Why I think ‘weird old art’ has value

I am in Borth for a couple of days. It’s lovely to get away from the chaotic nature of home, work and family life. I don’t have much head space for creative thinking these days (as evident in the lack of entries in this blog).

Today we had lunch in a wonderful (albeit understaffed) cafe in Aberystwyth and something about today has sparked my creative brain again. It is a joy. Being of an artistic disposition, I am always attracted to and curious about the artworks that public places such as cafes choose to put on their walls. I have been known to ask the staff about the choice of artworks as well (as I did in this case as I will explain later).

The artwork in this cafe was weird. None of it had been created recently, so it would be wrong to attach the word ‘contemporary’ to this artwork. The pieces seemed to straddle at least two centuries from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth. Most of the art was oil on canvas. An awful lot were portraits. Some were in good condition and some were in decidedly ropey condition. There didn’t seem to be any theme at all, beyond ‘it goes on a wall’. There didn’t seem to be any thought behind placement either. 

To give you a couple of examples of the paintings on the walls in this cafe. These two caught my eye in particular.

Early Victorian Cross Dresser

The first, above, for the fact that it looks like a man in early Victorian drag. The detail on his lacey cuffs is exquisite yet the attention given to his / her hands is lacking. His fingers are disproportionately huge and are rather sausage-like. Who was he / she? Why does this person look so sombre? They don’t particularly look comfortable in this outfit. Perhaps the lace was tickling their hands and face.

Lady with Small Head

I couldn’t take my eyes off this second painting, above, for the comparatively small head and huge hands she seems burdened with. Her shoulders are also rather burly if measured against the size of her neck and face. Who painted this and who was she? Was she really this oddly shaped or does this reflect on the skill of the artist? 

Do we expect ‘master’-like oil paintings to be good paintings? I think the answer is largely, yes. It seems, they aren’t always. Just like the art we create today. There is some good art, some great art, some average art and some truly awful art. 

Does that matter? No, not one bit. All art has value. Forgive me for sounding trite here and please don’t roll your eyes. I truly believe this. What is the most important thing about a piece of art? Is it that it resembles what it is depicting? Is it that it is technically accurate? Or is it that it captures something about the subject or concept? The latter of course.  All art, whether in written form, aural form or visual form is about capturing the essence. These pieces of artwork caught my eye so they achieved that, on some level. They made me think. They reminded me that I am an artist even though I haven’t practiced for two years. They made me write this blog. That’s enough for me. They are art.

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Why isn’t creativity valued for its own sake?

This evening, I painted some sprouts. Not literally, of course, that would be cruel. I painted a picture of some sprouts. Why? Because I saw beauty in them today. Because I felt the urge to paint. Because I wanted to. Instead of copyediting a book about the Gulf states and what they might do once they run out of oil, which will earn me £700, I painted, which will earn me nothing.

My painting

This is unfair. I am better at painting than I am copyediting. I prefer painting. I love it. It feels as if it is my destiny. Yet, I can’t earn money doing it. Nobody is ever going to pay me to paint sprouts. However much I might wish them to, they won’t.

My sprout tree. He’s called Norman.

I also love writing. I also use writing as a distraction from work. I write here, about art. I write about weird things that I come across in life in a different blog. I write for myself. I write here and there, whenever the urge grips me. Yet, nobody is ever going to pay me to write about what I want to write about. If I am very lucky (very lucky), I could perhaps earn some money for writing what I think people might want to read about or what other people think people want to read about. But I don’t think, realistically, that anybody is going to want to read about what I want to write about. Just as nobody is going to want to hang what I want to paint on their walls. They just aren’t.

So the two things I think I am good at, the two things that got me to be a master (or mistress) at something, aren’t going to get me anywhere in life. And that makes me a little bit sad. 

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Word frequency and what it all means

I am currently reading (or, more accurately, utterly absorbed by) Italo Calvino’s if on a winter’s night a traveller. I have just got to the bit where the discussion turns to frequency of appearance of words in certain types or genres of books and what that all means. So, for fun, I decided to test this on the Beast, also known as, my MA thesis.

I found some software on the Internet that analyses word frequency. So I pasted in the Beast.

