Sunday, 23 October 2016

Giants in Thimbles VII - Principium et finis

'A Walk Through H' by Peter Greenaway is one of my favourite short films. The film is roughly 40 minutes long and tells the story of an abstract journey using a combination of one vocal narrator, the music of Michael Nyman and a series of 92 maps which hang on a wall. Like all of Greenaway's films, it moved me in the first few minutes. 

060820162014 Catalpa bignonioides, Watercolour on paper, 13 x 19cm
Work in progress

This is what Peter had to say about the short film:

"The map is an extraordinary palimpsest to tell you where you have been, where you are at this present moment, and where you could be, and even in subjective tenses, where you might have been, where you could have been. It’s a total consideration in the sense of temporality as well as spatiality.

Map from 'A Walk Through H.'
'A Walk Through H.' would suggest certainly a question or a query of what 'H.' stood for. I am sure that one will not have to travel very far before coming up with the notion that it could very well stand either for Heaven or for Hell, also in consideration that one man’s hell could be easily another man’s heaven and vice versa. So here is a presentation of a series of maps that would lead the soul, if you believe in reincarnation, from the moment of death to the nether place whether that indeed would be heaven or hell.  In this film, armed with his ninety two maps, an ornithologist makes his journey from this life to the next."

041120151203, Poplar x canadensis, Watercolour on Paper, 1m x 1.20m
As the pieces are finished and the process of painting is steadily grinding to a halt, I am beginning to focus more on the other elements of the collection, such as the book and soundtrack. My original idea was to line the linen bound book on the inside with a star chart, but I have in the last few weeks changed my mind and am now looking at maps again. In Spain they make these fantastic military maps which are a bit like the Ordinance Survey in the UK, only much harder to get your hands on. In true style of the Leafscape project and 'A Journey Through H.', there is this mysterious map shop hidden somewhere in the back streets of the old Arabic quarter of Granada. It's location is elusive. It seems it is the type of place you accidentally come across only never to locate it again in your lifetime. I myself have never seen it, so I might be in luck. 

As a consequence, I am thinking a lot about maps at the moment, their meaning and what it is to observe and experience something and then to map it out. I am beginning to feel that a map is not only a means of representing space, but also of time and presence. Through a combination of art forms - drawing, writing, music and film 'A Journey through H. does exactly this. The entire film can be found following this link, although I do recommend buying it.

041120151613, (Morus nigra), Watercolou
on paper, 13cm x 19cm, Work in progress

Whatever will line the inside of the Leafscape book, it'll be a map of sorts, for maps are codes and therefore anything can be a map. The sequence of our DNA to climate change models. They are all maps. Maps are abstract because they only contain what the recorder wants to put in it and can be interpreted differently depending on the observer. They are representational abstractions and a surrealist fantasy.

Art's concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the 
formlessness that is beyond the edge. (Oliver, 2016)

300620161138, Acer sp., Watercolour on paper, 13 x 19cm
Work in progress

When I look at any standard geographical map, I always take notice of the boundary lines. When I watch 'A Walk Through H.' I consider them too, but as I start to slowly understand the nature of the journey the maps are taking me through I begin to think about the metaphorical boundaries, the ones I cannot see, that haven't been drawn out.  Where is H? Where is this soul migrating too? Where are we all going? Then I am less concerned about the roads and footpaths and lines drawn on each piece of paper and more concerned about the edges of the paper. Like a medieval monk, I become anxious that we might fall off the edge of the flat papery view of the world. I manage to convince myself that the edge that marks the end of the sequence of 92 maps marks the biggest boundary of all. 

