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Posts Tagged ‘painting’

drawing

Moonlit hills with Landrover

I still have my sketchbooks from school (1972-77). I was a more prolific drawer then than I am now, more driven, more inspired I think, whether I was actually any good or not is another question and it isn’t relevant anyway. All that matters is I was drawing, creating, doing, all the time. And mostly I was doing it without thought or care for an audience. Once you start doing it with a view to pleasing someone else, you’re screwed because then the lens of imagination through which you view the world dissolves. It’s like the tide going out, and then instead of the light dancing on the waves, all you see is a dreary plane of mud.

Life as a young teen is a hotbed of emotion, of unrequited love, of poetry, of romantic adventure, and every day a mystery to be solved. I did not write much then, suspected writing was for experts, had yet to discover it was also for poseurs and fools, that it led more often to obscurity, alcholoism and destitution than to fame and riches. I drew instead. A drawing can be a doodle in the margin of an exercise book, or it can cover a sheet of A0. It’s still a drawing, and it can still mean something to the drawer.

If I drew for anyone at all it was for a mysterious and entirely imaginary “other” who was always watching, but in a benign way, like I imagined my teachers were watching, assessing, marking. Sometimes I projected the watcher out onto all sorts of people, made protective sages of them when in fact they were nobody, just adults caught up in their own small lives, and oblivious of mine. It took a while to work that one out.

I see themes emerging in those drawings that would shape my later imagination and are still with me – the archetypal women, presence in a landscape, and a hunger for the hidden meaning of past lives as evidenced by their time-weathered remains in the present day – the ruins, the megalithic markers and other fey geomancies.

I’m being selective here. Flipping through my sketchbooks I see there were also fast cars and guns, but they belonged to adolescence, and have been left there where they belong. All of this was idiosyncratic yet of inestimable value, and if only I could understand it and present it to the mysterious “watcher” then all things would be resolved and the world would be a much better place.

I could not see then what I see now, that it was a personal quest, that all lives are founded on myth, some borrowed, some told, some self invented. Myths grant meaning to life, and I was inventing my own, rejecting the native mythologies of Albion and Christianity, things I suspect are common enough among teens who tend towards loneliness and misanthropy.

The picture above is one I drew in 1974 or thereabouts – I’d be thirteen. I remember it meaning something to me then, as it does still, though it’s physical manifestation is now fading and smudged. This is its first wider airing, but I use it only to illustrate a point. It changes nothing, means nothing to anyone other than me, speaks only to my own myth, looks a bit childish actually – indeed I recall my art teacher commented that it was “a corny and rather bland response” to a homework assignment. Oh, Miss T, you were such a stern mistress.

I see reverence for landscape, for exploration, for field skills. We are also looking at moonlight here, a big moon rising, rendering in paleness and deep shadow an endlessly pristine landscape – something slightly pagan about it too in the way the figure pays homage as he contemplates the endless feminine swell of the land. All of these are themes, symbols that still animate me four and a half decades later.

Miss T told me to stop drawing from imagination, or my work would stagnate. Nor was she ever impressed by cleverness with line – look, Miss, it’s a Landrover!. She preferred more the spontaneous Rosrchashis splash and daub of the avant guard – and who was I to argue with an art graduate from the University of Manchester? I did as I was told, and my work stagnated anyway. There was never anything inspirational, I found, in drawing wood shavings from observation, nor in splashing and daubing murky poster paint on sugar paper. The key insight of youth is that while many adults profess wisdom, sometimes they’re just bull-shitting. The trick is to tell the difference, and I’m still working on that.

But what I do know for sure is what we bring out of ourselves in the act of creation is like wiping the mist from a mirror, revealing aspects of ourselves hitherto hidden from awareness. But more than that is it is also a means of rendering unconscious elements of the psyche conscious. We live our art primarily for ourselves. Our vision may be corny in the eyes others more erudite, should we be inclined to exhibit, but some of us are slower to grasp the existential axioms, if such there be. It does not mean we are barred from the artistic life, which means of course, all the clever critics tossing spitballs at our work, can cheerfully go take a running jump.

