On Drawing

This weekend, I finished four books I have been simultaneously reading - or looking in, as is the case with some of them; three of them are about drawing, one has very little text at all, just a preface, not even written by the artist. At first, I thought I might do one post for all of them, but now it seems that it would be unfair to them all, as they are each very good and recommendable.

I´ll start with one by Andrew Marr, the British political journalist. I had no idea that he is also a very good draughtsman, who knows a thing or two about art. Turns out, he has also written a book on the subject, "A Short Book About Drawing". I was curious and got it, and was not disappointed. I am not the kind of bibliophile who gets excited about what a book looks like or anything; I have favoured cheap paperbacks before I easily transitioned into the world of e-books, but with this one, I have to mention that it is a very pretty book to look at. Also, it doesn´t smell or give off cough-inducing fumes, something I am always wary of with books containing many pictures.

The chapters have headlines like "Drawing and happiness", "The eyes - drawing and movement", "The heart - what is drawing about?", and it is very enjoying to read his thoughts on why he (and others) draws, and the role of drawing in education, culture, and art. He isn´t just sitting in his room with this either, being a journalist he goes visiting drawing teachers and talks to artists like David Hockney, who
"goes as far as to say that the age of photography is now coming to and end, that its shallowness is boring us.
He may be ahead of the mass, but it´s certainly true that there is something about the physicality and simplicity of drawing that makes it undefeatable. With strips of charcoal or pens, basic tools in our hands, it has barely moved forward. An iPad app which I use all the time, Brushes, is not essentially different. It is faster, brighter, more flexible, but in the end it is a stylus and a surface, and the drawing is just drawing. Personal, direct, drawing has not "advanced". It stands outside glib ideas of progress."
Andrew Marr: Central Park, New York.
Marr uses only his own drawings to illustrate the book, both because - he says in the preface - they are cheap, and because he thinks that while he doesn´t regard any of them as real works of art, he thinks that most of them will encourage people to try for themselves. And they do. I like Marr´s drawings a lot. Most of all I like that he seems comfortable to go at it with all kinds of tools, from pencil to paint, and - and this is not something I have seen much of until now - the iPad, with which he produces both some flat and some startlingly vibrant drawings.

But do modern artists even draw today? Many art schools don´t teach drawing at all, Marr says.
"Conceptual art is needed in a book on drawing because the status of drawing fell so far after Duchamp´s rewriting of what the word "art" means. Like the aftermath of any explosion, the debris is scattered and awkwardly shaped. Some great traditional artists hang on to their status, like well-decorated rooms exposed to the outside world when half the house has been blown away. Far from the commercial centres of the art world, many thousands of traditional painters and draughtsmen quietly keep going, as if nothing has happened, rather like the late Romans carrying on with their quietly satisfying provincial lives - planting vines, mending tracks - even after Attila´s hordes had sacked the Forum." 
Andrew Marr: Hay-on-Wye. 
And what about using mechanical tools? While reading, I think of two Swedish artists (very successful) I have seen working by tracing a photograph from an overhead projector onto a large piece of paper. Isn´t that cheating? No, says Marr:
"Artists have used mechanical tools and aides of all kinds. They have used light-boxes and lenses of all sorts, squared lattices, spray-guns, and, yes, computers. Artists have also always copied. [...] ...aids are neither here nor there. Nor is the quotation and reworking of somebody else´s picture.
The only question is aliveness. A lame, mechanical copy of another work is a lame, dead thing. Most of us, even, subconsciously, can tell. The drawing must say something about the drawer as well as the thing drawn."
Marr may humbly say that his drawings aren´t art, but some of them reveal quite a bit about him, particularly a night-time drawing on the iPad where you can see his lonely reflection in a New York hotel room. Does it possess aliveness? I would say so. (If you want to see it, you must buy the book, so there!)

This is, without a doubt, one of those books that you can have on your shelf and take down every year, read a chapter or two, or let yourself be drawn in and re-read the whole thing. Or just look at the drawings, be impressed and inspired. I would recommend it for anyone who draws or would like to draw, or even anyone who is the least interested in art and personal expression. Marr has the attitude of the very accomplished amateur. You will understand more after having read him.


