Tuesday, 12 November 2013

I'm glad you're alive!

The latest woodcut is taken from a hand-written note.  I was challenged recently to think about the philosophy that underlies my politics and having thought about it for a while, I woke up in the middle of the night with 'I'm glad you're alive!' running through my head. 

The phrase might seem trite, or twee at first glance but presented as a woodcut print in a formal setting, does it open up a deeper train of thought? Who is 'I' and who is'you' - is it one person, many people, or all people?

In my personal philosophy, I place a very high value on the human being: every one is important and has the potential for fulfilment. I once defined my personal artistic manifesto as: "I am for an art that loves everybody". For me, everyone is an expression of the one source of all things, which some call God, although I hesitate to use the word because our civilisation has created a character called 'God', choosing words to put in his mouth to justify our own actions, to condemn others' and conjour all sorts of mean-spirited bigotry. 

Anyway, as a thought-experiment, imagine treating every person you meet as though you are truly glad they are alive; valuing their lives and abilities, their past and future. It places heavy demands on our politics, priorities, and attitudes. That idea, glimpsed from the corner of my eye is the one I want to explore when I say 'I'm glad you're alive!'.

This project is only just beginning - watch this space.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

New Woodcut

The latest woodcut 'Together', is finally finished. I ended up with an edition of 9 prints. The four colours are all different mixes of French Ultramarine, Poppy Red, Golden Yellow and Opaque White.

The text emerging from the colour fields was originally intended as an expression of impotent rage against a government that is imposing savage spending cuts in the name of austerity which impact disproportionately on women and on the poorest people in our (UK) society. The infamous claim by millionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was that 'we are all in this together'. He didn't say 'this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me' but he could have done! 

However there is another, deeper, meaning in the text, away from cheap political point-scoring and thinking more holistically about us as a species on the planet: as the human race. There is a real sense in which recognising our shared responsibilities toward each other, our common humanity and interdependence is a prerequisite for a politics that might see human beings survive, in freedom, in the long term. My view of human beings is a high one, and my life and politics are informed by the conviction that all people are important, that human rights are universal, and that we really are 'all in this together'.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Public Works Collective includes: 
Lydia Heath
Andy Reaney
Elise Darlow
Letitia Northcott
Michael Davies
Clarisse Wisser
Helen Northcott
and me.

On Saturday 26 October, Public Works conducted a one-day project on the buses (bus conductors?). We selected the longest circular routes around Winchester and, in pairs, spent the day on one route, asking the passengers to take part in making a record of the bus journey, through drawing, stories, writing or other responses. We had a fantastic response. Two stories stand out for me:
This is Alan:

He boarded the bus in the City Centre in full Tiger onesie and face paint. He had been raising money for Southampton General Hospital to help build a hostel for parents to stay in when their children are in hospital.

Like so many of the passengers, he was a pensioner and happy to chat. Many of the people on the bus said they use it almost every day using their bus-pass and it enables them to get to the shops, to see friends and family.

This is Gluikchien:
She is a life-saving dog who took a mugger's knife to save her owner. She told us how two men had come towards her with a knife and the dog went for the man and was stabbed through the chest. The man ran off and two passers-by helped get the dog to a vet where they saved its life with multiple stitches. Her owner was on the way to buy her a little raincoat to protect her 11-year old frame from the coming winter.
We gathered together at our favourite independent cafe 'Nibble' in Stockbridge Road and put together all the drawings and other contributions. We had a wonderful few hours exchanging experiences and compiling the zines. 
The resulting zines were then placed on the tables in the Bus Station Cafe, and two copies were donated to 'Nibble'. 

