On Saturday, whilst at Shotover with the kids, I took some time – whilst they were climbing trees – to paint some of the shadows cast by the trees. I started working with shadows like these back in 2017 and have recently started exploring this idea again. Below are some examples from my sketchbook made on Saturday.
Following on from the shadow work I’ve been doing I decided to work in some colour. I suppose it would signify the idea that our concept of the near past is often framed by the black and white media of its production, whether that’s in its photography or film. Then there are the texts written about the more distant past, whether contemporary or otherwise which, in our minds, become a blend of forms and colours as we try to picture that which they describe.
There was a moment several years ago when I found a piece of mediaeval pottery on a dig in Oxford. From out of the dark brown earth, the vivid yellow of the shard was made visible for the first time in several hundred years; seen for the first time in that great span of time. In some ways it was quite unsettling as I described in a blog in 2014.
The introduction of colour changes these ‘shadow texts’ into something else; a remembrance of things we could never have known, the memory of which we can only imagine.
After we lost mum in September last year, I found some old audio cassettes in her attic, one of which was a selection of tracks she recorded with my aunts in around 1975/76. The recordings had suffered a little through many years in a cupboard, but having restored them as best I could, I lifted the vocals from one track and wrote a new backing track. The song is ‘Take Me Home (Country Roads)’ by John Denver, and though it’s just a small thing, ‘collaborating’ with my mum (who is singing the lead) went some small way to making up for the conversations I miss having with her.
This is also dedicated to my Auntie Mo who also passed away in 2022.
After my mum passed away in September I found some old cassettes in cupboards in her attic room and over the last few weeks have been converting them to digital files which I have more lately been restoring.
One of the tapes contains music mum recorded with her two sisters (as M3) around 1975/6. Among the recordings is a version of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home (Country Roads)’ with my mum singing the lead. It was obviously very emotional to hear her and, thinking of the date it was recorded, I couldn’t help thinking of myself as I was back then – a small boy of 4 or 5 years old.
With the audio file converted and restored I then set about isolating the vocals so I could create my own backing track. Having done that I discovered that although the backing had been removed, there remained elements of the banjo bound up in with the voice. The software I was using has been called Photoshop for audio in that it shows the audio file as a spectrograph as per the image below.
The file runs from left to right with the lower frequencies at the bottom and volume indicated through the brightness (the louder, the brighter). Zooming in, one can see different sounds, for example in the image below you can see my mum’s voice (bright at the bottom of the image) with the harmonics in layers above.
Zooming in between the harmonics (for example, between the brighter bottom two layers) I could see the bits of banjo, and, using the software’s brush, could paint these sounds into the background. As a result, mum’s voice (and that of her sisters) was even better isolated enabling me to create a new backing track for the vocal.
Creating a new backing track was great – a collaboration of sorts – but one of the things which struck me was how the act of removing the unwanted bts of audio, like an archaeologist removing dirt from a dug up artefact, was like those moments when grief is suddenly focussed by an object, a sound or a memory and the loved one is remembered against the inexplicable backdrop of their absence. These pointed moments of grief are not simply remembrances of a lost loved one, but sudden realisations, each time as if for the first time, that they have gone.
Looking at the image above, one can see the yellow lines of my mum’s voice against the noise and silence, bright like those flashes of realisation.
Having recently bought and iPad Pro and pencil, I decided to start drawing in a style inspired to some extent by my son’s drawings and by my recent visit to Shotover wood, and, I have to say, I was pleased with the results.
The process of drawing without too much consideration of what one’s aiming to represent is similar to the process of automatic writing, where the subconscious drives the pen. I did something like this 10 years ago after a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a trip which inspired much of the work I made over the next 2 years as I completed my MA in Contemporary Arts at Oxford Brookes University. Two of the pieces that came about after various ‘automatic’ strategies are those below. First a series of drawings…
and then a series of text works…
The title of this post – ‘Somewhere Between Writing and Trees’ – is to some extent a reflection of an ‘automatic’, ‘subconscious’ process and the conscious drive to a representation of trees. Trees have played an important part in my research over the past ten years and after a gap in my work of late, they are I’m sure, a means of finding my way back in, particularly when coupled with thoughts of my son. Separated from my wife, I am also separated from both my children for much of the week, a pain which, anyone in my position would empathise with. Empathy itself has been an important part of my research – in particular regarding the victims of the Holocaust and the millions who died in World War I – and trees have played a part in bridging the gap between the past and present – a necessary step towards empathy. With regards to the Holocaust, it was the way the trees moved at Birkenau which closed a gap of almost 70 years; with World War I it was a quote from Paul Fussell: “…if the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of pastoral.”
