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The Sketchbook Project – Forest

Forest Sketchbook

Last year a friend told me about The Sketchbook Project. This is a crowdfunded art library in Brooklyn of sketchbooks created by people from around the world. I love looking at other peoples’ sketchbooks, although I find making them myself quite a challenge. However, I was very interested in getting involved and decided to set myself the challenge.

To take part I had to pay a fee and was sent a small 5″ x 7″ sketchbook in a little string and washer envelope. I could do whatever I liked with the sketchbook as long as it didn’t end up being thicker than an inch or have loose bits that would fall off. I like forests – it’s possibly quite obvious if you’ve seen a lot of my art on this site, (at one time it was rivers, which I still feel very drawn to), so I decided to title my book, Forest and see what I could come up with.

I have pretty much finished the book now, so yesterday I ventured out to take some photos of it beside one of those giant beeches in Dead Beech Lane:

I’ve used acrylic paints, scrim – basically mixed media – pen and ink, watercolour pencil and photos. The book is a mixture of different styles, images and writing more than sketches.

I like the poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner, so I wrote it out and incorporated a papercut overlay of pen and ink trees. I also wanted to include a fold-out page. I drew a forest scene based on the tropical forest I encountered at Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in Cambodia some years ago, with myself as a tiny figure. On the back I’ve added quotes from a piece of my creative writing about looking for slow lorises in the forest (you can read the piece, Night Eyes, over in my writing pages here).

I did cheat a bit and stick in little drawings I’ve done in the past. Sometimes the white page can be a bit threatening :)

I’ve included my piece of writing, If You Are Lost You May Be Taken, that I wrote about in a previous blog post and finished the book with a mixed media collage of a ‘seed woman’ in the leaflitter.

I need to register my book and then send it to the US. I’ve been told to wait a bit for the library to reopen after lockdown.

On the inside cover of the sketchbook, I attached a small black and white image of myself communing with a pine tree in a Sussex wood. I’d hestitate to pose in the same way again :) (I was inspired a few years ago by Nikki Simpson’s Wild Women of the Woods project. I’m not exactly wild, but, sometimes, I like to think of myself as ‘of the woods’ – or, in this case, ‘of the Forest‘ :)

Me in William's Wood

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A Night Walk on Wolstonbury Hill

Last December, before lockdown, Kevin and I went for a night walk up Wolstenbury Hill beneath a near full moon. The hill is one of my favourite local downland sites and I’ve mentioned it in a previous blog post. We have been on various night walks over the years, but this time I was inspired by the paintings of Samuel Palmer and wanted to see if I could get the same feeling beneath moonlight in a rural setting as I get from looking at his work. I also wanted to try to take a good photo.

My favourite work of his is Harvest Moon. I have a tatty postcard of it that I bought on a visit to the Tate Gallery years ago. You can read an interesting piece about Harvest Moon here:

Harvest Moon - Samuel Palmer
Harvest Moon – Samuel Palmer

Our walk began on the road to the north of the hill where we parked. There was no need for a torch except for the dimnest parts of the path where it was quite muddy. The moon was bright, almost full and beamed with it’s cool rays through the trees.

Wolstonbury Map
Wolstonbury Hill Map

The wood was silent, no bird sound or rustle, but we could hear the A23 to the east and once we were clear of the wood and ascending the hill, we could see the bright glittering streams of cars and the jewel-like clusters of Hassocks and Burgess Hill. The sky was the colour of burnished silver. A dark bird flew low and silent over the hillside.

Moon over Wolstonbury Hill
Moon over the Downs

We paused to take photos, balancing the camera on a stile post. Then we proceeded up the hill, our shadows leading the way – moonlight shadows. (I am reminded of the song by Mike Oldfield that I used to listen to on my Walkman while sitting in the willow tree of my childhood home at night surrounded by the nightlife of the city streets.)

Night Woods - Wolstonbury Hill
Night Woods – Wolstonbury Hill

The woods looked so quiet, still, self absorbed and eery. It felt as though we were being watched. Perhaps we were. I didn’t feel the tranquil, nostalgic feeling evoked by Samuel Palmer’s Harvest Moon. Instead I felt the night and moon as impersonal, the feeling reinforced by the sound of the main road. How the traffic encroaches!

