Thursday, March 11, 2021

Loss and absence, art and nature


From Celia Paul: Self-Portrait (Jonathan Cape, London 2019, p.152)

"A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself." May Sarton

"[W]hen I look at this painting, even in reproduction, even in a black-and-white reproduction, it inspires in me an almost inexpressible tenderness that is close to pain [...] But again, why do I feel like weeping over a glass of water standing near a coffeepot? A real pot and glass of water would never have this effect on me, unless perhaps these objects had belonged to a beloved person who had died [...]
Chardin's body has left its mark on the canvas, and even though for many viewers that imprint may be subliminal, it is felt - the simpler the subject matter, the more opulent the human presence." 
Hustvedt, Siri: Mysteries of the Rectangle. Essays on Painting, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2005, pp.35f.


Monday, March 1, 2021

Knits, reads, paints


|  Knitting cushion covers in two-purl-two-knit squares and washcloths with leftover yarn from my jumper (bamboo washcloth pattern by John's cousin Lisa. My sister also makes her own washcloths) - I love spotting and noting random beautiful colour combinations, such as this one in my knitting basket: sage green, mint, magenta and silver grey.

|  This is not my current reading list (I am always late taking photos, and I already posted this on Instagram), but some highlights from last year, though not all recent publications. I am trying to remind myself to incorporate what I learnt from James Nestor's Breath (especially taping my mouth at night and doing coherent breathing: inhale for 5.5 seconds, exhale for 5.5 seconds), Glennon Doyle (stop caring what other people think, for example) and of course Pema Chödrön's wisdom. I read so many self-help books, and while I often take notes, once the books are back on a shelf, it is easy to forget the aha moments.

|  Working on a portrait of John: I am taking a lot of photos along the way, as he has given me permission to use this as an example in the online classes I am teaching, and I might add the work-in-progress shots to my website, if I ever revive the art blog I sporadically update on there (I am thinking of merging it with this one). The above photo is cropped; the painting is portrait format and will include seaweed, flowers and a bee when it is finished, symbols of John's love of nature, gardening and the sea and his new passion beekeeping.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Art books: Peter Campbell - Artwork


"One mark of an artist is that he or she alerts us to a world. Modest and wholly without pretension this Campbell repeatedly does. Unsurprisingly he was a lovely man." Alan Bennett on Artwork by Peter Campbell

"Dogs.I thought it was the dog I wanted pictures of, then I found it was dog plus shadows and dog plus spots plus green grass. But I didn't know that until I had taken the pictures. Snapshots are a way of thinking after you have seen something, otherwise you could just have a camera with no film."
Peter Campbell, "Art Lessons", in London Review of Books, 13 August 2020

The second extract is from a lovely piece by Peter Campbell, a letter to "Anna" (Anna Fender) that combines a selection of photographs of Italy with the "art lessons" of the title: his "notes [...] about what I looked at and noticed". He repeatedly emphasises the subjectivity of art and perception: "You would take different pictures and see different things in them". One of the photos, of a Dalmatian walking on grass that is broken up by the shadows of trees branching out, prompts the above observation. 

In a conversational and seemingly effortless tone, Campbell walks Anna and subsequent readers through his snapshots and the thoughts they spark, taking in themes such as composition, architecture, mark-making, light and shadow, abstraction, pattern, and art history along the way. The result is a unique lecture on art appreciation, his own philosophy of art. 

Peter Campbell was a Renaissance man (designer, artist, typographer, critic, children's author, amateur botanist) and a vital part of the London Review of Books from when it was first published until his death in 2011. He was the LRB's designer and art critic and created the cover artwork for every issue over a period of nearly twenty years, mainly in watercolour. The last one was of a view from his window when he was dying: a fox passing by in the street. Apart from the title no text was superimposed on this final cover image.

The letter to Anna prompted us to buy this book of Campbell's illustrations and designs and a set of postcards featuring work by Campbell and other artists, including Cressida Bell. This website was created to catalogue his work and make it available to the public. Both the book and the online archive are a treasure trove of his wide-ranging subjects and styles.
I am a big fan of Maira Kalman's work, and while Peter Campbell's illustrations are often more restrained, I find the two artists share a certain whimsy and wit, and both elevate the mundane and ordinary. There is a playfulness to Campbell's work that, together with his deeply caring view of the world, makes the viewer appreciate the beauty of the everyday in new and often surprising ways. You might even fall in love with your washing machine.

Friday, February 5, 2021

A jumper and a cardigan






These are two of my recent knitting projects. The chunky cable-sleeve cardigan was knitted in a day, and I learnt the magic loop method in the process (turns out you don't need circular needles of varying lengths; you can use long ones for small circumferences, too). It bought this pattern from Knit Safari and made it in size S, but I used different wool: Lana Grande from Cascade Yarns, which is 100% Peruvian highland wool and very soft and lightweight. I also love Tiam's designs with big sculptural sleeves and have bookmarked some I might try in the future, but I chose this one as it fits under a coat without being too bulky.

