolding and that this year I am just in that unpacking stage.

Botanical Art Hydrangea
Hydrangea work in progress

It isn't easy being a painter.  I think it does have the potential to drive anyone insane. The way to get through the solitary quest is to spend time with other people, but I find that challenging. I begin feeling so inadequate and alienated. I often feel more alienated when I am with other people than when I am alone, so it doesn't really solve the problem. To escape my solitude I keep fantasising about a future yet to unfold.

"I am very interested in art, but I am instinctively more interested in truth [...] 
The more I work, the more I see differently"- Alberto Giacometti

As I sit here contemplating for what really feels like an eternity, I start to consider my art and where it is going again. My own personal life feels too intimate to sort out right now - too sore, too complex. The art though, where the art goes my heart goes and the rest tends to follow so I concentrate on that. However, that is where the problem is. I can't even focus on that, because of fear.  Fear of consequences.

"[…] but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers? Such a wild passion for a flower was never heard of there." 
Novalis, from "Henry von Ofterdingen"

Blue Hydrangea painting
Hydrangea work in progress

As a curator I create environments to deliver an experience. As a painter, it is within the parameters of a canvas. as a publisher it is inside a book as a sound artist it is within the grooves of a spinning disc. I like to create environments, I always have, but suddenly I can't through fear. Not the fear of failure, which is something I am too familiar with, but the fear of false accusation. In a world where things get recontextualized all of the time and a sentence you might utter can easily be extracted and reconfigured, I am left wondering why say anything at all? I haven't blogged in months because I am struggling with that concept because as you know my prose are deeply personal. I suppose I don't need to publish them, but I always took the stance that it was good to publish them for one day they might help someone. I publish them as if to leave breadcrumbs so that someone might better understand me and themselves. This blog is a map.

'In some ways I feel like my best version of my own practices is though art marking [...] its a way to create a container for the exploration of awareness and how to 'use' awareness both as an artist and as an audience to get a little unstuck or a little more confused, whichever is better.'
- Thalia Field.

Finally, after months of trying to work it out, I now know why this fear of recontextualisation and misinterpretation has left me unable to work. It is actually quite basic. It is because my paintings always have a meaning, but in this world, especially in the distracted modern day of fleeting moments, the meaning is often lost. Usually, it is enough for a painting to just mean something to me, I don't need everyone else to understand it, but as I metamorphose at a rate of knots, meanings are changing too quickly even on a personal level. There are no strata in my psychology. I am just foam. Popping bubbles that grow and disappear in an instant as I dissolve.

Artist J R Shepherd
J R Shepherd. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

Lost meaning

I feel my identity is disappearing. Jess sort of disappeared last year. I don't know where she went. Jess is decomposing, changing, re-packing. Maybe she will come back one day. In the meantime, I have to try to get all of this onto paper in the form of paint without her, because unlike photographs or digital images, paintings are real. Paintings come from the soul. Paintings are Horcruxes, mirrors, heterotopias.

Blue hydrangea painting
Hydrangea to scale... still unfinished.
Since I gave up a settled life in England I haven't felt safe and only now I find myself asking 'why not?' We live in a time when being yourself is about the scariest thing you can endeavor. I feel our fear in the 21st Century is mostly about a lurking dread of abstraction and our slight paranoia of being misunderstood or represented.  

Inky Leaves is a painted experience through the eyes of the world's flora. The leaves, flowers, petals... they are my muse. After a long time grappling in the dark and going around in circles I have taken a step out of the shadow. It's early days and I am full of bubbles, experiencing great change. Change of the most difficult kind. Change in beliefs. Change in assumption. Change in my sense of reality and my place in it.

Jessica Rosemary Shepherd
In the Poplar woods of Granada. Photograph by Alex Stanhope ©

"We hope that our armored professional personalities will prevent us from having our hearts broken in work, but if you are sincere about your work, it should break your heart. You should get to the thresholds where you do not know how to proceed. You do not know how to get from here to there. What does that do? It puts you into a proper relationship with reality. Why? Because you have to ask for help" David Whyte

As with Leafscape I am still obsessed with spaces and scale. I find painters usually are. To have a scale is to have space. With Leafscape the leaves became the terrain. Today, where things aren't wholly real and fact is fiction and fiction is fact, I am reminded of boundaries and context. How what is made when you have a boundary is, in fact, a space, a territory or landscape. Michel Foucault, in “Of Other Spaces,” claims that “our own era…seems to be that of space. We are,” he suggests, “in the age of the simultaneous, of juxtaposition, the near and the far, the side by side, and the scattered.”

"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

Botanical painter J R Shepherd
In the Poplar woods of Granada . Photography by Alex Stanhope ©
I have always felt that my paintings are not striving for realism and have often said this. In fact, I think it was one of the first things I said when I started 'Giants in Thimbles', that I was never striving for the realism or a uni-faceted sense of reality as we know it. How could I when I spend most of my days in a dream? I paint my experience using the flower as my muse. I project my experience and observations of the world onto my flowers. Which in other terms - all the flowers and leaves I have ever painted are in fact self-portraits. I would guess that this is why I am often frightened by my own work because they are like looking into a mirror and to be present means you have a responsibility and such a notion is actually quite frightening. 

