Phil Cooper, ‘Bedside Lights Sprouting’, 40cm x 40cm, Acrylic on paper
The tunnel led into a much larger cave, its walls, ceiling and floor formed from old stained mattresses in different prints and patterns. Dim orangey light was given out by an assortment of bedside lights sprouting toadstool-like from the floor and walls.
For his inspiration this week, artist Phil Cooper focuses on one of the bedside light-come-mushrooms that grow out of the floor and walls of the catacombs – a moment of comfort and calm – before events in the chapter take a more sinister turn!
It’s tempting to draw the obvious conclusion from the recent choice of prompts offered up by the kick-about artists of late. Last time it was the exoplanet Trappist 1e, with its promise of new beginnings ‘off-world’, and an escape from this one, which seems smaller by the day and rather dimmed. This week it’s fairies – or more accurately, the need to go on believing in them, a yearning for something as-yet-unspoiled and magical. In these different ways, we seem preoccupied with escapism and realms more expansive than those afforded by our current circumstances.
Julien Van Wallendael
“I saw something about the Cottingley Fairies being the theme of the month on your blog, so I put this together last night as a response… I was mainly driven by the need to figure out something that could be done in one sitting! The Cottingley Fairies case exposes all at once our yearning for wonder and penchant for deceptiveness – newly aided by the medium of photography. It seemed therefore appropriate to paint a scene both whimsical and that references modern optical tricks. Having seen Akira at the cinemas last week, I still had its long exposure shots of motorcycles in mind – so I thought for once I could make use of those weird skinny palette knife type brushes and replicate the look of a light streak by letting my pen run across randomly. Phil’s recent impressionistic meadow pictures and older flashlights projects may also have been in my thoughts!”
“I remember those Cottingley fairy photos being discussed seriously on news and current affairs programmes in the ’70s. Presenters would say things like ‘the photos have been examined by experts from the so-and-so lab and they cannot find any evidence that the photos have been tampered with’. I think we all wanted to believe that they were real, even though they were pretty obviously painted cut-outs (what on earth they were doing in the so-and-so lab I can’t imagine).
This week’s prompt came to mind when I had a few days out in the country last week. Having been stuck in the city for most of this year, due, mainly, to Covid, I felt quite giddy when I got out into some wild green spaces. As well as that feeling of escape, the light was sparkling and dreamy and the woods and meadows alive with fungi and rich autumn colours. It certainly looked like a place where fairies could dance and frolic. So, for the kick-about this week I’ve photo-collaged some images from my visit and cranked up the trippy fairy weirdness factor. Maybe those Cottingley girls had taken a few mushrooms before they came up with their jolly wheeze.”
“I found it very difficult to get away from the obvious with this prompt, even though I was the person who originated it! I had a few ideas about painting something such as a puppy dog and setting it in a proper basket to make it look as if it was real. However this didn’t seem to look very convincing when I tried it. At this point I ran into Artists block and looked on the internet for some tips. I realised that there was something in my mind that wanted my pictures to be like those of Arthur Rackman and although this wouldnt be very original I just had to go with it. So saying, I put on some relaxing music and just played around until this is what I came up with. I used an old painting of mine done on Yupo paper which I chopped into leaves and then added watercolour and collage. I was aiming for an ethereal effect and hope it didn’t end up too ‘twee’.”
“I tried adding a fairy storyline over these images but I just didn’t like what they did to the pics. Rather than scrapping the backgrounds I thought they could work labelled ‘looking for fairies’.”
“Hats off to Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths for scoring a hit without the use of PhotoShop. Who needs PhotoShop when you have cardboard cut-outs and a camera? Looking at these photos, I’m reminded again of how seemingly unconvincing the installations were. It was the Powerful Energy of the children’s imaginations that brought them to life. How I love that Powerful Energy! And as an adult, I regularly delve into books I read as a child in an attempt to recapture the Power. I am forever hammering on the back of the wardrobe, so to speak.
I’ve made a couple of new ‘fairies’ for 2020, the stranger-than-fiction year. Possibly due to the poisoning of my mind by doom-scrolling through US election news, my 2020 fairies are a pair of Dickensian style villains, sloping back into the forest after getting up to goodness knows what… (Perhaps he is carrying a sack?) The female figure, superficially posing as a pretty thing, with gossamer wings and a lacy apron, has overly long stick insect arms and carries a thorny crook/trident. The male of the species is wearing a lacy collar that droops down in a hairy way from his neck. But the rest of his torso is naked and a bit bloated.“
“One of the things I appreciate about growing up in rural Ireland are all the stories about curious oddities I was told when I was a young lad. We all heard the stories of the wailing banshee, the sluagh and the fairies. A stone’s throw from my father’s house in Knockatee Dunmore is Fairy Hill. Fairy hill is a steep hill covered in grass and wildflowers. The very top of the hill is speckled with fairy trees, with a swing fashioned from worn rope and driftwood. Fairy Hill was a place of refuge; it looked-over the emerald green of Ireland. You could hear the calming laps of the river Sinking nearby. You could see Dunmore castle slightly peeping out from the tree tops to the east.
