Tuesday 21 July 2020

Becoming Blue XV: Iris - WISDOM

I have stopped dreaming. I am being slowly eroded. I can't do future tenses. While the rest of Europe slowly unfolds itself like the eyes on a startled snail, and tries to go back to the way it was before, I am still folding myself and making creases. I am becoming the most intricate origami bird known to mankind. A rubix cube of intricacy. Crumpled and clustered. My focus is no longer outward or far away. It's inside. My focus shifted and with it so has blue. The longing for faraway places and people has dissolved, along with the possibility. There are no dreams or desires. The unraveling of unbecoming has stopped and now the cogs are rotating centripetally. 

Iris, Oil on canvas, Jessica Shepherd
Work in Progress, oil on canvas, Iris.

It's July, and I am now working underground in true Cancer season style. This isn't something I did last year when I moved into the house. Last year I stayed above ground in the heat. This year, I changed track. I brought fairy lights down into the cave space and made a shrine above my bed with an old Beatles 'Strawberry Fields Forever LP' and a tambourine. In the other room I moved all the oil paintings and their materials. The rest of the house is a shell. I move through these spaces on occasion. Yesterday I walked through the old watercolor studio on my way to the terrace. I was briefly reminded of all the journeys I took there. Every painting is a journey. The space seemed to hold a different version of Jess, an outdated version and she was haunting that space. She hadn't left yet, almost as if she was waiting for the colder months to return so she could slip back into an old skin and resume the journeys she'd started.

Iris Watercolours
Work in progress. 1.5m x 1m. Double Act. Bearded Iris. Watercolour on paper. Waiting for my return.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

The other bedroom was just as haunted by old journeys and former versions myself. An unfinished Iris duet rested on the bed rather expectantly along with half-read books. A hopeful, more focused version of Jess had been taking online Art History lessons in that room. Her shadow is still in that space, but it's fading fast. I looked at the wardrobes of clothes used for business meetings or travel. Smart outfits for 'going out' in and pretty dresses. I hadn't worn any of them in months. I have been wearing two outfits since October. My dad's hand-me-down 1970s blue cords and a gifted knitted waistcoat in the cold winter months and an orange £5 New Look dress that doesn't even fit properly in the summer months. I wondered why on earth I had all these beautiful clothes if I can't wear them and if there'd ever be a time to wear them again and if that time ever comes, would I even fit in them or want to wear them? It felt strangely opulent and indulgent to have so many unworn clothes just hanging there. It was also notable how a form of self-expression had been stripped from me. The projected 'made up' outward appearance was not important anymore. It also seems to have dissolved along with my dreams and future tenses.

First in a series of self portraits. Oil on canvas.

So where does this leave me or indeed 'us' as I know I cannot be alone? I am not sure but I think the answer is in here:

The Fifth Cardinal Sin is Lust. This sin was called 'Luxuria' in the medieval Christian world, and it was related to voluptuousness: unbridled sensuality. In older texts, Lust was also called 'Inappropriate Longing', revealing another, subtler, yet extremely important dimension of Lust: desiring that which one has no right to desire. And if we can begin to understand what constitutes 'inappropriate longing' for each individual, Lust might turn out to be an immensely creative force; for what we cannot possess in the outer world, we can nourish in the inner, and discover in the process a profound experience of joy.

The longing of Blue has started to shift and I quite excited about this. Like a miner, I am now looking at horizons and treasures on the inside, underground. I have a concave lens. I am deep sea diving. A hidden mermaid in the blue.

Becoming Blue XIV: Bluebell - HUMILITY

Bluebell botanical art
Blue Bell, Sussex Downs, Watercolour on paper, Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

Tuesday 30 June 2020

Becoming Blue XIII: Puya - DISTANCE

There was always going to be at least one Puya in the Blue Collection. There had to be. Not only because it is the most extraordinary flower, but because I have wanted to paint it ever since I heard Marianne North's story in her trying to find it in its natural habitat in the Andes 160 years ago. The distance she had to travel to find it in her petticoats. It's remoteness, it's faraway-ness, it's rarity. It's like Lapis and all things blue - far away, exotic and hard to find. It was Marianne's legacy, along with Yves Klien, that made me want to turn Blue Flower global. I had to paint at least one species of Chilean Puya, if not several. 

