Still Lifes ~ The Art of Tranquillity

 

It was just one of these mornings. Lying there in bed, I felt as if my life was washing over me like a big grey wave. The murky waters were draining off, revealing bit of useless debris. My music and my writing, appeared like mere fragments. Projects scattered everywhere; unfinished poems, unsold CDs, unwritten essays. And ideas were just flying around in my head like annoying flies. There were no neat stacks of achievements piled up like thick, leather bound books with gilded letters spelling out that phrase, “a successful career”. There was no linear path steadily leading up to a golden throne – let alone camping stool – on which I could rest and observe my “kingdom”: a well sorted archive full of publications and releases, of awards and chronologically ordered press clippings.

I felt messy, insecure, depressed, a bit lonely but most of all irrelevant.

I was spending a few days in solitude at my mother’s house in the countryside. The peacefulness was very soothing but my mind can be overactive and therefore stressful at times. It was still early, so I went for a run, which always makes me feel better. Taking in the soft, luscious countryside bursting with green buds and concentrating on my repetitive breathing soothed me. Back home I had more espresso with hot milk, some toast with honey and promised myself to write for an hour before going on a little Sunday outing to the local art museum.

I drove into the village and parked the car just far enough away to enjoy a brief walk up the cobble-stoned street. The weather was beautiful; there was a light breeze, an abundance of fresh air and the sun was warming some wind-shaded spots. Cheerful little puffy white clouds hurried along a light blue sky that created a nice backdrop to the red brick of the expressionistic buildings and the dark green of the fir trees.

Out of my Head: Into the Museum

I entered the museum and my first cursory glance caught some paintings I automatically expected to be 17th century Dutch church interiors. Upon entering the exhibition however, I was astounded to see that these pictures, a few more interiors but mostly still lifes, dated from around 1968 to 2009. They were by a contemporary Dutch painter Henk Helmantel and the exhibition was to commemorate his 70th birthday.

Helmantel-Roman-glass-still-ilfe

 

What struck me wandering around, was how tranquil, focussed and simple most of the pictures were. They were mostly fairly large in format. As a viewer I had the feeling that the artist was consciously showing these objects to me, rather than permitting an intimate view of something otherwise quite private. These works were therefore less intimate than their much earlier Dutch predecessors. But the choice of objects depicted were very similar. They were all simple household items, bits of fruit and vegetables, mostly locally grown like asparagus or chestnuts. There were simple boxes, bowls and glass vases, some antique, but displayed in a consciously chosen space, in a balanced and symmetrical way and whose clear and clean lines reminded me of Danish art that emerged around the beginning of the 19th century.

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Many items depicted stemmed from the artist’s collection. But there was no highly precious or prestigious aura surrounding them. There were no exotic features or valuable items. Their value was based upon, so it seemed, on shape and colour, or their proportions. A bowl on a narrow rim, with an even cream glaze, which Helmantel had painted holding nine eggs (see above) was displayed in a glass show case what accentuated its simplicity and serenity.

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The Artist Henk Helmantel

Born in 1945 in Westeremden in Holland, which lies North of Groningen, Helmantel was raised as one of five children. His parents owned a nursery and the children helped selling their plants and flowers at the traditional local markets, like in Groningen. The story goes that on one of these trips Helmantel made his very first visits to a museum and was overly impressed by Rembrandt. From then on he collected any snippets and pictures from newspapers and magazines he could find. He was determined to become a painter, later attending the art academy in Groningen.

It became obvious to me that he was a diligent and meticulous worker, dedicated to depicting these serene objects in the most naturalistic way possible. He was obviously interested in the unique surfaces of the objects, like in the irregular iridescent glass of his collection of Roman vessels (see picture above). But at the same time, he wasn’t taking any liberties by letting a single brush stroke stand out or have an expressionistic or impressionistic character, let alone by being textural. Each stroke serves the depiction of the object in the most naturalistic and realistic way possible.

Personally, I love texture and abstraction in painting. I only recently saw a quite impressive exhibition of William Turner‘s work at the Getty museum in Los Angeles. But that afternoon, it was the clarity and focus in Helmantel’s paintings that inspired me. Even his more involved paintings are evenly and thoughtfully grouped objects. There are no coincidences. Everything is consciously arranged, which also means that each object is taken seriously within its own unique value. I told myself:

Take every piece, each poem you write, every song you sing seriously, take it for what it is!

