A bird just flew in the window. By 1985 I was a PhD student in the Zoology Department of Edinburgh University, studying a small corner of animal behaviour: how games theory might be applied to the feeding and fighting behaviour of the Great Tit. Somewhat esoteric, I admit, but at the time I didn’t realise just how much this was stretching me, beyond my limit. Living in the Edinburgh Colonies, where I rented a room off architect Richard Murphy, and happily spending weekends exploring the Highlands, my working week was dedicated to understanding bird behaviour through pure theory. It required me to exclude all emotion, all intuition, any personal connection with my subjects, to efface all trace of myself – snap.
It was then that I came across a second-hand book on ‘living with birds’ by an eccentric English naturalist. So intimate, so personal, so heartfelt, so antagonistic to the cerebral approach needed for the PhD that it shook me out of my science-trance. Reading that hardback I realised I could no longer complete my three-year research programme and write my thesis without damaging myself. A few months later I bailed out of the PhD and returned south, to London.
Over the intervening years that catalytic tome became an increasingly faint memory, a frail reminder of my u-turn from science towards art (first Camberwell Art Foundation, then Kingston BA, followed by Royal College MA) as I had lost my copy and couldn’t remember the title or author’s name. Until yesterday, that is.
An email arrived from Pushkin Press advertising their latest release, Bird Cottage, about the life and times of Gwendolyn ‘Len’ Howard and her 1950s best seller ‘Birds as Individuals’. To be reconnected with that book, and with it to reinnervate those lost avian pathways – what an unexpected gift. A long-missed bird just flew in the window! [In memory of Pete Marsh, a fellow traveller in Edinburgh]
For a time I shared a flat with the Japanese illustrator, Satoshi Kitamura, above an abandoned shop at the top end of Ladbroke Grove, just across the Regents Canal from Kensal Green. My grandmother is buried there, in the family grave at Kensal Green Cemetery. That was an introverted time; the cemetery came to monopolize my imagination. I ended up making a series of works about it; animated walks through that sepulchral landscape. So here is my sketchbook from then, filled with flip-book maps of the cemetery layout. Later I came across GK Chesterto’s poem, The Rolling English Road, which ends with the line “Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green”. I have never forgotten the feel of that place, or the series of nocturnal Kodachrome images I made of the area, colour saturated, focus blurred. I am still hoping to come across those Rorschach pictures in this studio clearout. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, I have found the illustration that Satoshi drew to go above our dilapidated loo, showing how to flush by pulling a rather grotty piece of cloth tied to the cistern! [Remember Satoshi?]
Once upon a time, at the centre of our world there was a sun, surrounded by the chill-darkness of space, and from that sun we received light, and the scientists passed that light through glass prisms and revealed a sun-shaped splash of colour, reds, greens, blues and all mixes between. I grew up with this story, and was happy with it, until last week.
The question was asked: “what if the sun were dark and the heavens light, what would the prism reveal then?” So the scientists inverted their experiment, projecting a dark dot at the prism, surrounded by light. What colours would come from a dark sun? Well, nothing of course, nothing comes out of darkness…except…that’s my silhouette bathed in the colours from a black sun. [Experience Colour at the Glasshouse Arts Centre. Don’t miss it.]
Just as I arrived to begin my residency in HMP (Her Magesty’s Prison) The Verne it closed. Over the next few months, the time of my residency, it transformed itself into an IRC (Immigration Removal Centre). The work I made during this time reflected The Verne’s in-between status. To mark the occasion of the closure, we all got an engraved prison warder’s whistle and mine has been lying at the bottom of a box marked ‘Verne’ since then.
I have had the chance to work with some pretty amazing people over the years, including Pascal Mychalysin, the master mason at Gloucester Cathedral. This was back in 1998 when I was artist-in-residence there. One day we were up on the scaffolding looking at the work he was doing restoring some of the stonework, when he pulled out a loose piece of mortal and with it came this oyster shell. Pascal reckoned that it was put there by a medieval mason on his lunch break, stuffing the empty shell of the oyster that he had just eaten into to the crack to get rid of it. Oysters were a common food in those days, or so I was led to believe. I held onto that shell with its mortar pedestal. For a moment the centuries between then and now collapsed. That is also how I see Pascal: through his work he has a direct connection to those time that he has come to embody.
The studio clearout continues. I guess I take my englishness with me wherever you go, even into the open-plan studio Gute Gründe that was my base during our Berlin years (2003–2007): hence ‘knight’ Ryder on this reminder to pay for the phone. It was a strange mix in that studio, quite a few children’s book illustrators as well as other artists. Three weeks in Berlin, one week in the UK: that was my routine at the time. I got to know Easyjet very well!
The studio clear out continues and this was in one of the boxes: the cremated remains of a swan that made it all the way from Siberia only to die on arrival at its breeding grounds on the Severn Estuary. That swan has been flying in my imagination ever since. I know what she looked like, her unique markings, her life history; and I know I need to make an artwork out of this precious bag of carbon.