The project was undertaken as part of '10days' a biennial festival of arts in Winchester. We felt it had been successful and were pleased with the outcomes, which included the zines, brightening up many peoples' bus-rides on a rainy Saturday, and strengthening our working relationships as a creative collective.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Greenham Common and Eton Wick

On Greenham Common, the concrete runways of the old American airbase have long since been broken up and the land has returned to an extensive swathe of heathland habitat. 
Greenham Common
The heroines of the Women's Peace Camp who refused to be silent at the basing of Cruise Missiles at Greenham Common would, I hope, be pleased to see what has become of their former temporary home.
A short drive from home, a visit was prompted by a text-message report of a Red-backed Shrike, a migrant that isn't often found this far inland - (they fairly regularly crop-up on the East Coast). A small group of Newbury birders were already gathered at the spot so it was easy to locate the bird, which continued to fly-catch from the tops of fence posts and bushes, flying up, snatching large, winged insects out of the air and returning to its perch to gulp them down. The Shrike had a supporting cast of WhinchatStonechatWoodlark, and Wheatear. This was the kind of day that makes birding a joy and a pleasure. Walking back towards the car park at the old control tower, with one of the other birders, we spotted six Golden Plover, about ten metres away, perfectly camouflaged against the gravelly ground. 
Eton Wick

Another text-message informed me that further East in the County, a Ruff had turned up at Eton Wick, where a flooded field has been attracting flocks of geese and a few interesting waders for some time. Located bizarrely within sight of Windsor Castle and Slough Sewage Works, I found the contrasting neighbourhood amusing. 

Eton Wick

The reeds and hedgerow beside the stream contained Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff. 

Walking on past the flood, the path came out beside the Jubilee River - a hydraulic flood-relief channel for the Thames. 
Jubilee River

Now about 20 years old, the River and the attractive habitat created at Dorney Wetlands have become havens for wildlife.

Crossing the footbridge to Dorney Wetlands, I skirted Slough sewage works (a historic hot-spot for waders and the odd rare passerine), with Windsor Castle over the river to the south east. 
Dorney Wetlands

Windsor Castle

Another bridge brought me back to the Jubilee river cycle path and better views of the Ruff down on Eton Wick.


I found about 30 Snipe and one Ringed Plover were also feeding in the muddy scrape which has held the Ruff's attention for several days now. 

Snipe and Ringed Plover

A large flock of Lapwing also settled on the scrape but were soon off again, flushed by the shadow of a Red Kite crossing the water. 
Lapwing flock over Eton Wick

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon's birding. Still feeling reflective - but not so discontent, I made my way home through the rush-hour traffic on the M4.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Joining the Mottisfont Residency Team

Anna Heinrich and Leon Palmer (see their website HERE)are conducting a three-month artists' residency at Mottisfont, a National Trust property with a long tradition of making spaces for contemporary art.  They have drawn around them a group of artists and students to foster a range of creative responses to the site.
The Mottisfont Plane tree

Rather late in the process, I have joined the party, and my daughter Alice (a recent graduate in Cultural Studies) has decided to come along for the ride.

We arrived at the artists' studio in Mottisfont on 5 September, having never been to this part of Hampshire before.I could tell from the co-creative session we joined that the earlier workshops had already generated a great deal of activity and diverse interpretations of Mottisfont.
Drawing of the co-creative workshop, made without looking at the paper
When we finally got out onto the site, to explore the house and grounds, my first impression of Mottisfont was of a place insulated from the cares of the world by a genteel cloak of wealth and privilege; a retreat and refuge from the harsh realities of life. If it was that kind of sanctuary in the past, when it was the home of a succession of wealthy families and their celebrity guests, it still seems to retain some of that character today.

The visiting public were predominantly retired, white, middle class couples with the occasional grandchild. I imagined they were daydreaming, as they perambulated in the sunshine, about the luxurious lifestyles of the former owners, admiring the walled gardens, riverside walks and 'great tracts of land'.

Window within the Cellarium
around which the current house has been built
Now it is owned by the National Trust so I have to wrestle with the paradox of the estate's privileged past and it's ostensibly public-serving present. 'Forever, for everyone' (provided they can pay to get in).

