More normally, I’d likely be in rural France now, but as everyone appreciates, 2020 is about ‘new normals’ and cutting our cloth accordingly. The old French house is pressed very deeply into the nature that surrounds it. It can even be difficult to relax at times because there’s always so much at which to look and to respond. One year (I don’t recall which) I stuffed a few packets of ‘sun paper’ into my luggage and spent a few happy hours producing quick-and-dirty cyanotypes from some of the more distinctive leaf and flower shapes culled from my immediate surroundings. I never tired of it, the pleasure of the immediacy of image-making in this way, and always, that perfect blue.
A few weeks back, I featured news from animator, Urvashi Lele, about the new show she’d worked on, Your Daily Horoscope. It was lovely to catch-up and likewise share Urvashi’s news, and I’ve been prompted to introduce a new strand on the Red’s Kingdom blog – Spotlight – wherein I can shine a light on other creatives, on their disciplines and their processes. I’ll be meeting up again with some of my former students, who are off doing exciting things, but also inviting other creatives to discuss the nuts and bolts of what they do, how and why. I’m flirting with the the idea of podcasts maybe, but haven’t quite broken the seal on that, but let’s see. To kick things off, I’m introducing you to animator, George Nwosisi, a nicer guy you’re unlikely to meet…
Phil: Hey George, thanks so much for helping me get this up-and-running. First things first, we need a quick potted history of your life since you graduated. What happened next and where are you now?
George: Hey Phil! It’s been a journey since I left uni in 2015, a good journey that is. From the very start, I knew animation was going to be a very competitive industry to get into. I knew I needed to get some type of industrial experience down on my CV just to get my foot in.
George Nwosisi Showreel 2017
After my graduation, I started applying for internships and putting a showreel together, animating new shots specially for the reel to keep it interesting. Thankfully, I landed my first animation intern with Digital Shoguns in north London. This internship lasted three months, which was good enough on my CV to help me jump into the next role. Soon after, I applied for Antimatter Games in Cornwall, landing a contract as a 3D animator for six months working on a game called Rising Storm 2 – Vietnam. I enjoyed my time there, and they wanted me to stay after my contract was up, but c’mon.. its Cornwall, nice place, but it was far from my family and life in general, so I didn’t renew my contract.
So I’m back home, job hunting again with nine months of experience on my CV. At the end of 2016, I got a job at Cubic Motion – who specialise in facial motion-capture animation and clean-up. During my time at Cubic Motion, I worked on games like Call Of Duty, Ghost Recon, Man of Medan and many more, but I wasn’t truly happy there because it wasn’t key-framed animation or full body character animation.
After a year and few months, I went job hunting again and was shocked when I got into Ninja Theory, which was always the one company I wanted to work for when I was back in university. I’m still at Ninja Theory and I’m loving it, as it’s what I’ve always wanted to do: 3D full body character/creature key-framed animation, working on Bleeding Edge, Hellblade 2 and other projects.
Phil: You’ve got animation in your bones, George – it’s your calling! What is it about animation that makes sense to you and what do you think are the ‘tell-tale’ signs someone is an animator? Were there signs when you were much younger? How did that love of animation shine out of you before you knew exactly what it was you wanted to do?
George: There’s always a reason behind why someone wants to become an animator – watching films, a love of gaming, cartoons or even VFX – having the thought of “Oh cool! how did they do that?”. Then the journey begins of finding out how things are done, and then the process starts. I’ve always been big fan of gaming, but I never thought “animation”. I studied gaming at college, but only the coding aspect of it. One day, I saw a friend of mine animating a biped on the computer and I was mind-blown. I haven’t stopped animating since.
Some of George’s earliest animations
Phil: Who are your animation heroes? Who inspires you or what inspires you? What have you seen recently that made you fall in love with animation all over again?
George: There are many animations out there that keep my fire going. I could sit on Vimeo for hours, watching people’s showreels, thinking how amazing their animation style is. Even looking at a character rig can make me want to animate that rig and do something cool with it. The number one animation that inspired me recently was Spider-Man – Into The Spiderverse. What brilliant film – everything from the animation to its art style, and how the animation was animated on 2s. There are also amazing animators here at Ninja Theory, whose work always pushes me to do better and go beyond the level I’m at.
Phil: What do you enjoy most about the animation process and why?
