I’ve had my head down working on projects and not getting out as much as I’d have liked. It’s also been rather wet. Soon, I hope to have one or two new things to show that I’m working on. Meanwhile, I thought I’d put up a few of the altered book commissions that I’ve done this year.
Dragon in the Forest Altered Book
I was contacted and asked to make an altered book inspired by Terry Brooks’ magical kingdom. I haven’t read any Terry Brooks’ books, but I researched a bit and, along with a few guidelines from my customer, came up with the following:
There’s a dragon hiding behind the trees and a ruin of a house.
The Wintry Wood Altered Book
I was asked if I would make another Box of Delights altered book, this time based on the winter scenes in the story. It’s called The Wintry Wood. David Plaice gave me outlined drawings of what he wanted on each of the pages, apart from the last one which he said I could draw as I liked and make it a surprise. Below are three pages from the book…
… and a lovely video made by David Plaice of the book as a whole, with music by Ian Hughes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but The left hand pages of the book were inspired by my 2017 Romanian bear seeking excursions.
Deer in the Forest Altered Book
Finally, I worked on a pocket sized sketchbook and created Deer in the Forest. It wasn’t exactly a commission, until the first copy went missing in the US postal system and I was asked if I’d make it again:
I hope to share some more forest-related artwork soon.
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.
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.
When you are lost, you look for landmarks to get your barings, a map perhaps and tools to navigate. This year I have felt lost and adrift, but paradoxically anchored like a buoy and going nowhere. I suffer from a sort of sea vertigo, clutching at nothings. Time has passed and I have little to show for it. When in a state of quasi-suspension, like a trout caught mid-stream, I need a project.
Recently I received the e-newsletter from Dark Mountain and read Charlotte Du Cann’s piece, Sea change, which resonated very much with me. I was especially moved by the little video included in the post, Manta Ray, from the film Racing Extinction. Why watching zooplankton is moving I cannot say, but I felt very humbled and loving towards all of life after watching the video. Here it is:
I mused about the sea and being lost. Soon a project started to develop. I wanted to work with paper, ink, maps, currents, islands. I had few clues as I was feeling ‘at sea’, amniotic and floating. So I returned to an old motif, the fish, and thought about sea trout and their amazing life cycle. Like salmon, they hatch in rivers, go out to the sea and return years later to breed. They undergo a transformation, a metamorphosis – they shapeshift between fresh and saltwater, their lives mysterious and subtle. I like that change and adaptability.
Sea trout spawn in some of the rivers here in Sussex. You can read a well written description of their life cycle on the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust website. I have been doing river surveys for OART for the past few years, looking for ‘redds’, the piles of gravel the fish make for breeding.
Occasionally I see a trout and once I watched several jump up a weir. Sea trout are not lost, they recognise the ‘taste’ of the water where they hatched and return to the same river to breed themselves. Each river has its own olfactory signature. They may pick up other clues to find their way to their native waters, such as the magnetic field. Who knows. I think it is amazing. Follow your nose… find your way.
The river pulls me too.
I doodled in my sketchbook, sea trout…
and drew a foldout image of a sea trout.
The Dark Mountain piece was illustrated with photos of artwork by the artist Leya Tess. She draws marine designs on sea charts. I decided to take my inspiration from her as I have some old nautical charts, acquired from an auction some time ago and waiting for a project. I used a chart that shows the area of coast where the Sussex rivers – the Ouse, Adur and Cuckmere – enter the sea. Here is my finished artwork:
I also visited one of the gravelly streams where sea trout come to make their redds and spawn. I filmed under the shallow water:
I am going somewhere in a way. I have made a start and hopefully it will lead me futher. I’m now working on a brief film poem.
Almost exactly two years ago I walked up Wolstonbury Hill to watch the sunrise.
I walk in the footsteps of ancient people who would have awoken on this same hillside in millenia past to greet the dawn, casting their gaze out over the wooded lowlands, the Weald of Sussex.
As I stand on the summit I can see in all directions and experience the ringing silence of height. To my west, cluster the pylons of Truleigh Hill with a red light beacon the same red as the clouds before the sun rose.
A kestrel hovers over the top of the hill, wings scything in red-gold radiance. About me the land flickers; fresh dew in the grasses.
Dawn is a becoming, an edge, an awakening, a time of infinite potential; open, inviting and as subtle as a breath. Sometimes a silent cat of soft paws, it creeps over the land unannounced.
As the sun rose the grass glowed rose.
Wolstonbury hill is a well known chalk hill in the South Downs of West Sussex. It rises to 206 metres and at the top you can see for miles. It is not surprising that it was the location for ancient settlements since before the Bronze Age. There is evidence of ditches, enclosures and field systems. Excavations have found pottery, flintwork, human skeletons and animal bones.
I have become very fond of the hill as I can reach it by bicycle from home. There is something special about it’s layers of history, the sweeping views, smooth, rolling contours and the wonderful sense of space you get on it’s summit and hillsides.
