Sunday, 21 October 2018

Oak Gall ink

I was reminded a few weeks ago of how important oak gall ink was to the history of drawing. I bumped into Jonnie Turpie who I had last seen at the opening of the 'You and I are Discontinuous Beings' exhibition in Birmingham and he informed me of his summer visit to Santander in Spain and in passing told me about printing on sandy beaches using squid ink and that while over in Spain he had been introduced to oak gall ink for the first time, all of which can be read about on his blog. 
I use ink all the time and have in the past made oak gall ink (also known as iron gall ink) myself. I use dip-in pens almost every day and for the past thousand years oak gall ink was the dip-in pen liquid of choice. It was only with the introduction of fountain pens that the use declined, mainly because oak gall ink deposits silt and corrodes metals which makes it totally unsuitable for modern pens. 
I have posted several times about media specificity and that I like to think of this in two ways. On the one hand there is a purely physical set of issues surrounding what you can do with the material. In this case how does it flow, what is its covering power, how does it stick to other surfaces, what is its colour range? etc. On the other hand there is the what I have called 'ur' history of things. How was it made, who made it, from what and how does this effect other things, such as a local economy, sustainability or other wider impacts. However in the case of oak gall ink, there is also a very powerful cultural set of associations because so many famous drawings were made using it. It is 'hot' with art historical interest, as are other materials such as oil paint, marble or charcoal and it is embedded deeply into the narratives surrounding art practice. Most of the artists that we would regard as 'canonical' at one time or another used oak gall ink; often using pen and ink for linear qualities, together with brushwork for tonality. Unlike other drawing materials such as charcoal and chalk, you can't rub out what you have done afterwards, therefore in many ways pen and ink drawings are seen as much more direct records of an artist's thought and therefore could be read as being closer to the centre of certain Romantic ideas about art and artists, especially those concerned with the spontaneity of an artist's vision. 
Oak gall ink has four ingredients: dried oak galls, ferrous sulphate, gum arabic and water. Each of which can be thought of as carrying a series of associations potentially just as potent as those linked to images of past oak gall ink drawings. 



Oak galls are formed when a gall wasp lays an egg into a puncture on the underside of an oak leaf. As the larva develops, the tree secretes tannic and gallic acids, creating a round formation known as a gall nut or oak apple. These are what you need to harvest. 

Oak gall with hole formed by escaping wasp

This is a basic recipe for oak gall ink:

Collect as many oak galls as you can or buy them on line. Put them somewhere warm to dry out. After drying, wrap in a cloth and hit with a hammer to break the galls down into manageable sizes and then finely crush the oak gall fragments using a mortar and pestle. 
Using four ounces of crushed oak galls, pour over two pints of water and soak for 24 hours. Strain the oak gall/water mixture through cheesecloth to remove surplus bits of crushed oak galls. Add two onces of ferrous sulphate to the oak gall solution. Mix well. Add one once of powdered gum arabic and continue to stir. Leave for 24 hours. Because the pigment in iron gall ink does not go fully dark until it is exposed to air for a while, it is rather light when applied to paper immediately after preparation. Therefore artists sometimes added other ingredients into the mix and everything from red wine to natural wood dyes have been added to the basic solution in the past. Bear in mind that iron gall ink is corrosive. As the ink ages, it will release acidic materials which can damage writing instruments and preparation equipment over time. Be sure to rinse pens, brushes, cooking and mixing tools immediately after use.

Because oak gall ink corrodes metals it was often used with quills or in Van Gogh's case the reed pen. It is perhaps with Van Gogh that we find the relationship between writing and drawing at its most intimate, his letters move between writing, drawing and painting, at times a colour is simply inserted as a word, bleu for the sky in the case below, and the rhythm of his writing becomes set off alongside the rhythm of his drawing strokes. I saw Van Gogh's letters alongside his drawings for the first time at a wonderful exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1968. The letters in many ways brought home to me the democratic nature of his art, it was something I could do, something for all of us to aspire to. The most profound art could be made out of the communication between two human beings, in this case Van Gogh and his brother Theo. 

Van Gogh

If you do get interested in this sort of drawing it is really worthwhile to make your own pens. See how to make a reed pen and how to make a quill pen. You may even go on to make your own brushes.  

Watch this video to see what oak galls look like and how to operate in the wild.