George: For me, it’s the planning, the researching, the ideas, and seeing the plan come together. Without all those things, the outcome of your animation might not be as strong as it could or should be. In one of my recent animations, the character lands and rolls on the floor; without researching parkour and reference videos on YouTube, the roll might not have been as convincing. Tweaking and pushing the animation – seeing what works and what doesn’t work – is also a fun part of the process.
Phil: And the least enjoyable?
George: Oh gosh! Finding bugs, having gimble locks and fixing it. A gimble lock is when your character’s rig gets a weird rotation and doesn’t behave in the way you need it to. Fixing this can be done, but it can be an annoying process!
Phil: How has the pandemic changed your working life?
George: Since we all now work from home, the office banter is out the window, likewise walking over to your colleague’s desk to see the cool things they’re working on or vice versa, sharing ideas, getting visual feedback there and then – all that’s missing now. The advantage is you literally get off your bed and your work is right in front of you – that and spending good time with your family. Me personally, I prefer the atmosphere of the office.
Phil: Outside of your day job, how do you stay fresh, inspired and healthy?
George: PLAY GAMES! WATCH FILMS! And GYM! Playing games and time at the gym gives me time away and keeps my state of mind good and healthy. Watching films gives me the inspiration for the next animation shot that might go in my showreel,
Phil: What remains on your ‘animation bucket-list’?
George: Getting more games under my belt, being a better animator in both character and creature animation, and also being able to play with motion capture data and pushing it to its limits. Honestly, it’s a never-ending skillset, a journey. You can always better yourself and do more and more things – and that is my plan!
Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, egg tempera on gessoed panel
Christina’s Word by Andrew Wyeth is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In chapter two of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll describes a maddening moment wherein Alice is thwarted by a path and stalked by a house:
“I should see the garden far better,’ said Alice to herself, `if I could get to the top of that hill: and here’s a path that leads straight to it — at least, no, it doesn’t do that — ‘ (after going a few yards along the path, and turning several sharp corners), `but I suppose it will at last. But how curiously it twists! It’s more like a corkscrew than a path! Well, THIS turn goes to the hill, I suppose — no, it doesn’t! This goes straight back to the house! Well then, I’ll try it the other way.’
And so she did: wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, but always coming back to the house, do what she would. Indeed, once, when she turned a corner rather more quickly than usual, she ran against it before she could stop herself.
`It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. `I’m NOT going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again — back into the old room — and there’d be an end of all my adventures!’
So, resolutely turning back upon the house, she set out once more down the path, determined to keep straight on till she got to the hill. For a few minutes all went on well, and she was just saying, `I really SHALL do it this time — ‘ when the path gave a sudden twist and shook itself (as she described it afterwards), and the next moment she found herself actually walking in at the door.”
When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m reminded of Alice’s efforts to outwit her house, this house that just won’t quit, this house that so badly wants this little girl back inside it, like a whale gobbling a minnow. When I look at Wyeth’s painting, I think this is the exact moment, a girl, exhausted, twisting back around to look across the field only to find the house is there again – an ordinary house admittedly, but not a homely one.
Alice’s determination to not re-enter the house is on account of fear that in so doing, her adventures in Wonderland will end prematurely. I wonder if Christina worries the same way? I look at the distance she has put between herself and the house. I wonder is it enough? Don’t we all worry about this a little bit, on those long Christmas trips home, as we stand before the houses we grew up in, preparing to surrender our grown-up selves and end, for a time at least, some of our more adult adventures? I never get the sense Christina is looking back at the house because she is looking forward to a slice of apple pie at its kitchen table. This isn’t an episode of Little House On The Prairie. Christina isn’t one of those running, tumbling girls. No, this strange painting is none of those things. If we could see Christina’s face – and I’m always happy we can not – I think we would find in it only horror, or rage, or impotence – or whatever expression these three things might combine to produce.
Like the Alice stories, which I never once found comforting or joyful or pleasant, Christina’s World compels me to remember my own déjà vu dreams comprised of loops and repetitions; me, hopelessly lost on the London Underground but always happening upon the same place over and over; or the running dream when I know I cannot rest, cannot stop, because if I do, even for a second, the thing that chases me will be standing at my shoulder. However firmly routed in Americana and thus separate from my own experience, I find Wyeth’s painting familiar in that way exclusive to the uncanny. What is repressed is returning here. Christina’s house, like all the houses of our childhoods, is haunted.
