I painted this from a sketch I made in one of my life drawing sessions at Battersea Art Centre in London. I donated it to a local fundraiser for Breast Cancer Awareness. I hope the nudity doesn’t offend anyone, but how can you be aware of your breasts if you don’t look at them? Now, go stand in front of your mirror and do your self check. Thanks.
Tangled? Yes… but not so much the yarn as the emotions. Back from what everyone has dubbed “the trip of a lifetime”, we are attempting to untangle the threads. Some will never unravel; they are tightly knit into the essence of our beings now – those are the threads that go back years, even decades, the threads that led us to open our homes and hearts to the people who became dear friends over the years and were our hosts for this adventure. Some are wound into the ball of the future, waiting to be unleashed when a cat’s paw – or an earthquake, or the wind – sets them rolling again. Some of the threads are loose ends, bits that came undone when no one was paying attention, or appeared out of nowhere – those are the “now what?” threads. And those are the most difficult to untangle. It’s good to be home, it’s important to be home… but to be honest, taking out the garbage and recycling on Tuesday night is way less glamourous than racing to catch a bus for the next performance of “Mama Mia” in London. Ah, but Life’s Rich Pageant Marches On!
As we said goodbye to London, I put together some of my mental “snapshots” into this:
We will miss the thrill of the Big City, the different flavors of the neighborhoods, the people we got to know. Thanks to everyone who helped us have such a marvelous couple of months! Here are a few of my London sketches that didn’t get posted in the rush of heading to Botswana:
I have been closely examining my impressions from these last few months, in terms of art specifically, and in terms of life, the universe, and everything. (Have I left anything out?)
The art I have studied has been humbling, overwhelming, and inspiring. More than once I was sure my head and my heart would explode. The Victoria and Albert was my favorite museum, and I barely scratched the surface there.
The art I have made has been exhilarating, satisfying, and I remain very humble. More than once I considered investing in companies that make erasers.
Sketching in the many places we have explored, I gained an appreciation of the value of the classical Western methods of learning art – here is the technique, here is the masterpiece, look, draw, repeat, look, draw, repeat. Just like a young athlete repeats the critical motions over and over, until muscle memory takes over, then begins to experiment with variations, tweaks, and subtleties, so a middle age artist repeats and experiments. Some of the motions are already second nature, and some of those must even be unlearned. But the exhilaration of learning is almost enough in and of itself. The going is as good as the getting there. The joy is in the process. I haven’t been able to post many sketches recently, but for every one I’ve posted I have a dozen others that I like and two that I don’t like and one I have jettisoned. Here are a few more.
London, we will miss you.
Last week we flew in to Botswana , where we are finally thrilled to meet our Botswana “grandchildren”, Wedu and Masego, and are enjoying a very warm welcome (not just the weather)! We have seen “the Lands”, where the family has started a farm with avocados, mangos, and oranges, and where the sound of cowbells drifted in from the bush. We made a quick car tour of Lily’s home village, where a child on the street pointed at us and laughed the Botswana equivalent of, “Gringos!” So far the major “wildlife” visible as we travel through this capital city of Gabarone are the random herds of donkeys, goats, and brahma cattle that wander along the shoulders of the four lane highways, thoughtfully munching on thorn bushes as traffic mostly manages to avoid them. Thus does village life get overtaken by urban development – eventually the livestock will disappear from the highways, but for now they are tolerated or at least ignored. It’s too hot to bother chasing them down, and I suspect they provide a good income for the auto body repair folks!
We leave in a couple of days for a week long safari…. Looking forward to drawing elephants…– and lions… – and maybe even the crocodiles of the great green Limpopo River!