On our visit to see the David Nash exhibition last year, we popped into the gallery library where there was a small display of photographs by Allan Grainger, Downland Gloaming. I was curious about whether I could also capture the downland at twilight. Allan Graigner has been inspired by Eric Ravillious and Edward Thomas, who both cherished the South Downs. His work is informed by “…the way the land holds a palimpsest of memory in the twilight, revealing itself and feeding the imagination”.

You can see his photographs on his website.

Later I discovered the image below, Paradiso Canto by Gustave Dore, an illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. It features the ‘highest heaven’ which “… appears in the form of an enormous rose, the petals of which house the souls of the faithful. Around the center, angels fly like bees carrying the nectar of divine love.”

Paradiso Canto by Gustave Dore
Paradiso Canto by Gustave Dore

Inspired by this image, I’ve created a large pen and ink illustration of the moon surrounded by a chaotic ring of animals, Moon Animalia:

Moon Animalia
Moon Animalia

I realise I’ve just missed posting this at May’s full Flower Moon.

I started this illustration last year and put it aside to do other things. It is drawn on four separate sheets of A3 paper – I chose to do this as I can only scan A3 and then only in two separate parts. Looking closely you may see a few mangled animals where I haven’t joined the sheets very well! I’ll endeavour to work on this at some point :)

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If You are Lost You May be Taken

The Angel Tree

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost…”
(from ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner)

On Sunday 17th May, I read my piece, If You are Lost You May be Taken, on RTE Radio One Extra, an Irish radio channel on their programme, Keywords. The keyword theme of the programme was ‘By Nature’. Here is a link to the programme. You can listen to it below; my piece comes about 7 minutes in.

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Unsettling Times – Visiting the Old Ones

My unease has been growing steadily over the past six months. I’ve felt inclined to withdraw, retreat without really knowing why, other than being aware of a strange feeling of foreboding, of something bad on the horizon.

First it was the terrible fires in Australia. I despaired at what was and is happening to the planet. Then came the floods, the now usual floods upending people’s lives. Then came the locust swarms in East Africa. Now it is coronavirus. These are unsettling times for everyone.

Anxiety2

One night recently I sat up in bed feeling a rising panic. I could see nothing in the future, but a dark mist over everything. It was as though a meteriote had struck the earth and we were now reeling in one long eternal night. It was frightening. It is frightening. Then an image of the earth appeared in my mind, the wonderful, luminous blue planet rolling in the dark void of space. The earth was not alone, it rolled with other planets, star clusters, galaxies. Earth has seen so many disasters and catastrophes throughout it’s long existence, it just keeps rolling. Life retreats and dies out, but it always returns. In the dark void of space in my mind the earth is so old. It is so silent up there and peaceful. I find it quite calming to think of these crisis situations from this perspective. The silence, so nourishing. Is this like the Buddhist’s silence and emptiness?

Spring time is a time to be joyous. Still, now I often wake up feeling a bit depressed, a deep worry inside that contrasts with the brightness of sunshine and birdsong. It is a grief that I feel and what a lot of people are feeling right now.

The value and beauty of silence has stayed with me. The day following my panic attack I set out on a walk heading north to the edge of the city. I pass a tree in blossom. It hums a song of nectar and pollen, of honey; the bees are busy. Further on. I reach Old Boat Corner, the boundary of Stanmer Great Wood where a fringe of elephantine beeches mark what I like to think of as the frontier, the edge of the countryside. Entering through the trees the din of traffic grows quieter the further into the wood I wander. I know I won’t find silence, but I do find the trees full of birdsong. I realise now how much I need both birdsong and trees. I need trees right now, the tall, majestic beeches, the gnarly oaks, the green, algal, mossy ones.

There is no panic here. The word ‘panic’ has its root in the Ancient Greek god, Pan, whose wild cries caused fear in the woodland.