We are familiar with the image of blasted trees from the battlefields of The Somme, Ypres and Verdun, but nothing in our imaginations can take us there. We can never experience what those men had to endure, day after day, night after night. So the idea of looking for the pastoral as a means of empathising with victims of war is an important one, helping to bridge the gap by reminding us how these soldiers were ordinary men before they enlisted; men who were once boys, some of whom no doubt played in woods and climbed trees.
When I was a boy I was obsessed with woods and forests. Trees were a means of escaping the present, where in the early 1980s, the threat of nuclear conflict was ever present. They were a means of escaping to the past. I loved the idea of the mediaeval landscape, covered with vast swathes of trees, because, quite simply, it was a place where nuclear weapons did not exist. Of course it was an idealised past; an overly pastoral one, and to some extent the backdrops of portraits made of soldiers before they went to war remind me of this place. The following is a piece I made based on those backdrops.
Every one of these men was someone’s son which brings me back to my own, to his drawings and my drawings of trees.
Drawing and drawing with my son, helps close the gap which separates us for much of the week. It helps me feel close to him when he isn’t there. Drawing trees is a process which takes me back to my work, and whilst thinking of my son, becomes another means of empathising with those in the past.
Following on from previous posts about my son’s drawings and photographs taken at Shotover, I’ve been drawing ‘trees’ (or at least, using them as a starting point), whilst trying not to be too conscious about my approach. The results are as follows:
As I was drawing them, I was reminded of drawings I made years ago as part of an observation I made of an apple tree growing in my mum’s garden.
In a previous blog (Imagination and Memory) I wrote the following:
“Going back to my childhood, my imagination provided me with a means of escape (not that I needed to escape anywhere – I was fortunate enough to have the perfect upbringing). I’d always wanted to see the world unspoilt, an Arcadian vision without cars, planes, pollution, machines or any trace of the modern. And in a sense, this is I believe, what first fired my interest in the past.”
This is one of the maps in question, photographed in my bedroom around 1983.
Thinking again about ‘a means of escape’, I realised that despite what I’d written, there was a ‘need’ to escape somewhere. Throughout the 1980s the Cold War was at its height and although recollections of the period bring back many happy memories, there was always, simmering in the background, the anxiety of a nuclear conflagration. Every time a ‘crisis’ was reported on the news, my dreams at the time would always be the same: I’d watch from my garden as a huge mushroom cloud billowed up above the horizon. And in the days before 24 hour rolling news, the refrain “we interrupt this programme to bring you a newsflash” would stop my heart.
The worlds that I created were places where, quite simply, there were no nuclear weapons, and therefore no risk of nuclear war, but just as these imaginary places offered a means of escape, so did history – in particular pre-industrial history and to bring the past to life, for example the mediaeval world which was especially compelling, I had to use – just as I do now – my imagination. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes writes:
“Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers consideration hath divers names.”
One could perhaps say the same about history. Certainly in my mind, those three things – history, memory and imagination – were conflated, creating a landscape in which I could wander at my leisure; a place to which I could escape. And it was through the creation of maps that I found my way there.
I am looking at a shoe made of leather which is on display in a glass case in the Museum of Oxford. With it on display are a number of other leather artefacts, but I will reserve my observations for the shoe in question.
The shoe, which I believe is that for a right foot, is dark grey in colour. It rises above the ankle, it’s quite small but appears to be one that would have belonged to a man. It has a small round metal buckle which appears to be the only fastening. It’s a little worn at the edges, particularly at the front, but not so worn on the back; it’s more or less intact. The upper part of the shoe has been cut in six places. The cuts have been made on the right hand side and the last cut which is more of a hole has been cut into the top of the shoe. The buckle is also on the right hand side. It’s round with a metal part on the inside such as one would find on a belt buckle. Opposite this, on the left hand side is a small hole which I assume is the fastening. Looking at the buckle, and the small metal part inside, I assume that there was a strap which passed through the buckle and around the shoe.
