Friday, July 3, 2020

Love, compassion, light: Celia Paul's Self-Portrait

This memoir by the artist Celia Paul has accompanied me for the last few months, moving from bedside table to coffee table to dining table to my desk in the studio. I read it almost in one go, but I have been going back over certain passages and revisiting the reproductions of her work and the photographs.

While substantial parts of the book are about Lucian Freud (another artist whose work I admire - Celia Paul was one of his lovers and muses and they had a son together), she emphasises that he is made part of her story instead of the other way around, "as is usually the case".

I was more intrigued by her relationship with her family and her mother in particular and the work that arose (and continues to arise) from those family bonds. Her paintings of her mother and of her sisters are very moving and tender. Paul does not consider herself a portrait painter, but rather an "autobiographer and chronicler" of her life and her family, telling their story in images.

The memoir charts finding her own voice as an artist and breaking away from the role of the muse. So many artist couples have played out the dynamic of the woman making sacrifices that enable their partner to thrive. Paul shares a lot of insight into the challenges and obstacles to becoming an artist that women face and offers up her experience of working out "a strategy" to carve out the solitude that is essential for making art. This involves not living with her husband, as she needs to have her own private space*. She also talks about the conflict between motherhood and artistic creation, how being with her son makes her unable to work, as "all my concerns are for him" when he is present, and how she feels the guilt and separation acutely.

This interview includes interesting observations about Paul's connection to other artists (I love her voice; she emanates such calm and poise). She feels "this moral quality to Constable, this kind of love and compassion that comes through...", informed by familiarity with the subject matter: "you can't do anything unless you understand it".  As she writes in her memoir,

"I only ever work from people and places that I know well. This insider knowledge gives me freedom to take liberties with the forms and structures of the faces and figures, the clouds, the waves, the houses. [...] If I know my subject well, it's almost as if I don't need to look at them in order to give them intense attention, and yet I need their physical presence."
(Paul, Celia: Self-Portrait, Jonathan Cape, London 2019, p.3)

This is what gives her paintings their intimate and empathic quality. Even in reproductions in print or on the screen the spectral light in her paintings is powerfully conveyed - her work contains a "juxtaposition of the mystical with direct observation" (p.5). Her mother would regularly travel to London from Cambridge, climb the 80 steps to Paul's flat and pose for long periods of time, during which both artist and sitter would enter into a meditative, elevated state. Paul often uses spiritual language to describe the process of painting people, and her sisters and husband also give their perspective of what it is like to sit for her, by all accounts a transcendental experience.

In the interview the curator asks her about the evanescence of her seascapes and Paul reveals that she only really started working from water after her mother's death, when "forms broke up, nothing seemed permanent. So my subject seemed to be water, in a new way." She also talks about her "struggle between dark and light", with the light always emerging from the darkness, and the influence of Goya, how the light behind the figures in his family group paintings seems to be the subject of the painting, and how there is a "melancholy feeling about that, that the light will actually outlast the figures".

The language in the book is often sparse, and this minimalism, coupled with clear-eyed honesty, carries an even stronger emotional impact. There is one passage, when describing her mother's childhood, that relates a tragedy her mother was witness to and haunted by, and it is something I haven't been able to get out of my head.

Gwen John was another inspiration that is apparent in the two paintings above and below, in the containment and stillness of the self-portraits (John is also another example of a female artist having an all-consuming affair with an older male artist - Auguste Rodin. It appears Freud expected a similar subservience from Paul).

The book is also a meditation on the intersection between the written word and visual art. Paul says writing the memoir - she had not written much previously, apart from early diary entries and poems, and found 'freedom of speech' in painting instead - has affected her art: "I feel a new assurance in my painting, through a growing confidence about using words again."(p.5)

* Her husband Steven Kupfer wrote this essay about Celia Paul's art: "Celia Paul - Painting her Life"

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

On scanxiety

Photo taken in Italy last year - my first swim in the sea since my diagnosis

the marks on my back after a session on my 'bed of nails'

"All patients have complicated relationships with their scans [...]. We first learn we have cancer from scans, then learn from them if that cancer has shrunk or disappeared, then learn if it has come back. Scans are like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we're in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom." - Bruce Feiler

I am so relieved that I have 'a few more months of freedom' before my next appointment.

