Live Art, Loud Preaching and Lovely People

That's me!

That’s me!

This Saturday I picked up my brushes for the first time in a couple of years and did a live art session for a gallery in Peterborough. I tried hard not to think about it beforehand, because it’s been so long since I did any painting. I needn’t have worried. Turns out it’s a bit like riding a bike. Actually, much of my nerves was about putting myself ‘out there’ to be criticised. When I’ve had pieces in exhibitions in the past there’s always been someone ready to say that abstract isn’t real art or their five year old could do better. It’s one thing coping with one-star book reviews, or even sarky comments in a guest book, and another to have it said to your face.

It didn’t start well, as I misunderstood a joke made by one of the gallery volunteers when he said “It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty – you paint abstracts, no one will notice that you can’t paint.”

I was later assured by the manager that it was a joke, but it did leaving me a bit sensitive. Once I started painting, however, it was fine. I love my painting style and I’m not precious: it isn’t fine art but it is fun. A bit like literary fiction versus genre fiction; there’s lots of snobbery nonsense said about both but in the end people like what they like and we’re all on the same side trying to make a living out of something we love.

Working hard

Working hard

The other challenges were the heat (acrylic dries very quickly in direct sunlight) and the evangelicals preaching via loud-hailer a few metres away. So much for a relaxing few hours away from the children: there wasn’t much restful about an afternoon listening to the denouncement of sinners and fornicators. Each to their own, of course, and I’m all for the freedom of speech, but if it had been me I’d rather have sat down the pub with a cool drink.

The best part was talking to all the people who stopped by to watch. I met a lovely couple of singers and encouraged the man to go right now and buy paint, because he kept saying he’d love to try painting abstracts ‘one day’. I met an old lady who loves Lowry and a young girl of seven or eight who will definitely be a children’s book illustrator one day. I wish I’d taken her name. Her mother showed me drawings of giraffes she had done and they were brilliant. I like to think I suggested a career path in illustration that she hadn’t thought of before.

I met a pregnant artist hoping to find time to paint when the baby is born, and a man who apparently comes to the gallery every day, who thought my red painting looked like a volcano erupting.

It was a rewarding day, despite the headache, and I look forward to doing it again. Next time I’ll take ear plugs!

My studio!

My studio!

The volcano!

The volcano!

The Long Silence Explained

SylvesterIt occurred to me after I posted my essay on guilt yesterday that I forgot entirely to explain the long silence, despite putting that in my title. Making it a separate post possibly gives it too much weight, as if anything more than normal life has been going on in the last four weeks. It hasn’t. That said, there has been a convergence of events since the beginning of November, creating something like a maelstrom in my life. Some I’ve mentioned already – my husband being made redundant for example – but others happened amidst the whirlwind of NaNoWriMo and beyond.

NaNoWriMo in itself was a struggle this year. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and about the life of a Writer (with the capital letter firmly in place.) I didn’t start NaNo until several days into November because my brain was frozen after weeks of editing. Ideas don’t exactly spill out from my tired mind on the best of days but I had truly exhausted my imagination writing and editing Dragon Wraiths in nine months (ready for the Mslexia competition – more on that later). So in the end I opted to write up a story idea I had for NaNo back in 2010 (abandoned for something easier due to having a tiny baby to care for).

The idea excited me because it combined my favourite things – love stories and Georgette Heyer. The basic concept is a girl auditions to be an extra in a Georgette Heyer movie (based on the book Sylvester) but ends up being cast as the lead role despite having no acting experience. Various plots and dramas ensue and it ends with a love story.

But oh the writing was hard. I know next to nothing about making movies – not something that would normally daunt me, that’s what Google is for. But researching during NaNo is difficult as it breaks the flow. Then I realised I had no story arc, only character arcs, so I was writing into the dark. Again not something that normally bothers me, but this time (whether due to sleep deprivation, mental depletion or just a rubbish story idea) I drove into the dark to find only more dark.

nano_12_winner_detailI managed to limp over the 50k mark with two hours to go, but it was the greatest struggle and I was happy to abandon my half-written novel for Christmas Shopping on 1st December. Will I pick it up again? Hopefully one day. I began to understand my characters and get interested in the intrigue, but it is a draft that requires a complete rewrite so it’s likely to languish for a while. What did I learn? That maybe I’m not a Pantser writer after all. Perhaps, now and then, I need a better idea of where my story is going, other than that it will end with a happy ever after. I learned, too, about sitting down and just getting the words out. I had a week of no writing towards the end, leaving myself a 20k target for the last couple of days. I know I can write that much, but only when the ideas are flowing. This time I dragged myself along, like someone finishing a marathon long after the wall has been hit. And it was good. Good to know that I can write even when the ideas aren’t flowing, when the sleeping isn’t coming, and when I’m praying every day for my last novel to fly. Maybe I could make a career out of writing if I ever find an agent.

