“There is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell that fills my softened heart with bliss that words could never tell.” Anne Brontë
Our journey from Wales to Scotland tracked the flowering of bluebells; they had the appearance of waterfalls on the harsh hillsides of Snowdonia, nestled in the meadows of Lancashire and were cushioned in the leaf litter of Scottish woods. As we travelled north their hue changed from an almost ephemeral delicacy to the most intense hyacinth blue. Whilst the sight of them is arresting enough, they also drown the air with a heady perfume – reason enough for anyone to want to walk amongst them. Scotland in May is a pretty good where and when to do so.
In front of moss-fringed stones ramsons,violets,campions dance; Jack waits his turn by the hedge.
I love walking and now that I’ve given up painting in favour of field sketching and poetic tercets, I find more and more textures that I want to try and capture. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.
The area around Moffat is ideal for the Unlost Places project: twisting lanes enfolded by steep sided hills and the sense that everywhere is a landscape that belongs to a moment in history. I marked my passage through place and time by building a small sculpture on the walls of an ancient bridge.
I use what are euphemistically called ‘indigenous dyes’ to colour material for stitchery. This is done by rubbing fabric against wood, metal or stone surfaces to stain the background surface. It’s an example of how an art map becomes much more the visual representation of a place that I spoke about in last month’s blog.
THE ISLE OF MULL
A visit to the Isle of Mull (http://www.isle-of-mull.net/) had long been on my to-do list. We crossed from Oban to Craignure then headed to the beautiful and isolated bay of Lochbuie. Apart from a couple of houses, an honesty shop (a well-stocked general store where you chose what goods you wanted and were trusted to leave the appropriate amount of money behind – how refreshing is that as a concept?) and the ubiquitous ruined castle, Lochbuie is also home to the tiny St Kilda’s church.
Unlost Places is all about using art and poetry to reflect features which are in some way transcendent. In the porch of St Kilda’s is an engraved Celtic Cross, tentatively dated to the 8th Century. This is a project that finds creativity in unexpected places.
It’s also a project that leaves creativity in unexpected places. An hour spent beach-combing yielded driftwood, shells and old fishing line – enough raw materials for some weaving to be left hanging from a tree. Hopefully proving that it’s not just bluebells which are silently eloquent.
“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel,” Alan and Marilyn Bergman
I don’t usually plan ahead what I’m going to write in my blogs – you’ve probably guessed that if you read them regularly – but when Michel Legrand died recently, I started thinking about one of his most famous compositions, “Windmills of your mind” and was wondering how I could fit in a reference to it. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, mostly because it was sung by Noel Harrison. (I had a crush on him when he starred in The Girl from Uncle with Stephanie Powers. In my defence, I was 8 and not very discriminating about the sort of television programmes I watched.) Anyway poor M. Legrand’s demise got me humming the tune and thinking about beginnings and how difficult it is to spot the point at which you stop being a student of something and start putting what you’ve learnt into practice.
I know from my own experience learning to speak Welsh, going from dweud eich dweudin the classroom to sgwrsio yn y byd go iawn is as terrifying as going from pedalling a tricycle with stabilisers on to riding a racing bike with razor blade thin wheels down a steep hill. You can read more about how I got on with the Welsh language here incidentally. If you are dysgu Cymraeg fel oedolion it might make you realise that having a sense of humour is as necessary as a command of grammar.
Trying to work out the point when I got to grips with creativity is less easy. When it comes to Textile Art, I disagree with John Galsworthy when he said “beginnings are always messy.” This is my attempt at portraying the brooding atmosphere of Kenfig Pool in the year 2000. Local legend has it that a wizard cursed the inhabitants of the prosperous borough of Kenfig for not offering him shelter. A fierce storm arose and as the sea broke through the defences and flooded the village, drowning it for ever, a ghostly cry of Dial a ddaw! (Vengeance is coming!) was heard on the wind. If ever a piece of my work failed to capture a sense of place, this is it.