I walk through a strip of woodland I’ve walked a few times before. On the map it links Upper Lodge Wood with Flint Heap. When Kevin came with me recently he named it Dead Beech Lane because it is a-jumble with dead and fallen beeches – great for fungi in the autumn. I have made a little map of this area, which has become my sanctuary, my haven to retreat to.

Map of Dead Beech Lane Area
Map of Dead Beech Lane area – click to enlarge.
Dead Beech lane
Dead Beech Lane
Big beech in Dead Beech Lane
Big beech in Dead Beech Lane

Some of the beeches must be at least two or three hundred years old.

Big beech in Dead Beech Lane
Big beech in Dead Beech Lane

There is also a beech stump where I once wrote my diary:

Diary writing spot
Diary writing spot in Dead Beech Lane.
Dead Beech Lane fungi
Dead Beech Lane fungi

There is an interesting ruined farmstead in the area, Piddingworth Farm, that was abandoned in the early 1900s:

Piddingworth Farmstead
Piddingworth Farmstead

Sitting adjacent to the wood, I hear a green woodpecker call, then see a buzzard circling over a distant field. A flurry of gulls follows a tractor. Blue tits and great tits chatter in the hedgerow followed by jackdaws in the nearest beech tree branches. The drumming of a great spotted woodpecker echoes between the trees while a peacock butterfly follows me as I amble along the field-wood boundary.

Days pass and restrictions intensify. My unease is squeezed into a small space, home. I want to make this walk out of the city a regular thing, if it is still permitted. I consider it a sort of pilgrimage to visit the beeches. I want to sit with them. I want the land to dream me, to hold me. I feel grateful that I can walk out of my house and reach this patch of land that I could almost call home.

If I continue further into the woods and fields, I come to Green Broom, then Highpark Wood. The latter is a bluebell wood and currently has a verdant, leafy carpet soon to blossom to mauve. It is a popular spot with families and cyclists. Before they brought in even tighter restrictions, it seemed as though everyone was fleeing to these woods like myself.

Now more confined to home, I put my worry into words and images in my diary. I call these worry drawings. I’m not very imaginative with the images; anxiety constricts my imagination. I just let them come. Here are a few pages of worry drawings:

The coronavirus affects the lungs. Looking deep inside we see the landscape of our own hills, fields, rivers and trees. I must let the trees and land breathe me.

Wishing everybody well.

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Ethereal Images: a New Book Cover

Back in December last year, I was sketching a drawing of Jesus while listening to Jocelyn Pook’s film music until I could take no more, my pen or pencil sometimes scratching in time to her unusual phrases. (One score was based on Romanian priests singing an Orthodox Liturgy and then played backwards!)

Dancer in the Grotto
Dancer in the Grotto

My sketches were for the cover of a new book by author Caroline Greville, who wrote Badger Clan, a book I designed the cover for. I was given a few guidelines in the brief – joy and celebration; perhaps Jesus talking to a group of people as a shadowy figure. Caroline liked my Dancer in the Grotto card, so I had an image to start from.

She also mentioned that she liked the images of the Turin Shroud. I like them too. I like the serene face with closed eyes, the light shining above the head imprint and the ethereal quality of the images. I also like the story and controversy behind the shroud.

Turin Shroud
Turin Shroud – taken from Wikipedia.

I chose to use another grotto photo that was taken in the shell grotto in Margate a few years ago. The date of the grotto is uncertain, but there was a fad for creating shell grottos in the 18th century so it might date from then. The photos, enhanced in photoshop, have a haunting beauty with my drawings super-imposed.

Here is my final cover design with the title text:

Gospel Voices

The book is “a collection of short stories told from the viewpoints of characters found in the gospel narratives.” It is out today and can be bought from Faithbuilders, Waterstones or The Book Depository.

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The Ivy Sanctuary

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I was creating three altered books for the exhibition, Bugs: Beauty and Danger. I wanted the third altered book to be a close up of an ivy-covered tree with moths, bees, wasps and other wildlife. I often draw ivy around trees as it’s ubiquitous in the woods and parks. I thought I’d start looking at it a bit more closely.