Those of you interested in sustainability and wanting to make a point about how we ought to be co-existing with nature may want to make your own materials. If so make sure you document the process, it may be that the artwork that you are producing needs to include the various activities that are brought together in the creation of inks, nibs, brushes etc. and that these can be regarded as special types of journeys both into craft and into various ideas of nature. My own interest lies in trying to listen to other 'voices', how do I begin to understand the language of my materials if I have never thought about how they come into being. As you draw with this ink, you are in many ways extending a conversation that begins with a tree and a wasp.

I must however end this post with a warning. It has been suggested that oak gall ink corrosion is a serious threat to the cultural heritage of western society. It is very corrosive and so thousands of manuscripts and drawings in libraries and museums are in danger of being lost because over time it eats away into the paper it was drawn on. Personally I think this is another very interesting story, one about the excessive pride of human beings and a story that resonates more and more as we enter the age of the anthropocene.

Easy ink:

'Substantive' stuff like onion skins, black walnuts or tea don’t need mordants, so just boil up these things with water and try.
Other stuff does need a mordant, usually soda ash or rusty iron, so try anything and see if either of these works. Again try different organic materials.

For lamp black just collect soot from a burning candle. Bind by mixing together egg yolk, gum arabic, and honey and stir in the lamp black.  To use the ink mix this paste with a small amount of water to achieve the desired consistency.

Add thyme oil to stop mold forming.

Other associated posts:

Why ink sticks to paper

Thinking about an ink drawing

Thinking about the role of non-human agents in communication

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Garry Barker 'False Starts' Exhibition

'False Starts' was an important exhibition as far as my own practice was concerned, because it brought together several different strands of my visual research and allowed me to think about how I could use more performative approaches to art making alongside the more traditional gallery exhibition display. I was calling it 'False Starts' because it felt like I was beginning all over again.

Exhibition opened 6pm to 8pm Friday October the 19th. There were drawings, ceramics and prints on display. All of which in various ways were related to getting older and I was looking at mixing between my own story and the stories of others, always looking to develop something equivalent to that moment of epiphany, or divine realisation, that can come when you contemplate ordinary things for long enough. 

The invite was developed from a linoprint I had made in response to having a frozen shoulder. The print was both an image to remind me of how as you get older you seem to get more and more aches and pains and something supposed to act like a votive. If I could transfer my pain into it, the idea was that the pain would go away from my shoulder. Once the pain had been transferred the idea was to then burn the print in a special ceramic oven based on a Roman design. It had a small chimney which meant oxygen was quickly used up and the fire would go out leaving the print only partly burnt. The remains were then framed as a visual reminder. 

The foot and hand containers were made out of ceramic to hold the burnt remains of prints. 

A framed 'burnt' print

Prints in production

'Leg' with radiating pain lino print.

I made prints of several parts of the body and they were made available for people to buy very cheaply and then if on buying one, they wanted to use them to cure a pain, I would burn them. 
However the votives that really took off were ceramic ones. I had made quite a lot of these including ones for toothache. The idea was that you held the ceramic as tightly as possible in your hand and as the rough edges of the fired clay began to hurt the pain in your tooth  would transfer and go away. 

Toothache votive 

I made ceramics for fingers, arms, legs, eyes, nose bleeds, wounds, operation scars, sore throats and anything else people told me they needed curing. 

Operation scar

A few of the many variations of body parts made as ceramic votives

It was however the toothache votives that seemed to do the trick. The most important thing was though that as I became more involved with this, I seemed to be fulfilling some sort of need. I know dentists are the last places people want to go to, but I hadn't realised how many people had been struck off their NHS dentist because they had failed to attend an appointment. I also began to develop short texts to go with the votive objects when I presented them, this one for a ceramic version of a frozen shoulder. 


This is your personalised votive
It not just represents your shoulder
It is your shoulder

When you get home, find a quiet moment

Look at it
Think about your pain and try to mentally transfer it into 
your new ceramic shoulder

Do this as well as you can

You can hang it on the wall, 
Put it on a shelf 
Lay it down

There is no right way 

As the pain goes you can either move the votive to some other place or smash it and bury the parts


The person that bought this ceramic frozen shoulder votive reported back that the pain went away after two days. 

This is a drawing for a ceramic votive that was never made

But this was only one aspect of the exhibition, it was however the aspect that seemed at the time to have a lot of potential for future development.

The exhibition was divided into two rooms, the votives were in the first room and the second room was devoted to representations of the ageing body in conjunction with its memories. The experiences I have had about a gradually developing arthritis as I get older, together with my slowly changing memory patterns, were fused with imagery developed in response to me talking to other people as they get older. In particular I had recently joined the group, 'Life hacks for a limited future' a small group of professional people who are all getting older and who wish to face this fact together, rather than as isolated individuals. So in many ways I was becoming an ageing 'professional', or an artist that was more and more drawn to the process of ageing as a subject matter. Because there is an architect in the group who is keen to visualise needs, I was also keen to help develop other supportive resources. The diagrams that I drew as part of a process of trying to visualise what was happening, were as far as I was concerned, just as much 'art', as the more emotive realisations. 

A diagram I made for 'Life hacks...' of the ageing process in the form of a scarab beetle

The main part of the exhibition was centred around this drawing below, which is approximately five feet wide. 

The drawing represents the ageing body as a landscape. In this case it has embodied within it two sets of fused memories. Those of my reminiscence of a particular place in Dudley in the West Midlands of England, a place of huge pigs and slag heaps together with memories told me by a neighbour, of a time when she was a girl who lived on the island of St Kitts and of how she ran everywhere and was called, 'Three speed grey dove'. 

Detail: Huge pigs peer over walls

Detail: The runner nears home

Detail: Shooting targets

Detail: Mythic island

The drawing went through several stages and its final form was suggested after a phone call from my cousin, who reminded me that when he used to sleep over as a boy he always brought with him a soft toy octopus, a toy I really envied. I therefore decided to make it from memory in ceramic and embed it in the drawing. 

Final image with ceramic octopus embedded. 

I made lots of variations of body forms, often thinking about the body's weight and of how as you get older you seem to carry your body and not simply inhabit. Sometimes my imagery was about how if you are not careful your body feels as if it is slipping away from you and you need to pull it back on. At other times I was trying to get across the idea of the body as this lump that needs scratching to give itself relief. 

Studio view when the work was in process

An attempt to visualise the way old knees no longer feel as if they belong to you, they become islands in foreign seas. 

The way your hand becomes incapable of gripping things properly. 

I am sometimes short of breath and these paper bag pieces (above) seemed a simple way of visualising this. I then made ceramic versions which didn't seem to be right, but the ceramic of an arthritic hand did. Sometimes it's useful to switch between two and three dimensional thinking, if an idea isn't working in one it might in the other. 

A detail of the runner from the image above perhaps gives an indication of what was happening in some of the drawings as they became more about scale and of how insignificant you can feel as a young boy or girl when outside in the landscape. Gradually though the landscape and the body became interchangeable, both becoming places to inhabit. 
The exhibition has given me serious food for thought and I continue to look at possible projects that might help me visualise this process of getting older. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Drawing and Philosophy: Part one

