COUNTING MY BLESSINGS (and painting them)
July 13, 2019
I have asked myself the same question that I asked the people in Sri Lanka – ‘After the worst thing you could imagine happened to you, when your existence was clouded with grief and loss, what were the moments that called you back towards life?’
I made a list. I counted my blessings, and started to paint them; Pete catching three fish on his birthday, Philly reaching the Canadian border, 2650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail behind her, me and Joanna listening to a nightingale.
Now I am painting again and I can’t stop. I love the activity of it, the physical qualities of the paints, some shiny and translucent, others thick, matt, sticky (I’m using acrylics but also household emulsion, the scores of colour test pots that Bill and I accumulated over years). I am painting on pieces of old marquee canvas, complete with stitched seams, ragged edges, stretched out of square by weather and tent poles. Time also becomes stretchy, plastic; it doesn’t behave in its normal predictable fashion. My hand feels clumsy, fingers like a bunch of bananas, inept, out of control – but sometimes the very accidents that they produce please me.
I am excruciatingly nervous, shy and embarrassed about the results. They seem naïve, child-like, sentimental, old-fashioned. I find the bright colours irresistible, and am compulsively drawn to a dramatic sky or the punchiness of a silhouette. The images are narrative, reminding me of stained glass windows in churches or the illustrative posters we had in primary school (‘The Escape from Bethlehem’, ‘Modern Transport’…). But most of all they remind me of the Ladybird books of my childhood. I’m not embarrassed to claim them as an influence. When Bill and I met we combined our collections of snowdomes and Ladybird books. I particularly loved the ones illustrated by John Berry. He seemed fascinated by the way that light falls on human skin and clothing. He painted people in action, in their natural habitat, making things, mining, fishing, working machinery. You can see concentration in their faces, skill in their hands, effort in their bodies. If only I could paint like him…
Here are six paintings that start to count my blessings, with the stories that inspired them…
Three Birthday Fish
September 1st, the last sparkly day of summer, my brother Pete’s birthday. Pete and Philly have camped on the beach at Porthchapel. I bring them grapes from the vine that Joanna gave me, and champagne for breakfast. Pete catches three fish, one each.
Funeral of a Beloved Dog
My sister’s crazy dog, Stu, sickens and dies. He’s been a challenging companion – naughty, disobedient, noisy. But he is sorely mourned. We make a beautiful ceremony for him.
Wedding in the Rain
This is our first joyful family wedding. Bill and I married at the last, but quietly, five weeks before he died. There was little joy in it – except a sweet primrose posy from my next door neighbours, who witnessed the ceremony. My niece Jessie marries her navy officer Matt, given away by Eric her dad, in happy drenching rain.
Nicky invites me to ride the horses with her to Tremayne Quay. A still, perfect afternoon, the river is glassy. With a little encouragement, the horses wade in and stand, snorting gently, snuffling the water.
Listening to the Nightingale
It is just over a year since Bill died. Joanna and I go to a secret location in Kent to meet Sam Lee and walk with him into the night-time forest to hear the nightingales sing. We walk in silence for an hour and a half. Finally we find one, a virtuoso singer. He sings, we listen. Sam sings, the nightingale listens. A magical call-and-response and then duet ensues. Trance-like we feel ourselves dissolve into the forest.
I share the allotment with my sister Di. It is a great consolation. After Bill died it was the only thing that allowed me to think about the future. You plant seeds in the confidence that with time they will germinate, grow, bear fruit, become food. Jowan loves the allotment. He is another little piece of the future, Di’s first grandchild. He especially loves the hose.
Three of the paintings are now being exhibited in South Block, the gallery at the Wasps Artists Studios in Glasgow, along with beautiful work by two other Sura Medura artists, Pippa Taylor and Maria McCavana, and photographs of the painted boat, that I worked on with Pippa.
PAINTING BOATS AND COFFINS
April 3, 2019
There is a resonance, an echo, in the painting of the Sura Medura boats that I hadn’t seen. It was an activity of such blazing similarity that I can’t believe I failed to recognise it. My sister Di reminded me – ‘The last things you painted were Mum’s and Dad’s coffins’.
Early in 2004 Mum died very suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. Apparently hale and hearty, busy with her plants, her classes and lunches with friends, we hadn’t expected her to be the first to go. Dad had been gently fading in a nursing home for a few years. Every time we had visited he seemed more fragile, papery, scrubbed an unfamiliar pink. Somehow we managed to get him to her funeral, where there was a poignant double leave-taking by their friends. Four weeks to the hour after her funeral he followed her.