I could feel the jumble in my head and the doubtfulness that tortures every artist more or less frequently being soothed. I kept thinking,

Stick to what you do, and do it with dedication, clarity and consciousness!

 

Simplify and focus!

 

Henk Helmantel

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(c) Frances Livings, 2015

 

Here’s a playlist for a more uplifting mood:

Did you like this post? If so, why not…

Creative Influences ~ Sneezles by A. A. Milne on Record-A-Poem

When a couple of weeks ago, I was asked to pick a children’s piece to record as a segment for a voice-over demo, a cute little poem came to mind – something with sneezing. Via Dr. Google it was quickly retrieved on the internet. Here are the first lines:

Christopher Robinsneezles_1
Had wheezles
And sneezles,
They bundled him
Into
His bed.
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head…

Sneezles is from The Complete Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. It is such a quirky, melodically rhyming get-well-soon poem by the English author and poet A. A. Milne. The poem captures some of the advantages of being a sick child, which is (for some) being the center of attention. Especially the last line is in that sense very amusing. You can listen to my reading of the poem down below.

Milne was best known for his books about the teddy bear Winnie-the-Pooh and for various other children’s poems. He wrote Sneezles as a children’s poem for and about his son, Christopher Robin Milne, whose name – abbreviated to Christopher Robin – was the basis for the character in all of the Pooh books and poems. The character Winnie-the-Pooh was named after a teddy bear owned by Christopher, whose toys actually lent their names to most of the other characters in the Pooh books, except for Owl and Rabbit.

Above is an illustration for Sneezles by E. H. Shepard, the English artist and book illustrator who coined the appearances of all of Milne’s characters and which were equally popular to Milne’s writings.

EH Shepard's ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin.
E. H. Shepard, ink drawing of Winnie the Pooh playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin. Photo: AFP / SOTHEBY’S LONDON

One of E. H. Shephard’s most famous images of Winnie the Pooh actually just sold for £314,500 at auction, at three times its estimate. It formed part of Sotheby’s sale of children’s books: An ink drawing of the bear playing Poohsticks with Piglet and Christopher Robin, published in 1928. The illustration was featured in A. A. Milne’s second book, The House At Pooh Corner, and had been in a private collection since the 1970s.

All of Shephard’s illustrations are very quiet and intimate. They depict scenes of introverted characters, ones that are thoughtful and philosophical. They reflect the subtlety of Milne’s writings, which are amongst adults as quotes still hugely popular. One of my personal favourites is:

People who don’t think probably don’t have brains; rather, they have grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake. ― Winnie the Pooh

Sadly, Disney adapted the Pooh stories into a series of features that became one of its most successful franchises. I personally, like these ink drawings so much better than the popularized Disney animations which have turned the airy, vulnerable and whimsically sketched characters into teletub-like, plump and one-dimentional, in-your-face characters. It actually pains me to think that some children will never get to see the original drawings.

Not that these works per se lack popularity; there’s even a annual National Awareness (or bearness?) Day for Winnie the Pooh, which was two days ago, on January 18.

So far, I haven’t gotten any work out of the demo so instead of letting it dwindle into forgottenness, I sent the recording to Record-A-Poem a poetry group initiated by the Poetry Foundation. Their poetry blog Harriet has been inviting people to post audio recordings of their favourite poems on their Soundcloud stream. The Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, defines itself as “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.”

Happily, my reading of Sneezles was added to their collection and can now be heard in their Soundcloud stream and through the widget posted below.

 

National Poetry Month, April 2014

ALPHABET-letterpress-wood-printing-blocks-wooden-letters-font-type-letterformsFlyingBookPages

Rapid technological development has led to a constant flood of visual and acoustic bits and bites – emails, text messages and Facebook updates. For most of us it has become a habit to react, one that often leaves us frazzled and detached. Single-tasking has become a luxury in the 21st century. To sit down and simply read a poem, so to only focus on one individual piece of work, can feel as if we’re not doing enough, or even wasting time. Besides, especially poetry can seem very inaccessible. It is not easily consumed; it does not offer clear-cut outlines, neat bullet points or answers to your most urgent questions in life. Poetry demands from both the writer and reader attentiveness and reflection, moreover, intellectual and emotional engagement.

