Mixing art with dignitaries

Friday 7 June was the opening of the annual undergraduate degree show at the Wolverhampton School of Art. This is now the fifth year in a row I have attended the opening, the 50th degree show at the George Wallis Building. The first time was as a prospective student, nervous and in awe; then twice as a Level 6 undergraduate, firstly with my bronze balloons, and secondly, with my repetition room; then last  year showing my black-and-white fuzzy things; and finally this year, with nothing to show but an important job to fulfil.

This year, I didn’t really get the chance to look properly at the graduating students artwork as I was too busy keeping my eye elsewhere. This is because I had been tasked with the job of escort to five important people: the Madam Mayor of Wolverhampton, Mr Consort of Wolverhampton, the Deputy Mayor of Telford and Wrekin, a councillor from Telford and Wrekin and the body guard of the regalia of the mayorship. 

What the bodyguard was protecting.

I admit that I been been very nervous about the prospect of such a responsibility. In fact, it had been on my mind all week, but the nerves really kicked in on Friday morning. However, I had accepted the offer to act as escort the weekend before the final show because it was so unexpected and an honour, and I knew it would be quite a challenge for me. I’m not naturally a people-person (if such a term exists). I’m quite introvert. I’m an observer not a talker. I can get very overwhelmed when it comes to social events. More importantly, I get lost very easily, even in a building I know well. I’m not sure why I was picked for the role. But I’ve been a school governor and vice-chair, so I’ve had to put myself in situations where I’ve had to put on the social persona to people who hold important positions, I also had to do this sort of job a lot during my time in Japan. So this was not that new to me. That didn’t make it any less scary.

When the time came and once I launched myself into my position, the reality wasn’t as daunting as my imagination had had it out to be. I had some help from someone very close to me, my partner in all respects, who came to give me moral support. I couldn’t have done it without him. He saved me a lot of angst and nerves and he helped make it a very memorable evening for all concerned. He is not connected to the School of Art but has a creative spirit and also has lots of experience of such social situations. In addition, he provided an interesting extra dynamic to the conversations we had. On a practical level, it took two of us to keep the party together (and, believe me, even with two this wasn’t easy). On an emotional level, he grounded me and allowed me to relax and go with the flow of conversation, directed by our distinguished guests. Two hours after we started, which felt like ten minutes, we parted from the dignitaries, and I felt genuinely sad that the evening was over. I will remember that night for a long time, not least for the taciturn bodyguard, who showed no emotion whatsoever, hardly spoke, but kept a corner of one eyebrow raised inquisitively at the artworks he encountered.

‘What is fine art?’ This was one of the questions I was asked by my guests. My reply: ‘How long have you got?’ 

The evening was a success I felt, and I was very moved by the emotion of the degree show, another year gone, another year of students moving on to a bright future. Madam Mayor and Mr Consort are a lovely couple and seemed to thoroughly enjoy their tour. They bumped into so many people they knew along the way and it was touching to see how well-received they were by everyone and how smoothly they interacted with the students, asking them about their work and future plans. The two Telford dignitaries, also, were genuine and down to earth, and really good company. They asked me many questions about art, such as ‘What is fine art?’ and ‘What is the difference between product design and fine art?’ They were fascinated by some of the work on display (they also were quite taken with the free nibbles). But then again, who isn’t? Free beer, free nibbles. Roll on next year. If I am asked to do it again, I won’t hesitate to say yes.

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Can you speak paint?

I’ve been doing a lot of painting recently. Despite lots of dipping into video, animation, photography and poster making over the last seven years (since I started this art journey), I always seem to bounce back to drawing and painting (or, as I have argued before, drawing with paint). I’ve been trying to work out why I can’t leave painting alone. What is it about painting that I love so much? The times when I have not been painting I have missed it with an ache. So it must be within me to do it. 

What I like to do – paint

There isn’t really any good reason to paint in the 21st century, given that it would be much quicker, and neater, to use digital technology. Of course, I don’t really believe that. But if you look at painting as a means of conveying a message, then it does seem rather archaic.

