An old wallet of photographs surfaced recently from an era of my life I otherwise have no tangible reminders for, including a set of very poorly exposed snaps taken one bonfire night. The subject of the photographs is the burning of a human-sized alien effigy in the small garden of a pebble-dashed house somewhere in the largely unlovely environs of Hemel Hempstead. It was to this pebble-dashed house I’d go every other weekend following my parents’ divorce, where I’d try and make the best of the new arrangement that had seen me acquire a step-mother and two step-siblings. To be honest, I’m not sure I did always try and make the best of things during those visits. I suspect I often had a face on me like a slapped arse, raining on various parades like a passive-aggressive sprinkler, and radiating generally my very deep displeasure at the new arrangement and all that led to it.
One of my more positive strategies for getting through these weekends, which I would otherwise find to be both stultifying and rage-inducing, was to invent stuff; I’d write plays for my step-siblings and we’d perform them. I’d invent entire fantastical worlds to escape into, taking my step-siblings with me, who little suspected I was only using our adventures together as a tool for tunneling my way as quickly as possible from one side of the weekend to the other. I was a storyteller and I was the clown, and like a clown, my smile rarely reached my eyes.
It’s different now, but back then, Bonfire Night was a big fucking deal. I loved fireworks. I loved boxes of fireworks, those colourful collections of cylinders, cones and coiled discs with their twists of blue touch paper and ‘hope-over-reality’ nomenclature promising extraordinary spectacles but rarely delivering them. Dad liked fireworks too and could always be relied upon to take the moment seriously and put on a good show – a bit of risk, a bit of showmanship, a precious annual ritual making daring little boys of all of us.
I do not recall why I decided to create a green alien guy for Bonfire Night. I suspect the effort I gave this task was directly proportionate to my effort to bend my dad’s new family to my will, or rather I was seeking to re-make that pebble-dashed house in my own image – to make it look more like somewhere I could reside more comfortably. I can absolutely recall making the guy, sticking together two old lampshades for the head, and papier-mâchéing over them. I remember where I made it too – in the narrow strip of landing outside the front door of the first floor flat I lived in with my mum and stepdad, making the whole building stink with the smell of metallic green spray paint.
My stepdad was suitably perplexed. Why go to all this effort to make something that was destined to be burned in a barrel? I’m not sure I ever gave him a satisfactory answer. I probably went sulky, feeling criticised and misunderstood. The answer lies in the act of making itself (is the answer I didn’t give at the time), the restorative and mediative process of bringing something into being; the satisfying wet slick of the papier-mâché, the delightful pop and wobble of all those ping-pong ball eyes as I skewered them one-by-one onto their antennae of wire.
And it was a monster, of course, a happy fiction dragged from the unreality of 1950s b-movies and creaky episodes of Dr Who, and made-over as concrete and tangible in my personal quest to put things into the world that were larger than life – to do away with what was mundane, to summon into being freaks and creatures and monsters and ghosts. It was never just that house in Hemel Hempstead I wanted to re-configure in the image of my imagination, it was everywhere else too.
When the time came, the alien burned very fast in his barrel. Looking at these blurry photographs today, I worry about the Chernobyl-levels of lung-corroding toxins produced by setting fire to something as caked in paint, varnish and plastic as my alien guy. There’s likely scientific data somewhere that dates the opening up of new hole in the ozone layer due exclusively to this extraterrestrial immolation.
In common with all those tantalizing boxes of fireworks, the burning of my alien was a great big anti-climax, not least because it didn’t achieve any kind of seismic change to the reality of my weekends at dad’s house. It didn’t make me more popular with anyone, more likeable or more interesting. They probably thought I was just showing off. In truth, I probably was.
But making something is always a magical act – lead into gold, straw into gold, two old lampshades into a monster.
