14 April 2013

pizza in penryn

i've always loved italian food - mozzarella, parmesan, basil, olives, quality olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, pasta, pesto, gnocchi, anchovies, focaccia, ciabatta, pizza, gelato........ the list goes on. oh yes, and wine too. balsamic vinegar is one of my favourite things. aged and thick. if you get a good vintage it is truly amazing. expensive but cheaper than a fine wine habit.

when i was at secondary school i was lucky enough to go on an art trip to florence. even the basic pasta and tomato sauce we had every night in the hotel was a million times nicer than any pasta and tomato sauce i'd tasted. lunch was disappointing. a dry white roll (without butter) with a slice of processed cheese or ham, a chocolate bar and the choice of an apple or an orange. yet when we left the hotel and were herded through the busy streets we passed cafes, restaurants, indoor food markets, outdoor food markets.... the smells wafted after us and the beautiful colours were a sight to behold.

i was 15. i didn't care much about the art. i loved cats and there were cats everywhere. all i was interested in was photographing cats lazing in the sun, cats curled up on walls outside crumbling buildings, cats with their kittens...... and ice cream. i'd never seen so many cats in all my life. there was a park where people would go and leave food for all these strays and it was full of hundreds of disheveled scraggy moggies fighting it out over a piece of fish. i was captivated. i grew up on a sheep farm and it was like watching the shepherd turn up to feed the flock. bleating sheep sprinted from all corners of the field to besiege the tractor in hungry anticipation. this was just like that. a little bent grey haired lady with an apron and headscarf would enter the park with a plate of meat. she'd chatter away in italian, scrape her scraps onto the ground and within seconds she'd be surrounded by a thick furry patchwork carpet of tabby and tortoiseshell and black and white and ginger. the cacophony of miaos hit me like the cries of orphan babies. i'd get out my camera, see the school party begin to disappear, linger as long as i could, snap a few shots and run and catch up. then, if the teacher we were with was kind, she'd let us buy an ice cream.

being ushered past all this amazing italian produce but restrained by invisible leads was like torture. seeing but not being able to try. so at my first opportunity (after my art foundation course) i plotted a way to return to italy so i could finally taste some of this food. i chose to be an au pair for the "aristocracy and landed gentry" of rome! my thinking being, that if i opted for an affluent family they would have the best food. i wasn't disappointed. despite having to suffer spoilt, disfunctional rich kids, the family had their own polish housekeeper and cook. but on top of that they had a family friend who was "one of the finest chefs in rome", pepe. and he came and rustled up something experimental and delicious once a week. i sampled the most mouth-wateringly wonderful food and wines i've ever tasted in my life. i discovered real fragolino, but that is another story.

the job was mostly hellish but i escaped often enough into rome to eat pizza and ice cream. so much ice cream. despite her excessive wealth, the mother was extremely tight. she was also extremely insecure and jealous. jealous that her neglected children became closer to their au pairs than her (she decided to change them every three months for this reason) but jealous that i was thinner than her. she made it her mission to "put some weight on me" because "no italian man would find me attractive without a bit more...... (she gestured to my breasts and bum, her hands wildly  drawing firm curves in the air).... a woman's figure"! did i care? i was fed up with being constantly followed and harassed by italian men on mopeds who didn't understand that a whole bottle of hair gel could be used in more than one application. this news was a relief! i wasn't that thin and she wasn't much larger herself. i thought it was great. she bought me cakes and ice creams. it was the only thing she offered to buy me. i liked seeing her mild resentment and reluctance at parting with ANY money on my behalf. and i didn't put on weight. how could i? i was running around after her two very energetic, unco-operative children for long hours each day in their huge villa and vast grounds. at any one point at least one of them had bolted into the distance and i was having to burn off those bitterly bestowed ice cream calories in the chase. so no. i never did become attractive to italian men. 