Painting isn’t just putting marks on a surface, adding colour, and depicting something. It is so much more than that. It is a means of expression. But it is also more than that. The act of painting is one element. The marks made are another. The transference of emotions from artist to canvas is a third. The fourth element is the thing that is being depicted. The final element, is a big one, and that is me, the artist. 

There are too many paintings in my studio

What does painting need in order to be a language? It needs three things: syntax, pragmatics and semantics. Syntax refers to the grammar. I think there is a sort of grammar within painting. The relation of its component parts do have a consistent relationship to the painting’s meaning. Pragmatics refers to the connection between the speaker or listener and the means of communication. This is something which painting has – the viewer is able to understand the message of the ‘speaker’ or ‘artist’ through the medium of paint. Semantics are about the literal meaning of an expression. A brush stroke can be considered to have expression, as can colour, tone, light and shade. But finally, languages also depend on nuances and tone to convey an exact meaning to the ‘listener’. That, certainly, is something which painting does well and arguably does better than a more traditional spoken language. The biggest advantage painting has over spoken languages is that it does not need translating. It speaks for itself.

Paint is a language and it is a language that I speak. So I am lucky in those terms. I find speaking with my voice quite hard. I stumble and mumble and cannot find the words often. I find writing easy. I find painting easy. I guess not everyone is fluent in every language. So, I need to stop questioning my language of painting and keep on speaking.

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Those pesky shadows – we must praise them

I’ve had many thoughts about shadows, and I have written my thoughts about shadows here recently. I’ve been thinking about shadows again today as I’ve just finished reading a tiny, yet huge (in terms of impact), book about shadows: In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Tanizaki was a Japanese novelist of much talent and I knew about him before I came across this book. I had previously read one of his novels while I was living in Japan: Some Prefer Nettles which I remember as being quite beautiful and moving. Incidentally, I read a lot of Japanese fiction in Japan – some of the best books I have read were Japanese in origin.

Tanizaki died in 1965 which I think is why In Praise of Shadows is described as ‘vintage’. It might have been written a long time ago, but its sentiment is far from vintage. In Praise of Shadows is a work of non-fiction and it is about shadows, both real and metaphorical. Essentially, in it Tanizaki is urging us to look at and treasure the accepted, the mundane, the negative and, above all, the shadows. He travels through a plethora of Japanese things and discusses them as he goes.

The man and his cat

On one level you could read this book as a celebration of Japanese culture and the Japanese aesthetic over Western culture and the Western aesthetic. On another, and on the level I read it, you could see this book as a celebration of the still-life, the worn out, the used, the touched and the taken for granted. It is a book about things and places. It doesn’t actually matter whether those things and places are of Japanese origin or not. It is how we look at them that is important to Tanizaki.

My favourite passage is near the beginning, which is a description of the poetic beauty of the Japanese toilet. We all sit in the toilet and ponder, but we never think to notice it or to consider it. Why not? We should. It is a place of sanctuary from the rest of the world. It is a place where we can be calm and think.

His descriptions of how Japanese naturally feel the need to retain the patina on their  resonated with me. He argues that in the Western world we loathe a thing’s patina and we polish it off, so that the thing appears ‘as it originally was’ rather than ‘as it is now’. In the West, we want to still time, we want to preserve. In Japan, they worship time and dislike preservation. Time can’t be stopped, they believe, so why would you want to? Time is part of the history of the object. We want to eradicate it. They accept it. I’m with the Japanese on this one.

As an artist of objects I look at the patina of things. I love the idea of the ‘trace’ on an object, I always have. I cherish the shine of an object’s grime and I want to sense the lives that has touched it. So for this reason, this book spoke to me.

Then after finishing the book, I read the afterword and this sentence also struck a chord with me but for a different reason: ‘He [Tanizaki] has the perverse habit of shifting without warning from a tone of high seriousness to something near facetiousness’. The writer of the afterword is assuming that the ‘Western’ reader would find this frustrating, as they would the ‘haphazard style’ of Tanizaki.  I took umbridge to this assumption. I disagree, quite strongly. I feel a sort of kinship with Tanizaki’s style of writing, for my writings, for what they are worth, are quite similar. I meander from thought to thought and idea to idea. It is just how it comes. Take this blog, for example. I just want to write about this book. I didn’t know what was going to come out of my fingers. I don’t feel the need to edit it now as I re-read it. It works well enough as it is.

