At the beach the tide is peeled so far back to leave an expanse of sand, and we walked in places where human feet can walk only a few times a year.
I carried 3 stones from home, fresh gilded, though one had sat on the fire for a year or so, been warmed, smoothed by hands so the gold was almost gone. Refreshed with moongold it shone bright.
The first stone was placed in water, by the stone bridge.
Pi knows where it lies. Though perhaps by now the tide has taken it.
The second was placed where others have been, but none so fitting as this. It was time to release it, back where it should be, out from the domestic, into the wild.
The next went into the sculpted place that fascinates me.
Such tales told in stone. Colour, line, scent and texture.
The catalogue came today from the Lettering Trust. It is a fine thing of great beauty, to read and to look at. They had been in touch with our agent last year ( mine and Robert’s) to request permission to commission the show. I was lucky enough to see some of the pieces when I was in Snape. And I yearn to make time to learn to cut words into stone.
So, three stones at the beach, and the sea may take them. The beach is wide, the stones are small and the tide is coming in.
There are 4 sheets of fine leaf, white gold, that hold the soul of the largest stone that sat in my home before being returned to its wild home. I am offering these for sale for £120. I will stitch them with silk, and then to some fine paper, sign. Money would go to Lost Words for Bournemouth and Poole, and would place 10 books into schools. Email me to secure before donating.
Today began with walking on the beach. Here where the sea meets the land. Here, where time and tide have carried sand, moved it to expose rocks smoothed by sea and stone. I walked to see if the Porlock stone still sat in its bowl.
But no. It was gone. Taken by the sea, perhaps, or human hand.
I need to make more. These stone pools where the sea rests between the tides are perfect places to leave gilded stones.
And today the stones looked like sleeping creatures, nestled in to the sand, waiting for the water.
And here, creatures create patterns on the sea vegetables that grow on the rocks.
Patterns like drawings on the rocks that change tide by tide and day by day.
Back home, settling to grinding ink with thoughts and time and water from where the fresh water meets the salt water, then painting. Long leaves for listeners to lean in to, while the wind whispers and billows.
And also I found the Heartwood stamp, stamped a couple on beautiful Chinese paper flecked with gold for a friend, and made a few extra also.
This is Robert’s Heartwood charm, made into a stamp, then stamped onto Chinese paper.
Email me, with Heartwood as subject matter if you want to have one, then donate and send me your address. There are also small cards, and for £20 I can either write on one and send to you or send it blank.
At the beach this morning the dogs were dogs and the people were shadows.
At the beach this morning I left a gilded stone, as the tide was coming in. The stone came from Porlock Weir. It’s harbour is a stone bowl carved by the sea. It may remain, or the sea may take it, or someone may find it.
At home today I tried to settle to work. And I found two postcards with special stamps.
There are also three new luggage tag otters, £50 each, money to Lost Words for Bournemouth and Poole, as above, and will see five copies of the book into five schools for each tag. Again email me before donating, with ‘otter left’, ‘otter right’ (SOLD) or ‘otter middle’ as subject matter. Two are questioning souls, and the other is two river dancers.
There’s a small amount of room on the sofa this evening, so I will grab it while I can. And did I say, I bought a ladder for the cats? Seemed like a good idea at the time, but as I brought it in to the house the ladder got bigger and the house got smaller.
Last Thursday I picked up Eva John and we drove to Dulverton. Eva wrote the Explorer’s Notes for The Lost Words and is writing the same for The Spell Songs, so we had much to talk about on the journey there. We arrived in dusk light to the lovely Woodlands Cottage on Jury Road, beautiful house of many chimneys, and Jan and Davina had settled us in, lighting the fires, closing the curtains, cooking supper.
We were working together the next day at a teaching conference in Buckfast Abbey, where Hayden was handing out the first copies of The Lost Words to go to schools after successfully crowdfunding to get a copy in to every school in the county. Eva and I were delivering 2 workshops for the teachers with ideas of how to use the book in schools. It was exciting to see that half the teachers there weren’t aware of the book, which means we have much work to do to bring the book to more teachers, more children. Davina and Chris were there from Number Seven Dulverton to support us with books for sale, but also both are brilliant photographers. I asked Chris if he would come to one of the sessions to capture some of what it was like. Not sure quite what I had said in the image below, but love the reactions. We were going to be working with a visualiser, but non was available, and despite the numbers I went ahead anyway. Sometimes I think it’s best to see things ‘live’ and not through the medium of a screen. This is the scariest bit, when the paper waits.
Love how the faces have changed here, to concentration. All the time the brush moved I was reciting Robert Macfarlane’s Otter Spell.
So, that went quite well.