If I were going to start a new novel, I think I would set it here in London, in the Brick Lane area, and it would center around the colorful history of this small building, and St. Matthew’s church and the other odd little buildings scattered around it. We have been privileged to stay with people who know so much about this place and who can just pop over to the book shelf and come up with a handful of history pamphlets about local denizens like Jack the Ripper, Dorothy L Sayers, the Elephant Man… the list goes on. The bricks in Brick Lane were awash not so long ago witih the horrors that Dickens touched upon and evidently only hinted at. Now on Sunday afternoons those same bricks are covered with the well-heeled feet of literally thousands of upscale young trendsetters intent on being seen and drinking outrageous amounts of alcohol… but behind the graffiti-sprayed metal shop doors, and above the scenic pubs, the same ethnic pots bubble and boil. What a fascinating chapter this has been for us!We now have just a few days left in London, so we are saying our thank yous to our new London friends: to Helen and Gary and Pat for a festive supper at “The Dog” in Dulwich last night, to Sebastian and Squeak and all of their friends and family for sharing their warmth and cheer, and to Fiona for stepping happily up to the plate at the last minute and even putting up new curtains for us in the sunny guest room! We may not have the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner this year, but we are truly Thankful for our Blessings!
Finally finished a piece from the Tower of London “Locked In” session… it’s really all about the outfit, obviously, but I was trying for a ghostly effect! If being in the Tower of London at night doesn’t confirm your belief in ghosts, seeing a fox glide around an ancient churchyard on a moonlit night will…
We are now staying in “The Watch House” in the Bethnal Green/ Shoreditch area of London. The Watchhouse on the corner of St Matthew’s Churchyard was built in 1754. With the growing trade in human corpses for dissection, in 1792 it was necessary to appoint a watchman who was paid ten shillings and sixpence a week to be on permanent guard against resurrectionists. A reward of two guineas was granted for the apprehension of any body-snatchers and the watchman was provided with a blunderbuss and permission to fire from an upper window, once a rattle had been sounded three times. The churchwardens still hold this right. Our understanding is that by being residents of that room, we hold the rights, and we take our responsibility seriously. Which is why I was looking out the upstairs window last night, secretly hoping to spot some kind of spiritual goings-on… when something actually floated between me and one of the park benches. I caught my breath, thinking, “Careful what you wish for, dearie!”.
Never mind that there are no longer any graves here. As our host Sebastion told us, “Hitler cleaned out the church and the graveyard with two direct bomb hits. The former residents were scattered to Kingdom Come…” Ironic, given the lengths to which the good people of the church had gone to keep them here. The church yard is now essentially a city park, with just one surviving grave marker, all pinkish-grey at night because of the nearby street lamps. But graves or not, something was out there. I leaned closer to the window, which of course fogged up because of my heavy breathing. I rubbed a circle in the fog with my sleeve, and there it was again. I called Griff to come see, but by the time he got up the winding, creaky, narrow stairs (it comes with the 250-year-old territory) it had vanished. No, wait! There! By the foundation of the church, a fox crept along in the shadow, its impossibly fluffy tail floating behind it. So graceful, so quick…then it vanished again.
This morning I checked on Google to be sure I hadn’t dreamed it. Nope – there are evidently as many foxes in London as there are coyotes in California urban areas. Sebastian confirmed that there are plenty in this neighborhood, he’s even found evidence that they have followed the cat through the open back window into the house! They are not a healthy population, lots of mange and other diseases, so they are considered pests, but you’ve got to admire their chutzpah. And my theory is that the foxes are probably one reason we haven’t seen a single rat here in London.
Surrounded by students, I sat in the Library of the Royal Bourough of Kensington and Chelsea this afternoon and reveled in the very luxury of having an entire afternoon to be In the Presence of Books. It’s been years since I really had an opportunity to read more than the occasional chapter before bedtime, and even more years since I had time to study. The college age students around me seemed oblivious to their privilege, sighing, fidgeting. The young dipstick to my left had his earbud music up so loud that I could actually hear it echoing through the hollows in his skull – I pity his poor spouse in 40 years when he is for all intents and purposes deaf. But back to the library.
We have spent quite a few afternoons in libraries, Griff working on his laptop, me prowling the art and local history sections. Some neighborhood libraries here in London are simply pathetic shadows of what they used to be, shelves holding a smattering of worn paperbacks and DVDs. Others are wonders. Today’s was indeed a wonder, quiet and spacious and smelling of ink and paper. I spread out my colored pencils and papers, then for four hours I indulged in “The London Sketch Club”, a limited edition publication probably found only in London, followed by a huge glossy “oversize” book of Willam Morris designs, then a volume about Grotesques and Gargoyles on medieval Catholic buildings. I sketched as I read, making graphic notes about borders I especially liked.