The same philosophy applies with my art. I am constantly wondering around, off on tangents, following thoughts and ideas, going on new journeys. I am sure it is the way I will always be. Perhaps this is the Japanese way and maybe I was influenced by my two years there, and all the books I read during my non-working hours (I read a lot). But whatever the answer is, shadows rock, they really do. Go forth, people, and consider the shadows. Toilet too. Go and ponder.

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Drawing an MP – without meaning to

Today, I travelled to my studio for one reason and one reason only: for a tutorial with my personal tutor. We were long overdue a catch up and she’d just read the latest (perhaps eleventh, maybe twelfth) incarnation of my thesis so she needed to give me feedback on whether it was finally going in the right direction or still travelling off on its own blissful tangent. I also needed to talk to her about where I am at with my art practice. Before and after the tutorial, which was scheduled for 1pm, I was just going to work, potter, think and blog as usual.

However, the plan changed thanks to a chance encounter in the lift on the way up to my studio. Travelling up to the sixth floor with my coffee in one hand, my phone in the other, my head elsewhere, I was joined by another of the fine art tutors. He asked me how I was. I replied in the positive. We were making conversation, as one does. He then told me that he was travelling in the lift to attend a morning-long session with a bunch of interested students in drawing and photographing the MP for Wolverhampton, Eleanor Smith. He asked if I’d care to join them. 

Serendipity plays a large part in my life and certainly is the mother of luck in my life. I thought for a few seconds about his invitation, remembering all the urgent emails I had planned to reply to, and then replied with ‘yeah, why the hell not?’ So that is what I did.

I hadn’t expected to spend the day drawing an MP, but that is exactly what I did do and enjoy it, I did, immensely. I had been aware of this competition to produce a portrait of the MP for Wolverhampton which could result in the chance to exhibit at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery but I had dismissed it as being something I didn’t have time to do. I had been vaguely aware of a session to draw Eleanor Smith in preparation for the competition, which I thought was soon. Then, I had this chance meeting. Then, I started considering the prospect. Then, I drew and photographed Eleanor and, more importantly, listened to her. Then, I had an idea. I decided that I could enter. I wanted to enter. I would enter.

Eleanor Smith’s feet

So, I have added a new project to my already heavy cart full of projects but that is how I operate at best. As my old friend Andy said recently when he asked me to paint the library at Wolverhampton: if you want something to be done, ask a busy person.

As for my tutorial – that went well too. The thesis is apparently not too bad. She actually said she enjoyed reading it. Woohoo. Winner! I also came up with an idea for the final show at the Walsall Art Gallery while chatting with her. Or, maybe. We’ll see. It might have some legs, a couple of legs perhaps.

So as I gallop towards the final furlong of my MA on the aforementioned legs, I feel that I might even be able to gallop happy with my head held reasonably high, and on the side, create a portrait of the MP for Wolverhampton. We’ll see. Watch this space.

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What the strange wooden, painted things are

I’m not sure I know the answer to the question ‘what are those strange wooden paintings?’. I’m referring to the strange wooden paintings filling up in my kitchen. However, I can explain from whence they came, in terms of the concept and the idea.

This is an inhaler

A few weeks ago, I asked friends to give me a ‘can’t live without object’ and post a picture of said object on social media. They responded with many things. I then drew these objects in virtual reality. This was a massive challenge as an isolated activity. The process of doing this threw up lots of questions: about the nature of the ‘thing’, about the difference between real and virtual, about the nature of drawing and also about the role of the artist. 

After that, I decided to recreate the virtual reality paintings in oil on wood, bringing them back to the ‘real world’ so to speak. So that is what I did. I created a series of odd, semi-abstract drawing / paintings of just-about-recognisable ‘things’. These were interesting, albeit a little odd.

Then stuck about where to go next, I had a dream. I dreamt that I should recreate an element of the sensation of the virtual reality drawing experience by paintings the objects again, this time in three dimensions, of sorts, to give the feel of space as well as time and form. So that is what I have been doing. 