I painted two otters that day, one for each group, and one was given to Hayden, who worked so hard to make the Devon Crowdfunder a success and is still working, to bring the book to thousands of children. The second otter was a questioning soul and I love that Chris caught the echo of him in the ink that waited to become otter. This one became a raffle prize.
Later, Chris showed me a photo he had taken of the inkstone as I was grinding the ink, and there, written in light, was an echo of the otter.
It was amazing to talk to so many teachers, many very young, and to know that in speaking to them we were maybe speaking to hundreds of thousands of children through them. There was such energy and enthusiasm in the room as Eva unleashed ideas for how to make the most of the book.
Later I dropped off some new work at Number Seven. A flock of finches and a flight of swallows.
I love this place. It is so full with beauty.
A few days with my daughter, her dog and her cat were spent reading by the fire while she worked at her studies, short walks with small cat, some painting. And Chris and Davina and Jan came round and we made a podcast and Chris filmed me painting some luggage tag otters for Number Seven, including the word ‘holt’ in the 26 otters of the alphabet.
Chris’s film of the writing in otters is just lovely, with a soundtrack of ink, river and otter spell.
There are still a few of the special edition Lost Words copies at Number Seven. If you get chance do go. If you can’t go then their website is also a place of visual delights.
On the way home I called in at my sister’s house. It was so windy I didn’t want to drive home. The wind was pushing the van all over the road.
And later, back home, I discovered a wonderful review of The Spellsongs in TLS.
Now it’s time to sit by the fire and read with creatures. I need to paint, make new books, finish a book by April. I bought a ladder on the way home, for the cats. Made perfect sense to me. Cats do like ladders.
They are £45 each, and will come with a handwritten note of some sorts. To purchase email me. There’s only one of each. If you can tell me which number otter you would like that will make life easier. I will mark them up as sold to attempt to avoid confusion. They would look good in a frame, or make a rather expensive bookmark.
£10 buys one book for a school, brings The Lost Words to so many children. All donations to the crowdfunder are welcome and if you can help us spread the word that would be brilliant.
Time now for me to curl in the sunshine and read. It is work. I have a cover to design for Robin Hobb’s Wizard of the Pigeons. It is being re-issued alongside Cloven Hooves. Two very brilliant books.
I know a lot of teachers follow my blog, and also children read it. This blog post is not for children, please don’t read it to your class, and if you are under 18 please don’t read it.
When I was in Grasmere in The Lake District I worked with a wonderful bookshop called Sam Reads. I went swimming with Polly who works in the shop and writes poetry, and we were housed and wined and dined by the bookshop owners. It was amazing, working with the children at the school there and then doing an event in the evening.
I bought a huge pile of books. There were just so many brilliant books in the shop. One was The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail. Was it the cover? I don’t know. Sometimes books choose you. And this week I read the book. It is described as a memoir. On the cover the New York Times calls it ‘A searing portrait of courage, humanity and savagery’.
Dunya Mikhail has done what we all should do. She has listened to the stories of women, survivors, of the terrible wars in the world. She has listened to women, ripped from their homes, with children, whose husbands were slaughtered and buried in mass graves, who were sold into slavery, who suffered abuse, rape, torture at the hands of Daesh. She has made of their stories an account of witness of the worst and the best of humanity, of courage in the face of terror. Having begun to read the book I felt that not finishing it would be an act of betrayal of those lives, those women.
I cannot begin to comprehend the lives of these women. Each story cuts at the heart. How can men do such things? How can other women stand by and watch, even encourage. Mothers, daughters, sisters, children.
I would like to thank Dunya. Her book is an astonishing record, her writing at many times takes the breath away. She is a poet. Her book should be read by all those who make laws and decisions on immigration, on asylum seekers. It should be read by all those who would deal in armaments. It should be read by all of us. Don’t turn away. Read.
It takes courage to read it, but no where near the courage it takes to live it. And the courage of those who stand up to such people as those who inflict such suffering of others should be recognized. As well as suffering, violence and the worst of human nature written large in this book there is such grace, and beauty too.
When you read this you know, as Warsan Shire states, ‘No one ever leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark’.
For over a year now James Mayhew has been highlighting the world of illustration and the work of illustrators on his twitterfeed. Every day he posts the work of an illustrator, some working now, some from the past, many from around the world, famous illustrators and people new to the art. It’s always wonderful to see, often reminds me of people whose work I have forgotten, and teaches me new names. To find them, follow the #BookIllustrationOfTheDay.
James has asked me to take over for a week while he is away at a school in Ankara. Wise or foolish, to hand me such a treasure? I feel very honoured. It’s a chance for me to celebrate the art of illustration, an art that needs celebrating.
