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Badgers and Vignettes

I’m always happy to see one of my pictures or pieces of writing in print. In the November issue of The Simple Things magazine I have a piece of nature writing, ‘Still’, about encountering a badger. It sits alongside pieces by good writers such as Tim Dee, Alys Fowler and Neil Ansell. It would have been nice if they’d sent me a copy of the magazine. Instead, I had to go and buy one. (There do seem to be a plethora of these cosy, classy, hyggey, crafty, lifestyle magazines around at the moment. Is it ‘our’ need for comfort and reassurance in these somewhat dark, unsettled times?)

Still - Writing Piece in The Simple Things Magazine
Still – writing piece in The Simple Things magazine

The piece was originally published in the Autumn anthology as part of the Seasons series by Elliott and Thompson. I’m now in the process of making little, A6 illustrated books using some of my previously published writings. Here is an example I’ve titled, Into the Wood:

Into the Woods Book
Into the Wood book

The last badger I encountered was in the scrubby area behind the cabin in France where I stayed in the summer. It nearly ran into me as I stood quietly waiting for nightjars; they have poor eyesight but a great sense of smell.

On the theme of badgers, I have a Two Badgers altered book currently available in my Etsy and website shop:

two Badgers Altered Book
Two Badgers Altered Book

I’ve just created some little vignettes in pen and ink that I’ve sent to Avocet Gallery in Rye for their Christmas Fair. One of these is of a sleeping badger – pen and ink with a blue copper sky painted with acrylic metallic paint and ink. The others are of a hare, a nest, an owl and, of course, deer:

Vignettes
Vignettes for Avocet Gallery
Badger at Rest
Badger at Rest

I love vignettes both in art and writing – moments captured! And I love the way Jay Griffiths describes a badger in her little book, “Twilight“:

“Then I see him touched by two light, day-streaked and night-stroked, a keyboard playing a twilight sonata in a minor key for the maligned creatures of twilight, the badgers themselves, the wolf, the hare and the bat – flittermouse in flights of arpeggios to catch moths. And owls.”

Avocet Gallery Art and Craft Show 2018
Avocet Gallery Art and Craft Show 2018
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The Alchemist Altered Book

Recently I’ve been commissioned to do an interesting project, an altered book inspired by The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

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:

Quote from The Alchemist
Quote from The Alchemist

For ideas I looked at Islamic arches with their typical patterns and found some images of Moroccan doorways I love:

Two Moroccan Doors
Two Moroccan Doors

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.

Rough Sketch for Altered Book
Rough Sketch for Altered Book

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.

The Alchemist Altered Book
The Alchemist Altered Book
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River Voices

I have just got back from one of my favourite places, Penpynfarch, in a beautiful wooded valley in Carmarthenshire, Wales. As I wandered the river, lakeside and woods I listened to the many ‘voices’ I always hear when I visit, voices of the river and trees. It’s as though moments and memories from times past and future speak from the very soils, hidden spaces and waters. I found myself listening, searching and waiting, and the words ‘deep song’ came into my mind, the deep song of the river and woods.

Nant Gwyddyl
Nant Gwyddyl

With my new mp3 recorder I recorded the many voices of the Nant Gwyddyl; returning to rivers, that mean so much to me.

Listen,
Rock, cleft, moss, stone,
of memory and eternity,
the River speaks
voices of rock and root,
echoes of shoot and bark,
algal smooth
chasing
animal pelts of weed,
into
a whirlpool of laughter
an eddy of thought,
rush smooth,
babbling,
gone.

a kingfisher,
riot of dazzling blue.

A child’s voice,
A deep vowel,
sonorous tones,
silt of silk,
a current
secretly shifting the world.
A haunting harmony
carries me along by thought and dream.

I am river.

I have many photos from a few years ago, little has changed.

The ruin is a bit more overgrown,

Ruin

the wrecked caravan a little more hidden in its green swathe of undergrowth,

Wrecked Caravan
Wrecked Caravan

there’s no sign of goshawks in the trees,

Looking for Goshawks
Looking for Goshawks

and the lake is still peaceful.

The Lake Pen Pynfarch

Then rain came as it always does in Wales. So I walked in the rain and watched the herons flying to and from the heronry, the river rise, it’s voices a little stronger.

Now I am back home again I need to be patient and listen more deeply.

I am reading two books at the moment, both have “river” in the title. The first, The Other Side of the River by Eila Carrico, is a memoir and exploration of the meaning of water both physically and metaphorically in our lives, especially in the lives of women. It is written as a river flows, shifting gently here and there. The second book, At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid. Perhaps I am drawn to anything with the word ‘river’ :) Both books flow with rivers of words or beautiful language, both weave in nature and hint at tropical lands.