The next day, after my dream, I trotted off to B&Q and bought some interesting bits of wood. I painted them black, stuck them together and started painting on them in the style of virtual reality drawing, even more abstract versions of a selection of the original ‘can’t live without’ objects. These creations, the ones I have completed to date, do not resemble the objects at all now. I don’t believe that someone could look at one of these paintings and say ‘oh, that’s obviously a shoe’ or ‘it is definitely a mug of tea’ which they could do with the flat paintings, but I hope they will see something. I guess it doesn’t matter too much what they see, so long as they see a ‘thing’ and have an experience. This ‘thing’ might be just, on a superficial level, an abstract painting in three-dimensions. It might be a recognisable shape. It might be a thing they feel exists in time and space, as well as form. It might even be a ‘shoe’ or a ‘mug’. Who knows?

A close up of a shoe

I find the concept behind these paintings interesting but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be interesting to people who see them, people who probably won’t know about the concept. I will just have to wait and see.

Another close up – I think this is a turtle

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When the obsession grips

I can go months without creating anything, or even something, of merit or otherwise. This is a topic which I have discussed here before. I find these periods of inactivity and numbness deeply troubling and upsetting. I know they are not unique to me but they still concern me deeply at the time. However, like bouts of mental unwellness, when stuck in that zone it seems to be the only way. The brain is biased. It is so in art too. These ’bouts’ are never in fact the only way, it just feels that they are when you are in them. For I can also, equally, become very easily and very frantically obsessed with creating ‘anything’ and often even ‘something’. During these times I will easily forget how I felt during the sludgy periods of inactivity.

As I was finishing my five-year long road to a BA in fine art, my obsession became doodling on a plinth. This followed a period of extreme doubt and inactivity (these moods travel in waves). At the time of this particular obsession, I didn’t count how many hours I spent doodling what was in my mind out on my plinth (which, incidentally, turned into two plinths) but I fear it was rather a lot. I eventually took sides (of the second plinth) home to draw on as I couldn’t cope with not being able to draw when the mood struck me. I would wake at 6am to draw. I drew and drew and drew. I went through a lot of black fine liner pens. I sometimes took the plinth (or a random side of the plinth) to bed so I could draw late into the night or first thing in the morning. I doodled at every opportunity I had. I was obsessed. I loved it. It was my drug. I was lost in it. This is a good type of lost.

Currently, now as I trundle along towards graduating with an MA (I hope), I appear to be obsessed and lost again. This time, rather than drawing my mind on wood, I am frantically  creating weird, semi-three-dimensional, semi-abstract, semi-odd paintings / sculptures. The idea for these came to me in a dream. I don’t often act on ‘idea dreams’ as they frequently make little sense in daylight but I was desperate to do something rather than nothing so this time I did act on my dream. And as a result, my kitchen has turned into a  Warholian factory (with just me as the maker).

The kitchen floor

I am lucky that my children are currently being tolerant of the state of the kitchen (perhaps because this has happened on and off during their childhood). It is dominated by brushes, paint, pots, paper, wood and amazon envelopes-as-pallets. The food takes second place. I love it. I love that my life has become this way again, for however long. I can’t stop painting. It feels amazing. They are coping very well with me.

Big pile of wood

I don’t know whether this latest ‘idea’ for a body of work has any merit. I usually care about that quite a lot. However, as with my repetition plinths, I find myself not caring that much. I am getting something out of this process even if the result isn’t spectacular (and who knows, maybe it will be something). I am firmly out of my comfort zone (abstract art), I am enjoying the thrill of the obsession (who doesn’t enjoy that?) and the thrill of the new (again, what’s not to love about that?).

Work in progress

So I will keep going, creating these unusual objects and filling the kitchen with crap. My creations are still-lifes, of sorts, so although I am out of my usual ‘zone’ of realism, they are still true to me. I think I need to write a blog explaining these artworks more fully. Perhaps I will do that tomorrow. But for now, I must return to my brushes. It is not yet bed time and I have some creativity in me that needs to come out.  My fingers are itching.

