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Kingley Vale – Old Trees and Altered Books

Beneath the Old Tree Altered Book
Beneath the Old Tree Altered Book. (For sale.)

What comes first the tree or the book? The tree of course – there would be no books without trees. However, having just finished an altered book, Beneath the Old Tree, I was inspired to find a really large, old, real tree. So, I decided to pay another visit to Kingley Vale, just north-west of Chichester in West Sussex, which has an ancient yew forest. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Each time I go there, I’m in awe of this wondrous, magical place.

In the forest it was hushed beneath the elephantine old yews. There were other people about – families – but their voices were muffled. Quiet and peaceful, the air was still, the forest floor was dappled by sunlight that streamed through the tangled spiralling branches.

Yew at Kingley Vale

Within this sanctuary are trees with enormous muscular girths and heavy limbs as smooth and hard as ivory; tusks descending to and disappearing into the dusty earth only to re-emerge nearby as offspring trees, creating a shambling, rhythmical cascade away from the main trunk. Each ancient yew stands within a fortress of these spidery, fluid limbs, each a powerful presence, deep, self-contained and stoic with a desire to reach out and touch the earth.

Yew at Kingley Vale

A bullfinch sounded in a hawthorn on the periphery of the grove, its sad note sung as though the bird was lost on the other side.

Yew at Kingley Vale

Some trees bear bark that is dry and peeling, others raw but smooth. As I ducked beneath each weighty limb, I felt the underside, polished by countless hands, rubbed to a shine by shoulders of both humans and deer.

Yew at Kingley Vale

Sitting within the hook of a limb, I felt safe and secure – anyone needing comfort should seek out a low tree to sit in.

Yew at Kingley Vale

Trunks fold into fissures and hollows, bulge with muscular growths. Some trees are whiskered by fresh, verdant shoots, others have openings like doorways or mouths frozen in silent song.

Kingley Vale yew tree

We came across a tree with its sides split, perhaps by lighning. Inside, the heartwood was deep arterial red. I picked up a square shard from the earth, a piece of the yew’s heart, to take home. Most of the trees bear wounds.

Some branches are algal green, elsewhere purplish pink, like the irridescent tip of a pheasant’s feather.

Close up of yew - Kingley Vale

Little grows beneath a yew. They are both warm and inviting and brittle and repelling. A friend believes that here the yews talk to each other. She may be right.

Yew at Kingley Vale

After our amble in the groves, we emerged onto downland covered with chalkland flowers. Bees and butterflies busied around marjoram, birds foot trefoil and thyme-covered anthills in the bright sunshine. A roe deer leapt across the grassland and disappeared into the wooded hillside. Overhead a kite wheelled, it’s wings showing the gaps of its summer moult.

On returning home I wanted to create something in response to being in this forest. I decided to work in a looser, more carefree style and try out media I don’t usually use – chalk pastels and smudged penwork.

Pastel Forest
Pastel Forest – rough sketch with chalk pastels.

Below are some sketchbook drawings inspired by yews:

Pen and Wash Trees
Pen and Wash Trees in my sketchbook.
Ghost Trees in the Landscape
Ghost Trees in the Landscape – dusk, when the light is muted and trees become shimmering forms.

Perhaps it was fortunate that I missed the Hayward gallery exhibition Among the Trees because of the virus. I took this as an invitation to spend more time with real trees.

Among the Trees
Among the Trees

Back to my altered book. It’s of an old tree with a mass of roots within which hide a badger family. On deeper pages there is a squrrel, a fox and deer.

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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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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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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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Another Harry Potter Altered Book

It’s autumn and my work desk has been busy – well, I have, sort of.

My desk

Among the feathers, nests and skulls I’ve found this year, I’ve been working on a new altered book, another Harry Potter commission. Knowing little about Harry Potter – OK I’ve seen a couple of HP films on long haul flights – it has been a challenge for me. However, I know there’s magic in the books and I like that.

Here is my finished Harry Potter book, featuring some of the characters along with Hogwarts School in the background:

Harry Potter altered book
Harry Potter altered book.

Recently I sat with a friend telling her I was working on a Harry Potter altered book. She sighed and said how she would have liked to have read Harry Potter to her children as the books are full of magic and fantasy. When we were young there were the C.S.Lewis books and books like Lord of the Rings. I also remember Anne of Green Gables, The Little Prince, Tom’s Midnight Garden. There was a little bit of magic in them and we all need an element of mystery and the unreal in our lives sometimes.

There’s much said now about how we need stories and storytelling has made a resurgance in some quarters. As autumn progresses and the darkness descends layer upon layer, I find myself wanting to withdraw and bring in more of the imaginary into my life. More stories, myths, metaphors, images. That’s the thing about darkness, it brings out the imagination.

Sunset from my living-room window.
Sunset from my living-room window.

Below is a picture I did some time ago. I’ve included it to remind myself to welcome in the imagination, something I’ve missed of late.

The Encroaching Night
The Encroaching Night
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Wild Garden Altered Book

Preston Manor garden
Preston Manor garden.

I’m not alone in loving a wild, secret garden. Tangled ivy, vines, roses, brambles and signs of faded grandeur- all of these I’ve tried to feature in my new altered book, Wild Garden

For me gardens are places to contemplate, reflect, lose myself in layers and textures of shrubs and flowers, layers of time. They are special places to retreat to and hide in. Yes, hide, they are meant to be hidden in – and meant for memories. They are places where time stands still. I think I need quite a lot of still time. But,

“Nothing stands still, except in our memory.”
Philippa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden

The house where I grew up had a garden with a willow tree. I used to climb into the willow tree and sit up there at night. We were in the centre of town, but I had the sky and imagined myself elsewhere, somewhere wilder and more interesting.

I’ve been working on my Wild Garden altered book for the Open House exhibition that I’m involved with in May (more about that soon). I’ve put a lot of hours into the book and lost myself in the detail. Perhaps it has a little too much detail :)

Wild Garden Altered Book
Wild Garden Altered Book

I wanted to add a door that can be opened – to the next layer. A door, symbol of transition from one world to another…

Detail from Wild Garden Altered Book
Detail from Wild Garden Altered Book
Wild Garden Altered Book
Wild Garden altered book.

I didn’t find this altered book as easy as some of my others. This may be because I’m more happy with wild natural themes – forests – as opposed to enclosed spaces. That’s why I wanted to draw a slightly wild, neglected garden – the sort of garden where foxes hang out and a few brambles overun shady corners.

I visited a few gardens for inspiration such as the walled garden of Preston Manor just down the road from me. It’s a 17th century, flint walled garden. At this time of year the magnolia tree is in full bloom. Preston Manor is supposed to be haunted by a certain White Lady. I wonder if she haunts the garden?

Preston Manor garden is lovely and an oasis of peace in the busy city, but I wanted a garden with statues or sculptures, so I chose to visit Charleston House gardens in East Sussex that’s a moderate drive away.

It has one or two interesting sculptures and statues including one beside a pond, a Levitating Woman, known as The Dreamer:

Levatating Lady by Quentin Bell
Levatating Lady by Quentin Bell in Charleston garden.

and a classical statue of a woman emerging from shrubs:

Charleston garden with statue
Charleston garden with statue.

With gardens in mind, I can’t help but think of the book, Tom’s Midnight Garden, that I read as a child. It’s a mystical, ghostly, beautiful book in which time warps and a garden from the past becomes manifest. The garden may be the projected memory of an old lady, who lives upstairs in the old house, but we can only surmise. I’ve made a quick illustration for the story, but I don’t really think I’ve done it justice:

Tom's Midnight Garden
Tom’s Midnight Garden
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In Virtual Forests

I have recently learnt, via an email from Sussex University, about a virtual reality project called Tree VR that enables people to “become a tree”. Intrigued I looked up the project and found the Tree VR website and a couple of videos.

Basically, Tree is a multi-sensory exhibition in which participants can experience the life of a rainforest kapok tree from it’s time as a seed to it’s growth as an adult tree. As part of Tree participants are exposed to various sensory inputs to enhance the illusion of being in a rainforest – sounds, scents and breezes. Tree was shown at the Davos conference in Switzerland.

Here is a little video of the first part, Tree VR – Seedling:

There is another video with more about the installation.

After experiencing Tree, participants are encouraged to support the Rainforest Alliance,

“an international non-profit organization working to build strong forests, healthy agricultural landscapes, and thriving communities through creative, pragmatic collaboration”.

Rainforests and forests in general are so important for the health of the earth. Sadly, they are still being cut down at an alarming rate. Scientists have found that they are vital for carbon-capture and the best thing to offset the effects of climate change. More trees in the ground!

I really wanted to experience Tree VR so was pleased to find a website where you can download it. All I needed was somewhere with the right VR equipment to “play” it.

Luckily Kevin, my partner, has a friend, Andy Baker, who is well into VR. So we went to his house and tried it out. Tree was my first VR experience.