Lord Peter Wimsey Investigates

I started on "Doctor Sleep" after I finished "The Shining", but was easily distracted. I must - reluctantly - confess that Stephen King isn´t really my thing. I really like his book "On Writing", but the fiction just leaves me, ahum, bored. I may finish it some day, but I´m not going to read it out of a sense of duty.

Instead, I read an article, I forget where, about Dorothy L Sayers, and realized that I had never read her. I immediately bought the first book "Whose body?" about Lord Peter Wimsey, which was 99 cents on amazon (Kindle version), and by serving the first third of the second novel, "Clouds of Witness", at the end of the first, I was hooked. Now I´m on the third one, "Unnatural Death". There are around fifteen, I think.

It reminded me at first a lot of Nancy Mitford´s novels, but it´s really just the similarity in the character gallery, and the way people talk. Wimsey is like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, and I even think Sayers herself has said so. Sayers is a much better writer than Mitford, and she is just as interested in portraying the lower classes as her upper class hero and his entourage. She delights in dialects, to the point that it can become tiresome, but I forgive her.

We meet Lord Peter Wimsey, younger brother of the Duke of Denver, in the 1920´s, a few years after the War. He is a man of leisure, with a flat on Piccadilly, a faithful bulter called Bunter (who tells him what to wear, what to read, where to go and how to get there, more or less), and a couple of hobbies: collecting rare first editions, and solving crime. His mother, the Dowager Duchess, encourages him (to the irritation of his much more conservative older brother and wife, the present Duchess of Denver) and some pages into the novel, we see why:
"...Mr. Bunter, sleeping the sleep of the true and faithful servant, was aroused in the small hours by a hoars whisper, "Bunter!" "Yes, my lord," said Bunter, sitting up and switching on the light. "Put that thing out, damn you!"[...] Listen! Oh my God! I can´t hear - I can´t hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can´t they stop the guns?" "Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no - it´s all right, Major, - don´t you worry." [...] "Thought we´d had the last of these attacks," he said [later, to himself]. "Been overdoin´ of himself. Asleep?" He peered at him anxiously. An affectionate note crept into his voice. "Bloody little fool!" said Sergeant Bunter."
Many young men returned home from the front with shell shock, and being a lord doesn´t make one immune to this affliction, as we see. We also understand more about the depth and history of the relationship with Bunter. The Dowager Duchess´s opinion is that investigating is good for her son, as it distracts him and gives him something useful to do (a modern writer might phrase it as a matter of self-esteem).

Wimsey´s crime solving is much facilitated by the fact that he is friends with the head of Scotland Yard, who welcomes any help he can give and puts the Yard´s recources completely at his disposal, and his close friendship with Charles Parker, a very good detective at the Yard who collaborates with him. Or, as Wimsey likes to say:
"This is the real sleuth - my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He´s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, 'My god, what intuition that young man has!'"
I love this. A good, honest murder mystery in the English tradition. A clever and sympathetic hero, some excellent supporting characters, they all feel like real people, even if they talk like "Hullo! Look here, I say, deuces!" (Note to Swedes: hullo, is hello pronounced upper class-like, as Maggie Smith does in "Downton Abbey": höllöu)

Two actors have played Lord Peter on television, Edward Petherbridge being the most recent one. I didn´t see it when it was on, in the 80´s, had much more interesting things to do then, and from what I have seen on youtube, it hasn´t aged very well. The husband is old enough to remember Ian Carmichael from the 70´s. Both can be seen on youtube, if you are curious, but I personally think that they should do a revival instead of doing the same Austen and Sherlock films over and over every five or ten years. I see Laurence Fox as Lord Peter, Judi Dench as the Dowager Duchess (she a bit too old, but who cares, so is Fox), and anyone really as Parker, since he is described by Sayers as "nondescript". The Duke of Denver, who is most inconveniently accused of murder in the second book, would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and oh, Bunter, who should play him? Someone able-looking, like Douglas Henshall, perhaps. Too old again, of course, but I think that war aged them at least 20 years, so it wouldn´t matter much.

I can´t really recommend this enough. I expect you know your own taste well enough to know if you should try it yourself.


The Creative Licence

Ever since 1992 I have been in the habit of keeping a diary. For the first ten years, it was mainly a therapeutic tool, helping me to unveil some not so healthy structures and behaviours in myself and people around me. After that, however, I felt that the habit was restraining me rather than helping me forward but I didn´t know how to break out of the mould I had created. I tried to quit, I tried other ways, but always came back to the same thing I had been doing; it was kin to an addiction.