Everything will flourish at the edge . . . (Derrida, 1987)

080120161247, Platanus x acerifolia. Watercolour 
on paper, 13 x 19cm, Work in progress

When we paint on a piece of paper we are aware that we are working inside the matrix (space) that is held between the edges (usually 4) of said piece of paper. The world we are depicting however, be it imaginary or real, isn't like this - there are many edges in our three dimensional reality and the vista extends outwards on and on and on. What we do as painters is to distil a piece of that vista into a tangible boundary marked by four edges, and these edges will eventually work to frame the picture, but not limit it. In this capacity, the edges of a painting act not to close off but to open up possibilities for the emerging image (Casey, 2014). They act not to exclude further brush strokes but to expand their reach as the edges are where the picture meets the real world. Therefore it is really important that as painters we are aware of the power of these edges and what they can do to transform our work. 

Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew. (Apollinaire)

041120151708, Catalpa bignonioides, Watercolour 
on paper, 19 x 13cm, Work in progress

To understand the edges of the paper and of reality is to understand the bit inbetween the edges of the paper and reality. The two features require each other in order to exist - take away the edges and the in-between is amorphous. We need edges in order to define, but that defined shape is still organic - it can still take on a myriad of forms and sizes. There is no strict measurement for the area in between the boundaries. As painters we are aware of this every time we represent something. Any representation of the real world needs both edges and gaps to be present. History happens in-between the edges of things. It is in this space where art is created, philosophy is conceived and political actions emerge (Casey, 2014).

Respect the edges (Pavitz, 2007)

Section of leaf 100820151542

As I mentioned in the first chapter of Giants in Thimbles, I consider the edges to be very important in this collection, but at the time I wasn't fully aware of why. In Leafscape, the leaves often get chopped off and are placed on the margins of the paper. Right at the very beginning I thought that they just represented my feelings towards my own existence - of being on the margin all of the time and not being able to claim my space, or of even wanting to. But then some leaves did start to claim their space, but ended up being too big for that area, so even though they were in the middle of the painting, bits got chopped off. In plant terms, that's my botanical dystopia - them not being able to grow freely in a human world, but in personal terms its my feeling towards my own life. I am trying to find my landscape, I am looking for that place, which is always on the edge, on the horizon, and as I look for it, I unwittingly create a map of my own existence.

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. 
At the edge of perception, weird things dance and howl. (Boroson, 2015)

Leaf 080120161241 Platanus x acerifolia next to leaf 100820151542 Catalpa bignonioides.

In two weeks time I will be drawing a line on my invisible map from Granada, Spain to Haselmere, UK, where my framer is. The three massive paintings are being put inside a van and driven all the way to England. These three beasts are going to be difficult to frame - we just can't get big enough mount board, so it might be that the leaves really do outdo supply. Painters have always agonised about how to frame their work. They are after all where the painting stops and a different world begins (Hodgkin, 2003). The frame affects the work inside and outside the space. Frames let us know where the artwork is, they contain the art from a logical view. 

Don't be afraid to step into the unknown 
(Lyrics to Come Down to us, Burial)

301020151949, Poplar x canadensis, Watercolour 
on paper, 13 x 19cm, Work in progress

Immanuel Kant thought that frames were necessary to make a painting what it is. He felt that if a painting didn't have a frame, it wouldn't deliver on its role in transporting us as viewers. That the unframed painting would look too 'made' and too much as a mere 'object' rather than a 'portal'. In this vein, the frame can belong to the painting just as much as it does to the wall. With this in mind, we begin to see that frames actually have the ability to totally deconstruct space, even beyond wall and picture. They are the Venn diagrams of the art world. The image in a frame exists in a world of its own, yet it also touches on ours. The leaves in Leafscape are precisely that - they exist within their boundary in their own worlds, but they touch our own and extend into a void we cannot see.

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard. (Murakami, 2005)

080120161240, Platanus x acerifolia, Watercolour on paper, 19 x 13 cm

David Hockney was the first person to bring me into a space where I begun to consider edges and frames more seriously. For twenty years I have remained a huge fan of his photomontages (or what he calls 'joiners'), mostly because they show what an edge actually is. You get to see how the edges mark time and space - the inbetweeness, and how in our world, there are many edges. I often feel that Hockney's joiners are the only non-digital, two dimensional thing out there that describes our reality fully. Now of course, we can find Hockney working with multiple camera lenses in a single moving picture, which is broadening his first concept - frames within frames. 