Ed Gein’s house, Plainfield, Winconsin, 1957
Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World in 1948. Nine years later, the Waushara County Sheriff’s Department searched Ed Gein’s Winconsin farm and found the decapitated body of a missing store owner hanging upside down in the outhouse. Among other unimaginably horrible discoveries, they also found masks made from the skin of female heads, bowls made from human skulls, a woman’s face in a paper bag, a lampshade fashioned from human skin, and nine vulvae in a shoebox.
Known as the Butcher of Plainfield and the Plainfield Ghoul, the sheer spectacle of Ed Gein’s depravity forever skewed the optics of remote rural farmhouses and their occupants. Where once all those wooden houses anchored like plucky steadfast ships in the vast fields and vaster skies of the American landscape might have denoted the virtues of self-sufficiency, hard-work and the heroism of the Frontier, now they seemed as likely to be harbouring the darkest of secrets, lived in by families twisted into deplorable dependencies unchecked by the proximity of neighbours.
After Gein, came Psycho (1960), with its iconic wooden house as stark against the skyline as Wyeth’s, and after Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), where another white house sits island-like in a sea of insect-ticking grass, and behind its door, an entire family of ghouls.
The old wooden house behind the motel, Psycho (1960)
The family home in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
I always think of these other houses when I look at Wyeth’s painting. I think of these bad places, and all the girls who went inside and died there. I cannot expunge Ed Gein from Wyeth’s ominous-looking outhouses. The filmic shapes they make against that low ceiling of sky make happier thoughts impossible, that and the oppressive silence of the painting, the sense of something held-fast. I love this painting, as I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I would no more have Christina’s World on my wall than I rush to view Tobe Hooper’s gruelling movie.
Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, helped me understand something about Wyeth’s technique. In a recent conversation, Phil told me a little more about tempera, how the fastidious construction of the artist’s marks locks up and locks out movement or noise, that, as a technique, it stifles a certain expressiveness. There is a paradox at the heart of Wyeth’s strange painting – immobilisation producing oscillation – an effect as arresting and exhausting as the near-imperceptible flicker of a failing strip of florescent light.
Another image sharing the frozen restiveness of Christina’s World is I. Russel Sorgi’s Suicide (1942). In Sorgi’s image, the inevitable and expected forces of gravity are stopped by the action of the camera shutter, just as the wind that should animate the surface of Wyeth’s sky and fields are paused. We have only the scant horizontal lines of Christina’s breeze-blown hair to attest to the physical reality of her world, but like the flaring of the falling woman’s dress in Sorgi’s photograph, they only serve to stopper-up the image even more completely.
What is equally powerful about Sorgi’s photograph is the way we know more about what is going to happen than the people in the coffee shop. While this image is shocking, it’s not shock we experience, but rather the attenuation of suspense.
Of course, Psycho’s Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two about suspense, about the origin of this contrary pleasure. For an audience to feel suspense, they must first have information. When I look at Christina’s World, I experience suspense because I know there is something here at least, an off-ness, a threat, a shadow, an ominosity awarded to the otherwise humdrum elements in the picture. It’s there too in what is not quite right about Christina’s body. This girl is not some relaxed participant in this tableau. It is there in the composition, those houses held-up like that against the flat sky and the way Christina seems so horribly alert to them. Always I’m reminded of titles of cheapskate seventies shockers like Don’t Look In The Basement (1972) and Don’t Go Into The House (1979). because this is what I’m thinking; don’t go into that house, Christina – and if you do, Christina, definitely don’t look in the basement.
Wyeth generates suspense in one other simple way, for while Christina has her back to us, Wyeth presents her posture in such an awkward way, we feel, at any moment, this girl must surely turn around if only to correct what is wrong about it. We know the Christina in the painting is based on a real Christina, and the image itself inspired by a real memory of the real Christina crawling across a real field. The real Christina is thought to have had Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, in which scoliosis is common and likewise the malformation of bone sockets. Does this account for the visceral discomfort I experience when I look at the girl in the painting, my eyes glueing again and again to her feeble emaciated arm, braced against the ground in a way that looks impossible to endure? The detail of her elbow, the angle of her wrist, the somehow reptilian curvature of her spine – all these little things are powerful engines of suspense because I feel them in my own body and know, if I was this girl, marooned out there without a hiding place, I’d be pivoting already, freeing-up, standing-up, extending my limbs in readiness to make good on my escape. Get up, Christina. For God’s sake, get up. The house, Christina. The house is coming.