but....... back to the present. you can imagine how excited i was to discover homemade sicilian pizza in the friday market in penryn of all places. just a few doors up from the shop. steve and liz have a stall selling their delicious homemade bread, quiche and italian pizza. it's only there on a friday and sometimes you have to visit early because it sells out fast. the pizza bases are organic and made with semolina and the toppings are recipes using their home grown veg. steve's grandmother was sicilian and he recreates some of her recipes. one of these is fig, melon and parma ham. but he's also inspired by recipes from milan and rome and i guess, makes up his own too. it satisfies my longing for italian food and at the moment is the next best thing to eating in italy. and for the penryn arts festival he plans to sell homemade ice cream from a 1950's style milk bar in his garden. but i have to be careful. i'm no longer that wispy teenager and although i've never been well enough endowed to become a fully curvaceous woman, i did find that my bum was a hinderance when trying to climb up my chimney. i did find that i couldn't fit into as small a space as i thought i could. i understand why children were sent up chimneys. i'm mildly concerned that i have, over the years, inadvertently achieved a limited appeal to some italian men. but maybe the hair gel of the early 90's is a thing of the past so i need not worry.

11 April 2013

hello little bird

i'm walking back from the sea. it's dark and i'm sad. i think i might have lost something special.

on the hill under the orange glow of the street lights i see a man. he is large and burly and is wearing a big fluoro jacket with stripes that glow in the headlights of passing cars. his weathered hands are placed firmly on his knees as he bends down nose to beak with a black feathery creature.

"hello little bird" he says.
"hello little bird" he says again.

stiffly he straightens and begins to plod up the hill. i move silently into his space and look down at this stock-still taxidermy blackbird perched on the pavement. i hold his gaze for a minute. nothing happens. he stares unnervingly back at me. i crouch forward and move closer. i see the orange night reflected in his wide orange-rimmed eyes. i draw forward very close and watch his chest rise and fall. but still he doesn't move. his tail is splayed out at a strange angle and i wonder what's happened to him.

my sadness envelops me. i'm not thinking straight. i must save him. i run home fast. not knowing what i plan to do i grab some gardening gloves and the tea towel i don't like. my heart is racing.

what if he hops into the road?
what if i lose the special thing?
will he be alive when i get back?
why did i go home?
if i save him will i save the special thing?

i run back, gloves flapping, the tea towel i don't like bundled under my arm. i look down the hill and i see him in the road by the kerb. a car whistles by missing him by a few inches, his feathers blown flat against his back by the speed. a larger van is approaching and he is in line with the front wheel. i stare into the driver's eyes so he can see me and step into the side of the road. the van curves wide of us. i grab the bird in my gloved hands and feel his little heart quiver.

i have him
i hold him
he is not lost.

i walk up to the station and onto a piece of shadowy dark wasteland. i put him down gently by some abandoned pots and leave him for the night. i think at least he'll die on the earth surrounded by plants. maybe a cat will kill him but that feels like a more natural death than being run over and flattened on the road.

the next day i think about him. i go to a friend's house and there is a dead female blackbird in her garden. i think about him lying where i left him. i don't want to go and see him dead.

the day after that i'm on my way to truro. i walk up to the station not sure if i want to see his body. i begin to turn away but i look back. just quickly. and he's still there. still standing. he's puffed out and in a huddle. i go up to him but he doesn't open his eyes. he's still breathing but i don't know if he's sleeping or on the edge of death. my train arrives and i jump on. part of me wants to go back. i don't know what to do. i didn't expect him to survive that long. i'm worried about leaving him in the sun but there's water on the ground around him so he can drink. now i feel responsible for him. what do i do? i contact some friends. various suggestions. bring him to the garden to die with the already dead female blackbird. my friend thinks they might have been lovers! another friend tells me the rspb advises to wring his neck. i know it's the sensible thing but i can't bring myself to do that. what if i kill the special thing too?

i think about the options while i visit an exhibition in an old coffin store. it had a former life as a socialist meeting house and all the roof beams are beautifully stenciled with socialist slogans. i slip on some headphones and listen to a video called 'the darkest place i know'. i feel my sadness. i wonder if he's still alive. should i have left him? i look at more art. there's a series of collaborative portraits of 10 famous people who have attempted to take their lives. and 10 portraits of people who did. i feel the darkness.

i return home. i haven't made a decision. maybe he'll be dead. i walk up to where i left him. he's not there. he's gone. i search for his body all around but i can't find him anywhere. i feel relief that i don't have to kill him. but where is he? has a cat helped me do what i couldn't bring myself to do? but then why didn't this happen before? could he possibly have flown away? i don't think he could. i think it's unlikely. i don't know. but at least not knowing is open ended. and for now, that's the place i'd rather  be.