Looking into one of the cuts made in the right hand side of the shoe I can see three small holes in the bottom at the edge. The shoe is about 8 to 9 inches in length, the back of the shoe rises approximately 4 or 5 inches. The shoe is behind glass so obviously I cannot touch it.
The sixth hole cut into the top of the shoe has a cut in each of its edges, as if the hole was made first by cutting two crossed lines into the leather and then making the hole from these. The first cut in the shoe, that nearest the sole, is about 2 inches in length, the second about an inch, the third and fourth slightly smaller, the fifth about half an inch long. The hole is about ¾ inch in diameter.
The shoe has been packed inside for display with a white material. Looking at the back right hand side of the shoe (just behind the ankle) I can see that it has been cut, but it seems to be part of the shoe’s design, to ease the task of putting it on. The shoe has also been cut down the centre, again part of the design, to about two inches from the buckle. The sixth cut – the hole – is about an inch and a half from the end of this cut.
The right hand side of the shoe is that which is most visible and I can clearly see the texture of the leather, I can almost see the shape of the heel where the shoe has moulded to the shape of the wearer’s foot. There is a large crease just above where the ankle would be (which seems to correspond with the idea that the shoe would have been fastened with a strap). There is another large crease running down from the buckle towards the sole.
What is clearly seen in this shoe is the apparent simplicity of its construction. I can almost see it as a single piece of leather and as I consider this I begin to picture it in the hands of the tanner. I can almost see the carcass of the animal from which it was taken (I wonder for a moment about the cow; where had it grazed, when was it killed), the man who cut it and prepared the leather. I can hear the noise of the place in which he worked and see this piece of leather as the means by which he is able to live. I assume he knows the shoemaker? Did the shoemaker live in the town? Did the tanner? What things were on his mind as he worked the leather in the 13th or 14th century? And what about the buckles, where were they made? Who made them? Were they sent to the shoemaker along with other buckles? What was going through the mind of the man who made it? What was happening in the world when it was made? The same question applies to the tanning of the leather and the making of the shoe itself.
At some point the leather from the tanner and the buckles (from the ironmonger?) would have found their way to the shoemaker. Did he work alone? Were there others working with him? Were the shoes bespoke, made to fit individual buyers, or did he just make them in bulk? Did he know the man who wore this shoe? If he did, what did he talk with him about as he measured up his feet? What was happening in the city at the time, how long had it been since the tanner had sent the leather? What was the process of making the shoe, how long did it take? What was the buyer wearing on his feet as he talked with the shoemaker? Did the buyer select the leather or was it just whatever was available? Why did the buyer chose this particular design? What were the shoes for – everyday use? What was the shoemaker’s workshop like? What were the sounds both inside and outside?
Having talked with the buyer, the shoe maker would begin to mark the leather. What did he use? A piece of chalk? He would cut the leather to shape, making the cuts that I could see in the shoe – those that were intentionally part of the design. And then, having cut the pieces, he would begin to sew the shoe together. Did he do it in the light or in the dark, under the light of a candle? What did he think about as he worked the needle and thread? Was he an old man. Did the drawing of the thread help him in his thoughts? What were the sounds as he worked? Quiet, except for the noise coming from the street. As I see him work, I begin to feel the rhythm of his body, I feel his aches and pains. I feel the squint of his eyes as he tries to see more clearly what he is doing.
Did he like the man for whom he made the shoes? When he finished the shoe, did he pick it up and look at it admiringly, squinting again to make sure everything was perfect? It had to be, this after all was how he made his living.
The final touch, the attaching of the buckle. The shoes were ready to be collected. The buyer comes and picks up his shoes. He enters the workshop (perhaps the shoemaker delivered them to his house?). What time of year is it? Winter? Is it cold outside beyond the warmth of the workshop? One can hear the sounds of the outside pour in through the door along with the chill. Or maybe it’s summer? Is the workshop warm, stifling? The man is eager to try on the new shoes. He takes off his old ones and takes the new pair from the shoemaker (what do they feel like, what colour are they?) Do they carry on their conversation from last time, or do they just make small talk? The man tries them on, they fit perfectly. He walks in them for the first time, up and down the workshop. The shoemaker smiles and waits for the money. How much did they cost?
