A couple of weeks ago I received an email from one of my former tutors at Falmouth University, asking me if I would like to contribute to an evening of talks on the subject of Blue. Considering that very little, if any, of my visual work contains the colour Blue or any colour at all, for that matter, my first response was that I probably wouldn’t have too much to say.
Every year, at Falmouth University, an illustration forum is held where artists and illustrators from all over the world are invited to discuss their work in front of an audience of students. The forum has been taking place for around 12 years now. It was started by Steve Braund, the course leader of the illustration MA at Falmouth, and I first attended in 2012 before I joined the course myself later that year. It was a very happy time for me, standing as I was on the threshold of a whole new life, and the forum left me feeling inspired and also mildly terrified. This year, Steve has passed the reins of organisation to Catrin Morgan, another one of my tutors there, and this year the subject around which it is to be based, is the colour Blue.
In the lead up to the forum, which is held in March, the students on the illustration course have been holding a series of events and workshops, including an evening of talks on Friday by former students of the course. So, that would be me then ...
Looking for any excuse to get back into university, even for a couple of hours, not to mention the offer of some free tickets to the forum, I gave the matter some thought ...
I may not literally use the colour Blue in my work, but it occurred to me that much of the spirit of my work is about Blue. I work with memory and nostalgia, regret, longing and desire, and I use a lot of imagery of the ocean. Some might say that I am a little obsessed with it. And I'm fascinated by the idea of being lost, of allowing yourself, or myself, to become lost, of disappearing over distant horizons.
When I first started exploring these ideas 2 or 3 years ago, I stumbled across the Portuguese word ‘Saudade’ which seemed to encompass a lot of what I was trying to express. There is no word in the English language which describes in full the meaning of ‘Saudade’. Part of the reason I am so interested in it is the very fact that it is so difficult to describe. But many, if not all of us, will have experienced something close to it at some point in our lives, and if you haven't, you almost certainly will in the future. Or, at least, I hope you will.
Put simply, Saudade can be described as a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. It is often translated as nostalgia, but this is largely incorrect, as nostalgia implies a comfort, whearas Saudade expresses an uneasy comfort, a sort of enjoyable melancholy for things lost or out of reach.
I was thinking about all of this and how I might contribute to the evening of Blue when I remembered an article I’d read a while ago on the website Brain Pickings entitled ‘Why the Sky and The Ocean are Blue: The Colour of Distance and Desire’ and I discovered that this article had been written in response to an essay by Rebecca Solnit in her book ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’. There is a recurring chapter in this book entitled ‘The Blue of Distance’ where Solnit examines the colour blue and its relationship to desire and longing. It begins …
‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.’
Reading this, I had one of those 'oh, oh, oh I get it' moments, as I made the link between this Blue of Distance and Saudade. If the blue we gaze at in the distance is the colour of longing for the places we never arrive at, the place we can never be, then if Saudade has a colour, it must surely be blue.
As I said, I am quite fascinated with the idea of being lost, of being deliberately lost. My own experience of Saudade or with the Blue of Distance and the longing it seems to invoke began a long, long time ago. I believe it began at school, possibly earlier, but certainly in my geography class where I remember spending a considerable amount of time looking out of the window. I remember it being geography, although I’m sure it wasn’t confined to geography, but I remember this because the classroom was very high up and the view from there reached far across the town to the woods and the hills on the ridgeway beyond. I longed to be there, in the distant blue, and not here, but blue is the colour of longing for the distances you never arrive in. For when you are ‘there’ then ‘there’ is somewhere else and you are still ‘here’.
Solnit argues that this relationship between desire and distance is actually the root of much of our unease and dis-satisfaction in life, particularly in the western world where we seek to eradicate our desire through consumerism and grasping or through resistance with denial and suppression. We can’t, it seems, just be with desire, inhabit it, bear witness to it. I think I recognised this chronic grasping in myself a long time ago. I am still constantly looking ahead to the distant horizon, or looking back towards the one behind me. I suffer from a constant yearning for 'there', but I think I have learned to live with, and even enjoy this state of being, a state of being that I now think of as Saudade, the enjoyable melancholy.
I explored much of this whilst I was doing my MA and I became mildly obsessed with a story which was very much a part of my own personal history and a particular experience I bore witness to when a friend of mine, who later became, yes, my boyfriend, The Pirate, had what basically amounted to a bit of a mid-life crisis and went and bought a huge fishing boat in Ireland and decided to set out on a potentially suicidal voyage across the Irish Sea. He was, however, just one in a very long line of men and women who have sought to lose themselves out there in the blue yonder. Whether seeking redemption, a new life, hope, transcendence ... That Something. That Somewhere. Solnit discusses something of this yearning to be … free? in her final chapter on The Blue of Distance, citing ‘innumerable absolutists’ such as the French artist Yves Klein and aviator Amelia Earhart, whom she describes as being …
' … all saddled with a desire to appear in the world and a desire to go as far as possible that was a will to disappear from it. In the ambition was a desire to make over the world as it should be; but in the disappearances was a desire to live as though it had been made over, to refashion oneself into a hero who disappeared not only into the sky, the sea, the wilderness, but into a conception of self, into legend, into the heights of possibility.'
This story of my lost sailor searching The Blue of Distance for a new beginning is something I have pursued for several years now and it still seems to be intent on working its way through my system. Recently, I penned a long, short story 'Salt in The Blood' which is on my website if anyone is interested in reading it in full. In this piece of writing, I have explored this idea of yearning to be lost, of the desire to disappear, and the liberation of allowing yourself to simply float off into the blue. In the story, my sailor ackowledges that this isn’t really possible, he understands that he will always be ‘here’ and he cannot witness himself disappearing, so he ploughs on, comes through it, arrives cleansed but not purified in the way that a hero from a story would be if he had indeed vanished. My sailor is wiser and he understands that he must live with, and even embrace, his regrets and longings.
In this final passage from the first part of the essay, Rebecca Solnit seems to offer something of a remedy for this constant grasping, in the same way that I think Saudade allows us, allows me, to inhabit and enjoy this state of longing. This description of the blue of longing really does resonate with me and in what I am constantly striving to understand in myself and express in my work …
‘We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.’
I will be presenting my thoughts on Blue and Saudade at the pre-forum talks tomorrow evening and I would highly recommend the Rebecca Solnit book in its entirety which rather beautifully explores wandering and the uses of being lost.
_The winter days are short and dark. The nights are long and sometimes it seems that the sun is setting even before it has had a chance to rise.
It's a strange thing ... I'm not at my best in winter. The cold, the dark, the incessant wind which I always find so unsettling, and yet there is something about this time of year which makes me need to write. Something in the bleak, grey melancholia of listening to the rain pattering down on to the roof of my attic bedroom, of watching the dark clouds and the mist roll in across the moors, of the sound of the wind whistling in through the crack in the window frame, which makes me want to huddle down with my imagination and retreat into story. A form of meditation made easy thanks to winter's soundtrack.
I once wrote a novel in the dark. I could, in fact, only write in the dark. Winter is the best time for this, of course, as the nights are long. And at night, while the world sleeps, I know I won't be interrupted. You can feel the quiet, if you're still enough, and out here between the sea and the moor, my village is lit only by the stars, so the dark presses in and wraps me up like a blanket.
The first thing I remember wanting to be 'when I grew up' was a writer. I penned my first story, complete with illustrations, when I was about 7 or 8. I wish I still had it. In my memory it was an adventure story, Enid Blyton style, with all the kids on my street as the characters in the story. I was always writing after that. It was a way to express my dreams, my fears, my ideas about life and the world around me. It was the way I made sense of things, brought calm to the confusion of growing up. As a teenager, I was known as the one who stared out of windows, 'fighting dragons' in my head. Trigonometry was never for me. I was too busy telling stories to myself. I started illustrating almost as an afterthought, but as it turned out, I was quite a good artist so I carried on, and gradually the art took over. But I never gave up the writing, and I could never really create images without thinking of the narrative behind them. Always had to fight the urge to put lines of text into every piece of artwork I created. For me, the two things just seem to go together.
These days, I like to think of myself as a 'storyteller'. Labels of 'artist', ''illustrator', 'writer' etc have never really sat very comfortably with me. To tell a story has always been my intention and I will use any media which feels appropriate at the time. But still, I love to write. Particularly during the dark days of winter. Particularly now, in deepest Cornwall, in the night.
So, I write. And right now, I am writing a collection of (long) short stories. Ideas which began 2-3 years ago mostly, around the time I went back to university and picked up my imagination again. Ideas based on fairy tales and memory and the experience of being human, ideas which are all these things mixed together.
One of these stories, 'Salt in The Blood' is a widening of the narrative I worked on during my MA, the Sailor and the Siren, who, for now at least, seem fated to continue their battle. Another is my version of 'The Red Shoes', difficult to write as it is based on my memories of being in hospital and recovering from illness. A third, 'Red & Black' (working title) seems to be about identity and the multiple faces we present to the world. I'm not sure that I'm up to the task of articulating these ideas, and there have been times these last few months when every sentence feels like trying to swim up through cold treacle, but the words are taking shape, slowly but steadily.
Of course, all writing will undoubtedly come to a halt as soon as the clocks go forward, shelved until the dark days come again, but until then, I shall sit here in the dark, listening to the rain outside and the wind in the chimney, fighting dragons, swimming through treacle ...
On September 9th 2015, at roughly 5pm, watched by my parents and by the love of my life, 'The Pirate', I received my master's degree from the chancellor of Falmouth University (Dawn French). It was a proud moment for me, having achieved an exceptionally high distinction for my troubles, and a moment which just a few short years earlier would have been beyond my wildest imaginings.
Six days later I turned 45. An age which just a few short years ago was also beyond my wildest imaginings!
At the beginning of 2012 I was 41. I had just recovered from major surgery after the second cancer scare of my life and my marriage had recently ended. I was living in North Yorkshire, cut adrift, lonely, directionless, afraid. I had no idea what to do with my life next, but a conversation with a friend who lived in Falmouth had got me thinking. And hoping.
'Years earlier - 18 to be exact - I had lived in Falmouth and completed an HND in commercial illustration, but for some reason 'The Future' had never really happened, and my creativity and love for storytelling had gotten lost in the struggle to survive 'life'.
I yearned to return to what I loved. The place, Falmouth, and the one thing I knew I was good at: Storytelling. But at 41 I feared I was too old for university life. Too old for academic study. Too old to begin again.
I was lucky enough to have the (tentative) support of my parents and a smattering of friends who encouraged me throughout the difficult winter of 2011/2012 as, whilst enduring both the surgery and a job as General Dogsbody in the cafe at Rievaulx Abbey, I cobbled together a portfolio of dreams and began to look nervously towards an uncertain future.
I was as amazed as anybody when my first day as a postgrad student rolled round and I found myself sitting in a room full of strangers on the Authorial Illustration MA at Falmouth University in October 2012. Amazed, and liberated, and terrified, and about as happy and excited as I thought it was possible for a human being to be.
I knew from the very first day that I had made the right decision. That the upheaval and the risk and the fear would all be worth it. That I was already so proud of myself for taking the leap, for putting myself on the line like that. For taking the risk of finding out, once and for all, if I really did have something inside me worth pursuing.
In October 2012, I couldn't have known where the next two years would take me. Couldn't know that I would meet and become friends with some of the most incredible people, of all ages and backgrounds and stories. Couldn't know how I would be pushed and pushed and encouraged by my incredible tutors to fulfil all that potential I'd had simmering beneath my skin for years. Couldn't know how I would open up my mind and my heart to let all the university experience envelop me. That I would work harder and more passionately than I had ever done before. That I would spend my days creating and my nights dancing. That I would go swimming in the sea in the moonlight. That I would spend the summer solstice drumming until dawn with my new friends. That I would fall in love with a gypsy pirate boy that lived on a boat. And that at the end of it all, I would surpass all expectations for myself and emerge with a distinction and a body of work that I could not have even imagined at the beginning.
What I learned during those two years, more than anything else, is that it is never too late to begin again. I wasn't the oldest person on that course, but even if I had been, I doubt it would have mattered. What I took to university was an attitude of openness. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to learn. I wanted to feel enchanted by life again. As a result, I became friends with 22 year olds as well as 62 year olds and everyone in between. I never, ever allowed myself to think that I couldn't do something because I was 'too old'. So, I went to parties. I drank a bit more than was strictly good for me. I walked home at dawn in inappropriate footwear.
One year after my MA exhibition, in my graduation regalia, I found myself reflecting on those two incredible years. It was a kind of closure, I suppose, to go up on to the stage and accept my Masters, to listen to the speeches and to find myself wondering, again, what the future might hold. Nothing is certain. Life goes on. But my two years as a mature postgrad student taught me that I can really do anything if I want it badly enough.
Life, it seems, can be a great adventure. As long as you let it.
A glance at seven passages.
Seven artists present a reunion of their work after one year of individual progression. The collective each occupies a set measurement which signifies the approximate space of a step. Amy Goodwin Heidi Ball, IreneVidal, Lewanna Stewart, Lisa Wrench, Lucy Kerr and Suzy Sharpe use their authorial voice to explore themes of arsenic, monsters, narrative resonances, symbol, solitude, illusion and anthropocentrism.
'A Stride' exhibition took place at The Poly in Falmouth and after a packed Private View (thank you to everyone who attended) the exhibition ran for a further four days during Falmouth Week in early August. It was my second group exhibition at The Poly this year but this time there were seven of us to bring together in a relatively small space.
The title of the exhibition 'A Stride' derives from the idea of a set measurement, or a 'step', and was chosen as a theme for the show for two reasons. Firstly, so that each artist would occupy a space measuring roughly a 'step' or a 'stride' and that the work on show would signify some kind of journey, be it literal, spiritual or metaphorical.
It was wonderful to be reunited once again with some of my old student colleagues almost one year on from graduation and I'm very proud of Amy and Irene in particular for the hard work they put in curating the exhibition. It's not always an easy task to co-ordinate 7 artists! It was also wonderful to catch up with Lewanna who has been sorely missed since she returned to Scotland (we're putting the pressure on for her swift return!) Of course, it was also a little nostalgic for me being back in Falmouth. Although I still live in Cornwall, my time in Falmouth was so precious and wonderful that it is hard not to feel emotional every time I return.
Everyone's work is quite different, but as a whole I thought that the exhibition worked well. I have included links to all the artists' individual websites for more info on each of them and the artists' statements can be read by clicking through the images above.
The Pirate has a website! For all things boat and life aboard ...
Old Rope Salvage
Ten years ago today, almost exactly to the hour, I was sitting in the consultant's office at Whitby Hospital receiving a cancer diagnosis.
It had been a long day. I had been in the garden tying my nasturtiums to pea sticks, experimenting with companion planting in my vegetable garden. They were bright orange and full of hope. I was nervous and full of foreboding. I had been unwell for months, dragged down by vague but persistent symptoms, dosing myself on over-the-counter painkillers. Five days earlier my beloved pet cat had died on the operating table at the vets, felled by liver failure. The mid-June air was heavy, threatening storms. I was trying to remain calm, but I knew in my bones that something bad was coming.
Every year, in June, I am reminded. The calm before a storm still unnerves me. And the sight of nasturtiums still sends a rush of pins and needles to my fingertips.
At Whitby Hospital, they were behind schedule. Woefully behind. My appointment had been scheduled for 4pm, but it was gone seven before my name was called. I was the last person to be seen that day. Everyone else had gone home. Even the staff.
I knew in my bones that something was very wrong, but nothing prepares you for a shock of that magnitude. I was 34. Young, fit, perfectly healthy all my life, and recently married. I was in the middle of renovating my first home, a Georgian cottage between the sea and the Yorkshire Moors, my whole life stretching ahead in unwoven threads. The kindly consultant delivered the grim diagnosis whilst the tearful nurse handed me a box of tissues. Even now, 10 years later, my hands shake a little as I write, tingling with the ghost of that memory.
I didn't cry. I was too busy observing, from a long distance, the buttons on the consultant's white coat. I was in a tunnel, and there were Banshees screaming past my ears. Everything was hard and bright and my eyes were burning. I heard very little of what was said to me. Something about surgery. Urgent. Chemotherapy. Months of treatment. Years of surveillance.
I went home that evening and called my parents. My mother cried. My dad said 'oh, my God' a lot. I went to bed and lay awake all night staring at the ceiling while my husband slept beside me. I had no thoughts. Only pure, intense, terrifying sensation. I thought I might die of a heart attack.
10 years ago today, on this very evening, my life changed forever. Everything I thought I knew about life, about myself, was different. I was plunged into a world of hospitals and impossible, nightmarish decisions about treatment. I wanted to run away so badly that my legs ached with longing, but I was trapped inside my body with no up, no down, no under, over or around. There was no escape. The only way forward was Through.
It was a long, long walk through that tunnel. The Banshees screamed inside my ears, without pause, for two whole weeks. After surgery, they calmed themselves a little but remained inside my head for months, stirring occasionally in unexpected moments to remind me of their presence. They are still there now, but over time I have become more accustomed to their mutterings.
My cancer had been serious and the treatment was brutal, but my youth and fitness helped me to recover quickly, even as the chemotherapy took its toll. The prognosis was good, but uncertain. The cancer, as it turned out, was hereditary, and none of the experts quite knew what to make of it. I got used to meeting with new consultants, all of whom, without fail, looked at me in bewilderment, shook their heads, and uttered the words 'very rare'.
Coming back from cancer, or from any life-threatening or life-shattering event, takes a long time. In some ways, you never come back. Or, at least, you come back different. My physical recovery took at least a year. The psychological recovery was far more complicated.
I thought I had a handle on the idea of my own mortality, but before cancer it had only ever really been that: An idea. With cancer, I found myself staring right into The Abyss. I could taste it. Touch it.
It smelled of metal and coated plastic.
There are moments in life which everyone experiences, when everything is clearer. We don't always recognise them as such, but these are the moments when our subconscious selves rise to the surface and for a brief time over-ride the clatter and noise of the everyday. These are the moments to which we should give our undivided attention. Having cancer gave me one of those moments. But it was a moment which was so clear and bright that I was almost blinded by it. I couldn't switch it off. It was relentless. And exhausting.
Admittedly, I was always a little bit hippie, but now all I wanted to do was to sit and look at swifts. They were everywhere. Filling the sky. Everyday life seemed ridiculous. All the old worries so pointless. When I looked at the swifts I found them so beautiful that I wanted to cry, but I had no idea if I was happy or sad. I was simply filled up with the joy of being alive.
I travelled to Australia and found myself in a Buddhist retreat in The Snowy Mountains. Sitting in on the meditation with the monks, the doors and windows thrown open to the sound of an Australian night, I wondered how it was that I could be so far from home and not miss any of it. I travelled for two months, but I knew I could have gone away forever and that it wouldn't really matter. Life was very small. And impossibly huge.
On my return, I spent the winter of 2006-2007 holed up in my attic, listening to the wind and the rain battering the roof tiles, sitting in the semi-darkness at my computer, writing my way back to life. I wrote for six months straight, immersing myself into a story that had waited for my attention for years. It was the only thing which stopped me from thinking about cancer. It stopped me from thinking at all. For six months I was immersed, hiding from my own thoughts, allowing the healing to take place off-stage, whilst I looked the other way. By the end of 2007 I had written a novel, and to all outward appearances, I was back to 'normal'. I put my story in a cupboard and got myself a job at a little independent bookshop in Whitby where I stayed for the next 4 years.
Life went on, as it always does. My little drama became yesterday's news. Other things happened. People close to me died. I had friends diagnosed with their own illnesses. Over time I became the person that others came to for help and advice. For reassurances. Somehow, having cancer had made me wise.
I didn't feel wise. Under the surface, something was brewing. It is impossible to go through something so traumatic and to return to 'normality' untouched. I wasn't fully aware of it at the time, but having cancer had started a process inside of me, unlocking something deep in my bones which had been lying dormant for years. I had begun to feel an unease about my life, now compounded by the fact that due to the cancer treatment I could no longer have children. It was odd. I had never really wanted children, but in my early 30s I was beginning to think I should. It seemed like the thing to do, and my husband wanted them. Now that the choice had been taken away, I was left feeling sad but also disturbingly relieved, and this realisation led me into looking at my adult life through new eyes. Somehow, from graduating at the age of 23, I had been drifting through life, never quite committing to one thing or another, always waiting for something to happen or something to change, allowing myself to become a part of somebody else's life-plan. I have no idea to this day how or why it happened. It just did. I suspect it happens to a lot of people.
It wasn't an overnight realisation, or a lightbulb moment, merely a slow creeping sense of wrongness and of time running out. I was still attending check-ups at the hospital every six months, and with the knowledge that my cancer was hereditary I was told that I would need monitoring for the rest of my life. Cancer would be with me for as long as I lived, however long or short that might be. It would stay with me constantly, always there to remind me of how precious life is. Of how utterly fragile we are as flesh and blood human beings. This awareness was almost unbearable. Somehow, I had survived. Give or take a couple of scars, my body was more or less intact. I was still relatively young. And I was as restless as hell.
When you realise, truly realise, that your life is your own. When you understand, fully, that you are an independent adult living in a free world, that you are nothing but atoms and stardust and that after you die (which will be soon) the world will spin on without you and absolutely nothing will matter anymore, there is an overwhelming surge of liberation that cannot be ignored.
I had survived. For how long, I could not know. but I was here now. I had survived.
There was no sense to it, of course. The universe may be all random chaos, or there may be a pattern somewhere that we cannot see, but I could make no sense of it. Only that I was here, that my life was my own, and that I absolutely had to start living it the way I needed to. Straight from the heart.
There are points in our lives around which we orientate ourselves. Memories. Ideas about who we are. Places we feel safe. The image we have of ourself which is familiar and which we understand. In order to reset my life at one of these points, I had to go a long way back. Back to my very early 20s in fact. When I was last making important decisions for myself. Alone.
Fighting cancer was one thing. Nobody really fights cancer. The doctors and the drugs do that. Fighting for your life is something else entirely. It is a mental process which takes time and strength and courage. It is something which has to be done alone, during the sleepless nights of soul searching when there are no distractions and no one else around to muddy the waters of deep thought.
In the end, I had to bring down my entire life as I knew it in order to rebuild again from the ground up. Rock bottom, I believe it is called. The good solid foundation on which to lay the first bricks of something new.
When you are young, you begin your life standing in an empty field of possibility. There is no defined path, no walls to hem you in, no perimeters to limit exploration. But as we move forward, a path is furrowed, fences are erected, and before we know what is happening, we can find ourselves standing inside a wind tunnel, walls of concrete rising on all sides. When this happens, the only way out is to bring everything down.
It is a painful, destructive process. Utterly terrifying. But after the destruction, after the ruins have ceased to smoke and the dust has settled, you may find yourself standing back in that empty field. Older, hopefully wiser, and ready to begin again.
In 2012, I found myself standing in that field. I was bewildered. Elated. Shocked by my own power. My house was sold, my marriage was over, and some friends, unable to understand the changes I had wrought, had been lost. But there I was, in my 40s, starting again. I took myself off to Cornwall where I had lived in my early 20s, enrolled at university, and began a Master's Degree in illustration. I had the support of my parents and a handful of friends who had stood by me throughout the destruction, and I was ready, at last, to build the life I wanted for myself, by myself.
University has finished now. I spent two years working harder than I have ever worked in my life, dedicating myself to my art, to storytelling, with a passion I had never previously experienced. It was an intoxicating, empowering experience. I achieved a very high distinction for my efforts, but more importantly I proved to myself that I possessed talent and commitment to the one thing I have always known I was good at. I built new friendships with honesty. I allowed myself to be seen for who I truly am. I fell in love and began a relationship with a man who could see straight through me and into my heart.
Ten years is a long time. But it can also pass in the blink of an eye if you are not paying attention. Since that evening in the consultant's office at Whitby hospital, I have made absolutely sure to always pay attention. All I wanted, at that moment, was a 'few more years', and by some miracle, I was granted my wish. It hasn't always been easy, but I hope I have used those 10 years wisely, pushing the limits of my life and who I am beyond anything I thought I was capable of.
I'm 44 now. Ten years older and yet feeling immeasurably younger. Cancer, trauma, taught me to be open. To be fearless. To take the time to drink in everything that life has to offer. All the joys and sorrows. Life is full of possibility. I learned these lessons in one of the hardest ways possible. That we are all living on borrowed time. Life is not finite. It is short and filled with sorrow and hardship, but it is also long enough to cram in everything you need to do. Not everything you want to do. Everything you need.
I still don't have a 'career' to speak of. I don't own my own house. And I will never have my own children. But I spend my days on beaches, looking at skies. And I write. And I draw. And I am loved.
And I am alive.
'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.'
~ Henry David Thoreau
Before I belonged to the sea, I belonged to the forest. As a child I wanted to be Huckleberry Finn, and later, as a teenager, obsessed with the romance of a simpler way of life, I wanted to be Robin Hood. Free from authority. Free from constraints. Free from the trappings of modern society and the burdens placed upon the modern adult.
I currently live in a converted cow shed. Sitting here at my desk, the late afternoon sun dancing across the walls, I have the doors wide open and a view through the trees, down the valley, across the fields, all the way to Dartmoor. If I stand on the wall outside and stand on tip-toes, I can see the River Tamar snaking a silver path between Cornwall and Devon. From the bottom of my garden, through a path almost hidden by a tangle of wild early summer green, I can access an old wood, the trees bent and twisted and full of secrets.
It costs me very little to live here. And down in the valley my very own Huck Finn resides on the trawler, his raft of freedom, the Tamar in place of the Mississipi, for even less.
When I was a child, and later a teenager and young adult, I soothed my fears and anxieties by walking, by being alone, by seeking solace in the natural world. But as the world changed, as we as a species became more connected in our technology, I began to do what many people do and waste my time by surfing the internet. It is a seemingly easy fix. I read articles, I scroll through Facebook and Twitter, I watch Youtube.
It doesn't help. At least, it doesn't help me.
Recently, in this new part of Cornwall I now call home, I have been walking again. Seeking out new places. Exploring. Thinking. Rediscovering the things which soothe me when my head feels full of cotton wool and there are too many disjointed thoughts buzzing in my ears. In short, when I have 'Internet Brain'. Sometimes I am knotted up with anxiety, fearing that my need to live this life will unravel me, that I will end up so far outside the mainstream that I will never be able to get back in. Sometimes I fear that I will.
Walking does help. Going outside and being swallowed up by the sky, by the sea, by the rivers and the trees and the stars, being wholly immersed in that which is infinitely bigger and more mysterious than yourself. That. Yes. That helps.
So, I have been taking to the woods again lately, seeking inspiration, looking to clear my mind of anxieties and reconnect with my deeper self. A break from the ocean stories and a return to the forest. To the sheltering canopy of green. Solitude is so important to my imagination and my wellbeing. I had almost forgotten this. An ability to be alone and comfortable in your own company, far away from the laptop and the phone. To be able to sit and observe. To notice how the world beyond humankind goes about its day regardless. To feel small and unimportant in this way is a good thing. Out there in the woods it is the only thing. Huckleberry Finn and Robin Hood understood that.
From my wanderings and wonderings then, a new body of work is emerging. A series of photographs taken in the woods, zoomed in close the tiny insignificant details become a vast landscape into which I intend to draw the human figure, blissfully alone and tiny, revelling in their solitude and freedom. A book on this subject will follow, hopefully in time for my next group exhibition 'Stride' in August, a meditation on Loneliness Vs Aloneless, the importance of solitude and the need in all of us to unplug from the wall and venture out blinking into the sunshine ...
The Echo Collector
As the sun went down on the night of the seventeenth of February, my friend took a boat, a fishing trawler, and set out to cross the ocean from Ireland to Cornwall.
He did not know how to sail and he was alone.
He told me that he was no longer in control of his own destiny, that something else guided him that night and that he no longer cared if he lived or died.
While he was at sea, he claimed to have been visited by a woman whose presence, though it soothed him, gave him no rest.
Nobody but he ever knew for sure what happened that night on the ocean, but afterwards, when I visited the boat, I listened while he told me his tale.
Years later, I created these images.
They are my memory of his memory.
An echo of an echo.
Not to be trusted.
But now that they are finished I finally understand that the woman in the story is me.
But I did not steer the ship that day.
Why do I make art?
It's a question I sometimes ask myself, usually whilst lying awake at 4am worrying about the future, about money or the lack of it, about how it is that I find myself here, at the age of 44, still 'making art', still day-dreaming, still conjuring stories from the recesses of my perpetually distracted imagination, some 30 years on from the frowning words of the careers advisor to 'have something to fall back on'.
Tomorrow we have a general election.
For the last several years, whilst I busied myself with the massive leap of faith from my old life into the new, I chose to ignore politics in much the same way as I once chose to ignore the naysayers who suggested I find a more sensible line of work. For the two years I attended Falmouth University, undertaking an MA which I loved with a passion, I chose not to worry, to focus on my work, to follow my heart along the path which felt right, the path which I have always known I was destined to walk and where all my strengths as a human being lay.
