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.


Ackerman, D., (1992), 'A Natural History of the Senses', Vintage Books

Arendt, H., (1981), 'The Life of the Mind', Harcourt Publishing Ltd.
Bachelard, G., (2013), 'Intuition of the Instant', Northwesten University Press
Brady, T., (2008), 'Blurring the Boundary Between Perception and Memory', Scientific American
Carrol, L., (2007), 'Through the Looking Glass', Penguin Classics
Lewis, C. S., (1966), Surprised by Joy, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich
Eliot., T. S., (1935), 'Burnt Norton, Collected Poems', 
Intraub & Richardson, (1989), Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory&Cognition, 15:179-187
Papova, M., (2016), 'Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical 
Experience of Time', Brain Pickings
Papova, M., (2015), 'Virginia Woolf on the Past and How to Live More Fully in the Present', Brain Pickings
Papova, M., (2015), 'Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time', Brain Pickings
Rilke, M., (2011), 'Letters to a Young Poet', CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Smith, P., (2015), 'M-Train', Knolf Publishing Group
States of Mind (2016), 'Tracing the Edge of Consciousness', Wellcome Collection Exhibition Booklet
Swaminathan, N., (2007), 'Can you believe your shifty eyes?', Scientific American
Wittmann, M., (2016), 'Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time', MIT Press
Woolfe, V., (1985), 'Moments of Being', Harcourt Publishers Ltd.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Giants in Thimbles IV - Outside the Thimble

Poplar leaf, 76 x 56cm, Daler Rowney paint on Saunders Waterford

As I work away, my focus swings like a pendulum and I am back thinking about the Leafscape collection as opposed to the individual pieces. Just under a month ago, I displayed every thing in the Spanish studio and examined my changes in scale and tried to work out if I needed to fill in any obvious holes in the limited time I have left. It wasn't an easy task and consequently my brain started over firing. Visualising differences in scale is hard work. With a blown brain, unable to deal with that sort of problem solving, I ended up carrying out financial calculations on exhibition costs, which blew my brain a little bit more. What was my expensive hobby is now my expensive career! I went to bed over tired and anxious. The next morning I just got back on with it, as one does - ‘grinding away at the leaves’* and prepared some drawings for my next pieces for my spell in the pop-up gallery in the UK this summer.

Poplar wood
Poplar wood, Belicena, Spain. Photograph taken through the lens of my sunglasses

Before I left Spain I went on a short walk. I hadn't been taking walks regularly for a few days; walks were becoming infrequent as I focused on my work, but this is never a good idea. I need to walk. It was a windy day and all the Poplar woods are talking. These woods never fail to stop me in my tracks. The week before they appeared as an amazing wall of solid black which hung underneath the canopy like a curtain. I had my sunglasses on which altered everything. I am glad they did though as I would never have noticed that band of sold black and the way it drew you in like the edge of a cliff. Plants really do seem to create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together like this. At the time I remembered how Bachelard once said in his Poetics of Space, that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". This was clearly evident on that very day.

Darkness of the woods

On last week's walk, the sun was obscured by clouds and it was very windy, so the trees took on a different guise. There was no silencing black hole. I wondered, had the infinity within escaped? I crept into one of the woods and watched the mumuration of leaves and as I did I let my eyes go out of focus on the silhouettes along the woodland edge where it was lightest. The leaves quivered in rhythmic movements like water, but as I let my eyes blur even more, they then took on the appearance of an untuned television screen. Every movement was completely random; like gluons (nice bit of quantum physics for you there) the whole wood had no order. The realisation that I was standing in chaos was just as terrifying as it was liberating.

Poplar seeds in the sun, Belicena, Spain

After this walk we experienced a lot of bad weather and I didn't venture out of the house for several days until then, the day before I left for England, the sun returned. I sat in the garden and looked up at the clouds and I saw millions of little, white specks floating in the air like sun snow. Little feathery Poplar seeds were flying everywhere like fairies. They collected around the sun giving it a halo as the light reflected from them. They stretched for as far as the eye could see and I was left wondering where their reach stopped - the atmosphere's edge, 10 miles up, or beyond? Like little galaxies they are all on the move, white dots moving around space. They somehow made the sky look bigger, yet also smaller - they transformed it into a claustrophobic space, but they also gave the sky depth, deeper than a sky scraper would. There was something synergistic and heavy about the combination of random movement and space. I imagined the journey of one speck and felt nauseous. It was too much to deal with. 

Disappointingly Youtube has reduced the resolution on this so you can't quite see how far these tiny dots go into the sky...

The words “sky” and “heaven” have numerous meanings and connotations, ranging from places and states to beliefs and feelings. Heaven once referred to both God and the material roof over the world, but now, through art, magic and science it has become to signify either the one or the other separately. Yet if we trace it all backwards to the point where the dichotomy began, the sky returns to being a more wondrous willful place.