Betty, Gerhard Richter, 1988, oil on canvas
And always when I think about Christina, I think about Betty, another girl in aspic. I don’t worry as much about Betty, though I do wonder what so arrests her attention in all that darkness. I couldn’t have Richter’s hyper-real 1988 painting hanging on my wall any more than Wyeth’s celebrated slice of American art, for there wouldn’t be a morning when I came downstairs when I wouldn’t be fully expecting to find Betty looking out at me instead, that some chain in the image had finally given out, its subject swinging round to look me in the eye.
Maybe Betty’s face is a face you could learn live with – even love? I suppose it depends on what she saw in the dark and what mark it left upon her. But Christina’s face – no, I never want to see that – and when I do think of it, turning my imagination to the task as I might finger an aching tooth or pimple, I see her face in a paper-bag.
When you first move to a small seaside town there are certain irresistible behaviours, sociological tropes that cannot be swerved. Some of these include: eating more fish and chips than is good for you and sitting too long in the sun on the beach. Others include sneaking glances at men who are trying to put their pants on under a damp towel and failing, and of course, collecting shells, sea glass and soft, palm-sized pebbles from the foreshore and bringing them back to the house. Another classic behavior is photographing those artefacts in artful black and white. Images like the ones I’m sharing here are as ubiquitous as the very things they depict – and yet, when I look at them again today, I remember clearly those first few days, weeks, and months, when the novelty of the sea and its new proximity was a siren’s song, and in my sandy pockets, all this humble treasure.
We went out looking for another field of dreams this week – and didn’t find one. The field we did find was bordered by a small thin stream choked with weed. There were promising layerings of dried grass, shadows, reflected light on the surface of the water, and the pointillism of the duckweed itself, but the camera only collected these things together like unmixed ingredients, the resulting images in no way magical or greater than the sum of their parts.
That said, a short way from where we parked, tall tired grasses were heaped up like waves, leaning against other roadside plants, and beyond them, all the straight sentries of the wheat crop. The wheat field was higher than the road and pushed into the distance further by the stream, now hidden completely behind the scruffy embankment. The sun, which was setting behind me, cast cool greying shadows over the embankment, and the whole effect was one of striation and flat desaturated colour. So no, not quite a field of dreams, but something new and painterly to share.
This business of photographing fields in as painterly ways as possible began at the beginning of the lock-down with a late afternoon trip to walk among improbably yellow fields of rapeseed. The challenge was capturing how it felt to be out there in that moment – overwhelmed by landscape and overloaded by a sort of greediness/desperation to keep the shifting effects forever. A few simple strategies helped produce more immersive results, like always omitting any obvious markers of distance or scale, and putting the focus far off at the edge of things with an eye to melting away the detail.
After the fields of gold, there came the scratchier grasses at Oare, followed by the ox-eye daisies, milky and glaucous in the thinning sunshine. Sometime later, we would visit the orderly blue of a wheat field and then an unexpected crop of blue-beaded flax. But it was our trip to the meadow at Knave’s Ash that really inspired my greed for in-camera impressionism. The weather wasn’t great, the sun buried behind an unwashed soft-box of cloud, and yet, as I viewed the resulting photographs later that night, I experienced a proper sugar-rush of delight and satisfaction. Something had happened at Knave’s Ash, a serendipity of light and breeze, and colours so numerous and soft, I couldn’t believe my luck. You can thank this set of photographs for everything that happened next, the zealous pursuit of specialness in other unadopted spaces, the continuing quest to transform something often-seen into landscapes ‘galaxical and vivid’ (so described by poet and fellow blogger João-Maria), and I’ve been lost to this pursuit of ‘painting with fields’ ever since.
When Francesca Maxwell put forward the title of a book by Rebecca Solnit for our most recent Kick-About, I smiled. The prompt A Field Guide To Getting Lost seemed ready-made for an individual looking for a jolly good reason to push these images further. More than this, here was an opportunity to counter one of the systemic failures of these images – their respective failures of movement and of sound – for how can any of these stubbornly still images hope to express the whiffle of the breeze playing across the stems and tassels of all this grass, or the hungry way my camera and I turned about in an up-against-it chase of fleeting light and restless composition? How to convey the different moods elicited by these different fields and by all the associations gathering around their images – the dissolving and dematerialisations at Knave’s Ash, the fibre-optic swish-and-swizzle at Hart’s Hill, and the meditative tapestries at Boughton Scrub..? Make a film was the answer. No, wait. Make three films!
