Little Blue Home in the West

Pretty Devon thatched cottage, painted blue, with garden in front and blue sky behind.
Cavalier Cottage

We have to sell my childhood home. The cottage in northwest Devon where I used to explore a technicolour world, discovering bright blue-violet periwinkles in the bank under the hedge (they are still there), noticing the interesting speckled buff of the forsythia twigs against their clear yellow flowers, burying my nose in the scented pink double blooms of the rambling roses, delightedly breaking open the soft, yellow and orange buds of the Welsh poppies without even knowing it was naughty, and happily picking up snails to see what they looked like underneath. True to my Dad’s tastes, there was a pink hydrangea by the white gate and stems of bright orange montbretia outside it (also still there).

We made paths and dens in the (to us) waist-high meadow grasses of the back garden, climbed the sapling beech tree (now a giant) and explored the mountain terrain of building materials kept by my father in an old Nissen hut, where we set up a base-camp ‘kitchen’. Mud pies and soup with hogweed croutons were on the garden menu.

On the low window sill of the long, light kitchen I built elaborate facades with my wooden architectural brick set which included beautiful white gloss-painted turned-wood pilasters and pediments with printed patterns. A few years later my dad took a photo of our baby brother standing, laughing, on that window sill. On another occasion both of the large, light windows in the kitchen were entirely blocked by snowdrifts.

My sister and I would sit at the table creating arty things from our Blue Peter-inspired ‘useful boxes’ – cards and calendars for relatives, bookmarks, novelties and a slot machine for our younger sister with home-made prizes. Making ‘houses’ down in the warmth by the Rayburn (also still there) was a favourite pursuit. Once we made a school, where we taught our toys to draw wild flowers in wax crayon.

Up in our bedroom (three girls sharing) there was a green carpet, perfect to serve as the fields for our toy farm. Here we talked in the dark, had midnight feasts, and tried to sleep despite the Westminster chimes of the huge grandfather clock bought by our dad during a holiday trip to Stow-on-the-Wold and which would only fit on the landing. There I had measles for a whole week and woke up on Easter Day to my mother giving me a yellow-and-mauve mug containing a bar of Bournville chocolate – all I could manage after my illness.

And so to now, and we have to say goodbye. So much of my life and my heart is still there. So many memories of my now departed parents. Part of me wants to buy the house back to make it my own. To live with the tangible artefacts of the past – of which buildings and places are by far the most durable – is to be grounded and rooted in a unique and precious way. One’s life is not just a little patch of personal, impermanent moments but part of a long continuum stretching back to the days of parents and antecedents. There again, to be hide bound by the choices, decisions and haunts of our parents and forebears is to limit our own options in the present. How hard it is to weigh up the sense of continuity, belonging, history and memory – one’s creative origins – against the vast ocean of possibility offered by free choices in the present. The decision has been made, however. The die is cast. The house is to be auctioned. Reluctantly, I must weigh anchor and set sail.

https://www.stags.co.uk/properties/15349019/sales

Diagnosis: Creativity

A creative work depicting Our Lady of Prinknash. In its production no attention suffered from a deficit and no hyperactivity was necessary.

One of my favourite comedians, Jack Dee, was once interviewed on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs about how he found his vocation. He said he had always worried there was something wrong with him. He felt a misfit in society. Then one day an experience revealed his true vocation: riding home on his motorbike (I picture him with his ears flapping in the wind like Snoopy’s), he shouted joyously into the ether: ‘Now I know what’s wrong with me! I’m a comedian!!’ I laughed considerably at this (that’s why he’s one of my favourite comedians), but I also perceived the deep truth in it: our ‘developed’ economy is structured in such a way that many creative people are not only barred from fulfilling their talents, they are made to feel seriously deficient.

You have heard of structural dismissal. Well this is structural ‘othering’ (to use a hip phrase). Structural denial of identity.

Of course there are exceptions: those whose talents either (a) find favour with an influential opinion former (Hirst/Saatchi) or cause célèbre (Evaristo/Booker) or (b) happen to coincide with an economic opportunity that involves mass-production (e.g. singers who get ‘signed’; costume designers for a fantasy movie). The mass-market economy does rewards these few talented creative people who were in the right place at the right time; but it offers little opportunity to the much larger number of (often equally talented) individuals who were not.

This is bad enough, but to make matters worse, the very characteristics that make these creative people tick are often rejected by the prevalent economy, since they lie outside its norms and expectations. Instead they are diagnosed as disorders.

Here are some examples.

