Alice Major's review of Les Animots on her poetry blog.
'There are more allusions to contemporary culture in Les Animots. Meade’s grasshopper is introducing a new dance craze. Jackdaw loves the buzz of a mainline train station. The dolphin is practicing a new form of “hydrotherapy” where “Some clients leave having had / a proper spiritual experience, / others with just a thrill.” This is a dolphin stuck in an environment of human commerce.'
'This viewpoint creates a nice counterpoint to the wonderful pencil drawings by Douglas Robertson that accompany each poem and give the book much of its pleasure. Robertson creates not so much illustrations but metaphors—not the snake but the snake’s tracks in the sand.'
On Sunday night I was proud and honoured to be part of the performance of Stand and Stare, an evening of music, song, poetry and images inspired by the poem 'Leisure' by Welsh poet W. H. Davies, at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, as part of this year's Celtic Connections Festival.
The performance featured many of Scotland, Wales and Canada's talented musicians, singers, actors and poets. The cast included former Welsh national poet Gillian Clarke; musicians Liza Mulholland, Charlie McKerron, Alasdair Taylor, poet and expert harmonica player Gerry Cambridge, and Canadian cellist Christine Hanson. Further performances were by Donald S Murray and his daughter Eileen Scott, actor David Walker and singer Kathleen MacInnes.
The entire enterprise was the work of musician Liza Mulholland. It was a big thank you from all those involved to Liza for all her inspiration, hard work and organisation that brought the whole evening to fruition.
As part of this year's Celtic Connections Festival, I'll be creating background images for the premier performance of 'Stand and Stare', a music and literature event devised by singer/songwriter and musician Liza Mulholland, that takes W.H.Davies' poem of the same name as it's start point.
The drawings will mainly provide a background for the poem 'The Ship of Fools', written by my dear friend and collaborator, Donald S Murray. Follow this link to find out more about the show, and how to book tickets.
Stand And Stare show premiering at Celtic Connections 2017 on Sunday 29th January in the Strathclyde Suite of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, also selected to feature as part of the Festival’s Scottish Showcase.
Stand And Stare
Stand And Stare, a unique marriage of music and literature, takes as its starting point the poem, Leisure, by Welsh writer, W.H.Davies. One of the world's best-loved poems, it asks, 'What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?' and exhorts the reader to take time to stop and look; to marvel at and appreciate the beauties and wonders of the natural world, the small things and creatures which go unnoticed in our hurried lives.
Although the poem was written over one hundred years ago, it is possibly more pertinent than ever; in an urban age of over-saturation of imagery, all-pervading noise and musak, constant connection to electronic gadgetry and short attention spans, we perhaps require to be reminded of the need - for our souls as well as our mental well-being - to slow down from our hectic, high-tech lives, and contemplate, and reconnect with, nature.
Now in the selfie-era of instant posting of every random thought and moment of our lives to social media platforms, we are losing touch with how to be in the moment and simply connecting with what we see, hear, feel and smell. Leisure has touched a chord with readers across the generations and its message resonates more strongly than ever in today’s Britain, where we work longer hours than in many other European countries, leaving far less free time to unwind, be outdoors, go out into the countryside to enjoy nature and what remains of our wild landscape.
W.H.Davies was prolific in his output, and as well as gaining acclaim during his lifetime, enjoyed some colourful adventures. After a somewhat troubled youth, he left his native Wales to seek his fortune in the USA, spending a number of years as a wandering hobo, before heading to the Klondyke goldrush in the late 1890s. Attempting to jump a train with his drinking buddy, Three Fingered Jack, his leg was crushed and had to be amputated. This was, in a way, the making of him, as he returned to England and began writing; his work quickly came to the attention of George Bernard Shaw, who championed him and brought him to public attention. Davies wrote extensively thereafter, one of his most famous works being his memoir, Autobiography Of A Supertramp, which decades later inspired the eponymous supergroup’s name.