Books I'm Reading

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New creations

It’s the time for nests! Everywhere I hear birdsong even in the middle of town and it’s lovely. As a child I would climb trees in the hope of finding a nest. Sometimes I did, but those I found – and collected – never had any eggs. I wouldn’t have disturbed them if they had. It’s very special getting a glimpse into a nest with eggs.

In our garden there are a couple of magpies building a nest in the top of a dead sycamore tree. The nest looks oval with a sort of thatched roof. They’re probably not yet tending eggs – my egg book says April – May. It’s good to watch them in action. I like magpies although they have a bad name and are so numerous these days. I remember a lovely animation featuring magpies on the IPM Radio 4 website that accompanied a short programme about bird watching and dementia.

Magpie Page in Egg Book

Magpie and Nest
Magpie and Nest

I have a few new creations that feature nests, apples and wings – altered books and small canvases. My Blackbird Nest altered book was on Folksy and sold very quickly:

Nest Altered Book

As it’s Spring, I had to create a Spring altered book which depicts a blackbird nest and woodland scene.

Spring Altered Book

Another one illustrates the poem, Song of the Wandering Aengus by William B. Yeats. I have chosen to illustrate the last few lines of the poem:

..And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

The left side of the book features the moon, half the tree of silver apples and a woman. The right side features a man sitting in the sun below the half of the tree with gold apples.

Silver Apples of the Moon Golden Apples of the Sun

The poem is an old favourite of mine, first heard to music sung by Donovan in a youtube video with some lovely, loose illustrations.

The altered books are part of the Words Exhibition at Obsidian Gallery in Buckinghamshire. I also have Memory Tree Books, a little “Winged” canvas and some cards in the exhibition. The Wings canvas is similar to a commission, Stone Angel Wings, that I did last year (see photo below) It was originally based on an altered book I created some time ago.

Stone Angel Wings
Stone Angel Wings
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Spring Anthology

Writing is as much a part of me now as making visual art of some sort. They are two channels in the river bed of my life, sometimes intersecting, other times flowing in parallel, two parts of myself getting to know each other. Perhaps one day they’ll blend. Writing my journal is something I’ve always done – and treasured – I’m excited now that my other types of writing are becoming just as important.

As part of the prize for winning the Creative Future Literary Award for fiction last year, I’ve been having mentoring with Amy Liptrot whose memoir, The Outrun, has just come out. I’m reading her book at the moment, enjoying the beautiful, clear writing; the contrasting phases of her life, the interesting steps she takes in her recovery from alcohol and her accounts of living and visiting remote Orcadian islands. I find myself wanting to gaze at the sky, watch the sea – even get in! I need to find myself an island. It’s a recommended read :)

Spring Anthology

So far with the mentoring I’ve concentrated on creative non-fiction, “nature writing” mainly, which leads me on to Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, in which I have a piece of writing. I have only just opened the book and read a little of the introduction by Melissa Harrison:

It is a moment of quickening, of rebirth. the old, lovely story: life surging back, despite everything, once again. However spring finds you – birdsong, blossom or spawn – it is a signal: the earth turning its ancient face back to the sun.

Beautiful! – I’m already looking forward to reading the whole thing. The book comes out 18th February and is published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts.

In the book my piece is about seeing a stoat at Newtimber Hill on the South Downs. The Newtimber Estate is an SSSI. Newtimber Wood on the north side of the hill is one of my favourite local haunts and where I filmed part of Touching the Earth. It is also a bluebell wood. Here is a photo I took a few years ago in March.

Newtimber Wood crossing the bostal
Path in Newtimber Wood crossing the ‘bostal’.
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Fox

“It is the dark time of the year and there’s a fire aglow in the orchard; I hear fox.

As evening slides into night, I put on my coat and head out into the street. The night is sepia and a sleepy half-moon rests its belly upon the chimney pots of the houses opposite.”

So begins my piece, Fox, written for the Creative Future’s Literary Awards. I was so pleased, it won first prize for fiction, a Platinum award. At the Awards Ceremony and Showcase, in London a week or so ago, I received my award and read out my piece in front of an audience along with the eleven other finalists. Lemn Sissay introduced the evening and read along with Maggie Gee, both also contributed to an anthology of all the finalists’ work, titled Impossible Things.

Lemn Sissay and the Sign Reader
Lemn Sissay introducing the evening with a sign language interpreter.
Impossible Things Anthology
My piece of writing, Fox, in the anthology, Impossible Things.
Fox and Moon
The fox that inspired me.
Lemn Sissay and Alexi Francis
With Lemn Sissay at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony

Here is a video of me reading “Fox” at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony. I’m a bit serious!

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Forest Altered Books

As a child I loved pop-up books. A friend once sent me a pop-up postcard of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain featuring a thoughtful, solitary figure. It was a beautiful, inspiring card. I have mislaid my card but I found a photo of it on the web:

Alhambra Postcard
Postcard showing the Lindaraja Balcony within the Alhambra.