Scheming with an ice-cream
However much I tried, I couldn't get excited about the place on this first visit. The artists, on the other hand - now there was something to get excited about; with their creative ideas buzzing around in a subversive maelstrom of inventiveness.

Alice in the Cellarium
I wondered at the task Anna and Leon had taken on, of orchestrating this rich mix of responses into a cohesive presentation within one small and idiosyncratic exhibition space. I wanted to see how this played out and to engage with it, be involved and learn from the experience. I'm in.

The Cellarium houses a soundscape installation,
with overlapping loops of sound composed by Hywel Davies

Who is this? Pan?

Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney RIP

Quitting Time

The hosed-down chamfered concrete pleases him.
He'll wait a while before he kills the light
On the cleaned-up yard, its pails and farrowing crate,
And the cast-iron pump immobile as a herm
Upstanding elsewhere, in another time.
More and more this last look in the wet
Shine of the place is what means most to him -
And to repeat the phrase, 'My head is light',
Because it often is as he reaches back
And switches off, a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of a tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek.
(c) Seamus Heaney 2006, from District and Circle, pub. faber and faber 2006

So often Heaney's everyday words placed in order fit together like a dry stone wall to make a solid memory of a thing. 

His passing, announced by his family this morning, makes this a sad day. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Blessing by John O'Donoghue and an emerging Artistic Vision

Last weekend was the 40th Greenbelt Festival - website HERE - an arts festival rooted in the Christian tradition: a collision of arts, faith and justice. I have the honour of being voluntary Company Secretary for the Charity and Company, using some of my skills to support the only expression of Christianity I have found that I can live with. Its ethos is inclusive, open, curious, generous, imaginative and welcoming. It therefore meets with the disapproval of several branches of the church for various things they might see as shortcomings, or aberrations (probably the very same things that allow me to be involved at all).

Anyway, the festival is run by a small core of dedicated and creative staff and about 1,500 volunteers. This year our creative director opened the volunteers' pre-festival welcome event with a 'blessing' written by the late great philosopher/priest/poet John O'Donoghue. The words struck me as an encapsulation of much of my motivation in life and in making art:

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work
You do with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those
Who work with you and to those who see and receive your work. 
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement. 
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden you.
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams,
Possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you. 

Some of the Greenbelt faithful have spent months wrestling with a definition of its approach to art and what art is. Greenbelt has now published this quite interesting 'emerging artistic vision':


Imagination is more than the impulse to create.  It is the ability to see something that is not there, to plan, to hope, to empathise.  Politics, social outreach and theology are all rooted in the imagination.

So, of course, is art. And we believe that...

Creativity and imagination have their source in God and point us back to their source.

Not a product, but an expression of meaning that is invaluable.

Helping is feel more fully human, awakening us to our true value.

Communicating and connecting in ways words cannot.

Challenging the status quo, cutting through convention, subverting power.

Personally and communally, building identity and well-being.

Participating is as important as the end result; art is a shared experience.

Enabling us to create meaning, connecting our stories to other stories.

And what we believe about art, we believe about ideas too. 
We programme both.
We cherish both.
We celebrate both.

Art and ideas.
Acts of the imagination.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Basing House Dig: Vols 3, 4 and 5

The second and third week of the dig involved the team in completing the re-opening of the 1960s box-grid excavation. Archaeologists, students, researchers, local volunteers: all working to gather as much information as possible from this little area of ground, giving up its secrets as the different contexts were worked down through.

The different layers beneath the turf are called 'contexts'. At Basing House the layers included a burnt-flint layer above a crushed chalk floor of what were probably late iron-age round houses. 

The production of zines consumed a great deal of my time - with some assistance on folding duties from a few of the students,and patient support from the visitor centre staff when the photocopier jammed or needed logging-in. 

The zines aimed to capture some of my thoughts and reflections and to provide a memento/souvenir of the experience for the members of the dig team. I made limited editions of 52 signed copies of each zine. I suppose I did that to make them somehow more 'special' more personal, more 'valuable' to the recipients.