Recently I thought about the word Eostre and recollected that Eostre was a Dawn Goddess. However, she is associated with both dawn and Easter. The Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre in the month of April according to the Venerable Bede, a eighth century Benedictine monk. The festival celebrating the goddess had died out by his time and was replaced by the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. The word Easter probably derives from the word Eostre.
This year I thought I’d like to make a trip to Wolstonbury Hill with Kevin and perform a small ritual to celebrate Easter/Eostre – the spring and dawn.
We didn’t get up quite so early, but were up there by about 7.30am and were serenaded by skylarks on the hillside and a profusion of all sorts of birdsong in the woods on the way up and back down. Up there it was all about lightness, air, emerging and balance for me. Here is a little video of my movement ritual:
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.
“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.
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.
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.
We recently visited Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. I haven’t been there since I was a child. It was a damp but bright day and the gardens were autumnal, browns, russets, greys.
I liked the carvings and one in particular, the portrait of a Sika deer’s head in a living Japanese cedar tree:
It’s by Japanese Tachigi-bori carver, Masa Suzuki. Tachigi-bori means ‘standing-wood carving’ and is a traditional Japanese practice of carving sculptures into living trees. According to Shinto belief, all things have a sacred force and a large old tree would have a strong sacred force. The carving gives form to the tree’s spirit. This carving was done in dead wood that arose from the great storm in 1987. The dead wood where the carving has been made will eventually heal over with callus wood in the next 25-30 years. For Masa it’s all about connecting to the natural world.
The Sika deer was chosen as, in Japan, it is traditionally seen as a messenger between the earth and the spirit world. The deer were introduced into the UK by the Victorians and I’ve seen them at Arne RSPB Nature reserve.
Well before the Victorians, according to my medieval bestiary,
…”Stags are the enemies of serpents: as soon as they feel the symptoms of illness, they entice snakes out of their holes with the breath of their noses and overcoming their harmful poison, feed on them and are cured……..after they have eaten a snake, they hasten to a spring and drinking from it, their grey hairs and all signs of age vanish….Does do not conceive until Arcturus appears in the heavens.”
The book mentions other peculiarities such as the ability of deer to eat a herb that will help draw out arrows which have harmed them. Such is the weird and wonderful medieval world.
I thought I’d create a little shrine to the spirit of the deer:
Recently I stumbled on some music I liked by Martha Tilston and was pleased to find it is called Stags Bellow. Here is a Youtube video of the song:
I’m very into natural sound recordings and came across Be:One last year. It was created to accompany The Hive installation. The Hive was an installation by artist Wolfgang Buttress at Kew Gardens last year.
“An open-air structure standing at 17 metres tall and weighing in at 40 tonnes, The Hive encapsulates the story of the honey bee and the important role of pollination in feeding the planet, through an immersive sound and visual experience.”
Here’s a video about the soundscape:
There’s something hypnotic about the bees’ droning.
In the Ancient Greek world bees were worshipped as they represented a link between our world and the underworld. There were special priestesses refered to as “bees” or “Melissas”, the Greek word for honey bee. In Ancient Greek myth Melissa was a nymph who nursed the baby Zeus, feeding him honey instead of milk. It was from her that the cultivation of bees for honey was supposed to have come.
I’ve worked on a Bee Goddess illustration with this ancient bee nymph in mind. I’ve now made it into a card available in my Folksy and Etsy shops.
Since February I’ve been noticing many large bumbee bees while out walking. They’re queen bees seeking nesting sites. I came across a carder bee nest one summer which I was a little wary of but it was also quite charming like any nest!
I’ve been thinking about boats and the idea of a Shamanic boat. When I googled ‘shamanic boat’ I found a website about Finnish Shamanism, Spiritboatblogspot (which is very fascinating and worth checking out if you’re into shamanic practices.) I also found a link to the Living Shaman Museum and a workshop that took place by a ‘spirit boatist’/artist, Jennifer Ewing. Her work intrigues me. She started making boats when her father died to help her deal with her grief.
My Uncle Ken made boats – it’s one thing I remember about him. Sometimes boats make an impression on me and one such boat was the Vasa ship in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It has some lovely carvings of sea spirits, tritons and mermen decorating the sides:
I like boat ruins too and featured one in a previous post that’s supposed to be haunted.
There is something lovely about the idea of a container carrying you over the waters.
“At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond.”
I decided to embark on my own Spirit Boat project, making boats and putting night lights inside them before placing them into a river at dusk as another river project.
So I started by making a simple origami boat and covering it with pieces of a letter written to the river with my hopes and dreams, words and poems. (I tried to write in the language of the river!) I stuck a rabbit vertebrae in the bottom of the boat to hold a gull feather. This became my Boat of Words.
The second boat I covered with used coffee filter papers that were stained a nice, natural coffee brown. I sewed on to the sides rabbit bones with scrim twine and used a rabbit skull as a figurehead. This became my Boat of Bones. At last I have a use for the natural materials I’m always collecting!
