Uselessness and the 8B pencil

As a means of self-preservation, I keep my head below the parapet.

I don’t watch the news, or read the paper on a regular basis. I like my news sanitised and palatable. I know. I am accused often of being naive and idealistic. I like it that way, because my alternative is a very dark place that I fear.

This week however, I have found myself accidentally faced with television news. People are taking lives. I know they always have. I’m not stupid. Angry young men shoot people. Angry older men take knives to their own children. People jump in front of trains and off tall buildings… All within a ten mile radius of my house. The human condition is bleak. Children are getting shot in places where they should feel safe and protected. More and more ordinary people have nowhere to live. My local town centre now has more people living in doorways than I can count on both hands. It used to be maybe one, or two.… I cannot do anything about any of it. My circle is closed up around me but I can’t keep anyone safe. One son is a couple of hundred miles away, another is living under this roof but is dealing with child protection issues on an hourly basis. They are both adults I have no means of protecting.

Meanwhile I’m drawing stupid little drawings. I’m doing colouring in. I’m regressing to the child because the adult has no fucking idea what to do about anything.

I’ll do some sewing. I’ve bought some baby vests and I thought I might do some lovely embroidery and appliqué to spread some palatable and aesthetically agreeable disease on them.

This morning, my anger at the anger has forced me to get out an 8B pencil. Wow. There’s anger for you.

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“In the place where I have what it takes” (Elliot Smith)

So this is the waiting room.

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The studio, condensed down to the immediate and the current. Future work cannot be considered here. Past work is in a different dimension.

It is a nest, undeniably. For which I am teased. This afternoon is a weird one. I sit in the chair isolated from everything outside the circle by the use of laptop, headphones and sketchbook. I am turned away from the room (husband, ironing pile, unopened mail). An artificial isolation perhaps, looking out into the brown garden, but necessary.

The song in my headphones and head is an appropriate choice: the lyrics stick:

It’s ok, it’s all right, nothing’s wrong

Tell Mr Man with impossible plans

Just to leave me alone

In the place where I make no mistakes

In the place where I have what it takes

A verse taken out of the context of Elliot Smith’s “Waltz #2”, but a sentiment that cuts to the bone today.

I have had three amazingly brilliant music studio days, doing my own work and supporting other people’s. I have learned things… mostly about myself. I’ve been told I’m good at something. I have good pitch apparently. In that little booth with the headphones on, I have what it takes. No one told me I was good at this before, not really. I’ve been complimented on my voice – it’s lovely to be told nice things about your performance – but this practical application of a skill I didn’t have a clue I had, or was even a thing… it’s had an effect on me. I’m accurate, therefore quick, therefore expensive studio time is saved. I’m useful. This might to others seem to be a small thing, but today I retreat to think about it all.

I am at the very beginning stages of trying to construct a body of musical work that is just me. That is very difficult. I’m having trouble focussing. It’s like knitting smoke. I’m distracted by the skills/talent/experience of others and forget myself… so it is taking a while to figure out what it is that I want. I value others’ musical experience and knowledge over my own, definitely. I have to remind myself that I am of value, and that my opinions, ideas and different skill set have worth. I have something unique to offer other people’s ears. My ear to brain transport system is slow, synapses are on slow-burn, not quick-fire. What takes someone with musical training five minutes can take me five weeks.

I suppose yesterday’s revelation of a gift/skill came as a shock. yet again I review myself. I retreat to my armchair studio, with my back to the world while I try to make sense of it… “in the place where I make no mistakes, in the place where I have what it takes…”

…troubling… art is all about making mistakes and being open to what is revealed. Discovering you might have what it takes in a new arena is terrifying, so I retreat to the safe place.

Maybe that is what “studio” is as an etherial hard-to-pin-down concept? The place to retreat to and venture out from? Whether that is the space in your head, protected by headphones and sketchbook, or the physical space with walls and a door and window that I’m waiting for at the moment is perhaps not as relevant as I think?

