Earth Magic ~ We Only Have To Look

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Posting this photo has set me off on a little train of thought, creative writing-wise. For one thing I’m reminded how my artist friend Sheilagh Jevons once expressed surprise at how predominantly visual my blog often is. ‘But you’re a writer,’ she said. ‘I didn’t expect to see so many images.’

I didn’t really have a good answer at the time, but I have often pondered on her remark since. It’s an interesting paradox: a writer who struggles to translate into words the fictional worlds she summons as if she were watching them; as if she were there, taking part in the narrative.

This is not to say that the envisioned people, places and events arrive in-brain in sharp focus. Far from it: the circumstances are often very blurry, slippery even; all that is viewed is presently in the foreground; the overall context hazy, unformed. But something in an imagined scene will have caught my mind’s eye; triggered the story alert.  It is usually a person, never anyone I know, but always a particular someone who belongs to particular place and thus could be from nowhere else; although this is not to say that they might not be, in some sense, displaced  when I first notice them. Otherwise, I probably don’t know much about them, only their general looks plus a certain something that snags my attention.

I know at once I should follow them. I may already know their name, and even if that name should later change, the ‘fact’ of their existence will not change. Once fixed on, these people subsist forever in conscious memory (as real to me as my relatives or neighbours), lingering there and waiting for their story to be told. Some have been waiting a good long time.

So what happens next? Fantasy and Science Fiction writers call the process world building. But then I feel that all story telling involves world building: the subtle articulation between physical circumstances (setting in time and space) and the events in a character’s life; their reactions, the ‘what happens next?’. This construction must be seamless; appear authentic; have ‘the ring of truth’; integrity; whatever you wish to call it. It is a bit like conjuring, but with much substance. And, to pursue the magician image, it is also a grand performance, the sustainedly active ‘suspension of disbelief’ wherein the audience/reader/viewer should be so engaged as to not start wondering: How did that rabbit come out of the hat.

And here is where the looking comes in; or perhaps a better way of putting it is schooling oneself to see (and by ‘seeing’ I mean engaging all the senses); honing the skill of it in the real world as a piece of daily practice; learning how to express the experience in another medium (in my case the written word, but it could be any of the arts). Such exercise develops world-building muscles, refines powers of discretion; helps you know what to look for in the fictional environment; where to shine the spotlight, how to manipulate light and shade, enhance texture, condense or expand detail in order to give a scene (in some sense) reality.

It is a lot to think about. And for those of you struggling with your own powers of creativity, no matter the medium, here is some wonderfully creative play to spur you on. It is a New Year’s gift this morning from blogging chum and artist, Janet Weight Reed. Please pop over there and have some fun. Who knows where it might lead you next, or what blocks it may release.


The  ‘Apple Exercise’ is a positive way  to begin the new year for anyone wishing to express themselves and explore their creativity.

 

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

#HowIWrite

Looking inside ‘The House of Belonging’: remembering artist Sheilagh Jevons

House of Belonging detail i

The following is the account of a conversation I had with Sheilagh in 2014, a year before her death. She is sadly missed.

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I thought it was time I welcomed good friend and artist, Sheilagh Jevons, to this blog. She lives a few miles from me along Wenlock Edge, in the little village of Easthope. There, and in her studio not far away, she creates arresting work that explores the sense of belonging that people have with landscape. From time to time she and I have involving conversations about the creative process – the stumbling blocks, the sources of inspiration, the way we work (or in my case, don’t work).

A few weeks ago she came round for coffee. I wanted to ask her about a painting I had seen in her studio. I had thought it striking and mysterious, and wanted to know what she meant by it. Besides which, it is hard to resist the opportunity to grill an artist when you have one captured inside your house.

The header image is a small detail from a work called The House of Belonging. This figure has appeared in Sheilagh’s other works and represents women artists. Some of their names are written on the smock, artists perhaps not well known to the general public. Here she pays homage to their work, but also alludes to the fact that, overall, very little work by women artists is to be found in museums. The writing of names and of repeated key-words and equations is characteristic of many of Sheilagh’s pieces. It was one of the things I was going to ask her about. But first, the painting.

