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 ©

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