I know that if I am to create this piece/collection/body of music that is completely an expression of me, then I’m going to make lots of mistakes, and make lots of false starts. How I view my internal/external “studio” could be crucial to my mental health.

When I started writing this as scribbling in my sketch book I didn’t know if it was going to stay in the pages or get published on the blog (some posts are transcribed from my sketchbook, some are directly typed here).

It is a truth – my truth – that I waver between the capable and incapable; the novice and the accomplished; the bucket of self-doubt and the egotist; the ugly, fat woman and the beautiful, desirable woman. In my lucid moments I know that this probably applies to most people, most women, most artists.

Some days I can strut out and do my stuff.

Some days I curl up, unable to cope with the external.

Tomorrow is a different world.

Everything is Different. Everything is The Same.

On the outside it looks like I’ve changed tack. Someone asked me how I frame the art and music within my practice the other day.
These days I’m more comfortable talking about this because I do actually have it “framed” in a way.

After weeks and weeks and weeks of painstaking drawing and colouring I’m now in a music studio. I’m reviewing a selection of songs, consisting of a bundle of lyrics, a few basic recordings and half-baked ideas. A sketch book if you will. Dan is helping me look at them objectively. This is a crit. Which elements “fit” the philosophy, which are worth pursuing, which are ripe and which need to stay on the tree for further thought and development.
My art background has helped me here. Decades of self, peer and group crits become professional habit. My beloved songs can take it on the chin. If the chorus isn’t good enough then it gets picked at until it is.

As I listened to yesterday’s recordings at the table, I catch sight of those labels. It is equally valid that I can attach them to the songs. It works. It’s interesting.

The songs I’m working on are for me. They’re not attached to the drawn and stitched this time… Or not at the moment at least. These ideas are not band songs. Either lyrically, musically or conceptually they are too heavy on the Elena to pitch to the band. This is another first. At the moment I don’t know what will become of them. Dan asked if they would be an album, or at least an EP… They might. I’m unsure of the shape of them yet. This weekend we examine them, shore them up where/if they need it. After yesterday they’re more real already. I have divided them into piles now, and know which three or four we are ready to push towards a basic recording. Those we will look at again today. The discarded three will go back in the pot for another day, and there are three or four more that need a little extra something that I shall work on before the next session.

So I use a different media. So what? My themes are the same, my philosophy remains the same… Occasionally poked at by Dan to check. My working methods actually are remarkably similar in the way I collect and manipulate material… Gather, compare…. Then select…. Then work into some more. I could just as easily be stitching or drawing.

This part of the work was (comparatively) easy to find a parity. And now I’m comfortable with it. I’m comfortable with how a recording fits with the rest of my output. What is not so easy for me to articulate still is performance. But that is getting closer. And I care less that I’m unable to accurately state why performance is important. It just is, and I love it… So it obviously should be there in the mix.

To be honest I’m the only one that’s bothered. And that I think is just part of the artist I am. I’m far more methodical than I like to admit. I’m not messy in the making and I don’t like to be messy in the thinking. I like my thoughts to be clear. Especially as I like the work (in whatever format) to be ambiguous. I still enjoy that point of balance… The point at which people have been drawn in by the outward pleasantness, the comfort of beautiful embroidery, or a well crafted song, with interesting chords and decent harmonies… The point at which its too late…. They suddenly see the ugliness when it’s too late. They suddenly hear the lyric and understand that the song is about rage and jealousy, couched in metaphor and gold thread. That’s where the good stuff is.

And I think that point is where the performance lies… I’m capitalising on what I am… How I look, at last, is useful. I am a grey haired, overweight woman in a marks and spencer cardigan…. I’m singing about anger and death and infidelity with a sweet mellow voice to the rhythm of a bossanova or a delicately plucked waltz.

It’s all the same stuff really.

Laboratory Conditions

After the previous post, playing with labels, the labels have remained in the little basket on the table. Considering the amount of time it took me to make them just for that small amount of shuffling, I wondered if it was worth it. But even as I write I know that it was.