House of Belonging ii

It is a large canvas, some 4 feet (120cm) square. The next photo gives a better sense of scale. Here it is hanging in Sheilagh’s studio:

Shelagh 003

I asked Sheilagh how the work began. She told me that some years ago the idea of belonging had become very important to her. As she says on her website:

Our ‘sense of belonging’ ripples out from our homes to our village, street, town, county, region and country and help to shape our identity…

Key, then, to her work is a sense of connection to land and how that relationship defines us. This in turn has physical expression in community repositories, the places where we keep artefacts, our history, the knowledge of ancestors – all the familiar things we recognise and which tell us something of who we are. In other words, the museum, or as Sheilagh describes it: the house of belonging. The script running down the left-hand margin of the painting in fact repeats over and over the words ‘the museum’, the house of belonging’. The repetition reflects the strong political stance of Sheilagh’s work.

To me this is ‘the writing on the wall’, a statement of collective ownership; The House of Belonging staking a claim. Its contents are manifestations of how humans have interacted with their landscape and the place they call home. Sheilagh also says that adding text creates a certain texture; that the sense of a hand moving across the work creates a connection with her, its maker. The wheeled blue structure, then, is the House of Belonging. The words written inside say ‘everybody’s knowledge’. This is written twice so there can be no mistake. It feels like something to stand up for, a rallying call.

It is also important, Sheilagh says, that the House can move across the landscape to where the people are, rather than the other way round; this makes it more egalitarian. Inside the House are images and artefacts, symbols of creativity. Some of them are stereotypical of ‘heritage’ and therefore instantly recognisable. For instance, the chess pieces (centre left in the painting) are derived from the Scottish Isle of Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. The set dates from AD 1150-1200 and suggests Norse influence or origins.

House of Belonging Detail ii

Sheilagh copied and simplified the images from a sales catalogue that specialises in heritage reproductions. The placing of the queen in the central position is also significant. She says she feels bound to redress an imbalance: the fact that in most of our media women only occupy centre stage when they are being commodified in some way. And then there is the mathematical equation painted in red beneath the red tree, centre right of the painting. 100_5291 The presence of equations in Sheilagh’s works adds a further layer meaning for her, and although she doesn’t think it necessary to explain them, she is always very pleased when people recognise them. This particular one refers to mathematical research by American academics in the 1920s called The Geometry of Paths. The appearance of equations in Sheilagh’s paintings also has more personal origins. She tells me she started to include them some years ago – after she had been helping her daughter revise for her Maths and Physics A’ level exams. It is another connection. There are many more signifiers in the work: motifs that have links and resonance with Sheilagh’s other works. The red tree above the equation is a symbol of timelessness, indicating ‘forever’ in human terms.  House of Belonging ii - Copy The red arrow in the top right creates a sense of energy and direction; a ‘look what’s here’ sign. There is the sense of a force field, drawing people to the House of Belonging. 100_5294

Finally, we talked about the overall composition. Sheilagh says that she began the work some years ago after she noticed that a small building denoting ‘museum’ often appeared in her landscapes. This time she wanted it to have it as the main subject, and to make it both an enticing and a mysterious place. At this point she also created the friezes at the top and bottom of the picture, these in order to suggest other layers of reality behind the surface painting. The top frieze is the wider, timeless landscape of which the museum is also symbol. The bottom frieze is deliberately ambiguous and suggestive; it invites the viewer to consider what might lie behind.

House of Belonging ii And having created the work’s essential structure, the painting was then abandoned. It was only some fifteen months later, when Sheilagh, looking for a large canvas to start another work, returned to it. She was fully intending to paint over it, but when she looked at it again she suddenly knew how to proceed and completed the work very swiftly. She says it probably is not quite finished, and suspects that something may still need to be added. In the meantime she has been occupied with a large body of work relating to Scotland.

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Notes and reference materials from Sheilagh Jevon’s studio

© 2014 Tish Farrell