Season’s Greetings!

Sheffield collage artist Melanie Pearson "Les Fruits de Mel"
Peace on Earth

If you saw the bright star in the skies this week, formed by the rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, then lucky you. I looked and looked but it was too misty here. As you probably know, it’s the first time the two planets have been so close to each other in 800 years, and that perhaps this was the same bright star that the shepherds and wise men saw over Bethlehem many years before that. There is certainly some perspective (if not comfort exactly) in knowing that this planetary alignment has happened before and that for all the fear, uncertainty and misery of this year, we are just a tiny human part of a great whirling dance and that this too shall pass.

Meanwhile, “Hark the Herald Angels” has been running through my head for days. I learned the descant part at school and always love belting it out with a crowd of carol singers but there’s not been much opportunity for that this year, alas. Still, I’m holding on for dear life to the idea of that bright star and a heavenly flotilla of angels and starlight filling the skies, and whatever can possibly give us some hope at the moment when so much seems to have been taken away. 

Whatever your Christmas plans this year, these times feel so hard. We thought it was going to get easier and it hasn’t, it’s just getting more strange and scary. I believe it’s called evolution and that we are in the middle of such a huge shift that it is not likely to be comfortable. I don’t know what to wish you amidst so much uncertainty except to find something to fall in love with. Something – an animal, a book, an idea even – that can carry you through these dark days and give them a sense of purpose. It has been quite heartening to see people for whom 2020 has brought really positive change despite adversity: a new business, a change of scene, an achievement. New purpose. I have not been one of them – I wish – but it does give me hope to see that it’s possible, change is possible. And despite all this adversity and cynicism and sadness and loss, I still like to think that there are angels are out there, singing songs that we have not yet trained our ears to hear but may yet do if we learn to listen carefully…

Stepping Back…

How are you feeling as 2020 crawls towards the finish line?

Not much has changed here in the last month except that it’s getting colder and I think we’re all getting tireder. Not much has changed and yet I find myself in a state of growing anxiety. Today it reached such a pitch that I had to ask myself, what is making me so anxious? And I realised with sadness that it was a lot to do with social media.

It’s been good to me over the last few years; I’ve made several actual real life friends through Twitter and Instagram, and my interactions have always been 99% benign, but on some level I have to admit there is a pressure to perform, or present a certain image. Even if you really don’t think you’re that sort of person. But also, there are so many voices, so much going on – of course that’s the fun part and how we find out about each other and the world at the moment but I realised today that I couldn’t hear myself think. The Noise – that constant background hum of activity I wrote about a few months ago – is back. It’s heightened by the chronic stress and unrest of still living under restrictions after so many months, a growing fear of recession, and all our known quantities crumbling away. And it’s insidious, this noise. It makes you start to doubt yourself, forget who you are.

Does it affect anyone else, I wonder? If you’re reading this, do you enjoy the noise and seek it out? Or do you find that like an introvert at a hectic party, there is only so much you can take before you need to get out of there for some fresh air and the quiet of your own thoughts?

So I am stepping back for a bit – muting the apps on my phone, leaving the Instagram challenge for another time, tearing up the to do list and reminding myself how to be lazy. Crazy how radical that feels! And how foreign.

My online shop will still be open for orders but I’m pressing pause on all promotional activity and commissions for the time being, yes, even though it’s Christmas soon. I have to say, it’s a huge relief.

Art for Hard Times

Photocollage, Henry Moore

Poetry seems to have had a resurgence this year, and poems of all kinds have helped a lot of us to navigate the strange and complicated emotions of life in 2020. It’s been lockdown-proof, something shareable across paper, screens and airways.
One of my favourite things over the last few months has been my weekly Skype poetry club with a friend, a glass of wine and a poem that we read to each other on a vaguely agreed theme. We’ve been doing it since March and it’s carried on all the way through the summer – including at a real life, socially distanced picnic by the side of a reservoir, post wild swimming – I can’t even remember half the poems that we have read but the words have been such a comfort. Poetry reflects those odd moments of beauty that are so needed in hard times, and seems to refresh parts of the soul that other words don’t always reach.