Two of my Facebook contacts, one a talented musician and one with a talent for words and acting, recently posted on their timelines about having ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). They listed the symptoms and sought to promote understanding. At first I thought this was a good idea. Finding that the symptom lists resonated with me, I wondered whether perhaps I might ‘have’ the same ‘disorder’. Then I stopped in my tracks. During my career I’ve become increasingly aware that the type of working environment prevalent in our economy is not one in which I flourish. But to struggle with the norms imposed by a particular environment is not a disorder. This is just an alternative way of being normal, and potentially a creative one that has many potential benefits for society at large.

The term ‘attention deficit’ begs the question: ‘To what we are expecting someone to give their attention? A rules-driven, process-driven environment, where a cascade of pre-ordained actions line up like dominoes to produce standardised outputs and outcomes? This is indeed an efficient way of operating a complex assembly line (for example), but it is unlikely to get the best out of a creative lateral thinker, a strategist, an ideas person, a maker, a craftsperson.

The modern workplace (rather like its harbinger, the school classroom) requires a person to sit in a particular spot, at a particular ‘work station’ with a ‘line manager’ (at the end of a metaphorical production line), and work through a series of prescribed tasks and procedures. Is it any wonder that a creative person, craving permission for the holistic approach needed to reach the goal in their own way, displays ‘attention deficit’? The ‘hyperactivity’ presumably follows as the pent-up creative power bursts out in a tumultuous rush of rebelliousness.

The diagnosis of a ‘disorder’ may promote understanding (perhaps patronising sympathy too) but it is also a condemnation: ‘You are a misfit. Your approach to life, your way of thinking, behaving and achieving goals has no place in our system. The only solution is to label you, signpost that you need support, and have a plan in place to get you to do things our way.’

Similar conclusions could be drawn about other ‘conditions’ such as dyslexia and autistic spectrum ‘disorders’. These are extremely common, yet it does not seem to have occurred to the Disorder Labelling Committee that any extremely common phenomenon in a human population has survived natural selection for a reason. Blue-grey eyes? They let in more light during a gloomy northern winter. Strong limbs? They let you run away from a predator. Thinking in a holistic way? Well surely that has advantages that outweigh a few misplaced letters. Liking patterns and regularity? Well now, couldn’t we find a use for that can in an organised society?

These are not disorders, they are part of the pool of talent that makes up the human race.

Recently, while trying to find time to be an artist, and perpetually swimming against the tide – indeed the tsunami of the pandemic – I ended up doing temp work in a warehouse. The other people I met were far from talentless or unintelligent. Somewhat like me, they were individuals whose disposition and emotional constitution did not chime with the ritualised and institutionalised approach to work that is a prerequisite of many regular in-house jobs. They tended to be free spirits. Some were dyslexic or artistic, thoughtful or philosophical. Most preferred to be practical and active rather than static and passive. It made me feel frustrated that those talents were so undervalued, including my own. That said, we were at least doing something useful – boxing up fizzy drinks to be enjoyed by thousands of couples on a cosy night in.

Still, this conundrum requires a solution. I do not have a magic answer, but I do know that helpful ideas emanate from certain organisations, such as the Royal Society of Arts (thersa.org) and the New Economics Foundation (neweconomics.org). If I have any brainwaves of my own, I will write part two for this blog post. In the meantime… my creative vocation has been put on hold again, as I do other things to bring in the bacon.

What price beauty?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and value is in the pocket of the payer – this is my text for today. We are brought up on the concept of fixed values: things in shops (at least in the developed North) have set prices, and our choice is simply whether or not to buy them. But of course it is all a charade as the same thing may be sold in another shop at a quite different price, where it thus becomes an alternative and conflicting ‘fact’ about the item’s value. ‘Never knowingly undersold’ means (it’s certainly not obvious): ‘we will not put the price down unless we know for a fact that someone nearby is selling it more cheaply’!

There seems to be something rather distasteful about putting a price on art though, doesn’t there? Its value should somehow be transcendent. But this does not make sense: things find their own value as we devote money to what we want – and the rarer it is, the more we have to invest in order to beat off other contenders.

Artists have to earn an honest crust, or a dishonest one. It is hard not to admire the shrewd marketing skills of that well known woman who made a fortune by selling her filthy bed. Despite its lack of instrinsic merit, she majored on the fact that it was unique to her, and persuaded everyone that she was interesting enough for this to matter. Beauty – or rather cupidity – was in the eye of the beholder; value (a considerable one) was in the pocket of the buyer.