Keith Arnatt: eating his own words 1971

A long time ago in a tutorial when I was studying for my DipAD in Newport, Keith Arnatt asked us a question. Were the artworks we were producing 'a priori' or 'a posteriori' statements? He had already sort of taken me under his wing and had decided that as a lad from the Black Country, with an accompanying Dudley accent, I needed educating and although I had a pretty good grasp of art history I didn't have any real understanding of contemporary art and associated philosophical theory and it was this that interested him at the time. So he made me read. British analytic philosophy, A. J. Ayer, early Wittgenstein, Russell etc. was linked to having to read Kant. Richard Wollheim's 'Art and its Objects' was critiqued via Strawson and W. V. O. Quine, John Austin was used as an example of how language games could be used and late Wittgenstein as to its use value. Chomsky was at the time seen more as a language theorist and we debated such issues as 'can there be a private language?' via the writings of Rush Rhees. Semiotics was brought in via the Whorf Sapir hypothesis that language determines thought. It was a hard learning curve and one you only had to take on if you wanted to attend his tutorials, as he would put it, don't bother to come if you haven't prepared yourself. This early exposure was in fact really useful, it was rare when undertaking a DipAD to have to read so extensively into philosophy and because the then complementary studies department ran a series of other programs alongside the traditional art history lectures, such as the history of philosophy, classical music history and interpretation as well as understanding Egyptian poetry, as a young artist I began to get a grip on the fact that conceptual art was a fascinating and rewarding area to be involved in because it could embrace all forms of knowledge, not just art.
I have been through many different periods of both practical work and theoretical frameworks since then and see the business of art making in a very different way to the one that Keith was trying to expose me to at the time. However that initial exposure means that occasionally I do still turn my mind to the relationship between making art and philosophy and in particular the way that drawing can be understood from different philosophical standpoints. 
So bare with me as I ramble around what is for me an issue I have had to in many ways argue internally against, because I'm not sure that making art is anything to do with establishing meaning. 
So back to Keith Arnatt's original question. I would if in his tutorial now suggest that this was a question about knowledge. Does art give you 'a priori' or 'a posteriori' knowledge? For instance, if all art was determined by what Dickie would call the 'institutional theory of art', art would be a sort of game or set of rules and behaviours set out by the collective understanding of all those that were involved in this sub-group preoccupation. Then, if this was the case, the art produced would be known prior to experience, because it was the result of the rules set out beforehand, i. e. a priori. But if these works of art were to be regarded as particular types of responses to experience, or perceptions, then these works of art would have to be known empirically, i. e. a posteriori. This distinction could if you wanted it to, be used to divide artists into two categories, those that explore and test out the boundaries and possibilities of art and those that use art to reflect upon issues that they have come across in their various experiences of living in the world. Of course, being an artist also means that your experiences are often those that belong to the art world, (art education, other art, the gallery system, art magazines, books on art etc etc) and this world overlaps with and is part of reality or whatever else you might want to call the world of our collective experiences. 
If you look at different critical stances you can again divide them in a similar way, for instance Greenberg's insistence on formalist, media specific thinking in relation to art, suggests that what he sees as art is a gradual re-testing or re-thinking of the elements that comprise of a work of art, art's abstracted elements can be formally investigated and no outside of art elements are needed for this investigation. However Rosenberg who invented the term, 'action painting' begins a process that allows us to see making art as a performance, and as we begin to take on board the implications of this, we begin to be able to define art as being 'experiential'. A 'happening' (a type of early performance art event) was by its very nature embedded in the world. 
So what about drawing? If I follow the rules of perspective or technical drawing systems I ought to be able to produce a drawing by following the rules, 'a priori'. But if I was making a drawing from direct observation it would require me to have direct experience and to rely on my sense impressions to give me new knowledge, 'a posteriori'.  I can already hear the arguments, such as, "What if I'm making a technical drawing of an object that I have to take measurements from?" or, "What if I'm working from observation, such as in the life room, but applying to my observations classical ways of rendering forms as taught by the academy?" I would say these are what Kant calls 'synthetic a priori' forms of knowledge, a sort of state in between. I would also point to the fact that I have often made technical drawings of forms that were not based on anything I have seen, but which were products of my exploring of possibilities of formal invention brought forth by following the rules of a particular perspective or isometric projection. 
It is Cézanne's doubt that perhaps opens this area out for artists. Cézanne asks questions such as what is it to see anything? His drawings are not about capturing the solidity of things, but are more about recording the process of looking. Earlier art set out the rules for how the world should be depicted, but Cézanne moves our attention away from learning how to depict, towards something else, more akin to 'being aware of and questioning the processes of experiencing'. 
This is an image from a how to draw an apple tutorial. The tutorial has some good tips. It suggests making marks that feel for the changes in surface direction, it asks you to consider the shadow as much as the apple and asks you to think about how the apple is lit and how you might indicate the space that the apple sits in.

'How to' drawing book

Below is an apple as drawn by Cézanne  At first sight in comparison to the drawing above it looks unfinished. There is an uncertainty about where the edge of the apple is, it seems to waver uncertainly and have no real solidity. You can see why so many people when looking at Cézanne's images derided them as being clumsy and unfinished. 


You could argue that we get the art that we deserve, or another way of putting it is we get the art that epitomises the problems that face the society that we find ourselves in. In the case of Cézanne he sits very neatly alongside the rise of Existentialism as a philosophy of choice for the 20th century. This is a philosophy of doubt, one that tries to accept the bleak reality of a Godless universe. Plato's ideal forms seem a long way from here, a theory of forms that suggested that ideas of things in some way were the true reality. For instance the mathematical perfection of a triangle in Plato's ideal view, in some way lies behind all triangular forms, there being some sort of ideal of triangularity. This is rather like the position of the academy in relation to art. The academy's standardisation of how art was taught and its determining of classifications that not only told us what art was, but also which aspects of it were the most important, such as History painting being of most value, was a set of ideals that lay behind the everyday reality of an artist's job. The 'grand style' of 'high art' being the ideal, the perfection that lay behind art's reality. 
But what this meant was artists working to set patterns and those patterns very quickly began to get more and more out of step with what was happening in society. However, there are several art schools that still follow certain aspects of the old academy training. Those of you reading this blog who are attending a British art school might not be aware that there are still art school traditions in existence that follow many of the rules of academic training. There are two main sorts, those that base their teaching on construction and those that use observational or 'realist' techniques. Here are some art schools with an emphasis on realism...