I was working with limited studio-access and limited media: paper, drawing pens, a b/w printer, my friend's home made pasta-press for producing mono prints, black litho/relief ink, some coloured pencils. 

My output reflects those limitations but it was more limited by the size of my imagination.

Some students wanted to try mono-printing techniques so I did a number of mini workshops with two students at a time coming to my makeshift studio and producing their first ever mono-prints. Some even made work with archaeology themes. A few of their prints appeared in the zines, one commanded the front cover of zine Vol. 5.

The material excavated and dumped on the spoil heap included beautifully formed flints, crumbling soft chalk, clay, stone, earth, roots, bits of old tyre...all had their own charm. 

The working methods with spade and shovel, mattock and trowel allowed layers to be cleared efficiently and sensitively down to a fine shaving of soil to find the edges of each feature  and context.

Each find was thoroughly documented - from a Carling Black Label can to a stunningly preserved Roman coin.

Making work in response to all this excitement was a challenge. So many visualising technologies were in use by the team, with meticulous section drawing, formal photography and image capture to enable computer modelling - that I found myself withdrawing to the comfort zone  of old technology, pen and paper, glue and scissors and printmaking. 

Perhaps next time I will be braver and engage with some new media expressions. 

It was a privilege to work beside these people and to see the sum total of human knowledge and happiness increased by a notch or two.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Basing House Dig - Zine Vol 2.5

Some of the outputs from the Basing House residency silk screen and monoprint workshop, collected into an 8-page foldy-zine. Work by Nicole Beale, Michael Davies, Peter Driver and Lucy Whitehall.

Back and Front covers

Basing House - Artist in Residence

Assembling the gear (including a lot of borrowed kit) to set up my studio at Basing House,Hampshire, where I am Artist-in-Residence for three weeks. 

Makeshift studio set-up in the learning resource centre with my laptop,
Andy Reaney's printer and the WSA monoprint  kit, including a
press improvised from a lasagne press.
Basing House was a very grand Tudor House, of similar design to the Tudor parts of Hampton Court Palace. It was owned by Sir William Paulet and visited by royalty including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Built on the site of a Norman ring and bailey castle, with evidence of earlier Romano British and Bronze Age activity, it has long been the subject of serious archaeological study.  The House was completely destroyed in a 'great conflagration' during the Civil War, with only the Great Barn and a few outhouses remaining.
Interior of the Great Barn at Basing House
(complete with Civil War period cannon-ball holes in the walls)
The current dig, by archaeologists from Southampton University, Hampshire Museums service and local volunteers, is excavating part of the earthwork defences erected hastily during the English Civil War as a first line of defence against Cromwell's New Model Army.

De-turfing the 1960s excavation site - archaeolology about archaeology
As Artist-in-residence I have made drawings and photographs, the plan is to create a series of 8-page zines (foldy-zines each made from a single sheet of A3) I am producing them in real-time, during the dig, so far each member of the dig-team has received copies of Vol. 1 and Vol 2.

Vol 1 and Vol 2 - limited editions of 52 

The first volume borrowed some of the style of a Civil War period pamphlet, the second was largely concerned with the team's contextual visit to Hampton Court Palace.
Part of Vol. 1

Part of Vol. 2

Basing House is offering family activity days for two days per week during the dig. The students have created activities related to Tudor games, and archaeology. My artist friends Jeff Phegley and Mike Davies, came to help run silk screen print workshops, mostly for children, and to demonstrate monoprint and woodcut techniques. 

Clear line of white chalk evident below the Civil War embankment level

By day nine, the archaelogists had removed most of the infill from the 1960's excavation, revealing the edges of the box-grid digging system which was prevalent back then. This shows clear stratification of the ground level prior to the Civil War earth works and lower levels, where Romano British sherds have been uncovered.
Cleaning sherds of Romano-British pottery at the finds desk
Watch this space for more updates and some glimpses of the mono-prints and other work generated in response to the dig.