Some say art should shock, that it should shake the foundations of the world, that is should prove a visceral reaction, and I can relate to that. But I am not working for the revolutionaries, and if I seek an audience at all it is comprised of others like me, inhabiting that same zone of liminality, a place of infinite strangeness and shadow. Look, I’m saying. I’ve felt this, seen this. You may have seen it too.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s probably okay.

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Burne Jones and WIlliam Morris 1874Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher, and a successful author. His books “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth” have been devoured by a worldwide audience in search of that intangible “something” that is missing from our lives. Tolle brings together insights from all the world’s religious traditions and, for me at least, his success lies in his non-religious, transcendental approach to matters of mind, body and spirit, also to his humility and his engaging sense of humour. It’s no secret that Tolle has suffered from depression and anxiety, no secret either that his success is due also in part to the way he has dealt with his own mental illness.

In a society built on rationalism, determinism, and materialism, people who are mentally ill are not seen as reliable witnesses to the facts of life, at least not usually by those who control the gateways to employment, and financial remuneration. But if we think about it for a moment, the statistics suggest one in five of us have or will suffer from a mental illness. Then, since 80% of mental illness goes undiagnosed, this suggests very nearly one in five of us doing valuable work right now is already mentally ill, yet managing to hold the place together somehow – so we can’t be that unreliable either, can we? What’s even more interesting is that by implication, statistically, probably one in five of those people who hold mental illness low regard, are themselves mentally ill.

As a student in England, Tolle, suffered terribly from feelings of anxiety and depression. One night he lay down so overcome, he told himself he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly, this is the fate of many – an illness held in secret, ending suddenly with a tragedy that leaves others shocked by its unexpectedness. But what happened to Tolle was not what usually happens. He experienced an inner separation and an insight that was to be the catalyst of his life’s work. I’m paraphrasing here but he asked himself something to the effect of: who is the self that cannot live with my self any longer? The self he could not live with, he concluded, was the bit he associated with the pain, the egoic self. And he reasoned that the essential part of “Tolle”, indeed of all of us, was something else, something above, and not part of the pain.

He went on from this potentially fatal moment to become a teacher, counsellor, and an engaging life coach to millions. His teachings are all over the place – on Youtube, in books, DVD’s, lecture tours. I find in them much that explains the highs and lows of the lives of human beings, but the story of Tolle is itself an inspiration, demonstrating that mental illness does not invalidate anyone from playing a constructive or even a leading role in society.

Yes, we’ll sometimes have a hard time from ignorants and materialists who think the brain is a computer made of meat, and that a part of our brains have gone rotten. But our brains are not rotten. You cannot diagnose mental illness from a brain scan. Our brains are like everyone else’s. There are no bits missing. What mental illness does, however, is it puts us on the edge of something, thrusts us into the depths of an unknown, even at times a frightening inner realm, but the stories we bring back from that place are important – not only for our own healing, but the healing of others like us. So tell the Internet your stories. Use your creative faculties.Get a blog, get a Flikr account, and get busy.

I spoke last time about the three vessels of being – the physical, the mental and the spiritual – and how attention to any one of them can help maintain the others and restore us to ourselves. Creative expression is very much concerned with the mental life, and is the most natural channel for the otherwise jagged and ferocious energies of mental illness. So many artists and larger than life celebrities are mentally ill, yet they are also possessed of the most remarkable abilities. So, write it, journal it, paint it, doodle it, tell it in poetry, sculpt it, and learn by it. Through creative expression we turn something negative into something positive and, as we give external shape to what has up ’till now been only an internal, mental thought form, we realise it is not who we really are at all, that pain. It dwells within us, yes, and it looks like that, but it is not who we are.