Angel academy of art (Florence) 
Florence academy (Florence)
Charles Cecil (Florence) 
Academy of realist art (Toronto)

and some art schools with an emphasis on construction...

Ashland academy of art (Ashland, USA)
Repin institute (St. Petersburg)
The drawing academy (Viborg, Denmark)
National Art school (Bulgaria) 

These small art academies are very different to the British art school tradition which is founded on a position of the radical questioning of everything and which accepts Modernism as an essential even though now 'past' tradition. The Bauhaus and its forerunners such as the British arts and craft movement, are still important, but waining influences on British art and design education systems and a continuing link between the old concept of academic art training and what is provided today has gone. What has replaced the older tradition is one that is based on communication theories. Basically, if as human beings we use something, we will be capable of also using it for communication. The art school then becomes a sort of laboratory whereby things are played with in order to see what can be communicated with them. There is less of a divide between visual art, sound, smell, taste or touch in what people experiment with, many students working with immersive environments that can include all the senses. I think we have returned to a much older tradition, one whereby humans simply used what was available to communicate, and from what we know of communication from 30,000 years ago, sound, vision, touch, smell and taste were seen as a totality when our ancestors were creating cave visions. Eat the drugs, see the visions on the cave walls and dance to the sounds of drumming. However within that totality, there would have always been some people that just loved drumming and were better at it than others, and some that could make images much more convincingly than others. 
Thinking about convincing images, it is interesting to see how many of the institutions offering constructional or observational training still call themselves 'academies' and of course Arnatt's question would still apply to their different training programs. Do they provide a model to work from or do they guide you towards being able to 'realise' your visual perceptions?
The schools that emphasise realism often use the Charles Bargue Drawing Course, which was devised in the 19th century and which guides students on how to copy from plaster casts, how to study and work from great master drawings and which finally gives instruction on how to draw from the life model. These three areas of study are usually blended in with other methods taken directly from French Academy teaching materials. There is an emphasis on training how to see. (Note not questioning it, but giving ways to shape what you see, for instance you are taught that by copying shadows you can arrive at a much more satisfactory observation of a figure, than by filling in outlines.) These courses emphasise technical mastery of traditional art materials and aim for success in 'realism', i.e. skin tone should be accurate, proportion correct etc. Most of the drawing is taught sight size, i.e. one to one size correspondence which leads to accuracy in measurement. 
The schools that emphasise constructional methods use more sculptural drawing techniques. There is an emphasis on three dimensional awareness and how to use this to construct figure drawings. For instance tonal analysis using cross hatch techniques, planar construction or the simplification of continuously moving organic forms, so that they can be rendered more clearly within various perspectives. This system often works in layers. For instance in the first stage you make perspective boxes of say the pelvic girdle and trunk of the body, then on top of that you place drawings of bone structure and musculature, and then on top of that the formal distribution of human body shapes as understood from models. 
Lots of guides exist which you can use if you want to take on board these systems. 

