I mentioned in a previous post that I was painting a mural in the shed at the bottom of our garden. Kevin erected the shed in September last year with salvaged wood and an old shed/treehouse given by a friend.
This spring I set about painting a rainforest mural inside.
My rainforest is a dream forest based on a Central/South American rainforest as it features a jaguar, anteater, toucan, parrot, heliconia flowers and a hummingbird. It also features a Spirit Guardian, a blue woman emerging from the leaves, one of my blue women. I had intended to continue painting a rainforest scene fading into night, but when I found out we may need to move house, I decided to leave it as it is.
My neighbour downstairs said it reminded him of childhood hideaways. Child like or not, it became my little retreat for a while. It was like being in a birdhide listening to the robins that visited for food and fed from my palm, the tits and the resident blackbirds singing from an elder close by while squirrels busied themselves overhead, quite oblivious of me.
As I painted I couldn’t help but overhear my neighbours’ conversations and it was very pleasant hearing the woman next door singing a song that I recognised and later looked up; Erbarme Dich, mein Gott, JS Bach: St Matthew Passion.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”
When I went on holiday to Hvar back in September, I took few drawing materials with me, just a small sketchbook and my Art Pen. I made a few drawings and I’m wondering where they will take me:
i’m thinking of creating a new booklet/zine that includes some of these images and more to be drawn. I want to journey into a dreamscape of mythical figures – nymphs, women of the woods, mystical beings – as I have been inspired by goddess myths in the past. I have Ovid’s Metamorphosis to dip into and I’m curious about the Ancient Greek mystery cults like the Eleusinian Mysteries. I’m also interested in exploring folktales and stories once again, perhaps creating one of my own.
I have loved the work of the artist Flora McLachlan for quite a while, her etchings, collagraphs and, more recently, her paintings. Some of her work reminds me of one of my favourite artists, Samuel Palmer – there’s often a crescent moon or moonlit shadows. I like the darkness, the dream-like quality and looseness of her style. So much about her work evokes night in all it’s ambiguity.
In her more recent paintings, I like her figures in the landscape – she becomes the figures in her paintings – or rather, her figures become representations of herself; she embeds herself in the lush landscape of her home country, Wales. To use her words:
“From the time when the undergrowth reached over my head, I have been fascinated yet at home in this weedy, sappy place, this path-frill, this edge-land. Among the stems are striped snails and jewelled insects, sharp shadows and sharp, green smells. Now I am only waist-deep in this greenness, I am half human half wild, a weedy mermaid; it’s a place of transformation, shape-shifting and wild imagination. I can enter this magical world at will, loop myself with goosegrass and move empowered through the dew of every morning.”
Perhaps my figures in the landscape are versions of myself, i’m not sure. What I have done is try to lose myself in the leafy greenness of my home place through movement, to feel at one with it. I have gestured and dialogued with birdsong. Here is a short video I made back in April:
I wondered about how I might see myself in the landscape. Where do I feel most at home? In what landscape do I belong? In the woods? It is not here in the rigid walls of the city. Or is it? When I lean out with feelers to connect with nature I confront walls and pavements, tarmac and SUVs.
Some of the drawings I’ve made since returning from holiday include three pen and ink pictures, Night Vigil, Goddess of the Harvest and If You Are Lost. I might include one of them in my new nature/myth booklet, but in the meantime they’ve been sent off to Obsidian Art for their Once Upon a Time exhibition:
I have created a calendar of wildlife illustrations for 2023 called Into the Woods.
The calendar features 12 highly detailed, sepia, pen and ink wildlife illustrations for the months of 2023, with an additional one for January 2024. Accompanying each illustration is a grid for each month for notes along with the phases of the new and full moons, but no public holidays. It is sized A4, opening to A3 when it is hung on the wall, with a punched hole for hanging.
Included are pictures of badgers, nightjars, owls, deer, hares, otters, a kingfisher and a dipper, amongst other woodland animals. It is printed on high quality 200gsm paper and will be sent in a stiff, kraft envelope.
It sounds mad, but I have noticed that there two sides to me, to my mindbody. My right side takes me forwards – I think of interacting with people, going into town, projects I’m working on, making progress, goals and bracing myself against The World. My left side is wordless. It reaches out to the environment, to the natural world and my niche within it, to feel embedded and belonging. My left side shrinks back from the harshness of The World. It takes me into the forests and into the hills.
I was very aware of this division in myself while away on holiday. It felt much more comfortable to hold back. I looked up at the hillside above the little village of Vrisnik, where we were staying on the Croatian island of Hvar, and thought, I’d like to be up there, not on the beach or in the town with other tourists. I needed nature connection, so I was very pleased when we discovered hiking trails up into the hills – trails free of dogs. The hills were waiting for me, so I followed my left side.
We set off on a path bordered by dry stone walls patterned with lichens. It was very straightforward looking out for the red and white circles that were painted on the rocks at frequent intervals. With flashes of their mauve or red wings, grasshoppers sprang ahead of us, while the land crackled with cicada song and the scent of rosemary and lavendar infused the air. We caught the perfume of pine when we reached the trees, Aleppo pines, characteristic of Mediterranean woods or maquis.
The landscape was green despite it being a very dry, karst landscape of limestone and dolomite with no surface water. Rainwater seeps through cracks, scouring out hollows and caves underground. On Hvar there is only one surface pool and that is temporary. It’s where Neolithic finds have been discovered; early man needed a supply of fresh water. Later, when we went looking for the pool on the lowland plain, it was alive with darter dragonflies.
The path zigzagged up the hillside. We were walking upwards on the north side of a ridge that stretches along the length of the island. The shade was welcome as the temperatures were in the high 20s C. The going was fairly easy and the views were lovely; we looked down on two villages, Vrisnik and Svirce. The town of Jelsa was also visible in the east. Finally we approached a giant bare rock with a hooked nose like the profile of an old man. I’m sure the rock has been given many names, but, rather unimaginatively, I called it The Shape. Soon we emerged at the top of the ridge beside The Shape into the sunshine and a mass of buzzing pines.
It felt good to be up with just the sound of the breeze and the insects. We looked around for the next red and white circle to continue on the trail. Eventually we found it, but the route was no longer clear cut. It took some searching to find the next few markers as we made our way through trees and stony glades. Then they seemed to disappear altogether.
We doubled back a bit, looking at the trees and rocks for any signs of red paint. There seemed to be many path options through the rocks and scrub. Kevin had studied the paths on Open Street Map and tried to bring the web page up on his phone, but there was no signal. We wandered fruitlessly through a maze of pines and vegetation. The plants here are drought tolerant and tend to have spikes that scratched our legs as we waded through them. Still the grasshoppers zipped about. Kevin caught sight of a small snake disappearing into a hole. There were lizards too, small brown ones and a large one like a fluorescent green plastic toy. It hung about long enough for us to admire it. I kept seeing vivid green praying mantises on the path too. Each one kept still and turned its head to regard me defiantly. Such intelligent looking insects, it’s no wonder that they’re revered in certain cultures. The San people of the Kalahari believed that the praying mantis gave them fire and words. They see them as sort of Dream Bushmen.
Then a large bird with a black and white tail took off with a bounding flight into the trees ahead of us – a hoopoe! That was exciting! I thought how good it would be to find a hoopoe feather. Not long after the sighting that is exactly what I did.
The air fuzzed with a sound. We looked up and saw a flock of bee-eaters flying overhead.
Noticing and appreciating wildlife was one thing, but we were lost. From the map in his memory, Kevin knew that a track ran along the valley between the ridge and a second line of hills. It wasn’t our path, but it would go somewhere. We decided to look out for it and before long, we could see a rough, stony trail. We made our way towards it and continued walking west. We were lost, but not lost. We didn’t quite know where we were going.
it’s not easy getting lost these days. You can still get lost in mountains and on moors. It seemed odd to be lost here. We had no real idea how far we were from any village. It was becoming increasingly unrealistic for us to try to retrace our steps, so we kept on walking along the track.