Close up of a work in progress

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My studio space is my mind

As I draw towards the end of my MA (I have six months left but it feels as if the end is looming), this week I have been sitting and looking at my studio space which I have created over the last two years.  It started off as blank white walls, and now it is a jumble of stuff, words, images, things, ideas and thoughts (just like my mind). A lot of the time over that period in my life I feel as if I have mostly been sitting on my chair, on my laptop tap-tapping away at random things, expressing odd thoughts, adding bits and pieces to my thesis or writing this blog. Yet, I must have been creating work at some point as my studio space (my little corner on the sixth floor of the art building) is packed with piles of work, printed images, bits of paper, words, books, coffee cups, stacks and things. There sits two years worth of stuff, two years worth of thinking, of playing, of making and of writing. It is all there. Can I hand in my studio as my final piece? I should be able to. If only it were that easy.

Piles of paintings

The first thoughts I had about ‘arty farty bollocks’

Facebook conversations and random photos

More random images and wisdom from Michael Caine

Facebook conversation explosion

More Facebook chatting

Pile of books

Pile of paintings


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I still haven’t seen Rocky III

Over the month of August, the MA fine art and art and design by research students were given the opportunity to hold a group show at The Lighthouse in Wolverhampton entitled ‘We are not boxers, but we have seen Rocky III’. I have mentioned this exhibition in a previous blog. Now the exhibition is over it is worth reflecting on how it went.

The poster

In this exhibition, I showed my series of ‘cannot live without objects’ and called them ‘The Nature of Things’ after my current favourite book, my ‘thing’ bible, of the same title, by Lyall Watson.

My current bible

I displayed the paintings in a grid of six paintings by three. I seem to veer very naturally towards these rather mathematical, neat and tidy ways of displaying my art. This is partly a legacy from one of my tutors at Shrewsbury College who was very keen on display and he said that my artwork lent itself very naturally to a minimalist style of presentation. I agreed with him, and still do. My art tends to be quite detailed but have a commonality in terms of theme and size or number. It presents well in a neat and ordered way, which is ironic as I am not a neat and ordered artist, either in terms of mind or practice.

The images look dulled in the photograph

I think in presentation, the artwork looked striking. It stood out well against the white wall as it contrasted being on a black background. However, I’m not sure whether the images themselves made much sense or stood out individually. I don’t think anyone looking at them would have understood what they were or how they came about. As one of the curators from Walsall Art Gallery put it: ‘They might just think they are a nice collection of squiggly paintings’. Hard though that was to hear, he has a point. I know what it all means. I can explain what it all means. But does anyone else?

It could be argued that that is not the point of art. It doesn’t matter hugely what the artist’s intention was, it matters whether the audience gets something out of the experience of viewing the art. In other words, the core question is: can they feel the essence which I hoped would be felt? 

With this analysis in mind, I’m not sure the answer is positive. I’d like to think so but I cannot tell. The feedback I received was generally positive but that came mostly from people who know me and knew what I was doing. I don’t know what people coming at the artwork cold thought. For me, the point of painting is to give pause for thought and create a sense of ‘recognition’. Did I do that?

Does the title help?

Looking at the paintings on the wall as a series, in isolation from the rest of the world and its noise, I think they are too dark and dull and small and static. The colours don’t come through very effectively. The images lose the dynamism they had in virtual reality. And the vibrancy is lost. However, I am not sure they would work better if the colours were brighter. The colours I used in the digital world of virtual reality drawing were very bright and ‘brash’ but I can’t see how that would translate well in oils. Digital drawing and oil painting are two very different mediums. 

So, some thought is needed about what I am trying to do, what effect I want to have, and how I want to create that effect. I’m not there yet. I need to think more about subject matter and colour. I have six months in order to ‘be brilliant’ to quote the MA course leader, and I don’t mean in terms of brightness. Or perhaps I do: brightness in mind and brightness in effect.

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Playing with dimensions

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an exhibition of the work of Franz West at Tate Modern. I didn’t know much about him before I went so I trotted off to the gallery space clutching my ticket to my chest with an open mind. The images on the poster of pastel-coloured worm-like sculptures intrigued me. I liked them. I didn’t know why. I just did.

