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 ...
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.