One of the best books ever

Here is a summary of some of the results (I have wielded out the most boring and predictable words, such as ‘a’, ‘the’ and ‘of’):

The twelfth most frequently occurring word is: ‘objects’ – 184 times (1.1165% of the text).

This is closely followed, at thirteen, by ‘things’ – 159 times (0.95% of the text).

Then there is a steam of boring words before we get to number 25 – ‘life’ which appears 88 times at 0.53% of the text, and at number 26 is ‘still’ at 85 times and 0.151% of the text. This of course begs the question why were there three lives without a still in a thesis about still life?

At number 28 we see the word ‘art’ with 74 appearances and 0.44% of the text. That is shockingly low.

After that, the most notable are ‘virtual’ at 64 occurrences, space at 59, ‘reality’, ‘idea’ and ‘one’ tie at 38 occurrences. I see that ‘power’ and ‘people’ both appear 29 times, and ‘exist’, ‘relationship’, and ‘self’ 28 times each. ‘Artist’ is there 23 times, yet ‘cyberspace’ 21 times. I ‘argued’ 14 times (that sounds about right for me) and only ‘explained’ once. Something must have been quite ‘baffling’ to me about things and still life art, but only just the once. 

Some of the words in the thesis

And, very curiously, the word ‘spaceship’ appeared once too. I don’t remember discussing spaceships.



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May You Live in Interesting Times – at least while in Venice

I have just returned home from a week in Venice and I didn’t expect to be quite so glad to be back on terra firma upon my return as I am. I expected to be in tears – the usual ‘post holiday blues’ that I always feel. I do feel some loss for being home, but I also feel relief and exhaustion. I haven’t yet cried, which is unusual.

When I left home early on Monday morning, still in the dark, I left with much anticipation for the art I was going to see at the Biennaile and much excitement for the companionship I was going to enjoy with the other art students on the trip. I didn’t expect to feel the full force of an angry sea determined to reach levels it hasn’t reached for fifty years in the city of leaning buildings, bridges and gondolas. 

The Venice I expected last week

In brief, the day we arrived, we were warned that the tides were due to be high, which is seasonally as expected in mid-November. This warning meant little to me. I thought it might just mean a bit of a wet day.

After an enjoyable first night of pasta and wine, Day One was mostly wall-to-wall art at the Giardini Central Pavilion. It was neither sunny nor rainy that day. As evening fell on Day One, the mood changed from one of creativity and holiday to one of foreboding and fear. At around 5pm, just after we returned to the hostel, a storm hit Venice with some force: the tides gradually rising beyond expected levels and lightning flashing across the sky. We tried to venture out for food. We didn’t get very far. The sea was by this point moving from outdoors to indoors. We had no choice but to stay at our hostel – I felt fear. I didn’t like it.

The theme of the biennale is ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’. At that point as I walked through thunder, pelting icy cold rain and forceful raging winds I felt that I did indeed live in interesting times. There was something about that moment, as I walked counting the seconds until I was safely indoors, that felt momentous. 

I felt huge relief on arriving back at the hostel, just ten minutes after leaving it. The hostel we were staying in is on the island of Giudecca, right on the edge of the water. However, the ground floor of the hostel is three steps above the pavement outside, which saved it from devastation. That night the sea lashed angrily at us, slowly rising wave by wave. It rose first above one step, then a second, then a third. The sea that was outdoors wanted to be indoors. It bashed angrily against the hostel breaking glass at some point in the night. The main doors swung rhythmically into the early hours with the wave formation with an eerie creek, creek, creek. I lay in bed listening to them, my heart beating.

The sea coming into the hotel

Upon waking in the morning, with no hot water as a minor inconvenience, I saw on my phone that Venice was in the news. It was experiencing the worst flooding for 50 years. I was flabbergasted. We were there in the thick of it.

We weren’t able to venture out as planned, at least for a few hours that morning. When we did, just as the water levels subsided a little and the tide receded and the weather calmed, we were able to walk around the neighbourhood. Plans for art that day were abandoned.

On our wanderings, we came across lost shoes; floating books; hotel shampoos and conditioners, apparently washed away from somewhere nearby; broken toys; and random bits of vegetation. Being the artists that we were, we collected and photographed this incredible evidence of nature conquering man. I felt a pang of guilt for doing this: I was acting the voyeur taking advantage of other people’s distress.

Floating books

Later that day, as the sun shone and the winds calmed, we watched the Venetians dealing with this disaster as we walked further and further around the city: cleaning out businesses; piling up sodden goods; rushing from place to place; rescuing chairs from canals. We saw a boat marooned down a long narrow street between tall Venetian buildings. We saw piles and piles of abandoned cheap tourist galoshes. And we felt a stoic acceptance, bordering on sadness.

Galoshes in the bin

After returning back to the UK, yesterday I saw a comment on Facebook along the lines of ‘Venice floods were not caused by climate change, it has happened before’. I felt deeply upset by this. ‘Venice is sinking and nobody tells you that’, the comment continued. ‘So it isn’t caused by climate change, it is just an event’.

Whoever made the comment hadn’t checked the facts. Venice is sinking because of climate change (higher tides being the result of climate change are affecting the material that the city sits on, causing it to sink). But that aside, even if the recent flood isn’t a result of climate change, it is just as devastating for the people of the beautiful city. And if it raises awareness of climate change and makes people change their behaviour, even a little bit, my question is: does it matter what caused the flood?

Going through this experience, and we came off lightly, has made me think, a lot. It scared me. Nothing happened to me. I wasn’t at any point in any danger. I didn’t lose anything. It didn’t really encroach that much on our time there. We still were able to see most of the Biennale. But it scared me for the future. 

I believe that it will be water that kills us. It won’t be war, nor heat, nor a meteorite, nor a zombie acropolis, but water. Water we need. Water we fear. We live in interesting times.



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The arrogance of the artist – myth or reality

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a fellow art student which at the time provoked my thoughts and still does today. We were mutually munching on our home-made lunchtime sandwiches when the topic arose. It was about whether artists are naturally arrogant creatures. She put forward the proposition that they are. My initial reaction was opposition. How could she suggest such a preposterous notion? Arrogance is a negative personality trait, and we artists are all wonderful, delicate creatures, are we not? That is what I initially said to her. She smiled wryly in response. She didn’t need to speak.

Surprised, I stopped to think about my reaction, and hers. Then it occurred to me, wasn’t my reaction itself a manifestation of my arrogance? Is it not arrogant to assume that the category ‘artists’ naturally overlaps the category ‘special’ or ‘delicate’, or, even ‘wonderful’? 

Point made, I thought. Very clever. I saw the light in what she was saying. Perhaps we artists are by nature arrogant. ‘We’ as a group see ourselves as separate, blessed, special, and, tortured. Indeed, that is true. We may be tortured to a large degree. There could be a disproportionate number of people who self-describe themselves as ‘creative’ who also have mental health issues that might come under the umbrella of ‘tortured’, but there are also a lot of people who might not self-describe themselves as creative who feel similarly ‘sensitive’ to the world and ‘tortured’ as a result (and that is a lot of inverted commas, for which I apologise, it is because I am ‘special’ that I like to use them). 

As we discussed this idea, and munched further, I reflected on my own sense of self to try to spot signs of arrogance. I accept that I may be somewhat arrogant but I would like to think I am also willing to reflect and if necessary take myself down a peg or two.

Looking at my childhood, I was indeed often labelled as ‘special’ because I could draw well. At primary school I was given my first ever exhibition. I remember feeling such joy at this and loving the reactions of other children to my first ever retrospective: ‘a year or so of primary school art by esteemed artist of Stafford, Rebecca Collins’. I was also frequently chosen to paint scenery for plays (me and another child, Roland, who could also ‘draw’ well). I happily rose into this elevated position alongside him of someone who could draw well. There was no rivalry between us: he was a natural cartoonist, I was a natural realist. At break times, I drew pictures for my friends: horses, cartoon dogs, flowers, portraits, Disney characters, more horses and yet more horses (incidentally, I hated drawing horses but if it won me friends I was prepared to suffer). 

Today, I’m more likely to draw horse poo than horses.

By the time I reached senior school I wore the badge of ‘joint best artist in the year’ with pride. Being plunged into a much larger pool of potential creative ‘special’ people though was an education in itself. There were people in my new expanded cohort who could draw equally as well, and, shock horror, better than me. Yet, we accepted each other’s friendly competition and we all saw ourselves as a  group of ‘special’ people. We rolled around in the adoration of our skill like terriers in cow pats. We wanted to wear that scent.

