Friday, 8 May 2015

Brushing at the Cobwebs

Leaves and petals are forcing themselves out from nothingness and the days are unfurling. Maybe it's a good time for this blog's long winter nap to finally end too. All the silence here has me feeling a bit daunted at the moment, so perhaps it's best to just ease back in slowly and see what grows out of it.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Ashes to Ink

Ashes to Ink, mezzotint and etching, 30 x 20 cm

Today I'm pleased to share a print that I made for The Al-Mutanabbi Street Project. This project is a reaction to the 2007 car-bombing in Baghdad's book-selling quarter. This neighbourhood has long been the heart of the intellectual community of Baghdad, a place where people come to meet and share ideas, engage in free debate, and search through a rich diversity of written material. In its various iterations -- an anthology of essays and poems by writers from Iraq and the rest of the world, a series of letterpress broadsides, a collection of artist books, and now the contributions of artist printmakers -- The Al-Mutanabbi Street Project seeks to address this attack on intellectual freedom.

A little over a year ago I was invited to take part in this project by Catherine Cartwright, the project's UK co-ordinator, and I was immediately intrigued, though I felt quite intimidated by the prospect of a project dealing with events in a place that I have never even visited. The printmaking project came with a one-year time frame, and I spent most of that year in research and in coming up with ideas and then scrapping them completely.

I began my research by reading Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, the anthology that was created as part of this project, and which I highly recommend. When reacting to the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi street, many of the contributors to that project mentioned the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In Iraq, apparently, it is said that in the days after the Mongol attack, the Tigris ran red with blood, and then it ran black with ink. The tragedy of such an attack on human life and ideas seems to have weighed on the collective imagination of Iraqis for a long time. Since the theme of the printmaking project was 'absence and presence', I decided to investigate the event in this historical context.

In my print, women are gathering inky water from the Tigris and distilling the ink from it. They are grinding up the ashes of burnt books to make even more ink. From all of this ink, they are making new books. Overlayed on this scene are images drawn from manusripts that would have been produced -- perhaps on this very street, as Al-Mutanabbi Street has been a centre of scribes, as well as book sellers for hundreds of years -- during the heyday of the Baghdad School's manuscript production in the 13th century. Time and ideas overlap; regeneration follows destruction.

One of the ideas behind this project is that while Al-Mutanabbi Street is a specific location in Baghdad, it is more than just that, it is the spirit of that place -- the openness to debate, the freedom to dream, the striving for understanding and expression that has been fostered in the caf├ęs and bookshops there. It is something that should be of the utmost importance to all of us. And so, in that sense, Al-Mutanabbi Street is wherever we sit down to write, to read, to talk honestly. We find it when we open up our jars of ink, or sometimes even our laptops. I hope that I have managed to bring you a little breeze from Al-Mutanabbi street today.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Visiting the Snow

A couple of days ago we slid up the street in the morning dark and caught a bus to the outskirts of town where some friends were gathering to drive out to the mountains. 

A heavy frost had grown during the night and all the roofs and branches and fields that we passed were a rich, glistening white. A few snowflakes were falling as we neared our destination, but if you wanted enough snow to lose a leg in, it was necessary to climb up into the mountains.  

And so we climbed.

It was a calm day, and we listened to grouse sounds and the little streams and burns that rushed by through the snow. 

Some of the burns had frozen enough that we could walk over them, at least mostly. Others could only be crossed by balancing on slippery rocks, or, for the very brave, taking off shoes and socks and walking through.

I took my chances with the slippery rocks, as my throat was already burning with the beginnings of a nasty cold.

Wandering up in the mountains, the light slides around in the strangest ways. 

Off in the distance, landscapes appear through a pocket of clouds, all coloured in the bright aqua blue of ice and glaciers, while just beyond that, the light appears inexplicably brownish or reddish. Though, these mysterious pockets of colour don't always come through in photos.

The exposure in the above photograph brings the moody atmosphere of mountain light to a whole new level, but it is rather lovely, I think.

We followed a stream down toward the little loch that you can just glimpse in these photos.

As it descended, the stream became a waterfall. On a little rocky shelf beside the falls we stopped and opened our packs to have some hot tea, and a surprise of homemade gingerbread.

Only a few minutes after our sunny tea break, the sky began to blush faintly pink. The light changes so quickly on these short winter days.

By the time we had reached the ground, the blue of evening was setting in. 

And the day burnt itself out across the sky. The walk finished in cold, blue darkness, the snow on the mountains glowing as it hung in the dark between the sky and the depths of the valley.