Making the jumper was a very different experience, and as I was switching between thick needles (I was working on a blanket with 25mm needles at the same time) and thin ones, my first attempt resembled a chain mail, as I didn't knit tightly enough. It is based on a free pattern by Paintbox Yarns ('Bubblegum Bobble Sweater'), but I spaced out the bobbles more - the original has two extra rows of bobbles between my rows. I also used different yarn again (a cotton/bamboo blend), and I didn't bother making the tension swatch. When I did measure along the way, I stretched the piece, which was another mistake (I do tend to interpret instructions as a rough guide...). In the end my head didn't even fit through the neckband and I had to make the front and back again. 

The result is now a mix of sleeves in XS, as they were fine, and the torso two sizes larger ('to fit bust 91cm', which I am not), but it is still quite small overall, so it works.

I am happy with how it turned out and didn't mind the extra work - I enjoy the process. Sewing it all together was the hardest part, and my seams are a bit messy. In hindsight cotton/bamboo wasn't the best choice for bobbles, but I just pretend the visible holes are deliberate. There are also some irregularities in the rows of stocking stitch, but I like the wabi sabi look.

I love bobble patterns - they are so tactile and fun - and am planning to make some cushion covers with bobbles next.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Signs and synchronicities





I have always been fascinated by so-called coincidences and signs that seem to arrive at just the right time. Of course, when something is on our mind a lot, we are bound to notice it more when it seems to pop up randomly everywhere. But I firmly believe that the energy of our thoughts has the ability to attract similar energies - see quantum physics (though I am wary of some of the rather arrogant Law of Attraction claims - that we can manifest anything and if we don’t, it’s our own fault).

Ever since I started Joe Dispenza’s meditations, I have been acutely aware of signs and synchronicities and attuned to their presence; he talks about it a lot, and some of his meditations include actively choosing an object or animal or symbol and waiting to see whether it appears in your life shortly after (there are some incredible testimonials on Youtube about this). And too much has happened in my own life than can be explained away rationally. Here are just four examples that hold special meaning for me:

Kaleidoscopes // At the end of 2019 I had been doing Joe Dispenza’s kaleidoscope meditations, including a live stream. They required you to keep your eyes open and gaze into kaleidoscopic patterns in order to get into a trance.

Then, when I travelled to Germany for Christmas, my aunt told me that the museum she volunteers in had an exhibition of… kaleidoscopes! I had never seen the elaborate machines before and had only been familiar with the handheld ones we had as kids. So kaleidoscopes had not really featured in my life, and suddenly I found myself in a museum in my hometown surrounded by them, in the wake of doing kaleidoscope meditations.

The lost diamond // Another thing happened around the time I returned to work following my cancer treatment: I lost the middle diamond on my engagement ring on one of the first days I was out and about in the world again. I had been in work and passed through a lot of places on campus; I had run several errands, so would have visited shops, walked around town, etc.; I had been pottering around the house and out in the garden. So when I looked down at the dashboard while driving home and spotted the empty part of the ring on my hand, I knew there were numerous places I could have lost it.

A couple of days later I was teaching my Saturday class. At one point I told one of the women about the lost diamond. After my students had left, I tidied and locked up, but then I suddenly remembered that the cleaners would be in before Monday and felt I should at least spend some time searching the room. A tiny diamond in the art room was akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack – the room and store room were far from tidy (a lot of the groups that use the room leave out their stuff). That week there must have been crafts activities, as the dirt on the paint-splattered floor included glitter and, of all things, the odd plastic diamond! So when, after seconds of scanning the floor, my eyes fell on a shiny diamond in the spot where I had been standing telling my story to that woman, I thought it was one of the fake diamonds. But closer inspection revealed that it had the exact right shape, and it sparkled in a way that the plastic ones didn’t. I couldn’t believe it.

I took it to the jeweller’s John had bought it from, and he showed me that a tiny chunk had broken off – something that can happen when you knock the ring against a hard surface. Because it was the part of the diamond that was set into the ring, he was able to put it back in securely, and the damage is not visible.

John had chosen the ring because he liked the idea of the three stones symbolising the three sisters, in addition to the other meanings. I am the middle sister, so when he found out about the broken middle diamond, he said it was me with part of my lung removed, but still here and stronger than before.


Dog’s nose // In February 2020 I had another respiratory infection (a souvenir from the cancer treatment - I had had several bouts of those, sitting up at night coughing, but this was one of the hardest ones to shake) and was feeling low; it was one of those times when the weight of my diagnosis hit me. We were dogsitting for our neighbours that week. A few days before that I had found a postcard on the floor of the car with a black dog’s nose and a dragonfly on it. It must have fallen out of the bag of images that I usually keep in the art room but had taken home for another class – a mixture of cuttings from magazines, cards, calendar photos, etc. for inspiration. Now  I found myself crying in the kitchen, and the dog came up to me and put her head on my lap. The rest of her was hidden by the table, so looking down I could only see her nose, and it looked exactly like the dog’s nose on the card that had been in the car.


