Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

Antithesis to HRH’s Quirky Garden Rooms Full of Curiosities: Compton Verney Capability Brown Landscape

Isn’t it lovely how many different moods and themes can be captured by garden designers and landscape architects?

The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire
The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire

A week ago I was speaking to the guide who led our tour around Highgrove Gardens about how HRH The Prince of Wales viewed Capability Brown. And the answer was that he realises in some contexts the ideas of that great eighteenth century garden designer might be appropriate, but personally it’s not his “sort of thing”. For when Capability Brown was brought in to transform the surroundings of a stately home, he would be thinking of sweeping lawns flowing seamlessly into the extensive parklands via the ha-ha, dotted with majestic parkland trees, and would of course throw in a cunningly-situated lake, which would create a perfect vista from the house.  This is a profoundly different  approach to that of the sequence of interconnected rooms full of  quirky and unexpected things, which is itself a very popular style of garden design among the great gardeners (such as Vita Sackville West with Sissinghurst Castle Garden, of course).

View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney
View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney

However yesterday I was in one of my favourite Capability Brown landscapes at Compton Verney in Warwickshire

And again I thought how calming and uplifting it is to be in this spacious parkland, which wraps around the house perfectly, providing an ideal setting.

But there’s now a new feature in the landscape, of which HRH the Prince of Wales would wholeheartedly approve: a new wildflower meadow on the West Lawn, with mown paths running through it corresponding to a William Morris design, relating directly to the theme of the excellent Arts and Crafts exhibition currently showing inside the house.

As we visited it on the last day of August the wildflowers were long past their best; apart from a single patch which gave some idea of what the entire meadow will look like next May:

Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney
Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney

Believing in Dreams

It is a dream… of what has never been… true, it has never been, and therefore, since the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.

William Morris Strawberry Thief design
William Morris Strawberry Thief design

These words are from William Morris the great Victorian designer. His dream was that everyone would “have his share of the best”; he longed to see art at the centre of everyone’s lives so that they might “always  have pleasure in the things that they use.”

Right now (June-September 2015), there is an exhibition of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries at Compton Verney, an art gallery very close to where I live in Warwick, a place I love visiting.

I love William Morris designs (as you’ll see from a former post on this blog) and have just bought a tapestry shoulder-bag with the Strawberry Thief design on it.. True, art and design in our lives often has a monetary value; this seems to be the nature of human life.

But to me, William Morris’s dream of everyone having his or her “share of the best” is the ultimate democracy, the democracy of ‘value’ and quality of life, above all else, whatever our circumstances. As we know this dream is very far from being realised in our world. But how inspiring William Morris’s words are, and how encouraging his vision, for those of us who dream, and have high ideals.

Witty Insight into the London Art World

For all those who’ve wondered how one starts to get noticed as an artist in London, and is in the mood for a light-hearted approach to the subject I can recommend a book which might have escaped my notice if I hadn’t recently met the author at a conference.

witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet
witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet

Emily Benet first posted her book chapter by chapter on Wattpad and had such a good response from readers that she came to the attention of Harper Impulse, who published the book as “The Temp”.

I bought the book after listening to Emily talking about social media for authors at the recent conference at the University of Leicester. Emily certainly incorporates her knowledge of social media into this novel.

I learned from her that the book was originally called “Spray Painted Bananas”, and I believe that was a much more original title. Purely from the cover design and title that Harper Impulse have given this novel I would have identified it as generic chick-lit and probably not have picked it out in a book shop.

And yet, reading the novel, I find it much more than chick-lit. It gives a delightful and witty insight into the London art world, and I found myself thinking of the main protagonist, Amber, as a budding Tracy Emin.

It’s so easy to look at installations in the Tate Modern and think, Oh I could do that. But the reality of getting yourself known as an artist is far more complex and challenging. Emily Benet has great fun, not only with the motivations and behaviour of those who visit art galleries for private views, but also with the ways in which an artist may start to become known, particularly in London.

I loved this story, found the characters engaging and entertaining, especially Amber’s flatmate Egg, and enjoyed the rom com element as well. Highly recommended for a fun read.

For some of my previous posts on the contemporary art world, see https://scskillman.com/2013/10/09/what-do-we-do-about-art-theres-always-a-little-shop-at-the-end/ and http://ezinearticles.com/?Inspiration-for-Creative-Writers-From-Artists&id=6783241

200 Years of Australian Art at the Royal Academy: Connections Between Painting and the Spiritual Realm

From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy, London, in November 2013 took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of Australia.