Both of their ceremonies were devised by Bill, beautiful rituals, full of poetry and live music. The family painted their coffins. Mum’s was decorated with all the things she loved – children, plants, protest, her hens, Cornwall, dogs, mountains, Godrevy.
We turned Dad’s coffin into his beloved boat, ‘Ella Speed’, complete with full sailing rig. The mast, bowsprit and gaff meant that it was too big to fit in the usual horrid curtained slot, but sat proudly in the middle of us, so that people touched it as they left the chapel.
The activity of painting the coffins together was sad, funny, calming. Time slowed. We talked about them, mused on what they would have made of our efforts, planned the ceremonies, held each other.
Reflecting on the last six weeks in Sri Lanka it seems to me that I have completed a strange circumnavigation. This was my original proposal for Sura Medura –
‘My mother was of the land. She was a passionate gardener, could strike any cutting, germinate any seed. As children, my sister and I weren’t interested in plants or gardening, except when the gladioli blossoms might provide ball gowns for our dolls. Then gradually as we grew older we came to gardening too, whether by nature or nurture I’m not sure. My sister earns her living by propagating plants, I use them in my artwork. We share an allotment. We have come to love the investment of time and waiting that plants demand, and the alchemy of water, sun, seeds, manure.
My father had a sailing boat, an old gaff cutter, which took all his resourcefulness and ingenuity to keep afloat. My sister and I were his crew, rowing the dinghy to and fro, pumping bilges, catching breakfast, hauling anchor, climbing the rigging, taking the helm. On a sea trip, over the Channel or across to the Scillies, he would wake me at 6.00am, set me a course to follow and I would have the watch while he slept. If anything should go amiss or if the weather changed I could wake him with a shout. But I never did. Those dawns were very special, privileged, alone with the sea, the wind, the diving gannets, feeling at once very small but also very big, with responsibility for my father, my sister and the boat. I have always been afraid of the sea.
I will seek to make contact with people of the sea (fishermen, boatbuilders, fish sellers, surfers) and people of the land (growers, farmers, fruit & veg sellers, cooks). I will explore their connection to sea and land, their sense of time and natural cycles. If possible I would like to meet their children/grandchildren too, to understand how these relationships are shifting. I will bring imagery and stories of my parents, my allotment and my experience of the sea, to start these conversations.’
My intention was to row back to some core inspiration, before Bill, before theatre even, to find again my connection with nature and an innocent, more playful response to it. I didn’t expect my course of inquiry to be about grief and loss, that Bill would be so profoundly present for me. The application of tropic heat, startling beauty, tragic personal stories, the constant sound of pounding surf, little stings of homesickness, all serve to peel you like a mangosteen, leaving you tender to unexpected new/old ideas. I abandoned my original proposal, left Mum and Dad behind in Cornwall and set off to listen to stories from people who had survived the Tsunami or other personal loss, to understand and record their journeys back through grief towards life, perhaps in some way finding a mirror for my own experience.
How curious it is that all of these themes have somehow found their way back into the work, no matter what my intentions were. Boats, grief, coffins, painting as a way of soothing grief, boats as a metaphor for change/death/transformation, naive images of the sweet everyday as a counterbalance to the howling chaos of loss. Pete and I have often made boats – in Africa, on the banks of the Thames, on fire in a quarry, in the palm of a sea god. I launched 65 tiny wax boats on the Thames for Bill, one for each year of his life. There is something in the archetype of ‘boat’ that summons our dreams and accepts many layers of meaning and ambiguity. Good poetry.
When Bill died there was one word that kept circling when I tried to identify what I was feeling – ‘unmoored’. After Sri Lanka I still don’t know what my destination might be. But I think I might have a new direction of travel…
THE STORIES – a Big Fish, a Baby Turtle, Champa’s Shop, Dogs and Cats, Waiting for the Peacock
March 26, 2019
Waiting for the Peacock
Mangalika’s favourite sound is the voice of the peacock who visits her garden early in the morning and at dusk. It seems impossible that he can fly, but Mangalika assures us that he can, his magnificent, iridescent tail streaming behind him.
The Big Fish
I dreamed this image, an impossibly huge fish being embraced by the fisherman who caught it. The following week I went to the early morning fish market and saw two vast swordfish being carried in from the boats, suspended on poles, plus an enormous manta ray. Nobody was hugging them though, too spiny.