Bringing the meadow of Knave’s Ash into some semblance of movement was a simple job of long cross-dissolves and a suitably atomised choice of music, courtesy of Kevin MacLeod. The job here was mimic as sensitively as possible the diffusion of the images. When it came to trying to articulate the very different feel of Hart Hill, I had but a single guiding reference: Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care (1949), an animation created by painting and scratching directly onto the surface of the film in the service of giving visual expression to the jazz music of Oscar Peterson. My thinking around this film was less to evoke the ‘outdoors’ but rather the ‘indoors’ of my efforts to snaffle-up every last dart, arrow and filament of barley.
I know we were very lucky to find Boughton Scrub. A part of me suspects it only appears when you’re not looking for it, and if we went back to that peripheral place, we’d only find the sewage works and no evidence of those ox-blood coloured rumex spires or clouds of luminous thistle-flowers. For all the common-or-gardenness of the grasses and wild flowers in this scrubland, there was an unreality about this landscape. Even as I stood among it all, I knew it wouldn’t last, that I had to move quickly to steal as much of it for myself as possible. It was almost too colourful, more like some coral reef or martian landscape. The more I looked at the resulting photographs, the more they resembled zoomed-in details from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights or like luxurious, too decadent wallpaper, or like tapestries hanging in the quiet chambers of some chivalraic folly. Meanwhile, my mind’s ear kept playing me lutes or harps, my mind’s eye showing me some soft-focused Burne-Jones maiden walking unhurriedly between the voiles of flower.
It will appear unseemly when I admit I have now watched the resulting film many times. I just find it immensely relaxing, cooling, quietening. I do not watch it admiringly, rather I just like going back there in the knowledge that it’s gone.
Arguably, all previous Kick-Abouts have been a response to this same prompt, courtesy of Francesca Maxwell, with each resulting showcase of work offering a guide to the ways in which different people take unpredictable journeys into new and unexpected terrains. As is attested to by a number of the works in this edition, ‘getting lost’ is never about losing time, but rather gaining experience.
“When I started thinking about this prompt – about how you plan a trip, about what can go wrong, about getting lost – I was reminded of this bit of family lore which is often trotted out at our family’s events: the day mother went to Shrewsbury and got lost.
It was actually in the mid-90’s (Cadfael was a very popular mystery television series at that time, based on the books of Ellis Peters) but everything about Mum’s story was reminiscent of a certain type of very British humour, which had its heyday in the films of the 1950’s and early ’60s, Ealing comedies like The Ladykillers, the early Carry On and St. Trinian’s films – and of course, the Miss Marple films with Margaret Rutherford. Check out “The 4:50 from Paddington” or “Murder at the Gallop” for a masterclass in British matronhood. Indeed, a precious golden thread of this tradition continues to this day, through the writing of Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett.
I have tried to capture something of the same spirit in “The Ballad of Ethel and Hilda” and reflect it in the images used, anachronistic though they may be. Along with Sir Derek Jacobi and Margaret Rutherford, you may also spot Joyce Grenfell, Sid James and Leslie Phillips, as well as a host of extras.
My thanks, as always to my techie, without whom this would not be half as much fun. I tip my hat, too, to my Mum Hilda, and her friend, Ethel. If there is an afterlife, they will be galloping through it, with gusto!”
Castle Road on Capitol Hill, Canada, (summers 1956 to 1961)
“Place holds strong significance, home on the city’s edge, schooling to begin in ‘58, summers beneath anchored clouds with shadows setting root, becoming cool dark pockets for secrets, and across the empty rolling range beneath bright light, daydreams ran wild being played out by shapechangers in search of possession. The house may still stand, the vastness of surrounding space has been lost, yet the place’s invitation, (in memory), to venture out and beyond is very strong.” Oil, canvas on board, 20x20cm.
“I wanted to capture the feeling (in moody black and white photographs, of course) of what it can be like just to go for walk out on a summer day with no particular aim and take in the sights and sounds of the local neighbourhoods here in Japan. Initially the intention was to create a mini photographic book heavily inspired by Tales of Tono by Daido Moyriyama but in the end it became a short film using still photographs in the style of La Jetée.“
“I must say thank you to whoever suggested this book as it was right up my street…loved it, especially “ the Blue of Distance” sections. This is a response to the part on maps…terra incognita.