Cancer - or rather my own cancer - hadn't been on my mind that much until the scan date approached. Other things, both in the world at large and my personal life, have been taking up a lot of my mental energy, and when I veer towards fear I ground myself in activities I love, such as painting and reading. My cancer-related thoughts are mainly with people I know who are facing tough decisions or are running out of options. Right now I am lucky.

And yet, knowing too much about my diagnosis, the awareness of the high risk of a recurrence is always at the back of my mind. My therapist once said that any fears we have as humans, when peeled back, ultimately reveal a fear of death. And scanxiety is pretty close to that original fear.

While I was calm overall, the week between the scan and getting the results I felt the familiar tension, and since the scan the fatigue has been acting up.
The scans that fall into June are also a painful reminder of what could have been, as my due date was June 30, 2018 - instead, around that time I found myself at my lowest during chemoradiation for the inoperable lung cancer I had been diagnosed with as a fit 34-year old non-smoker (I did have surgery as well, but it is not the standard protocol for the type of stage III the cancer was). I was propped up on our daybed, unable to move and with excruciating side effects that many people would find TMI.
In December 2017, after a week of bleeding, I had braced myself for the 12-week scan at the gynaecologist's, willing the image to show growth. Fast-forward to my regular oncology scans, and it is the opposite - staring at different black-and-white images at appointments during treatment, looking for shrinkage and disintegration; the fear when the lymph nodes didn't respond as hoped; and now, post-treatment, always wishing for a 'nothing'. And repeatedly having to confirm I am definitely not pregnant each time so I can have the CT scans.

But all of that is a small price to pay for being able to live a fairly normal life, or a 'new normal' post-cancer life. 

Something that isn't talked about that often is how scanxiety also affects those close to the patient. In fact, it can be worse for family members or spouses. My deepest worries are about how my diagnosis affects John and my family, though I try not to entertain the spiralling thoughts about what might happen. And I am no stranger to what it is like for close relatives - my dad died of cancer and my mum was diagnosed after me. The feeling of helplessness and the fear are definitely worse when it is somebody you love, and I am feeling both right now, as my mum has to have a biopsy because her last check-up didn't go as we had hoped, so there is more waiting.

These days I am frequently reminded of 'lifeshocks' - they keep coming. 

My coping mechanisms include my usual rituals and this time especially the return to sea-swimming and my new 'bed of nails', aka an acupressure mat, a birthday present from John, who knew I wanted one. I sometimes do yoga nidra while on the mat and often fall asleep on it.

Creativity is another tool, and Julia Barnickle's wise words soothed me when I felt overwhelmed. This is what she has to say about scanxiety and anxiety in general - I aspire to her serenity. She also uses the exercises from The Artist's Way and believes creativity to be an important part of her healing.

I read an interview with an actress whose brother had died, and she talked about how around the same time work got very busy for her and the shock gave her a surge in energy. Looking back over shocks big and small I find that to have been true for me at certain points - trauma often paralyses you, but sometimes it can fuel your creativity and productivity.

Speaking of creativity, I am grateful for all the commissions coming my way and am donating half of the money from art sales since my return to work to charities and to our local cancer centre, which has been a great support for the last two years.  


Here is another article on scanxiety, including tips on how to cope with it.

Also, it would be lying by omission if I didn't admit that sometimes the only thing that works to pause the thoughts is binge-watching a series (most recently Self-Made).

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Natural beauty: skincare and dental

The contents of our bathroom cabinet are not all 100% plastic-free, but where possible we buy and use natural products in sustainable packaging or homemade versions.

I have been using a menstrual cup for around 15 years, since my early twenties, and more recently got some period underwear as well - and a portable bidet as a gift from my mum after my sister recommended it (that's all for another post - no taboos here!).