I wish I had stumbled upon Danny Gregory´s book "The Creative Licence" a few years ago. (Actually, I would have needed it before it was written, probably!) The subtitle is "Giving yourself permission to be the artist you truly are", and it is an enthusiastic class in how to do an illustrated journal, whether you think you can draw or not. It is about seeing your world differently, challenging your perceptions and bringing impressions to the page, mixing it around and creating ideas for whatever you are into, not just the visual arts.
Drawing is seeing [...] looking is a language [..] In Genesis, God has Adam name the animals. Labels make abstract thinking possible. But because we overdo it, looking replaces seeing, and we soon stop seeing things for what they truly are. We say "tree" and stop saying "elm" [...]. This is where drawing comes from. You can look at something slowly and carefully [...] you stop thinking about bills and aches and grievances and chores. You, your pen, your paper, your subject, you just are.
This is drawing as mindfulness practice. And being mindful is the door into the state of creativity. It´s like that old cliché: the nutty professor/inventor who gets lost in his own thoughts and work, forgetting all about sleeping, eating and the world around him.

Gregory has a story of his own, of course, about the creative person who got lost in advertising and found his way back and now wants to share and encourage others. Personal experience is always a good place to start. He also has several suggestions on how to start a journal, how to re-start, challenge yourself to "draw ugly", "be specific", "draw negative space", and such things. Lots of illustrations, naturally, not just from his own journals but from other people´s journals as well. He also encourages the reader to experiment with writing, arguing that writing is drawing too. My only objection to this book is, actually, that at times, it is very hard to read, because the writing is so awkward and wonky. A challenge, perhaps, but also a source of irritation. But it´s a minor objection.

I´d like to finish with a quote that made me think, not because of what is said, but because of who says it:
"I cannot tell you how happy I am to have taken up drawing again. I´ve been thinking of it, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach." - Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother.
If you are bored and don´t know what to do, or you know what you want to do but don´t know how to do it, this can be the book for you. You don´t have to be wanting to learn how to do art, just wanting the courage to put your impressions and ideas on anything down on paper. That´s what Gregory is teaching: courage to create.

No Real Ladies

I got the tip of this book, a feminist anthology, from fellow blogger the Teacup. It´s not the kind of thing I usually read, but sometimes one must break out of one´s rut and look at something else, like "Av oss blev det aldrig några riktiga damer" (= we never turned in to any real ladies). It is edited by Charlotte Signell, who also contributes. At 190 pages, with a large-ish typeface and several blank pages between every contributor, it was a very quick read. 

It is a motley mix of contributors, some I can really relate to, others not so much. Most interesting is the transsexual experience of womanhood, as told by journalist Andy Candy, perhaps because I know less about that. Most of the contributors I have never heard of, and they seem very young. Sometimes during the reading I got provoked and wanted to bitch back when I thought they got too bantering, too generalizing, and too stuck up their own arses, as young people tend to be (and I was, for sure - probably still am). But that´s the point of this book, to be a collection of opinionated and passionate voices. 

One thought that I had during most of the reading was that many of the contributors seemed to be extroverts and that their feelings of being rejected or not confirmed by "society" was not something I could relate to because I am introverted and care less for what other people think of me. In my experience, people are not particularly bothered about what I do or how I live. On the other hand, I am not a gay person who tried to have children, I am not a transsexual who had to live up to some universal idea of gender behaviour to get my operation, my "county council vagina" (landstingsvagina) as Andy Candy so poignantly put it. So who am I to talk about being an outsider?

This was a good read for me. At first I felt that it had broadened my horizons. In the days after, forgotten memories of what it was like for me to be a young woman popped up in my head, I remembered choices I made that wasn´t so very popular with the patriarchal world view of the men in my life at that time, men who are not in my life any more. And I realize now that I could have contributed to this anthology as well. I certainly never turned into a proper lady either. 



Both the husband and I are die-hard comic fans. We have a cupboard upstairs filled with old comics, everything from "Donald Duck" (dating as far back as the 60´s), to Swedish comics like "91:an Karlsson" (set in the Swedish army), action-adventures in "Agent X9", and of course, "Fantomen" (= the phantom). When my little sister started university here in Luleå some 20+ years ago, one of her hazing assignments was to find a Donald Duck comic from 1967. She came straight here and got one - no problem.