Three eminent, award-winning writers have been invited to offer a contemporary response to the poem, reading and performing their own poetry, prose and monologue, and each has chosen to write new work for the project. We are honoured to have a prestigious Welsh connection in the form of Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales 2008 – 2016, who, as well as being one of our foremost contemporary poets, has a personal link to Davies in that a distant relative of hers tramped with the poet in his hobo days. Gillian will present Leisure, elaborate on her own connection to Davies, and read her own work.
Donald S Murray, acclaimed Lewis writer and poet now resident in Shetland, and author of The Guga Hunters (Birlinn) and Herring Tales (Bloomsbury), will offer a distinctly Hebridean take on the concepts of leisure, work, nature and roots, in the form of Ship Of Fools, dramatic monologues presented by himself, David Walker (actor and writer) and Kathleen MacInnes (Gaelic singer, actor, and presenter). We are delighted that artist and illustrator, Doug Robertson, who has previously collaborated with Donald on a number of book projects, is creating unique drawings for Ship Of Fools which will be projected as overhead visuals.
Nature poet, photographer, and writer, Gerry Cambridge, author of Nothing but Heather! (Luath Press), The Shell House (Scottish Cultural Press), Brownsbank Writing Fellow 1997 - 1999 and editor of The Dark Horse literary journal, will take us on a detailed exploration of startling forms and images to be found in nature and life. The beauty and fine construct of the smallest organisms and creatures, when viewed close-up, can offer us a different perspective on our own place in the world. Gerry’s photographic images will feature in key use of overhead projections, the aim of which will be to draw the audience gaze to the stillness of the visual image, and let the music or words settle, allowing listeners to reflect, focus and contemplate.
A house band of accomplished musicians will play new, specially-composed instrumental music and provide a soundscape to the spoken word, featuring: award-winning fiddler and composer, Charlie McKerron of Capercaillie and Session A9; Canadian cellist, Christine Hanson, creator and composer of the acclaimed show, The Cremation Of Sam McGee, and cellist of choice for many Scottish artistes; Kathleen MacInnes, one of Scotland’s best-loved Gaelic singers; Alasdair Taylor, guitarist and mandolin player with The Trads award-winning young band, The Elephant Sessions; Liza Mulholland, singer/songwriter and musician, award-winning TV producer and accordionist with female band, Dorec-a-belle
Stand And Stare will offer diverse creativity in response to W.H.Davies' poem, resulting in a show of cross-artform collaboration that promises to be illuminating, beautiful and thought-provoking – perhaps a timely reminder and evocation of the natural beauty all around us, at a point when land, environment, and ecological balance are becoming issues of supreme importance.
The show was devised by Liza Mulholland and for further information, interviews or images, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07919088099.
January 1st is always a day for resolutions and making a new start, and for me it is always a tidy up and move around of the studio space. With several different projects ongoing at the moment, involving both drawings for new books and making assemblages for exhibitions, making the best of the available space is the New Year challenge.
Shifting the furniture around can be both mentally therapeutic and help you view the work you've been doing from a new angle. Making the best of the winter light with my drawing desk by the window is also vital in the annual studio roundabout.
So today is about putting down the pencils, lifting and shifting, and rearranging the space, taking a fresh run at the coming year's work.
I'd like to wish everyone a creative and fruitful 2017, and here's to new works taking flight.
Anyone who works in the arts, whether it is for instance in a studio painting or at a desk writing, will understand that every now and again you need to escape from the solitude of the studio to recharge the creative batteries (or just get some human contact!) and there are many and various ways of doing this depending on how your artistic soul needs fed.
I’m writing this, sitting with a pot of tea and my sketchbooks in a wonderful Hampshire seaside cafe; it’s an ideal spot to sit and sketch and recharge the creative batteries, with the sound of Brent Geese passing over and the wind bringing in the smell of the sea.
As an artist it is possible to spend hours on a piece of work without looking up or surfacing for air, and the isolation of the studio can creep up on you. Before you know it, days have passed and you haven’t set foot out of your studio and its confines. That’s when you need your creative recharging spots!
Over the years I’ve built up a good working collection of such places, all with different settings and facilities: museums and galleries which stimulate the visual senses and often help to solve problems of composition or stubborn subject matters; libraries and bookshops (usually second-hand) full of wonderful texts and treasures firing the imagination with new ideas and possibilities for new paths to follow.