The story of Fairy Hill goes that builders tried to build Dunmore castle on Fairy Hill, but the vivacious fairies would awake from their slumber in the dead of night and knock the stones down to the ground, and did so every night to save their homes. The builders decided to build the castle down the road on a less magnificent hill, which is now where Dunmore Castle sits. Ireland is bursting with stories like this. Planning permissions for entire concrete motorways have been scrapped because a pesky fairy tree is in its route and needs to be cherished. Maybe that’s why people view the Irish as a bit mad!? Or maybe we refuse to grow up? I’ll take the latter.
I decided to write a poem and draw a piece of charcoal art that reflects how this story has lasted through the ages, something old and worn but still intact, which invigorates nostalgia.”
“With the exception of some digitally post-produced blurring at the periphery of these photographs, and a hint of sepia, you’re looking at ‘what happened’ late one night in the dark in rural France.
Equipped with my old 35mm camera, some 1600 black and white film, and a cheap battery-operated camping light, I produced a series of long-exposure photographs with myself as the subject. At risk of demystifying the resulting images still further, you have to imagine me running from one position to the next in the dark, switching on the camping light between my bare feet, and posing – or moving through different poses – for short intervals of seconds. I had to wait until my return to England to process the images, and when I saw the resulting images, I was delighted and spooked in equal measure. What the camera had seen that night out in the dark was not what had been put in front of it. I promise, hand-on-heart, I wasn’t wearing a black Cleopatra-style wig (in truth I wasn’t wearing very much of anything at all!), and I can’t explain everything caught on camera. I’ve taken lots and lots of photographs in ominous settings in the hope of capturing something otherworldly on film; these snaps, taken with old technology, taken hurriedly (and with so inelegant and earthly a subject!), are proof cameras are haunted and magic is real.”
“Looking at the photo from the vantage point of digital manipulation in 2020, it’s easy to laugh at the fact that anyone could have actually believed that they were “real”. And yet…”
it’s easy to say no—but what does that word really mean, exactly?—“not now”?—“never”?– “I don’t understand”?—
“I don’t want to deal with it”?—what lies between the letters, the sounds hard and long? if you take away the n
what is left?– only a surprise, a sense of wonder—worlds filled with possibility– the magic of ”o!”
“The Cottingley Fairies are mostly remembered because so many people believed them to be proof of another world, co-existent with our own, whilst another group believed they provided proof of other people’s gullibility. Nowadays, we tend to assume a more sophisticated (or perhaps more cynical) attitude to life – the cry of “Special FX” or even “Fake News” is heard constantly. If fairies do die if someone says they don’t believe in them, they must be at the very top of David Attenborough’s list, if not already passed the way of dodos, Siamese flat barbelled catfish and the golden toad. And yet fairies still continue to populate our stoy-telling, our art, and our culture.”
Sharpie pens and alcohol on ceramic tile
Sharpie pens and alcohol on ceramic tile
I have always loved fairies and other mythical creatures, growing up on diet of Enid Blyton’s books such as The Enchanted Wood series, The Wishing Chair series and the Mr Pink Whistle books. When my younger sister and I were children, we used to dress up as fairies using tinsel for crowns and white nightgowns for dresses.
“This was such an interesting prompt and threw up so many possibilities (fake news being amongst them) but in the end and after many versions, I decided these two were getting there. I had great ambitions but didn’t quite get there with this one….v.v. basic technology in this household! The two main spurs were : The film “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders and the first “Pookie” book by Ivy Wallace (my favourite childhood read)… further down the line drones came into the mix. I might keep working on it from collage to drawing as it’s a theme with so many angles but, for the moment, this is it!”
“Sorry for the super late submission this week… I approached this as if the fairy character had become toughened by years of actually surviving at the bottom of a real garden – yes, still magical and enchanting but a bit ragged and with honed survival instincts. I focused on her dynamism and intensity taking out out an innocent insect.”
Our next prompt comes courtesy of resident gentle giant, Graeme Daly, an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s celebrated novel, Invisible Cities describing Ersilia, the city of strings. If you’re already a regular kick-abouter and think you know someone who’d like to join in for a run-around, then do encourage them to make contact. Likewise, if you’re just happening by and fancy getting involved, then do please get in touch.
By way of a preface to this week’s Kick-About, some info courtesy of Judy Watson: “TRAPPIST-1e is one of the most potentially habitable exoplanets discovered so far. Your descendants may be living there one day. It is similar to the size of Earth and closely orbits a dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1 which is not as hot or bright as our sun. One side of TRAPPIST-1e faces permanently towards its host star, so the other side is in perpetual darkness. But apparently the best real estate would be the sliver of space between the eternally light and the eternally dark sides – the terminator line where temperatures may even be a cosy 0 °C (32 °F).”