The nemesis of talented artists, by contrast, is the scourge of mass-production, which devalues their well-designed, desirable work to the class of ‘two-a-penny’. If they themselves mass-produce it, they themselves accumulate those pennies; but if they sell it, once, to a manufacturer they sell the goose that lays golden eggs.

Then there is the question of intrinsic merit in relation to mass-produced items. Beauty may very well be in evidence, but other valued qualities such as rarity or craftsmanship (part of the perceived intrinsic merit of an antique) are lacking.

What about the 44-piece complete Staffordshire (Booth’s) early 20th-century ‘Mosaic panel’ tea service that I recently purchased (illustrated)? Transfer-printed at the time to reduce cost for those respectable middle classes who could not afford Spode or similar, it nevertheless features lovely hand-painted colour detail on the pheasants and hand-applied gold edging to the panels. Each piece must be worth a few pounds surely, on pure artistic and aesthetic appeal, and one might think the whole tea service would have a value greater than the sum of its parts. Not so, apparently, since the charming tradition of formal afternoon tea has more or less died a death – except, perhaps at the Ritz – ousted by the informal coffee-shop culture. Who wants a 44-piece tea service when a few pretty items for a china cabinet would do? In this case, the parts are worth more individually than combined, if one could find time to market them this way – but who would have the heart to separate them, these old friends that have been together a lifetime?

Personally I love the tradition of afternoon tea and am an advocate of bringing it back, at least on special occasions. Like vinyl records played on a vintage record player or radiogram, maybe the formal tea service will come back into its own. Maybe I will hang on to mine for a while. I have a birthday coming up and feel a tea party coming on.

Easter is icumen in

Here we go again! Easter is ‘icumen in’ (to borrow a phrase from a medieval madrigal) – but once again we are not ‘allowed’ to see our families or friends, to gather at church, to have fun together or celebrate. It really does make me aware of the fragility of the liberties that we have so long taken for granted.

The spring flowers are appearing, but we are not permitted to share our enjoyment of them with any loved ones who do not live with us. Even after a year of the craziness I still find this troubling and bizarre. We are all persevering, heading for the light at the end of the tunnel. However, our personal relationships are too precious to be sacrificed long term. The time might have to come when we become determined to strive for their restoration.

In the meantime, deprived of family gatherings, it remains true that we can keep in touch by sending cards. If you want to do that this Easter, you might find that some of my designs appeal to you. Hope you have a lovely spring and Easter despite the restrictions.

http://www.magpieandjay.co.uk/shop/easter-cards.

Time to grow

Woodland Jays clock from Magpie & Jay.

The word ‘growth’ is used so much in business, often to suggest unreasonably accelerated expansion where the buck being made has to be quick, decimating whole environments, exploiting workforces and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Growth, however, is actually a great metaphor if used while bearing in mind that it is something actually invented by nature, and that only nature knows how to do it sustainably and sensibly.

Natural growth is in complete harmony with the environment upon which it depends. It happens slowly and steadily when the conditions are right; it enables living organisms to reach sizes and quantities that are appropriate for their environment, and it keeps progressing until a plant blossoms with beauty and elegance.

This is the version of the metaphor that I want for my business. Over recent months, through small decisions I’ve made, my design business has just started to grow a little, like cress on a windowsill. I have produced and started to sell my first few sets of greetings cards. I have introduced new designs, intended for a wider range of decorative items. Now, my sister, Joanna Henwood, has introduced me to a company that can help artists place their designs upon products, which are then printed on demand. I like the sustainability of this idea – no waste of energy, space and resources while thousands of items sit in warehouses – and the possibility of slow organic growth. Just starting with a few sales and building.

So there it is: ‘time’ to grow, just a little, to go on doing what I am doing but do more of it and share it with more people. And as I have mentioned ‘time’, what better to illustrate this piece than the new clock, bearing my Woodland Jays pattern, which is now available through my partner supplier Red Bubble. If you would like to look at my products (or Joanna’s motivational range called MotifAtion), please go to their site. See image above and link below.

‘Time’ to stop now. Have a lovely day/evening.

https://www.redbubble.com/i/clock/Woodland-Jays-by-Magpie-and-Jay/72705488.1X49C

The value of melancholy

Rodin’s Thinker does not pretend to be jolly.