I don't buy cotton wool or similar. For taking off make-up I use muslin cloths that I store in a glass jar beside the basin. They also work well as a hot cloth for cleansing (I love Dr Hauschka's cleansing milk. The smell reminds me of my mum - it is the only product I currently have that has that white creamy scent idiomatic of so many lotions - something redolent of baby care and sunscreen and very comforting).
Another cleanser I bought a good while ago (a little goes a long way) and use as my main face wash is a Dublin Herbalists one that comes in a 'jam' jar. The consistency is like something between honey and liquid wax, so when you massage it into your skin you can almost feel it drawing out dirt and impurities. Adding water then turns it milky, and I take it off with a muslin cloth and warm water. As the brand name suggests, this is an Irish product.

I still use the frankincense and geranium moisturiser my sister made for me, and for sun protection I either use REN's SPF 30 or, when I want something akin to foundation (I rarely use foundation; I prefer a bare face), Ginzing SPF35 Hydrating Prettifying Finisher by Origins. It has a subtle glow and shimmer. I used to have Dr Hauschka's bronzer, which was nice and light. 

I tend to sleep with nothing on my face, but I do love Dr Hauschka's Night Serum, which goes on as an imperceptible layer. My skin feels softer and plumper and overall healthier the following morning. 

The Ben & Anna toothpaste comes in a jar with a wooden spatula. The charcoal dental floss feels tougher than conventional floss, but you get used to it. I never bought the dispenser; I just get the refills - we simply use scissors to cut off the length we need (it's crazy that the floss by the main dental care brands is mostly sold in plastic dispensers). We have Mable bamboo toothbrushes, and I like that they have a 'heavy bottom' and thus stand on their own, which means they don't get gunky sitting in a glass.

My sister also made me a jar of deodorant over a year ago that is still half full (at the moment I use it every day, but for a while I alternated with a geranium one I still had - also natural - which I used for exercise and when I expected fear sweat, as the jasmine one is not heavy-duty - but it still works well. I must ask her for the recipe).

Finally, rosewater is lovely as a toner or a hydrating mist and, of course, being rose, it is linked to the heart chakra. After everything that lung cancer and treatment did to that area of my body, I take extra good care of it, so one of my rituals is to spray rosewater on my chest. I used to buy this for other people and hadn't bought a bottle for myself in a while, and then, last year, in one of those examples of synchronicity, Angela in our local healthfood shop put one into my bag as a present, and now it is part of my routine again. And it is an Irish product.

As always, none of the above are affiliate links and I do not get paid for endorsing products here; I just post things I like!

Thursday, May 21, 2020


From Lindgren, Astrid & Hartung, Louise: Ich habe auch gelebt. Briefe einer Freundschaft, Ullstein Verlag, Berlin 2016

I have been filling a sketchbook with botanical illustrations, experimenting with different styles, though most of them are quite realistic. I adore both the highly detailed botanical drawings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and more stylised modern interpretations and am not sure where to go with mine, but enjoying the ride.

The ones in my sketchbook are all done with watersoluble coloured pencils. I only started rendering flowers in oils and acrylics as the main subject of a painting in recent years. Art history is filled with stunning examples of floral art, and they are hugely popular as a theme, yet for some reason I had only ever used them as part of a composition and rarely let them take centre stage.

I love Georgia O'Keeffe's big and bold sculptural paintings of flowers opening and blossoming. And cut-paper flowers and of course the real thing, fresh and ephemeral or preserved: For my birthday my nephew gave me a card with pressed flowers (which I will frame) and a beautiful necklace containing a daisy (and my sister's card was her own gorgeous botanical drawing). I've been revisiting The Paper Garden with Mary Delany's intricate botanical collages created with scissors and coloured paper and thinking about the lovely gesture of adding flowers to diaries and letters. Throughout their correspondence Louise Hartung would send Astrid Lindgren flowers in the form of bouquets and bulbs or pressed and attached to paper.