Lately, I have been enjoying the comics of Noah van Sciver. I am not sure how I discovered him, but somehow I happened upon his blog and was immediately hooked on his diary-comics (love this!), which he does a month at a time, when he feels like it, I guess. He does autobiographical really good, because he doesn´t make the character Noah van Sciver particularly heroic or cool or anything. He is basically a looser who struggles with a lot of things in life, and who can not relate to that? I say character, because even if it is autobiographical, an autobiographical self is a subjective portayal. I am sure everyone has a slightly different image of themselves than other people has.

In April he started doing a comic about a character called Fante Bukowski, a struggling Next Big American Writer of His Generation, living in ratty hotel rooms, hammering out his stories on an old typewriter, feeling misunderstood and sorry for himself - and naturally, he sucks at writing. This was just brilliant! I wrote van Sciver fan mail. I think any artist can identify with Fante - if not, I suspect there is some serious hubris going on!

I ordered a couple of his Blammo comics, number 6 and 8 (reading them was a bit like being a little girl again and having the latest issue of  Fantomen, as they are roughly that size), from his Etsy store. They took a few weeks to arrive, having to pass through customs and all that. I was charmed to find a drawn thank you note on yellow note paper. Wait, I thought, is that like, Yellow Legal Paper? I googled it and no, it doesn´t have the right size, but for a European like me, Yellow Legal Pads belong to the mythology of Great American Writers. Perhaps saying they write their first drafts on it signals humility in the US, where you no doubt can buy this stuff in any supermarket, but for us... I tell you, if Fante Bukowski was Swedish, he would import Yellow Legal Pads from the US, to get in the proper creative mood. The only Swedish artist I ever heard used yellow notepaper is Ingmar Bergman; perhaps he had a Fante Bukowski deep inside, too? 

The stories in Blammo are a mixed bag, some of them are a bit absurd, like a Monty Python skit, some are touching, and some satirical. Having thus whet my appetite, I ordered "The Hypo" (which is sold in Sweden, I bought mine via bokus), a very ambitious work about Abraham Lincoln in his younger years, struggling politically, professionally, socially, and battling severe depression. This is a powerful story, and a side to the revered president I certainly had never heard of. It is very impressive how van Sciver does it all himself: story and drawings. I am impressed by his skill in both areas.

Damian Melven has recently made a short film about van Sciver´s work in his series "Sketched Out". And I have not had enough of it - I just ordered "The Lizard Laughed" from Oily Comics.

"The Hypo" can be found in one Swedish library (Malmö) but any local Swedish library can borrow from them if you request it. I am considering donating my copy to the local library, if they will have it. I think more people should have a chance to discover van Sciver. I just have to get over my possessiveness about it, so give me a few days...

Random page from "The Hypo".

This paper doll of Lincoln´s wife is just too charming! 


The Shining

I have just finished reading Stephen King´s "The Shining". The only other thing I have read by King apart from "Cujo" in the 80´s, is his excellent book "On Writing" which I have read twice, with a few years of experience in the meantime. Ok, everyone´s process is different, but King seems to be fairly accurate about how I function, at least - although I didn´t know it the first time I read him. He has some good advice, if you are bent on writing a book yourself. (And why shouldn´t you? Everyone has a story.)

In the mountains, no one can hear you scream...
I decided on "The Shining" in particular because I had read rave reviews about the sequel, "Doctor Sleep", and because Priya seems to think it´s one of the best books ever. I have not seen Stanley Kubrik´s film with Jack Nicholson and I understand it differs quite a bit from the book. 

It took me more than two months to finish "The Shining", which must be some kind of record with a novel, for me. It wasn´t that I didn´t like it. It wasn´t that it was badly written - gosh no, King knows his stuff and he has a lesson for you on every page if you are a student of his. It was partly because I had a pretty busy summer, and partly that the main character, Jack Torrance, was a bit predictable. Crap childhood, history of abuse, mood swings, temper control issues - perhaps characters like these were not regulars of crime and other fiction in the 70´s, but Torrance has certainly had many, many followers in books, on film, and television. The chemistry between Torrance and his wife Wendy and their psychic son Danny, is also pretty familiar. Fear and love is a bitter brew; many of us can relate, and not just through fiction either. These character feels real because they are, there are versions of Jack Torrance in every village, on every block, in every extended family - I hope you are lucky enough not to have one in yours. 
...his father´s attitude was strange. It was a feeling that he had done something that was very hard and had done it right. But Danny could not seem to see exactly what the something was. His father was guarding that carefully, even in his own mind. Was it possible, Danny wondered, to be glad you had done something and still be so ashamed of that something that you tried not to think of it? The quesiton was a disturbing one. He didn´t think such a thing was possible... in a normal mind. His hardest probings at his father had only brought him a dim picture of something like an octopus, whirling up into the hard blue sky.
In short, what happens is that Jack takes a job as a winter caretaker of the summer mountain resort The Overlook. The family gets snowed in for months in the Colorado mountains, in a house brimming with tragic history and the dangerous shadows these events are casting. As they settle in, King tells the background story in flashbacks. Like I said: well written and realistic, but familiar. Then the spooky stuff starts, and that cheered me up a bit; I finished the last half of the novel within a week. King is really good at making the most improbable things absolutely believable. Also, I fell head over heals for the wonderful Mr Hallorann, who comes to the rescue in the end. 
Jack wasn´t out there anymore. She was hearing the lunatic, raving voice of the Overlook itself.
For me, this is a story about rage, and by rage I mean anger that grows bigger than what you were initially angry about, until it is out of control or even controls you. Wendy and Danny keep repeating that it wasn´t Jack doing those things he did, it was the house, the Overlook, the ghosts that made him do it. But I keep thinking that Jack had all that rage in him when he came. The Overlook didn´t make Jack Torrance any different, it just worked with what was already there. And of course, that is King´s point (or so I imagine): that the people who love us are capable of infinite indulgence, forgiveness, and hold hope for us even when we are hopeless. To the point of self-sacrifice; Wendy and Danny see what´s coming, and yet choose to stay.  

I kind of wish I had read this when I was a bit younger. Perhaps it would have taught me something that could have been useful to me. But that´s easy to say in retrospect. Now, I am much eager to go on with "Doctor Sleep", which, I imagine is about the grown-up Danny and how he (hopefully) breaks his father´s curse. 


Coolest Library Ever!

Some people (particularly British ones), when you say you are going to Birmingham on vacation (or Milton Keynes, or Coventry), they ask "Why?". Ok, so Birmingham isn´t quaint in a Midsomer-ish or Downton Abbey-ish way, but it has its charm and a lot to offer. These industrial cities took quite a beating during the war, and were perhaps again victims at the hands of some less classy architectural fashions during the mid- to late 20th Century. There are fine examples of brutalist architecture, but there are too many that hasn´t done humanity any favours at all and some are being pulled down. Birmingham is really pushing the envelope when it comes to innovative architecture and I was so curious to see how the new library had turned out. Yes, we went to Birmingham just to see a library. We saw a lot of other fine things too, but it would have been totally worth it to come all the way from Sweden just to see that library.

We had to pass the old library on our way to the new one, and it looked as dull as every. When I was there in 2009, the site of the new library was just a demolition site - I don´t know what stood there before, but I expect it must have been something ugly. Now, I was just awestruck at what appeared. I imagine they must be very pleased with how it turned out.

When you come inside, it feels a bit like looking up into that spaceship in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". If the old library was a Tomb of Dead Books, this is the Temple of Learning. Very fittingly indeed, it was Malala Yousafzai who opened it in September last year. And it is full of people! Reading, working, talking, eating lunch on the terrace or in the café by the entrance, kissing! and some walking around in wonder, as we were. The building is a magnet.

They have two terraces, and the library even extends underneath the square in front of it. There is a "sunken" stage with a stand built into the pavement above it. When we were there, they had a steel pan orchestra playing old Beatles´ tunes. Everywhere the circle theme is used to give it a coherent aesthetic look. What a great place! If you want to know more, check out their website.

Neighbours: The Hyatt Hotel, The Symphony Hall, The ICC, The Rep.

The view overlooking the town centre.

To the captain´s bridge....

The captain´s bridge The Shakespeare Memorial Room, a reading room
built in 1882 for an earlier, now demolished, city library.

The Secret Garden