Artists that use these techniques still have a role to play within our society. For instance because these techniques in many ways stand for 'tradition' and 'classical ideals' they are perfect for portraits of important people. These are not the skills of doubt or Existentialism, they are about certainty, mastery and ideal form. I have met artists trained in this way and all of the ones I have come across were from rich backgrounds, whereby they had the means to study in places like Florence for several years in order to acquire the skills and a ready made market for their work because their contacts could both afford and wanted to have on their walls art of this sort. (I am an unreconstructed socialist and therefore I will read these things as part of an ongoing class divide, I'm sure many people would have a counter argument) In some ways I envy the certainty and confidence these skill sets give and I realise that some students that arrive on the courses I teach on, find the constant questioning difficult and would much prefer a course that concentrated on the acquisition of a particular set of traditional skills. It may be that our society will at some time return to these 'traditional' values, but the only models we have for when this has happened are when the state has wished to exercise total control, such as under Nazi rule in Germany or the Stalinist regime in Russia. I personally would rather live with doubt and constant questioning than be part of a fascist regime. However I do realise there is a problem in relation to what is seen or understood as art. If a large number of people don't understand what something is, it may be that that something isn't functioning as well as it should do. For instance the Turner Prize rarely showcases any artists that make paintings, but the majority of people outside of the art establishment think of painting as what art is. The paradox here being that the majority of people don't look at paintings and use moving image media such as film, video and TV broadcast to get information and entertainment, which is exactly what todays media artists are using, all four of this year's shortlisted Turner prize artists being video makers. Steve McQueen as an artist has used video for a long time and his '12 Years a slave' cinematic production saw him cross over from a fine art audience to a cinema audience. But what is happening here? He makes art videos about his experiences of life and films that go on general release in cinemas. Both formats express ideas and communicate complex emotional engagements with life. Cinema audiences are not worried that his work can also be seen as art, but some art audiences question that his work might not be art. A writer such as Michelle Marder Kamhi in 'Who Says That’s Art?
A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts', questions the whole edifice of contemporary art and suggests that it is only in traditional formats that we will find an art that communicates to 'ordinary people'. Craft and skill are allied closely to an emotional engagement in Kamhi's writings, but it is presumed that the necessary crafts are older ones such as those associated with painting, not those associated with the making of films. TV programs that follow artists with traditional skills are for myself interesting, in that they provide a new way of thinking about painting, one totally immersed in lens based media. These programs provide a storyline, often based on individual's back stories, a time based opening out of the process of making, (not unlike the British Bake Off), and of course there are winners and losers. Of the millions that watch these shows, how many people actually then go and buy paintings is questionable, but what these programs do is reinforce in the mind of the general public an idea of what art is. But if we think about certain theoretical stances, such as 'the medium is the message' a Marshall Mcluhan concept, he would argue that because the information is carried by broadcast media, what has happened here is that people are getting hooked on a TV program and that the paintings are incidental, they might as well be cakes or pots or any other products that require a set of skills to make them, it is the structure and nature of the broadcast medium that is controlling what is communicated. 
People love to watch other people who have skills. There is something heartwarming and central to the human condition of being able to use hand/eye/brain coordination to make things, whether these be paintings, cakes, pots, sand castles or ice sculptures. I am really happy to watch those sandcastle makers that arrive when the tide is out on the shores of the Thames in London, they can quickly make sculptures that are good representations and people cast money into their buckets in payment for being entertained. I used to watch my grandfather French polish furniture, the process of stripping the wood down, preparing the surface and gradually layering the stains and polishes as he worked his rags into and across the woodgrain was a fascinating one and just as entertaining was the man next door who used to take his motorbike apart, repair it very carefully and rebuild it or my grandmother showing me how to bake a cake. I think what we have here is a reminder of 'embodied' thinking and that what certain types of paintings represent are repositories of old hand skills. There is something about developing a craft skill that is completely fulfilling and perhaps this is central to our conceptual view of how we need to operate as human beings. Collingwood when laying out his aesthetic theories thinks long and hard about crafts, and realised that for many people art and craft are inseparable, so he looks at how craft or technique needs to be used to bring about certain psychological states in an audience, however he finally decides that this is to restrict art to 'mere means'. In a time of post-Duchamp we are very aware that craft doesn't have to be involved in the making of an art statement, but and I think this is a big but, the celebration of hand/eye/brain coordination and the products this produces could be a very important thing to do if we are to help people attain a state of well being. 
In the middle of this is a problem with breaking things down into different areas of thinking. The old art/science, art/craft divides are based on a sort of atomisation of thinking, ways of thinking whereby things have their proper place. Lots of academics spend many hours teasing out differences between things in order to determine their location within certain frameworks of thinking, music fans spend hours arguing that Classical music is much better than the Beatles and too many articles are written about whether or not painting is dead. In our real world everything is connected and we use all the things we come across in lots of different ways, to communicate what we think. I might drive a certain make of car to communicate status, hold my cigarette in a certain way to show I'm an intellectual, wear trainers to tell my friends I'm not longer in their gang, write sentences to declare war, make a film to tell a loss, sing a song to explain how England has changed. In moments of importance, such as births and deaths, we still need rituals and if you think about the complexity of these you get an idea of how art works. At a funeral place is significant, we chose one with heightened meaning, churches, particular spots in the landscape, the sea. We dress in a particular way, polished black shoes, no trainers. We sing, we use certain songs to explain our loss, we even sit in certain cars that communicate to everyone as they pass down the road what is happening. We read poetry, we arrange flowers, we carve monuments or small marble plaques, we leave toys or other objects as reminders of someone's age. The complexity of these things is what is important, even down to the tone of voice we use on these occasions; all things have the possibility of being used to communicate. It is therefore, I believe, forms of philosophy that acknowledge the interconnected of everything, that are the most useful. 

It is interesting how quickly a reflection on art and philosophy can lead to political positioning and how quickly an implied role for art can be questioned. There are several earlier posts whereby I have tried to explore the role of drawing as a type of questioning of the process of looking and to save time I'll just put in some links.