It’s true that negative thinkers drag us all down. For this reason it is to be welcomed that social media such as Facebook and Instagram tend to focus on happy ‘stories’ and feel-good pictures. We gain a positive energy from such things. That said, it seems a step too far that the ’emoticons’ provided guide us to express almost entirely upbeat emotions. There are lots of representations of smiles, grins, laughs and giggles, and very few expressions of nuanced and thoughtful emotions, or faces tinged with melancholy.

We have all been through an emotionally draining experience these past twelve months. My main reason for neglecting this blog recently is that, in the intervening time, I have lost my father to covid and have had covid myself. It is perhaps a cliche, but also true, to say that it is okay to be melancholy sometimes – in fact it is essential to feel, accept and express grief in order to process it.

Not only so, but sadness can have huge creative force. The artists Vincent Van Gogh and Francisco de Goya produced extraordinary, emotionally charged works powered by their feelings of sadness, fear or distress. Mozart wrote his Requiem as his own life was ebbing towards its close. To deny sadness, melancholy and the dark things in life is to deny an inalienable aspect of the human condition.

I obviously tend to avoid melancholy sentiments in my greetings card designs, although the symbol of the cross in the Christian designs tells a very sad story indeed (despite the upbeat Christian epilogue of resurrection). The best art is powered by authentic thoughts and feelings, located at various points on the emotional scale, including at the happy end. Yet sadnes and melancholy can be wells from which we draw creativity. The art that we produce in these states may in fact not even be depressing but perhaps something of beauty that assuages our own feelings and is cathartic to others.

Nihil quam optime

‘Nothing but the best.’ I might have been the only person at my comprehensive school (which didn’t teach Latin) to understand the school motto. I believe I always tried to live up to it. I was seen as a ‘high flyer’, and that did prove to be true in my academic achievement.

Permitting myself a moment of immodesty, I must say I have continued to strive for excellence in everything I have committed time to. Nihil quam optime. And yet – here I redress the immodesty with an embarrassing admission – I have been pretty unsuccessful at acquiring either money or status. (That might change now I am pouring my efforts into Magpie & Jay, but who knows.) A simplistic explanation for this could be that I took the motto altruistically, to mean ‘nothing but giving of my best’. It probably did mean that, but what about the other side of the coin – ‘expecting to receive the best’? Forty years later I have only just thought of that. Perhaps one should aim for both? This may be obvious perhaps to someone with strong self-esteem.

Be that as it may, the question presents itself: what actually is meant by ‘the best’? The Latin words optimus and optime are linked in English to the adjective ‘optimal’. Rather than being synonymous with ‘best’, ‘optimal’ is associated with a compromise (in a good sense): a situation that is in balance, where a plethora of matters are well arranged and adjusted in relation to one another and the right conditions have been established. Optimal does not mean ‘biggest’ or ‘richest’ or ‘most famous’. It means ‘most suitable and functional’.

Balance has for a long time been my holy grail, mainly because I cannot be happy without it. To me this means enjoying exercise of both mind and body; working hard but also spending time with friends and family; doing difficult things and having fun; being both analytical and intuitive to create something new. I have wanted my life to be ‘most suitable and functional’. And I suppose it has been. But for what?

Goals were never my strong point. Balance itself seemed an adequate goal until 2020, but with my definition of it severely dented by the Covid pandemic (all cultural embellishments to life being severely curtailed), I need to think what ‘balance’ means to me now. How does it look in a Covid-ravaged world?

Efforts promoting balance, and thus deserving of the epithet optime (best), are surely not big and bullish (and consequently destructive). On the contrary, they are shaped by a less ostentatious but much more efficacious collection of social qualities: perceptiveness, circumspection, forbearance, patience, astuteness, flexibility, cooperation. These are needed to tackle the world’s biggest problems: climate change, Covid, and any new monsters on the horizon.

Delicacy and diplomacy aren’t exciting or newsworthy (and social media algorithms are on a mission to annihilate them), but these attributes characterise the approach needed: a subtle balance between vision and realism; a judicial weighing up of the facts to find optimal solutions to multiple interrelated issues; and the communication skills – ranging from decisiveness and clarity to persuasiveness and sense of humour – to get others on board.

So where does this leave me with my goal of balance? Well I am now part of an unofficial global team. Covid has taken away much, but this makes it mandatory to distil what I can best contribute.

As it happens, the one practice that draws together all my academic and creative impulses, while adhering to social distancing, is visual art and design. This I can pursue through Magpie & Jay. After all, a business first and foremost needs a product. However, my secondary goal should be to graft the products I create into a new, balanced and ‘optimal’ economy that is flexible and visionary: aligning my activities with the pursuit of solutions to global problems in small, but creative and well-honed, ways and habits.