All the materials have a story. I collected my rabbit skulls and bones during a visit to Morfa Dyffryn, an extensive stretch of sand dunes on the coast of Wales. We visited on a cold April day when the winds off the sea chilled us to the bone. It must be a harsh place to be a rabbit.
My third boat I covered in coffee filter papers and scrim and trimmed it with dried grasses that I’d collected from a basket making day last year. I put some sheep’s wool that I’d collected from the Downs on the first really sunny day in April. This is my Harvest Boat.
Finally I covered a boat with dried, used teabag papers to give it a rustic, natural look. I then placed moss inside to finish off my Moss Boat.
In my boats I placed a night light.
One evening in July as the moon was waning, my partner Kevin and I set off for the River Ouse at Barcombe Mills where the river is gentle and accessible. It is a popular place by day; people have picnics and swim in the river. I have swum there once myself….
We waited for dusk and then lit the night lights. I can’t help thinking the boats look like shoes! ( I think ‘shoes’ and then ‘footprints’ and have ideas for another project! Watch this space :) )
I slowly put the boats into the water and filmed them while Kevin took photos. When I looked at the footage I found it quite meditative, so I made the video below and set it to some deep, Tibetan chanting. You may be able to hear the odd chaffinch singing from the hedgerows.
I am yearning for the land. Hearing the wind outside it is not exactly inviting but I feel a pull, a need to connect with layers beneath me feet – rock, sand, mud, grass, the earth’s bone against my bone.
Over the past few years I’ve been moving outdoors, relating to the natural environment through movement – as I did in a workshop, River Women, earlier this year. In the last year or so I have tried to make a short video, a movement video. It is about the earth, about woods and the sea. I felt a bit lost during the filming and was going to call it “What have I lost on the path?” a phrase I remember writing and illustrating in my diary many years ago. I felt that I had lost something on the path – in the earth – and the film was about acknowledging this. Originally the video was going to be a filmpoem – a film of a poem – but I’m no poet so I decided to keep it simple and see what would arise. I can’t dance or move very well either, but it’s just an experiment :)
At the weekend I did a grass baskets workshop with Ruby Taylor of Native Hands. I have wanted to connect to nature by making something and using my hands. The closest I’ve got so far is making a moss journal. The workshop took place at Wowo campsite in a special campfire area in the woods. First we cut handfulls of grass in an adjacent field, golden and maroon sheeves we carried to the workshop site. After tea, Ruby took us through a few minutes of opening up the senses to the natural world around us. She lit a fire with metal and flint, to have a constant supply of tea throughout the day.
As Ruby pointed out, baskets can be like nests and she brought out a box containing a beautiful nest with a couple of thrush eggshells within it. Birds are the ultimate artisans.
When I was younger, I used to collect nests, empty ones. I climbed trees like many children, fascinated by being up high in the leaves with a birds-eye view. I came across the occasional nest and if it was empty, I’d bring it down if I could. I grew a stash of nests in my bedroom. Unfortunately birds nests harbour fleas so my collection didn’t last for very long.
Stumbling on a bird’s nest as a child, I was breathtaken. I gasped at the tenderness of it, the downy feathers, softer than my fingers, moss folded into grasses and twigs in rounds. My eyes circled and circled it, caught by the mesmerizing perfection of the nest. It was the shape of my dream, to be tucked inside a nest and to know it for home.
A nest is a circle of infinite intimacy, a field-hearth or hedge-hearth. Every nest whispers ‘home’, whether you speak English, Spanish, Wren or Robin. Part of a child’s world-nesting need is answered seeing a rabbit warren, a badger sett or otter holt, as children’s writers instinctively know, giving children a secret passage to dens, nests and burrows.
Through nests, a child’s own hearthness is deepened and the child grows outwardly and inwardly into its world. Outwardly, children stare at a nest, fascinated. Inwardly, the nest reflects not just the body’s home but the mind’s. In the snug refuge of the nest, the psyche fills itself out from within, as round and endless as a nest, creating its infinite-thoughted worlds. Intertwined with the world of fur and feather is the world of metaphor where mind makes its nests. Metaphor weaves ‘grass’ and ‘shelter’ together. It ties ‘twig’ to ‘refuge.’ It knits ‘moss’ to ‘home.’
Finding a nest is a homecoming for a child. In Greek, homecoming is nostos, the root of the word ‘nostalgia’—an ache for home, a longing for belonging. Children, filthy little Romantics that they are, have an uncanny gift for nostalgia in nature; something inchoate, yes, but yearning, yearning for their deepest dwelling.
She also has some interesting essays about home as part of the Stay Where You Are project. I never outgrew my fascination with nests, eggs, found animal skulls. I still collect such things when I find them.
Throughout our time in the woods, we heard a persistant blackcap – or at least I think it was a blackcap, blackcaps can sound very similar to garden warblers. A few years ago I spent a few days watching and recording a blackcap singing in a nearby wood as a volunteer for The Woodland Trust, so I am quite familiar with its song. Blackcaps have a lovely, flutey, scratchy song. Here is my recording: