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.
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.
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.
This will be the final entry on my blog/journal before I hand in all my research to my tutors tomorrow so although I will be continuing to document my work leading up to the exhibition, this is my final 'official' entry. With this in mind, I am now reflecting on my recent work and my reasons for creating an installation as my final piece of work, and where I see myself taking my work forward post graduation.
When I began this final project I knew for certain that I wanted to create a finished book, which is now almost completed. I also knew that I wanted to create something a little different and a little more immersive for an audience, although I wasn't sure for a long time what form this was going to take.
One of my early influences, and something I have gone back to again and again, is the work of Davy and Kristen McGuire, in particular this piece here entitled 'The Paper Architect'. What I love about this, apart from finding it a most beautiful and enchanting piece of storytelling, is the use of live action mixed with animation. Is it theatre? Is it illustration? Is it installation? I suppose it was my ultimate goal, to try and create something which would transcend the traditional view of what illustration is and pull an audience completely into the world of the story.
My installation piece is therefore a stage set, or the re-creation of the world of the old sailor. Within that space an audience can be fully immersed into the action, surrounded by the sounds he hears on his boat and a witness to the memories playing inside his head. Whether or not it will work as well as I intend remains to be seen, but it is my hope that the audience experience will be a meditative one, that it will invoke the memories of the viewer and make them reflect on their own lives and the things or the people they have loved, lost and found.
Thinking of a way forward, it is my intention to continue to make personal work, to continue with my themes of memory and fairytale and to continue to find ways of realising and interpreting those themes. Bookmaking will always be my first love, but from those books I have found that it is possible to bring to life the world within the pages and to create an exciting experience for the viewer which also fulfils my own ambitions to push at the boundaries of what illustration is.
Here is my finished animation, or my 'still-moving image' which will be played on a continuous loop into my installation space.
The idea of 'The Still Moving Image' which I discussed at length in my final dissertation, came from the video artist, Bill Viola, who slows down his images to such an extent that the movement becomes an incredibly intense and intimate experience for an audience to watch. I was stuck for a while just using photography, which I feel is relevant to the ideas within my work in that a photograph represents a single moment in time, a snapshot, a fragment, and it feels poignant to look at photographs for precisely this reason, that it is a moment in time forever frozen and perfect within that single frame. To turn my work into an animation therefore didn't feel quite the right thing to do, until I looked into the work of Bill Viola and started thinking about a single instant in time as a memory replaying on a continuous loop, as 'persistent' memories often do.
So, with all this in mind, my 'still-moving' image plays on a continuous loop into my installation space. The image becomes the persistent memory of the character of the old sailor who is haunted by, or maybe comforted by, memories of the woman.
(This clip is also accompanied by sound, which may or may not be the final version depending on how much time I have left before the deadline!)
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.