“I started painting some plants for this new world, and I imagined that they would all be turning towards the dim light of their star. So I made a world where everything was evolved to point in one direction only, sucking up the warmth, the light, the energy; a single-minded yearning, shared by every living thing on the planet. It made me ponder on humankind’s perpetual yearning, which leads us to disaster over long roads and short. If only we could all focus as readily on the majesty and wonder of the world that we already inhabit. There was nothing I could paint for this new world that could rival the natural wonders in the one we already have. I made the new inhabitants – refugees from Earth – look on in wonder. And then, because of their pose, looking upwards within the vivid setting, it put me in mind of a propaganda poster. which made me laugh.”
“I was really inspired by Olafur Eliasson, in particular his exhibition – The Weather Project. I imagine a planet vibrating with orange hues against cool tones, with piercing shadows, and the ground of this planet cracking and buckling”
“This planet is something which I had never heard about before, and I was inspired to do some machine embroidery which loosely shows the arrangement of the orbits of the planets around Trappist. I layered various different materials on top of each other then added different textures for the planets b to h, using a zig-zag stitch around them. In the centre I put an origami star for Trappist itself. The fun bit is when you have finished stitching and you can slash away with your scissors. You never quite know what it will turn out like.”
Come take a trip to Trappis-1e Ages 50 plus go free! Don’t be put off by the distance We’ve everything for your assistance. There’s luxury slumber pods and sleep swings You’ll never feel the slightest thing. 40 light years may seem a while, But our Dreamland films will make you smile! You can download your happiest memories Whilst we ferry you along at lightening speeds. So don’t delay, and book your seat – Our on-board menu’s a real treat! We have masseurs and therapists while you snooze You can become anyone you choose! No covid quarantine when you alight So just relax and enjoy the flight!
“For this Kick-About, I returned to making monoprints in the same vein as I did for the Alice Neel prompt from the Kick-About #5. I wanted something spontaneous and bursting with energy. I sat down and calculated how many Trappist-1e years I would be now and it was humbling to say the least: I am 2,307 Trappist-1e years old. The other two numbers represent my Earth ages: 38 years old, having spent 14,072 days orbiting our star. We don’t actually know what Trappist-1e looks like (the picture in the prompt is an artist’s rendering), so I let my imagination run wild making planets on the inking plate.“
“As I write this, the UK is having its expectations managed regarding the continuing effects of the pandemic. Our worlds will continue to shrink a little more. I’ve been going ‘off-world’ for months now, journeying into largely uninhabited terrains to breathe lungfuls of fresh air, and go exploring. The word ‘planet’ derives from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’ – how apt, I thought, considering my wanderings through these ordinary/extraordinary landscapes. This prompted an idea I couldn’t execute by myself; what if I could literally turn some of these havens into actual planets? More than this, given the gauzy, impressionism of many of the images – and the suspensions of gaseous colour – what if I could transform these earthly/unearthly spaces into nebulas? Fortunately, I knew just the person to help me realise this plan, VFX whizzkid, Deanna Crisbacher, who took my photograph below and ‘plugged it into’ her CGI-dream machine, and used it to generate an all-new planet and its accompanying nebula!”
“What a topic change! From all those lovely intimate pieces, to Trappist 1e! So it’s earth like and travels around a red dwarf (yellow or white in color) and what would humankind’s motivations be if we eventually reached it. Would we want to mine it or farm it? Would we decimate any possible indigenous occupants – how much respect do we have for our own little world. So I realized I needed to add a narrative to protect the indigenes and planet. What if the indigenes fed on greed and hatred? That’s where I went in and left it. Would this be good or bad for humankind – would the indigenes farm humans? Could this be interplanetary heaven or hell? Stay tuned…”
“Marcy Erb’s prompt for the Kick-About #11 was the planet Trappist 1e, an earth-sized planet orbiting the Trappist-1 dwarf star 40 light years from Earth. What makes it special? Scientists believe it is potentially habitable. But not the entire planet–“there would be only a sliver of habitability”–as the planet does not itself rotate–one side is always facing towards the sun, and the other side is always in darkness. The habitable area is called the teminator line, or in more familiar terms, the twilight zone, as it is always stranded between the darkness and the light. The idea of a sliver of habitability seems relevant to the current situation on earth–the balance of the ecosystem is delicate, and we are narrowing that sliver day by day. My two mandalas represent my idea of Trappist 1e and the waves of exploration and communication we are sending out in the hopes of finding another blue and green island in the vast dark cosmic sea.”
life spills out into uncontrolled spaces—still mystery, still yearning for parallel growth, revelation—
who and where do we think we are? tiny ex plosions look ing for intersecting lines that collide and cross,
waving brains tides hands energy electric magnetic– mapping the unseen with disturbances,
promises of what could have been– had light years been compressed into overlapping sounds—each a mirrored reply
“In a cramped concrete room, a man covers his head. A window, high up, frames the Milky Way. Ink black. When we look up at a clear blue cloudless sky it’s almost impossible to imagine infinity and darkness beyond, or the space debris circling our planet, or the other orbs in our solar system, or pieces of rock the size of our house hurtling towards us, or even other worlds light years away that possibly, just possibly might spawn life forms as ours has…because, despite the clearest of images beamed across space/time it remains an abstraction… a concept… slippery and seductive…an escape.
