Art in August #16 – Scary Sketch

My kids in a few years?

My kids in a few years?

When I did GCSE art, age 15-16, pencil was my medium. My favourite thing to do was pencil portrait sketching, preferably from posters and photos (I have a gorgeous one of Kevin Costner somewhere!).

One of the reasons I dropped art for A Level (aside from being convinced I wouldn’t get the grade I needed for uni) was that the art teacher kept trying to get me to use colour and I’m nothing if not stubborn. Ironic, then, that my solo abstract art exhibition in 2011 was titled It’s All About Colour.

Today I decided to try a sketch for the first time in about half a decade. I have to admit I was nervous and excited in equal measure. I couldn’t find any of my expensive pencils – long since lost to the children. So, using a broken HB pencil and a tatty rubber, I attempted to draw my children (from a photo).

The original

The original

It had to be both of them, to minimise arguments, so the choice of picture was tough: these days it’s hard to get a picture of my son where he isn’t sticking his tongue out. Hence why my son has a Christmas hat on: this one is from last December.

I really enjoyed sketching again, although it was frustrating to have a hard pencil, and a chattering child for company. I have to say, though, the holiday is certainly letting me do things I never normally allow time for. There has to be an upside to six  weeks of relentless parenting!

What’s a bit freaky is that the end result looks sort of like my kids, but like they might look when they’re older (and my daughter has a hint of Emma Watson as Hermione about her!). An artist’s sketch of their future maybe. I wouldn’t have shared it – I’ve done better – but this Art in August challenge is all about having a go! Time to raid the playroom and find my 2B pencil…

The Art in August challenge was started by the Laptop On The Ironing Board blog.

Art is the Answer: 2013 365 Challenge #320

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Hubbie came home yesterday afternoon, after his night away for work, and was all smiles from the joy of having spent twenty-four hours with like-minded people, being listened to and appreciated. It seemed to confirm for me everything I wrote about in yesterday’s post, about the difficulty of being a stay-at-home-mum.

The word sacrifice is bandied about, sometimes, when talking about motherhood. The things we sacrifice to raise our children: sleep, serenity, the ability to pee alone. For some it’s a career, for others it’s the luxury of time or the ability to buy clothes for themselves instead of for their little ones.

And of course the sacrifice is worth it, most would agree with that. I gave up material things when we had kids, and realised I didn’t miss them. I’m quite happy hanging out in the same two pairs of jeans week after week, until they fall apart and I scour the charity shops for two new pairs to trash.

I’m happy not getting my hair cut, or spending endless money on scented candles and potted plants that will only get burnt/killed respectively. Hubbie gave me £100 to spend on clothes last Christmas and I spent about a fifth of it at the charity shop and then the rest on getting the air conditioning fixed in my car. It was money well spent.

The sacrifice for me was guilt-free time. I have always struggled with guilt (and I’ve noticed I’m unconsciously teaching my children the same things, which I hate). My father loathed idleness and I learned to never be idle, particularly if he was busy. He could aggressively vacuum clean like no man I know and god forbid the kitchen was messy if we wanted to get to gym class on time. So, if the house needs cleaning, I have to clean it. If there are shirts to iron, I must iron them. Walking the dog every day was a responsibility I took on the minute we brought her home, quivering in my arms in the front seat because she wouldn’t stay in the boot.

From Slow Down Mummy's FB Page

From Slow Down Mummy’s FB Page

Which is all fine until hubbie says, “How can we get your smile back? Shall we hire a cleaner?” and my answer is “No.” Cleaning is my job. I signed up for that when I gave up paid employment. Besides, as I said in my previous post, I find having a cleaner ridiculously stressful. No, the problem is more my inability to ignore the piles of laundry and the dirty floor and just write regardless. The cleaning will always be there: evil elves come in my house and chuck dirty water over the floor as soon as it’s mopped. It’s the ultimate exercise in futility. Writing, though, that’s there forever. If I write a novel, no one can take it away from me.

One of my blog followers, Hollis Hildebrand-Mills, commented on yesterday’s post, saying, “An artist, like you, I yearned for so much more……and at the same time, felt I was a good mother and wouldn’t trade places (who had the time to think about trading places?) with anyone else.”

It reminded me of a book I read, before I had children, called Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, about a bi-polar woman and her life as artist, wife and mother. It is a wonderful, powerful, book. It showed me how I didn’t want to be with my children, and yet I could relate to such an extent with the conflicting desires of the need to create and the needs of the family, all wrapped up with the challenges of depression.

With martyr-tendencies, it would be easy for me to be the housewife: to go downstairs, like I did this morning, and numbly lay the table, make breakfast, let the dog out, empty the dishwasher, make the beds. But numb is the word. I can be that person, but by god she’s dull. I don’t need to become Rachel Kelly from Gale’s book (I thankfully am not bipolar, only very mildly depressive) but maybe it is important to make time for the creative things. To stay human. To stay sane.