Ivy on a tree trunk
Ivy on a tree trunk in Withdean Woods. There is a melody to its twists, turns and tangles.

There is something dark about ivy and not just because it has dark, green leaves. It actively seeks out shade. It conceals secrets, covers long forgotten tombs, reclaims ruins silently.

Woods Mill Knight Ruin
The green knight slumbering in the woods at Woods Mill nature reserve.

Dark places like woodland floors and the feet of trees, crumbling walls and the damp Victorian corners of cottage gardens are its abode. There is something ancient about ivy, it carries a message from the past. It creeps over everything. I think of the cloven-hoofed god Pan. I think of ivy wreaths. I think of death and churchyards, tombs and the hands of ivy linking lovers beyond the grave.

The Ivy Sanctuary
The Ivy Sanctuary.

The Ancient Greek goddess of youth, Hebe, was associated with ivy, serving nectar and ambrosia to the Olympian gods and goddesses. There was even a secret festival called Kissotomoi or Ivycutters in the ancient Greek city of Philos. Ivy represented the grapevine and was a symbol of Dionysus, god of wine, festivity, wild pleasure and vegetation.

Hebe in the ivy leaves
Hebe in the ivy leaves

Ivy has long been a symbol of fidelity and marriage and was made into a wreath and given to newly wedded couples. The Ancient Celts made evergreen plants symbols of hope, rebirth, protection and good fortune and brought them into houses around the winter solstice. Ivy was adopted by early Christians along with holly as symbols of prosperity and charity. Both feature in Christmas carols, ivy representing the female aspect, holly the male.

English ivy, Hedera helix, has two stages with different leaf shapes. The vegetative stage has large, lobed leaves and is found in all sorts of places, climbing up trees and buildings. It is negatively phototrophic, which means it is drawn to shade because this often means there is a structure that it can climb. The reproductive stage of the plant has oval, pointed leaves. From this part of the plant come clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that attract insects including the Pink-barred Sallow, Angle Shades, Green-brindled Crescent, Yellow-line Quaker and Lunar Underwing. Beautiful names, beautiful moths. There is also a mining bee associated with ivy, the Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae. The flowers are followed by blue-black berries enjoyed by blackbirds, thrushes, jays and other birds.

Apparently, hederagenin, a substance found in ivy leaves, has been shown to kill various tumour cells.

I went on a short walk from my house picking ivy leaves wherever I came across them. There seem to be quite a diverse range of leaf shapes:

Ivy leaves

In my altered book I have included moths, bees, wasps , a bees nest, a speckled wood butterfly and a treecreeper. I love treescreepers, they often join mixed tit flocks at this time of year. They feed on small insects and forage in the bark of trees. I was fascinated to learn on Winterwatch recently that treecreepers roost in bark crevices if there is a tree with suitably soft bark.

Here is my Ivy Tree altered book ready to be sent to Groundwork Gallery for the exhibition:

The Ivy Altered Book
The Ivy Altered Book

One can use ivy in basketry work. Anyone in the Lewes area wishing to make ivy woven bags – check out Native Hands workshop in November.

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Storm Drawings

I disovered an artist today whose drawings captivated me as soon as I saw them. Paul Bloomer works in charcoal and paint and he also makes etchings and takes photographs. It was his charcoal drawings of birds and skies that prompted me to get out my pen (I’ve mislaid my charcoal) and undertake some free, scratchy drawings.It felt liberating after so much detailed illustration.

Looking at Paul Bloomer’s artwork, I wondered whether the environment where artists live infiltrates their work. Paul lives on Shetland, a wild corner of the British Isles, no wonder his art is beautifully ‘wild’. Brighton doesn’t inspire me at all, so what hope have I? Then I thought of the weather – its wildness affects us all. The persistant storms have moved me so I decided to try and capture a bit of this wildness – the swaying trees, the birds flung across the sky like scraps of fabric, the constant movement. I wanted drawings with movement. Below are my sketches – all from some wild corner of my mind:

Storm1
Storm 1 – pen and ink.
Storm 2
Storm 2 – pen and ink.
Storm 3
Storm 3 – pen and ink.
Storm 4
Storm 4 – pen and ink.

