Saturday 24 September 2011

An Act Of Love

I watched my beloved elderly Aunt talking yesterday, and the way the light fell through the window onto her face.  At 85, she finds recovering from her ill  health more and more difficult; her time is precious but she is still strong willed and beautiful.  I saw how tiny she had become, and I saw the way her brown eyes looked large in a face that had always been beautiful but was now ethereal, painfully thin and utterly exquisite .  If I could paint you, I thought to myself, how would I do it?  If I had you in front of me, as you are now, and my paints, how would I see you?

 She moved her tiny hands with grace as she talked softly and slowly.  Her hair, smooth and soft, shone in the sunshine that lit her pearl necklace and earrings . When I was about 10 years old, watching my Aunt apply her make up as she sat on the floor in front of her mirror on the coffee table, made me long to do that too for the rest of my life.  I wanted to paint my eyes with brown eyeliner and put on green eyeshadow.  I wanted to wear a pretty under-slip and sit cross legged on the floor in the morning and put heated rollers in my hair, wearing pink lipstick.  I wanted to do everything she did and be as breathtakingly beautiful as this wonderful Aunt. 

  Oh how I love this brilliant, talented, funny, lady. How her grandson and all of her many nephews and nieces do.  As I watched her skin catching the sunlight, as I saw how deep her eyes had become, and as I admired the softness of her now white hair, I realised that every brush stroke I applied to a painting of her, would be an act of love.  An act of love to capture the pleasure her beauty has always given me, to capture the wit and fun of her nature, to capture the wonder that is her.

When I paint someone for A Graceful Death, there too each brush stroke is an act of love.  Though I do not know my sitters as I know my Aunt, the love and respect I feel for each person who contributes to the exhibition is the same.  Watching my Aunt yesterday, gazing at her face and tiny form, I longed to do her justice. That, I think, is how I feel about all  my paintings for A Graceful Death. I long to do justice to the life and the power of the person I am painting. I am in awe of the power of life, in awe of the mystery and extreme power of death, and am deeply touched by the journey that my sitters are undertaking. When I paint Stuart who is alive, and his wife Sue who is not, for the November A Graceful Death in Birmingham, I will want to honour not only Stuart who is living and making his future painfully day by day, but also Sue who by ending her own life has taken a most powerful and traumatic step and cannot and must not ever be forgotten.  I will want to honour them together and apart, as I want to honour the journey of Nushi who I have just painted.  Nushi has undergone cancer treatment and is changed in a way that is not only powerful, but deeply meaningful for the rest of her life.  In fact, looking at the painting of Nushi (which has appeared in an earlier blog called Cancer Chic), it is not quite ready.  There is more to do to it, and I know what I will do.  More on that when it is done.

If I was to paint my Aunt, I would paint my love of her and my gratitude for all that she is and was and means to me.  I would attempt to capture her soul before it slipped away.  Perhaps any painting for A Graceful Death is about capturing the soul before it is gone.  Perhaps each painting I do is about glimpsing the soul before it moves on to wherever it goes next, about honouring the extraordinary now-ness of life before it becomes death, and painting the vulnerablitly and awe of the human condition.

I will not paint my Aunt for this exhibition.  She would not like it and I would not ask.  But I may paint her anyway, just because she is so important and I would regret it forever if I did not. I will keep the painting with me for private viewing as a tribute to the love we have for one, single, private, funny, utterly beautiful lady, our Aunt.

.A Graceful Death is an exhibition that speaks of the power of dying.  It speaks of the power of life.  It changes and develops and follows a path that is about love and mystery and survival and death and always back to love again. And alongside the paintings are words, words from those who are being painted, words from those who are taking part and words from those who just want to be heard.  I sat with my Aunt yesterday, as frail and tiny as a whisp of mist, and it is interesting that it is not my Aunt that wants to be heard today, it is me.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Cancer Chic

Finally, the painting of Nushi Khan Levy is done.  I have Nushi's agreement to show it so now we can all say Wow Nushi, so this is Cancer Chic! You do it so well.

Nushi is full of colour and life.  She is also fragile and changing her life.  This painting, along with some text from our interview with her is now ready for the next exhibition in Birmingham in November 2011.  The venue for that will be St Martin in the Bullring, and the Opening Party is probably going to be Thursday November 3 in the evening.  I will confirm everything when I have all the details.  It will be very soon, I have a list stretching the entire length of the studio of things to do, people to phone, arrangements to be made.  I shall love showing Nushi there.  I also hope to have Stuart and Sue Pryde finished for November.  If you remember, Stuart came to stay from Scotland in order for Eileen and me to work with him on a work that remembers his wife Sue, who killed herself three years ago in August.  It feels very important to have Stuart and Sue ready to exhibit with Nushi.

