It started with my neighbour having a clear out and leaving a pile of white box frames on the wall outside my house (it’s common for people to leave stuff on the pavement with a note saying “Free, please take me!”). The box frames were in excellent condition and I had an idea of creating a layered illustration inside one similar to the way I make altered books.
My first attempt was of a deer in a glade. I took it to Studio 45, a little gallery near the Open Market in Brighton, where it promptly sold. I created more layered illustrated papercuts and bought some more box frames to continue the project. Those I’ve completed so far can be seen below. Some have gone to good homes, some are for sale in my Etsy Shop and Folksy shop and a couple are in galleries. They reflect my current themes of woodland, woodland edges and the wildlife that lives there.
I am creating a separate page for box frames in the same way I’ve created a page for altered books. I’m still very much into pen and ink but soon I’ll get into colouring again.
I’m just writing a brief post to spread the word about a new literary journal, The Curlew, in which I have an essay and some artwork.
I was very pleased to have my essay accepted. It’s about a bat survey I took part in at Ebernoe Common woods in the summer. My image, Echoing Swans and a pen and ink illustration of a dark wood also feature.
The Curlew donates to wildlife charities such as Cheetah Conservation Fund and The Born Free Foundation and is looking for contributions of creative non-fiction, poetry, artwork and photography. It’s also keen to involve young people with a special section called “Sanderlings”.
I read the book back in the 90s when it was first translated into English. I regret giving my copy away as I’d like to reread it and it had a lovely cover. I tend to like any story about pilgrims, seekers or about following your dreams. I think the book appeals more to the young who have life ahead of them to explore and discover. I can’t remember much of the story but when I think of the book, deserts, sunsets, arches and sacred buildings come to mind.
I was given a few quotes from the book to inspire me. Here’s one:
For ideas I looked at Islamic arches with their typical patterns and found some images of Moroccan doorways I love:
Then I made some sketches and started work on a new special edition book of The Alchemist that I was sent which already had some beautiful illustrations.
Using watercolour pencils and gold acrylic paint I decided to embelish the top pages with a gold leaved vine and feature an archway based on an islamic arch on the second page layer. I was able to indulge my love of desert colours, the pinks, yellows, honey and sand colours. The lefthand side is a star filled night, the right, a beckoning sunset or sunrise – perhaps representing hope, dreams and the future. A pathway leads towards the sun.
I am drawn to wings, birds, flight in nature, myth and art. I’ve featured wings in various art projects – my Stone Angel Wings Altered Book, my Wings canvas and illustrations of angels. So I was interested when I saw a flyer for an exhibition, Singing Sirens by Paulien Gluckman at the Sussex County Arts Club in Brighton. (I’m into rock again, but this time sculpted rock.)
I don’t know much about Sirens other than they were mythical beings associated with water who sing to sailors and lure them to their doom. Apparently Sirens feature in The Odyssey when Odysseus has himself tied to the mask of his ship and orders his sailors to plug their ears so that only he can hear the sirens’ song but be unable to swim to them. Sirens are part bird and part human and are associated with the sea. Perhaps it is the morphing of humans and animals that particularly appeals to me right now.
(Some years ago I did a painting I called Siren of a figure beneath the sea in the blue depths. It’s not winged though!)
The Singing Sirens exhibition is in a small, fascinating studio with drawings of angelic winged beings, sculptures of birds, nymphs and winged maidens all around. Paulien invites visitors to feel and hold her sculptures – there’s something very tactile about them.
I asked Paulien what had inspired her to explore the winged creatures and figures she creates. She said that reading The Odyssey made an impression on her and one day her cat brought in a bird’s wing that she thought was too beautiful to throw away immediately so she made some sketches of it and became fascinated by wings.
There’s some lovely sculptures and drawings here and a few wonderful sketchbooks. The exhibition is on until 6th November.
Winged figures and heads in stone and marble remind me of Emily Young‘s heads I saw at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last year. The serene faces with Roman noses and closed eyes are very meditative.