Check out this beautifully written article about Paul Bloomer by Malachy Tallack on the Caught by the River website.

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Insect Altered Books – Bugs: Beauty and Danger Exhibition

At the end of last year, I was invited to create some altered books for an exhibition at Groundwork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. The exhibition is called, Bugs: Beauty and danger and features some international artists including Nicola Bealing, Arno van Berge Henegouwen, Jeroen Eisinga and Sarah Gillespie. The exhibition “celebrates the beauty and power of insects at a time of increasing threat to many common species…”

Indeed, insects are declining at an alarming rate, especially bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies (see this article).

I have become increasingy interested in insects since I saw so many in France a couple of years ago. But, I was interested in them before that, especially butterflies, having done surveys at Castle Hill Nature Reserve and other places over the years. I have also liked seeing insects in the art of artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri.

Closer to Wildness book Irene Olivieri Hardwicke
‘When you choose one you are letting all the rest go by’ – Painting showing insects from Closer to Wildness book by Irene Olivieri Hardwicke

My small contribution to the exhibition is three altered books – Insect Meadow, The Butterfly Tree and one featuring a tree covered in ivy and the insects and other wildlife associated with ivy.

Here is Insect Meadow:

Insect Meadow Altered Book
Insect Meadow Altered Book

I decided to work in colour for the next couple of books because I think it’s more effective. For The Butterfly Tree I was inspired by Monarch butterflies. Some species of Monarch migrate between North America and Central Mexico, where they overwinter. Trees and vegetation become completely covered with orange wings – it’s a sight I would love to see. However, the bioreserve where they overwinter is under threat from illegal logging and the deterioration of the habitat. Recently two reserve workers were murdered for reasons that remain a mystery and there is fear in the region, both for the people and the fate of the butterfly. (See this interesting article.)

I decided to create this altered book a little differently from my others, by leaving the underlying pages as pages of text. I’ve also added butterfly wings that reach beyond the edges of the book, giving the impression that they’re bursting out:

The Butterfly Tree Altered Book
The Butterfly Tree Altered Book

I’ll write about the third altered book in my next blog post.

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The Box of Delights Altered Book

In my last post I mentioned I was working on an altered book commission based on the children’s book, The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I used to have the book as a child, I remember the paperback cover, but I don’t remember reading it.

The Box of Delights Altered Book
The Box of Delights Altered Book

I was asked whether I’d create an altered book based on a particular section of the story, when Kay, the boy character, discovers a box and opens it to reveal a magical woodland scene that he is then invited to enter:

..He pressed the tiny, golden rosebud and, at once, from within the box, there came a tiny crying of birds. As he listened he heard the stockdove brooding, the cuckoo tolling, blackbirds, thrushes, the nightingale singing. Then a far-away cock crowed thrice and the Box slowly opened. Inside he saw what he took to be a book, the leaves of which were all chased and worked with multitudinous figures, and the effect that it gave him was that of staring into an opening in a wood. It was lit from within and multitudinous, tiny things were shifting there. Then he saw that the things which were falling were the petals of may-blossom from giant hawthorn trees covered with flowers…..All the forest was full of life: all the birds were singing, insects were humming, dragonflies darting, butterflies wavering and settling… ‘It’s all alive and it’s full of summer. ..’

It’s a lovely passage. I hope I’ve captured the wildlife teeming in the wood and the characters, Kay and Herne the Hunter along with wolves, ducks, foxes and more.

Here is a video of me looking through the book to give a sense of the pages, although it is over-exposed in the winter sunshine:

Here are photos of some inside pages of the book:

I can dream of Spring and early summer as they’re sure to come. Already I notice the blackbirds and great tits busying themselves in the hedgerows, woods and gardens.

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The Enchanted Forest Altered Book

I’ve just completed The Enchanted Forest altered book. It was snapped up as soon as I had finished it and it now has a new home.

The Enchanted Forest Altered Book

I’ll soon be starting on a new commission, illustrating a scene from the children’s book, The Box of Delights. I’m looking forward to it!

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