Two important developments for A Graceful Death -

1.  Eileen Rafferty ( is now officially a joint exhibitor.  Eileen has been with the exhibition from day one, and does so much for it.  Her photographic work is invaluable for AGD and recently she has been adding sound and moving image to her portfolio.  She will be contributing her own work photographically, with sound, and with the moving image to work alongside the paintings.  I am so relieved.  Eileen is such a good artist!

2.  AGD is going to show in St James's in Piccadilly next year, 2012.  I am so excited about this.  It has been suggested that the exhibition starts on Passion Sunday and runs through to Easter Day.  The symbolism is profound.  The most painful and important part of the Christian calender is the time leading up to Easter.  It is a time to remember how Christ died and why, and is full of reflection on the end of life.  Christ's passion, as it is called, is the story of his death by crucifixion, including the despair of the days leading up to his arrest and his knowledge of all that he had to endure.  During this time of Lent, we remember our mortality and the hope of life after death which is symbolised with the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Day.  It is fitting that the exhibition will be taken down on Easter Day.  I am honoured that St James's in Piccadilly is allowing A Graceful Death to show at this incredibly sensitive and important time for Christians.  Thank you to Lucy Winkett, the Rector, and the Church council that have agreed to go ahead with it.

I am starting work on Stuart and Sue Pryde by the end of this month, and will post the paintings on here, subject to Stuart's approval, when I have done them.  So now, I had better tackle that list that seems to be growing in front of my eyes, and get, as they say, the show on the road.

Monday 5 September 2011

AGD and Suicide

This last week Eileen Rafferty, the Photographer came to stay so that we could work together on the A Graceful Death projects, paintings and interviews.  It was always going to be a strong week, it was always going to be hard work as we did not have an easy subject to explore.

Stuart Pryde came to stay from Scotland so that we could work with him on how to represent his wife's suicide for A Graceful Death.  Stuart took a hell of a risk.  This was a long journey to take, it was not a subject that is easy to talk about, and Stuart is a private and gentle man, who does not, I think, tell people his life story unless he knows them very well.  Eileen and Stuart were friends at University in Aberdeen, and though I was at the same University, I was far too arty and badly behaved to know Stuart.  I did however, know Eileen. (Who was not badly behaved).

Stuart spent Tuesday until Thursday with us here in Bognor and gave us his story.  I have no experience of suicide, I don't know what it is about.  Stuart lost the love of his life three years ago last August and is still struggling to find a way through his loss.  His wife Sue was, by all accounts unforgettable.  A powerful force for good, a deeply intelligent and troubled person, with a history of dreadful personal pain and possibly, deep deep depression by the end.  What makes Sue's suicide so extraordinary is that she wrote everything that she felt, did and wanted to do in an account that is lucid and touching in a way that I cannot describe.  She loved Stuart, that is obvious throughout her accounts.  But she hated herself.  She planned her suicide with meticulous and tender detail right down to the care she took to make her dying gentle and loving.  Stuart is living with this bereavement. He is living with the what ifs, the maybe if I had done something, the I didn't know.  Stuart talked from his heart with dignity and pain, and love and sadness, and hopelessness and darkness and always back to love again.

I have a painting of Sue and Stuart to do, I have text to use as part of the painting.  Eileen filmed and photographed our sessions in the studio and on Thursday morning Neill filmed a powerful and forthright interview of Stuart talking about where he is now in his thoughts and mind.  

On the Thursday evening after we had said goodbye to Stuart as he travelled back up North,  Sarah Crawcour came to do a session in the studio. Sarah has had cancer three years ago. A year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her partner died. Sarah's account of her illness following the loss of her partner is something that I want to use for AGD.  Two very important points that Sarah makes are that she objected passionately to the pinkification of breast cancer, with the pink ribbons and pink folders for her papers and the relentless upbeatness of the people around her.  Sarah is all for positive thinking, but felt that she wanted to scream and shout and say that her cancer is not pretty, not pink, nor easy to deal with.  This is her thinking, she knows the pinkness works for many women.  And the second thing is that when she got the call to say that her partner was fading fast, she absolutley did not want to go to his bedside.  That she would never have got there in time is not relevant, I am really taken with Sarah's instinctive conviction that she simply would not go and see him die.  

What Sarah offers I feel, is another side of the experience of being bereaved.  Not everyone wants to go to the death bed.  Not everyone can do it.  And Sarah offers a very good and powerful account of why she didn't want to be soothed by the pinkness, she calls it, of breast cancer treatment and awareness.

The painting I want to do of Sarah is going to be different, I think.  It may be black and white.  Sarah suits the strength of black and white.  We did not film Sarah, but Eileen did photograph her and we did a very good interview.

So now.  Off to work.  I have much to do, and a possible visit next week to Sheffield to visit the University  in order to show the A Graceful Death exhibition at some point.  It would have to be in 2012 as this year is moving on so fast, and Birmingham is coming up where the exhibition will be showing for the whole month of November in St Martin in the Bullring.

So now, a big thank you this week to 
and to Neill for filming on Thursday.

Thank you.