The man takes the shoes. Does he wear them out, does he discard the old shoes he’s been making do with for so long? Where does he go when he leaves? What does he do, what is he thinking about? Does he speak to anyone? What does he see as he walks in them for the first time along the streets he knows so well? Over time the shoes – the leather – begin to soften and fit themselves to the shape of his feet. His walking makes the creases and folds in the leather. They fit better and better but there is a problem with his right foot. He has bunions which are making walking painful and difficult. But there’s little he can do about it except walk as best he can, his grimacing face showing the signs of his discomfort. Do people ask if he’s okay as he limps down the street, or is it a common sight in mediaeval times?
Where does he wear the shoes? Which streets did he walk down whilst wearing them? Inside which buildings?
The pain gets worse and in the end it’s all he can do, in a moment of desperation to take a knife and cut two lines in the shape of a cross in the top of his shoe directly above the bunion. Did he start by making the one cut and proceeding to cut more as the condition of his feet deteriorated, adding the cuts on the side? Or were they all cut at the same time? What went through his mind as made the cuts? How old were the shoes when he had to cut them? Was it just the one shoe that was cut this way?
As time goes by, the shoe is discarded (what about the other?). Perhaps the man’s condition became so bad the shoe no longer fit him. Perhaps he died? Where was it thrown away? Somewhere wet, somewhere that kept them so well preserved. The moat of the castle? The river? Who threw them in? The man himself – or perhaps his wife? Maybe someone else. Did they think of the man when they threw them away? What happened to the shoe after it was discarded. Did it float on the surface of the water? Was it dark when they were discarded? Was it light? What could be seen, what could be heard the moment the shoes hit the water’s surface?
Pressure. Weight. Weightlessness.
Something lives within, then is gone.
The space left behind; the imprint of weight and weightlessness combined.
The wet. The mud.
Heat. Dust. Scratching. Expanding.
Held together, seams, thread, pressure.
Stained by the long dark. Sudden break. Noise and light.
Empty. Fixed in shape by the memory of something living.
Long gone to the ground.
I am made of many parts, there are different aspects of my being, the leather, the threads, the holes, the emptiness inside. The absence of the body (the foot) around which I was pulled tight, which moulded my shape. I moved, I expanded as I felt the pressure above and below me. I was squeezed between the two or sometimes left in the limbo of lightness. I breathed. I took in water, I dried out. I absorbed smells and over time my smell changed from that of the shop in which I was made to the smell of the house in which I was sometimes left. I was the smell of the man who wore me and the smell of the streets of which I was a part; the streets left behind with versions of myself; depressions left in the ground. I felt pressure outside and within but now I feel nothing, just a limbo of lightness. I smell of nothing. The pressure of the mud which encased me, the darkness, the shape in which I was fixed for centuries. I was beneath the ground the shape only of myself, of one of those depressions left in the street. Long, long dark. Silence. Then light, sudden light and noise and careful hands. Not like the hands of the man who owned me, but the hands of the man who made me, the careful hands of the shoemaker who cut me into shape, who carefully punctured the holes for the thread, who looked at me with great satisfaction. Now that same look is extended to me once again and I am light, and in the light. I have come an impossible distance, but am in the place where I have always been. Where is the other shoe? Where are all the other shoes made by the shoemaker, made by all the shoemakers?
One of the ways I use this Goethean method of observing is by using it has a framework on which to hang a series of questions (Phase 2). I find this a good way of trying to understand what the shoe might have experienced over the course of its ‘lifetime’ by trying to locate its changing place within a mutable, physical world. It’s also worth, once I have finished writing, going back over what one has written so as to try and tease out the ‘essential’ elements of what has been observed; these elements can then be used to try and locate the ‘gesture’ of the thing.
What I notice when reading over the text is how the shoe is often positioned at various thresholds. A number of words seem to suggest this:
There is also the fact that the shoe exists at the threshold between the animate and the inanimate, between man and object. “As I see him work, I begin to feel the rhythm of his body, I feel his aches and pains. I feel the squint of his eyes as he tries to see more clearly what he is doing.” Of course it maybe that he felt no pain and didn’t squint, but nevertheless, what one can find distilled in the fabric of the shoe is the rhythm of the maker’s own body, as well as of course, that of the man who prepared the leather, the buckle and last but not least the wearer.