After awhile I began to realize that everything I have seen and done on this trip is beginning to “gel”. The seemingly random sketches and events and lessons are all having an impact on my perception and style. For instance, I’m finally beginning to “get it” with the human body. Here is my latest sketch made from a sculpture in the Victoria and Albert museum:
Not perfect, but as close as I’ve ever come to saying, “By George, I think I’ve got it!” And for the first time, some random person walked up behind me as I sketched and said, “Brilliant!” But aside from that, there’s a feeling of beginning to grasp that art throughout human history flows like rivers, that there are certain themes and shapes that recur all over the planet , that it’s all intertwined. For awhile a couple of weeks ago I was overwhelmed by all the genius I was seeing, on the verge of feeling too humbled to make anything more… but the realization that every new thing is based at least in part on some old thing inspires me to keep going. Beyond the sheer in-the-moment joy of sketching, painting, and making, every inconsequential little sketch or cartoon has the potential to evolve into something worthwhile on a larger scale. Or not. Either way, it’s wonderful to be here.
For the next three weeks (can that be all?!) I will continue with my Life Drawing classes, my sketching classes, and my library pursuits about design, and whatever else presents itself. Then I will see how Africa fits into the universal patterns I’m finding. And in the meantime, the bonus is that most of London is stringing up billions of lights that will be illuminated for Christmas very soon! Woohoo!
Going back a few weeks in my Moleskine, I finished the quick sketch I did before dinner the night we stayed in Calais. Dinner included wonderful little mussels, so i added those as a border. The fishermen were mending their nets on the rocks below the hotel, and the boats in the harbor were anchored together in a necklace of ropes separated by bright orange buoys, so all of that became part of the “fabric” of the sketch. Fun!
Following the nautical theme, we’re in the Putney region of London now, and we’ve found a great spot on the Thames to watch the rowing practices near the bridge.
The first night here I intended to capture just the chocolate river and the fading leaves, but suddenly the rowers came into view and I sketched them very quickly. Turned out they were a bit too big for the river, but that’s what I like to think of as artistic license. Then the sun came out from behind the clouds and set the leaves on fire, so suddenly it was a very different undertaking. And I love the little sign that says “Bay liable to flooding,”… so subtle, so British. They could say “don’t park here unless you want your car to float away,” but much like all of the “Mind the Gap” reminders in the subways, they leave you to figure out the risks for yourself.
The first time I came to Europe in 1978, I lamented the lack of Real Breakfast. Given my small budget and craving for eggs, I was reduced to buying boiled eggs at train stations. When we did splurge once for a B&B, I was appalled by the cold toast triangles accompanied by rock hard frigid butter… and a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup, which I had no idea how to manage to eat.
Fast forward to 2011. Not quite as poor. Still amazed at the complete lack of understanding that the Whole Point of Toast is the melting butter on the hot crispy bread. The fried “tomahto” is a great idea, however – get one serving of vegetables in early in the day! And the mushrooms are simply decadent… sigh. What strikes me now is the immensity of the plate – how could one person ever eat that much and not be miserable all morning? B&B’s and cafes offer “full British breakfast” right and left, but they still don’t get the Toast. In the sketch above, made yesterday from a photo taken of my plate in RamsGate’s Belgian Cafe last week, you see the vegetarian version, a bit heavy on the potatoes, cold toast not pictured. This version substituted “bubble and squeak” (leftover mashed potatoes and cabbage) for “bacon”, which is usually like Canadian bacon or very thin ham. Non-vegetarian versions also include two very plump and delicious sausages… Both versions include the British version of “baked beans”, which is essentially boiled navy beans in watery catsup… no onions, no brown sugar, no actual tomatoe sauce….needs a bit of work in my opinon. But the Belgains also included a half-pint of Stella-Artois and coffee, so ultimately it was a good deal!