Seeing art has a similar effect, and oh how glad I am to have done a tiny bit of this before everything shut down again. One of the first things I did after lockdown was not go to a bar but head for Yorkshire Sculpture Park – literally a breath of fresh air!  There are so many things that I miss and have just had to put out of my mind, as we all have; but I hadn’t realised how much I missed seeing art in a gallery until the last couple of weeks, when I saw two really good exhibitions. Even with entry-screening and one-way routes and distancing marks on the floor and wearing a mask, just going to a gallery space felt like tapping back into “normal”.

Tube shelter at Elephant & Castle, Bill Brandt.

I can’t describe how exciting and at the same time soothing it was to see these shows. So nourishing.
One was the parallel work of Bill Brandt and Henry Moore, at the wonderful Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. They were both commissioned war artists documenting the early days of the London Blitz in 1939 as thousands of civilians slept in underground tube stations to shelter from the bombing.
Brandt’s photographs and Moore’s sketches are some of the most poignant and memorable images of the war; we might not be at war in 2020 but through their depictions of darkness, fear and restrictions, the parallels to our current situation  are hard to ignore.

Night Bombing. Watercolour and wax crayon sketches, Henry Moore

The other show that made a vivid impression was “Transient Lines” at Bloc Space in Sheffield. For a couple of years I had a studio space there with two friends, a tiny little bolt hole to store the equipment for our pop up cinema, Magic Lantern Film Club. So I have a soft spot for Bloc. We shared the space with Katie, who made elaborate hanging sculptures with thread, and when we left the studio, left her some of our old kit including a super 8 projector. She has used her theatrical training to light her hanging pieces with spotlights and film projectors, and the effect is ethereal, soothing and timeless, like watching pictures in the fire.  

Moving Structures, Katie Jamieson

Transient Lines was Katie exhibiting with three other women, including Clee Claire Lee  who makes beautiful shapes with tangled wire and had stretched delicate wire netting across the gallery ceiling to make shadow drawings across the space. I don’t know why I found this exhibition so enchanting except that it somehow had a fairytale, mythical quality (so different from the stark realism of the Brandt/Moore exhibition) and also – soooo important – it was art made by women immersed in their craft, still in process really, art made by learning and moving and playing. It was so good to see some playfulness and also – knowing that the whole thing was going to be taken down in a few hours – an acceptance of change and that through all of the turbulence and uncertainty of 2020, this too shall pass.

“Mouthpiece” (my name for it) Clee Claire Lee

The Inner Flame

Sheffield collage artist Melanie Pearson "Les Fruits de Mel"
Nights are drawing in…
We’re deepening into the dark part of the year now, clocks have gone back and night is falling earlier. Where I live, we’re now back under fairly severe restrictions in terms of socialising, and a lot of people feel lonely and exhausted already; this year has taken its toll in so many ways and it just feels harder to keep generating new enthusiasm when what’s ahead looks very much like the same old same old with not a lot to look forward to.

I’m lucky to be living with my partner, with various projects on the go and lots of things to occupy my time, but my heart has been hurting with missing people I love – our son, my extended family, and friends in other cities – and all the fresh energy and perspective and ideas that they bring, not to mention the fun and the hugs.
But today I started thinking about this time of year in older cultures and the way that this was always a time to go deeper. To nurture the inner flame. To start slowing down the way that nature slows down, taking more time over all our small daily routines, paying attention to the process rather than fixating about the results. It’s also traditionally been the season when we use the darker colder nights to start flexing our mental muscles in new projects, enrolling in evening classes or taking up a new hobby.

For me this will involve going back to the drawing board – literally – as I challenge myself to do more line sketching in my notebook when I’m out and about, and perhaps even find a life drawing class. I want to learn to draw with charcoal and materials I wouldn’t usually try because I tell myself they’re too messy and I don’t think I can, and I haven’t got time…but what’s this? My life is still pretty busy despite the restrictions but actually I have got plenty of time.
And it is time to go deeper. Get better at things I already do passably well, practice and refine the things that I avoid or that scare me. (For instance, making a little film about me and my work and learning to use technology more comfortably)
Going deeper like this is a bit like sitting in meditation where you are faced with yourself, waiting for the chatter of your mind to fall away until what’s left is your own inner flame. It’s not at all easy! And this isn’t an easy time, but that is when in older cultures the magical and the unexpected become possible. Changing our rhythm and our expectations. Patiently kindling our fires in the darkness.