When I was a child this island out in the Bristol Channel totally captured my imagination…and still does. I don’t ever want to go there or research its history as it’s a place of dreams that could be inhabited by giraffes and goldfinches or camels and weasels or simply exist in its own atmosphere of mists appearing and vanishing at will. A negative Uluru floating in cold northern waters.“
Cyanotypes in notebook.
“This evolved from Thoreau …”not till we have lost the world do we begin to find
ourselves” and Virginia Woolf ..”to be silent; to be alone”
Three panels, 12” x 12” graphite and watercolour on gesso.
“Though I have not read the specific Solnit book, I have read at least one essay she has written about labyrinths (“Journey to the Center” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness), and that’s the first thing that came to mind. A labyrinth is not a maze–there is only one path in and one path out. Labyrinths have been found in cultures all over the world, and are often used as forms of ritual or pilgrimage–a way to return to the source, to lose yourself in something larger and as a result find yourself again.”
“In A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says, “Never to get lost is not to live”. Such was the epic journey of Cabez de Vaca. He was the 2nd in command in a Spanish expedition led by Panfilio de Narvaez, which was commissioned by Charles V to establish colonial settlements and garrisons in The New World. However, after many disasters including hurricanes, shipwrecks, disease, starvation, attacks by hostiles and enslavement, only 4 of the original 600 men survived – including Cabez de Vaca. They spent the next 8 years wandering the S.W part of America and N.Mexico as traders and faith healers to some of the Indian tribes and were the first known Europeans to see the Mississippi River and cross the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. On his eventual return Cabez wrote a full account of the flora, fauna and Indian tribes he had encountered, and intended to conquer, but learnt so much from, including how to survive.
I decided to try something I had always wanted to do and experiment by doing a portrait of Cabeza using my old leftover makeup ie: various eyeshadows, eyeliners, bronzers and face powders.
So what did I discover? Well, yes, makeup is a good substitute drawing material – but Cabeza de Vaca – what a legend!”
“I don’t like the idea of being lost, and especially of being lost at night, so my contribution this week is a little sanctuary, just four walls and a roof, somewhere to keep the lost feeling at bay until the dawn, when the daylight banishes the monsters, real or imagined…”
Phil Cooper’s table-top model house
“Looking at my work over the years, I found all my paintings could be titled “a field guide of getting lost”, whichever style I chose. It all seems to be about finding a path in the chaos. Not that chaos is not one of the most beautiful and creative things there is. Whichever path I take will take me into unknown territory, never again able to retrace my steps and never returning the same as before. And every path will propel me towards new unknown territories and new adventures the more significant when in the spirit of being “lost”.
These four paintings I chose started as concepts for a short animation I had in mind based on a recurrent dream I had as a child and on Dante’s opening sentence of the Divine Comedy “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai in una selva oscura…” They are inks on watercolour paper, cold pressed, 240x680cm.”
“This was a bit of a no-brainer for me, given my many (!) excursions into the meadows and arable crops of my local countryside during the course of the lock-down and beyond. I haven’t quite managed a ‘Field Guide To Getting Lost’, but rather a guide to getting lost in fields in three parts.”
“I read a preview of A Field Guide To Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, and I think it couldn’t have come at a better time. Things are really unpredictable at the moment. At times feel like I am levitating in limbo, a bit stuck, a bit stagnant. I am a bit lost.
If you allow it, being lost is to be beckoned by brambles and tripped up; those brambles can cut you deep with its spikes; maybe those spikes are actually fangs embedded in the coil of a boa constrictor – or maybe the bramble is something you could simply skip over and bursting with mouth-watering berries?
I used to love getting lost. I think a lot of it has to do with my childhood, when I was always outside finding and climbing the highest trees, mapping them in my mind as a brilliant structure that would suit a tree house; and finding the highest hills of rural Ireland overlooking the derelict cottages falling to pieces of a life long gone.
I recently moved house; my senses spill into overdrive. I notice familiar sounds that feel completely fresh. I notice the cornice that has a gargoyle on it. I get lost so I can find my bearings. I go on excursions and explorations and scope out the quiet, dainty coffee and book shops, or the solemn parks budding with trees and wildflowers, or the grey cemetery I can have a jog around while listening to bird song.