Indeed, I still do need that smell. I cannot lie, I love it when people admire my artistic prowess. I still get that glow of pride and that feeling of slight elevation of myself as a member of humanity when someone says ‘wow, that is good’. However, this is all very superficial and I know that now as an adult. Being able to draw a cat and make my effort look like a cat doesn’t make me special. It just means there is something I can do better than I can do other things. I might be able to draw but my skills in driving a car, mending a car, navigating myself around anywhere, keeping calm in a crisis, housework and trigonometry are lacking. If I were to be sent back to the times of cave men and women, I’d be dead within ten minutes, with a pencil in my hand.

‘Don’t worry about the sabre-toothed tiger coming to get us, we have an artist here who can draw him to death!’

I have a friend. Let’s call her Doris. Doris may or may not be her real name. She doesn’t regard herself as academically able. She left school as soon as she could with a scattering of GCSEs. Soon after, she started working for a popular fast-food restaurant and did quite well in that industry as far as I can tell. She was efficient and well-organized and a good manager of people. Thereafter she moved into another career as a carer of a certain demographic of people who need caring for. She excelled at that. She now is a grown-up, with more children than me. She is an excellent parent and really good at adulting. She never gets lost. She knows how to cope in a crisis. She and I are vastly different. I admire her. She is special in ways I am not. I often think I’d like to be more her, and less me. But, actually, I realise that I should accept that I am me. I do indeed have this creative tortured artist side of me, which she does not. She has a tortured side of her, which is where we meet. I could try to be more organized, calmer and better at finding the M6, but I will never be that person who can do those things without effort. I will never be her. She will never be me. And, so what? We are all special.

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Lost in translation

I have a few friends who live in various locations around the world, and sometimes the nosy me likes to know what they are talking about on Facebook. As I don’t have time to brush up on my Japanese, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian or Spanish (to name but a few) I can just click a very useful link that reads ‘translate’.

The very handy button.

However, this translate function isn’t, I suspect, completely reliable (or if it is, I have some amazingly poetic friends). I have been collecting examples of translated text from Facebook, and I think are quite beautiful in their own right.

  • We have one like dessuton sparkle with chips so it lets in just our cat, almost. Another thing is if the old man wants to start installing and sow in the door to get one of those in place.
  • The generations in deep studies before the moon eclipse.
  • Ha ha I just need to buy a hula hop.
  • The difference is not a mistake, but the difference is the difference. It is a relationship to respect each other.
  • Bad timing, I’m sticking down next weekend.
  • If you put your sleeves on the baggy garden clothes, it’s like not my usual daughter. Oh, I think it’s so big, but I’m so young.
  • Do you know what they call a useless cat in our village? Answer; winter model. The tail never gets between the door and you get the door fast when it’s cold and the cat is going in or out.
  • I had a ukulele guitar (who didn’t know) and I was able to play it properly. When I get sunglasses and my hair is short, I’m scared.
  • At least you get to be some kind of porter and see what they brought. Not just once I stepped on a dead mouse on the floor when we had a flap and never forgot when someone dragged a whole head in. 
  • Long time no see shrine.
    Fried chicken festival in one hand.

I will keep collecting. That last one is my favourite so far – pure brilliance. 

This cat lives in cyberspace

Is this art? I think so. I’m fascinated by internet boobies (in the error sense), I’ve written about two-legged google map cats here before, so why not include text about two-legged google map cats?

After living here for two years I have amassed a few friends from these lands.

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Endings and beginnings

It has been quite a week for me. I’ve had two stints invigilating at the New Art Gallery Walsall, which I secretly (or not so secretly) quite enjoy, including a very busy stint as the gallery was visited by 150 eager school children; I’ve ‘acted’ in a film about art in the West Midlands (acted meaning standing about and walking from one place to another a few times, again at the gallery in Walsall – trailer due on 20 November – it will be bigger than the next Star Wars film); and I’ve had my provisional final result for the MA.