Art Journal for a new month

Sheffield artist Melanie Pearson "Les Fruits de Mel"
Art Journalling for a new month

Even though I left school a long time ago, September still feels special: a time of renewal and beginning new projects. Full Moon is tomorrow and the brightness woke me up in the small hours, dreaming of starting the new month with a daily Art Journal.
I did this a few years ago and amazed myself by managing to do a drawing or collage every single day for the whole thirty days – quite an achievement at the time as I was a working mother and a carer, with a swimming habit at the local pool (alas, can’t do that now).
But somehow I carved out the time and with each day it became a bit easier to do, until the point where sitting down to do my daily journal it was almost the highlight of the day.
The great thing about it is that it’s yours – you don’t have to show anyone, it can be as playful or personal as you like just as long as you show up at the page and make your mark. Last time, I found that it really boosted my creative confidence and more than that, the ideas just kept pouring out and I had fun.
So I’m doing it again this September.
Why not join me?

My Heart’s in the Highlands

Sheffield collage artist Melanie Pearson "Les Fruits de Mel"
My Heart’s in the Highlands

…and oh, how much I’m longing to get away. To go on a road trip, with mountains ahead and the thrilling signs saying,”THE NORTH”,
a sight that always swings my inner compass back into place. Home.
(though I’m not from the far north, but maybe an ancestral memory…?)
To sleep under clear starry skies and swim in cold lochs. To see old friends and talk late into the night.
But home is also where the heart is and, travelling restrictions aside, ours needs us at the moment.

Qi to my Heart

Love Thang

So, how have you been keeping your spirits up during the last few months, when everything has seemed so topsy turvy? Embroidery? Gardening? Quiz nights? Perfecting the ultimate sourdough recipe? Reruns of beloved comedy shows?

For me it has been practising the ancient arts of Qi Gong and Tai Chi with an online class twice a week.

In the first couple of weeks of lockdown, a lot of people were desperate to get or keep fit, taking up running or working out in the park. My son made a kind of steampunk home gym in the garden with old sash window weights, his rusty childhood pogo stick, a skipping rope and so on.  I started doing an online Qi Gong class – a Chinese system that exercises all parts of the body even while feeling fairly gentle.  It seemed really weird at the time to be doing this in my front room on Zoom, in front of a small screen, with a teacher in Cornwall and some participants in other countries, while every now and then various animals or family members walked into shot; but it’s now so utterly normal that I almost struggle to remember any other way. 

It’s been a revelation, though. I’ve also been doing an online Lishi class, a dynamic form of Tai Chi with similar principles to Qi Gong – designed to get your energy going – and goodness me, it doesn’t half do the trick.  Both practices are based on the same principles as Traditional Chinese medicine,  designed to cultivate physical fitness and strength with a meditative, metaphysical aspect. There is an emphasis on breathing deeply and boosting the immune system, and on controlling the movements – which have wonderful poetic names, and many of the postures are derived from animals, like “Horse” which means standing in a thigh-and-buttock-curdling deep squat with a straight back as if you are sitting astride a large horse. Ouch. Of course my teachers love this one.

Sometimes it feels easy, sometimes it’s meditative and slow, sometimes it is practically killing me as I’m doing drop kicks in four directions without putting my foot on the floor, and I’m looking plaintively at the clock to see when it will all be over – but both classes are always, always energising and fun and just make me feel alive, alive-o – and at the same time, balanced and on track. Even without the spiritual element, I do feel that having this regular boost of exercise, connection and especially the emphasis on breathing deeply, has kept me well. Despite having had a mild brush with the virus.

And what has this got to do with art? Well … perhaps not a lot except that the intentional mustering of Qi, (the vital energy or life force that keeps us all going) is what drives the artist too. Sometimes it feels really hard to get going, and leaves your muscles aching; sometimes it just flows. On those days when it just doesn’t come naturally, you still have to have the discipline to do it anyway.