We’re in the middle of a voracious pandemic, our lives restricted, so in many ways, we are all Trappists now…facing the back alley of our own thoughts and imagination and that is where we travel….beyond the walls of our homes to faraway places that might or might not exist and within these lie dark corners unknown and unpredictable..both in real space and the “space” in our heads.
Arundhati Roy reflects that ‘the pandemic is a portal between one world and another…an invitation for humans to imagine a better place…‘ A Trappist 1e of the mind.“
Ink on board and stone. “Hidden in plain sight”
Toned & hand printed photograph
“At a time when our world seems to have shrunk to the four walls of home, it can seem difficult to envision the exploration of a whole new planet. I decided to crochet my own “new planet” and incorporate into it all the swamps and mountains, deserts and polar wastes that were the early building bricks of imagination for those of us who grew up with Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, and the original series of Star Trek. When you can’t explore the world, create a new world to explore. It may not be art – but it was damn good fun!
(NB – I have been reminded that some say the Creator made the world in 6 days and on the 7th he rested. Well, if he’d been crocheting, it would have taken him/her/it longer than 6 days! And I don’t suppose they had anyone leaning over their shoulder asking “What’s that bit supposed to be, exactly?”).
I’m really getting into this free-form crochet! Who knows what could be next? Robby the Robot perhaps, or the space-time continuum…”
“An utter flight of fancy on a classic theme – I have started to get the feeling that my studio is like a portal, a kind of feminine creative principle. These subjects, from an unknown place, have materialised. I have no idea what they are capable of!”
From an artist’s impression of a real world celestial body, the Kick-About #12 focuses our attention on a celebrated example of artists’ impressions of fake celestial bodies – the Cottingley fairies and the photographs that fooled the world. Thanks to regular kick-abouter, Marion Raper for our next creative prompt! Have fun and see you all here again soon.
Berlin-based artist Phil Cooper at work in his studio, September 2020
Regular visitors to Red’s Kingdom may already be familiar with the work of the artist, Phil Cooper, who is a regular participant in the fortnightly creative Kick-Abouts, in which artists based all over the world come together to create new work (or curate existing work) in response to a prompt. So far, Phil has given us beautiful hand-cut, hand-painted tableaux of lycanthropes and enticing portals, short spoken word fiction, maquettes of forlorn-looking buildings bracing themselves against storm and tempest, black and white photography, and one very sexy – if self-absorbed – lighthouse keeper!
When not kicking-about with the rest of us, Phil’s proper job is producing wonderful paintings, drawings and collages, which get snapped up almost-at-once by his followers on Instagram and via his website, phil-cooper.com. Phil also keeps a very beautiful and generous blog – Hedgecrows – which he began all the way back in 2012, and is a rich source of pleasure and inspiration, a veritable treasure trove of dreamy, transportive imagery that offers up a comprehensive insight into Phil’s passions, preoccupations and talents.
The completed Chimera Book One cover art painting on Phil’s suitably untidy table-top.
Given all his existing artistic activity, I was delighted when Phil expressed his interest in working with me to produce my children’s book, Chimera as an episodic podcast – or rather, produce new original artworks in response to the book to accompany the release of the audiobook here on Red’s Kingdom next month.
Our first priority was to start thinking about a ‘book cover’ for the Chimera podcast. Phil and I have been chatting little and often about the project for a number of months, but we caught up for a proper natter just after Phil completed the Chimeracover art and sent it my way, a conversation in which Phil and I explore the provenance of his creative direction. Highlights include Phil discussing Clive Hicks Jenkins winning the V&A 2020 Illustrated Book Award for his work on Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes and two middle-aged men reflecting on the strangeness of growing up in the 1970s!
During the course of our conversation, Phil and I make enthusiastic reference to a number of our mutual childhood touchstones – kitsch Christmas cards, boxes of fireworks and Halloween window displays. Consider the following a visual aid!
Phil Cooper and Phil Gomm in conversation, September 2020
The finished Chimera Book One cover painting by Phil Cooper, September 2020
Details from Phil’s painting for the cover art for Chimera Book One
“A great prompt. Most of my work aims to capture movement – action, transformation, development, energy, colour, sound… This time it brought back into life an idea I have been circling around for a long time, which turns into a sketch I did on a plane back from Mexico; great places to sketch, planes and trains. Some of my best ideas happen there; the myth of Icarus. While imprisoned in a tower, his father Daedalus, famous for having built the Labyrinth, made wings for Icarus, taught him to fly and warned him not to go too high or the heat of the sun will melt the wax used to make the wings – with the well known result. A great tragic story. It inspired so many paintings and art works showing all the stages of the story. I particularly love Bruegel’s one with just a pair of legs in the sea while life goes on. I decided to show the aftermath of the fall itself without the object, the gravity force pulling down breaking from the clouds through the air into the water; of course using my usual “control impulse” technique starting from the light in the foreground and stepping backward inside the painting with subsequent layers of ink washes getting deeper and deeper into the background and then out again. I hope Icarus enjoyed the time he had in the air, if short.”
