Built in golden stone with its ancient and elegant minster church, Ilminster is probably everybody's fantasy idea of what an English country town should be.
It seems to have everything: small independent shops - a butcher's, a greengrocer's (with a floristry section just like old fashioned greengrocers used to have) a bakery, a delicatessen, banks, pubs and clothing and interiors shops which are eccentric and so quirkily old fashioned as to be chic.
You'd be forgiven for imagining that not much cultural happens in Ilminster - however The Meeting House Arts Centre - run by volunteers with a nice mix of efficient professionalism and friendly community spirit- is a venue for a vast array of arty, musical and interesting events. The photo above doesn't do it justice. Inside it is stunningly light and pretty with lots to fascinate and catch the eye.
It was well worth the 70 mile round trip to sit in the gallery (ostensibly t do some wood engraving but not much got done!) and chat to a stream of interesting - not to say fascinating - local people.
If ever you are in deepest Somerset and the region of Crewkerne, Chard and
the A303 you could do worse than to stop off in this pretty little town. The Arts Centre has a pleasant and friendly café and apart from stunning art, there's a small shop in which to browse.
THE WOOD ENGRAVING DAY at Poole Painting and Printmakers' studios was absorbing and oh so useful.
For some years now I've drooled over the work of wood engravers and mourned my own lack of skill. So when the chance came to spend a day improving, together with like minded people, even the thought of 45 minutes breathing cider fumes on the Dorset to Waterloo Bummel Zug and running the gauntlet of the Pound Shops of Poole didn't deter me.
The result above isn't the best that can be done but was the best I could do in a couple of happy as a lark and hypnotically absorbed afternoon hours in a little and ancient industrial barn down a quirky alley. It's almost actual size - done on a small 'resingrave' block about 2" x 3". The blacks are also not quite as black as they are in reality.
It's hard to know while you are doing it how it will print out. I'm not experienced enough to predict results without having done a very detailed design and there wasn't quite time to do that, even though the basic image is one which I keep returning to over and over... The boat probably needed to be whiter. The clouds less sausage like. In fact I think I might have taken some cloud away and gone to a larger area of white if I'd had longer... which might have ruined the block because you work from black to white and you can't put back what you take away. But I'd have learned from it.
As it was I was almost the last person left at the end frantically rolling the press bed handle and pulling the clamping lever across to print my little edition of 7.
I discovered a lot of things... some useful texts on engraving (the most complete seems to be by the amazing Simon Brett)... and that my tools might be too long for my hand which could be why I am forced to hold them oddly... and that I can control a scorper (once it's been sharpened lol) and that it's also ok to engrave the whole image with a spit sticker if I need to. (If you think that's a weird name for a tool try the 'bull sticker'!) Also I feel reassured that's it's ok to use the lozenge graver in my own limited way.
I also realised my new tint tool was bent at the tip and the kindly tutor sorted it out for me. When I did a test engraving, it reminded me of the time I made a wooden sledge for the kids when they were tiny. In a fit of film buffery, I named it 'Rosebud' - however it had a design flaw which made it veer off to the left - usually towards the nearest tree. Like Rosebud and the Bummel Zug, all my tint tool lines veered westwards...
Each time I've entered the Bath Prize I've ended up thinking 'Why... oh why... do I do this?'
Plein air isn't completely my forte. You'd think I would have learned that from the experience at Pintar Rapido (not that it wasn't fun but...) . Yet I just can't resist.
So now it's The Bristol Prize. It seems Bath's rich seams of locations (and exhibition venues) finally expired. maybe it just got too expensive. But Bristol. So refreshing. So many interesting semi industrial landscapes - so many quirky buildings and stunning vistas - so much vibrant history mixed with multicultural colour and graffiti and modernity. So much opportunity for innovation...
And what do I paint? The classic figurative view of Clifton Suspension Bridge. There will be about a million of these already. There are a million zillion already floating around the Artiverse. My excuse is that I was given Hotwells Rd. Not the best excuse of course, because Hotwells Rd is a fantastically varied and wonderful location with lots of possibilities. I could have painted Dowry Square, the Swing Bridge, docks, traffic, pubs, Georgian Terraces, more traffic....
But this dawn lit painting was what had to happen so here it is. Yes it's very purple. I wonder whether I should just throw that Dioxazine Purple away but I can't I can't it's such a delicious and hypnotic colour for me. And I can't say I haven't enjoyed it - have loved every minute of it. And yes I know I won't win any prizes and it's usually not the best selling venue....
But enjoying what you do has to be what makes it worth it in the end.
... continued from last post...
Pintar Rapido turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer. Lucky me being on Cadogan Pier - away from heat-reflecting asphalt and in the one place where a breeze blew and where even just the visual effect of the water was cooling!