The cover I mocked-up for Dragon Wraiths to print a copy via Lulu

That brings me on to another event – Mslexia. My novel didn’t get shortlisted for the Children’s Novel competition but I did receive a very encouraging (group) response to suggest why. I was told that there were many strong novels written in the first person (like mine), many covering contemporary issues such as climate change (like mine), many with strong individual voices (hopefully like mine) and where there were two books covering the same topics only one was shortlisted. So maybe mine was just nearly good enough, rather than way off mark. Either way I believe in it, which is a first, and happily started sending query letters to agents the next day. The month before Christmas is probably not the time to be querying but I shall start again in the new year after reading through my newly acquired Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

artintheheartThe other things that have been happening are that I have had some paintings accepted into the gallery Art in the Heart, despite my view that they would think them insufficiently arty (see earlier post). It was fun getting all my paintings out of the loft and choosing four to be displayed in January, alongside my miniatures and cards. It was nervewracking too, trying to narrow twenty paintings down to four, and writing an Artist’s Statement that was both interesting and honest. I still have much to do – getting new business cards and flyers and promoting the gallery through social media, as indicated in my contract, – but it was great to temper the disappointment of the Mslexia competition with a success.

www.amanda-martin.co.uk

I might have to expand my website – Author/Artist/Photographer/Mummy isn’t covering it all any more!

Finally I had a job interview last week for a Marketing Manager (although really a Marketing Director) role. I had to pull together a presentation with a day’s notice, and despite tears and tantrums (mine and the kids) I managed it. I was rather relieved not to get the job as it turned out I would be managing 8 staff – I find it hard enough managing two pre-schoolers – but it was wonderful to put my heels on again and remind myself that I used to be good once. It’s funny how, in this slash-slash generation, you can forget the lives you lived before. Funny, too, that Artist and Marketing Manager should both come back as Writer and Mummy were under pressure.

PublishingLogo2cmSo, where next? I have decided I need to try harder to start my own business, to use those brain cells that have been long dormant. I rather-jokingly came up with 3AD Publishing when I prepared Pictures of Love for self-publishing, so that I would have a publisher’s logo on the spine.

My husband has started 3AD Solutions to promote some of his Product Management ideas. I think it might be time to combine forces.

The cover I designed for my sister's book

The cover I designed for my sister’s book

I have enjoyed preparing texts to self-publish (I did one for my sister and her husband for Christmas, as well as several of my own) and I loved designing the front covers. There must be a market out there for those services!

Whatever happens, Writer/Mummy will continue, even if she morphs into Artist/Writer/Photographer/Mummy/Marketer/Designer/Editor.

Phew.

Bring on 2013!

Art, Literature and Authorial Intention

Do you see a donkey’s head (upside down) a gladiator (tilt head right) or a tiny ballerina?

Apologies, this is a whopper-post about some stuff that’s been whirling in my brain!

This week I had the amazing opportunity to take some of my paintings into a new gallery that has opened in Peterborough, called Art in the Heart. The gallery is a grand eclectic mix of artwork produced by artists who live within a 20-mile radius (preferably within the city but thankfully the Director, Dawn, makes exceptions as I fall in the 20-mile bracket).

The lovely Dawn generously gave me half an hour of her time to look through my abstract paintings, desk art and cards, as well as the marketing literature I have produced since I left work four years ago to become a full-time artist. It is the first time I have had the chance to speak properly to a gallery owner (which probably explains why I gave up my dreams of being a full-time artist fairly quickly) and it was an enlightening experience.

It seems that Art is all about the artist’s intention.

Now I’m the first to confess I know very little about art. I’m more or less self-taught in acrylics and have only had a few classes in watercolours since I did GCSE art twenty years ago. For me there has never been much in the way of meaning. I paint because I love colour (my one solo exhibition was called It’s All About Colour).

It’s All About Colour – Exhibition Flyer

I choose my palette of two or three colours, squirt them on the canvas, and then let my subconscious, or the paintbrush, or the paint, or whatever, take over. I push and pull at the paint to create texture, I follow what seems to be needed and I keep going (usually past the point where it’s at its best!)

When the painting is dry I ask other people to have a look and see what they can see. Often there is something to be seen: a skeleton, a tiger’s eye, an emu, a dancing ballerina, a skull. These are all things that have appeared in my paintings. Not everyone can see them but, like those pictures of dots where you see the image if you go slightly cross-eyed, once you have seen something in my pictures it’s hard to see anything else. My husband’s favourite piece hangs in our dining room: a 4ft x 3ft dark red, black and gold painting that he stared at for weeks when he was really sick once. It is so personal to him now because he sees a gladiator fighting a lion.

Me, I see a donkey’s head.

It annoys me.

I daren’t show him where the darn donkey is or that’s all he’ll ever see, thus ruining his appreciation of the picture forever. (That’s partly why I don’t read book / film reviews. It’s too easily to be shown something that spoils your favourite book/film forever).

So for me there is no intention in my artwork, but I don’t think it makes it any less artistic. If anything, I think a picture is more profound, affects people more deeply, because they have decided what it means to them. They have invested their time and energy in interpreting it. I haven’t tried to push them in any given direction. Okay the pictures have titles, but usually they’re added afterwards.