I couldn’t help thinking about the well-known poem, Lost, by David Wagoner,
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you…
What would it be like to spend the night out here? I started thinking along those lines. I’ve often wanted to do a sort of vision quest and to spend the night out alone. It would probably be a bit chilly – I had no jacket with me. The moon was waxing so there would be light – and there would be a big, clear sky, much clearer than at home, with the Milky Way spilling over us from north to south. The scops owl we’d heard faintly on previous nights would call a little closer perhaps. There were snakes, ants and mosquitoes; it wouldn’t be a comfortable night. I was concerned, but not as worried as I thought I might be. My desire to connect to nature was strong. It felt natural to be drawn down to sleep on the earth among the vegetation, to lean into nature, to bed down into it. Some archaic part of me, my inner animal, was preparing me and it felt OK. It didn’t seem too great a step to feel at home out there among the thorny scrub, the rocks, the Aleppo pines. Perhaps it was helped by the warmth of the land. I had a welcome sense of belonging, my left side was content.
We continued walking west along the track. An empty building appeared on our right and, then, the track took us through lavendar fields.The lavendar had already been harvested, but its scent was still in the air. Hvar is well known for its lavendar. We kept on going wondering how many miles we’d have to walk before reaching a village or road. We knew we were still walking away from our village, it was hot and our water was getting low.
Eventually after a few miles we came to a crossroad of paths and a sign post. One direction pointed to the village of Svirce, not so far from ours. Now, at least we knew which way to walk, and the path we followed took us north once again, back over a pass in the ridge. Soon we could see Svirce in the distance.
It took us some time to walk back to base. Despite being lost on the ridge and the extra miles we had walked we were glad of the adventure. Being lost like that isn’t so bad. I spent the evening pondering what it would have been like to do a night vision quest up on the top. I guess it’s different when you are prepared for it. That’s something for the future perhaps. I thought of the face of The Shape keeping vigil, watching. My left side was still leaning, I now had more of the hills in me.
I have a fascination for caves, as you may have seen from previous posts. Royston Cave in Hertfordshire has been on my radar for years. This year we were in the area and booked a tour to see the cave for ourselves.
Royston is a pretty, unassuming town, but it has a Roman road running through it as well as part of the Ichnield Way, an ancient track that runs from Wiltshire to Norfolk. Royston Cave is under the ground in the chalk where the two roads meet.
On the tour we descended steps and then followed a moderately steep passageway extending underground beneath the main road. Soon we found ourselves in a round chamber lit by wall lights. I could see engravings all around the lower part of the cave – faces, figures, crosses, birdlike fish, horses. Apparently the carvings are thought to be of the 14th century – medieval – and may be associated with the Knights Templar. In the 17th century a ten year old boy was instructed to descend into the man-made cave to see if there was any treasure in it. On further investigation the carvings were found.
On the walls, there are many religious depictions and symbols, but also some pagan imagery such as a shela-mi-gig. This shows that the carvings were made when pagan beliefs had not yet been totally obscured by Christianity.
Our guide started explaining what she knew about the carvings, starting with a St Christopher figure carrying someone on his shoulder (see the photo below on the left). There are other saints depicted, including Saint Catherine, shown holding a wheel as she was sacrificed on a burning wheel. Today people light Catherine wheels on Guy Fawks night to remember her.
To the left of St Christopher is a rectangle representing the tomb where Christ was buried, along with a hand and a bird-fish, possibly symbolising the Holy Spirit or risen Christ. There is a sword and a shield, a horse and the holy family.
There are many other drawings of knights, angels, rows of sinners and a figure holding a candle that may represent the light of the new religion that will lead believers out of darkness. Low down and to the right of the passage entrance is a crescent moon.
It was the figure of St Christopher that made the most impression on me. He is the patron saint of travellers and is said to have carried a child over a river who turned out to be Christ. I kept in mind the image of a figure carrying a rucksack, journeying on foot over the hills and drew and collaged a picture of this figure I have titled The Journeyman.
My figure is walking through a dreamlike, fluid, but fragmented landscape with the chalk figure of The Long Man of Wilmington in the distance. I like the idea of a traveller wandering the land without any particular destination, stopping here and there to find work. The ground in the picture looks unstable, symbolic of the unsettling times we’re living in.