'The only place where things are actually real is at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. That 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. John O’Donohue, a mutual friend of both of us, used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world. Letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.' - David Whyte.

In the Poplar woods of Granada. Photography by Alex Stanhope ©

Thursday 23 August 2018

Becoming Blue III: Consolida - FORGIVENESS

Things are taking time, but I am making progress. I have invested in a car. It's a leap of faith that I have been putting off for ages but in the end I decided to commit. He's black with a very large boot and blackout windows. I have named him Diego after Valaquez. He has the same initials as Darth Vadar. In fact, he probably looks a more like him if Darth was ever reincarnated as a car, but I went with a painter's name in the end. So here we are, another step towards the travelling part of Blue.

Flower art
Consolida (2018)

As I start to learn to drive again I find myself having to re-acquaint myself with many other old skills whilst learning new ones including how to use sound recording software. These are the frustrating stages I have to get my head around before I can really start to grapple with Blue. It's frustrating as there is nothing tangible to show for the time put into learning (yet). However, I am enjoying the process of becoming broad.

So I continue to feel very much as I am starting from the beginning again. Up until the end of May I was still in a very lonely, dark place. I am not sure what it was. A dark realisation most likely. Nature can be dark. It also can also be miraculous. I am trying to concentrate on that. However one cannot have one without the other, we all cast shadows, and as a painter I feel drawn to explore the dark shades of what I have been feeling for the past 15 months. Rabbit holes are dark places. Wonderous, but, like my car, dark.

'To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.'
- David Whyte

Blue Rose
Blue Rose, Columbia Road Market, 2018, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper. No Charcoal.

In my search for something cathartic and mystical, I have been looking at the work of religious painters and the paintings of El Greco. I have also noticed in my sketch work and daydreams things are starting to become out of focus and the proximity of the flowers keeps changing. Sometimes I am a fairy enveloped in the petals, sometimes I am just hovering above like a ghost-seeing it all laid out in front of me. Pinned to a board as if to be dissected.

As I carry on exploring this enclave*, I am noticing that what I am starting to tackle is most likely the notion of flower painting, which is actually quite different to anything I have ever done before. For me, flower painting still falls under the umbrella of botanical art, but it is moving further away from the scientific end of the spectrum and closer towards the more artistic end, the more emotionally descriptive and mystical.

Consolida botanical painting
Consolida, Covent Garden Flower Market, London 2018botanical painting by J R Shepherd (2018) Work in Progress.
Watercolour and Charcoal (powder and pencil) on paper.

In my last post, I touched on the distance of blue and how for me it describes the eternal longing or desire for things. This is why for me, blue has always been a romantic colour and the colour that sparked the Romantic movement in 'Blue Blume'. I nodded briefly to the Romantic Movement when working on Leafscape when I looked into the elements that go to make up Gothic horror. These themes still to beguile me. But what makes blue 'blue'? I find it is a colour who's meaning can readily changed by its context, by neighbouring colours and by lighting. You can make blue happy just by upping the brightness or its intensity. You can make it sad by lowering the saturation and its clarity.

My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. 
- J R Shepherd

Lately, black backgrounds have begun to lure me in just like they did four years ago when I first arrived in Spain. At the time I didn't know why I wanted to paint dark backgrounds, I just played around in the dark not even considering it. Now, however, it is May 2018 and I am sitting in my very English room wondering why I am drawn to paint black backgrounds again and then finally the penny drops. It is from being in Spain. I have been influenced. Spain's stark contrasts continue inthrall to me. The shadows on the white walls and under the canopies of popular trees. Its the darkness we see in Ribera paintings and of course those of Goya. Ribera is my favourite Spanish painter. It's difficult to writtle them down, there are so many and if El Greco was Spanish I'd probably choose him. However, the intensity of a Ribera painting is what I find so entrancing. The perfection of his painted fingernails, the red robes and the endless blackness around. I want to paint like this. I want to paint with intensity. So now I am changing tactics in my attempt to combine the elements of Mannerism with the Romantic.

St. Paul the Hermit, Guiseppe Ribera (1635 - 1640), Oil on canvas, 118 x 98 cm.
Paul of Thebes is known as the first Christian hermit, living alone in the desert from the age of 16 years

The incredibly dramatic illumination we see in these dark Baroque paintings is called, Tenebrism (Tenebroso in Italian) which can be translated into English as very dramatic illumination. Chiaroscuro is another kind of play on lighting in painting, but I feel it isn't the same. Tenebrism seems to be to be more dramatic and the tenebrist artist’s tend to use more darkness in the light-dark contrast while the chiaroscuro artist’s use more light. Famous tenebrist artists are Rembrandt, Gerrit van Honthorst, Francisco Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera and Georges de La Tour. Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women artists of the Baroque, was an outstanding exponent of tenebrism. 

Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

Tenebrism came into popularity around 17th century in Italy and some parts of Spain. Chiaroscuro on the other hand was already famous from works created in the Renaissance era (around 14th century). Although the artist Caravaggio is generally credited with the invention of the tenebristic style, this technique was used much earlier by other artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, Tintoretto, and El Greco. There were probably lots of other painters too who have just faded into their murky black backgrounds since their time as forgotten ghosts. This sadly happens all too often, even now. 

Cornflower paper collage
Mary Delany (1700-1788) - Centaurea cyanus, formerly
in an album (Vol.II, 79), 1779 - collage of coloured papers,
with bodycolour and watercolour.

What I am doing is nothing new. Barbara Regina Dietzsch is very well known for her botanical paintings on black backgrounds, as is Mary Delany for her botanical collages and then there are all the Dutch Masters. More recently artists Coral Guest and Rosie Sanders have both produced works with dark backgrounds/space. Currently, my paintings are not painted using black per se, but with a mix of Winsor Blue (Red shade) and Perylene Maroon, working to keep it all to the blue end of the spectrum. I want the whole pieces to be blue.

Barbara Regina Dietzsch 'Delphinium with a Butterfly), Gouache

For the first darker piece I chose to paint a Consolida, which is also known as Larkspur. I heard one of the gardener's talking about them when I went to Great Dixter last June (just before I dispatched 300 INKQs containing 'The Kiss: Onslow Gardens') and so it seemed like a good flower to paint. It was the next flower on my extraordinarily long list. Furthermore, I feel my visit to Dixter really was quite pivotal in many ways. In helping me to close the painful doors of the past and encouraging me to venture onwards. I had to travel through Brighton station, (where only 11 months earlier, the Cheshire cat had bid me farewell) so that I could get to Rye. Without Dixter, I wouldn't be planning my first long-haul expedition to the Antipodes. Funny how things flow.

'To forgive is to put oneself in the larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seems to hurt us.'  - David Whyte

Morning Glory Blue Flower
Maud Purdy's 'Heavenly Blue Morning Glory' (1932) Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Consolidae, and their close cousins Delphinium, are stately spikes of eye-catching blossoms in astounding shades of blue. The name Delphinium is derived from the Greek word 'δελφίνιον' (delphis), meaning dolphin, for the nectary's resemblance to the bottlenose of a dolphin. The world Larkspur originates from 1570s, from lark (n.) and spur (n.) to describe the resemblance of the calyx and petals to the bird's long, straight hind claw. Delphinium are native to the Northern Hemisphere and historically, were used by Native Americans and European settlers to make blue dye, and across the pond, it was the primary source for ink. 'The juice of the flowers, particularly D. consolida, mixed with alum, gives a blue ink' (Figuier, 1867).

Early stages of the Consolida painting working with charcoal and watercolour

The background of this painting was painted using charcoal powder in the mix with watercolour paints. I guess it is the gum arabic in the paint which acts as a binding agent, stopping the charcoal from falling off. The bonus of combining charcoal powder in the paint is that it removes shine and brush marks, so you are left with a very velvety surface that absorbs light like Vanta Black. With the Consolida, I have tried to 'bring' the background into the plant to create black space by using a charcoal pencil on the flowers themselves. I like the effect, but I am not completely sold, so I am still experimenting. The second painting, 'Blue Rose', has been executed only in watercolour. For this painting I decided to do something that botanical painters don't usually do and paint a flower that is not natural. A Rose that has been deliberately altered by mankind using synthetic dyes as representative of our unwavering quest for perfection and the darkness this obsession can bring.

'To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.' 
- David Whyte

There are many sides to blue. Love and loss come hand in hand. Joy and pain. The breaking down of things, and the building up. My Consolida is my consolation and consolidation as I learn to forgive and re-build myself. To forgive is an act of love and compassion. It is a skill of generosity and of understanding and truly necessary if one is to live a full life. Consolidated, I now more able to step out of my enclave and beyond.

*The word enclave is French and first appeared in the mid-15th century as a derivative of the verb enclaver (1283), from the colloquial Latin inclavare (to close with a key). A parcel of land surrounded by land owned by a different owner, and that could not be reached for its exploitation in a practical and sufficient manner without crossing the surrounding land.

In the meaning of flowers, Delphium is about enjoying the lighter side of life, even when troubles get you down and expanding your options and attracting new opportunities. 

Blue Rose
Blue Rose as a work in progress. Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper.


Karen Wiese, (2013), Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, p. 52

RHS A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley. 2008. p. 1136. 

Jabbour, F., and S. S. Renner, (2011), Consolida and Aconitella are an annual clade of Delphinium (Ranunculaceae) that diversified in the Mediterranean basin and the Irano-Turanian region. Taxon 60(4): 1029-1040.

Figuier, L. (1867). The Vegetable World, Being a History of Plants. Harvard University. pg 396.