 “… deluded by self-love and the illusions of his senses, man long thought of himself as the center around which the heavenly bodies moved, and his vain pride has been punished by the terrors they inspired in him. At last, several centuries of endeavor have removed from his eyes the veil that obscured the system of the universe. He now sees himself living on an almost imperceptible planet within a solar system, the boundless extent of which is itself merely a faint point in the vastness of space” (Laplace)

A solar spectrum. The absorption lines represent the principal atomic components of the sun's atmosphere: magnesium in the green, sodium in the yellow-orange, hydrogen in the red.

The distinctions we make today between symbolism and reality, between religion and science, were once blended together. It was not really until the Renaissance when ideas of our own freedom of thought became more common, which then paved the way towards big changes in our philosophical approaches and political thought. Now, in the modern world, astrology, spiritualism, religion and science provide us with utterly contradictory pictures of the sky, yet to some degree we accept them all. 

Primitive man must have looked at the sky above with such wonder, possibly more than the wonder we have today depending on ones beliefs, as today the surrounding sky that still influences our lives no longer seems so perplexing. Through our systems of measurement we have reduced our universe to a series mathematical formulae. We know what makes it, what lies beyond it and how big it is. Thinking about this has encouraged me to just accept things the way they are, to leave wonderment whole.

A field of stars. Seen through a prism, each star is registered by its spectrum (red at left, blue at right), which indicates temperature at the surface of the star; the visible lines correspond to the various types of atom found in the star's atmosphere.

As my little venture into the sublime continues I am also becoming aware that I am taking part in a paradoxical journey, since I am attempting to measure the immeasurable in order to understand my artwork and how to replicate its effect. I am beginning to realise that art does not bestow the fomulae that make art 'art'. After looking deeply into my use of light, space, sound and size I now feel myself hurtling towards the consensus that the sublime is just very simply - a taking to the limits - to the point at which fixities begin to fragment into infinity. Equipped with this knowledge I am currently experimenting with different approaches to try and portray vastness to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror that my leafscapes only softly allude to with their encroaching mounted edges.  I am now, in my spare time, creating pockets of infinity using the disorder around me (see below).

"My wish is that we might progressively lose confidence in what we believe and the things we consider stable and secure, in order to remind ourselves of the infinite number of things still waiting to be discovered." (A. Tapies)

Latest project: Infinity Phytocosmiramas ©

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us” (astronomer Maria Mitchell)

Obscurity appears to be the key here. To make a thing incomprehensible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. Once we are made aware of the extent of any danger or how something came about, a great deal of apprehension and wonder vanishes and thus the sense of awe is lost. The sublime is the impossibility of knowledge. It is when we are brought into a state of submission which consequently disorientates our purpose. 

"Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other" (Burke). 

Cyanotypes by Lia Holliran Source: Brain Pickings

The word 'astonishment' comes from the Latin 'estar' - to stand, and 'stupeo' - to be stunned or stiffened (think Harry Potter charms here) and thus temporarily disorientated. Lately, I have become quite obsessed in my pursuit for the irrational gasp (aka temporary disorientation). I am happy to say that several times this week I have managed to generate a few with some of my very new botanical work (above) which seems to be mimicking both birth and death in one fell swoop. The gasps are nearly always a deep rooted and primal, shrouded in shock, horror and suspension. I am left wondering if these gasps are an emotional response to an unexpected opening in the vastness of time? I find that people assume that I just paint pretty flowers and so they aren't expecting to be confronted by a something as disturbing as Phytocosmirama!! I have to say I am very happy with this latest work of mine - it is going where I want to be going. The RHS is ever-so-slightly becoming a distant sign post as I march onwards (possibly past it) into new territory, one without bounds. 

I have started to think about using mirrors too, although at the moment I am not sure how to do this in an original way as I found out this week that another artist, Yayoi Kusama has already created an entire collection of work based on the use of mirrors to create pockets of infinity (below). Her work most certainly touches on creating the level disorientation I am in pursuit of. It is amazing what one can do with a 'box'. So, with my mind buzzing with ideas I am now toying with the idea of buying Alan Lightman's latest book ' Yearning for Immortality' and I might just bite the bullet today in an attempt to uncover what is really going on here as I continue to search for the edge. 
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996
Infinity Mirrored Room - Love Forever (1996)

Populus nigra botanical illustration in watercolour
Black Poplar leaf (Populus nigra), 76 x 57cm, Watercolour on Saunders Waterford paper

Anyway - latest leaf for you... I am calling this one 'Jaws' because he has a 'fin' and is quite a menacing chap. 

* One of Rory's old sayings  - see Martin J Allen's blog


Burke, E., (1756), A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press
Pecker, J-C., (1963), The Sky, Robert Delpire, Paris (translated version)