I didn’t know what a journeyman was until I looked it up. Apparently the word originates from the Middle Ages and refers to a worker, such as a craftsman, who has acquired skills as an apprentice, but who is not yet a Master. He would work for an employee, often for a day (‘journée’ means ‘day’ in French) and was also known to travel around the country working here and there. There was a strong journeyman tradition in Europe.
When I googled ‘journeyman woodcut images’ I was surprised at how similar my drawing was to one of them.
I then decided to create an altered book titled The Journeyman.
I had in mind a present day journeyman walking over the Umbrian hills in Italy. I’ve never been to that region of Italy, but I imagined dry, rocky paths, leathery-leaved oaks, ibex and lynx. In my book you can see the spire of a church in the distance, a village in the valley. I’ve featured a cave and remember that there is the unusual, underground, spritual community of Damanhur in Northern Italy.
The altered book has seven illustrated pages on the left of the central spread and six on the right. It will be for sale in my Etsy shop and Reflections website shop soon.
Back in 2016 I learnt about an intrigueing 17th century dress hauled up from a shipwreck off the coast of Holland. Apparently it belonged to the Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. It’s a romantic story that you can read about here. From then, I decided I’d like to do an art project centred around a dress, something that has been done many times before.
I forgot about the idea until it was rekindled by a visit to see the paper dresses of Stephanie Smart at both Danny House, ‘Maison de Papier‘, in 2017 and Firle Place, The Regency Wardrobe, last year. (Firle Place was where the film Emma was filmed.) Here is a photo of one of the dresses in Danny House:
You weren’t allowed to take photos of the dresses at Firle Place, but I managed to take a general scene. You can see photos from all exhibitions on Stephanie Smart’s website.
I like the idea of dresses and stories, dresses and words, sea mottled dresses, dresses underwater… the latter reminds me of the tragic drowning of Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, depicted in the sea by Chagall in the beautiful windows of Tudeley Church, which I have written about before.
I decided, as usual, to do an altered book. I reached out to the sea for inspiration, but nothing returned to me. I’ve been too embedded in the woods and forests, too much with trees, so trees had to be involved. I started the book last autumn, but it wasn’t going quite as I wanted it to. After much experimenting with folding paper to create a paper dress that could be folded into the altered book, I decided the result was a bit too similar to a gaudy Spanish souvenir doll in a flamenco dress :) I stuck with it though. I’ve used gold pen and gold paint on the papercut pages along with coloured inks. Here is To the Forest Ball altered book on a stand made out of a metal coathanger:
And here are a few of the inside pages with a lot of gold brambles and blue, dusky trees:
To the Forest Ball will be available in my Etsy shop and website shop soon.
I hesitated a lot while working on this book, feeling ambiguous about the dress. I don’t wear dresses myself, but over the years I’ve found myself illustrating women in long, old fashioned dresses.
I embarked on a picture that will be made into a card. I’ve called it Waiting for Rain because the woman is holding out her hand. I thought that I’d work on paper collaged with brown paper using pen and ink, gold paint and metallic inks. I also wanted to pattern the dress with a bramble design. The drawing is size A3. It shimmers in the light:
We managed to get away for a couple of nights to the Hampshire/Surrey border. There we discovered a church with some beautiful murals painted about 100 years ago. The artist was Kitty Milroy (1885 – 1966), a woman local to the Upper Hale, Farnham area. When we visited, a friendly woman was about to hold a mum’s and toddlers’ play group. She said she had been aware of the murals all her life, but it was only last year that they were restored to their present state.
The left hand side shows figures standing beneath apple trees. Each one has a symbolic name. From left to right there is Showers and Sun united by a rainbow, then Moon and Clouds. Each of the figures stands squarely and was based on a local person.
On the right hand side there are a further four figures; Waters, Summer, Winter and Winds. I like how, at the bottom of Winds, there are wood anenomes depicted, woodland flowers we are trying to grow in the garden. They’re flowering around now.