The search for who we are is the same as the search for our life’s meaning, whether we are suffering from a mental illness or not. But that you suffer can be interpreted as a sign you sense there is something vital missing from the world, that your inability to fit in with it is more a reluctance to dance with a partner who is not of your choosing. Again, one in five of us will at some point suffer from a mental illness. It is not our fault if society has difficulty in accommodating that fact, or in facing up to the question it begs regarding the nature of society, and the direction it is moving in. But neither can we blame society for its ignorance if we do not tell it how we feel.

Do not say how can I live with myself? but say instead who is the self that cannot live with my self. And in separating yourself from the pain, go seek instead the self you want to be.

I leave the last word on this to Eckhart Tolle:

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alcock tarn 2The mountain tarns of the Lake District are as worthy an objective for a day’s hike as the mountaintops, particularly as we age and begin to linger longer in appreciation of their character. Once a curiosity glimpsed in passing en route for a lofty summit cairn, I now collect them in the same way I once bagged peaks. A mountain tarn is indeed a special place, bringing something of the sky down to the earth, mirroring the mood of both the day and the man.

Alcock tarn sits on a shelf above Butter Crags. Beyond it rises the massive grassy flank of Heron Pike, one of several summits on the Fairfield Horseshoe route. Look east from Grasmere and the tarn lies hidden, about half way up that wall of green, just above the highest reach of the pernicious bracken. On paper, it makes for a decent half-day’s walk, though somewhat steep, but all walks yield more on the ground than their paper promises, and so it is with Alcock tarn. At just over 1100 feet, it’s a modest enough climb, but I wouldn’t underestimate it.

My guide to the tarns of Lakeland is the water-colourist, William Heaton Cooper. He describes it as a modest and pleasant sheet of water, a mirror of the distant sky, as one looks southward towards the lowlands, Windermere and the sea. An experienced mountaineer, and native of Cumberland, Heaton Cooper would use this walk as an introduction to the fells for anyone new to him and whose “mountain form” was unknown.

I’m not sure what he would have made of me. My mountain form is best described as sluggish these days. Though I’m up a hill most weeks now, the ascent from the foot of Greenhead Ghyll was a “several stopper”, sometimes hands on knees, sometimes in full rest mode on sit mat and with binoculars drawn. My consolation lay in the knowledge that the fellsides here are uncommonly steep, and an ascent is always harder when walking alone.

The weather in the valleys was gloomy-hot, cloud base scraping 1500′, truncating the tops and trapping the heat to make a very steamy day. Humidity was 85%, so it was a very sweaty climb. A sleepy clag hugged the fellsides, ghost-horses drifting down. A light rain had me pulling on my new walking jacket, but its breathability soon proved to be disappointing; before I’d climbed a hundred feet I was wet from the inside out. And hot. Even the rain that day was warm.

The fells were silent, just the sound of my own breath on the ascent. I was thinking of my uncle as I climbed, a veteran of Dunkirk. Following the evacuation he spent the years up to 1945 training in the mountains around Fort William, with the Highland Light Infantry. By the time he embarked for Normandy, he told me he and his mates were like stags. Their mountain form must have been akin to superhuman, and a thing to be envied, though not of course the task that lay ahead of them.

I paused to rest below Butter Crags, once I’d cleared the thickest of the bracken. Bracken is a notorious habitat for sheep ticks, carriers of Lyme disease, and I’ve read they’re on the rise in the Lakes, but have yet to encounter any myself. The only problem I have with it is there’s nothing like pushing your way through its wet ferny fronds for soaking you to the skin. It also stinks at this time of year.

From there, the vale of Grasmere glowed without sun, something luminous in the mown meadows, far below, and which warmed an otherwise sleepy grey. I could see DunmaiI Raise, the steep climb of the ever busy A591 carrying tourists over the pass, on to Thirlmere and beyond. Dunmail was the last true native Celtic King. He met his end in a battle with the Saxons and the Scots in 945. Routed, his surviving clansmen rescued his crown and fled with it up the nick of Raise Beck and on to Grisedale tarn, where they hurled it beneath the dark waters for safe keeping.

King Dunmail rests in the huge pile of stones at the summit that bears his name, and by which there now flash thousands of careless cars every day. But once a year, the spirits of his clansmen return with the crown and bang on the cairn, wakening their sleeping King, and urging him to take up the crown once more. Each time he tells them the time has not yet come. Other more prosaic accounts have him dying on a pilgrimage in 975. I prefer the former myth which has something archetypal about it, like an Arthurian legend. But then the Celts  were always better story tellers than the Saxons.

I remember the climb to Grisedale tarn up Raise Beck. I did it in 1993, on a wild day in the company of friends. We went on to climb Helvellyn. The mountain was dark and angry, snow spiralling in a finger numbing, aggressive wind, and there was a feeling as we climbed, of coming to the world’s end. It was a Saturday afternoon, March 20th, the day the IRA bombed Warrington. I heard of it on the car radio, on the drive home. They had left two devices in rubbish bins on Bridge Street, a crowded shopping centre. The first device drove panicking survivors into the path of the second device. Fifty four were injured, two young boys killed. There were lots of bombings on the mainland throughout the course of the troubles, but that one was closest to home for me, and will be for ever associated with that climb up Raise Beck and onto an angry mountain.

It was an evil day.

The tragic overtones of Grizedale Tarn are carried on in the story of the Brother’s Parting Stone. It was here in 1800 William Wordsworth last said farewell to his brother, John. John was leaving Cumberland to take up command of a British East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, into which he had sunk his fortune. The vessel was lost off Portland Bill, and John drowned. Some say the event marked a steady decline in Wordsworth’s poetry.

But anyway, on to Alcock tarn!

It comes upon one suddenly, a pleasant sheet of water, as Heaton Cooper says, reedy at its northern end, and a mirror for a steely sky. Looking south along its length it forms an infinity pool, the great sliver ribbon of Windermere and the southern Lakes beyond. I’d seen not a soul all morning, but here I came upon pair already settled in with sketchbooks and watercolours. The mountains held their breath, the only sound was a lone duck dabbling in mud among the reeds at my feet. I fired off a rare haiku tweet to that effect but it felt cheap and shallow compared to the deeply patient deliberations of these two artists. All is not lost, I was thinking, that there are those still willing and able to take the time for al-fresco water-colouring.

I gave them space, waved to let them know I was harmless, then settled down to ponder over my notebook and a poem for which the muse had delivered the first two lines complete the night before, and left me to fill in the blanks. But the words would not come, and the silence was eventually broken by a party of talkers which put an end to my deliberations. They sat down not five yards from me, a flock of gassy old birds, treating me to a voluble warts and all expose of their various intimate lives and which sent the lone duck off in search of quieter waters. They had not seen me. My walking gear has morphed from fashionable fluorescence to unobtrusive greens over the years. With my hood pulled up, monk-like and sitting still in a little clutch of crags, I had apparently vanished, blurred out of the misty, muggy world, so that when I later rose to pack my things away, I gave one old bird a satisfying fright.

Sorry, dear, but I was there first.

Perfect as a circular walk, the route continues south, becoming quite airy on the descent, then fast losing itself in the densely forested glades above Town End, and the broad, well made tracks that lead you unerringly home. A couple of quiet hours up, then an hour down brings you back to the bustle of the many-peopled Wordswortharium.

I took coffee in the garden-centre cafe, and pondered the old Celtic legends. King Dunmail has been a long time dead now, and I wondered at the meaning of his clansmen keeping faith with him year on year. I wondered too what counsel he might offer in addition to his persistent procrastination as regards his throne. For me, I realised, while taking that break on the climb to Alcock tarn, he had pointed out the long lay-by beside the 591.

“Next time you come here, lad,” he said, “Get up a bit earlier. Park your car there in future, for free! And stop moaning about Broadgate Meadow!”

I shall.

It seems I have friends in high places!

alcock tarn

Alcock Tarn, Grasmere, Cumbria

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