Do you see a carnival mask?

I might be motivated by the colour of river weed in sunlight or the bark of a Tibetan cherry tree but that isn’t necessarily what I’ve painted. If someone else sees a carnival mask or a desert landscape, then that is what the picture is to them.  In writing that would come under Reader Response Theory: the author and reader create the text between them and it is recreated new – and different – for every reader. Much nicer than being told what to think by the author, surely?

When I spoke to Dawn at Art in the Heart I got the impression that wasn’t enough. To be taken seriously in Art circles it seems I need to have profound thoughts before I began to paint. I need to want to say something, or to shock or question or promote thought. I like to think my paintings do that, if you give them enough time. But I can’t lie and say I’m trying to make people question their inner being or their religion or what it means to be a celebrity.

I just want to bring pleasure.

It’s hard to remember to keep the freedom of a child

Somebody bought one of the paintings at my exhibition because she said it was an exact representation of the inside of her head. It doesn’t get more personal than that! Yet some of the feedback I got when I had my exhibition was the usual ‘My two-year-old could do better.’ Actually, when I watch my two-year-old painting, I think that’s actually a compliment. We have a freedom when we’re young, a disregard for what others think, that allows us to be completely uninhibited. My artwork got safer, more boring, less exciting, as I started to care what people thought. I lost some of the freedom of just painting for me, because it made me high on adrenalin to take a blank canvas and turn it into something vibrant and alive.

I’m trying to avoid the same thing happening with my writing. As I read books and blogs on writing craft I sense a danger of trying to conform to expectations, of shoe-horning myself into a genre or a three-act structure or what I am told makes good literature. I’m forcing myself to accept that, through writing what I like to read, I might be writing something that will sell without being too safe.

At least when it comes to authorial intention it doesn’t seem to matter so much in literature as it apparently does in Art. It doesn’t seem unforgivable to start writing without an intention, to not know where the story is going when you tap out the first sentence. I am sure there are as many authors who set out to teach, shock, thrill, amaze, tease or terrify as there are authors who start merely hoping they’ll get to the end of 100,000 words and have a story that works.

It was never my intention to paint a skeleton (right hand side) it just appeared!

Thinking about it reminded me of a section of my English Masters course about Authorial Intention. At the time I hadn’t written anything creative since GCSE English, ten years earlier. So, when I read that an author’s work could (should) be separated from the author’s intention, I thought What rubbish. Surely an author is always in control of their own writing? You can’t read into a character’s depth without accepting that the author meant for them to be like that. You can’t debate whether Hamlet is mad without accepting that Shakespeare knew very well whether he was or not. He must have had an intention.

Now, as an author with five novels and dozens of unruly characters under my belt I understand what baloney my old opinion was. Characters are sneaky: they do things we don’t expect or intend them to do. Their motivations can turn out to be nasty when we meant them to be good. They go off at tangents and fall for the wrong man. Somewhere in our subconscious we probably know why, but I don’t think it’s always a result of our intention.

I’ve found myself analysing my characters after I’ve finished a book, looking for their motivations, their flaws and strengths. To begin with that felt as fraudulent as adding words to my paintings after they’re finished, saying they’re about death or anger or whatever. The difference I guess is that people are easy to analyse by their thoughts and actions, presented there on the page. Paintings aren’t. And it isn’t fraudulent to look at Leah at the end of Dragon Wraiths and say she has suffered from growing up without a father figure. It’s there in the text, if you look for it. And it’s something I’ve been told is true about me. So I’ve written it into my character subconsciously because I understand it as a concept and because it fitted with my character and story. It wasn’t my intention but it’s still there.

One of the texts I studied on Literary Criticism during my MA is the one quoted below (borrowed from Wikipedia)

W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”[1] The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing – the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous.

I can’t remember how I viewed this during my MA – those years are thankfully a blur – but I know how I view it now. True and not true (actually that’s exactly what I would have said then. My academic answers were always neatly balanced, me being a Libran and all.) I believe my books can be judged separate from me – as my paintings can – but you could use details of my life to help understand them better. My own relationship with my father, for example. Fathers, living or dead, feature quite often in my work. (In my NaNoWriMo this year the father has just had a heart-attack). Whether you could use that information to better understand my characters I’m not sure. My characters are not me. They draw on my experiences, they live lives I might have lived, or would want to live, or am glad I never lived. They often have red hair and green eyes (which I have always wanted!) or grey eyes (like a Georgette Heyer heroine) but they’re not me.

Wikipedia do a lovely summary of the different approaches to authorial intent in literary criticism (which made me quite nostalgic!) here. It was fascinating to remind myself of it all having now written some novels. It makes me want to go back and review my course through new eyes. Maybe it should be a requirement that every literary critic has written at least one novel (preferably a deadline-driven NaNoWriMo one, when your characters are most likely to wander off by themselves.)

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, thank you so much! Having scanned back through my post it isn’t always lucidly written. My academic days are long gone I’m afraid. But it’s been fun revisiting all those ideas and it was good to have your company. I would love to hear what you think!