I am writing this on April the 2nd, two days into National Poetry Month 2014. First launched in 1996 with the support of the Academy of American Poets, the month of April was declared National Poetry Month.[1] Some literati like to argue that the celebration of poetry should be a daily and not an annual event confined to a month. But this is not the discussion I want to engage in at this point. I am taking this event as an opportunity to reflect upon the role poetry can play in our lives.

Anyone who engages in poetry – or in any kind of art form – is most likely both curious and highly sensitive. Our attention is usually not drawn towards the general or the spectacular but towards the singular, with its nuances and notions, shadows and shades. Those of us who write poetry must often follow the invisible; we hunt after illusions, traces, and wisps of things. With the patience of field archaeologists we excavate vague impressions we are sometimes barely able to grasp, often agonizing over every word and phrase. Our reward is when this „tantalizing vagueness“, like Robert Frost called it, takes on forms and meanings that lie beyond our expectations, like hidden little gems waiting to be uncovered.[2] Aristotle wrote of poetry as, „a kind of thing that might be“, in contrast to history as something that was.[3]

Both reading and writing poetry demands of us opposing virtues; we have to be both intuitive and logical, heart and head strong, playful and disciplined. Poetry teaches us an awareness of the wonders of the world, of mankind and of language. Through poetry we take in others, their universe, their views, anxieties, beliefs and emotions – snapshots which can even mirror our own.

Poetry „cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint“[4]. Poetry facilitates reflection and compassion. It connects us not only with others but also to ourselves. My maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It was painful so see how every day she seemed to be vanishing a little bit more into this inescapable thick fog, like a ship with once billowing sails, now deflated and torn, lost at sea. But even when she couldn’t recognize most family members anymore, she could still recite poems from her youth. The poetry she loved and had mostly learned by heart still enabled contact with her own identity, with herself.

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Twitter-page-Poets-Academy-of-American-Poets.org

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[1] The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who with the help of W. H. Auden was living in American exile, had declaimed that poetry should be available everywhere. In 1993 together with the student Andrew Carroll he founded the non-profit organization American Poetry and Literacy (APL). Three years later the movement was flourishing and over 125,000 books of poetry had been distributed for free.

[2] See my blog post “The Pomegranate – On Finding Poetry“.

[3] “The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse… the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.”  ~ Aristotle, On Poetics.

[4] Czeslaw Milosz, A Book Of Luminous Things. An International Anthology of Poetry, San Diego, New York, London 1996, p. XVI.

Wonderful Review of “The World I Am Livings In”

The World I am Livings In

Frances Livings

Moontraxx Records – MXFL2013-014

Available from Frances Livings’s Bandcamp page.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker
(progdawg@hotmail.com)

Following the release of a half-dozen singles and EPs, Frances Livings has published her first long-form CD, The World I am Livings In (clever title!), and her voice is mindful of Martha Velez, Carole King, and Helen Reddy with a bit of Rita Coolidge and Elkie Brooks thrown in, but her milieu is much closer to Lisa Kirchner’s Umbrellas in Mint (here) in that it’s an unusual blend of the cabaretic, folk moderne, surreal (the earthy lyrics in Eating the Darkness alone are on par with Dory Previn), classically oriented jazz, and then that odd twilight world that in recent generations has spelled a whole new landscape of sonic delights I firmly aver presages an onrushing era unlike any antecedents.

What first really caught my brainworks in the disc was I’ll be Leaving Soon, a dark-ish pensée executed in semi-stream-of-consciousness illuminated by beautifully understated chamber strains (arranged by Livings’ husband Greg Poree) exalting a weary soul encanting verses of departure and hopeful renewal. Think of William Lyall or the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sitting in, but it’s really Livings’ writing that’s entrancing, and she penned almost everything on the CD, then chose some really good sessioneers, including Jeff Colella, whose piano work is a central aural motif, along with several superb strings-raspers.

More than anything, The World comes across as a half-lit stage presentation for post-Beat hipsters grown weary of all the blare and squall of an overdriven mainstream, looking for literate but unorthodox fare and a chance to once again think while immersing in moody atmospherics. Not coincidentally, then, the smirking satire of comedienne Sara Bernhard finds its way into the mix here and there, beefing up the outside-the-box metier all the more. Poree jumps into the mix again, this time with a well blended guitar, and scenes miasmically shift and flow as the twisting narrative wends its path, but the inclusion of the 1:19Pebbles in my Hand was a piece of brilliance, and I’m damned if I can quite figure out why—though it’s probably the track’s status as a rarely found act of interscript between movements. Ya just can’t locate that in music any more, y’all. In sum, this is actually more a piece of art than it is music, but of an ilk belonging with Carla Bley, Annette Peacock, and of course the aforementioned Kirchner, among others, including Janis Ian at her best; thus, don’t do anything else once you’ve tossed the disc on, or you’ll miss more than you ever guessed was there.