Champa’s shop is a feast of colour, inside and out. Piles of saris teeter against the walls, garments in a wild range of fabrics and styles hang from the rails. She can make anything out of textile – a copy of a much-loved-and-worn dress, a carry-case for a ravanahatha (Sri Lankan musical instrument, played by Pippa), an emergency white skirt for a funeral, a tailored top from a scratchy sketch. Her life has had its challenges of bereavement and chronic illness, she lost her original shop and sewing machines in the Tsunami, but her energy and enthusiasm for her craft is undiminished.
Dogs and Cats
Pushpa loves her pets, they are wonderful company. We meet many Sri Lankans who have animals as part of their families. This is Dilka, beloved member of Susila’s family. We have a dog at Sura Medura – Kadi is the monkey dog (that’s his job, not his ancestry, to keep the monkeys away from the house).
The Baby Turtle
On our first night in Hikkaduwa we saw tiny turtles hatching from the beach and crawling to the sea. The Turtle Hatchery in Peraliya rescues eggs that would otherwise be sold to eat. The going rate for a turtle’s egg is 4 or 5 rupees, but the Hatchery pays 20 rupees per head. The family that set up this conservation project paid a heavy price during the Tsunami; mother, sisters and children dying in the flood. They are remembered at the entrance to the Turtle Hatchery, which is now run by the two surviving brothers.
THE STORIES – a Garden, a Bicycle, the Fish Market, Granny Arioti, Surf and Wedding Cake
March 21, 2019
Arioti is 73, has five children and thirteen grandchildren. Her husband died in a bike accident. When the first tsunami wave came she ran, there was no husband to save her. She lives alone in Peraliya and is very happy. She adores her family, who all want her to move in with them, but she loves her independence. If the wave came again, she says she wouldn’t run this time.
The Coconut Knife and the Bicycle
Chandra was selling his catch near the Peraliya road when the first wave came and swept away his stall. He managed to grab his bike and tried to ride it away through the rising waters. Failing to do that, he attempted to carry it on his back, but in the end had to abandon it to the flood. He lost everything, couldn’t even find the location of his house, the wave had swept it clean away. Eventually he bought a knife so that he could collect coconuts and sell them. Then a kind European bought him a bicycle to help his business. Now he goes lobster fishing on a friend’s boat. But he still needs the bike – the houses that were built after the wave are all inland. Nobody is allowed to build next to the sea any more.
The Fish Market
The Tsunami decimated the fishing fleet. No boats meant no fish, no work for fishermen, net menders, fish sellers. The local community set up a project, with some international help, to rebuild the fishing boats. The painted catamaran is made from two hulls left over from that project. Now the Dodanduwa and Hikkaduwa Fish Markets see an astonishing range of fish landed; tuna, barracuda, squid, manta ray, swordfish, mullet, snapper, grouper.
Naleni, Pushpa and Aruni love their gardens. Aruni describes how magical it is to rise early and spend time with her plants, watering them and caring for them. When we walk past Naleni’s shop she brings us anthurium flowers – huge white, fleshy, single petals.
Surfing has transformed Hikkaduwa over the last thirty years, turning it from a quiet fishing village into a honeypot destination for chilly Northerners seeking warm seas, lively surf and hospitable people. The surfing community were in the front line of recovery after the tsunami, focussing attention, raising funds, donating vital equipment.
Mangalika shows us the photo album from her daughter’s wedding. It is lavish, glamorous, poetic. I am particularly caught by one series of images. The groom holds a sweet cake to his bride’s lips and the bride returns the gesture for her new husband. It is a beautiful reminder of the generosity required to keep the sweetness in a long partnership.
THE STORIES – A Wedding, a Fridge, a Sandcastle and a Little Finger
March 18, 2019
Eight stories are now painted on one side of the catamaran, and eight more half-finished on the other, each one nestled between mangroves. Here are a few of them…
The Big Wedding
Aruni fell in love when she was sixteen. Both sets of parents disapproved, especially the boy’s family. She dreamed of a wonderful wedding, but it was not possible. She and her husband were cut off from both families; they had to live with her uncle. After three years she had a baby girl. The families began to relent. Two more children arrived and the families were re-united. The babies heal everything. When Lakmali the eldest daughter marries, Aruni makes sure she has the most splendid wedding – six pageboys, six bridesmaids, hundreds of guests, a dream of a dress. All the grandparents come to the wedding. (And now Ruwan and Lakmali have two delicious little boys of their own).