Part two will look at the rise of phenomenology as the go to area of philosophy when it comes to theorising about drawing and my own personal interest in object orientated ontology. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Poetry and drawing (W. S. Graham)

Roger Hilton

The Ilkley Literature Festival is on at the moment and I went with an old friend of mine to the exhibition at the Manor House over the weekend, 'W.S. Graham, Poet among the Painters'
The exhibition collects together poems and letters by the poet W.S. Graham and puts them alongside images produced by selected St Ives School artists that he was friends with, such as Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon. I first came across W. S. Graham’s writings through Patrick Oliver, an artist who had been an apprentice to Lanyon in the late 1950s and who himself often wove poetry into and through both his conversation and his paintings.  Patrick taught alongside myself and my friend Terry and so in many ways visiting the exhibition brought back memories and in particular a re-visiting of approaches to drawing that sometimes get forgotten or simply lost as concepts change and our ways of making and thinking about drawings alter due to societal shifts. 
W. S. Graham’s poems are set alongside paintings by the artists he was responding to as well as four images by Alfred Wallis, a seaman/artist that was to become a seminal figure not just in relationship to the development of modern art in St. Ives, but in how artist/teachers like Patrick Oliver could articulate the relationship between lived experience and image making. 
W. S. Graham held a long standing correspondence and friendship with the art collector Ronnie Duncan and it is Duncan who has provided the majority of both artwork and copies of W. S. Graham’s correspondence for this exhibition. 

A few weeks ago I posted a response to a drawing conference I had been to in Loughborough. The final event I had been to was Patrick Brandon’s: ‘Delayed graphification: obscurity and emergence in drawing’. The workshop was an introduction to the idea of using poetry as a way into thinking about space and surface in painting and Brandon read out a few lines from W. S Graham as an introduction to his workshop. He had though filtered W. S Graham through a Derridian lens and therefore had a post-structuralist take on how poetry could be fed into a painterly sensibility. However, Derrida when talking of poetry has a wonderful line himself, ‘the ‘catachrestic hedgehog, its arrows held at the ready’, an image that for myself is about the poem as a rolled up hedgehog, it’s potential, animal like, and ready to spike anyone that dares to try and uncurl it, especially if you try and correct 'mistakes'. This image of a curled up compaction of meanings, is one that I will myself take into this interrelationship between poetry and visual image-making. Sometimes this can be as much as anything about just plain awkwardness, and this is where the hedgehog image comes into its own. Roger Hilton was I gather a difficult and curmudgeonly man, who had drunk himself into an early death. In his final years he took to his bed but continued to work, painting gouaches almost to the end. There is a note on the wall of the exhibition next to Hilton’s work, it states; “When Roger Hilton took to his bed in the last years of his life, he lay on his left side. But Hilton was left handed and as a result, his much-admired gouaches were done with the ‘wrong’ (i.e. his right) hand”. How awkward can you get? But in this very difficulty, in his whiskey fog, he was able to pull out a series of images that hold steady in the mind well after seeing them. 

These images were all behind glass so forgive their lack of sharpness and occasional white spot, but hopefully you can still get a sense of their childlike warmth and openness. The birds in these images are awkward buggers, they are flightless soothsayers born of a need to escape the fug of bed, a way out, directed at I suspect Hilton himself. For W. S Graham, Hilton was a ‘terrible’ friend, a friend loved dearly though and in the object memory of a watch, Graham is able to find solace and a sort of companionship, both object and human being left behind after Hilton’s death. This is W. S. Graham's poetic reflection on the fact that he had been left Hilton's watch as a memento of his friend.

Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch

Which I was given because 
I loved him and we had
Terrible times together

O tarnished ticking time 
Piece with your bent hand, 
You must be used to being 
Looked at suddenly 
In the middle of the night
When he switched the light on
Beside his bed. I hope
You told him the best time
When he lifted you up
To meet the Hilton gaze. 

I lift you up from the mantle
Piece here in my house
Wearing your verdigris.
At least I kept you wound
And put my ear to you
To hear Botallack tick.

You realize your master
Has relinquished you
And gone to lie under
The ground at St. Just

Tell me the time. The time
Is Botallack o’clock
This is the dead of night.

He switches the light on
To find a cigarette
And pours himself a Teachers.
He picks me up and holds me
Near his lonely face
To see my hands. He thinks
He is not being watched. 

The images of his dream
Are still about his face
As he spits and tries not
To remember where he was. 

I am only a watch
And pray time hastes away
I think I am running down

Watch it is time I wound
You up again. I am
Very much not your dear
Last master but we had
Terrible times together. 

