“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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:
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.
I am drawn to wings, birds, flight in nature, myth and art. I’ve featured wings in various art projects – my Stone Angel Wings Altered Book, my Wings canvas and illustrations of angels. So I was interested when I saw a flyer for an exhibition, Singing Sirens by Paulien Gluckman at the Sussex County Arts Club in Brighton. (I’m into rock again, but this time sculpted rock.)
I don’t know much about Sirens other than they were mythical beings associated with water who sing to sailors and lure them to their doom. Apparently Sirens feature in The Odyssey when Odysseus has himself tied to the mask of his ship and orders his sailors to plug their ears so that only he can hear the sirens’ song but be unable to swim to them. Sirens are part bird and part human and are associated with the sea. Perhaps it is the morphing of humans and animals that particularly appeals to me right now.
(Some years ago I did a painting I called Siren of a figure beneath the sea in the blue depths. It’s not winged though!)
The Singing Sirens exhibition is in a small, fascinating studio with drawings of angelic winged beings, sculptures of birds, nymphs and winged maidens all around. Paulien invites visitors to feel and hold her sculptures – there’s something very tactile about them.
I asked Paulien what had inspired her to explore the winged creatures and figures she creates. She said that reading The Odyssey made an impression on her and one day her cat brought in a bird’s wing that she thought was too beautiful to throw away immediately so she made some sketches of it and became fascinated by wings.
There’s some lovely sculptures and drawings here and a few wonderful sketchbooks. The exhibition is on until 6th November.
Winged figures and heads in stone and marble remind me of Emily Young‘s heads I saw at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last year. The serene faces with Roman noses and closed eyes are very meditative.
“These angels, warriors and poets who people the stone, are born of sunny, windy hill tops, and the dark light of caves; a kind of ecstasy, a stillness, a remembered energy from childhood, from dreams of fish memory, from dreams of flying and the silence of stone…” From Emily Young’s website.
There is a new, temporary, sculpture in the park near me, a gateway or screen, a memorial to the Elm tree. It stands beside the two of the oldest elms on Earth, the Preston Twins of Preston Park, Brighton.
The sculpture is carved from elms felled in the River Cuckmere valley last year due to Dutch Elm Disease. Elm trees around the country were wiped out in their millions from the 1970s by the disease. In Brighton effective control measures were introduced, so it is the last stronghold in Britain for mature English elms. There is still a wonderful variety of elm trees here, originally planted by the Victorians and Edwardians.
On the front are flying birds – rooks – a copse of Winter elms and a sun. Along the bottom are the words:
“Ad gigantes augustos olim per terram nostrum pervagatos, nunc defectos” which means “A memorial to the lost, majestic giants once spreading through our land.”
On the other side are swirlly clouds like waves and the hopeful words:
“The last bastion, shielded so future generations may still know of them.”
The Elm tree had its own nymph in Greek mythology. She was one of eight tree spirits or Hamadryads and her name was Ptelea. Elm trees feature in ancient literature including the Iliad and the Aeneid, where in the Underworld there is found the Stygian Elm of the River Styx or Elm of Dreams:
Spreads in the midst her boughs and agéd arms
an elm, huge, shadowy, where vain dreams, ’tis said,
are wont to roost them, under every leaf close-clinging.
Hummingbird has entered my life. I’m not quite sure what I think of Spirit Animals, Animal Totems, Western Shamanism, I try and keep an open mind about it all and find myself drawn to it sometimes.
I’m always interested in animals and wildlife, although this rarely creeps into this blog. A jackdaw has taken to frequenting the scaffolding outside my bedroom window; we were curious about each other. Sometimes it feels as though nature/wildlife has a message and that I should listen. I’ve found myself collecting feathers from woodland paths and even the street. Recently I found a buzzard feather and now I actively search for them – owl, jay, woodpecker – any feather of any bird. Summer may be the best time to find feathers when birds are moulting, but now is OK as well. Feathers give me a tangible link to the natural world; I even had a dream about one. I’m being drawn to birds, to the sky, to flight and freedom.
So often I’ve thought (symbolically) that my “wings” are torn and broken and however much I wish to “take off”, I can’t. It is a sort of freedom I seek, but something has always held me back or down.
My first experience of hummingbirds was in a garden in Mexico. The bird came quietly like an apparition to visit some red blooms – probably hibiscus flowers. It seemed as though it was an uncanny link with an “Otherworld” at the time, as though this was a special, silent messenger. I’ll never forget the memory.