Experiencing Tree VR
Experiencing Tree VR

It was all a bit mind-blowing, not real but surreal. It was an excursion into an alternative world, an interior world like that of dreams and the forests of one’s imagination. I was amazed at the very real sense of space and depth all around me. As a seed I climbed through metres of soil. On the level of a giant mushroom and leafcutter ants I broke through the leaflitter and ascended higher and higher. Macaws, morphos and bats flew all around. At first my arms were leafy blades but soon they became proper branches with bark and leaves and hung with lianas. My body became the tree’s trunk. Looking down I felt a touch of vertigo. Night came along with a huge moon, stars and birds flying home against the darkened sky.

I won’t say how Tree ends as that would spoil it for anyone who gets the chance to have a go.

In the rainforest mood, I thought I’d make another rainforest altered book – another forest of my imagination – but this time in colour. Based on a Central/South American rainforest, it features a kapok/ceiba tree along with a tapir, agoutis and scarlet macaws.

Rainforest Altered Book
Rainforest altered book in colour.
Rainforest altered book detail
Among the trees in my Rainforest altered book with the tapir and a scarlet macaw.
Rainforest altered book detail
Lianas, cecropia trees and palms among the rainforest trees of my Rainforest altered book.

I plan to display this altered book at an open house I’m particupating in during Brighton Festival in May. I think I’d like to donate some of the sale price to the Rainforest Alliance or another rainforest charity. I’ll write more about the open house nearer the time.

I went a step further and decided to grow a kapok/ceiba tree. I bought a few seeds and have just sown them in a tray after soaking them in tepid water for 24 hours. Somehow I need to create an acidic rainforest environment and try and keep the seeds warm – they need an optimum temperature of 25C. With this warm, Anthropocene February we’re having, under plastic on the window sill might do fine.

Kapok seeds planted.
Ceiba pentandra seeds sown.
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Journey Through the Forest Altered Book

I’ve just completed my Journey Through the Forest altered book. I’ve made two or three versions of this before, but this latest version has the most layers. It features a girl, a deer, a fox, a badger and trees. Here are photos of some of the pages:

Journey Through the Forest Altered Book
Journey Through the Forest Altered Book
Journey Through the Forest Altered Book
Journey Through the Forest Altered Book – fox page. I think I am becoming more influenced by Millefleur tapestries.
Journey Through the Forest Altered Book
Journey Through the Forest Altered Book – girl.

I’ve written a vignette of a story to accompany the book:

Above, a shimmering bowl of stars. Orion, looks on, while Sirius, the dog star, points the way. On this night of the full moon she is taking a journey, one soft footfall after another, the deer a few steps behind. The silvered path is cast with eerie shadow. She knows the trail, or thinks she does. An owl, silent on a perch in an old oak, watches. The forest darkness closes in.

I follow the dog star, she says, That must be the way.

The only way to the oaks her people planted.

Soon all the trees look the same and the path petters out.

Listen, say the trees in their secret, silent way. Listen.

So she stands still among root and fern, briar and dog violet on the softly trodden leaflitter. She turns towards the moon, a distant, knowing face in the blackness.

That’s it, she murmurs, I can hear.

The subtle moan of the boughs, the whisperings of the land all around her. She is not alone, no, she is no longer alone. The land, the trees, the sky, the moon are with her. She can find her way, with the deer a few steps behind.

Journeys through lands and forests serve as metaphors. I even include them in my little story The Memory Tree. There are journeys into the psyche and physical outward journeys. Sometimes a map composed of symbols is needed. I think like this when I am vaguely looking for something, something I may have lost, perhaps a part of myself I have lost. Who knows… Now I am wondering how I can create some sort of animation of the journey part of The Memory Tree story, something magical. Hopefully I’ll post more about this soon.

I am reminded of a small ‘magical’ exhibition I went to at Hove Museum in December, called Magical Wonderland. It was a collection of paper and card sculptures of traditional stories and fairy tales called The Story Cabinet and created by a group of artists called Fabula.

Story Cabinet Tree
Story Cabinet cardboard tree.
Story Cabinet - Boots
Story Cabinet – cardboard boots.
Story Cabinet
Story Cabinet
Story Cabinet - writing
Story Cabinet – writing

I like their miniature worlds within worlds within chests of drawers, wooden cabinets and suitcases. I like the use of cardboard and everyday materials, the use of words woven into the sculptures and the cardboard tree – The Wishing Tree – in particular. Better photos are on The Story Cabinet website.

During my visit to the museum I got talking to the curator. She said that she likes to display artwork that shows that it is made of everyday materials to inspire visitors to be creative. I’m looking forward to seeing what Fabula comes up with next and perhaps trying my hand at altered books that are more sculptural.

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