Track List:

  • Don’t Ask Me If I Miss You
  • When Love Falls Apart (Greg Poree)
  • It Will Never Be the Same
  • I’ll Be Leaving Soon
  • Eating and Darkness
  • Pebbles in My Hand
  • White Angel’s Café
  • True Colors (Steinberg / Kelly)
  • Candy’s Caravan
  • Lonely in the Night
  • Only Time Will Tell
  • Please Close Your Eyes
All songs written by Frances Livings except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles
(dnpyles@acousticmusic.com)

Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

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Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

Indulge in some of my poetry recordings here:

Donating = Loving

Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

Or, if you liked this post, why not 

Coffe cup laptop tablecloth with leaf pattern darkness
@ Frances Livings

The Mystery of Unicorns

One of my latest findings on a day trip to the wildlife and holiday resort Catalina Island, California, was a long spiraling sea shell. It felt somehow magical when I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Its spiraling shape, the shimmering tones of cream, redbrown and white somehow reminded me of unicorn horns.

As a child I had been an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles by the novelist C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), in which unicorns were characterized as both beautiful and very noble and honorable creatures.

The unicorn is a powerful symbol of good in early pagan mythology. Almost all images of unicorns depict a white horse of slender build, with a single large, pointed and spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.

I asked myself how contemporary artists were exploring this topic, whether this magical creature is still associated with fairytales and the mystical landscapes of King Arthur in Britain and Cornwall…

 

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008.

Damien Hirst first shot to fame with his “shark tank”. But the image of the beloved mystical figure, the unicorn (he used a real white foal) in formaldehyde is somewhat sad.

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008

“The Dream” belonged to a highly publicized (and criticized) auction of 233 works by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst in 2008. Nearly 20,000 people visited Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises to see what looked like a polished retrospective. With the Sotheby auction called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” the artist sidestepped the traditional gallery system to sell works directly through an auction house for the second time.

Ben Hopper, Unicorn Girl (from the series Naked Girls with Masks), 2010

Ben Hopper is an Israel-born London-based commercial and fine art photographer. His work includes scenery, movement, and mood. He primarily photographs conceptual fashion, portraits of dancers, circus artists, musicians, and risqué nudes. His latest series, Naked Girls with Masks, falls squarely into the last category. Naked Girls with Masks, the series from which this photograph stems, was previewed at the underground London group art exhibition ACT ART 8 in July 2010.

Camomile Hixon, Missing Unicorn, New York 2010

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here:

Livings in Los Angeles – Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit. Thoughts on the Artist Mike Kelley

One afternoon, on one of my frequent outings to the Galerie der Gegenwart (gallery of contemporary art) in Hamburg, I found myself transfixed by eight very unusual portrait photographs. Individually depicted were seven cuddly toys. Their stitched-on fabric or glass button eyes, some loose and lopsided, seemed to be starring at me, wanting urgently to capture my attention. One photograph however, was of a stern looking younger man who I assumed, was of the artist himself. The portraits were all displayed in a very simple frame and hung as a group in two rows of four. They looked like mug shots.

That was in the mid nineties when I was a junior student of art history and first discovered the work of the contemporary American artist Mike Kelley and immediately, it clicked. I didn’t know anything about his background, but again and again I couldn’t help thinking about these colour photographs, which soon found their way into music culture when Kelley created the artwork for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, using Ant Man’s “portrait” on the album cover. In addition to being a renowned visual artist, Kelley was also a musician. He was a founding member of the proto-punk Detroit band Destroy All Monsters, who earned a cult following with their experimental performance art. By the 1990’s his art career was blooming.