“These angels, warriors and poets who people the stone, are born of sunny, windy hill tops, and the dark light of caves; a kind of ecstasy, a stillness, a remembered energy from childhood, from dreams of fish memory, from dreams of flying and the silence of stone…” From Emily Young’s website.
” Inside me I am rock, desert rock and shadow. Inside me there is quiet, almost silence. I turn my back on the world to retreat to the cave within listening to the desert stirrings of my mind. …I seek a cleft in the rock like an animal, a gopher or marmet. I retreat from the clamour and business that surrounds me with a great weariness and longing for the dark, I seek a cleft in the rock with my back to the world.”
I wrote that in my diary earlier this year. Sometimes I feel the same way especially as autumn unfolds. When I think of rock I often think of sandstone, deserts, gorges – a gorge I walked through on the island of Crete some years ago. For some reason rock and clefts in rock have a certain meaning for me. Perhaps it is a need to retreat, hide, seek shelter from the world for a bit.
There’s something special about rock and solitude. I think of a chapter in the book Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams. She writes about walking barefoot in the Utah desert to Druid Arch and feels akin to the rock:
“I wonder what it means to be human and why, at this particular moment, rock seems more accessible and yielding than my own species.”
I googled rock cleft and disovered that there is a spiritual meaning to it in the Bible. According to Exodus 33 Moses hid himself in a rock cleft, a place of refuge, from the full face of the “Almighty” and this has come to mean he was in the body of Christ. I’m neither religious nor Christian but this is interesting nevertheless. Another website mentions that the “cleft of rock” represents the falsities of faith, the material superficialities. In a nutshell I think it means one needs to have internal faith and not rely on the external trappings of faith. Whatever it may mean universally, for me it probably means I need to turn within.
Back in late October 2014 I did a solitary retreat in the Catalonian hills at a place called Ecodharma. Now I find myself questioning my desire to retreat.
I was alone and wanted to be alone with nature. I stayed in a little hut submerged in trees, the dwarf oaks of that mountainous part of Spain. It resided in shadow and looked out pensively with a cautious eye of shade. It was very basic. I was curious to know how I’d find being alone with just the basic necessities. I tried to settle myself, find a routine to anchor my days but still allowing my thoughts to drift. I took to wandering and found a rocky ledge beneath the pink cliffs overlooking the valley that I called Yoga Rock as it was where I did yoga beneath the sun. Each day I took out my sketch pad and binoculars and sat there, lost in thought, vacant as the valley air. In the cabin I would write at the table and look out on the woods, glimpsing the blue valley beyond. As night fell outside, fast and black, the sky and stars were masked by the silohetted trees and there were no lights in the valley; I felt very alone but very tranquil.
Now I wonder whether solitude and this sparse natural place are what I needed and wanted or something else. To be somewhere far from home and away from stress, perhaps yes, but to be alone? And with nature? I wonder; sometimes there’s a stigma to retreating from people. Perhaps I needed people with whom I had a sense of belonging, or perhaps I needed to completely turn my back on the world.
At the cabin I sat inside beside the roaring woodburner and closed my eyes. It felt good to be still and enclosed – contained. Inside me there was a terrain of rock, valley, cave and garden. I needed to follow the path within. I went to this solitary retreat in Spain to be with nature in the hills, to try the Buddhist way, but learnt that my way is not the way of emptiness and void although Buddhists say they go to “take refuge”. Nature too is not enough. And sometimes the need for solitude and darkness is more than just the urge to hibernate in winter.
I found the cave within. I recognized that I needed to retreat inside myself, to journey into the places within, the seams and tiers of memory and imagination and then embrace the stirrings of creativity. Perhaps I needed to access something deep in my psyche like early humans did as they travelled deep inside caves to create art and perhaps commune with spirits and ancestors, deep in the earth’s womb.
It may not be the same for others, everyone is on a different journey, but I imagine each person needs at some point, a resting place, a place from which they can re-emerge back into the world refreshed. I retreat for many reasons – I can’t be a smiling, capable person in the world all the time. There needs to be both light and darkness in life, both company and solitude and time away from what can seem like a hard unfeeling world.