Post-Tower has been insane: in the last six days, we’ve moved to our new Pied-a-Terre apartment (that’s apparently French for Really Tiny) in the Crouch End part of London, where getting internet coverage involves standing in one specific corner of the room and holding the laptop above your head; we’ve discovered that just up the road is Alexandra Palace and the most incredible pub on the planet (architecturally speaking, it’s a cathedral – haven’t tried the beer yet!) ; we were surprised to see that the national Stitch and Knit exhibit was at the Palace over the weekend (quilters, picture just stumbling in to the National Quilt Expo on a Sunday afternoon stroll); and Griff’s computer died and he learned the joys and terrors of buying a new computer overseas. So given that I’m already tired of holding the laptop above my head, here is a quick sketch from the Palace, with Tower sketches to come when we have better wifi coverage.
As it is affectionately known locally, the “Ally Pally” palace was built in 1873 and burned to the ground three weeks later. It was never meant for royalty, it was meant to be a “People’s Palace” for exhibitions, fairs, and so on. But even so, those plucky Victorians rebuilt it immediately, and it had a very colorful if weird past, including being used as a refugee camp and internment camp in the wars, until it burned again in the 1980’s. The BBC radio tower on the right figures prominently in BBC history, and was used to block German radio signals and disrupt many bombing runs. But my favorite part of the palace is that Rose Window, and I’ve included the pattern that appears in its outer borders to look like it’s coming from the radio tower. And if you watch the 2012 Olympics, you may see it on TV because the Dutch Olympic team is going to be living there during the Games!
Most prisoners tried to bribe their way out, but we tried to bribe our way in… Friday night was the “Great Tower Lock-In”, an event associated with the worldwide “Big Draw” that is happening this month. A local art group had arranged with Her Majesty to allow 40 – 50 artists to come in to the Tower after it was closed to the public and spend the evening drawing. We registered online while in Germany, thinking we could pick up tickets at “will call”… long story short, that didn’t work as planned but we got in via the irresistible combination of guile and old age. And it was SO worth it!
The Tower is actually a vast fortress, some of the walls and arches built more than 1000 years ago. Talk about a cool place to play Robin Hood! Of course, there is a tower – well, no, there are a bunch of towers – but there are also vistas along the river, against the castles, down into the moat – all of which were illuminated first by a gorgeous soft golden sunset then a clear cold moon. The cold was the reason why you will see no sketches of any of that – brr – until I get a chance to hopefully work from a few photos.
Griff the Navigator came along just to experience the Tower environment, and we were so glad he did. We were able to go into the chapel, sit next to the crypt where Ann Boleyn and her Beheaded Companions were laid to rest, listen to eerie monastic medieval chants, and sketch a man dressed a la King Henry. Or to climb to the King’s Bedchamber (oh, my aching knees) and sketch him in his nightshirt (the actor looked very much like Winston Churchill). All in all there were five different rooms available to us. The combination of being in The Real Tower of London, with the costumed actors and actresses, in the eerie quiet, and in the “true castle light” (i.e. not much of it) was so overwhelming that my sketches are really in need of further work. Some of the artists did amazing ‘drawrings’ though, in spite of it all. I told the organizers that now we just need to go back tonight and do it all again, since we are now mentally prepared for the impact of being there… they gave me one of those eye-brow-up British looks and smiled wanly. Oh, well, I tried.
When the sketching was over, the Captain of the Yeoman Guard allowed us to watch the Ceremony of the Keys. Locking up the crown jewels at night has been done exactly this way for centuries, although without the automatic rifles I imagine. It involved a good deal of clicking heels and manly shouts of “Who comes there?!” by young soldiers in bearskin headdresses and red uniforms, and a trumpet solo at the end, all illuminated by a single candle in a single lantern… but even anti-military anti-Imperialism me couldn’t help being slightly awed. Then as he led us to the “wicket gate” to let us out of the now-locked tower, the Captain told us ghost stories and love stories about the Tower. .. sigh.
We stepped outside of the tiny gate, and the bubble burst. Suddenly we were up against finding a bus home in the windy reality of being near the Thames late at night. But wow, what a night.