Growing up in the 1980s of Thatcher's Britain, I was told by somebody older and infinitely wiser than myself that as you 'grow-up' and acquire all the trappings of an 'adult' life: A house, a car, the kids, the ski-ing holidays, the 'proper' job, you inevitably become more Conservative. To me, this translated as meaner, more selfish, more distrustful, so I made art and I created stories as a way of rejecting this fate. Art, stories, music, film, these were the places where truth and beauty and hope could be found. A way of learning about the world and a way of connecting with other human beings in a kinder and more sympathetic way.
Of course, I did indeed get older, and as I got older I did indeed begin to acquire the trappings of an adult life. I watched as my friends and peers, as predicted, became gradually more Conservative, more protective of their lives and the 'things' they had acquired along the way, and I disliked what I was witnessing.
Eventually, I turned my back on the life I had built up over the years so that I could return to a more innocent state. I returned to my art and to my storytelling and I made the decision to be the person that the younger me would recognise and be proud of, and in doing so I chose to ignore politics and the fact that the society I was living in was more right-wing than ever.
It is a sometimes difficult path to follow, particularly now that I am older. Swimming against the tide of society is harder in middle age than in youth because the expectations and judgements of your peers are so much harsher. To be a 44 year old idealist in a cynical, grasping world is, at times, a lonely and frightening experience, but the more I follow this path, the more I come to realise that I am not alone, that there are others, and many more beside who yearn to give voice to the human kindness stifled away inside them.
So I make art.
I make art, despite the financial impossibility of it, because I still believe that human beings are, on the whole, good and kind. That human beings each yearn for beauty and for truth and to feel connected to one another. This, I believe, is what art can do. It is what books do. It is what music does. It is in the power of stories that we find each other. That we rise above the mess of consumerism and capitalism.
Art has value because it nurtures the soul and connects us to other human beings. And human beings, every one of them, rich and poor, old and young, have value too. We are all connected.
Remember that when you vote tomorrow.
... And from somebody infinitely wiser than myself, here is Alain de Botton and The School of Life's view on the subject in 'What is Art for?'
It's been a rather busy couple of months down here in Cornwall. Much has happened and there have been a few exciting changes, not least of which was my move to be closer to Tim and The Good Ship Albacore. I am now happily settling into my new life living in a (former!) cowshed, deep inside what we like to call 'The Forgotten Triangle' of Cornwall. It is a place of magic, and with signs of spring bursting into life all around me, it has been extremely difficult to force myself inside and onto the computer. I am feeling revived and inspired by my new surroundings and itching to put pencil to paper to begin work on a new set of drawings. I will come back here soon with new tales of this beautiful hidden corner of the county and life on the boat, but before I get carried away talking about it now, I must momentarily take a sort step back in time to February and the group exhibition I participated in shortly before I left Falmouth ...
The exhibition took place at The Poly in Falmouth and included myself, Amy Goodwin, Lucy Kerr and Irene Vidal. As artists, our work is very different, so we wanted a theme which we could all work within and which would give the exhibition deeper meaning and clarity.
After some discussion, we chose the words 'On This Day'. The idea behind this theme was that each of us was to create a piece of work which would depict events in history from the day of the exhibition, which was 17th February. These events could be historical, fictional, or even yet to happen, but the key thing for us was finding further links, or coincidences between the events and the work. To tie these ideas together, we each created our work and then produced 'artefacts' which were displayed under glass as if in a museum. A timeline was then created showing where and when each of these 'events' took place, with the 'artefacts' exhibited as evidence. Four 'coincidences' between the events were described. These were 'Circle', 'Hydrogen', 'Miraculous' and 'Truth'. For more information on the exhibition and each of the artists involved, there is a facebook page here from which further links can be found.
For my own contribution to the exhibition I chose to continue with my own work of the Siren and the Sailor, creating a new story and a fresh set of drawings from the old. After some investigating, I discovered (or remembered?) that by great coincidence, the 17th February 2012 had been the day that Tim and I first met up after we both moved back to Cornwall. It was perhaps forgivable then, if a little romantic of me, to take liberties with that date and fabricate a tale of how he crossed the ocean and washed up at my feet ... Playing with truth, story and memory is, after all, what I do best.
... I shall post that story and the resulting drawings shortly. Until then, enjoy these images from the exhibition.
An 'Alternative Life'. Something I have been giving a lot of thought to lately. Something I have been interested in for many years but never imagined I would actually embark on myself. An Alternative Life.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when I was completely conventional. I owned a house with my then husband, worked a fairly normal job, was reasonably financially secure. All the usual stuff.
Then, about 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, which, being the embodiment of youth and health that I was, came as a bit of a surprise. I recovered from the cancer but the effect it had on my attitude to life was lasting and profound. Cancer, according to popular belief, 'changes' you. But it didn't change me at all. It did the opposite. It made me myself. And it made me brave.
My life is a little different these days to how it was 10 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, one way or another, I forced my way out of conventionality and began pursuing the things which truly made my heart sing. It was a long journey to get from there to here. My marriage buckled under the strain, I spent another stint in hospital having so-called 'preventative' surgery, I sold my house and moved to the other end of the country, I enrolled on and completed an MA, and I fell in love.
The journey is ongoing. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm currently taking the first steps on a new one, having recently graduated and taken stock.
At the moment I am busy working on a new set of drawings for an upcoming group exhibition in February, as well as setting up this website and blog. I have also given a lot of thought about the artist I am and what I want for my work, and how I am going to sustain those beliefs and ethics over a long period of time. A while ago, I stumbled across these words from Alan Watts (1915 - 1973), an English philosopher and writer who played a large part in popularising Zen Buddhism in the west, and they have stayed with me ever since:
What if Money Was No Object? ~ Alan Watts Lecture
"What do you desire? What makes you itch?
Alan Watts was clearly way ahead of his time with this kind of thinking. Sometimes, although less and less as the years go by, I feel quite alone in thinking that there must surely be alternatives to those that western society lays down for us. I'm pretty confident in thinking that there are a lot of people out there who dream of the alternatives but feel too trapped, for whatever reason, to make changes.