I am now altering books. I made my first altered book, angel wings a few years ago. Now I am working in pen and ink and with the forest as my inspiration, I’ve started with a square paperback book, a sort of thick pamphlet.

Book to be Altered
A book to be altered as an experiment.
Altered Book Half Finished
Forest altered book half-finished.
Altered Forest Book
Forest Altered Book
Detail in Altered Forest Book
A deer in the glade.

Altering a book is like creating a stage-set, a little window on to life or on to a dream. Life seems very much like that at the moment, I am in the wings, I have a secret view into a strange, alternative world that is sleeping or buzzing, busy with dreaming, busy with weaving dreams. (I am reminded of a lovely folktale from the Isle of Skye called The Dream Makers. It is about deer too. Sharon Blackie has written a lovely version of it on her blog here.)

I am fascinated by burrows, badger setts and secret havens. I like to find signs of the presense of animals – smeuses (gaps in vegetation made by the passage of animals), ‘couches’ of flattened grass where animals like badgers have lain while away from the sett; feeding signs. It is interesting to think that beneath my feet, along a woodland trail, might sleep a badger.

Badger Sett
One of the entrances to a badger sett in Newtimber Woods.

I bought a couple of the small Observer field guides secondhand. They’re not rare or valuable but I do like them and treasure copies I’ve had for decades. I thought that I’d work with an image that I’ve drawn recently, of a badger sleeping beneath tree roots which is inked in with a gold sky:

Slumbering Badger
Can you see the face amongst the roots?
Books to be Altered
Old Observer field guide books.
Badger Altered Book
The badger altered book underway.
Badger Altered Book
A badger sleeps beneath tree roots.

With another old book, I have created a forest scene, again with deer and a central tree with spreading branches and roots. I cannot decide whether to complete the picture behind the deer or leave the pages of text. I quite like seeing the writing, the essence of the book still evident.

Forest Deer Altered Book

Forest Deer Altered Book
Click on the image to see a larger version.

The book of the forest. I have other ideas for altered books – portraits, goddesses, icons – but I don’t think I have quite finished with forests, trees and deer yet.

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The White Hind in the Thicket

Deer. Signs of their presense, torn bark, a trail of hoof prints through the trees, a shed antler. Deer are elusive, highly tuned to the slightest sound or movement; a delight to come across.

Fallow Deer Antler

It is easy to understand how deer are often seen as magical creatures in myths and stories, connected with the spiritual, supernatural world. Often in these stories and myths they are white, a brilliant, glowing white. In Celtic mythology, they are seen as ‘fairy cattle’ that are milked by mystical women – sometimes banshees – who themselves shapeshift into deer. I am fascinated by shapeshifting in any form and by the crossing of the subtle veil between worlds.

I have been collaborating with the author and storyteller Roselle Angwin. Once I had written my book, The Memory Tree, Roselle proof-read it. She liked my artwork and suggested that we work on something together; I would illustrate one of her stories. As she lives close to Dartmoor, she chose an old Dartmoor tale that she first heard from Dartmoor storyteller, Mavis Hewitt. The story is about a man’s encounter with a magical deer. Stories with this theme occur all over Europe.

Here are some photos of our booklet fresh from the printer. It is available in my Folksy shop and in my shop on this website.

The White Hind Booklet

The White Hind Book Inside

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A Walk Between Heaven and Earth

A Walk Between Heaven and EarthI have just finished reading “A Walk Between Heaven and Earth” by Burghild Nina Holzer. It is a lovely book about how to write a creative journal, written in the way of a journal. Burghild’s writing shines in its simplicity and beauty. There are many passages I like, such as the quote on the back of the book:

Talking to paper is talking to the divine. Paper is infinitely patient. Each time you scratch on it, you trace part of yourself, and thus part of the world, and thus part of the grammar of the universe.

There are many passages I relate to. One in particular, about when the author spends time beside a river, reminds me of my time beside the River Bure. Here is an extract from page 107:

On the last day of my journey I sat by a river with long green hair. It was like the hair of some wild river woman, swirling at my feet, as if she wanted to caress me. And the river woman whispered to me, she said, “Put your feet in the water, put your hands in.” And as soon as I did I saw the fish….And the green hair caressed my feet, and I forgot about time. And when I finally turned to go, I saw that my backpack had fallen into the water, as if the wild woman wanted to claim it, as if she wanted to claim my journal and make the task of translation impossible…”

River Bure with Long Green Hair
River Bure with long green hair.
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The Memory Tree – Launched!

Finally I have finished The Memory Tree book it is in some shops already including my Folksy shop and my Reflections shop.

The Memory Tree Book

The Memory Tree Back Cover

Inside The Memory TreeInside The Memory Tree

I took a few books into a gallery the other day and the owner said he’d give one to his daughter who’ll be going off travelling to remind her of home. That’s a nice thought!

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