Writing is similar too, of course, and can be equally curdling on the buttocks as you sit for hours on a hard chair trying to find the right words. But you have to show up. That’s the hardest part of all, and the most important, and it’s been said a million gazillion times before because it’s true.

 

 

The Noise

Background Noise

First day of a new month and the noise is creeping back. After ten weeks of a nationwide lockdown, the restrictions are relaxing and we’re being told that we can go out and about again, at least up to a point, if we’re careful. Or meet in a park in socially distanced groups of up to six. Businesses are starting up again. Schools are reopening (but not playgrounds) and even people who have so far been “shielding” (oh, this new language) are now being given the green light to venture outside.
There doesn’t seem to be any scientific or medical evidence for easing lockdown just yet- people are still dying daily in their hundreds and Britain is pretty much the coronavirus capital of the world in terms of excess death toll. But somehow the gear has changed and the government seems hell bent on kicking over the traces of the last few months and throwing all the emphasis onto us, the public, to act responsibly, even when they have so spectacularly failed to do so themselves. I feel deeply uneasy about it all, because the pandemic is clearly not over and we are so demonstrably not ready to move on, not at all, not yet.
But even if I were to stay at home and carry on as before in my own personal lockdown, acting as if nothing were different, over the last week or so the background noise has been gradually increasing. It’s like one of those sonic hums that you can’t even hear but it gets into your head. Or like Christmas, something you might not even be celebrating for yourself but just can’t avoid the change of pace, the trappings, the different conversations and the sheer momentum of it all speeding up, choose to engage with it or not.
And the other day I was having a Zoom chat with a friend who had altered her screen background so that it looked as if she was speaking from space, with a starry galaxy behind her; if she turned up the settings the space scene showed through her eyes and mouth like an alien, and if she turned it right up to max then all you could see was background, with just the ghostly solarised shadow of her face peeping through.
That’s how I feel about the noise. That peace and stillness that was there for everyone a few weeks ago, the unconditionalness of it, was like nectar for those of us who could finally hear ourselves think and start to settle into a creative rhythm that everyday life might not have so easily allowed. So nourishing.
But I can see that peace gradually becoming infiltrated by the background noise, the settings turning up until I’m not sure where I am. As an artist and creative person, I don’t want that annoying static invading my head. I want to live in the world and work and have fun and be social but not at the expense of this hard won new peace and nourishment. It’s going to be a fight for me to acknowledge the noise but not get consumed by it, because it can be so seductive.
But artists have always lived differently; this particular period in time feels like a wake up call. How to live differently now and carry on some of the positive aspects of the lockdown time. How to be in the world, but not of it, as the Book of Common Prayer recommends. How to look more, love better, link up, think local, all those things. Tall order. But as a new month begins and the second half of an extraordinary year, I’m working on it.

Just Looking

In the garden

Cookery shows on TV have always been popular but art on television has always seemed a bit niche. As if art is a bit highbrow (which has always made me cross.)

Now people who haven’t picked up a pencil since school are telling me they’ve got hooked on BBC4’s life drawing, or Grayson’s Art Club, or that they have just started sketching or making a scrapbook of things they see on their walks. As a generation, we’re getting creative. As the world slows down, there is more room to listen and look. The birdsong and blossoms have been incredible this year. Were they always like this, and we were just too busy to notice? Or are they deliberately shouting out their beauty to simultaneously tease and soothe us poor humans?

Whatever, we’ve become more attuned to our senses and the world in front of our eyes. More than a few times lately, I’ve found myself standing in the sunshine or on a walk down a shadow-dappled road or gazing out of the window at the moon, just looking. Not trying to draw it or take a photo, or make the moment mean anything – just looking.

The world is already speeding up again and perhaps soon it will be business as normal, as if this slow time had never happened. Will nature recede back into the background, while cars and shopping and technology take over? Will we stop noticing these moments of heart stopping beauty? Will the sketchbook pages curl with neglect and end up shoved to the back of a cupboard? Oh, I hope not. I don’t want to lose this everyday immersion in the quiet beauty of the natural world, even in the city. As artists I think we have a duty to hold on to this sense of wonder and to remind ourselves and anyone else who might be listening, that there is huge power in this stillness, this ability to forget ourselves and just look around us.