From Slow Down Mummy

From Slow Down Mummy

There’s a meme that goes around Facebook every now and then: a poem about children asking their Mummy not to rush; about the importance of spending time with the children while they’re little, rather than doing the dishes. (See image above)

I’ve just searched for it and the poem is by Rebekah Knight and her blog is Slow Down Mummy. (There are some other lovely poems on there:  worth a visit) It’s a sweet poem, although I’ve always felt it just adds to the Mummy guilt, every time I see it and my usual response is, “If I don’t do those darn dishes, who will?”

I wonder if sometimes we also have to slow down and do something for us? Maybe I need to swap out the Mummy for Amanda and remember that there’s a real person in here that also needs nurturing, that also would like to kick the leaves or bake a cake; just for me, not because I feel I should for the children. My children are happiest when they’re creating – sticking, gluing, cutting, making up games and songs. As another of the images on Slow Down Mummy’s blog says, “Creativity brings Happiness.”

Maybe art is the answer after all.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


Claire sat at the table, building her presentation, trying to ignore the stunning view outside the window. The tall frames only enhanced the scene beyond, of boats bobbing on the water and children playing in the sand. Sparkling diamonds danced on the surface of the sea, taunting her and tempting her to put the work aside and daydream.

She’d been surprised at Conor’s choice of restaurant when she’d arrived. It was a tiny place that appeared to have been a coastguard station at some point. The walk back up to the car park would be hard going after a beer or two. It seemed a bit secluded for a work meeting, and Claire had felt a fizzle of anticipation in her stomach as she was shown to their reserved table by the window. The view really was spectacular: the restaurant was right on the beach, with a view of the harbour and the bay beyond.

Claire’s tummy grumbled as a waiter walked past with a steaming pile of muscles and another loaded with lobster. She was glad Conor was paying, although she had to remind herself it wasn’t a date, it was business.

She turned her attention back to the presentation. The screen shots from the two websites nicely emphasised her point, and she’d managed to incorporate some transitions and graphics that looked impressive, although deep down she suspected Conor wouldn’t be as fooled by such things as Carl used to be.

The challenge of having a boss with a brain, I guess.

She was just running through the final slides when she sensed someone watching her. She turned and met Conor’s gaze as he stood only feet away, his expression inscrutable. A jolt of energy shot through her, and her hands shook as she closed the laptop. When she tried to smile, her cheeks quivered and she quickly abandoned the attempt.

“Conor, hi.” She chanced a quick look into his eyes and they seemed to hold a mixture of amusement and remorse. A hesitant smile hovered on his lips. Then his face shifted, like a mask dropping over his features, and he was her boss again.

“Hard at work, I see. That’s what we like. Did you have any bother finding the place?”

He slid into the seat opposite her and immediately picked up the menu, as if he couldn’t stay long.

“No. Sat Nav. And yes, I was just finalising a presentation. I’ve found a great case study I thought you might like to run through.” She heard the wobble in her voice and silently cursed. If he was going to pretend like nothing had happened the previous weekend, two could play at that game.

“Great, well let’s order and we can run through it while we’re waiting. I can recommend the lobster.”

“Do you come here a lot? It’s not exactly on your doorstep.”

“I was based down here for a few months in a previous job. This place is a gem, especially at sunset.”

It was on the tip of Claire’s tongue to make some comment about wooing the ladies and she stopped, blood rushing to her cheeks. Despite the air of romance, this couldn’t be further from a date, and their days of banter were gone now.

She looked at the top of Conor’s head, as he studied the menu, and searched her brain for something neutral to say. Her mind went blank, so she turned to her own menu, although her eyes refused to focus on the words.

“So, you’re playing Auntie for a fortnight? You’re a sucker for punishment.”

Conor’s tone was less than friendly, but Claire seized on the opening. “Yes, apparently my brother and his wife have separated and the boys are being shuffled from parent to parent during the long vacation. Needless to say my brother isn’t equipped to deal with his chunk of childcare.”

“Why do you say it like that?” Conor looked up, one eyebrow raised.

“Well, looking after kids isn’t really every man’s cup of tea.”

“Depends on the man,” he said, then dropped his head again. Claire sat staring, trying to figure out the meaning behind his words. Really, he was even more of an enigma that Josh, when he’d been harbouring his big secret.

“Do you have kids?” The words were out before she could stop them.

Conor froze, his head still lowered, then shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of.”

The waiter chose that moment to approach with his pad open, and Claire resisted the urge to embrace him for his impeccable timing.


Tranquility: 2013 365 Challenge #257



While walking the dog this evening, in the pouring rain, I tried to nail my scatty thoughts to a topic for today’s blog. I was unsuccessful. My head is full of words but they’re like confetti chucked in the river.