Shortly after I began a course in Creative Textiles with the Open College of Arts and had to come to terms with using a sketchbook to record the way in which pieces of work were developing. I have never enjoyed working this way. I see a piece of white paper and am convinced that any mark I make on it will spoil it forever. In spite of repeated attempts to convince my tutors that I was useless at drawing and worse at painting, they refused to give me dispensation for that part of the course. Grumbling and resentful, I set about a project on responding to place. I chose the entrance to an old mine close to where I live as the subject partly because it was easy to get to but also because I’d read something about it being haunted.
Bit by bit I came to realise that learning to be creative was much the same as studying Welsh. I didn’t need to be good at drawing or skilled at painting – these were simply the nouns and verbs of a visual language; my sketchbook was not a collection of images which were nice to look at – it was a record that only I needed to understand.
Just recently (January 2019) I attended a course at Kenfig Nature Reserve and had half an hour to spare before it started. I decided to walk across the sand dunes and pay a visit to Kenfig Pool. Having a mobile phone means that these days, there’s always a camera to hand so I started off taking a couple of photographs.
I’ve gone from thinking of sketchbooks as a necessary evil to a useful bit of kit. My change of opinion is down to finally finding a technique which works for me; I use a felt pen to draw on a still wet watercolour wash and because I’ve come to terms with the fact that the sketchbook is a resource for me and me alone, I don’t worry about whether it is good by anyone else’s standards.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing a small art map of Kenfig Pool. It’s still a work in progress but you’ll be able to see how it’s going to turn out. It makes an interesting comparison to that needlepoint work I did nearly 20 years ago.
In amongst all of these Kenfig Pool shenanigans, I was invited to contribute work to an exhibition called ‘Interior Monologues’ which is opening on the 11th February 2019 at Oriel y Bont . I’ve produced a piece of poetic prose as a response to the work of artist Mererid Velios . It’s been a new and exciting method of collaboration for me and I’ve really enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, I probably would never have got involved except for the fact that Barrie and Maria, my Creative Writing lecturers from 2004 and 2005, remembered that I always wanted to write about visual art. Are there such things as beginnings and endings? I don’t think so.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams
9th Century Irish rhyme ‘The Monk and his Cat.’ In an attempt to make you think that I have actually got a plan for this blog, Lily (my cat) will appear in most of the images metaphorically representing the logical part of your brain.
With no excuses for prevarication left I have finally started work on my book. As usual I found the hardest part was finding the words to begin the first chapter. I have overcome this difficulty with a neat little trick that I learnt when I was doing my degree in Creative Writing, namely don’t begin at the beginning. Start writing half way through the book and in the middle of a chapter, page, paragraph or even sentence. This will irritate the logical part of your brain so much that it will go and lie down in a darkened room thereby leaving your creativity unsupervised and ready to rock and roll.
So whereas my book (as yet untitled but when you consider it’s about integrating an ethos bound approach and multiple strands of creative practice, is that a surprise?) is going to start with an overview of what it means to have a)an ethos bound approach and b) multiple strands of creative practice before going on to explore how they can be integrated, I have not begun at this point for fear the excitement level would be too much for readers to bear. Instead I have started writing the chapter which is all about working in isolation (and if you’ve been reading my blogs from their start in 2014, you’ll know that this is something which exercises my mind on a regular basis).
I approach writing with the same degree of preparation that I use for any other craft i.e. none at all: I don’t plan things out, develop a structure or even list key words and concepts. I sit in front of the computer and as my lovely, talented Creative Writing lecturer Barrie Llewelyn (https://twitter.com/Arleta1?lang=en) used to describe it, ‘projectile vomit words onto the screen’. This way of working, it turns out, is another irritant for the logical side of the brain and is likely to cause it to not only lie down in a darkened room but possibly pull the blankets up over its head too so it can’t witness what’s going to happen next.
