Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The exhibition - how grand that sounds, and how it sets the nerves twanging with fear - is a little less than three weeks away. We have been talking, my friends and I, about logistics. How shall I survive seven long hard days manning the store? How do we transport all those pictures safely from here to there? How are we going to arrange them - mix them up or group them according to styles, colours, themes? That sounds pretentious and not at all how the pictures were made in the first place - more likely higgledy piggledy. I have decided to mix subjects and styles so that visitors will find contrasts and maybe some surprises.

Will there be music? No, there won't. I have been troubled by music in public places so often that I don't wish to make visitors feel uncomfortable. Although I rather fancied Johnny Cash burbling in the background, or Meade "Lux" Lewis if I wanted people to shift into boogie mood. And Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" could have been appropriate should I have to slip away for a couple of minutes.

When I first started painting it was trial and error. I used oil paints, and the errors and over-paintings made pictures look muddy - it was quite depressing, and the techniques didn't suit my impatient nature. How-to books were full of Old Masters-type pictures, carefully built up in layers with days of drying time in-between, and presented at the end as beautiful examples of landscapes, pots, portraits and flowers. Mine were simply incompetent and oh-so-ordinary. As well, there was the problem of trying to paint pictures that the people around me liked, or at least tolerated. I didn't have the confidence to trust my own judgment, so I painted carefully and worriedly in a mist of turpentine.

Then I discovered acrylic paint. It dries quickly, keeps its brightness, the brushes wash out in water and, unlike watercolour, the paint is inert - when dry it doesn't come off unless it's sanded off. I soon swapped the Old Masters for Kandinsky, Picasso and Jackson Pollock (they dubbed him "Jack the Dripper") abandoned the inhibitions and started throwing paint around in splashes and dribbles. Instead of, or as well as, brushes I used bits of cardboard and rags and paper towels, chopsticks and straws and cotton buds. And I stopped worrying about what it was supposed to be and started enjoying myself.

About seven years ago an old friend gave me a large canvas and said, "go on, paint it!" That canvas stood behind the armchair in the spare bedroom while I listened to my friend, who died two years ago but continued to nag in my head after her death: "What are you waiting for?" A month ago I dragged the canvas out to the garage, picked up the largest house-painting brush I had, splurted a giant wodge of paint out of the tube ... and went for it. I think that's the picture which will be facing visitors as they walk through the door of the Cloisters Gallery at the Arts Centre between 16-22 March. You will be most welcome.

This picture is "Reeds" - it's not the one discussed above.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One Bite at a Time

The chairs, normally in wobbly rows facing front, have been moved into a circle. Several people are trying to manage their bags, folders and elbows in the cramped spaces between the chairs, and a fortyish woman is pushing the last one into place, declaring that this arrangement is much more suitable for "participant interaction". It reminds me that she is a social worker. I personally dislike the circle format; it's too close for comfort and there's too much craning of heads, but I keep this to myself. That's fine, I say, whatever makes you all happy. From the front, I look at backs, profiles and faces, and see that the Social Worker's head is twisted awkwardly in my direction. Soon, one by one, the chairs are turned around.

The Poet tells us that the quickie exercise about the insignificant object has already borne fruit. She had focussed on a button, started wondering about how they were made, visited the public library and researched the history and manufacture of buttons. We applaud; as the Social Worker might have said, there's nothing like positive reinforcement. [NB: months later the article the Poet wrote on the subject of buttons was published in a craft magazine.]

See, I say - the insignificant object can lead to something bigger, and like bicycles and hula hoops, the hardest thing about writing is getting started. And one of the easiest subjects to write about is yourself but ... for your first home assignment, try it from the point of view of another person or object. There are puzzled looks, so I elaborate. You could describe yourself from the perspective of your mother or your employer, your best friend or worst enemy. You could get whimsical and imagine what your cat thinks of you. Your mirror might have something interesting to say. How about your telephone? The important thing, I explain, is to take the viewpoint of the employer, enemy, cat or mirror. He, she or it is doing the writing and the subject is you from their perspective. It's fun, I tell them - you'll enjoy it, and no one will read it unless you want them to, so let rip. Writing should be enjoyable, otherwise why do it at all?

About half of them do the exercise at home and the rest have excuses - mostly the same excuses that writers have been using ever since someone first picked up a goose quill. Mrs Hong Kong bobs her head to the side and says that her English is not good enough. Miss Taiwan looks relieved and says yes, yes! The Charmer laughs and pleads that he was busy with lectures, yeah, no, and he meant to, you know - looked interesting, yeah. The Genealogist sighs and complains that she'd had so many people in the house she hadn't had a minute. Mr Hong Kong has already nodded off and the Farmer grunts. He is, I fear, going to be difficult. I remind them of Dr Johnson's remark that nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. My word, the old boy had an answer for everything.

Writers applaud Evelyn Waugh for grumbling that anyone could write a novel given six weeks, pen, paper, and no telephone or wife, but in our hearts we know that he was wrong. Not everyone can write a novel, especially with a pencil, however much time they have, and wives of writers are quite useful sometimes, looking after the children, cooking meals, and creeping in with coffee at frequent intervals. [Boring feminist interjection here: wives who are writers must do all these things and write as well - how fair is that?] But as well as time, novel writing takes doggedness, imagination, skill, confidence, and even the quirky but generally harmless requirements that some writers invent to excuse their lack of progress: yellow paper; twelve pencils sharpened to a perfect point, a sound-proof room, a writing hat. Most novelists take much longer than six weeks - although Georges Simenon apparently shut himself away for eleven days for each of his Maigret novels and emerged afterwards pale and trembling but finished.

Lack of time is an excuse. If we want to do something we can always find time. The scale of a writing project is irrelevant: you can eat an elephant if you do so one bite at a time, and writing is after all one word after another. The quality of those words is something else. This is a message that I hammer home one way or another over the duration of a course, and one that I remind myself of time and again as I contemplate the half-finished novels in the bottom drawer of my desk.

The picture is "Reflections"