The MA by Research differs from the MA in Fine Art in that there is only one result – one number, one percentage. The MA in Fine Art is composed of a number of modules and the final result is based on results obtained during those modules and over the single year or two years of study. For me, and for the other students doing the research MA, we had to wait two years (if part-time) or one year (if full-time) to find out whether we have been doing an ok-ish job or not. It’s been a long wait.

Without giving too much away, I am extremely happy with the result, especially given how tumultuous the past two years have been on a personal level for me (the most, ever, perhaps, since childhood). They have been a challenging but also wonderful couple of years. I have had to grow up rather a lot. There was a point between last summer and New Year when I wasn’t sure if the art was going anywhere and I was working extremely hard to earn money and not spending any time at all on the art. Then I found a better balance, and I found direction. But then, earlier this year, I met a technical brick wall, when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to display in the final show in virtual reality. So the outcome had to change, but I’m still happy with the path it has taken, with a few niggles about the quality of my final piece (but perhaps that is my inner critic being quite harsh). Of course, the result is provisional as I said, so I will have to wait to see if the external examiner agrees with the assessment. I hope so. At that point, if he does, I will do a happy dance around the house, drink champagne, eat cheese and tell the world the good news.

My very first graduation, back in 1994. I’ve done it twice since then, soon to be number four.

So watch this space, just a few days left now. Then I can begin the new beginnings and consider this chapter at an end.

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‘How is that even art?’

This was a question I overheard an eleven year old girl ask at the MA show today. It might sound like a negative question, but actually I see it as a positive. In asking this question, she is expressing her surprise that art can be different things and not just the sort of drawing or painting, or collage or sculpture making that she might have been exposed to, perhaps mainly at school, up to this point. She was amazed that art could be other things, and hence questioned it.

While I have been invigilating at the New Art Gallery Walsall, I have been lucky enough to be there on two days when the gallery has been visited by two large groups of eleven year olds. Today was the second of the two days. As part of their trip, the children visited the Family Gallery, where I was sat invigilating, in groups of about twenty-five accompanied by a teacher. Each group was allowed about ten minutes to look around the room freely. I took this opportunity to observe what seemed to interest them, attract them, and invite comment. I heard some very remarkable things, and some quite amusing things too.

Elysian Platinum Fields

In terms of attraction, for example, Gary Ringroad’s Elysian Platinum Fields tended to attract the boys more than the girls, slightly. I realise I am at risk of being accused of sexual stereotyping here but I am just recounting observations. Perhaps the boys were attracted to the three-dimensional, science fiction-esque and realistic nature of it having been exposed more to that side of art in fiction and film compared to the girls. The girls were interested in the piece too of course but their interest tended to focus on the detail of the construction or the narrative of the video and the boys’ curiosity centred more on the dusty, baron exterior of the landscape beyond the dome or the architecture or statute in the middle. Both boys and girls asked pertinent questions about the piece though, and had their own, sometimes unexpected, take on what it was about.

The cat in the video that accompanies Elysian Platinum Fields. I’m rather fond of that cat now.

This slight gender difference could also be seen in their reactions to other artworks, such as the ‘ow bin ya’ text which the boys appeared to be slightly more drawn towards than the girls. On other days, I have also observed differences in the ages of visitors and their reactions. Most young children immediately run either towards Jackie Sanderson’s colourful pipes that scream ‘touch me!’ to them, or Gary Ringroad’s tiny pebbles on the dusty surface of his piece. They don’t seem that enamoured with the paintings on the wall or my painted sculptures. It is a natural human instinct to want to touch and feel interesting and / or colourful objects. It’s a shame we drum that out of people (that’s another blog subject I feel).

How is this even art? It isn’t.

So, to prevent me from digressing, I will end here on the question I began with: How is that even art? It is art, because anything can be art and art can be anything. Heck, even Vinyl floor graphics is considered as art. Of course it has to have ‘something’ to be art otherwise I could argue that the plate next to me with cheese cake crumbs on it is art. That something is the message and the essence of the artwork. the medium is secondary to that. I hope that girl realised that today. After asking the question, she stared for a long time at the piece she was questioning, and followed through with various other interesting observations which proved to me that the artwork  had had an impact on her. It had provoked her. It had challenged her. It had make her think Therefore, it is even art.


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Something out of nothing

I am probably, I think, getting towards the end of my reflections on my MA now. There isn’t a huge amount more I can say. However, I do have one final(ish) thought to deliver here about the past two years.

I have recently been stuck, somewhat, in a state of self-reflection and self-appraisal, at least since the final show started. I have improved over the last few days, somewhat, in my harshness of my self-assessment which I wrote about in the last blog post. However, today I had a final revelation which has really helped me put the last two years in perspective.

I have always been very ambitious, at least academically, striving to do the best that I can. If you analyse deep enough it probably stems from a entrenched desire to attain parental and authoritative praise of an area of life I felt I could achieve in. It might not be particularly feminist of me to admit this but not ever being particularly girly and pretty I was never praised for my looks or feminine ways and as a child, this bothered me a lot. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be a girl. Instead, I was lanky and gangly and often overlooked. So as compensation I sought approval in my intellectual achievements. I had a reasonable brain so it was the one area of my life I could shine in. And I guess that desire to be praised for brainy efforts has continued well into adulthood. So when I feel that I haven’t fulfilled this, I feel very strongly as if I have let myself down. 

No pink dresses here

Art as an academic subject area encourages debate because it is often overlooked as an intellectual pursuit (that’s another blog topic) but it is actually deeply academic, philosophical and conceptual. And I have been feeling a little that I haven’t fulfilled all I could, intellectually, with my final artwork for the MA (it is of course impossible for me to be objective about my own art – again, another blog). 

However, since spending time at the New Art Gallery Walsall invigilating for the show, I have had the chance to observe people reacting to my work. There are three levels of their reactions. Firstly, the initial reaction (this has been mostly quite positive) as they enter the room and walk towards my pieces, walk around them and consider them. Secondly, a next-level reaction which happens when they spot something they recognise in my pieces, such as the Costa cup or the blueberries. There’s a look of familiarity and a recognition of the uncanny that I see in their faces. And, thirdly, there is a level which happens after they have asked me some questions about my artwork. In other words, the final level is the level which comes from full understanding of the process, method and concept, and again, it has been positive. This has really warmed me and lifted my spirits.

What art is all about

The last two years have been very productive if I measure these reactions against my intellectual intentions. I haven’t produced the best, the most amazing, outstanding, ground-breaking work of the year. That doesn’t matter. I have produced something out of nothing and I have left a mark. That is what counts. I have travelled.

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Seeing through the eyes of others

Last week, after the opening night for the MA Show, I confess to feeling quite flat and low about my ‘still life of disorder’. I have indicated such here in the last couple of posts. I suspect that this is quite a normal reaction. I spent the following few days feeling oddly detached from it all, it had that uncanny feeling of the ‘other’ to me. I was separate. The art was there. I was someone else, not connected to it anymore. I suspect that through my passivity I was protecting myself from the sharpness of the post-end blues. 

Since then, I have had the opportunity to invigilate for the gallery in the exhibition space on a few occasions, and as a result I have been able to observe people looking at and reacting to my work. I have been asked questions. I have had some really interesting, and positive, responses, which has lifted me somewhat out of the fog and offered me a parachute against the shock of falling into the post-end blues. I feel better and I am now ready to ‘feel’.

I am sat here as I write this, invigilating, and it is a quiet day. I haven’t had many visitors into this room today and not many have shown much of a reaction. One girl who visited earlier this morning, however, entered the room with confidence and marched straight to my work. She immediately started taking pictures. How exciting was that! She didn’t ask me anything about it, she just took pictures and left.

Two days ago, while I was here, the gallery was visited by 150 11 year olds. I was asked if I minded talking to each group within the 150 about my artwork. Of course I did not mind; I relished the opportunity. And the responses of the school children were both intriguing and uplifting. The best question I got asked was: Do you ever have bad ideas? Yes, I do! We all do. Bad ideas can be good ones. But they seemed to like my work. I really needed to see that.

Read all about it…

After a few session here I’ve seen how people react before they know what my artwork is about and afterwards, and it has really helped me to put my thoughts in perspective. Perhaps I have achieved something of what I aimed to do after all. The spectators do seem to ‘get’ it, they do maybe see some of the essence of the objects in my art and they do appear to take something away with them – even if it is just a few images on their phone.

If that is the case, if I have had an impact, however small, then my work has been worthwhile and I have new energy to continue my artistic journey.

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