I’d got in touch with Barrie recently because a friend of mine had decided she wanted to start doing some creative writing but wasn’t sure about whether enrol on a course or join a writers’ group. Now that she’s four sessions into her studying, writing about anything and everything and even worrying about whether you spell the term for a temporary table as ‘tressle’, ‘tressel’ or ‘trestle’ (it’s the last one if you’re a pedant), Carole is having to face up to the fact that being creative – particularly in an ethos bound approach – comes with its own set of challenges, one of which is – what’s the point of it? Like many of us, Carole is unlikely to be able to measure her literary success in monetary terms; no matter how much work she puts in or what she writes about her creative efforts may never be appreciated in the wider world. So when Carole said to me “why do it if it’s not going to be published or sell?” I had to do a bit of thinking about the answer because I knew it was going to fit in with one of the chapters of my book – although I haven’t decided which one yet.
This brings me to my niece Alexandra. Back in 2005, at the start of the school holidays, Alexandra came to stay for a weekend thereby reducing the complexities of her mother’s childcare arrangements. None of us expected that a 10 year old sophisticate from the city would adapt well to country living in a cottage with no central heating, no computer and not much television allowed. Alexandra however proved us all wrong and finally had to be forced home after 5 weeks so that she could spend a couple of days with her parents and sisters before going back to school. What, I can hear you all asking, has this got to do with creativity? Well, two things actually. The first is that without the distractions of technology, Alexandra indulged in what Einstein called ‘combinatory play’ and that led to her starting writing wonderful stories which entertained her and us all summer long. I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t heard of ‘combinatory play’ until I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent book Big Magic but I find that I have been indulging in it all of my life. Einstein considered that by doing unrelated things, the human brain has the capacity to think thoughts which would not otherwise jump the synaptic gap. We many not all get the results that he did when it comes to “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another”, but the next time that you’re struggling for an idea, it might be worth walking the dog, painting some shelves or doing some knitting to see what happens. There could be a Nobel prize waiting for you.
The second thing that Alexandra did was play a game called ‘the government is banning…’ and it went along the lines of that if the government banned, say, films and you were allowed to watch just one more, which one would it be? We spent the summer happily considering our final choices of books, music, food, holiday destinations and many more things. A couple of days ago I was sitting in Carole’s kitchen listening to her wondering aloud whether she should continue her embryonic writing career. Yes, she enjoyed it but was that enough? How could she justify the time, the effort and the satisfaction if there was to be no quantifiable measure of success? The seeds of this sort of angst about needing external validation are sown in childhood when moving from crawl to wobbly walk, clasping your bottom and shouting ‘wee!’ or showing Mum the scrawled drawings made on your first day at school are held up as successes of such magnitude that without them, we think that the world may stop turning. This angst lingers with ethos bound (i.e. not in it for the money) artists and writers longer than is reasonable or appropriate but luckily for Carole, for you and for the readers of my book when it finally makes it onto Amazon, I have the answer.
Also in Carole’s kitchen at the time was our other friend Annie. Annie has the craft skills of a gnat (and won’t mind me saying so).
“Annie,” I said, “Answer this truthfully. If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”
“Nope,” replied Annie, hardly looking up from her magazine.
“Carole,” I said, “Answer this truthfully. If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”
“Yes,” said Carole, going pale and twitching slightly at the prospect, however unlikely.
It may have been a very small and unscientific experiment but it confirmed my belief that for people who are naturally creative, the creative process itself is worth as much as – if not more than – the outcome. Presented with this Catch 22, the logical part of your brain may well wake up and think that the world is not such a random place after all. This could prove very useful because things like time management, administration and organising your finances can very easily get in the way of all of the exciting stuff that creativity trawls along in its wake.
Having realised that this is as good a place as anywhere to try out the ideas for my book, in next month’s blog I’m going to consider other aspects of working in isolation like how you come up with ideas, motivate yourself to get started and then keep going. Textile artists like Lisa Porch and Lydia Needle find inspiration for their work in unexpected places. I dare say that if you print everything out month by month and staple the sheets together you’ll have the untitled book without having to part with a penny!
In the meantime, I leave the last words of this hunt to the monk and Pangur Bán: