Monday 24 January 2011

New Medium Madness

Normally, I need my studio to be very neat and orderly if I'm to work in it effectively.  However, this is how it looked a couple of days ago.

The culprit: a selection of new acrylic paints which I bought a few weeks ago.  They had been sitting on the shelf, in tidy rows, mostly well behaved, waiting. 

I have been in a period of transition with my painting lately.  In the past, I've painted with oil paint - sometimes mixed with a cold wax medium to create more texture and luminescence.  And the paintings have been mainly abstracted landscapes.  Nature is almost always the inspiration for my visual work.  

Lately, I've been wanting to experiment with materials I can use at home - my  home studio is too small to leave a large canvas sitting with oil paint drying on it for days and days, and I don't want to fill the air with toxic fumes. 

I have been wanting to find a way to combine what I've been learning through my recent foray into collage, with my abstract paintings.  I decided to try painting on paper - mostly Japanese mulberry papers which are incredibly strong - with acrylics (a technique that some collage makers use to get exactly the colours they want).  This, of course, resulted in a tremendous mess. 

A tremendous and incredibly fun mess.  There was a certain freedom to having my things lying all over the floor: paints, brushes, pallets of baking paper and cardboard, print making rollers, pieces of cardboard and toothpicks to make designs with.  Then I knelt down and got to work.  I painted, and rolled, and crinkled, and put papers together to transfer paint from one to another...This went on for quite some time.  (It didn't used to hurt this much getting up again after sitting on the floor the floor, did it?) 

The papers were hung to dry in batches on a makeshift line over my desk.

Today, they are all dry and ready to be used.  After a frenzied clean up, I'm ready to experiment: ripping, cutting, layering, applying the papers to cradled wood panels: essentially, painting with paper.

Between work sessions, while waiting for the paint to dry, I read Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."  Now, given that acrylic paint dries in no time at all, and that I'm a slow reader, the fact that I managed to finish this book in a couple of days speaks for how enthralled I was.  I couldn't put it down.  I thought I had read it some time after it came out in 1985, but after the first couple of sentences, I knew I hadn't.  

The book is fascinating on many levels: for Atwood's mastery with words; for her cutting wit; for her disturbing and sometimes outrageous vision of how close we as a civilized people are to tipping over, into a chasm of fanaticism, bigotry, ignorance, and oppression.  Her writing is at times that of a poet (her first collection of poems "The Circle Game" - written when she was still in her twenties - shows a poet with amazing word-craft and razor-sharp insight); and at other times that of a master of clean, spare prose, with amazing attention to detail, and portraits of people that are at times startling, and at times touching.  All of this is peppered with a dry, black humour and irony.  


This reminded me of another book of hers - which I did read, a few years ago - and which I now want to read again.  "Negotiating With the Dead" is a collection of six lectures she gave at Cambridge University as part of their Empson Lecture series in 2000.  In these lectures, she discusses writing and the role of the writer.  It's almost worth the bibliography alone, as she makes reference to so many other books of literature, myth, religion, theatre, poetry...the word "intertextuality" comes to mind when I think of these lectures - and when I think of her writing in general, come to think of it.

Leafing through the book, I found a couple of passages I'd underlined, perhaps eight years ago.  One of them was this: 

"The title of this chapter is 'Negotiating with the Dead,' and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality - by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.      
You may find the subject a little peculiar.  It is a little peculiar.  
Writing itself is a little peculiar."

So much of Atwood's writing is infused with these archetypal, mythological references.  A journey to the Underworld, a place which fascinates us all, but where only heroes (and lowly writers?) dare to go. 


So, back to my journey through messy studio, an encounter with a new medium, and now to try to blend two rather disparate techniques into a pleasing, cohesive whole which makes some sort of aesthetic sense to me. A journey not quite as magnificent as that to the Underworld and back, but rewarding nonetheless.  I'll post some pictures of my attempts.  If they work out. 

And...those are the ends of the tassels of my scarf, in the picture above, not my hair.  Really. 

Tuesday 18 January 2011


Last week was a good writing week.  I met (well, almost met) my self-imposed quota of pages for what I am calling a "final first draft" of a story I wrote a couple of years ago.  There have been a few changes: it is no longer set in a large, modern North American city, it's now set in Eighteenth Century London; and it is no longer for Young Adult readers, but for middle-grade readers.  I'm starting to understand what one so often hears, about a story writing itself.

This is the notebook for this project.  The postcard is one from the Museum of London, and is an oil painting depicting London ca. 1630.  It's a bit before my story's time, and the Great Fire of 1666 would have destroyed a good many of the buildings in the painting, but it still helps pull me away from our time, into a more distant one. 