Only one problem... the sirocco-like wind dried the paint on the brush before I could even apply it. It formed immediate skins on the blobs of paint which even the stay-wet palette doused in river water couldn't keep from solidifying.
The light changed during the day from early morning haze to picture postcard greens reds blues and whites and it was a staring eyed, sun-baked, heat-crazed artist who at the close of play, staggered, gasping and clutching a laboured, fussy daub, to Chelsea Town Hall . It was splodgy and much, much too pink. As I handed the horrible thing over, seasoned professionals glided coolly past carrying calm well drawn work, opulently framed in heritage colours. Grrr. If that weren't enough, a day spent on a floating dock was like a day on board ship at sea... delightful yes but every time I stood still, Chelsea Town Hall was rocking.... the tube platform at Sloane Square was rocking... and even in Leytonstone, where I slept that night, the room was - like Ted Highes' house in 'Wind' - ...'far out at sea all night.'
Of course the work didn't sell. Who would buy blotchy pink splodges? I now realise that probably plein-air isn't my forte; but the image above is what happened later in the studio after I took the work back to the simplicity of earlier morning views. In the end, the splodginess of the wind-dried paint was serendipitous, because it accidentally laid down an interesting base texture to work over.
Speaking of the river... this is what the string was for... I tied it round the rim of my plastic water jar and clung happily to a rusty old ladder on a massive and ancient wooden piling to dangle the jar in the flow of the water. Not only is the painting of the river it's really made 'of' the river.
So, on July 13th, there I was....
...floating in the middle of the Thames looking downriver to Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Power station with the trees of the Embankment and Battersea Park on either side...
I'd paid my tenner online then at 9am on the day trudged, with easel, canvases, paints, drinking water and sun cream, water jar and the vital langth of string string (purpose to be explained later ) to Chelsea Town Hall and got my canvas stamped with the whimsical Pintar Rapido logo. It was hot and I was nervous.
Plein Air is terrifying for me - the unknown and unpredictable encounters with invaders of your space. I may be a Trekkie but for me random alien encounters and art don't really gel (except perhaps in the Wordsworthian sense - 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' i.e. I work best in the studio). I need to inhabit that precious and delightfully lonely semi-conscious yet heightened zone which one inhabits when painting and which is so vital for decision making... For me the anticipation of people looking at your work mid flow shatters that before one can even reach it. I had a cunning plan to circumvent these problems; but might something go wrong?
Meanwhile 379 artists streamed in and out of Chelsea Town Hall - all the stereotypes you could ever dream of what an artist might be like: the small wiry intense, grey bearded man with his 1960's easel and battered wooden paint-box; the tall young man - cutting edge - with the purposeful middle distance stare; the two middle-aged ladies in long cotton skirts and little sun-hats - excited and twittery about tinkling their water jars in a leafy London street.
My plan was to avoid the frantic, luggage-laden dash for the best spots, be out of the public scrutiny, have peace to think and yet be on the river. .. Cadogan Pier was the place. I'd been given the entry code by a friend with a houseboat... sorted!
next instalment... watch this space...
I've heard of fish falling from
the sky; nevertheless it was a shock to find a goldfish lying on the hall carpet.
The two cats guarding its sad, still form pretended disinterest.
However I know, dear cats, that you were only trying - in your limited way - to provide me with a 'fishy in a little dishy'.
Oddly enough, the only one for whom 'the boat' came 'in' was the fish. It magically revived in water - even allowing me to stroke its nose (probably how the cats hooked it)and next morning
flipped itself joyfully out of a plastic bag and into the nearest lake....
...long may you swim in freedom little fishy... and may those pterodactyl-like
herons never find you.
Dorchestra inaugural concert
today! Nail bitingly nervous...
...Which evening gown should I wear?
The Vintage Balenciaga or the Dior? Sequins or diamante?
How will I cope with all those bouquets?
And ... gasp... will
the paparazzi be waiting at the front?... or the back?...entrance of Dorchester
United Reformed Church?
The Cactus Curse of the Internet.
Years ago I was a student and a barmaid, It wasn't the place I'd have chosen to be if I'd had the choice - it was just paid work. But I'd amuse myself and keep busy in quiet times by washing glasses, re-stocking shelves and wiping the counter, thinking my own thoughts about the Universe and Life; generally minding my own business, while looking out for customers to serve. Sometimes there were nice people to chat to. I listened well, kept a clean, tidy bar and gave fast, pleasant, and polite service.
You might assume the standard of my work would be judged exemplary and that I'd have been considered professional by most customers.
And so I would have been - had I been a man. However there were usually men propping up the bar who clearly regarded a young woman working behind it as their puppet on a string and their chance (as social underdogs with let's face it not much of a future) to lord it over somebody. So now and then, I'd be leered at and patronisingly told to 'Smile!' as if the price of a pint of Courage IPA bought ownership of my face.