“I started off by painting some foliage and flower shapes onto tracing paper, cutting them out, placing on a light box and photographing them. I meant the results to be shadowy and rather gothic, but they turned out rather different. Perhaps because it feels like full-on summer here in Berlin this week, and perhaps because I watched Picnic at Hanging Rock the other night, the photos have more the atmosphere of a languorous sunny afternoon in the garden – not what I set out to do at all. I was so seduced by the colour palette of Picnic at Hanging Rock, I’ve let the images go in this direction…”
“On reading the title “Dance of the Happy Shades” I immediately thought of shadows, and the shades of tones in the shadows, rather than shades of greys and colours. I thought of the subtle tones in a desaturated situation, like during twilight, one of my favourite times of day. Still, I needed a relatively strong source of light to create the shadows. Also, I was looking at translucent rather than solid objects, to get more nuances in the tones, as well as texture – translucency and texture being also some of the things that most inspire and attract me. I tried and looked at few different things, including rereading “In the Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki, and watching the Zhang Yimou’s film “Shadow” – an amazing film. In the end, it was the moving reflection on the wall of three glass flowers I made few years back standing on my mantelpiece that I wanted to do. I was originally going to paint them with the Chinese ink and brush technique, but I started sketching them out in colour pencil and rather enjoyed the process, and the result was close to my idea.Pencils on hot press watercolour paper. 84×60 cm.“
“I’ve got two quite different responses this week. Firstly, one very silly gif. This was inspired by a friend, when I asked her, ‘What do you think of when I say ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’?’ she responded, ‘I just see a dude dancing in shades.’ Her response made me think of an older gent embodying a Dad-joke of sorts…”
“The second idea that came to mind was old Disney style – Fantasia – but instead of brooms and the like, it was floor lamps, with shades. (It’s a tenuous link, I know!). I hadn’t fully worked out how I could animate the idea (plus I left it too late anyway) but that didn’t mean I couldn’t embody it somehow! So here’s a silly storyboard of some dancing floor lamps! I put together a quick animatic – it’s not as motion-filled as I’d like, but I hope it gets my daft idea across a bit better. Haha!”
Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
I wanted to evoke the languor of a similarly long hot day and the way lethargy encourages you to look for escape-routes in ordinary and over-looked places – like the peeling paint on a garage door, which if you squint, might come to resemble some glinting sea or exotic terrain. With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. At risk of sounding bossy, grab some headphones for a suitably immersive experience. “
“My Rorschach ancestor mirrors himself and transforms in both vertical and horizontal directions. It was fun to add a little nonsensical creation to my days.”
He seems friendly enough, this presence of the past, shifting languorously as if drugged by sun light shining in his eyes after a thundering rain
In truth his voice is seldom called upon—an apparition furniturial, fixed impermanently in corners and along walls
His dance contains unpredictable undertones—the hours move around him as his buddha smile glimmers knowingly in the dark
“I found a photo of the author of Dance Of The Happy Shades, Alice Munro from 1971, a couple of years after the book was published. I thought it would be nice to add some colour to it. While it was possible to find photos from a few years later that I could reference for eye colour, skin tones, hair etc, I still feel there’s a large degree of fiction in this, or any other colourised photo. Where the photo was taken, what time of day, what colour clothing all became something imagined without proper sources. This is an interesting contradiction for me, because by trying to bring something to life, it actually makes it more like a woozy loose memory. I’ve been doing something similar with old family photos recently, and have been able to test the memories of elder relatives in the photos for details. While a modern sheen of colour makes the image feel more appealing, I often wonder if the photos are more meaningful in their original state.”
“My mind went straight to ballerina dancers and wanted to capture them in a loose style, and was thinking of black and grey shades. So I did some small charcoal sketches of ballerina dancers as an initial response while sitting out in the park… I moved them into Photoshop and did some tweaking and painting to make them fit into a more complete image.”
“I was thinking of a very exuberant Flamenco Dancer wearing a fabulous skirt of happy, bright and gaudy layers. I painted on Yupo paper for the woman’s figure and used scraps of silk and net individually twisted and bound for her skirt. I enjoyed the whole task very much and it definitely made me want to do a happy dance!”
“Originally, I wanted to respond to a couple of quotes within the book, make some kind of lively piece with dancers and muted colours, but after reading up on Orfeo ed Eurydice, I decided instead to look to the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. Not only did it relate to this Kick-About prompt, but also to another project I’ve been working on. Right now, it’s called “So, this is life?” and involves a goddess in the stars being banished from the heavens and forced to live among humans. I’m basing the characters on constellations and Greek mythologies, so Hades was perfect. I’m still working out kinks on the story but the basic world-building is the “constellation” gods and goddesses watch over whatever humans were born under their star and act as lore keepers for them. When the humans die, they must journey to Hades and the constellations hand over their lore to Hades. This current design of Hades is the first iteration. He’s bound to change as I develop this concept further.”
“I am absolutely loving these Kick Abouts! It has completely opened my eyes to the possibility of doing quick little ‘micro shorts’ – and this time I decided to give it a whirl for a film of sorts. For the Metropolis prompt, I was drawing and animating the creative responses using a particular set of Photoshop brushes that are always my go to. I was in my bathroom and opened up my medicine cabinet, and just as I did, the light from outside was shining into the window and through a crack of the medicine cabinet door. It created this brilliant concentrated brush stroke of dancing illuminating light that mimics one of the brushes I love to use in Photoshop. I took out my phone and filmed myself opening and closing the medicine cabinet door over and over again, as I knew this would not last long because of how pinprick precise the light was in that moment. I realised I could work with the videos to produce something for the kick-about, so I started to play.