100820151540 Catalpa bignonioides, Watercolour 
on paper, 13 x 19cm, Work in progress

As I begin to concentrate on my next collection I am starting to consider moving onto board and not using frames at all, thus pushing us all to consider the edges even more intensely. The magical thing about being in the 21st century is that you can do this. Exhibitions are now being curated in a way that space is left around works so that the actual room or wall begins to act as a frame. Exhibitions are no longer jam packed like they were in Edwardian times. Curators now give us breathing space, like the universe expanding, the edges are getting ever further and further away. 

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. (Oliver, 2016)

301020151943, Acer pseudoplatanus, 76 x 56cm, Work in progress

I am now painting my last piece in the run up to seeing the framer. Rather like in 'A Journey through H.' I have journeyed through 34* leafscapes to arrive at my final destination - a Sycamore leaf from Bognor Regis, my home town, collected in a park I used to play in as a child. I am nicknaming it 'Honey Sandwiches', it seemed apt. The real leaf itself is a maroon tinted stunner. I remember seeing it on the floor and pressing it there and then in between the pages of a book on quantum physics, forever trapped. But my journey doesn't end here, at home or with a sycamore leaf. I am not a medieval monk and the world is not flat. I believe life is like a spirograph, it just simply keeps looping around. All I've done in the process of searching for a home to call my own is to arrive at my childhood. I have painted a complete circuit and now I am already off again on a new circuit; the next project and who knows where it'll take us.

Principium et finis

180820161420, Catalpa bignonioides
Watercolour on paper, 13 x 19cm

*There are 34 paintings: 3+4 = 7
Chapters of 'Giants in Thimbles' = 7
Exhibition opens on the 16th: 1+6  = 7
Exhibition closes on the 25th: 2+5 = 7


Boronson, M., (2015), The Girl with Ghost Eyes, Talos Publishing

Casey, Edward, (2014), The Edges and the In-Between, Unpublished essay

Derrida, J., (1987), The Parergon - The Truth of Painting, Bennington, G. and McLeod, I., (trans.) Chichago, Chicago University Press pp 37 -82

Duro, P., (1996) The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays essays on the boundaries of the artwork, Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

Eastham, A., (2011), Aesthetic Afterlives: Irony, Literary Modernity and the Ends of Beauty, Continuum

Goffman, E., (1979), Frame Analysis. Pennsylvania Northeastern University Press

Hodgkin, H. in Daoust, P., (2003) Edge Trimming, The Guardian, 2nd January 2003. 

Kant, I., (1790), The Critique of Judgement, Meredith, J, (trans.) Oxford. Claredon Press

Little, S., (2004) 'Framing Dialogues towards an understanding of the Parergon in Theatre'. PhD Thesis. 

Murakami, H., (2005), Kafka on the Shore, Vintage Publishing

Oliver, M., (2016), Upstream: Selected Essays, Penguin Press

Parviz, M., 'Ten Guidelines for Painting', unpublished text of August, 21, 2007

Monday, 29 August 2016

Giants in Thimbles - VI Closing the Gap

I observed Belicena differently today. I decided to go for walk using a different palette - a sound recorder. Equipped with a different tool for recording my experience here on planet earth, I started to 'see' things differently. Reacquainting myself with my original calling, I placed myself within an ecology of sound and began to listen properly. When you listen properly, you instantly become present in time and space. Processes slow down and one becomes acutely aware. You find yourself merging with the landscape and you begin to see how even your own body influences the way sound waves move.