Of course there are much worse things which can and did - and still do - get said to women (and men) working in service industries. But being commanded to 'smile', just because you can be commanded, when you are neither happy nor unhappy but just... well... competently getting on with a job... such ingrained lack of respect for your right to exist and quietly think your own private thoughts, is just a teensy bit galling.
One compensation of getting older, is that you no longer get that kind of hassle, possibly because your features have fallen never to rise and you're expected to look as if your face got stuck in a bucket.
No one tries to order me to smile . Perhaps men no longer care or notice. Or possibly I now look and sound so ferocious that they don't dare. Whatever the reasons, it's wonderfully relaxing.
Yet, for me nowadays, the equivalent of those guys standing at the bar years ago is the plethora of commands which are accompanied by randomly collated, facile opinions spouted as fact (usually in large semi-literate capital letters) and disseminated globally via the internet. They mostly seem to originate in the Nation that gave you the Internet (and more recently the 3D-printed plastic gun). You get them in emails; they are posted on Facebook walls and usually have such mawkish or grandiose titles as "Words of Wisdom" or 'Life Lessons' or 'Positive Thoughts'. The imperatives are stuff like "Dare to Dream!" "Be Happy!" "Dance!" (tell that to a Traffic warden). Or they get you with that one that's obviously hardest to disobey: "Live Life!". They're usually accompanied by photos of cute cuddly animals, sunsets or grotesque caricatures of old folks and they contain such gems as 'A hug is a sign of love!' or 'No one ever said life was easy'. (Oh really?)
I was feeling really positive and happy today. And then I opened the powerpoint. It came from a trusted source, so I thought 'What the heck'. There was a photo of a flowering cactus and some music. At first I thought it was going to be a nice bit of Debussy because the opening chords were sort of familiar and mysterious..
That's nice I thought - some great music with pretty pics too.
But then the cheesy stuff started... the mysterious chords disintegrated into a banal song stretched out with cloying violins... accompanied by more cacti and some drifty little pink messages pronouncing 'A Positive Look at Life!'
Of course I should have known better and stopped it then and there. But you see, I'm an optimist - a positive thinker. As such, I'm completely unprepared for this kind of assault on my inner well being.
In fact I learned masses which I'd never ever have known if I hadn't watched the parading cacti. For example, I learned that people who are late are usually jollier than those who have been hanging about (probably in freezing rain) waiting for them. Well that's a surprise! I also learned that 'a laugh is a sign of happiness'! Well! Would you ever have guessed it?
The orange-flowered cactus told me I'm a happy person because I look at the
scenery on detours. Another informed me (with a shade of melancholia and not much positivity) that Walmart keeps reducing their prices but things are never free. Which leads me to wonder whether possibly one of the Walmart People made up the whole thing?
OK I thought - it's trite and fatuous and the music is slowly machine-gunning my soul but I'm a positive person, so I'll grit my teeth and continue to look for the best in it.
And sure enough, eventually the best bit came along: THE END
This was of course accompanied by the usual blackmailing attempt (probably by some sad person in a bedroom in Nowheresville, Nebraska) to exert control over a random and puzzling universe by exhorting us all to Send It On To The Special Awesome People In Your Life - with dire emotional consequences sneakily hinted at for those so hard hearted as not to obey.
BUT I'm enormously pleased and proud to think that I was singled out by a Special Friend as that Very Special (and indeed Awesome!) Person who would benefit from being fed miscellaneous opinions and commands accompanied by cacti. It doesn't happen to everyone, you know.
And in spite of my ears having been assaulted, my intelligence insulted and my soul
machine-gunned by terrible musak, (which would drive anyone into a depressive spiral of cynicism and gloom) I've just about managed to retain a scrap of my initial pre-cactus positivity. Which enables me to consider and even enjoy the irony that someone, somewhere has collated random opinions - not to mention random photos of cacti - and has valiantly attempted to lord it over a few zillion internet consumers - half of them doubtless men - by getting one cactus to issue a list of imperatives shouted in Barbie-pink capitals... one of which was...
you guessed it...
The Village Choir
Most Tuesday evenings I leave the house clutching an assortment of sheet
music and (if I haven't forgotten it) the all important pencil.