I love the little pause that comes at the end of the year, once the vigour of Christmas has passed. I hope you are enjoying the warmth of the holiday season and also some peace and stillness on the these long nights. Wishing you a happy 2015!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Forest for the Trees

Not long ago, I was invited by the Claremont Gallery to join their Christmas Exhibition. The only stipulation was that, whatever I made, it had to be on A5 sized paper. Since I happened to have an idea I'd been looking for an excuse to work on, I set to it.

The only difficulty was that I was very short on time, which meant that I had to transform some sleeping hours into painting hours. So, in the end, I was painting icons by day (something which I will post about in the future) and painting this on a little dressing table in a noisy hotel room by night.

This little procession is made of of four panels:

They were painted in egg tempera on hot-pressed cotton rag paper. Painting in egg tempera away from home means I walk around with brushes, pill boxes filled with earth pigments, and an old spice jar for pink peppercorns filled with an egg yolk, water and vodka solution shoved in my purse and pockets.

The four panels were painted on separate bits of paper. I intended them to be seen as a whole, but presented with spaces between them, either in separate frames or in separate windows of the same frame.

With this sort of presentation it is necessary that the pictures have a unity, but absolute precision in matching the panels up was not important.

I love working in this long, horizontal format. Looking at Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings—whether they be of wide landscapes, processional scenes, or stages of a narrative—always makes me want to run home and start working on something new, as do medieval European paintings in similar dimensions. Though I've come up with many ideas in this format, such as folding books, long paintings, and prints, somehow this is the only one that has come into being so far. Hopefully it will not be the last.

The themes in this work have much in common with other pieces that I am currently working on: the juxtaposition of an overwhelming vs abbreviated natural world; the individual portrayed as a group; and the human will shaping/being shaped by the environment, to name just a few of the shared themes.

If you happen to be in the Aberdeen area in the next little while do stop past the Claremont Gallery to see the Christmas Exhibition. Tomorrow evening is the opening reception from 6–8:30 pm, and then the show will run until the 31st of January, 2015.

I should mention that I also have three prints on display as part of the Society of Scottish Artists' Annual Exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, on The Mound in Edinburgh until the 20th of December. Hope you can make it!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Colour Remedy for a Dreich Day

Some photos from a plane trip that felt like it passed through Candy Land. I was so overwhelmed by the clouds and light that I forgot to take any photos until the most fantastic sights had already subsided, but I think these give a taste of it anyway. It's good to warm the eyes on colours like these, especially on days like these, where at lunchtime it is still too dark to read a book without switching on a lamp.

So here I am, days and weeks and months since my last post. I had thought that I could somehow anchor time here as a I passed through an over-busy period in my daily life, but of course, that's never how things work out in the end.

In these past few months I have flown across the sea and back, visiting the desert for the first time. I've started and also stopped working at a Russian nursery in addition to my regular job; though I loved seeing the effects that even just days had on the rapidly-growing minds of the children there, I simply couldn't find the time for it. I've seen skeletons parading in the streets, golden leaves, and snowy mountain-tops. I've been painting and working on prints too, so I have lots to share, now that things have slowed down a little.

It's incredible how a couple of months can feel at once like an eternity and also like the blink of an eye. I hope this little stretch of time has brought you rich memories and much joy. I am looking forward, once again, to catching up with everyone.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Looking In Again

Hello, if you are still out there!

After a pause in writing here it's always hard to come out of hiding again. I think perhaps it's best to slip back in quietly, so here are some early morning photos from a little trip down to England back in early September when everything was still very green.

Around the time these pictures were taken I was spending my days painting lots of tiny green leaves in egg tempera, which probably explains the framing of those onion domes I came across while wandering in a wood. Since then, there has hardly been a spare second and I have very much been longing to pick up my paint brush again.

Over here it is getting dark before we leave work in the evenings, and in the streets, withered up brown and yellow leaves are scurrying and scraping about. We too are scurrying about, busy with various projects and plans. And in all this I am hoping to get back into the habit of writing here, because I have missed it this past while. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

A Quine Like You

I'd forgotten to post about this until now, but a few months ago I had a commission to illustrate the story which won the Toulmin Prize literary competition, as in years past (2013, 2012, 2011).

At the time of painting this I was just back from studying with an icon painter (more on that sometime soon!), and I think there was definitely some influence lingering from the work I'd been doing on a painting of the Virgin Mary's very linear garments when I started working on this woman's boiler suit. Obviously the two garments look nothing alike, and this illustration is much more relaxed, but something of the approach seemed the same to me.

I suppose it's rather an appropriate illustration for this time of year, as the narrative begins with a young girl dropping off a jar of home-made raspberry jam on the doorstep of a rather intimidating neighbour. Scotland is a great country for wild berries and so we've been spending some our evenings out gathering wild raspberries recently. I hope you too are enjoying these late summer days and all the fruits of the season!