Since Christmas we've had two different amaryllises indoors, red and pink. Ever since my older sister pointed it out, I like to think of it as the plant of the three Wild sisters - my sisters' names are Anke and Sibylle, so bits of our three names are included in Amaryllis, in chronological order (I'm the middle child...).

The red variety, as so many red flowers, is a symbol of love, but in Victorian times, the amaryllis was associated with pride (which was seen as a good attribute, denoting beauty and strength) and in China the red amaryllis signifies luck. A pink amaryllis is a friendship symbol and I have been drawing it on cards. All varieties represent hope as well. Our two specimens brightened up our rooms in the darker months before the garden came into its own.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Birthday, houses and home

From Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (we sometimes put on subtitles in German if available, as John is learning it, or French or Spanish, as a brush-up exercise, but I put on English subtitles when I rewatched some of this, as there were so many quotes that I wanted to see in writing in addition to hearing the voice; it can add a layer of something I can't quite put my finger on)

‘I realised [the novel Play It as It Lays] was about anticipating Quintana was growing up. I was anticipating separation. […] I was actually working through that separation ahead of time. So novels are also about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with. In that sense that a novel is a cautionary tale, if you tell the story and work it out all right, then it won’t happen to you.’
Joan Didion, in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

What I paint and what I read and think about and feel, and things that come into my life without my prompting them, seem to constantly interweave in astonishing - or perhaps expected - synchronicity.

It was my birthday yesterday, and talking to my mentor and friend Margie, the themes of home and rebirth and becoming through coming home to ourselves came up. I am working on the painting above, which was also born (excuse the pun) out of conversations with Margie and inner child work (my younger sister had recommended the book by Stefanie Stahl, which is about accepting our ‘shadow child’ and thus freeing our ‘sunshine child’) and may call it 'Birthday' (also as a nod to one of my favourite paintings). 

Margie had asked me a while ago whether I had something symbolic that could represent the child in me, and while I searched I kept thinking of a blurry sepia photo of me on a beach that I had saved when my sister sent me a digital copy of it and that I had been meaning to use as the starting point for a painting. 

The book I mentioned in my last post, On Chapel Sands, starts with a girl – the author’s mother - disappearing from a beach, and the memoir is about where we come from, among other things. And incidentally, I just started swimming in the sea again last week.

The house my sisters and I spent the best part of our childhood in is being transformed into a home for my younger sister and her family, with an integrated apartment for our mum. I am so glad they will be under the same roof (the guilt of having left my tribe and moved to another country remains), but there must be something potent in the symbolism of the dismantling and rebuilding, as a lot of my dreams these last few weeks have been about home and a nostalgia for my childhood. Not being able to go to Germany at the moment comes into it as well, no doubt. There is a walk John and I like to go on here that, even though it is at the edge of wild dramatic windswept Connemara, has a softness that reminds me of the fields and ditches surrounding our village at home.

In a sense a lot of art is ultimately about the journey home; it is one of those archetypal themes that underpin pretty much everything. Yet I am still struck by how it is such a dominant thread in my reading and painting at the moment. 

John gave me the recently published Lives of Houses, a collection of essays about the physical homes of various artists, literary figures, composers, politicians, etc. and how they shaped their lives and work. And I bought (and have read the first few pages - then I put it away, as my currently-reading pile is about to topple) Elizabeth-Jane Burnett's The Grassling, about place and landscape, memory and grief. It also includes wild swimming.


We watched two excellent documentaries that are available on Netflix at the moment. Becoming, about Michelle Obama’s memoir of the same title, which also has some moving scenes of her revisiting her childhood home and reminiscing about her late father, and Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a portrait of the iconic writer, created by her nephew. 

I realised recently that I had quite the collection of literary works dealing with grief and packed away some of them to donate, but I still have Didion’s exceptional memoirs about the deaths of her husband and daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, and I want to reread them after watching the documentary.

A lot of my recommendations these days are the opposite of feel-good escapism*; between my choice of books and TV and the themes of my paintings (and the sea-swimming!), salt water is featuring heavily at the moment!

* We are also watching After Life.