Weird blobby things

I didn’t quite expect to be inspired as much as I was by his work though. It isn’t the sort of things that fires me up. It was quite an eclectic mix of drawings and sculpture, and furniture. Can furniture be art? Yes, it seems it can. 

‘Ironic, irrelevant, yet profoundly philosophical’ reads the Tate Modern blurb about West’s work. I like that. That is how I would like to be. I look for irony in everything. I feel I am definitely irrelevant and as for philosophical, yes, I think very hard about what I am doing and why.

I also read in one of the random blurbs that Franz West was fascinated with the idea of art and life blending. He didn’t see why they should be separate. Another ‘tick’ for me.

Objects blended with plinths

There was so much of Franz West’s work that resonated with me. Not just the blobby enormous sculptures that gallery goers are invited to interact with, the so-called Passstücke, which, indeed, I loved. But I was also intrigued by the objects blended with plinths, the chairs morphed into something other-wordly and bizarre and ordinary furniture things turned into works of art. It all reminded me of the ‘cyberspace’ I envisage and have talked about here. There were ‘things’ on display, but those things weren’t quite the things that we recognise in the real world. There were even things you could touch and sit on (an entire area of carpet-covered sofas for contemplation which I did patronise for a while).

Even more than the art, perhaps, I felt moved by the Franz West imitation living room complete with bookcases full of art books. It was like stepping into my own head and my own world. I surround myself with books: not just art ones, philosophy ones or historical ones but all sorts of random books that all inform my art and my thinking. I want my own Franz West living room in a gallery.

The Franz West living room complete with objects on plinths

Both his art and his living room sparked my imagination. As I wondered around the gallery I asked myself: Could I try to create still-life art on three-dimensional, not-not-quite recognisable surfaces? Why does the still-life genre have to be flat and within a set frame? If the images I have created (the ones from the virtual reality drawing) are supposed to be in three-dimensions, why not put them on a three-dimensional plane? Why not put them in a space as they appear in virtual reality, in my mind, in real life?

So this, dear friends, is what I am going to do next. What this space, as they say.

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Why I love B&Q and why B&Q doesn’t love me

If you are an artist, you don’t have any common sense, right? That is a given. Yes, that is right. At least, in my case this is true. This week I, and some of my fellow MA students, have been installing work for a small exhibition for the general public in Wolverhampton. I am contributing my VR paintings, which as a series I’ve decided to call ‘The Nature of Things’ after the very influential book The Nature of Things by Lyall Watson. 

My current bible.

Installation of artwork is the bit about being a real artist that I do not enjoy. It taps into a side of my skillset that I find is lagging behind others: the practical side. I don’t like planning and I don’t like measuring. I don’t like straight lines and I don’t like hammering. Despite the fact that project planning features rather largely in my work life, when it comes to real-life tangible objects, such as how to hang artwork, I struggle to plan. I wish I had someone to do it all for me, someone who knows one end of a hammer from another (the knobbly end, is the hitting bit, right?).

The title of this blog is ‘Why I love B&Q’ which might seem to contradict what I have just said. In my mind, it doesn’t. I love B&Q because it is an artist’s heaven to me. They sell (and cut) wood for me to paint on; paint by the bucket and in any colour I could wish for; big, sturdy brushes for those gloriously pleasurable larger projects; and anything you could need to display your work from glue, screws, tape measures, spirit levels and metal rulers. I love those bits and pieces. I love the feel of them. They complement my airy fairy arty farty side. They fulfil a need in me: a need for something solid and real. The thing is, I just don’t know what to do with them. 

Is it heaven or is it a DIY shop?

I haven’t finished installing my work yet because I stupidly bought glue with which to fix the hooks on the backs of each painting that takes 24-36 hours to dry. I rest my case. 

The exhibition, ‘We Are Not Boxers’, a joint show by MA students including myself, opens on Friday at the Lighthouse, Wolverhampton (aka the old Chubb building – I have no idea why it is called the Lighthouse in the town that is about as far away from the sea as you can get but that’s another discussion).

Does this look like a lighthouse to you?

Please do come along. If for nothing else to admire my hanging skills.

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