There is also a threshold which is a little more difficult to explain; that between conscious thought and unconscious doing. For example, one can imagine the shoemaker making the shoe almost unconsciously, as if he has done it so many times before, the action is almost a part of his being like walking. But coupled with that is what he was thinking whilst unconsciously ‘doing’. Nothing works in isolation and I like to think that whatever he was thinking somehow – no matter how perceptibly or imperceptibly – translated itself in whatever way, into his actions – in this case making the shoe.
The shoe therefore exists at these thresholds too; between the inanimate and animate, conscious thought and unconscious doing, and, it could be said conscious doing and unconscious thought.
Thinking further about these thresholds, I began to see the shoe as a kind of spring, one which over a period of time is more and come compressed from both the weight of the wearer and the pressure of the ground on which he walks. Looking at the shoe today, one can almost imagine it, as a spring, unwinding like a clock, telling a time that to us at least barely changes at all.
Turning then to the shoes in Majdanek, one can imagine them all this way, as springs which are slowly unwinding. In this sense, the mountain of shoes is imperceptibly moving, exerting by degrees an influence upon its surroundings.
Just as a body lying buried in the ground continues to exert an influence upon its surroundings, so does every shoe, and I can’t help but imagine, that this uncoiling inside each one is the slow release of a long unbroken memory, of the human who wore them and the pathways which they walked.
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces – Georges Perec
Memory, History, Forgetting – Paul Ricoeur
Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Cultural Memory in the Present) – Andreas Huyssen
Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination – Annette Kuhn
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World – David Abram
White Magic and Other Poems – Krzysztof Baczynski
The Art of Memory – Frances A. Yates
The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard
Shadows and Enlightenment – Michael Baxandall
A Short History of the Shadow – Victor I. Stoichita
In Praise of Shadows – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
After thinking about it for quite some time I have finally made some changes to my website. Since starting my MA in Composition and Sonic Art at Brookes University here in Oxford, I have come to the realisation that for too long I have been restricting my artistic practice by compartmentalising everything I do. So, whereas before on my website I had categories for art, music and writing, I have chosen instead to see these disciplines as more a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. So, from now on, everything I do will come under the singular term ‘art’, even though ‘art’ is not in itself a category on this website; I am an artist rather than an artist, writer and musician.
On the MA, we have been encouraged to explore different strategies for creating artworks, and for exploring ideas. I have been guilty in the past – like so many others – of having an idea and instantly thinking of the end result; designating a medium and visualising a form before I’ve even explored the idea or theme. Working this way has always blocked me, for, rather than thinking about the meaning behind the work, I have instead always thought about the work – or what I have perceived the work will be. For example, I think of an idea, and say to myself, “I will do a 10 minute video piece…” and at once the idea is constrained, strait-jacketed, and, as a result it withers and dies; crushed, more often than not, by concerns over technical constraints (and possibilities).
So, this website marks a departure from that way of working. Now with my ideas, I try and look for a way in using strategies such as free-writing, drawing (as a means of understanding a given thing) and mapping. However, in designing the website, I still required categories of sorts and decided upon three; not Art, Writing and Music as I had before, but rather Places, People and Objects.
Much of my work is centred around the concept of place and deals in particular with memories of that place. These works might – eventually – be video-based, sonic, aural, text-based, paintings, drawings… whatever, but I have refrained fromusing any of these as categories in themselves. Instead, under each heading I have listed the various projects I am working on and within each of these have created six headings, those being; Introduction, Context, Evidence, Approach, Journal and Progression. More may follow, but as things stand these will suffice.
Introduction is just that, an introduction to the themes and ideas which I am exploring. Context is an explanation of my reasons for wishing to pursue the idea; how the Place, Person or Object relates to me and vice-versa. Evidence is an exploration of the thing’s background; it’s history, it’s place in the past, the present and – in conjecture – the future, as well as being a collection of relevant readings and/or images. Approach is a summary of the methods I have used – or am using – to explore the idea or theme, for example, free-writing, drawing or mapping. Journal comprises extracts of my journals and sketchbooks and Progression is a look at work carried out thus far, with thoughts on possible final pieces.
As said, this way of working – and indeed thinking – marks a departure for me, but already I have reaped the rewards. Hopefully, you, whoever you are, might reap some reward too.