A lot of what is going in the film fell into place through experimenting by mixing all the videos together, playing with blend modes, light, shadow and shapes. The song is Grey Drops by Sergey Cheremisinov. When listening to Cheremisinov’s unique pieces I always imagine something odd and intriguing coming to life, something with a lot of texture. I envisioned things moving in the shadows that shouldn’t move. The best thing about creating like this is something magical happens by itself; as I was swinging the medicine cabinet door, I noticed it looked like the light was giving way to these phantom spectres that were projecting part of themselves away and then consuming it again with every swing of the door. Everything started to intensify as I edited the film together, and then a story started to flourish.”
“Dance of the Happy Shades is a title as evocative as it is elusive. In an attempt to understand the mystery and make the shades dance, here is a little series of blindingly colourful, expressionist and illusionistic photographic manipulations.”
“It all turned about-face after the start. The studio’s sense of itself took over. Nuances I set about exploring ended up as grey-scale shades flowing from colour. HB pencil, on Artistico Fabriano 640gsm hot pressed. 77cm x 56cm. 24 hour drawing.”
“I was going through some old paperwork when a photo fluttered to the ground, one of me as a child, which prompted a rush of memories. I found other photos, of other times, and I tried to set down in words the feelings and images they evoked. I recalled sounds, music, voices, and wanted to find a way to combine images, words and sounds to share with others the emotions they aroused in me. I don’t have the technical knowledge or skills to create what I envisaged – but luckily, I know a man who does! We talked for a long time about the ways and means, of shape and substance and then he took my words, my images, my memories, and between us produced the following short film.“
“Optimism isn’t my comfort zone, but it was lovely to work more abstractly and suggestively than usual. I’ve never read Dance of the Happy Shades, but the title alone suggests to me the movements of grass fields, dappled sunlight and a shifting summer breeze. This is the best I can do to evoke Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the grey British skies did not imbue my blood with a great talent for evoking the beauty of the sun!”
Courtesy of Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, we have our new prompt – a short sequence from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). In common with all previous kick-abouts, you’re invited to respond to the new prompt in anyway that gets your juices flowing, and if you’ve enjoyed this third creative run-around and you want to get involved, then crack on!
When participating Kick-About artist and animator, Emily Clarkson, offered up ‘Metropolis‘ as the second prompt, I wasn’t alone in looking forward to walking into the expressionistic world of Fritz Lang’s epic work of science-fiction. At the outset I knew I wanted to begin with the concept drawings for the film by Erich Kettelhut, and I knew I’d be seeking to produce something by following the principles of collage and layering. What I didn’t know was that I’d find this particular challenge hugely addictive and satisfying, and that I’d produce a lot of stuff on my way to choosing the image for the Kick-About with which I was most happy.
Every image in this post (and many others not in it) were all seeded by one pencil drawing and my guiding principle was a simple one; do now as I did back on my art A’level and subsequent Foundation course, which is to keep pushing a very limited series of processes and tools until something interesting happens! What I enjoyed particularly about the later stages of the process was my inability to stop the imagery coalescing into rich Art Deco pattern-making, as if the stylistic motifs of the original movie are themselves somehow irrepressible.
It’s been a while, but here I am, returning to the blogging fold. I haven’t been returned to earth after an abduction by benevolent extra-terrestrials, but I have been away. As to what I’m going to show you on here I’m as yet uncertain, but share things I certainly shall.
The blog’s name, ‘Red’s Kingdom’, takes its name fromRed & The Kingdom Of Sound – a particular creative project from a few year’s back which gave me the greatest pleasure to produce. Red himself was an adventurer and the titular kingdom a collection of different terrains characterised by other-worldly visuals, sensational music and larger-than-life storytelling.
If I can be said to have an ambition for this blog, it’s simply this: to build another inter-connected world of sights and sounds – however loosely connected! I’m going to be talking about projects old and new, and I’m hoping to invite some of the creative people I know and work with to feature as guest authors and artists. I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking a bit about the stuff I’m watching too and gathering in some of the writing I’ve published elsewhere.
In short, this blog will seek to be a coalition of elective creative activity – mine, and other people’s.
I’m very much looking forward to throwing open the door to Red’s Kingdom and inviting you to accompany me on my continuing adventures in sight and sound…