I tried to think what people read blogs for: advice, company, shared experience, entertainment. I didn’t feel capable of any of those things (if I ever am!) All I craved, as I walked, was silence (I had the lyrics “Be happy, be healthy and get well soon” stuck in my head from one of the kids’ bedtime shows).

You can’t recreate silence on a blog. I tried to think of the nearest thing and I thought about some of the poems I recite in my head when I need to drive other words out (especially kids’ songs and TV themes: those pesky things are persistent!)

The poem that comes to mind when I’m dog walking is always Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, as there are usually red kites flying overhead. But, as I always worry about copyright on this blog, I didn’t want to include it here. The other thing I often recite is the Desiderata (same applies about the copyright). The opening words particularly are often true, but generally every line is something I can learn and live by.

In the end, with copyright in mind, I thought I’d include a couple of my more tranquil paintings and one of the poems from my creative writing degree course.

Purple Ghost

Purple Ghost

Postcards from an English Summer – May

Wild lavender obscures the once-neat path –
My passing hands stir childhood memories.
Bare feet luxuriate in verdant grass, 
I pause beneath your graceful Acer trees.
A symphony of song pervades the air,                                               
with soaring solo blackbird melody.
Above, the fire-red leaves blaze bright against
a cobalt sky.  Like hands they wave goodbye.
The silver birch, with peeling papery bark,                                        
is worshipped by the bluebells, as they bend                                      
and whisper to the wind of what they’ve lost.
Their sorrow echoes my unending grief.
Wisteria flowers in indigo and cream,
deep fragrance swirls around me like cologne.
They seem robust but fallen blossom tells                                          
of frailty. Already they are dying.
Silk-tassel draped with hoary lifeless blooms,
like slender wind chimes silent from respect.
In hues of brown and blue my thoughts are drawn,
sensation without reason.  You are missed.

Thank you for your patience. I hope you enjoyed your little patch of serenity and hopefully normal service will resume tomorrow.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 


“Wake up, Claire.”

“Wuh?” Claire turned at the sound of the voice intruding on her dreams. She could feel drool running down the side of her mouth and prayed she hadn’t been snoring.

“Hey, sleepy head, we’re at Franz Josef. Time to get off the bus.”

“We’re here? What did I miss?”

Bethan chuckled. “Most of the day.”

Claire stretched and peered out the window. “Doesn’t look like much of a town.” She pulled her bag up from the foot well and climbed to her feet.

“We’re not here for the town.” Bethan’s smile suggested hidden secrets. Claire didn’t have to wonder what the joke was for long.

As she exited the bus, she stopped and stared. “Holy moly. Where did they come from?”

Up ahead, mountains rose to the heavens. A tree-covered conical mount dominated the foreground, symmetrical and green, as if someone had let moss grow over a mole hill. Then, in the distance, snow covered peaks, with a valley carved between them like a giant had split them with a machete.

“That’s where the glacier is, over there. I’m doing the heli-hike tomorrow, if you fancy it?”

Claire shook her head, partly in wonder, partly in denial. She’d seen the cost of the helicopter ride and couldn’t justify the expense. Yes it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but there were too many of them on the trip. She thought she might do a half-day hike, if the men with hammers moved out of her head sometime soon.

As if sensing her pain, Bethan linked arms with her and asked gently, “How is the head? Do you feel better for the sleep?”

“I’d probably feel better if I drank a gallon of water.” Claire forced the words out of her parched throat. “Please tell me there are no more parties planned for this evening? I’m not as young as I used to be.”


“What do you mean we don’t actually walk on the ice? I thought it was possible to climb up and see the ice caves?”

The man behind the desk shook his head. “Not any more, love. Terminal face collapsed last year. Access by ’copter only.”

“I can’t afford the heli-hike.”

“There’s always Fox.”

“I can’t get to Fox, I’m on the bus. It’s here or no-where.”

The man in the tourist info shrugged, as if to say he was out of options. Bethan came to stand next to Claire.

“Come on the heli-hike, it’ll be worth it, if the weather is okay. Once in a lifetime experience, Claire. Worry about the money when you get home.”

“That’s easy enough to say,” Claire responded, “but if I don’t reign in my spending, I won’t even make it home.”

“Why don’t you get a job? A few weeks in Wanaka pulling pints will restore your funds.”

Claire laughed without humour. “I’d have to pull more than pints to fill the hole in my bank balance. Any rich sugar daddies in Wanaka?”

Bethan’s expression grew sombre. Then she gave a shake of her long black hair and the smile returned as if nothing had happened.

“Why not decide in the morning? See what the weather’s doing. It’s not like it’s peak season, you might get on.”

With a sigh, Claire agreed, and let Bethan guide her back to the hostel.


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!