There are times when actually doing it “works” better than abstract thought. Writing the list, stamping them out (however untidily) and getting my old-fashioned school guillotine out slowed and speeded the process. Slowed because the act of making prevented me from drawing the conclusion too soon before a thorough thought process. Speeded because once I had them in my hands and on the drawings, my conclusions were much clearer. I could feel a certain rightness about it. Then, having done so, I no longer need them.

And I do feel that something has changed about the drawings. I’m not completely sure that’s visible to others. When the light is better I’ll take a few photos and have a think.
I think my lines are not so smooth. The shapes not so rounded and ripe. The decay is more visible too. New elements have crept in… And a shifting of the colour palette…?
I do feel though that these are microscope slides … Snapshots…. it is not possible to see the enormity of the process yet. I hold back… Still… Physical space is still my issue… I want to grow it in the laboratory conditions of my new studio. I’m itching to get at it…

 

Labels

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Here I have a selection of labels, the words on them are taken at random from my sketchbook and other conversations…

Stamped and cut then jumbled, pick a card, any card… I keep my eyes closed so not to cheat!

Then arranged, here on the same drawing, wherever I think they are appropriate at the time.

Now I like this… I am not yet able to articulate why though… something about the movable, temporary nature of things and the interconnectedness again, and the fact that one person’s greed is another person’s prudence…

Answers on a postcard please…

Meaningless/ful Diagrams

I’ve ummed and aahed about posting this piece of work as I can’t decide if it is an instructional sketch book piece purely for myself, or whether I might do more. I’m currently on the side of just for me… But it’s open for discussion. It’s a thought piece. It isn’t a necessary key to look at the other pieces, but I decided it might be useful to log it in the blog… Because that is what the blog is for, right? I also think that in order to put them out into the world I would have to do hundreds in order for them to be rendered nonsensical. Having one makes it too important somehow, and makes the labels immovable. But actually they are not… to me….

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The labels are mere suggestions about relationships between phenomena. They could be different. Or in different places. I drew this because I wanted to get it organised in my own thoughts. I know that all labels are movable/transient. If I did more for other people to see then there would need to be instructions and a legend. And possibly a scale strip along the bottom.
Yes… you see now you’re talking! I wouldn’t have come to that if I hadn’t been writing!
My son (a scientist, mathematician and philosopher) says that geography is just colouring in. This is a joke (I think), but it has always struck me as a “thing” because in school I only did well in humanities and science subjects that allowed the elaborate drawing of diagrams with neat labels. I definitely only got a top grade in biology O level due to my extravagant diagram drawing!
So it comes to this then? I’m regressing? I have always said to my children (and students and anyone else that asks for advice) that you should just pick whatever is the next interesting thing in front of you. The Five Year Plan is all very well but if the getting there is boring then it’s wrong. The getting there bit IS THE THING…. Because what happens if you die in year three? You could have had three years doing interesting things instead!
The places you get to on the way all feed in then, they all become relevant. My love of intricate diagrams at the age of 14 feeds into my current art work. I continue to do the next interesting thing in front of me… Keeping an eye out for interesting detours of course…

So I colour in nonsensical diagrams that to me illustrate and demonstrate the state of human nature and the connectedness of everything.
At the moment I continue until the next interesting thing distracts me…

I might have to make some detachable labels today….

…something completely different…

A wibbly wobbly amorphous Venn diagram encompasses my thoughts… It’s animated, so the overlapping portion(s) expand and contract. I often think about the whole of it, but it is difficult to do this in writing, so end up having a post that enters the “Now for something completely different…” arena.