04 April 2013

smoke and drawing

excited to discover one fireplace. slightly bewildered to discover another! i mean, one lovely big one is enough. how many fireplaces does one need? but hidden to the right of the large one is another smaller fireplace. possibly an old bread oven with a granite lintel.

so today i unbricked it and dug it out. it took the whole day but was a lot easier than the other as there was more earth and less heavy granite stones. and yes, it's another fireplace alright. it has it's own chimney that looks as if it rises straight before curving to meet the main one. the same black sooty soil swirled out into the room, followed by sticks and stones and feathers and bones. i found all sorts of interesting pieces of paper and cloth and string that must have been woven into nests dating back over decades. i've kept all the little things which i'll photograph and write about in another post. one nest was made with tatters of newspaper from 1928!

and as i was amidst digging and filling yet more sacks with sooty soil i stood up to straighten my back. i looked out of the window just in time to see a chimney sweep getting out of his van across the road. i ran out to him and told him excitedly that i'd just discovered two chimneys, thinking that this might be the sort of thing that would excite him too. he was in a bit of a hurry, said he had a chimney to sweep but would pop back after he was done. 

a little while later he returned with a torch, a smoke bomb, a bag of sketchbooks, a long tin of coloured pencils and a box of top quality artists' materials - charcoal, conte crayons, pastels and more. he said he didn't have much time but he'd test my chimney if i drew something in his sketchbook. he told me that's what he does with all his customers - asks them to draw or write something while he sweeps their chimney! and there were about 8 artists' sketchbooks full of drawings, collages, poems and messages. he said he was going to do something with them but he didn't know what yet. unfortunately there was no time to look and barely any time to draw as lighting a smoke bomb takes a lot less time than sweeping a chimney. so i started to sketch my newly found fireplace and bread oven as the smoke started to plume upwards but then out into the room. it was getting harder and harder to see what i was drawing and the chimney sweep was outside looking at the sky. he told me that he couldn't see any smoke emerge and that it was likely that the chimney was blocked on top. the smoke billowed out into the room and my subject became vague and misty, all definition lost in a haze.

i was disappointed that the smoke hadn't made it out but told the man that i was still on the lookout for hidden shoes. when i was at school i went to stay with my art teacher and she showed me the tiny worn leather shoes that she'd found in the chimney breast of her house. they were beautiful and very old. it was common for people to conceal them in walls and rafters but particularly in chimney breasts to ward off evil spirits, witches' curses and disease, or more positively, to encourage fertility. i asked the man if he'd ever found any. he hadn't but he had found a tiny gold ring hidden away in a chimney when he was asked to clear a bird's nest. and he was told he could keep it.


a little difficult to observe my subject!

01 April 2013

beneath the surface : re-discovering beauty

well, this post is what this blog is all about. looking beneath the surface and re-discovering what has laid buried by the layers that have built up over the years, obscuring the primal beauty, fundamental truth and integrity of a person, object, feeling, idea, culture - anything really. that's what i was thinking when i named this blog. it's what i care about most. a common thread that runs through my life, my existence. my reason for living. 

so when it comes to my new studio it's as important. i've been peeling back these layers to reveal the bare bones, the essence of what my building is. that changes how i feel about it, how i relate to it and ultimately the work i make in it. i've been surprised by a few people's comments or looks of puzzlement  as they wonder why i'm "creating so much work for myself". i don't see it like that. it doesn't feel like that. yes, there is a lot to do and i could have just moved my things into a neatly plastered space, splashed a bit of white paint on the walls and been busy making my work by now. but i'm not. and i'm happy that i'm not. what i have instead is a very dusty building site. there is enough rubble and detritus to fill a large skip and more to come. but beneath it all something of great beauty and discovery is slowly emerging...... something worth waiting for.

why does everything have to be covered up, boxed in, dressed to be something its not, hidden under layers of artifice? i love beauty in its raw state. integrity and honesty, it's more real. this is what i like in life and this is what i like in art, craft and buildings too. i like to see how things are made, how they join together. you know where you are, you know what you've got and life is simpler and more spacious for it.