I still get lost because to really get lost is to eventually find yourself.”
“I was reading ‘The Blue Distance’ chapter in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, by Rebecca Solnit. I put it down and picked up a book on Eva Hesse, an artist I am researching. She had discovered this quotation in a Simone de Beauvoir diary of (1926). As soon as I read the quotation something opened up and I could hear the three voices in conversation.”
Darning needle on blue distance, front to back, drawing, oil on paper, 42 x 29cm
‘Lost in the making’, fabric sculpture, 110 x 60 x 26cm
“These are my art responses to this round’s prompt – which was the book by Rebecca Solnit titled “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” I haven’t read the book and wasn’t going to attempt it – so I worked with the title. My initial thoughts really hovered over the “Lost” part. I recently read a Reddit post about the Vietnam draft lotteries and how there appeared to be heavy bias in the initial lottery towards birthdays at the end of the calendar year. No one knows why – presumably the number draws were random – but there are explanations proposed of simple human error. Birthdays at the end of the year were added to the hopper last and then the whole thing was not properly mixed. These men, born at the end of the year in the years 1946-1950, “lost” that lottery.
My father was drafted in a different round, but the outcome was the same. The top picture is a reverse transfer monoprint I made from a photo of him and my mother shortly after he returned from bootcamp – he’s leaning on his beloved car from high school. The lower print was made from the first photo I could find of him after his first deployment to Vietnam. His face is different. He is different. Which is so strange to me, because I was born after he got out of the service and I’ve never known him any other way but after Vietnam. But making these transfer prints, it had never been more clear to me. It was shocking – and full of loss.”
“… but then Kerfe Roig posted her response to the prompt and it was about labyrinths and journeys and paths. I found it very helpful and comforting. So I made one more transfer print for her poem.”
In what I suspect is in part a response to the languor of lock-down, Charly Skilling is offering up Walter Richard Sickert’s painting Ennui as our collective jumping-off point for the seventh Kick-About. You’ll find the painting plus the new submission date below. Have fun, folks, and see you on the other side!
One last look at the vibrant plumage of Boughton Scrub, as the sun lowered and the time came finally to take our leave of this secret garden.
In writing about my enthusiasm for the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion animation, Street of Crocodiles, I was prompted to recall memories of my visits to Stoke Newington’s Abney Park cemetery. In turn, I was prompted to disinter some of the black and white 35mm photographs I knew I’d taken during these trips, but had otherwise forgotten about completely. I also forgot I’d written a short accompanying article on Abney Park for a magazine entitled Bite Me. The article was never picked up and the photographs likewise went unseen. For this week’s Throwback Friday, I’m sharing both.
The Lion & The Ivy
It will seem like a deficit of literary style were I to describe Abney Park cemetery as eerie – an ‘eerie cemetery’ is pretty much a tautology – and yet I can find no adjective better suited.
Abandoned by its original owners twenty-five years ago, but rescued from leafy obscurity by the London Borough of Hackney, Abney Park feels like a secret stumbled upon, its aura of neglect both poignant and perfect. I’ve just entered its gates, but I’m already seeing ghosts, though not the maggoty kind – rather the diaphanous spectres of Victorian ladies, who once came here to perambulate with parasols. After a moment’s hesitation, I follow in their long-dead footsteps.
Like the plush baize of ivy upholstering its tombstones, the extraordinary hush of Abney Park enshrouds me as completely. Before me lie thirty-two acres of simple slabs and sad-faced angels. Lying beneath me are three hundred thousand bodies resting in peace, and in pieces too – sixty-one million bones improving a soil that once nourished a thousand cultivars of rose, and a collection of named trees and shrubs surpassing that of the Royal Park at Kew. All of that was a hundred and sixty-five years ago. Today, the only roses on show are silk, their colours leached and cheerless. The only skeletons are those belonging to the withered docks, their desiccated flower spikes as upright as candelabras.
Again, the deep, evergreen quiet of the graveyard impresses me. Hard to believe that just beyond the boundaries of this once-forgotten necropolis, the yummy mummies and charity shop fashionistas of Stoke Newington are boarding buses, ordering lattes, and fretting about the organic credentials of their purple sprouting broccoli.
My ancient camera hanging from my shoulder, I journey deeper into the cemetery.