Now for something completely different:
Sound and music and songs…
I am about to embark on something solo (ish)… This may eventually include solo performance. Initially though I need to research and collect more ingredients.
When it comes to drawing or textiles I’m pretty much set up. I have a wide variety of materials and equipment to choose from. When it comes to sound I do not. I don’t have enough to play with here. I can’t reach up onto the shelf and select the sound equivalent of silk and gingham, or watercolour and charcoal…

I have on a data stick (unsatisfactorily unvisual) a collection which includes song ideas, lyric sheets, writing and odd bits of recordings. They have an underlying vague theme that (I think) is a working title…
But there aren’t enough ingredients yet to draw them together into something that represents what I want to hear. The library shelves are empty, the shop needs stocking…
My intention over the next couple of months is to NOT write a “song” but to sketch. I will of course note down ideas as they come, but I’m going to delay gratification purposefully until I have amassed the bits and pieces that will enable me to say what I want in the way I want it. I’m also delaying playing and sharing these bits and pieces until I know what I want them to be. The solo thing here is important to me: I know I have people around me that can make these things into perfectly respectable songs right now… But it would be like putting a raw salad into a bowl, when actually what I want is something slow-cooked and developed by me, at least up to the point where I know what I’d like other people to contribute.

I want this to fester a while within me before it bursts out onto the page and/or the recording and onto anyone else…

So I plan to venture out with my iPad and record the world… Well, at least the small world I inhabit… I want to fill the shelves with interesting materials, so I can do plenty of experimental play before pinning anything down into the structure of a something like a song…

The Pink Worm and The Firewall

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I grub about in the dirt searching for something. I know that what I’m looking for is a nugget of something to do with how people relate to each other – always. It might be parents and children (often), it might be lovers, friends, boys and girls, women and men, strangers, blah blah blah… but I’m always looking for the nugget that illustrates a point, my thoughts about the connectedness of everything.

My friend and fellow artist and erstwhile teacher Jill Hedges told me a tale connected to my recent feminist ramblings and postings on Facebook about the use of language (my connectedness with Jill is spooky and is a comfort and a joy!)

She told me of two boys who were buying toys with Christmas money. They were aged about 6 and 9. The youngest brother was having trouble getting his change sorted, so Jill asked him if he would like help with his purse. The older brother immediately and stridently stated “It’s NOT an purse, it’s a wallet!” Now this is a very small incident, everyday words, everyday situation that might pass unnoticed, unregarded… one might apologise for the “mistake” and move on and think no more of it.

BUT…

This small difference in word usage is significant. Purse is feminine, wallet is masculine. “How dare you imply my brother uses GIRL things!” I’m putting words in his mouth for dramatic effect, but here is the crux of the matter: purse, actress, knickers, hairdresser, male nurse, lady doctor, and most recently, female drummer and female bass player. The distinction is unnecessary.

I have been accused of making a fuss, being aggressive, or at the least, assertive over such small things in everyday language… but here is the thing… it occurred to me, after hearing Jill’s story that actually I am attempting to be the firewall against the worm:

A computer worm is a standalone malware computer program that replicates itself in order to spread to other computers. Often, it uses a computer network to spread itself, relying on security failures on the target computer to access it. Worms almost always cause at least some harm to the network, even if only by consuming bandwidth, whereas viruses almost always corrupt or modify files on a targeted computer.

(Wikipedia)

So by letting in the small thing, the seemingly insignificant, we are saying it’s ok for the female/feminine version to be lesser. I might not always notice this happening (because I’m getting on a bit and I’ve been conditioned too) but if I do, you can pretty much guarantee I will draw attention to it and call it out. He is a nurse, she is a bass player. Get over it. Both probably have enough shit to deal with and neither have enough money in their purse/wallet.

All of this musing brings me back to my drawings. They are doodle-like, mindful/mindless… one thing infects the next. The worm wriggles across the page connecting and changing the shapes. What has gone before is altered and the mutation repeated. At first I was unaware, but now I am I can’t unsee it. In the drawings (I think) I am in control of what goes unchecked and spreads, how the mutations occur. Sometimes though, I don’t see the connections until I start to use colour, sometimes not until a few days later, and I’m sure there are some I won’t see at all, but perhaps others might?

This is my nugget then: The small and insignificant touches us and in doing so, takes root, grows, spreads and BECOMES significant.

Tell me then, is this too far a stretch from a boy spending his pocket money to where I’ve used pink in my drawing? Am I seeing connections where there aren’t any?