The New Fridge
At first Ari and her son think that the water tank in the hotel next door has burst, there is water everywhere and people are shouting. Then they understand it is the sea. They run inside the house but it fills up like a tank. Her son breaks a window to let the water out. Now the second wave comes. By a miracle they survive. But her shop has gone – fridge, stock, everything. They live on food aid for a while, until a German couple buy her a new fridge. She can start her business again. Now she says she is more relaxed about material things, she gives alms, just keeps what she needs. Ari is always laughing, tells a good joke, her mobile is constantly buzzing and beeping with messages from her many friends.
The Little Finger
Lilani had three lovely boy children. But she always longed for a girl. The fourth pregnancy was a baby girl. Born by caesarean section, she was tiny. She is now 21 years old, a teacher. Lilani remembers her daughter’s baby hand gripping her little finger as she walked.
Neil was in his home in Hikkaduwa when the Tsunami came and demolished much of the town. He lost friends and witnessed at first hand the catastrophe that befell his community. He played a key part in the project to rebuild the fishing fleet. Every day, just before sunset, Neil and his son Jack head down the beach with a shovel and a toy bulldozer. Together they make a mountain fortress out of sand at the edge of the surf. They wait for the sea to sweep it away.
MANGROVES AND THE WAVE…
Between the story images Pippa has painted mangroves…
On the inner sides of the two hulls she has painted beautiful wave forms…
More stories in the next blog…
March 9, 2019
When I came to Sri Lanka I thought I would be scanning a new horizon, that my focus would be new materials, new processes, fresh thinking. Inevitably perhaps, Bill has come with me on this journey (and he’s very welcome here). Most surprising for me is that I have returned to my very first mark-making.
As a child I drew incessantly, from the moment I could first hold a crayon. Mum was a radiographer; each X-ray film was sleeved in bright yellow paper and cream card, so my sister and I had a limitless supply. It was our favourite kind of play.
Drawings of imagined foreign lands, animals strange and familiar, horses, horses, horses. Later, fantasy clothing, scenes of violence, people kissing. I took O and A Level Art. It was both a delight and a refuge. I was allowed out of school on my own to sit in the local museum and draw stuffed owls, geological specimens, the Egyptian mummy.
And then I stopped.
Theatre consumed me – firstly performance, then later, making things. In my work with my brother, making giant figurative sculpture, I have used drawing from time to time as the means of communicating an idea. But I haven’t drawn for simple joy for over forty years.
I have been thinking about Bill and the paths I have walked since he died. I have been watching the nature of my grief, the rhythm of it, the unpredictable timing and force of its assaults, the physical effects of it (I find it very hard to sing without weeping, no matter what the song). I thought I would never be happy again.
And then, little by little, new shoots emerge. My beautiful niece married in pouring rain to her navy officer. Swimming horses in the sea at Marazion. Unearthing pale new potatoes with Di at our allotment. Jowan meeting his first donkey. A wild and windy cliff walk with Pete and Tom. Elation, hilarity, wonder, delight in the sweetness of the everyday. I have marked these as punctuation marks in the sentences of my sadness.
In so many ways, individually and collectively, Sri Lankans are expert in grief. The long years of civil war and the cataclysm of the Tsunami are deeply embedded in the narrative here. I was interested in how a community might make its way through the aftermath of such losses to find life again. So in the last weeks I have been having conversations with people who survived the wave, but lost friends, family members, livelihoods, homes. And also people who have suffered less dramatic but still life-changing losses and reversals. I have been drawing their stories, not so much what happened on the day, but more the moments in the following months and years when they felt they could imagine a happier future, a less clouded horizon.
And re-discovering drawing is giving me playful joy and a kind of peace.
Now I will paint these images onto the two hulls, themselves signifiers of the possibility of renewal, built by the community after the wave. I am joined in this project by the wonderful Pippa Taylor, among whose many talents is botanical drawing. She will paint the tangle of mangroves that will frame the little scenes. Mangroves protect the coast from erosion and can mitigate the effects of storm waves and tsunami. We are both well out of our respective comfort zones in this endeavour, but excited by the scale and craziness of the task.
Survivors’ stories and my drawings in the next blog…
SEVEN THINGS I WANTED TO TELL BILL…
February 26, 2019
There would almost always be a time when we shared how our day had been, no matter where in the world he and I were, or how far apart. What did you see that gave you wonder? Did you hear something that made you sad? Someone who made you angry? Did you find beauty? I’m pretty good with solitude, but the lack of this daily witnessing of one another’s doings and beings is the saddest gap in my life. It’s especially sharp when the days are full of such strangeness, awe, shock and pity as they are here in Sri Lanka. So much to share.