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

However, this particular Puya wasn't growing in the Chilean Andes. This is a Puya found in an equally distant place by Artist Heidi Willis in 2016 in the Blue Mountains in Australia. She very kindly sent me lots of images of the Puyas growing in the botanical gardens there. Therefore, for the first time ever, I was painting only from photographs and I can tell you - it's not as easy as one might think. Painting from photographs is far from easy. I had the photographs on my laptop for four years holding off any Puya painting until I had seen my own version of the flower. I was secretly hoping I'd make it to Chile and be able to paint the specimen from life in 2021. But then these huge bush fires broke out in Australia in early December 2020 and we all watched in horror as the animals and plants died. I'd go to bed crying. It was awful. 

It was in these moments I decided to paint this particular specimen. I felt so helpless I didn't know what else to do and the sad irony that an endangered plant such as this, that should be protected where it grew in captivity in Australia, wasn't lost on me. The Blue Mountain nature reserve and botanical garden were damaged by the ferocious fires. The Puya might have been safer in Chile, where it battles with habitat destruction daily.

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd


I will admit, the Puya was a tough painting.  Several times it refused to be drawn - I found it difficult to do something on large paper in the new studio. I dropped the drawing, damaged the paper and had to start all over again. The studio was icy cold. I had to keep stoking the fire. Then I couldn't work on it while I had to house sit. Then I had a trip to Egypt and the impending doom for WWIII took over the Australian fire grief, and then a pandemic took over the issue of WWIII and then everything just conglomerated into a rather disturbing few months. 

The astonishing thing, is that the Puya painting documents all of this time - from December 1st 2019 right through to June 30th 2020. I didn't work on it every day as I couldn't, my eyes would go funny and I remember feeling restless throughout, as though I wanted to be freer. At the time I was locked in my house in Spain where I wasn't allowed to go out on walks, so there is no freeing of the soul. Working on such a 'tight' piece is hard under prolonged periods of time. So to relax I indulged in oils, painting pansies and danced in the hallway to get me through the tight spots. 

Finishing it in late June was equally strenuous. My hand's shock under the pressure and I could only work in half-hour slots. Dr. Shirley Sherwood has written to me expressing a wish to have it for her collection and I had another five people wanting it. I couldn't ruin it, for Shirley or for me or for Australia. I finished it at the end of June during a Pluto Jupiter conjunction. I decided to title her 'Blue Flame' in the hope that the forests of Australia would rejuvenate quickly.

Early stages

Mameri blu turquoise 
W&N Winsor Blue (Red shade) 
W&N perylene maroon 
Daler Rowney cobalt blue 
W&N Paynes Grey 
Schminke Cerulean Blue Hue 
W&N transparent yellow 
W&N permanent rose - anthers with the yellow

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Add caption

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd

Puya Watercolour Painting Jessica Shepherd
Puya alpestris var. zoellneri, Watercolour on paper, 1.5m x 1m.
Jessica Rosemary Shepherd

One particular thing that really startled me with this painting, was how much a struggled to finish it. This piece took a lot longer than usual paintings of this size and usually the pressure speeds me up, not slows me down. Yes, it is a complex piece, but there were often weeks when I wouldn't touch it and I wondered why this was and I think it was linked to hidden knowledge. A knowing that the Puya will probably be my last accurate watercolour. After months of finding it hard to leap into a void - another void as there are several, I am feeling inside that I am going to try to let go again and there's a certain sort of grief associated with this letting go of a well-practiced way of painting. So powerful it is, that it has meant I have not been able to, I have been holding on, tighter and tighter. and the paintings have gotten tighter and tighter and some even ruined as a consequence. I couldn't bare to finish the Puya because I knew that this piece was the 'end point' - the last one. 

And so it is now the end of June and the end of the Puya and with everything that has come to pass in 2020. Hidden in my secret house with a blue door I am now going to start leaving things less finished than finished. It is for the viewer to finish them. Who wants a photographical representation anyway?! It's all an illusion, painting is an illusion and it's really up to the viewer to finish it to see what they want to see.