But often it is just getting out into the open air, stretching your legs, and enjoying walking along a wind-swept shore or over the hills with miles of uninterrupted views. Wherever it is you go to recharge the batteries (I know where my favourite places are) it's as much part of the creative process as sitting at your desk or standing at an easel.
One of the most important aspects of working on new ideas and designs for the collaborations is the initial sketchbook drawings and planning. I love receiving new poems and prose to work with from my writer friends and the working notes in the sketchbooks are an important part of the process of getting the idea from the first reading to the final drawing.
I will often spend several weeks and numerous compositional possibilities before settling on the final image. The sketches illustrated here are from the latter stages of working on one of the poems from the forthcoming Shorelines book, in collaboration with my dear friend and long-time collaborator Donald S Murray.
This was one of several poems in the book where I have created two images to illustrate the idea, giving a broader view of the poem and allowing me to add more visual emphasis to the mood of Donald's poem. This works for both poet and artist and adds to understanding of the theme for the reader while also enhancing the aesthetic quality of the finished book.
I'm currently around half way through the fifty drawings for the book, with many more hours to be spent in the sketchbooks developing the images for the poems. It often feels like I spend too much time honing the final designs, but I hope it pays off with the quality of the final publication.
Watch out soon for the second image for 'Reformation' on the Net Mender, and in the Shorelines page on the website.
In a Cloud of Seabirds: The Art of Collaborating with Douglas Robertson
Review of my talk at the Scottish Writers Centre at the CCA in Glasgow, September 2016. Many thanks to Ruby McCann and all at the CCA for an extremely enjoyable evening.
For artist Douglas Robertson, working alongside other creatives is a ‘gift’. Through his career spanning over twenty years, Robertson has worked on projects that fuse words and images to communicate an inspired dialogue between writer and artist. With a long list of collaborators including Donald S. Murray, Gordon Meade, Isobel Dixon, Jen Hadfield, Valerie Gillies, Ian Stephen and Kevin MacNeil, it is clear to see that for Robertson, these creative alliances are gifts that keep on giving.
The key advice Robertson gives for a successful collaborative venture is to ‘work beside someone you get along with well’. One of these friendly artistic partnerships is demonstrated with Robertson’s collaborations with Donald S. Murray, with whom he has provided drawings for Small Expectations, The Guga Stone; lies, legends and lunacies of St Kilda and the soon-to-be-released Shorelines. For Robertson’s appearance in the CCA Club Room, he previewed the upcoming artwork for Murray’s Shorelines, explaining how he imprinted a narrative journey and mythology into his drawings and provided visual balance and movement to the textual content of the collection.
However, on the evening, it was not only the collaboration between illustrator and writer that Robertson discussed with the Scottish Writers’ Centre; but also the dialogue between artist and audience. For this part of the discussion, Robertson examined his work on the ‘poem boats’, his collaboration with Valerie Gillies, Ian Stephen and Kevin MacNeil. These ‘poem boats’ are small, hand carved wooden vessels sculpted from wood by Robertson with the addition of inscribed verses that were written by his poet collaborators. After their exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, the boats were launched from places at the same latitude as St Kilda (58° 50′ N), where they were then left to the mercy of the tide. To the fortunate beachcomber who finds and cherishes the boat’s craft, it becomes a gift from artist to audience.
Furthermore, in the creation of the boats, Robertson described how he literally ‘built’ poetry and artistry into his carvings. However, the boats can be viewed as a symbolic epitomisation of the artistic process: as the boats were launched into the abyss of the ocean, its artistry was released into the unknown where the creators of the ‘poem boats’ had no guarantee of ‘return’, or acknowledgement of its place in the hearts and minds of its audience.
Ultimately, through Robertson’s talk, he communicates that the act of collaboration is to amplify the art of creation; through the act, the gift never leaves the giver as it becomes manifest in the art itself.
Find more of Douglas’ exquisite artwork and keep up to date with his most recent collaborations here.
“Sometimes, I feel like I am just a pair of walking boots and a notebook”
This quote comes from a BBC World Service documentary, ‘River Spirits’, and was spoken by my friend and collaborator Valerie Gillies, one of several poets who have had a significant and direct influence on my creative process as an artist.