My journey of about twenty miles takes me by the sea for a while, before the
main road turns inland to climb over high hills. I overtake George the
Third on his white horse and see that like me he is escaping along this route
- though he never seems to arrive. The road dips away for a few
miles through bendy villages and then a crossroads far ahead with a copse of
tall beeches on a small quiet roundabout announces a choice. And a
The roads to the left and right choices will take you to a town - or back to
the sea. The straight-ahead choice leads along a narrower, quieter way
where winter evening headlights suddenly illuminate a series of sharp bends
bounded by stone cottage walls - a glimpse of an ancient church tower - and then
forest - and the road straightens for an unbelieveble distance. In the
dark winter evenings one is often alone on this road with only perhaps a
solitary pair of tiny rear lights far far ahead. Now and then a car may
turn onto the road and then quietly disappear down a side turning and you are
That brightly street-lit patch in the distance is a level crossing and I
wonder, during the long approach, whether the barriers and warnings will begin
to flash. It's an odd feeling sometimes to rumble over the lines and see the
sudden shock of a train's lights as it stands motionless a few yards away by
In summer the long dead-straight road disappears far ahead into distant
misty overhanging trees. You can't see the end of it. It's tempting to increase
speed. I'm usually almost late having left at the very last minute and gone back
into the house for the pencil. But the limit is 40, people live here
and I'm also reminded that somewhere near here along the silent hedged
lanes, T.E.Lawrence - his life already somehow past - crashed his bike and was
The final leg of the journey is no more than a narrow asphalted track amidst
pine and birch plantations which in winter darkness seems to wall you in.
It's like descending into the deepest darkest fairy tale forest in which one
imagines no daylight and no escape. Yet now in the lighter evenings the fir
trunks are straight - purple-shadowed and pinkly lit against pale blue sky by
the evening sunshine; the small delicate birches stippled with fantastic acid
green among tall yellow grasses. If I weren't late I'd stop and draw - perhaps
I'll do it next week. Or make a journey out here on another sunny
evening. But I probably won't. So many ideas - and life so
Eventually the lane descends into a valley and the white
thatched cottages appear. In winter, lamplight glowed behind curtained
cottage windows but now birds sing and there is someone walking a small dog who
smiles directly at me as I turn into the village. Ahead is the village
hall - also white and thatched - and some parked cars of people who like me have
travelled miles to converge in this hidden place within a small wooded
combe. Near the entrance door is a very large motorbike belonging not to
Lawrence but to our conductor.
It's a choir of mixed voices - a medley of differing timbres and
qualities. Many of us are just a little past our prime though there are
some very good voices. But there is something of a quiet religion about
it. The heads turning to greet you with genuine smiles of welcome
and the occasional jokes combine with the real harmony of song to create a sense
The current 'sing' is Mozart Mass in C and Mendelssohn Hear My Prayer.
The conductor, still wearing his motorbike leathers, somehow manages to play the
piano beautifully while simultaneously conducting our cacophony. Like any
priest, he's an expert in his religion and lives and breathes it. He is a
composer in his own right and he knows what we need and why we are there.
Amidst the more disciplined learning of parts and phrases he sometimes gives us
our head and just lets us sing for the pure physical, sentimental, uncomplicated
joyousness of it. There is nothing purer.
It's the coming together which matters.
O for the wings... for the wings... of a dove...
The thing about Dorset...
Driving along the A35 in the early morning by a long wall where there's a something-or-other estate with two gigantic arches one of which has a stag on top and the other a lion (Dorset dwellers will probably know where I mean) several thoughts came to me.
The first was that the Spring-new copper beech leaves are stunningly beautiful, rendered to glowing peach sparks by morning sunlight shining through their semi-transparency.
The second was about Dorset and its Tardis like quality. Maybe it's because there are no motorways through the county or maybe because the few large connurbations are clustered around the edge, leaving what seems like a vast empty interior. And when you think of vast empty interiors you think of vast continents and perhaps the 19th century European explorers who ventured into these interiors and often did not return.
The continents of America, Africa and Australia, though vastwith wild and majestic landscapes, were of course not empty but inhabited by indigenous peoples and civilisations who had lived and thrived minding their own business for aeons; there were rich natural resources and there were wondrously strange (to European outsiders anyway) creatures and plants in almost infinite and fantastically coloured variety. The concept of 'darkest Africa' - Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' is not so much the non-Christian/European (and therefore- to those 19th century explorers - unenlightened) wild interiors of continents, so much as the darkness in our own hearts. We may think we know some answers but the sum of our knowledge is like a brief and tiny candle - a nightlight - flickering weakly in that great darkness of our vast unknowing.
Anyway - forgetting Livingstone, Stanley et al, it's pretty much similar with Dorset. As an explorer from outside, you think you know that it's a big empty thinly populated county with not much happening and probably not much culture to speak of. But then when you start to explore, you realise the county's natural resources are not only the beauty of the landscape but also the creativity of people among other things. It's thickly populated with tiny villages - Piddles and Puddles and Bournes and Churches - and miniature towns - Bridport, Sherborne, Blandford etc full of dedicated and enthusiastic people making Music and Art as well as Jam and Cakes.
Of course some natives are hostile. Perhaps one can't blame them. And sometimes the jungle drums beat and what they are saying is a mystery but one suspects it's nothing good. Moreover, the Tardis-like quality extends past Space and into Time Travel - sometimes Dorset feels like the Land that Time Forgot. Yet there's enough beauty here in people and landscapes to encourage and surprise the intrepid explorer.