The last threads of summer will loosen like the dry bark of the skeletal trees at the solitary retreat once more. The land will not be sleeping yet, a restlessness will stir below the surface before the slow decline into the somnolent months of autumn and winter. Solitude is interesting, but as I now feel the same draw earthwards as autumn gets underway, I think, how about doing the opposite and finding people to celebrate with? To go within or stay without, to seek peace and inner journeying or outward celebration, listening to one’s heart is a fine balance.
I have decided to open an online t-shirt shop, Designs by Alexi, as I thought it would be good to have some of my designs on t-shirts. I discovered Teemill whose t-shirts are ethical, organic and sourced sustainably.
I enjoyed creating the shop using one of my woodland photos and a couple of my images for the banner. My images are often inspired by the natural world, myth and folklore so the t-shirt images reflect this. There are other items such as tea-towels and tote bags for sale as well.
My Long Man of Wilmington features on one of the t-shirts:
So does one of my moon goddesses, Hina:
and the Green Man along with other images:
I’m interested in taking commissions too!
In June I visited the islands of Malta and Gozo. I’m writing about them now as I’ve had plenty of time to digest the visit.
I am drawn to islands and have been curious about the ancient temples and early Goddess worshipping culture of these two. I’ve read quite a bit about ancient Venus figurines and “The Myth of the Goddess”, so it seemed like a good place to visit. These sun bathed islands of desert scrub and rocky coastlines made quite an impression on me.
Malta gave me: temples of limestone – sometimes pink limestone,
portals through pitted stone,
interesting obese goddess figurines,
and other curious figurines.
Sometimes what is needed is a shift in perspective and that is what I returned home with from my visit. Before going I had a feeling of being constrained, running along tram lines. Every so often I shake out of my mindset and refind what I want, which is a feeling of wholeness to my life and not a narrowness.
In Malta, the temples, portals, giant slabs of pink and white fashioned from raw limestone that have stood solid, timeworn and pitted down the centuries, spoke to me of silence and endurance.
On returning I felt more open to new sights and experiences once again and had a desire to take a more oblique path. I am being asked to lean towards the left, closer to the earth, like a sailing boat close hauled, leaning into the wind. I am setting off on an oblique course to find my way back to myself.
Malta had plenty of other things I liked, mainly natural things that include all the different sorts of limestone; sun bathing and sea urchin fossil finding on the rocks at Dwejra; the lizards, purple flowers …
Some years ago I tentatively researched into the “goddess” in her varying forms. I made a little book on Goddesses of River, Sea and Moon, and found myself painting faceless images of female figures. They weren’t all faceless but many were, just like the goddess figurines of the ancient past.
Once again I’m experimenting with faceless figures inspired by the female figurines and colours of Malta. I tell myself that it is not necessary to create something good, but simply to do it, indulge in the process of making a mark, marking a point in time and painting a simple figure is one way to start. The work by the artist Laurie Doctor resonates with me at the moment. She incorporates calligraphy into some of her paintings and sometimes her figures are faceless in a desert-like landscape. I especially like the one I found below – whose title I don’t know – and Night Vigil:
In an artist statement for one exhibition, she wrote:
I wish to communicate moments of fluidity between this world and the world of dreams. I want to share the sense of confirmation that happens when a dream steps right through the daytime door.
Good words. The desert colours of red, gold, faun – colours of earth, sand and rock – work for me at the moment.
I have painted a few little canvases in acrylic incoporating string, leaves and cloth pieces. Here are Desert Dreamer, Desert Icon, Gold Icon and The Pilgrim.
I am very pleased to have pieces of writing in the Spring, Summer and Autumn anthologies published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts. Spring and Summer are on sale now and Autumn will be out on the 25th August. I feel honoured to have writing alongside writers such as Gilbert White, Melissa Harrison, Helen MacDonald and Amy Liptrot.