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts
AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”

Reviews of the exhibition  were mixed, with a lot of  criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a  convict settlement, neat, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, the exhibition created, for me, a strong sense of connection to my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.

There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of  all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below,  demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.

The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.

But in addition to the aboriginal artworks, there were others which touched me deeply. In particular a swirling picture by Kenneth McQueen, a Queensland artist, of the rainforest-clad mountains reflected my own experience of this majestic landscape. I felt connected, then, to one of my former favourite haunts, Mount Glorious, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, forming the backdrop to the city of Brisbane.  As soon as I saw his painting I thought “Yes! Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I remembered it, in swirling patterns of movement.

The indigenous people of Australia  are the ones who fully understand and imbue the earth with sacred forces. They are the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. But I can be thankful, too, to those eighteenth century European settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to this sublime scenery.

What Do We Do About Art? There’s Always a Little Shop At The End

What do we do about art  when we wander around great art galleries and museums?

How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

We see wonderful things on the walls and maybe we’re overwhelmed.

These great art works are distanced from us, somehow, by the awesome spaces and dimensions of the gallery.

We could never have these original art works on the walls of our own homes.

But they speak to us. There’s something in them we want to take away, something we want to claim for our own lives. Something that tells us about ourselves, our own hearts and souls.

So what do we do?

As David Tennant’s Doctor said to his  assistant Donna in the Doctor Who episode Silence in The Library, “Quick! The shop! There’s always a little shop at the end!”

On BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 8.20am on Wed 9 Oct 2013, two writers with new books out, Desmond Morris (author of The Artistic Ape and Alain de Botton (author of Art as Therapy) discussed art and how it affects our lives. And one of the things they said struck me: “If we did not have art in our lives, the world  would be very drab. We need it in our lives. But what do we do about art? We go to the gift shop, and we buy postcards. That way we can integrate the art into our daily lives.”

Desmond Morris made this point:

Art is not to be confined to museums but is part of something much bigger in life….. we do like to surround ourselves with objects that  make our lives less drab.

Alain de Botton said what he proposes is that  We treat the whole museum much more like the gift shop.

I now say that to my teenage son and daughter whenever we’re in an attraction. Ah-ha. The shop. There’s always a little shop at the end.

Why did  I find this striking? Because of what I do, at home, in my space where I write.

I cover the wall with brochures, leaflets, postcards from art exhibitions.  Bear in mind that the room needs redecorating, which is why I’ve stuck those images directly onto the wall!

No way can I afford to display original Rembrandt, David Hockney, Verneer on the walls of my home.

But I still integrate art into my life.

I have invited art into my writing space. Each of the images I’ve stuck onto the wall, is a window. A window into another world, another artist’s imagination, another dimension.

In this way, no matter how humble, I integrate something of the artist’s spirit into my own working space.

Without art life would be very drab indeed.

Passion, Obsession and Curiosity at the Alternative Guide to the Universe, Hayward Gallery, London

What makes art?

Alternative Guide to the Universe (photo credit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk)
Alternative Guide to the Universe (photo credit: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

A listener posed this  question to our tour guide as we stood looking at two art gallery walls covered with self-portraits of a bag lady, taken in various public photo booths.

And this  was the question I pondered as I , with my two teenage children, looked round an exhibition of wonders at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank last Saturday.

There, displayed for us in The Alternative Guide to the Universe, were the outpourings of unlicensed architects, off-beam physicists, self-taught  artists, arcane code creators, numerologists and  mystical theorizers; untrained farmer-inventors of automata and robots, constructors of imaginary buildings and cities from discarded packaging, and proponents of new theories to replace gravity and relativity.

We gazed at elaborate designs for a robot to roam the universe, and crack the mystery of life after death, with a complex scheme for a new language with which this  robot would communicate these truths to the future inhabitants of planet earth.

We viewed images of exquisite dolls of children and young people which had been created by one man over 20 years, dressed in clothes  he designed and made himself, then posed in numerous positions and photographed; and finally, packed away carefully, not to be seen again by anyone until after his death.

What makes art? I asked myself.

And answers immediately flooded in:

Passion.

Obsession.

Devotion.

Dedication.