For making changes, big changes, is scary. It's terrifying. I should know. And as the experience of having cancer grows (thankfully) dimmer each year, I find myself having to dig deeper for yet more courage to pursue those dreams and passions, to keep on track despite the fear of poverty and the negative judgement of this increasingly right-wing society.
Still, I am a great believer in things coming into your life at the right time, just as long as you are open-minded enough to recognise them. Draw that deep breath, take that first step, whatever ... If you dare to put yourself out there, it is true that things will start to happen. You will meet the right people. You will find the right places ...
I first met Tim 20-odd years ago, in Cornwall, at art college. It is mighty strange indeed how life can take us round in a giant circle, but 20 years later we met again, in Cornwall, whilst I was at art college. This time, however, he had a boat.
Not a particularly fancy boat, by any stretch of the imagination, but just about as impressive and 'alternative' as they come ...
Tim and I got together for many reasons, but one of them was because of a shared passion for an alternative way of life. He is far more hardcore than me and is now enjoying his third winter on the boat. He's battled howling storms and sub-zero temperatures, but with a wood-burning stove now in place and an apparent immunity to seasickness, he could hardly be more content. After all, for every winter, there is a summer. And his days are his own.
I don't live on the boat, but I spend enough time there to have become completely besotted with it. It is a romantic, simple existence, though perhaps not for the faint-hearted, and Tim's story of the boat and how he came to sail it across the ocean from Ireland to Cornwall inspired my imagination so much that the tale seeped into my work, grew into a book, and eventually an installation replicating the inside of Albacore was created.
Albacore and Tim currently reside in a small community of other boat-dwellers in a beautiful, semi-forgotten corner of Cornwall. It is a place of magic. Of hidden creeks and beaches, ancient woods, ferocious storms and still, golden sunsets.
On The Estuary
I will be moving up there soon to help him with work on the boat and I can hardly wait. Fear of the future still persists, but I am learning to live one day at a time, to breathe, to enjoy the journey, and to stand by the life I believe in and the work I need to do. No life is perfect, and nor should we expect it to be. You have to make your choices, understand what you might be sacrificing and what you will be gaining because of those choices.
And then all you have to do is go out into the world and live them.
I've been updating my website this week and one of the things I've put together is an account of how, back in September 2014, with the help of my lovely, technically-minded, other half, I built a boat. That is, I built a pretend boat. That you could walk into. With full surround-sound. And a film. It was made almost entirely from cardboard. This is how I did it ...
Every year for the last 3 years I have made a 'Wish List' of the things I most desire for the year ahead. I have deliberately tried to keep it humble and have thought of it more as a manifesto for living than any kind of 'Resolution' style list. This year, 2015, I can no longer ignore that each wish list is largely just a variation on a theme ... It would appear that what I desire most is to be healthy, courageous, loved, wise and An Artist. It all seems simple enough, but each of these things have, at one time or another, seemed to be impossibly beyond my reach.
This year, one of my priorities (residing just below my need for a bubble bath!) is to continue to find the the courage and the self-belief to be an artist.
Since graduating from my Master's Degree in September 2014 I have given a lot of thought about what kind of artist I wish to be, about what kind of a person I am, and how to find the courage and the inspiration to stay true to myself and my work.
I am an illustrator. What seems like a million years ago now I originally graduated from art school with a degree in illustration, and in between a thousand 'day jobs' I attempted to be just that ... An illustrator. But I am also a storyteller. I love to weave narratives out of air, to find the extraordinary in the mundane, joy in sadness, beauty in the plain. And I do this by creating stories. Creating fairy tales from my own life, from memory. I failed dismally in my career as an illustrator, that is to say I failed to have much enthusiasm for putting images to other people's ideas, but I still longed to tell my own stories and to put them into images as well as words. So when I returned to university to pursue my own voice, I was pretty determined that on graduating I would not fall into the same traps that I had fallen into in my previous life.
As it turns out, maintaining this kind of determination takes (yet more) courage.
Courage to pursue your own dreams, to realise your true potential, to live the life and do the work you're meant to. And it takes courage because the potential to fail is ever present. The self-doubt. The fear. The worry about having enough money to eat, that normal people will think you're insane, that you don't fit in to mainstream society and that you will be judged for it and so on and so on and so on ...
So I have thought about the people I myself admire, and why. Such as the woman who lives in a shed (her studio) so she can afford to spend her life writing music. The man who lived in his car for a year so he could pursue his dream of writing for a living. The woman who gave up a promising and well-paid career in publishing so she could become a photographer. And my very own man, the love of my life, who bought an old fishing boat off a bloke in a bar in Ireland so he could change his life and pursue the things which matter most to him. Sometimes, I realised, choices have to be made, resolve has to be hardened, life has to be embraced. So this year, clutching my graduation certificate and holding close to me all that I have learned on that wonderful MA, I choose to be the artist I always wanted to be.
So, Happy New Year 2015, as yet a year of mystery with adventures and secrets yet to be revealed. This year I hope to remain true and honest to my passions, to pursue my art and my words with my own authentic voice and to be brave in my choices. I also hope to document my experiences and to share my thoughts on life and passion and courage and on creating inspiration as myself and my partner continue work on the infamous Trawler, now safely moored here in beautiful Cornwall, and as I continue to create stories from the world which surrounds me.
... I also look forward, maybe, to having that bubble bath!
I look forward to sharing my journey with you.
Happy New Year!
Today is Walk and Think Day, so I walked through a deserted wood and along the estuary to Mylor Harbour. I didn't see a single other human being and I was thinking about two things:
The first, completely unexpected and random, was an article in 'Oh Comely' magazine (Issue 22) about 10 year olds in an art class painting single blocks of colour and then writing a paragraph about what they see. It was an activity they had been set by a particularly inspired teacher and the results of the exercise both astonished and moved me. How could 10 year olds write such powerful, soulful reflections on something as simple as a colour? Take this, for example, on the colour white:
"Huge clouds blanket the vast sky, making the unbearable feeling of loneliness and emptiness ache even more, along with the annoyingly repetitive flavour of minty toothpaste, but soon all the heart aching worries disappear and the snow, now flying swiftly towards the jagged pavement brings the beautiful, joyous and wonderful feeling of peacefulness; children laugh, adults smile and I savour this sweet moment like it is my last".