Ladybirds // My talisman has always been the ladybird. After my diagnosis, my younger sister started sending me ladybird-themed things, including a book she created with contributions from friends and family in Germany that she had glued a wooden ladybird on. Because of those gestures of hers, I had been thinking of ladybirds and willing them to appear when we watched an episode of ‘The Good Place’ - and lo and behold, in that episode giant ladybirds were falling from the sky in the afterlife. It was like the Universe was giving me an unmistakeable sign.

And they continued to show up in unexpected ways, both here and in my sister's world. And it extended further - one day I had coffee with a friend and told her about the ladybirds, and later that day she sent me a photo: she had got home and found a ladybird earring at the bottom of her handbag that she had no recollection of putting in there.

[About a year ago I submitted a much shorter version of this to Agradecida y Poderosa (a young woman who had stage IV cancer and posts about healing and her lifestyle – I found her through our shared interests in complementary therapies) for her series ‘Tu poderosa historia’ on Instagram. There are a lot of similar stories by other patients (all in Spanish).]


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Around here



Matcha tea ceremony

Some fiction highlights from last year

Sideboard still life

Work-in-progress: John and Cillian

"She walks back, more slowly, the way she came. How odd it feels, to move along the same streets, the route in reverse, like inking over old words, her feet the quill, going back over work, rewriting, erasing. Partings are strange." O'Farrell, Maggie: Hamnet, Tinder Press, London 2020, p.214


|  I like to knit all year round, but often abandon it during the summer months. At the end of the year, while on an unplanned break from work due to a health complication (neither cancer-related nor COVID), I picked up my knitting needles again and have been knitting every day since. It can be addictive, and even though I am a morning person, I can see how my sister is able to stay up past midnight while working on a project. You don't notice the time going by, and the movement of your hands keeps you alert, albeit in a lulled, relaxed way.

|  I had been drinking matcha tea for years and John never showed any interest, until one of his favourite podcasts dedicated an episode to it, which prompted him to order a matcha tea set and introduce a weekly ritual.

|  Books are my weakness when it comes to acquiring things (outside of lockdowns I also use the library a lot) - even though there must be dozens of books in the house that I haven't read yet, I keep getting more. I always have several books on the go and make sure at least one of them is fiction, and I exchange books with friends and family and often pass on novels when I am finished with them.

|  Apart from the books that are scattered everywhere, I lean towards minimalism and try to limit clutter (of course everyone has a different interpretation of what constitutes clutter, and the definitions of minimalism are equally varied), but I do get aesthetic satisfaction from the objects surrounding us, including the jars of fermenting kale that are currently fizzing away on the sideboard (not pictured). The Irish Times recently featured Kopper Kreation, a Dublin brand that makes homeware out of reclaimed and recycled materials, and John bought a copper pipe candelabra. It has been brightening up our dinners.

|  A couple of weeks ago, when my energy had returned, I gave my little studio some TLC and am now back in there for hours every day, preparing videos for my art classes, finishing commissions, working on illustrations, and getting started on a new series of personal paintings on wooden boards - as much as I love the texture of canvas, I want to experiment with smooth surfaces.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Two kinds of light



"...[T]he light behind the figures seems almost the subject of the painting, rather than the figures themselves, and there's quite a melancholy feeling about that, that the light will actually outlast the figures." (Celia Paul on Goya, from "A Conversation with Celia Paul" by The Huntington on Youtube)

“The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.” May Sarton


// Light emerging //

The print of Francisco Goya's Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga (1787-88), also known as the "Red Boy", has been on our bathroom wall for the past year or so, and I love seeing it every day. It provokes a feeling similar to the visceral reaction I have to the figures in  Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, and Celia Paul's words come close to describing it. The little boy died a few years after this portrait was painted, at the age of eight. 

Although this portrait was a commission, it reveals a tender touch and humanity that Goya's other sitters of nobility would not necessarily have been conferred with. There are various interpretations of the symbolism Goya employed and the influence of both Enlightenment and Romanticism that can be found in his work from this phase. Some argue that the portrait contrasts the innocence of childhood with the evils of the world - the latter represented by the animals in their slightly disturbing configuration: the magpie on a leash; the expression on the cats' faces; the caged finches. However, the animals may also simply have been included as the boy's beloved pets, and perhaps as a supporting cast to the ephemeral nature of youth captured in Manuel's features.

Above all, it is the spectral light that keeps haunting me (also one of the reasons I love Celia Paul's work so much). And although nobody could have foreseen the child's fate, the portrait seems strangely prescient: the lost look on his face set against the opulence of his clothing is poignant, and he appears almost as a ghost, his family's nobility and wealth no guarantee against an early demise.


// Wandering light //

The low winter sun has been throwing unexpected patches of light on the surfaces of the rooms, triggering glints on gold frames and other shiny objects, and one morning I caught a moment when its brightness highlighted the diffuse light I had painted on the horizon of a seascape. When I photographed the Red Boy, the window beside the print caused dots of light to appear around it. Observing the movement of light has become a meditation in itself and a starting point for extended daydreaming.