A long obedience  in the same  direction.

The creators of the works we saw were a direct inspiration and encouragement to me as a writer.

Some are long-term residents in psychiatric institutions, others are on the fringes of society, just inside the cusp of (apparent) normality.

And they are all remarkable, exceptional people.

And they all have this in common:

They are focussed, committed, and  they direct all their energy into one project consistently, over a number of years  which can range from one to three decades.

If you have this kind of commitment you too could in theory create exquisite things.

Your ideas might not ‘work’, but if you are creative in this life, and you leave a body of work behind you that is intriguing and beguiling and fills people with wonder and amazement and awe, you have added something of lasting value to this world. You may even have fulfilled your God-given purpose.

An Artist’s Feeling for Light and Relationship with the Creative Writer

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to a writer; and this is the case with artists too. Yet sometimes we like to hear an artist explain their method of working. And so the other day I listened to Phyllis Davies, Painter and Textile Artist, as she discussed her art at a presentation to the Association of Midland Artists in Leamington Spa. As she displayed her vibrant wall-hangings, hand-embroidered on digitally printed fabric, she spoke of her feeling for light.  Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, these command her attention first of all, and lead her on to consider texture, line, mass, colour and design. The artists I love the most are those for whom the variation of light is where it all begins. A good example of this, from another period, is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which has long been one of my favourite artworks. The quality of the light and shadow in this great painting fills me with awe.

Phyllis Davies finds her inspiration in Venice, and her glorious wall-hangings are full of the opulence and brilliance and splendour of that city.  She said: “it is always more interesting to look at things through something else.”  So as an artist she prefers to view a basilica, a bridge, a church, through a fence. And this reminded me of the exhibition I reviewed a few weeks ago, Lost in Lace at the Birmingham City Art Gallery & Museum. Everything there was defined by spaces and holes and boundaries, even to the point of one artist tying threads round holes in fences.

Another abstract feature stood out in my mind from Phyllis’s presentation: movement and stillness. She represents this through variation of light and colour, and in the viewpoint she takes of Venetian scenes.  To me, listening to an artist describe how she works is something that feeds directly into how I feel about creative writing. Movement and stillness translates into pace and tone and mood. Warmth and coolness, sunlight and shadow, all play their parts in a novel, as we consider the effect of positive and negative, high emotional stakes and the subtle passing of information – the art of “showing” and not “telling”. Whether the novel is literary or popular, I still feel that these elements are present, there in the writer’s art. 

SC Skillman

Spaces, Holes and Boundaries in Creative Imagination

In the Birmingham City Art Gallery I found an artist whose work conjured up for me an imaginary conversation between two people meeting at a party: “So what do you do for a living?” “I tie threads round holes.”  As I imagined the likely response, I gazed at a series of photographs of various holes in fences – barbed wire, timber, whatever – on private or official property – which the artist had woven around, decorated, defined, and given meaning with thread.  The thought sprang into my mind, This could only be done secretly and without permission. Then I read in the artist’s note that was exactly what she did. I loved it.

The exhibition Lost in Lace showed me how holes, spaces and gaps concentrate meaning within themselves.  The artists, inspired by lace, had shown this in various ways. They had built networks and connections, by creating boundaries and structures – like an inverted crystal cathedral hanging from the ceiling, or After the Dream, a room filled with a disturbing and sinister network of black embroidery wool, enclosing four long white dresses. A glittering rose pattern punched on a wall seemed to have been created with sequins, or glass beads, or crystals. But they were only holes. Behind them a large window let in natural light; and the holes defined the pattern.

I entered a room A Thin Line Between Space and Matter which plunged the viewer into darkness and only threads of light could be seen, curving around, above and through space,  given meaning by the hole of darkness at the centre.  Recognising this put me in mind of another kind of space – the alleyway.

When I was a young child, an alleyway opposite my house was the way through to colour, adventure, romance, magic. This was because it led to the road along which the local Mayday Carnival processed. The amount of excited anticipation that I concentrated on that alleyway lent it a significance that would haunt my dreams of years. The reality of the alleyway may be weeds, delapidated concrete, a weathered gate, broken paving stones. But in my imagination that alleyway is a portal to another world.

So it is in creative writing. Gaps are essential to great story: the gap that opens up between the expectation of the reader, and what actually happens. And from that gap pours a flood of insight.

SC Skillman