I mean ... What? They're how old?
The second, apparently unconnected to the first, was an article written by the author Lionel Shriver entitled "I was Poor but I was Happy" where she discusses the nature of happiness and what it means to her. (Click on the link, it's well worth the read).
Happiness. Well, there is a big subject. We all think about it. We all pursue it. We all wonder if we're getting enough of it. I've thought about it myself at great length and wondered at its nature. I mean, what is it exactly? It's not contentment exactly (too sedate) and it's not joy either (too exhausting). It is elusive, hard to recognise, and once you find it, it is difficult to keep hold of. Happiness, like the future, is unpredictable and always just out of reach. And, it would seem, the only place it is to be found freely and in uncomplicated abundance, is in the past.
In retrospect, Lionel Shriver sees her past, despite its challenges and deprivations, as a time when she was happy and I don't doubt that she was happy. The point of this article was to highlight the fact that money does not bring happiness, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, having experienced both ends of the economic scale, but the common thinking amongst those of us who are relatively poor is to imagine that money will take away fear, in particular the fear of the future.
But it doesn't.
Fear of the future is fear of the unknown and no amount of money will take that away. What makes the past such a happy, nostalgic place is the present day knowledge that 'everything turned out alright in the end' ... So far, at least. Whether you are happy or miserable, rich or poor, The Future remains an unknowable, shadowy country and no amount of planning can make it safe. Only the past is safe.
I was thinking about all of this on my walk because for the last two years I have been happier than I have ever been, but recently a certain anxiety about the future has crept in and I have been conscious that this anxiety has stolen a little of the happiness from me. And so I have wondered why it was that for the past two years I have felt so blissfully at peace, and the answer of course lies in the fact that for the last two years I have perfected the art of living in the moment. For the first time in all my adult life, I have been exactly where I wanted to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. And I have absolutely, categorically, refused to worry about what comes next.
Being a self-employed artist, the future is always going to be unpredictable, and I have wondered recently at my choices. Until I remember that The Future is unpredictable regardless of your choices. A brush with life-threatening illness nine years ago taught me that, which is why I now make the effort to live my life in the moment and which is why I have been all the happier for doing so.
But it isn't always easy, and sometimes we need the odd little reminder to keep us on track. Which is where I come back to the 10 year olds and their wonderful, spontaneous descriptions of colour. Children, generally speaking, understand all about 'The Now'. To them, The Past is as murky as The Future, and just as untroubling. What matters to a child is what is happening here and now. It is all about The Moment. The description of the colour white is so affecting because it is so unguarded, so immediate, so responsive to The Now. And this week, it served as a reminder to myself of what makes me happy. Right now.
Here are a few images of 'The Now' that I took on my walk ...
Almost two months have passed since I graduated from my Master's Degree at Falmouth University, and as winter creeps in, I find myself struggling to adjust to Post Graduate life once again.
It's not a time of year that I enjoy. Give me the long, light days of summer over the dark, damp days of autumn anytime. When you work from home it can be all too easy to fall into claustrophobic hermitude, a condition I am unfortunately pre-disposed to.
It's a well documented fact that, as we rely more and more on technology and social networking sites for our contact with the outside world, we are becoming lonelier. It's all too easy to fall into this trap, but as we cut ourselves off from the natural world and from real life contact with our fellow human beings, we are becoming more lonely and depressed as a result.
But then I began to wonder ...
Although many of us now spend more physical time alone, when are we ever really, truly, properly alone? Could this general depression be caused by the fact that we are actually living in this halfway house of being alone but never being left alone? As a recent convert to the iphone (which I am already ridiculously addicted to) I realise that we are at the constant mercy of texts, emails, instant messages, bleeps and rings and buzzing constantly forcing us to check our inboxes. So think about it ... When was the last time you were ever, really alone? When was the last time you chose to be alone? When was the last time you switched off your phone and allowed yourself to breathe in the moment?
I was thinking about all this when I set off for a walk today. The first walk I've had alone for as long as I can remember. I used to go for walks like this all the time. From being a teenager I was always happiest trailing through the woods, exploring beaches, roaming across fields ... alone. Properly alone. I love people and consider myself to be a very sociable person, but I also love being by myself. These long, getting lost type walks are when I do my best thinking, when I let my imagination take over, when I dream up stories. When I live in the moment and breathe.
It took a while to get into it.
It is half term and there were too many people in my sight line for me to feel completely at ease, but then it started to rain and the families and their dogs gradually drifted away. Then I started to enjoy myself, unselfconsciously rummaging amongst the leaves and pebbles and shells, skimming a few stones (badly), slipping inelegantly on the rocks, pretending to be a mermaid who hasn't found her legs. It was blissful.
So maybe that's what is missing. At least for me. Yes, it is sometimes lonely, working from home. But when I'm fully immersed in my work, I don't feel lonely. I enjoy being alone. (I also enjoy being with people). What I don't enjoy is being continuously, vaguely, distractedly, 'connected' via the internet. What is sometimes missing then, is this: Real alone time. Time to immerse myself. With nature. With ideas. With work. With dreaming. Time to be still. Be quiet. Listen to the earth breathing. Listen to my imagination.
With this in mind, perhaps the oncoming winter isn't so unwelcome after all. Suddenly, the thought of long, desolate winter walks with just my imagination for company seem like exactly what is needed.
I'm not sure I realised just how much the academic grade of my MA meant to me ... Until the time came to open the envelope!
I am a ...
... Teller of Tales. A Creator of Books. An Artist, Illustrator and A Boatbuilder. A Professional Daydreamer, Occasional Mermaid, and always The Eternal Optimist.