I mentioned another hummingbird encounter in a piece of writing recently published in the magazine Earthlines:
“…After a few minutes I hear a noise, more like a vibration than something audible, coming from my left. It is like feline purring, a soft tinnitus, another sound in this place of voices. A fragment of the forest’s heart splinters off and a tiny hummingbird comes into view unlocked from its own chasm of sound, beating within its own silent bubble.
A coil of memory, recalling a poem by D. H. Lawrence, spools out in my mind,
‘Before anything had a soul, While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate, This little bit chipped off in brilliance And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.’
The bird hangs needle sharp, chest out, suspended in a brief blur of wings, threading the air. No brilliance here, more like a moth it hovers, patiently in the half light. But, there’s something misplaced, unravelled, something lost and found in the single, graceful poise of this tiny bird fluttering like an off key note against some invisible membrane.
I feel privileged to be caught in a moment with this bird. When the Sun seeks the Moon, says Mayan legend, it becomes a hummingbird. I feel like the moon, feel as though the bird has a message from another world just for me. The moment passes and the White Bellied Emerald is gone, disappeared into the gloom.”
Now I’m painting hummingbirds. And not just in blues! So much of my painting is in blues and turquoises – that I love – but I’ve broken the blue spell and want to paint in yellows and maroons and golds and ….
According to various sources, hummingbirds can symbolize many things – energy, joy, perseverance, flexibility, Eternity and Infinity. Apparently hummingbird wings flutter in a figure of eight, the symbol of Infinity. Hummingbirds appear playful and light encouraging enjoyment of life and positivity. I do feel joy, after sometime of shadow, should I trust it I ask myself…
Sifting through my blog images my attention was caught by my swan illustration created for the inside of a bottle that was tossed into the Atlantic last year. I haven’t heard from anyone who may have found it – yet. Anyway, I thought about the swan image and decided to redraw the picture without the words and experiment with it in photoshop, overlaying it with a photograph of a misty sunset over the River Adur.
Here is the result:
My thoughts turn to why I drew swans flying at night in the first place. I recall that they migrate at night, navigating by the stars. Am I right? Are they migrating now?
A quick check confirms that some swans migrate. They fly by day and by night and when they fly by night, they learn to navigate by the stars. Mute swans were sacred to the Greek God, Apollo, as the bird was known as a symbol of light.
I am also reminded of the lovely Celtic myth of Aengus, the God of Dreams, who falls in love with a girl he sees in a dream. After much searching the girl is found and she is called Caer. Each alternate year Caer becomes a swan. Aengus can only claim her if he can identify her amongst a hundred swans which is what he does. But to join her, he too transforms himself into a swan. They then fly away together singing such beautiful music that all who hear them succumb to a deep sleep.
I stumbled on the work of my next inspiring artist while doing a search online that took me to ‘Wild Apples’ magazine. I really wanted to know who’d done the cover for the Fall 2008 edition and one of the pictures inside. I delved a bit deeper and found out that the artist was Julia Zanes. It’s always good to discover an artist whose work is new and exciting to me.
Julia Zanes‘ work is blue-tinged; her paintings have an underwater, dream-like quality. I love the detail, the whitish, ghostly overlayering of imagery, the poised figures. We’re given a snapshot of life, a scene within a story that makes us wonder what has happened a moment before and what is about to happen. The paintings wait, layered with stories, flourishing with underwater life that’s broken by something – the observer(?) – like the bird flying in through the window. And they’re blue, as wonderfully blue as a memory.
Another inspiring artist is Irene Hardwicke Olivieri. Her work is surreal and like me, she paints, sometimes, on wood – panels and doors. I love her intricate and beautiful scenes peopled by figures – little or large and often women; insects, other animals and weird, fanciful creatures haunt corners. Some of her paintings depicture figures, half submerged, divided by two worlds one air-breathing, the other sub-aquatic like the conscious, surface existance and the unconscious world of dreams.
Irene writes personal stories on her paintings. This is something I’d like to do at some stage, but I need to learn to write better with paint! I like her use of natural imagery; her paintings seethe with fertile life. And she paints women often interwoven with this natural imagery. I have a strong liking for paintings with flowers and vegetation such as the in Primavera by Botticelli and 15th and 16th century tapestries.
A recent discovery is Moyo Ogundipe. While researching Mami Wata for my goddess book, I stumbled on a bright painting that I liked instantly:
Looking at several of his paintings at the same time and the “blue” is very noticeable! I’m drawn to his work because of his colours but also because he paints mythological imagery – water/sea spirits, mermaids, women and wildlife – imagery that features in the stories and beliefs of his native land, Nigeria.
Researching for my goddess book has influenced my recent paintings. More about them in my next post :)
Progress is slow on the art front. I’m continuing with my goddess book and every-so-often get drawn to doing a painting or two. While researching occasionally I stumble on an artist, poem or film that resonates with me. So I thought I’d share a few artists and other inspirations that make me feel encouraged to work more expansively.
Firstly I’ve chosen this video clip of Ariel from the film, The Tempest. It aludes to a liminal, spirit world just out of sight, beside the shore, through woodland trees on an island. A haunting, beautiful realm of magic and spirit. Ariel, male or female or both, resides there in this realm. I like the description of him that accompanies the video clip:
“the embodiment in spirit of human emotion, vulnerability and compassion. He can transform his physical presence into essences of light, fire, wind and water, and the corporeal manifestation of harpies, frogs, stinging bees and bubbling lava”.
Freed from his/her imprisonment in a tree by Prospero, he/she is bound to serve the magician but yearns for freedom; (I can relate to that.)
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.
Ethereal, otherworldly, ghostlike, haunting, with nature and water – all ingredients that moved me to paint my Siren picture a few years ago.
I’ve drawn on my Siren painting for my goddess Lethe of the River Hades, one of the six rivers of the Ancient Greek Underworld – a goddess of the liminal world. While researching for her, I stumbled on the an installation which was the result of a collaboration between the sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll and the film-maker Tereza Stehlikova called “Rivers of Hades: Forgetfulness (Lethe)”. Both artists were exploring perception and synesthesia. (Synesthesia is something I’m fascinated by … hearing colours, seeing sounds, the blurring of the senses.)
I like the description and photos of the installation, how it is about a viseral relationship with nature, memories, feelings and dreams. It is made of translucent rawhide giving it an organic, animal quality and the colours of twilight. It is sculpted in such a way as to suggest water caught in time or a body in water with video images projected on or through it, representative of memories, dreams, the otherworldly, hauntings, ghosts and death. This is Lethe, a river which the dead must cross to forget their former lives, a River of Forgetfulness (like my River of Memory painting that I have painted before). Video images cross and blur boundaries and edges suggesting impermanance and fragility. I would have liked to have seen the exhibition and the Sensory Worlds conference that staged it.
So much water this year, the news seems to be inundated with stories of floods and storm surges. Water is taking over, spilling over banks, uniting oceans, seas, rivers… and it is seeping into my art themes once again.
I am into pen and ink once again which takes me back to my days of doing many illustrations for the Brighton based organisation, RiverOcean. In those days my drawings were all about sea creatures and the sea. Well once again my pen and ink drawings are water related but drawn for a small book I’m writing on River, Sea and Moon Goddesses, a theme that I’m especially interested in… back to that underground river that flows beneath my life.
My illustrations here are of perhaps some lesser known goddesses. Take Ved’ava for example, a goddess of the sea or water spirit placated by fishermen of Finno-Ugric peoples. She is sometimes portrayed as a kind of mermaid with a fish tail, playing, singing and seducing humans. If a fishermen saw her it was not a good omen as she was believed to be a drowned person’s spirit.
Then here’s Vejama, or Yemoja, she has several names. A goddess of pregnant women and the River Ogun, a river in West Africa, but she is also a goddess with namesakes in other parts of the world. In Brazil, she is Queen of the Ocean and a goddess of fishermen and shipwreck survivors. She is a mother goddess, a fertlity goddess, a spirit of Moonlight too. I wanted to base my pen and ink illustration on the photo collage of my River Goddess, Moanna. I’m not sure it works, what do you think?
A better-known goddess is Sedna, or Nerrivik, goddess of sea creatures and the Underworld in Inuit mythology. There are various stories about Sedna but most tell of the chopping off of her fingers from which are created the seals, walruses, whales and other marine creatures the Inuit hunt. If angered she withholds the sealife from hunters in her undersea domain and it requires a shaman to metaphorically dive to find her at the bottom of the sea and brush the tangles from her hair to calm her. I am particularly inspired by Inuit culture and myth right now. My goddess still has her hands and she looks a bit wooden so I’ll need to work on her.
This is a ‘taster’ for my book. I’ll be keen to get back to working with colour again soon.