“When I first started visiting Berlin, over ten years ago now, there were a great many abandoned buildings, ruins and left-overs from the second world war and the cold war dotted all around the city. Many of these have since been demolished, refurbished and turned into overpriced flats, or repackaged as museums etc, but quite a few still remain.
A few years ago I came across this strange place just south of the city at Adlershof. It was a site developed to test jet engines towards the end of the second world war. I think the doodlebugs were tested here. It is very eerie and peculiar. Even then, the city authorities had cottoned on to the fact that people were visiting the place and that it might have some mileage as a tourist trail curio. There were new signs and noticeboards about and they’d installed little pods around the buildings which, when you approached, started emitting B-movie sci-fi sounds like wailing theremins. It was all rather cheesy and funny, but it worked, strangely, and you wandered around feeling like you were in a 1970s Dr. Who episode or one of these series telling unsettling stories of the uncanny.
This buildings and structures were built to develop the fastest machines in the world, but they had a pretty short life. They soon became obsolete as other technologies came along.
It’s a bit like the concrete ‘sound mirrors’ near Dungeness, or the nuclear research site on Orford Ness; it has a nostalgic retro-futurist vibe that’s intriguing and a little bit melancholy. These places are relics, echoes of a past, and they have no use any more, they’re like ghosts.”
“Courtesy of my good friend and long-time collaborator, Ethan Shilling, I was able to transcribe John Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, a visual representation of the music showing the frequencies comprising the sound. The black and white image below is what the sound of this fast machine looks like as it accelerates from start to finish. With more than a nod to Kubrick’s 2001, the exhilarating opening titles to the original 1978 Superman, and a quick steal from Luigi Rossolo’s The Revolt, I took the resulting spectrogram, colourised it for heat, fizz and vibrancy, and pushed it into perspective for maximum velocity!”
“Two things stood out whilst listening to this piece…the steady tap, tap, tap in the background (like a leaking pipe or aid to meditation) and the abstract cacophony surrounding it. So I drew my friend Andy as a calm oblivious centre whilst a maelstrom of instruments, clothes (mask and gloves of course!) and detritus flew about his head.” Pen and ink on Fabriano. 22” X 22”
“Kicked-off with A1 drawing in elaborate-freeform. Day-2 was elaborate-freeform using a crude-mix of thinned oils. Day-3, after taking a dislike to it, chopped it into 12 squares with disregard for things I might have liked and scattered them beneath the work desk. Day-4, one week later, each square found its own right-way-up and the conclusion of the set was reached just beyond 4 hours 40 minutes. To avoid curating, they are presented in the order they were painted and no telling how they fit back into A1.” Oil on primed paper, set of 12, 16x16cm
“Although I have never heard this piece of music before I found it very inspirational and to me it could not have meant anything other than Drag Racing. My other half is a fanatical follower of the sport and has even been down the track himself a few times, whilst I have watched on the start line. It’s quite an experience! The lights count down, then there’s a sharp roar of engines (Don’t forget to cover your ears) and then the 2 cars launch down the track. Believe me the ground can actually shake! No way are my artistic skills up to capturing this moment, but it’s fun to remember the sensation and thrill of such amazing speed as you gaze into the distance and the parachutes come open to slow the cars down. Then the time comes up – 0 to 220mph in 6 seconds – now that’s moving!”
“When Phil announced the theme for Kick-About #9 was a musical composition by John Adams entitled a “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” oh, I had ideas. Because there is an incredibly fast machine operating inside of you – countless times a day, taking you on a too short ride from the moment of conception until the day you die: your DNA replication machinery. This complex machine, made up of dozens of components, makes an exact copy of your DNA in preparation for your cells to divide.”
“Here are two updated images with the little drawings completed, such as they are. Rough. But intentionally so. I made them to turn into an animation of sorts… I thought it might be fun to make them into a fake Muybridge photographic sequence. I made my grid. Very good fun.”
“Kind of you to add a late entry! I loved the piece of music, not heard that before. It would be a great soundtrack to a video of an X-15 in flight. I painted a view of an X-15 some years ago as part of a short series on the early American space programme. It has been a source of fascination from my early years. I think it is because it was cutting edge – they were writing the rule book for those who would follow.”
Wow – we’re on prompt number ten already! Courtesy of regular kick-abouter, Vanessa Clegg, we’ve got one of Joseph Cornell’s evocative boxes to inspire us. Have fun – and if you know someone who you think might enjoy a rush-around with the rest of us, do please extend the invitation.
There was a period in my life when I got used to editing other people’s video footage into coherency, inheriting hours of hand-held video and working with it to produce something engaging and resolved. Editing 5×5 was one of the more exciting and rewarding examples of this kind of work, not least because the slight chaoticism of the raw material was a big plus, in so much as it suited very well the splashy and instinctive fashion illustration of its subject, Neil Gilks (spelled Gilkes in the film, which I can only assume was considered correct at the time, but embarrassingly for everyone involved, may not have been!).
I was left with the challenge of turning lots of A1 fashion illustrations into animated sequences to propel the film along, and likewise seeking to pull the fashion illustrator himself into the world of his drawing style and of the drawings being produced by his students. The film accompanied an exhibition of drawings and was never meant to move outside of the hallowed halls of academia – hence my flagrant use of the exquisite final Bolero from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! I haven’t yet been set upon by the powers-that-be, but that time may soon come, so for the record (and about twelve years too late), a huge thank you to composer, Steve Sharples, because editing to this music was a total joy.
A while back, some old 35mm photographs resurfaced of my secondary school’s production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar – The Golden Garter – for a rowdy audience of cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a rather risque musical number that goes, ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’…
Francis Fryer’s Y chromosome comes as a shock in the 1953 film, Calamity Jane.
Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson) in drag performing on the stage of The Golden Garter, Calamity Jane (1953)
Francis Fryer performs Hive Full Of Honey, Calamity Jane (1953)
I was fourteen when I got the part of Francis Fryer. It’s 1989 and the annual school production is the highlight of the academic year. I only have very positive memories of my involvement in Calamity Jane. I remember being taught to walk in high heels by the deputy headmistress, which I enjoyed thoroughly, not because of the opportunity to click about in a woman’s shoes, but, more boringly, because I somehow valued this new informality between myself and this otherwise formidable adult. It was special-making and highly unusual, as intimate and demystifying as hearing teachers use each other’s first names with one another. I felt brought closer to the world of adults, a world I instinctively preferred over the inelegancies and bun-fights of my own age-group.
I remember very distinctly the dress rehearsal, when all the hired-in costumes arrived at the school, and I saw Francis Fryer’s saloon girl costume for the first time, an extraordinary confection of red and black satin, with a swishing fishtail at the back and only the tiniest scallop of fringed fabric hanging down at the front. Even now, I can conjure-up the prickle of mortification accompanying the moment I was given my notes by the director after the first dress rehearsal: “Philip,’ he said, ‘If you’re going to do that with your legs, you need to wear black pants.’
It’s tempting to frame this story as the moment I knew I was gay, that somehow the touch of red and black satin riveted me at once to my sexual identity; or it was those high-heel shoes, or the tights, the wig, or the ticklish slink of my red feather boa. It wasn’t like that at all. There was no such realisation or great awakening, no light-bulb moment or epiphany. The act of dressing-up as a woman didn’t feel encoded for me, or provocative, or transgressive. It was just what the character had to do in the story and that was that.
But it did make me feel special in one very obvious way: the role of Francis Fryer, and specifically his drag act, was a sure-fire way of making people laugh, and people did laugh, not least because during one performance the black sequinned garter on my left thigh became entangled with the fish tights on my right, effectively tying my legs together for the duration of my musical number. I waddled through my routine, penguin-like, while mugging furiously at the front row of the audience, mining my wardrobe malfunction for maximum laughs.
The whole point of Francis Fryer’s drag act is that it’s not very good – and I wasn’t – but that just brought the cheering and the applause. Off-stage, I was likely awkward as a foal, and always painfully self-conscious at how skinny I was, but on stage I was ‘a character actor’, a physical comedian! On stage – with those legs in those tights! – I looked ridiculous and that was power.
So no, I didn’t feel switched-on sexually in my saloon girl dress, but I did feel powerful. I had audiences eating out of my hand, knowing one bit of silliness with knock-knees and a feather boa would bring down the house. When you entertain people, when you clown for them, they reward you with affection. I felt liked. I felt popular. It was wonderful really, stealing the show from all those much better-looking boys. I knew I wasn’t leading man material, but I was the funny one.
But when I look at these photographs of that same time, my feelings are more complicated and it’s this I sought to capture in my unexpectedly personal response to the most recent Kick-About prompt.
When I look at the juvenile forms of the cicada, I experience instinctive distaste and also fascination. I feel similarly about these images of my own larval self. I experience some distaste at my physical appearance back then in the way we all recoil a bit – unremarkably – when we see images of our younger selves. This isn’t an admission of body dysmorphia or deep self-loathing, but only the truth of things. More uniquely perhaps, I experience distaste because of what I know awaits the boy in the photographs, and how the reappearance of these images returns me to a period of my life I have no wish to revisit.