Sounds are like ghosts. They slink around the visual object, moving in on it from all directions, forming its contours and content in a formless breeze. (Voegelin, 2010)

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) watercolour by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

I have mentioned several times in this online diary that I am interested in how painting could hint at a sound to produce an experience that is beyond visual, or in fact, audible - to tap into something that is spiritual. There have been times when I see a painting and the artist, being a master of brush and composition, ushers me into a space where I hear sounds - imaginary ones. In this sense, a painting can be seen as a theatre, transcending its material form into something else entirely, something ethereal, such as a story or a feeling.

Sound renders the object dynamic, it makes what we see quiver with life (Voegelin, 2010)

Catalpa watercolour by Inky Leaves
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

Over the past two years, the Leafscape Collection has become multifaceted and layered - it no longer is just a collection of paintings - it has become phantasmagoric. I am still working very hard to provide my audience with an experience, using writing (crowd funded book/blog), pictures (the paintings), sound (a CD album), place (the stories on the backs of paintings) and to time (painting titles). The album itself, which I have not mentioned until now, will feature sounds taken from the sites where each leaf grew. I am doing this to extend the nervous system of botanical art and what it can achieve as a call to action, but the CD can also function as a stand alone piece (it'll be available to those who pledge for a limited edition book on my Kickstarter Project this Autumn). 

‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ Walter Pater

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) watercolour by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

This collection invites you to explore distant lands (nb map-like features), lost memories and invisible worlds through sound and sight. The main story arc is about plants and humans - how we interact with our environment and how our environment interacts with us, and I believe very strongly that this story cannot be told with pictures alone. Everything is in pictures these days. Try to embed an audio file in Blogger and you'll find the experience fairly frustrating. There is no easy way of doing it. It’s the same with Facebook and Twitter. 

The blink of an eye lasts three hundred milliseconds. The blink of an ear lasts considerably longer. From birth to death, the ear never closes. Kim Cohen (2009)

Populus x canadensis botanical illustration by Inky Leaves
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Work in progress. Watercolour on Paper. 1m x 1.25m

There aren't many people who pay attention to the sounds and often when they do, sound is left to enhance another sensory output and never left to singularly become (Voegelin, 2010). Yet, the invisible and the formless world must be given equal validity in order to transform the visible and the formed. This is basic alchemy. This is how one can belong to the world fully. We all have invisible souls that grow into something intangible but in the modern world this seems to be unrecognised. We are all living in a world which overly taxes the left hemisphere of our brains. Our languages and our systems rarely tap into the right side - the ‘acoustic’ side – of our brain, and as our existence is becoming progressively more ‘wired up’, this is becoming increasingly so. I believe that by using pictures and sound we begin to use the other side and become more responsive.

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) botanical illustration
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Watercolour on Paper. 30 x 30 cm

All that is visible must grow beyond itself - extend into the invisible.
Hexagram 50 of the I-ching

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba) botanical illustration
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Watercolour on Paper. 30 x 30 cm

The auditory world is always dynamic and never static and in order to really understand sound, you have to realise that you are part of it. You are inside a soundscape.  This is how I try to ‘see’ when painting – I try to feel the space around as if I am part of it. I try to sense the distances between the object and myself and convince myself that they are not really there – there is no distance, it’s an illusion.  Sound’s ephemeral invisibility frequently means it is ignored. Ever heard of the saying ‘seeing is believing’? It seems that there is this absurd belief that to see things is to understand things. Furthermore, often when we see something for the first time, we tend to give it a name and construct a relationship with the item which in turn defines us and our own identity. We separate ourselves from it. Listening, however, is always cloaked with disbelief. We often say ‘did I hear you correctly?’ or more often I find we say ‘pardon’ when we really did actually hear what somebody said. 

Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata) botanical art by Inky Leaves
Giant Rhubarb (Gunnera manicata)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

The unsettling thing about sound is it breaks down the ego. For example, if we hear a noise then we are instantly part of that noise - we share the space and the moment with the noise. There is no distance between us. I find thunder and lightening to be an excellent example for illustrating how differently we react between sight and sound. When we see the lighting, we instantly identify it and locate it and measure the distance in relation to ourselves. Then, if the source of lightening is a few miles away, a few moments later we will hear the thunder clap. The problem is, you can't see the thunder, which means you can’t locate it. Consequently, the rumble of thunder is far more frightening and intimidating because it’s right there, all around you. You can't grasp it, but you can hear it. It is obscure. Such is the sublime nature of sound.

English Oak (Quercus robur) botanical illustration Jess Shepherd
English Oak (Quercus robur)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

Of course, we ignore the most subliminal aspect with the recorded audio in particular. Akin to photography, it determines the threshold between life and death, whilst simultaneously offering the exhilarating and terrifying possibility of passing between the two. The human body and mind become peculiarly vulnerable at this threshold (Dickson, 2016). We live in an age where we can extend our existences beyond the grave, but unlike photography, which is based on sight and therefore allows us to distance ourselves from the memory, audio from beyond is uncomfortable because sound is part of us – there is no distance. So rather disturbingly, you get the melding of space and time inside of you. You become a vessel; you become the landscape, the environment between this world and the one that existed before.

Catalpa bignonioides painting by Jess Shepherd
Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides)
Watercolour on Paper. 76 x 56 cm

As I look back, sound has always played an important role in my work. When I think about installation I made in a dark room in 2002, not only did I work with the contrasts between dark and the light to hint at the sublime, I worked with sound. I put a compact disc by COIL on a loop. As a fourteen year old, I was also had a habit of recording sounds -it was a hobby I kept up until I was 21 years old. I still have all the old analogue dictaphone tapes littered with outside sound recordings. I have teachers delivering lessons, the starlings on the roof, birdsong in Barcelona, my father's old car engine, seagulls and lunchtime mayhem at secondary school. I think I even captured myself walking the complete circuit of Andrew Goldsworthy's moonlit path at midnight. At the time I recorded these sounds, it was about trying to document my reality. The tapes were predominately my way of diarising my life. I remember organising my recordings – I would tape me vocally reading out the date back at home first thing in the morning so I wouldn't look strange talking into a device in the middle of the street. How things have changed with hands free devices since then?! That was in 1998 and things have moved on. 

Sound is perpetually on the move, making time and tenses rather than following them. (Veogelein, 2010)

Grape Vine (Vitis vinifera) painting by Inky Leaves
Grape Vine (Vitis vinifera)
Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56 cm

When I stopped condensing time into reel at the age of 21, I started to do the opposite - I started to listen. My favourite channel on what was then the 'new' DAB radio was the test channel, which was bird song in a farmyard on loop. I used to listen to it all day and sometimes all night. I found doing the latter would completely disorientate me and this effect really intrigued me. This was probably the first time I realised the power of sound on the body, our existence and our ideas of reality.

One of the most nourishing aspects of producing the Leafscape album is how it has taught me to reclaim my existence – a way of living that feels almost primeval. Time is slowed down when you are in the field recording and vision looses its importance. The noises made by humans can seem intrusive and you start to see patterns. You learn when certain birds sing and when the farmers open particular sluice gates for irrigating. You sit eagerly waiting for the thunderstorm to blow in and the flap of a pigeon's wings becomes intolerably loud. As you crouch down, trying to get out of the wind, swallowtail butterflies will land on you and a snake will slide past. Everything changes scale - time changes and space changes - which is not only intriguing to witness, but also fairly satisfying to see given the rather large leaps in scale in the artworks themselves. Everything in this compilation is now mirrored - the collection has become whole. It has become its own ecosystem, with its own measures of time and scale.

Poplar (Populus x canadensis) botanical art Jess Shepherd
Poplar (Populus canadensis)
Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56 cm


Chain, P., (2016), Sound mummification and the art of fixed sounds 

Coppolino, E. F., (2016) Planet Waves Podcast 

Cohen, K., (2009), In the Blink of an Ear, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, New York

Voegelin, S., (2010), Listening to noise and silence, The Continuum Internataional Publishing Group

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Giants in Thimbles V - Flowers of the Soul

I am happy to say that the first third of the collection is now complete. I spent a long time signing, dating and cataloguing them all. The signing process was a bit tricky this time around as the boarders of these leaves and the empty (or claustrophobic) white space round each leaf is incredibly important to the overall piece and I found that my signature kept interfering with each arrangement. I had been contemplating a signature change of late, as most people seem to know me as 'Inky Leaves' rather than 'Jess Shepherd' these days, but in the end I decided to stick to the old signature. I tried everything from logo transfers and monograms to pictures and name changes and none of them worked with the leaves. They just drew too much attention to themselves. So here I am, I remain to be 'Jess Shepherd' but in the form of a teeny-tiny signature.

Botanical painting of a yellow leaf
Close up on the latest leaf, a Catalpa bignonioides. Watercolour on paper. 76 x 56cm

So with the signatures done I then spent a good few hours transferring both long and short stories about each leaf on the back. Each story included the catalogue number, the pseudonym, their Latin name and geographical locations at point of collection. Occasionally I have written where I painted it or how I was feeling when I found the leaf. Two of the pieces are denoted as siblings (Vincent and Victoria), two are about love (Judas and India) and of course four paintings came from the same tree (India, Indiana, Indie and Indo). Speaking of which, here's part of the mummified leaf of 'Indo' - leaf 100820151542 (above).

I feel that these brief accounts on the reverse of each painting are really important to do as not only do they give each item provenance, but they also reflect my own personality as a story teller and writer. I also rather like the fact that they are hidden and will probably not be found until well after I am dead, rather like the writings and lost paintings found on the backs of Marianne North's paintings in Kew during the most recent restoration project. 

Hidden Marianne North painting
Painting discovered on the back of painting 366 during the restoration of the Marianne North Gallery

I am not sure if you remember, but I decided to start writing on the backs of paintings soon after I wrote my first 'Giants in Thimbles' post about the collection because I wanted the pieces to have a temporal aspect to them as well as a visual. At the time I wasn't sure what I was accessing and why I wanted to do this. I have been always aware of how important the element of time is in botanical art, but back then I guess I also felt that the vastness of time was fitting for a collection such as this which questions scale and life so intimately, and, as time has ticked on (excuse the pun), I now feel much clearer on what it is I am trying to add to the pieces. I suppose it is a sense of nostalgia.

Collection of botanical paintings on leaves
Writing the stories in the UK before framing. 

As I continue ask myself the fundamental question of 'what is it that moves me?’, I start to think about the memory and nostalgia in the context of the sublime - the flowers that make up the flowerbed of our souls and the terror of a time lost. C. S. Lewis refers to this feeling as 'Sehnsucht' - a German world that describes something that is intensely missing. Retrospection is huge - it can rattle through us all of the time to the point that the constant yearning for a time long lost can take over rational perception. One grapples with it - lost time is always there. We are, after all, the product of our memories, but you can't hold them in your arms. Nostalgia, like the memory, is vast and it is infinite in that there is no boundary to it - it is a dreamscape. One cannot simply join all the memories up back to a single point in time like the Big Bang because memories get fuzzy and punctuated the further back you go. There is no beginning or end, mere snippets that hint at a boundary.

Memory interests me on a number of levels because not only is it huge but it also, like a Gothic novel, can be deeply disturbing. The constant searching for a time long lost can bring on great sadness as well as horror and a sense of dread. Our horror over lost time is most likely linked to an awareness over our own mortality. Looking at it under the microscope and focusing on it threatens our sense of self preservation. Thinking however is different, in thinking we rebell against the tyranny of time and a hedge against the terror of our finitude (Arendt, 1981). With this I recognise that there is a difference between gentle reflection and nostalgia. However, memory will always have a magical quality to it. It allows us to time travel whenever we want to and it fundamentally, like language, makes us 'us'. It gives us our consciousness. If you can picture your memories, then you can imagine your future. However if you can't remember anything at all, then the future must simply just turn into a blank space, rather like the past. 