I like the pastel colours – especially the luminous, dusk blue of the sky and the glowing corn golds – and the delicate way the murals are painted. I also like how the figures are in natural surroundings. They remind me of the art of Watts Chapel (see Churches, Chapels and Frescoes) and were created around the same time, the time of the British Art Nouveau Movement.
Below the paintings of the figures are smaller paintings, quatrefoils (images shaped like a four-leafed clover) depicting some local and natural scenes – Crooksbury Hill, Crescent Moon, Stars of Heaven, Fire and Heat and others. I like the symbolism and the references to places local to the church.
The murals are inspiring. I have plans to paint the inside walls of our shed with a mural when it gets warm enough to sit outside. I can’t do as good a job as Kitty, but I can try. That will be a future post :)
I could tell you about how grim the start of my year was and how, after one thing and then another, I caught Covid and am now recovering. Covid wasn’t so bad, but…enough about that. I’ll tell you instead about the Nest Project that I’ve been working on.
It’s time for nests. I’ve been watching a blackbird looking for suitable nesting sites in the garden and I’ve seen a crow diligently prising off twigs from one of our elder bushes for a nest in a tall tree a few doors down. I love finding nests from previous seasons, their intricacy intrigues me.
I recently went to an exhibition called Undercurrents by Louise McCurdy and Steve Geliot. It was about the starlings on the Palace Pier and their murmurations. Here is a photo from the exhibition of a giant starling’s nest. I love the interwoven flowers.
Apparently flowers and bark have aromatic chemicals so if woven into a nest they can fumigate it and deter parasites.
I’ve got out of the library, Nests by Susan Ogilvy. The book is gorgeous with lovely pink/cream pages and her watercolour paintings are exquisite. Here is one of her wren’s nests made of fine twigs, grasses, moss, skeleton leaves, feathers and hair:
And here is a photo of a wren’s nest I found in the garden last year, deep in the ivy (photographed after the wrens had fledged and left). You can see that the materials are very similar:
Below is my feeble attempt at painting an old mud-lined song thrushes’ nest as a still life:
I’ve been working on my Altered Sketchbook and have added the next section, section 2, a nest in the undergrowth. I’ve based it on a willow warbler’s nest, which is typically domed and made close to the ground. I’ve made a short video showing the whole of the altered sketchbook so far, including the nest section:
Here are some images of the Nest section (click on the images to see larger versions):
I’ve started working on a Nest nature booklet/zine. So far I’ve drawn blackbirds at their nest in the undergrowth:
In Wolstonbury Woods, just outside Brighton, there’s a large circle of sticks in the shape of a beautiful, human-sized nest:
Who made the nest I had no idea, until I did a bit of research and discovered the website of artist Flick Ferdinando. You can see more photos of the nest and a film about it on her website.
I’ve collected together images of some of the nests I’ve found over the years – a lesser black-backed gulls’ nest; a dormouse’s summer nest; an unknown nest with woodpigeon and blackbird eggshells; a long-tailed tits’ nest; a blackbird’s nest(?) in a hornbeam; a wren’s nest. Each one has a story, told very briefly below each image.
Dusk, when the edges of all things blur. A time of mauve and moonlight, of shapeshiftings and stirrings, of magic…
I have a new concertina card, The Wood at Dusk. I wanted to create one that was also papercut, giving the card a window on to a layered wood at sunset.
Here it is:
On one side of the card there are badgers beneath the trees, through which one can see a deer against the sunset. On the other side there are deer, a fox, a flying tawny owl and a hedgehog.
I went into the woods yesterday evening just after sunset. The sky was pink blue blending to flame red. It was still and the air was a bit cold. I saw no deer or badgers, but the blackbirds, song thrushes and robins were singing, and the odd mistle thrush flew across the land as it descended into shadow. As I sauntered back, the moon, big, bright, white and full followed me through the trees – Wolf Moon, Old Moon, Ice Moon. I think I’ll call it Chalk Moon – it was so white – or Watching Moon, the first full moon of the year.
From my winter retreat I need to revisit the woods and, once again, feel a sense of belonging.