This isn’t quite true actually; when I look at these photographs I do want to revisit this exact place and time – to warn, to mentor, to coach, and to save – but I know I can’t. Ultimately, that is what I find so unwelcome about these images; my powerlessness to intervene.
He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is going to be bullied by other boys. He is not going to tell anyone about it, because that is what boys do. He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is very likely embarrassing the other men of his family. Perhaps they can see something getting started in him – some adult-form coalescing – an anomaly. It’s surely what his bullies are seeing too. Funnily enough, the boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t seem to be able to see this same thing as keenly. The boy thinks he’s popular with everyone. He is the centre of attention suddenly because he is making people laugh. Turns out, people are laughing at him a bit too, but not because he’s funny haha, but because he’s odd, peculiar, different, not cool, not hard, not savvy, not a success at being a fourteen year old boy.
Oh dear! The boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t even realise, in dressing up as a woman and appearing to enjoy it, he’s upsetting and disappointing people. Some might even say a fourteen year old boy who chooses to put on a saloon girl’s dress, who learns to walk in high heels, is asking for a certain kind of trouble.
But you see, the bullies, and all the other disappointed men, are right about him – their suspicions will be realised. The boy in the dress in the photograph, who may as well be neutered for all the interest he is showing in matters of sex and sexual relationships, will, in time, emerge from his chrysalis – or rather his closet. We are looking at the nymph of an adult gay man in this photo, but everything about this individual’s gestation will be slow, and his final form not butterfly-like or in any sense spectacular. No, rather like the cicada itself, he will have to settle for ‘interesting’ over ‘beautiful’.
The boy in the dress in the photograph will soon learn to cocoon himself. He will grow a little more inward and ever more watchful. He will separate himself off from some of the men who find him disappointing by creating a shell and moving inside it for as long as it takes to feel ready enough to leave it again. The boy will do other things to keep himself safe, and not all of them will be kind or generous or brave or entirely honest.
So it is I came to the creative decision to use these happy/unhappy photographs as the raw material from which to fashion a collection of pupa, collaging with them digitally, using the same limited number of Photoshop manoeuvres last wheeled out in my Metropolis images. The decision to present the resulting images as faux zoological plates came from an idea I had about just how old these photographs feel to me – like relics, or fossils, museum pieces certainly – but also to communicate something of my scrutiny for this subject; the way distaste can give way to curiosity, and curiosity to an acceptance of the form things take on their way to being other things, and the time it takes, and also, I suppose, to marvel at the instinct to survive, and in the end, to do more than this.
“Even after I’ve long since left this place I currently call home, cicadas more than anything will be the thing I associate the most about summer in Japan. Of course, the amazing sound they make is their most recognisable and iconic trait, but they have another peculiar behavior I find quite morbidly fascinating. After they do their yearly cicada thing, the final resting place of an unlucky few ends up being in the middle of the street, helplessly stranded on their backs, their legs still sometimes twitching, left to roast in the searing summer heat. Presumably, big black crows (which are the other sound of Japan) then come and scoop them up later on for a crunchy crow feast. Their short-lived life, once they emerge from their slumber, is truly bizarre!
Cicadas are also a traditional subject of origami art because of the charming simplicity of the easiest design which anyone can make, but also because of the huge degree of complexity and mastery required to make more realistic designs such as by the likes of Akira Yoshizawa. I’m not an origami master, in fact I’m quite sure I couldn’t even do a nice mountain fold, so rather than wasting a lot of paper, here’s my tribute to the fallen cicada inspired by origami but not actually origami.“
“The prompt is Cicada, and those little creatures are old friends at this stage. I spent two weekends working on this prompt. The first one I spent learning some animation techniques, and my original intention was to make an animation by selecting material from Searching for Cicadas either working with some of the unused artwork, or developing a page from the book.
But on the second weekend I wandered in a different direction. It began with thinking about cicadas in a less realistic way and thinking about drawing some She Cicadas in the style of my Metropolis Bird Women. Then I thought about the unique, and seemingly magical qualities of a cicada (in particular, its life cycle and metamorphosis) and how easily cicadas might fit into a fairy or folk tale. I haven‘t written anything like that since The Woman, the Chicken and the Grapes. And it seemed the perfect break from intense illustration work.
However, I was forgetting my tendency towards perfectionism (strangely combined with a loathing for neatness, exactness or fussiness), and so, Kick-About time is up and the fairy tale is not complete. But never mind! Here are some images I began for it…”
“Only knowing cicadas from Animal Crossing, I thought I’d have a look into them. Did you know that they can live up to 17 years? AND make a sound louder than 100 decibels! Impressive for a chubby little sap-drinker! They come in a few different colours, but a pastel one really resounded with me so here he is! A digital painting of a vibrant cicada with his little dancing feet.”
“An epic and bi-sectioned electronic piece telling the story of the cicada life from a more dark point of view. Beware – the first four minutes are much quieter than the last two. Good speakers or headphones are recommended.”