one of the first things i wanted to do in the studio was to uncover the central structural beam. it had been neatly boxed in with plasterboard creating straight rigid edges. underneath that, it was boxed in again but by victorian panelling and architrave. i wanted to see this beam. it holds up the flat above and the roof above that. i wanted to know what it was. if it was original or had been added at a later date. if it was wood or metal. if it was old, if it was warped, cracked, riddled with woodworm? why would i not want to see and know these things? because if i did, it might mean more "work"? if there's a problem at least i can see it and deal with it and then there is no problem.

so in pulling back the uniform and characterless layers, the facade of over 100 years of changing fashion and how things "should" be done, i have unearthed a beautiful, original wooden beam. to me this beam is important. not only is it part of the structural fabric of the building but it is a tree. it was a tree. it's a connection to nature. this studio is in a town and there is a road that runs outside but it is a historic town and unlike today, many of these older buildings that remain were built from nature with natural materials. why would i want these beautiful organic materials to be covered up and hidden from sight?

so in a similar vein, i've stripped back the rest of the space and discovered some amazing things. for a start, it's become much bigger. there was so much dead space that was boxed in just because it was easier and quicker to make straight lines rather than to wiggle and curve carpentry around the existing structure. the interior of the under stairs cupboard was so much smaller than the outside. that was a joy to remove, albeit very physically demanding. 

pulling all the plasterboard, layers of wallpaper, old fibre board and victorian tongue and groove off the left hand wall has also been hard work but totally worth it. underneath is a thick and beautifully built granite wall with the remains of the original animal hair and mud rendering. most of that crumbled to dust upon touch but it did look as if there was something that had been painted directly on to it . i've kept the small fragments to look at more closely. and in revealing this wall i spotted a piece of wood embedded in the granite running behind the victorian panelling and more modern under stairs cupboard. i noticed a little tiny singed patch and it occurred to me that it could be the end of a lintel above a fire place. this was very exciting but puzzling because there isn't a chimney on the roof and i wondered if it had been altered over the years. i found a little hole just big enough to jiggle a crowbar into and it seemed to go back a long way. then i  made that hole just big enough to squeeze a gloved hand into, and pulled out a palmful of sooty earth with some feathers and sticks. so exciting. this meant the under stairs cupboard had to go and the victorian panelling behind that. after a lot of crowbarring i could see that i'd found the original fireplace, all walled in with mud and granite. 

after digging out a vast amount of earth and a huge pile of granite stones there is a lovely large fireplace and a chimney that runs up through the thick wall and emerges out on the roof of the adjoining building. it all needs re-pointing which will be fun to learn. this fireplace with it's slightly curved wooden lintel transforms the feel of the space. even without a fire it makes it feel more warm and homely. and i love the space all the more for it. it's beautiful. it will be even more beautiful. i've always thought that beauty is a fundamental human need to fill the soul. and this in turn will feed the work i make in this space.

i have a quote that i refer back to time and time again. i used it to conclude my dissertation many years ago and it has been pinned on the wall of every studio space i've ever had. so far, it hasn't appeared on my blog.

it is a excerpt from a lecture that meret oppenheim gave at 'the federal institute of technology' in zurich in 1983. it formed part of a conference called 'science and art - contrasts and identities'.

"when nature has stopped being treated as the enemy of man, when the battle of the sexes has become an unknown, when the so-called feminine traits that men share in full measure - feelings, moods, intuition - have been fully exploited, when the significance of woman's contribution to the preservation and development of human society has been recognised, when comfort is no longer mistaken for culture, when beauty has become a need again - then, at last, poetry and art will automatically come into their own again, even if the veil of longing always lies upon them like an eternal promise".

last saturday i was interviewed again by the lovely lizzie on the funkin' arts radio show. a bit giggly but some more stories about my studio discoveries. you can listen to it here

taking down the false ceiling - showing the under stairs cupboard before

peeling back the layers on the same wall 

uncovering the beam

under the plaster board - animal hair and mud render

investigating the under stairs cupboard

finding old strip light bulbs, painted tongue and groove where once there were shelves. level with the second shelf down is the end of what i was hoping would be a wooden lintel and beneath that, the hole i poked the crowbar into!

black cobwebs and a 1950s curtain

frantically pulling away the tongue and groove to make a hand-sized hole to investigate further

running out of floor space....

pulling out the back of the under stairs cupboard and removing the first stone - very sooty!

behind the under stairs cupboard

unbelievable excitement and covered in soot by now!

i have a fire place i really do - hooray!