Drawing as Mapping

Someone on Facebook asked me what these drawings were about. This is always a good way to consolidate and clarify my thoughts, trying to explain them to someone else:

“Tricky… They’ve emerged from work about family, connections, touch…. How one person has an affect on another… Physically or emotionally, or psychologically… Or perhaps inherited traits, memory…. But the abstraction of those thoughts has come up with drawings that are visually like botanical drawings, or cells, nerves… Organic shapes that connect and effect each other…ripen, mature, mutate….

These are all themes that I was working on with my textile pieces, but the drawings seem to be getting me to places the stitches couldn’t….

But of course, as the viewer, they’re whatever you want them to be, there’s room for everyone… Which is also part of the work… Effect and influence… Goes both ways…”

Circumstances forced me to work differently. In doing so I was able to see the “stuckness” of my stitched work. The last few stitched pieces were saying nothin new really… I was grasping… Poking… Trying to find something.
Working in a different medium pushed different buttons. I questioned whether this would be another point of abandonment… But I think I’m starting to see how I might continue with the textile work now… I think I was being (had become) a bit safe and reverential with the found textiles, particularly the garments… I think I might have to get a bit more destructive with them in order to create what I need. They need to be abstracted in order to push at the edges.

The drawings have come up with representations and devices that relate and pull and push. I was unable to see this with the garments and chairs. Having identified with these objects, I needed to let them go. They were holding my thoughts too greedily. I’m not ready to pick up my needle again just yet… But I can see the time ahead when I might be ripping sleeves out….

I think the drawings are maps…

Isolated and Connected

Boxing Day is the best!
No prep, no cooking, no housework. Everyone is instructed to help themselves to whatever they want to eat.

My sons are game players so there will be an almost ceremonious clearing of the table to set out boards and cards and pieces. It can get noisy and competitive. There’s new music in the house to be listened to, and possibly films to be watched. But at some point we will all retreat, probably late afternoon, into new books… And there will be silence other than page rustling and tea slurping. This I think is my favourite bit. It might last a couple of hours, we will all five of us be in the same room as each other, but isolated and connected by our reading.

Isolated but connected.

I’m planning to draw. I have been given new crayons in new colours, so I have new combinations and connections to try out.

My eldest son and I had a conversation about my work that was quite philosophical … A late night wandering and wondering about the connectedness of all things:
How one establishes a strong position…
How one establishes other strong positions… Isolated motifs that work…
But then you have to find ways to connect that work…
The connections have to be logical and graceful…

We talked about the connections that work as if they were physical, bodily positions in a dance, or exercise… The transitions between one position and the next should be a smooth movement. The same with a song. The chorus can be very different to the verse, but the transition that takes us from one to the other should “feel right”… And there are many ways to achieve that.

My motifs/objects are neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral, but they are organic. If I veer too close to the vegetable/animal/mineral the drawings are rejected. If they hover between or encompass all, they stay.
In my sketch book I have a selection of new, acceptably ambiguous motifs, waiting to be used. Their positions are strong, but they don’t yet have the right connections. Abortive drawings experiment… And are accepted or rejected depending on the grace of their growth and mutation from what already exists.

There are family relationships and common characteristics.
Some shapes move from one state to another, they ripen… Mature… Mutate… Develop… Reproduce… Decay… Infect… Affect… But each change has a logic to it.

I keep my rejected drawings in one pile. They are more informative than successful compositions. Because if it works, it works. It’s natural and obvious. But the rejects are obviously wrong too…. Showing that shape A could never grow from shape B…. Or maybe it could but not with that connection…

Some examples of rejected connections:

I’ve proved that my trains of thought are complex. This is why I can’t do the inking when tired: all of these decisions about strength, and grace, and the choreography of growth and movement are nuanced and fine.

I am newly fascinated by my process here. My brain, while seemingly on automatic as I watch the pen glide across the paper, is firing on all cylinders…
These are absolutely NOT automatic drawings. These are purposeful abstractions from concept to composition.

The connections considered while I was stitching have been simultaneously simplified, and yet made more complex. This is the right way to go then. Deeper and broader than my needle could get to… At least at the moment….