“Cicadas are one of many species that make multiple visible transformations during their lifespans. The longest living insects, they are symbols of both rebirth and immortality. What beautiful wings they have. I first painted the cicada, then glued wax paper down for the wings and embroidered on top.”
“A month or so ago, some old photographs resurfaced of a school production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar for cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a musical number that goes ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’.
The year is 1989, I’m fourteen years old and I enjoy this opportunity to dress up and make audiences laugh. Sometime after this, the bullying will start and I will enter a prolonged period of change. You might say, I start to incubate new ideas about myself, not all of them positive. You might say, I start to slough skin – more than one – as I seek to establish some final form.
When I look at these photographs, I do so with discomfort, and not simply because the adolescent in the photograph is so scrawny and such a late-starter. I feel hugely protective of him too, for he knows not what he looks like. He does not know what drag is or what it ‘means’ to the world around him. At the point these photographs were taken, this boy doesn’t know what is coming; he doesn’t know he’s just walked into the cross-hairs. He doesn’t know while he’s making lots of people laugh on stage, he’s making other people hate him or provoking embarrassment and disappointment. When I look at these photographs, I see something soft that is very soon going to learn the art of cocooning for protection. I see a very long period of incubation, and not an ending with a beautiful butterfly in it, but a life-form in lots of ways less graceful, but, also yes, with wings.“
The subjects of the three faux zoological plates are digital collages created entirely from the two photographs below and are presented here as curios, a collection of still-incubating lifeforms once forgotten but newly available to scrutiny, dissection and my strange fascination.”
“I must say that I feel like I have turned into a Cicada in the heatwave this week! I had so many false starts trying to capture the essence of these amazing creatures. Eventually I settled for “Happy little Cicadas” after they have just emerged after 17years underground. Well you would be!”
“Cicadas roared in combined force with intense heat and high humidity challenging young (21 year old) endurance levels. That was summer of ’73 in glorious Sydney’s Kirribilli. We were surrounded in the thick of a city wide swarm and whichever way was possible to rattle you it came about, as inside was an inferno, so just you try drowning out mating cicadas when you’re behaving like a heated ‘frog in a sock’.”
“I’ve been wanting to play around with a fairy/insect taxidermy concept for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I took wings, colours and patterns from pictures of cicadas to make this unfortunate fairy, preserved and pinned, ready to go on the wall.”
“I didn’t grow up with cicadas or the sounds of cicadas. There are apparently 30 species of cicada found in California (and 3,000 worldwide), but almost none of them are commonly found or heard in the Los Angeles metro area. I remember hearing my first true ear-ringing buzz-saw worthy cicada at a private campground in Arizona as an adult in my early-twenties. True story: I turned to my friend and asked why the campground would play a recording of such demented cricket noises so loud on the PA system. My friend, who also grew up in suburban Los Angeles, shrugged and said she didn’t know. Rest assured, I have now heard the infamous cicada mating calls many times and have been made to understand how much a part of summer they are for many people around the world.
So when the theme for the Kick-About #8 was announced as simply the word “Cicada,” I knew I wanted to lean towards the absurd a little. What is a cicada to someone who has never heard or seen one? Insects are as vulnerable to climate change and extinction as any other creature – what happens when we start asking after cicadas when they don’t emerge as reliably? Or at all?
I wish to emphasize that no bugs were harmed in the making of this art. I went in search of local insects that had met their demise naturally. I was lucky in finding the Swallowtail butterfly wings right away, but then the supply of large naturally-deceased insects dried up. As they say, the fastest way to make something disappear is to go looking for it on a schedule. I finally found a mostly intact green june beetle.”
“I was a bit worried when I first saw this prompt. To be honest, I’m not big on bugs. But the more I learnt about cicadas and their life cycle, the more I wondered about their relationship with the trees – trees that sheltered the cicada young, fed them, provided a launch pad for the climax of their lives, and then stood amongst their corpses, while cicada eggs hatched among their leaves and dropped the next generation of cicadas at their roots.
As the prompt originated in Japan, and as seventeen is such a significant number in the cicada’s life, it seemed absolutely right to base my verse structure on the Haiku, a Japanese poetic form consisting of three lines made up of seventeen syllables in a five-seven-five format.”
“I have two images relating to the new kick-about “Cicada”. I love the sound of summer filling the day, the hot air on the skin, the smell of herbs and grass, they are my childhood summers on the Ligurian coast. One of the paintings is the summer grass, an image I have been trying to paint for many years and will likely keep trying to paint. The other one is a monotype on plastic made with raffia dipped in ink, I was trying to capture the movement of bamboo leaves and insects.”
“The sounds of the Cicada’s mating call transports me to a world where my senses are in overload, a world that could be filled with spine tingling horror, but also a world that is somewhat calming. The high pitched calls make the surroundings fill with texture that bounce and dance in conjunction with the cicadas’ return from beneath their muddy graves to molt and leave their skin littered across the land.”
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.
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.
“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…”
“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 fieldsin 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 Ennuias 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!