My piece in Summer was about the hares on Havergate Island, an island I’ve mentioned before here. Below is an extract:
“…Evening, and the moon over Orford Ness is round and full, a warm, butter moon. Below, in its light, I can make out the dark shapes of fishermen casting into the rippling Narrows. The hares will be out feeding on grasses and herbs now. At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond. I wake and the winds are playing havoc with the wind turbine again.”
For Autumn, I wrote about a badger encounter I’d had with my partner in Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. I find myself often drawn to nocturnal wildlife:
“Nocturnal wildlife has a special fascination; it usually lives out of sight beneath the radar of our everyday, human lives…”
(As I am writing about my writing, back in February, I wrote a piece about seeing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels on the island of Skokholm, birds of the night. You can read it on the Caught By The River website.)
As my Autumn piece is about badgers, I thought I’d show my latest altered book, Badger Family. I was given a tatty old Observer’s guide to Wild Animals, beautiful in a wabi sabi sort of way. I’ve transformed the book’s interior into a woodland scene with badgers.
I’ve been thinking about boats and the idea of a Shamanic boat. When I googled ‘shamanic boat’ I found a website about Finnish Shamanism, Spiritboatblogspot (which is very fascinating and worth checking out if you’re into shamanic practices.) I also found a link to the Living Shaman Museum and a workshop that took place by a ‘spirit boatist’/artist, Jennifer Ewing. Her work intrigues me. She started making boats when her father died to help her deal with her grief.
My Uncle Ken made boats – it’s one thing I remember about him. Sometimes boats make an impression on me and one such boat was the Vasa ship in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It has some lovely carvings of sea spirits, tritons and mermen decorating the sides:
I like boat ruins too and featured one in a previous post that’s supposed to be haunted.
There is something lovely about the idea of a container carrying you over the waters.
“At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond.”
I decided to embark on my own Spirit Boat project, making boats and putting night lights inside them before placing them into a river at dusk as another river project.
So I started by making a simple origami boat and covering it with pieces of a letter written to the river with my hopes and dreams, words and poems. (I tried to write in the language of the river!) I stuck a rabbit vertebrae in the bottom of the boat to hold a gull feather. This became my Boat of Words.
The second boat I covered with used coffee filter papers that were stained a nice, natural coffee brown. I sewed on to the sides rabbit bones with scrim twine and used a rabbit skull as a figurehead. This became my Boat of Bones. At last I have a use for the natural materials I’m always collecting!
All the materials have a story. I collected my rabbit skulls and bones during a visit to Morfa Dyffryn, an extensive stretch of sand dunes on the coast of Wales. We visited on a cold April day when the winds off the sea chilled us to the bone. It must be a harsh place to be a rabbit.
My third boat I covered in coffee filter papers and scrim and trimmed it with dried grasses that I’d collected from a basket making day last year. I put some sheep’s wool that I’d collected from the Downs on the first really sunny day in April. This is my Harvest Boat.
Finally I covered a boat with dried, used teabag papers to give it a rustic, natural look. I then placed moss inside to finish off my Moss Boat.
In my boats I placed a night light.
One evening in July as the moon was waning, my partner Kevin and I set off for the River Ouse at Barcombe Mills where the river is gentle and accessible. It is a popular place by day; people have picnics and swim in the river. I have swum there once myself….
We waited for dusk and then lit the night lights. I can’t help thinking the boats look like shoes! ( I think ‘shoes’ and then ‘footprints’ and have ideas for another project! Watch this space :) )
I slowly put the boats into the water and filmed them while Kevin took photos. When I looked at the footage I found it quite meditative, so I made the video below and set it to some deep, Tibetan chanting. You may be able to hear the odd chaffinch singing from the hedgerows.
I thought I’d document the process of making an altered book – my way!
Below is a slider showing the process of making The Edge of the Wood altered book. Click on the dots or arrows to move between slides.
The Edge of the Wood and Deer in the Forest below will soon be on display in Avocet Gallery in Rye.