Catalpa bignoinoides leaf, 76 x 56cm, watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP

“The future enters into us” (Rilke)

"The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. " (Woolfe)

Clockwise from bottom left: John Randall Turney 1834 – 1905 (great, great, great grandfather), Nancy Lord b1825, (great, great, great, great, grandmother),  Arthur Fincham Turney 1874 – 1969 (great, great grandfather), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Grace Crowther (great, great, great grandmother), Jessie Pretoria Nicholson 1900 – 1978 (great grandmother), Frank Nicholson (great, great grandfather), Dora Shaw (great, great grandmother),  Frank Turney 1903 – 1988 (great grandfather), middle: Harriett Fincham 1840 – 1919 (great, great, great grandmother)

When I was young I used to work for the Weald of Sussex Lacemakers making lace. It happened quite by accident. I used to watch them do their demos at the museum and eventually they asked if I would like a go. I took to it like a duck to water and in a matter of a few weeks one of the lacemakers called Janet bought me the entire kit for my birthday. I felt so lucky. My mother then commissioned the local woodturner to make some personalised bobbins for me. These were indeed magical times.  I was drawn to the complexity of the lace as well as it's delicate nature. Things become as delicate as a memory with time, items fade and break. I feel our fascination with the intricate and fragile comes from us acknowledging our own fragility. There is a level of appreciation that comes from the intricacy of lace too. It is as if these complicated items condense time because they take so long to make. Intricately handmade items are reservoirs of time and despite being heavy and dense with time, they, like us, are defenseless to decay.

Greg Dunn's drawing of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for memory 
and navigation and coincidentally looks a bit like lace.

As a painter I am steadly becoming interested in how the 'vision' of nostalgia manifests in our minds as 'imaginary perception' or 'virtual perception'. For example, I am fascinated when people say that after seeing one of my big leaves they are instantly transported to the dens of their childhood where they can see the leaves up close. Often they deliver this very rational response after an irrational gasp. With time I have come to realise that this gasp is markedly a response to the memory rather than a simple reaction to a painting. The gasp is nearly always a deep rooted, primal gasp - its shrouded in shock, horror and pain - like a pinprick. Its an interesting reaction of horror and surprise and I wonder if it is the emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time. Unsuspecting, the observer wasn't ready for time travel, caught unawares they are harshly reminded of their mortalty and perceive it as a threat. Nostalgia, the type that can creep up on you, reminders that come out of the dark without you calling on them, are always perilous.

Greg Dunn's fantastic drawing of a cell in the retina. Twitter: @GDunnArt

After hearing about the 'den memories' of my clients I started to think about what one 'sees' when one remembers. I was surprised that the leaves, all supersized, took them right back so acutely. After much analysis I have come to realise that when I remember an occurrence or scene that happened long in the past, I,  like my clients, can only focus on the 'objects' and not the landscape. That object, so fully charged with sentiment, totally takes over like a landscape. Textures become magnified in their experience. As I sit and recall one of my biggest memories, which is of a place where many events occurred, I can't see 'the place'. The 'place' is instead represented by a myriad of tiny objects that reveal themselves in the form of a well organised kalaidoscope - one which refuses to be captured and contained but is organised nonetheless, and everything is blown up out of proportion. For example, I try to remember an area where I used to play - I try to remember the trees, the leaves, the map of the land, but all I can see is an old water butt in that area and pictorially the only thing that is in focus is the dried, green moss growing on it. There is a bigger landscape around me but it is blurred and out of focus. This seems odd to me as I have no real sentimental attachment to this waterbutt, but the moss does draw me in.