Because of a particularly bad computer-ate-my-writing experience, whenever I finish writing for the day, I try to print out what I've written and add it to a binder specifically for that story.  Now that my characters have moved back in time almost three hundred years, I've had to give them new, period-appropriate names.  I've done this for most, but not all of them.  It's proving very difficult, especially when a character has lived with a name for so long.  Somehow, radically changing other fundamental things about the characters as a result of the temporal move has not been nearly as difficult.

I have also been reading some of my research books - though I haven't got nearly as far with that as I had hoped.  If I leave my reading for the end of the day, I can't seem to get past a couple of pages before sleep carries me away.  I should do it in the morning when I'm fresh and caffeinated. 

One of the books I've started to read is proving fascinating.  It's a biography, written by Kathryn Shevelow, of Charlotte Charke, actress and one of the Eighteenth Century's most colourful and original characters.  A very independent woman; she shunned, from an early age, the normal pursuits of a lady, and instead took to hunting, horseback riding, and wearing men's clothing both on stage and off.  She eventually left the stodgy theatres of Drury - where her famous father Colley Cibber had played the roles of actor, playwright, and manager - and turned to a new anti-establishment theatre troupe run by a young Henry Fielding - who would later write the classic novel "Tom Jones." 

When not thinking about the writing, I've spent some time organizing things for more collages.  I wanted to add a few more to the poppy series and worked on some sketches and drawings.

Though the drawings are stylized, I always start with photos of actual plants for reference.  One of my favourite jumping off points is a book I purchased a few years ago when we had a garden, and before I realized that, as much as I love them, I am hopeless with plants. 

Getting ready for these collages was an opportunity to look through some of the papers I've been collecting, hording, squirrelling away for years.  These gorgeous marbled papers are from Florence (the photo doesn't do justice to their rich colours and fabulous patterns).

Some fun, tie-dye looking Itajime Papers from Japan (alas, purchased in Toronto).

And my favourites, an assortment of Japanese Chiyogami papers, a couple of miscellaneous ones from Italy, and a few others which I purchased, also in Toronto, so long ago that I'm afraid I've forgotten their country of origin. 

I've been asked, from time to time over the years, whether I collect anything.  The answer has always been "no" as I tend to be whatever the opposite of a pack rat is - to a fault.  But, I think if I'm ever asked that question again, the answer will have to be "paper."

Monday 10 January 2011

Following tracks in a world of white

This year, the holidays started late and have only just ended.  We spent this past, last holiday weekend in the countryside visiting relatives of my husband.  Getting away from the visual distractions of the city, we were plunged into a magical world of white.  While the boys played with their cousins, my husband and I slipped away for a walk.   

The village is tiny, with only seven houses.  We passed the skeleton of a neighbour's tipi.  

And walked toward the wood which seemed to breath mist, while a silver sun struggled through a shroud of white sky.


We followed the tracks of a hare bounding back to the forest.

We entered.

 A thick, muffling silence. 

A tree with a pelt of moss. 

The nest of long flown birds now filled with ice and snow. 

All was eerily quiet in the wood, in spite of evidence of animals living there.  As we left, there were more tracks to be seen: hare and deer.

And something that dragged its low hanging body in the snow, perhaps a badger. 

The longer we were out, the more sensitive we became to the surroundings, and the more that was revealed in the white.

We crossed an animal highway on the very edge of the village. 

The village itself.  Smoke rising from chimneys.  The sound of children playing in the snow rising over the roof tops.

And now, Monday.  Back home.  The children back in school.  A routine can begin again after the wonderful chaos of the holidays.  On my wall, more white.  More tracks.  A print-out of John Racque's 1746 map of London.  (There is an online shop: MOTCO which has rights to an assortment of beautiful maps.  Frame-able prints can be purchased from them, as well as CD's with indexed maps one can use for research.)   

This map has every detail of early Eighteenth Century London: every little alley, and cow shed, the rows of trees in Hyde Park, and the many stairs leading down to the Thames.  (Might be time for a stronger pair of reading glasses - though with the CD, one can zoom in and examine tiny sections of the city at a readable size.) 

And the books.  One of the best parts of working on a story is the excuse to read fabulous, topical books.  It's exciting to refer to the map and chart the paths that people, both historical and fictitious, took along the London streets of close to three hundred years ago. 

And now, to plunge myself into the not so distant world of Eighteenth Century London.  In many ways, not as distant to me as that secretive winter wood that I could only scratch the very surface of.