Mike Kelley, “Ahh…Youth!” 1991, set of 8 Cibachrome photographs, 24 x 20 in. each; one at 24 x 18 in. Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

On a cursory glance, the ensemble looked like an advertising campaign for an innocent and happy childhood. But it conjured up a completely different meaning: The features of its relicts, the stuffed animals, were stiff and unhappy looking. These were tatty creatures with dirty, worn and clumped fur, limp limbs and a blank stare. They were after all, visual tokens of having been thrown, kicked, punched, spat, cried and vomited upon. In the presence of a male adult however, they seemed to stand for a collective memory of child abuse and therefore seemed to almost immediately epitomize trauma. Were Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit physical witnesses to something horrible that was inflicted upon them? Or did they stand – their images physically enclosed and kept in tyrannical order by a strict, linear picture frame – for something that was kept secret within the walls of a children’s nursery?

On the other hand, these individual portraits were like a collection of mug shots depicting cuddly toys more like perpetrators on the stand. From that perspective they seemed to suddenly stand for shame and guilt but how could stuffed animals be guilty of anything? But that’s exactly what was triggering and made the artwork so memorable. In society nurseries are considered to be safe, childhoods happy and parents loving – which is why ultimately, abuse is so crazy making. This is also why there are still so many moral conflicts with challenging these ideas; any notion that would disrupt these stereotypes and clichés are easier being denied, which is why at that point in my life, just intuitively, I found his work compelling and courageous.

*

My second very intense encounter with the artist wasn’t until I was living in Los Angeles almost two decades later. On a fairly uneventful day, cup of coffee in hand, I was flicking through the L.A. Times when I read that he had committed suicide. I was shocked. He was only 57 and had by then established himself as an artist internationally. Online I read in further articles that only around four hours after confirmation of his death, an unofficial, makeshift memorial had started to appear in an abandoned carport, a few blocks from Kelley’s home in the Farley Building in Highland Park. Built from stuffed toys, wax candles, Afghans and dried corn, mourners began replicating his assemblage More Love Hours and Wages of Sin, two paired installations Kelley had exhibited in the Whitney’s 1989 Biennial. I also learned that The Mike Kelley Foundation was organizing a memorial that was to be held at his studio in Eagle Rock/Highland Park.

I felt he deserved my tribute too. He had shown courage touching upon subjects that are still – thirty years later – socially somewhat taboo. As a child you mostly have no alley when being abused or mistreated, ignored, neglected by a parent. He epitomized these complicated and highly problematic emotions.

So on one of these for Los Angeles typical, far too mild February evenings, my husband drove through dimly lit streets to Kelley’s former residence. We parked on a side street lined with old gnarly oak trees, spiked with well-kept 19th century craftsman bungalows, typical for South Pasadena. Like many areas of Los Angeles, it felt very insular, especially because of the isolating pockets of dim lighting. I walked up to the main road towards the building in which the memorial was taking place. Its concrete steps led up to a very somber looking entrance where a handful of people stood, collectively nodding as if to acknowledge our arrival. I felt a slight wave of guilt wash over me for being curious in a weirdly voyeuristic way. I had never met this man and yet I was showing up at a memorial – like a grief tourist?

Approximate another 100 people and I wandered around aimlessly through this vast space, which had been, only days prior to his death, his studio. Plastic cup in hand, filled with cheap red wine, I explored a maze of small administrative looking side-rooms, watching sometimes only for minutes films that Kelley had created. The main space, his studio, where more art installations were displayed and further screenings took place, reminded me of a large airplane hangar.

I was not really interested in speculating about why precisely he killed himself. From the press I later learned that he suffered from depression – quelle surprise. Looking at his body of work, one may interpret his works of art, like described above, as a result of trauma, translated into the many quite disturbing images he produced. But I wasn’t interested in asking whether this ensemble of abused looking creatures gave the observer biographical information.

Probably like a lot of other people, I asked myself, why would he end his own life? Unlike many artists he was successful and popular. Being a struggling artist myself, it actually made me a bit angry. How dare he? How selfish. I suddenly felt very strongly that every artist, whether writer, painter or musician carries a responsibility towards their creations, to ensure the future delivery of such. Without them their art will not be created and the commercial art world takes over. How can therefore someone give up on him- or herself without giving up on their art? Suicide is the conscious choice to depart from one’s life. Most artists are controlling. They have to be. I know from my own work that once I envision something and have a precise idea of what and how I want to create something, I am very adamant about its execution. I will explore, search, uncover, unravel, shuffle and experiment but once I get close to what I was meant to create I don’t dither or question. Interwoven with this notion is the question, where does art end and where does the artist start?