Puya Framed by Fine Art Solutions in Chessington, UK
Now in the Shirley Sherwood Collection of Botanical Art

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Becoming Blue XII: Pansy - FLAMMOLA

As the world dips into chaos for the second time this year, I am hiding in my secret house painting. Project blue once again has been swept into the unknown, just as it was when I was travelling to Egypt on the brink of WWIII. The weeks running up to  Egypt had me watching the news like I'd never watched it before. This time I am not watching missiles. I am watching countries shut themselves off one by one. Turning off and going dark, like lights going out in the Blitz.

Blue Pansy Painting
Blue Pansy, 1m x 1m, Watercolour on paper.

One of the many reasons I started the project Blue was in retaliation to Brexit, I plunged myself into the Romantic Movement and behaved as if borders didn't exist. But now there is a new problem on the horizon - a clever virus - and suddenly everything has become much more difficult. With nothing to control the situation but closing borders and shutting oneself away like you would clean laundry in a chest of drawers, I have crept back into my 12th house hole to paint in a house that feels almost as remote as Tasmania. It clutches onto the edge of a national park with no roads and comes with an ancient population of Spaniards. Here I am hidden, here I will weather the storm and work quietly without a car. 

"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

Botanical Art Pansy
A posy of pansies

Whilst painting the tight work of the Puya I am simultaneously applying broad washes of bright colours on enormous Pandemic Pansies. I have no idea how they will turn out, the eventual idea was to create an entire wall of them. Something a bit Alice and Wonderland. I like the way the patterns radiate out like hands, like viruses and the way the paint eeks out with 'washes'. They are petals of nostalgia, happy flowers. Gateways, representative of the portals of our hidden transformations. They are botanical butterflies.

Botanical Art Pansy
Blue Pansy, Watercolour on paper, £100

The name "pansy" is derived from the French word pensée, "thought", and was imported into Late Middle English as a name of Viola in the mid-15th Century. Their other common name "love in idleness" stems from the image of a lover who had little or no other employment than to think of his beloved. In Italy, the pansy is known as 'flammola' (little flame),  and I rather like that. A little flame of hope. Hope in the dark.

Botanical Art Pansy

On account of its popularity in both society and its recurring appearances in Romantic poetry, a variety of new nicknames for the flower began to circulate. Dorothea Lynde Dix proclaims that:

“Perhaps no flower claims to be so universal a favorite, as the viola tricolor; none currently has been honored with so rich a variety of names, at once expressive of grace, delicacy and tenderness.”  

Many of these names play on the whimsical nature of love, including “Three Faces under a Hood,” “Flame Flower,” “Jump Up and Kiss Me,” “Flower of Jove,” and “Pink of my John.” In Hamlet, Ophelia distributes flowers with the remark, "There are pansies, that's for thoughts."  Interestingly, Margaret Mitchell originally chose Pansy as the name for her 'Gone with the Wind' heroine, but settled on Scarlett just before the book went into print.

With time the Pansy has also become a symbol of two faithful lovers who are separated by distance. This also seems apt under the current circumstances. I know many couples who are trapped in different countries as they ride out the pandemic unable to see or hold one another.

Giant Pansy Watercolour
Giant Pandemic Pansy, watercolour on St. Cuthberts Mill paper. 1m x 1m.

I sat on my bed last night looking at three giant pansies, which I have placed purposely at the foot of my bed to remind me each time I wake up that the pandemic isn't a bad dream. Now I think the kitchen is the only room in the house not to be taken up by paintings. As I stare at the three faces I feel incredibly strong and happy and surprised at myself. 'Where did these come from?' I ask myself, just as I had done when I painted a quadtych in Tasmania this time last year. Again it feels like a massive evolutionary jump in my art that wasn't forced or predicted. It just happened. I just found myself playing with water and loosening up after the constriction of the Puya. When everyone's in fear, it seems I am still able to play. I hope these broader brush strokes continue.

I hope to continue this series of giant pansies as the pandemic tells its story. These first three giant pansies are destined for Abbott and Holder this August and will be included in the Blue Flower book which I still hope to publish in 2024.

If you are interested in commissioning your very own original small pansy (pictured 15 x 15cm) message me at mail@inkyleaves.com. They are £100 each.

I am remaining in isolation even though everything is opening up. I am rather enjoying this peaceful metamorphosis. Stay safe and wise. x

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.