So how does poetry sit alongside plastic image making? If you look at the work of Alfred Wallis he fuses vision with experience, with a poetics of association. And it is this fusion that I well remember Patrick Oliver trying to make students understand when we were undertaking ‘morning drawing’. (See blog posts related to the pedagogy of art and design) 

                                                             Alfred Wallis

If you look at the image by Wallis above, you may well think that the small house squeezed between two others is the result of observation, it being set behind and away from the other two. However I well remember Patrick Oliver telling us a story he had picked up from his time in St Ives about Wallis’s own observations on the size of the house. Apparently the man that lived there had a small soul. He was mean spirited and had shown himself to be no friend of the sailing community. Size in this case being a recognition of spiritual worth. This coupled with a way of making images that relies on memory and a finding of shape/space by feeling for the way that forms fit or lock together as they are made, creates a way of image making that transcends a need for fixed perspective because it moves seamlessly between vision, memory, and an image hierarchy based on relative importance, whether this be spiritual, emotional or simply clarity or vividness of the remembered experience. These things are nested, or rolled together, like the hedgehog, and if you attempt to unravel them they lose their prickly warmth and end up as cold facts. 

Hilton had assimilated Wallis’s lesson and just as Wallis was no longer a sailor when he was making his images of ships and St. Ives, Hilton was no longer going any where except his bedroom. Hilton was even though bed ridden, able to tap into the raw world of image discovery, perhaps all the more raw because he was using his ‘wrong’ hand, perhaps all the more spiky and edgy because he was dying and he knew it and was yet still able to sense something of his life through that whiskey daze. 

Another death that W. S Graham had to respond to was that of Lanyon himself, killed in a gliding accident, at a moment in his career when he was beginning to fuse together his earlier lyrical abstractions with a tougher, gliding inspired vision of landscape and its perception as an unfolding dizzy conjunction of earth and air. The poetry of ‘space’ that Lanyon occupied is revisited by Graham as he folds the Cornish landscape into the language of Wallis and the making of boats and pounding of waves and history and flying. Another curled hedgehog that steadies us as we metaphorically hold hands with those past artists that help us to see again and even in their passing remind us of how in our own present, we owe it to them to continue the search for the curled hedgehog of image making. 

Peter Lanyon: Gliding painting

This is W. S. Graham's poetic tribute to Lanyon who died in a gliding accident in 1964

The Thermal Stair

I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.

Find me a thermal to speak and soar to you from
Over Lanyon Quoit and the circling stones standing
High on the moor over Gurnard’s Head where some

Time three foxglove summers ago, you came.
The days are shortening over Little Park Owles.
The poet or painter steers his life to maim
Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.

Peter, I called and you were away, speaking
Only through what you made and at your best.
Look , there above Botallack, the buzzard riding

The salt updraught slides off the broken air
And out of sight to quarter a new place.
The Celtic sea, the Methodist sea is there.
You said once in the Engine

House below Morvah

That words make their world

In the same way as the painter’s

Mark surprises him

Into seeing new.

Sit here on the sparstone

In this ruin where

Once the early beam

Engine pounded and broke

The air with industry.

Now the chuck of daws

And the listening sea.

‘Shall we go down’ you said

‘Before the light goes

And stand under the old

Tinworkings around

Morvah and St Just?

You said ‘Here is the sea

Made by Alfred Wallis

Or any poet or painter’s

Eye it encountered.

Or is it better made

By all those vesselled men

Sometime it maintained?

We all make it again.’

Give me your hand, Peter,

To steady me on the word.

Seventy-two by sixty,

Italy hangs on the wall.

A woman stands with a drink

In some polite place

And looks at SARACINESCO

And turns to mention space.

That one if she could

Would ride Artistically

The thermals you once rode.

Peter, the phallic boys

Begin to wink their lights.

Godrevy and the Wolf

Are calling Opening Time.

We’ll take the quickest way

The tin singers made.

Climb here where the hand

Will not grasp on air.

And that dark-suited man

Has set the dominoes out

On the Queen’s table.

Peter , we’ll sit and drink

And go in the sea’s roar

To Labrador with Wallis

Or rise on Lanyon’s stair.

Uneasy, lovable man, give me your painting

Hand to steady me taking the word-road home.
Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?
Remember me wherever you listen from.
Lanyon, ding dong ding dong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Duchy shire wherever I turn.

The letters that W. S Graham wrote to Ronnie Duncan have a quality of their own that sits between the visual and verbal. So I will leave you with a few images of pages of Graham's letters. 

A film about Ronnie Duncan and his art collection