It was while I was a student at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in my home city of Dundee that the artist and tutor Will Maclean introduced me to Valerie and her work. Up to that point, poetry and literature had had an important role in the development of my work, but meeting and working with Valerie had a fundamental and profound effect on me as a practitioner and on my future artistic journey.
Working in collaboration with writers has broadened my approach to creating new works, in all aspects of how I research, compose and develop my work. The idea of 'walking boots and a notebook' ties in with not only getting out in the field and collecting and researching your chosen subject, but also to visiting museums and collections, sitting with a pile of books in the peace of a library or discussing new possibilities and ideas with poets. It has also opened up new paths to subject mater that I would never have previously considered.
Currently I am working on three very different collaborations, with poets Isobel Dixon, Gordon Meade and Donald S. Murray. Although all feature the natural world as their subject, each will be taking very different paths.
From real and imaginary birds that inhabit our coastlines and dreams to the fragility of our planet and the constant threat of extinction that faces the natural world, my new work will continue to be inspired and driven by the written word.
Look out for further posts on The Net Mender featuring the new collaboration projects.
Over the next few months I will be producing a selection of blog posts which will give an insight into my studio practice and day to day workings in the Hambledon studio.
It is always interesting to have the opportunity to look at an artist's sketchbooks, gaining a glimpse into how their creative mind works and equally, I always find it fascinating to see into artists studio spaces and get an insight to how they work.
My wee studio bathed in afternoon sunshine
So, what makes my studio tick?
One of the most noticeable features of my workspace is the amount of books that live in the space. I often joke that the studio should be renamed the library!
A small selection of the studio bookshelves
Literature has played a key role throughout my artistic career and still does in my everyday creative process. Whether it is working in collaboration with writers or on work directly or indirectly influenced by poetry or prose, the influence of the written word is never far from my day to day practice.
I have been very fortunate over the last twenty year to have been given the opportunity to work with many wonderful poets, and their work has added and enhanced greatly my personal understanding of the creative process and has taken me on many wonderful journeys, both real and imaginary.
From flights of fancy around far flung islands, to interpreting the psyche of man and beasts, these journeys have been a wonderful experience for me both as an artist and self-confessed poetry junkie!
I am currently working on new collaboration projects with Donald S. Murray, Isobel Dixon, and Gordon Meade. Look out for future posts and features about the new work on The Net Mender.
One of my favourite parts of working on new projects and collaborations is the time spent researching the subject. As with any of my previous works, I love to spend my time thoroughly investigating the subject matter, though visiting relevant sites, museums, galleries and libraries, building up my understanding and vocabulary and developing a clear vision of what I would like to create.
As part of my current collaboration with Isobel Dixon, I have been spending time researching and collecting at the British Library and the Horniman Museum in London.
The entrance courtyard of The British Library
I always feel that to do justice to a project, you have to fully understand your subject matter, have a confident and balanced working relationship with your collaborators, and be clear on what you are both trying to communicate to your audience. As I’m working my way forward with the new works, I am constantly discussing the ideas with Isobel, and refining and developing the art work to fit with the ethos of the collaboration.
My current research has taken me on a journey into the vast treasury of books that is housed in the British Library, particularly the work of one of my favourite illustrators, American artist Rockwell Kent.
We have become accustomed to most of the information we look for being documentary and lacking in any artistic license and interpretation. I am trying in the new bodies of work to get back to the more illuminated period of our artistic and literary history, when what was important to the authors and artists was to make the work elegant and decorative, and to mould the creatures in their work to convey the psychological attitude of the animal in the context of allegorical, moral, theological or narrative purposes.
Researching Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for Herman Melville’s classic novel, ‘Moby Dick’.
My understanding of the cultural context of using animals, birds, fish and flora in art is growing more and more as our project is developing, and hopefully will enable me not only to make the correct choices in how I depict the creatures and plants in my own work, but that I will, in my own small way, maybe add another layer that will help our audience enhance their understanding of this age old method of story-telling.
The 'infamous' Walrus in the Horniman Museum, London