I might do worse than begin by making it socially acceptable to re-use greetings cards and their packaging. When is a better time to start than the 1st January 2021?

Birds in art

Much of my art is inspired by wildlife. Two birds – the magpie and the jay – are the theme for my brand and one of my first sets of designs. Birds are such fascinating creatures. They have been evolving since the time of the dinosaurs and have perfected a way of life from which we can learn much. Through their flight and their virtuosic song, they focus on the moment and infuse sheer joy into it. The poet Shelley was so right to call the skylark a ‘blithe spirit’.

Can there be another class of creatures (Class: Aves) that displays such wonderful colours, such iridescent textures? This is of course why the tribes of Papua New Guinea hunted the birds of paradise almost to extinction.

We have such an odd relationship with nature. Birds inspire our artistic endeavours, yet when we want something we are quick to prey upon them.

A few years ago, there was a fashion for gorgeous textile patterns featuring songbirds. They were achingly lovely, but somehow I did not want to buy these clothes. Behind the prettiness, I suspected,  were industrial processes that probably did grave harm to the environment – and the birds that inhabit it. Surely, if you are going to feature birds in commercial products, there is a moral imperative to protect them; otherwise it’s hypoocrisy.

Yet as an artist I am inspired by birds and want to depict them. When I started Magpie & Jay, and developed my designs of the eponymous birds, I promised myself that this inspiration would be partnered with a commitment to sustainable production. I also decided to make the back of each card work hard: to promote the appreciation and protection of the birds depicted, giving information about charities that also have that aim.

Meanwhile, selling my cards through a local online shop, Stroudco, I found there was a demand for bird seed to put in people’s garden bird feeders. So I began to sell that too. Now I even offer a gift hamper for bird lovers through Stroudco, including treats for both the person and the birds! If our love for birds is serious, then we need to show it with our actions.

A lesson from Martin Schongauer

What could possibly be the connection between a colourful ‘hygge’-style tin of butter biscuits and this fantastically extraordinary 15th-century woodcut by Martin Schongauer?

The obvious link is beauty. I find the one utterly charming, the other horrifying and sublime. The more significant link is temptation. Schongauer’s image shows the Temptation of St Anthony by demons and monsters. Tempters like that don’t exist today, do they?

Well, today’s hideous monsters are more devious. They hide behind cute, charming things. The tin tempted me by its great beauty and cheapness (£1.95 in Aldi) – sheer gorgeousness that I yearned to possess. I knew deep down that the back story might be dark and ugly, not because butter biscuits are bad for me (we all need a little comfort at the moment), but because (1) they are shortlived food items in a tin built to last a century; (2) they contain palm oil not identified as ‘sustainable’; and (3) the price of £1.75 is too good to be true. But – the dinky little deer! I fell in love with it. Under its guise, the demons – vast steelworks pumping out CO2; tyrannosaurus-sized bulldozers razing the rainforests – reeled me in.

Two days later I heard of a pristine rainforest in Papua New Guinea being flogged off by tribal elders and turned into a palm oil plantation. Even simple, tribal people, it seems, are susceptible to temptations. I thought of orang-utans driven from their homes, palm oil exported for biscuits while a blast furnace somewhere in China belched out CO2 for the ‘deer’ little tin: the demons’ plan was complete. Beauty itself has been hijacked to attack our moral sensibilities.

So how does this relate to my business? Well, it demonstrates that prettiness is hypocrisy if something demonic lurks behind it, and it reminds me to always keep sight of my values. Small businesses, by their nature, tend to be less destructive because they do not use resources on an industrial scale and are less process-driven and more intuitive. Rather than pushing costs to rock bottom, you can build a brand around rarity, the personal touch, and a commitment to sound values.

Yet in the current economic model an ugly ‘back story’ can remain completely hidden. This will continue to be the case until we get Food Standards and Trading Standards that make the protection of sensitive environments and vulnerable people mandatory; until we get an International Law of Ecocide; and until companies and countries refuse to trade with monsters.

Pretty tin of biscuits and a woodcut by Martin Schongauer showing St Anthony tormented by demons
Charging down monsters on a white horse.

I am in sincere hope that after Britain ceases to be subject to EU rules, we may in fact surpass them, repudiating an economic model that has been so destructive and leading the vanguard of change (white charger optional); that we may set up the strongest and most ethical trading and food standards in the world, bring beauty home and send the monsters that tormented St Anthony back to hell where they belong.