"Memory, that guardian of time, guards the instant alone. It preserves nothing, absolutely nothing, of our complicated and artificial sense of duration." (Bachelard)

I wonder if the blurring of the landscape is a result of my myopia (I couldn't really see as a child but this wasn't picked up on until I was 14 years old) and so attempting to test this further I think of another den, only the leafy floor with all of its crevices is in focus, or the bit of graffiti in one of the old metal huts. The rest is a blur, obscured by filtration. The fish pond - only the rough texture of the concrete container and the intense heat are memorable, not the fish. Behind the electricity building - only the flaking paint of a red telephone box and the smell of baking chalk is well defined. Only the flakes where my hand touches are in focus, or the textures governed by heat and smell, and I wonder if that is the answer. Is what one can only perceptively focus on in a state of nostalgia are the things that touched another sensory gland - be it sound, smell or touch - along with the eye and not just the eye alone? I am unable to focus on the wood as a whole, only the bark of an individual tree which I probably touched.

"Touch fills our memory with a detailed key as to how we're shaped, a mirror would mean nothing without touch. We are forever taking the measure of ourselves in unconscious ways. Touch teaches us that life has depth and contour; it makes our sense of the world. Without that intricate feel for life there would be no artist, whose cunning is to make sensory and emotional maps" (Ackerman, 1992).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields

As you are aware, our brains are able to interpret two-dimensional drawings as representing a three-dimensional objects. To do this, our perceptual system uses a series of educated guesses to fill in the gaps. Apparently, our brains use the same guessing process to reconstruct the past. Like with a puzzle, we piece together our memories, based on both what we actually remember and what seems most likely given our knowledge of the world. Just as we make educated guesses in perception, our minds’ best educated guesses help 'fill in the gaps' of memory, reconstructing the most plausible picture of what happened in our past. One of the things that interests me is something called ‘boundary extension’ – a remarkable phenomenon where our visual memories consistently recall seeing a more wide-angle image of a scene than what was actually present. This is due to our brain filling in the gaps and its role is to help us engage with the world that around us and beyond what we see. Rather predictably, boundary extension is reduced when we are emotionally roused or anxious, which resonates well with the cut-off edges in my botanical dystopia. So could boundary extension be another reason why the scenery is often blurred and why things like leaves and moss appear so crisp? Is this why in our memory, scale frequently reveals itself in a confused and chaotic state comparable to being in a chapter of Alice in Wonderland? 

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer.” (Bachelard)

Botanical Art by Jess Shepherd
As a work in progress on the easel: Large Catalpa leaf, 76 x 56cm,
watercolour on Saunders Waterford HP in the UK pop-up studio

With my Alice in Wonderland leaves, I am also beginning to observe how the temporal quality of botanical art can be intensified with changes in scale. The manifestations of time in this branch of work are numerous (inclusion of life cycles, time to complete a piece etc.) so it is always there, lurking in the paint. Equipped with this understanding about the connection with scale and time I am reminded of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity and the discovery of 'spacetime' - a four dimensional description of our world that incorporates basic Euclidean geometry with time. It is beginning to feel as though the perceptive power of our memories is more closely linked to the four dimensional parable and I wonder if this is why our memories can also be so terrifying and subliminal - because they don't fit into our Euclidean 'interpretation' of the world. Is it that our memories not only remind us of our mortality and a time lost, but that it also connects us to the seemingly impossible, forcing us to question what is real and what is not? If we sit and think about it, consciousness has to be at least four dimensional, if not more, and maybe this is how art helps us to transcend our 'being'. I remember touching on this briefly before, but it is only now where I am starting to understand this from a more formulaic standpoint. 

"Time is a reality confined to the instant and suspended between two voids. Although time will no doubt be reborn, it must first die. It cannot transport its being from one instant to another in order to forge duration." (T. S. Eliot)

Whatever the case may be, I am happy to say that ten pieces of a rather large, muddled, botanical dystopian puzzle are now being put in their cages in a little shop in the backwaters of leafy Surrey.


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