Above me, the vaulted arcs of branches close out the milky November sunshine, but spy-holes in the shrubbery afford tantalizing views of inner sunlit chambers. With their cheery illumination, and table and chair-like arrangements of headstones and graves, these vignettes remind me of parlours, and my imagination populates them with skeletal families. As clouds obscure the sun, these sanctums fade – as vanished now as the rooms of the original Abney House, the demolition of which in the mid nineteenth century inaugurated the cemetery. All that remains of Abney House today are the wrought iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance and, less tangibly, a brooding sense of history.
Departing from the graveyard’s more manicured pathways – so maintained by the Abney Park Cemetery Trust volunteers, who fight back the rising tides of ivy with garden shears and admirable philanthropy – I pick my way amongst the clutter of headstones. The upheavals of trees and the worming of roots have left these monuments skewed, their angels leaning like drunks. In places, the ground itself has opened, the graves cracked and yawning. I try not to look inside these sepulchral hollows, fearful of glimpsing more than decomposing leaves and the corpses of crisp packets. My ‘Rotten.com’ side wants to risk a closer examination of these cavities, but I sensibly pass them by, disallowing myself the sort of lethal curiosity favoured by first-to-die teens in dumb-arse ‘and-then-there-were-none-a-thons’.
Arriving now at the barred and burned-out chapel at the centre of the cemetery – an impressive gothic edifice boasting a large circular window and an air of despondency so potent the building almost seems to sigh – I do succumb more entirely to an involuntary attack of movie-induced paranoia. Craning my neck to gawk at the chapel’s impressive spire, I recall the moment Richard Donner made shish kebab out of Patrick Troughton, and I distance myself swiftly.
The Omen isn’t the only film evoked by Abney Park’s especial ambience. The mise en scène couldn’t be any more cinematic – an attribute not lost on the various film crews who’ve already snapped their clapperboards here. Indeed, I’m tempted to think the prop-wranglers may have left some of their set-dressings behind. The decapitated statue of the maiden I pass seems too designed to unnerve to be the work of mere vandals. Even some of the urns are gilding the lily by sporting Tim Burton-style fright wigs, fashioned from congested tendrils of ivy.
Somewhere behind me, dogs and their walkers are snapping branches. I can’t help glancing over my shoulder. As it happens, I am being tracked through the shrubbery. A furtive looking gentlemen wearing a black bomber jacket and a come-hither expression observes me optimistically from behind a voile of leaves. I realise I’m in more danger of having my bum pinched than my neck-bitten.
Signalling my disinterest in any such brief encounter, I change direction, but soon find myself face to face with another constant inhabitant of Hackney’s unlikely Eden – not a lusty queen this time, but a king of the jungle. The great stone lion watches me from his plinth, his supine body so powerfully white against the cemetery’s patina of shadows, the light meter in my camera goes berserk. The lion stands out for another reason, its design being more ostentatious than most of the other monuments here. Abney Park is unusual in that no part of its grounds is consecrated, and – phosphorescent lions excepted – the graveyard’s general abstemiousness from ornament reflects the non-conformist principles of its occupants. I’ve never heard of Frank C. Bostock – the individual commemorated by the show-off cat – but among the other eminent bones interred in Abney Park are the remains of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.
I notice the light is failing, and with it, a large part of my bravado. I didn’t even know I was nervous – until now. The lion is glowing with an almost spectral light, while the deepening shadows are stretching like panthers. Both my eyes and my camera are struggling to see, but my ears are acutely sensitive to every snap and heart-stopping scuttle emanating from the black valance of undergrowth. It’s time to leave this secret, sombre garden of the dead.
For a moment, I’m close to panic, certain suddenly I will be unable – or disallowed – to find my way out of these tangles of brambles and back to the noise and exhaust fumes of those red London buses. I resist the urge to run, but there is little I can do to mitigate the cold slick of perspiration greasing my forehead. The inebriated angels find me amusing, having witnessed this diminishing of courage a thousand times over, as cocksure visitors to the cemetery find themselves in this same race against the sunset.
I make it out of the cemetery safely, of course, and my fear is rendered instantly foolish by the inner-city milieu. I quickly dismiss my apprehension, but I cannot deny the impression Abney Park has made upon me; its inimitable character haunts my imagination – my camera film too – and like a serene, if lonely phantom, it boards the number 149 and follows me home.