Recently I was assured by someone I am working with that they would always refer to me as an ‘artist’ and never an ‘illustrator’ in any publicity. Why? Because in the eyes of many illustration is a lesser art. In the eyes of others it seems it’s easy to completely disregard. I listened to a radio interview the other day about The Lost Words where the radio presenter managed to talk for about ten minutes without mentioning my name once. Quite a feat.
I’m proud to be called an illustrator. If, however, you wish to refer to me as a ‘local artist’ I suggest you stand well back. After all, everybody has to live somewhere. And if illustration is only taken seriously by some folk when Peter Blake decides to illustrate Under Milk Wood this reflects more on those people than it does on our industry.
So, I will celebrate illustration, and I will try to curate an interesting week of #BookIllustrationOfTheDay.
In the meantime the wonderful people at Lost Words for Oxforshire are almost at their target. To help them get there I have been tidying up. I found a book.
It’s a 7th edition of The Lost Words with no words! They were lost. I think there are 8 copies. I have 4, Rob has 4 ( he’s not the illustrator by the way, just the bloke who wrote some words to go with my pictures)
I drew on one of the front pages, a small original, in pencil, ‘a gleam for a teasel’, and signed it.
It has some curious mottling on the cover. The book was sat on one of my other desks for a while, and seems to have reacted to the light from the window. I’ve asked our wonderful publisher at Hamish Hamilton to try to make this happen with every edition. It just requires removing a few copies before foiling them. I love the irony of The Lost Words.
Right, time to sit by the fireside and read, if I can find a free chair.
Being home, settling into a gentle routine of walking a bit, painting, thinking, reading, working, playing with gold and stone, settling my head.
Evening light and gold and stone paint beautiful pictures on the camera’s memory card. I think most of the stones I have left will be found by the sea, but you never know.
I love finding the places that are smoothed by the sea, and time, and tide.
These places are hollowed by the movement of stones, ground and shaped. Rock like ripples, colours that change with every second if the eye can keep up to see the slant of light fall.
I’ve been inking visuals for the Spellsongs at Hay Festival, to be shown on the screen that should sit between the banners. These two days have been searching for a selkie, and what better way than to enter the water. So cold, at first it feels like knives, but then swim, and the salt sea sway holds you. Just enough swell to sway and to lift, and oystercatchers cry and choughs fly over. No seals, but the memory of swimming here in this place with the people of the sea.
Jan came with me, both times. She swims far more than me. On the first day she brought a flask of turmeric tea, and after drinking it dry I asked to borrow it, filled it with water from where the fresh meets the sea, and mixed it with ink at home.
The first seal was a seal child, of ink and salt water. There’s a line in both the grey seal sell by Robert Macfarlane and the Selkie song by Julie and the Spellsingers;
As salt sets its seal on your silky skin, let green seas rise up to greet you.
I love the way the ink sits on the paper, but there was something not quite right so…..
There’s movement in this one, but he’s a young bull seal and quite big. The Selkie Boy maybe needs to be younger, so….
Third time, has movement and youth.
I left another stone this evening, swam twice, once with Jan and once with Sian. Pi had fun on the beach, but wasn’t interested at all in doing anything other than guarding our clothes.
Home now, and the sky is darkening. There’s a crowdfunder to place the Lost Words into schools in Oxfordshire. To help with this I have six of the gold remnants from gilding stones to sell. Like giant’s fingerprints they whirl in the gold. 8cms x 8cms and £40 each, which will buy 4 books ( the publisher are generous with their discount for crowdfunders)
To secure one email me, and then donate to the crowdfunder and send me your address and I will post one to you. It links to a stone, somewhere, though whether the stone is found, or washed by the sea, who knows. They are fragile fragments, but when framed they glow quietly.
Time now to sit by the fire and read. Tomorrow I go in search of larks to ink.
So much work went into this series of performances, from the acorn of the idea, to the standing ovation at The South Bank. Above, Adam and Caroline of Folk by the Oak, having a well earned hug.
The journey to Snape was long, made longer by high winds the night before that closed the road out of Pembrokeshire. We travelled the land, collecting musicians, Beth Porter and Kris Drever in Peterborough, Karine Polwart and Rachel Newton in Cambridge, along with guitars, harp, cello, and various other creatures. 12 hours from departure we arrived at Snape. Jim Molyneux and Julie Fowlis were already there, Seckou arrived at midnight, and the following day saw the band rehearsing, and me also as I tried to remember ow to paint, accompanied by fine river music.
This was the first time we had seen the banners, designed by Alison O’Toole from my images, huge, framing the screen where the painting would be projected, the first performance for the Spellsongs. And though it seemed that to put together such a piece in 4/5 days, followed by the same recording, was fast, the musicians have each a lifetime of learning that enables this, and the understanding of listening, co-operation, collaboration. And to gather the venues, that has taken time too, such a intricate feat by Neil Pearson of Sounds Just Fine.
There was an edge in the air that first day. The Maltings is the most beautiful venue. While the musicians went through rehearsals I spoke to a school, who by coincidence were visiting the venue. They had been studying the Seal Children for myth and magic and were moving on to nature and the natural world, via The Lost Words. Outside the wind made patterns dance in the reeds. Inside they were full of questions.
Later, with the hall full, the musicians filled the world with music, flashed kingfishers across the stage, wove a haunting ghost owl into being and more and more. I watched in the first half, all nerves swept away by the music, sitting next to James Mayhew and Antonio and Robin, then took the stage at the interval, ground and refreshed the ink and spelled a pair of otters onto paper.
The audience had come together in faith, not knowing what they would experience. All venues by this time were sold out, but not a note had found its way into the public domain. And how utterly moving to see them rise to their feet at the end of this, the first performance.
In Birmingham the view from the hotel was so urban. I almost didn’t make the performance, as just after the talk at the beginning my sight was stolen by migraine. So I spent the first half back stage in semi darkness, breathing deeply, listening to the music, trying to get a grip. I had family in the audience, didn’t want to let them down.
The thing about sitting on the stage during the interval is that you get some time to look back at the audience. Birmingham Town Hall is a beautiful building.
All of the staff at all of the venues looked after us mightily well.
Alison had made beautiful gold silhouettes of my work, very similar to the ‘gold soul’ remnants that are created when I am gilding. Andy Bell, the visionary mixer of sounds, owner of Hudson Records, where some of the finest music of our age can be found, had brought into the mix Ben Dave, ‘the man with two first names’, to handle the smooth running of the visuals. He did far more than that, carefully projecting images of the singers into the space allowed by Alison’s designs. Amazing, hypnotic. We have plans for something different in Hay, where the next performance will be.
In Manchester, at the Royal Northern College of Music we found again a warm welcome. The stage manager found me two wonderful jars of water for cleaning my brushes. Each day a few more things crept out of my bag, onto the table. A raven’s feather, acorn cups. In London, the bone of a grey seal.
There’s a moment in the show when there’s one more song left. It’s a blessing, following a wonderful musical tradition. It’s formed from Rob’s words, shaped with the music, carries a healing, threads deep into the soul. All of this music will stay with me my whole life. I can’t separate a bit out. I’ve never wanted a funeral before at the end of my life, and I guess I still don’t. But I want the whole show! Not just one song. Wouldn’t that be a thing! ( No plans on making this happen any time soon but you never know).
In Manchester I had the inevitable ink disaster. I was using sumi ink, which was designed centuries ago for scribes to travel with, and it can’t spill, as it’s a solid block. I’d gathered by painting tools in my beautiful leather bag, and when I lifted it there was a dark pool on the stage! (So glad beyond words this wasn’t Snape) I know now that I can make two otters dance with the ink I grind so don’t need the back up. But I think I will get a bigger stone, just in case. Robin put the ink from the leaking bottle into a water container……
And so to London, and The South Bank, where a busker played the Bach Variations as I walked across the bridge where the world was made pewter in the city light. Last day. I’d already cried 4 times.
I’m not sure now how I will paint without this band to draw the images from my brush. Luckily I have a rough copy of the music to sustain me, I have their other music to keep me sane. So much of the book was painted listening to them play, it was such a curious place to find myself, on stage, with them. Seems unreal now. For the last performance I stayed where I was, doodling while they played, marvelling at how different the sound was back here. I’d placed the otters on the ground and was trying to paint seven finches ( our eighth member of the band had been unable to accompany us, but we hope, oh we hope, yes, so much we hope that she will be well, and with us for Hay.
Seven finches flew. I sat back, listened to the Blessing.
The four inked otters are for sale. Manchester, Birmingham and Snape for £1000 each, and London £1500. The money will go towards working with music in schools. Each is 75 x 56cms on Two Rivers paper, which has a beautiful snag. Different versions of the paper, different colours.
Thank you to all who came. I know that many of you travelled far. A huge thank you to Caroline and Adam, and also to Simon Prosser, who welcomed our idea in 2015. It was a joy that you could be in the audience on Tuesday eve. And to the legend that is Robin Stenham, who looked after us all very well.
For more on the Spellsingers have a look at the Lost Words website. If you need a new soundtrack in your life these are your people, if you know them already, then you are wise.
In these dark times we are living through, the striving to make beauty, drawing towards the light, becomes an act of rebellion.
I’m told that the thing that made one member of the audience cry most was when I took off my glasses, put them down on the paper and Ben panned back the camera. ‘The frail human and the frail bird together’. No artifice, just an accidental act of placement. Sometimes that is where art lives.