So. Here are seven things I have wanted to tell Bill…
Baby turtles on the beach at night! And their tiny fin-prints crisscrossing the sand in the morning, marking their tracks to the sea. There are huge efforts made to save as many of these little mites as possible. Locals used to harvest the eggs and eat them or sell them. Now the conservation project buys them for three times the market price, reburies them in protected sand and watches them when they hatch to make sure as many as possible make it to the sea.
Remember how much we loved a big mosquito net?
Check out the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lankan architect, proponent of Tropical Modernism (http://www.geoffreybawa.com/) His work has inspired our beautiful workspace, Sura Medura.
Remember how you got caught in a rip at Godrevy and I thought you were waving (there was a seal) not drowning. The rips here are super-strong. So I’m admiring the waves from the beach and walking to the babies’ beach, sheltered by a reef, to swim. And waiting for the new swimming pool to be completed at Sura Medura (see G. Bawa, above)!
Sexy fruit. Mangosteen! Such a great word and delicious too. Little, sweet, white, bite-able bums…
The imagery in the Buddhist temple on the lagoon is strange and beautiful beyond all expectations. Luminous colours, surreal, puzzling, painted scenes, and a hundred life-size figures depicting the horrors of a sinful life (toothy blue demons, dismembered babies, pits of fire). I think I need to study the paintings, there are clues for my project…
I’m up to my knees in mud again. Happy. The two spare boats, made after the Tsunami, when the fishing fleet was being rebuilt, were full of mud, slime, rainwater, gravel, mangrove seedlings and little creatures. I have re-homed the lot into the lagoon (with the exception of the mangroves, which are being lovingly tended by Jonny and Pippa, two of my fellow artists).
Bill, my best beloved, I miss you every day. I think you would have loved it here…
DECEMBER 26TH 2004
February 14, 2019
There were two waves. The first hit the coast at Hikkaduwa without warning, stopping the train, washing away shelters and boats. And then the sea vanished towards the horizon, leaving fish flapping on the never-before-revealed sand. People, children, rushed out onto the expanse in wonder, collecting the fish. There are many deeply upsetting images in the Community Tsunami Museum at Peraliya which record the terrible catastrophe that befell Sri Lanka on that day. But the one I find most disturbing is the picture of children running out onto the sand after the first wave…
The second wave arrived half an hour later, five times the height of the first, travelling at 800 kilometres per hour. It tumbled the train, in which many passengers had remained, believing it would offer shelter. Forty thousand people died in Sri Lanka, half a million were made homeless.
At the Eden Project that Christmas we had made a new festival, ‘Time of Gifts’, to celebrate our communities and the drawing together that happens in the dark times. We had made beautiful lantern boats, carrying Hope Ropes, to which people were invited to attach their wishes for the New Year. Before Boxing Day there were plenty of hopes for new bicycles, new computers, new jobs, new romances. After the 26th every single wish was for the people who had had their lives torn apart by the cataclysm around the Indian Ocean. It was so very far from us and our lives. But people wanted to do something, anything, even something as small as a child writing a wish on a label.
Jim Carey had written a beautiful song to accompany the boats. Its chorus went – ‘Let’s raise a glass to those who have gone, And remember them with this song. And when these dark days have gone, A new day will come, a new day will come’
Fifteen years after the Tsunami, the scars are still present everywhere. But human beings are resilient, creative. They make a life, in the face of natural disaster and human cruelty. We have witnessed this over and over again, in Kosovo, in the West Bank, in Cyprus – rebuilding, raising children, making music, cooking feasts. I hope to hear some of these stories over the next few weeks, I’ll post them here…
January 2, 2019
For more than thirty years I have been making art and theatre in the wild, not in theatres or galleries, playing and experimenting with new tools, media and materials – ice, seawater, cake, mud, plants, cranes, horses, distance, boats, twilight, fire.
I am a maker, performer, storyteller, curator and director. I have walked much of this path alongside my partner Bill Mitchell. With Kneehigh and WildWorks we developed landscape theatre, gathered stories from communities and found ways of telling them intimately and at scale.
Bill died on Good Friday 2017, taken by cancer at the peak of his powers.
So now I am discovering who I am without him, finding the process both sad and exhilarating.
I have been invited to Sri Lanka to participate in the Sura Medura Artist Residency programme in February this year, to play, to experiment, to explore new territories, physical, virtual and imaginary. Many, many thanks to Neil Butler, Bettina Linstrum and Mark Denbigh for giving me this opportunity. Watch this space for more posts as the adventure unfolds.