Other Landscapes

I’ve just bought a book by poet Bruce Snider based on a couple of poems by him that I discovered on the Gwarlingo website. The thing that drew me to them straight away were the vivid descriptions of his hometown of Paradise, Indiana. I was struck by the way he uses landscape as a means of expression and also as a powerful kind of grounding force to that expression. The poems are rich with descriptions of the land, it’s trees and highways, ditches and rivers and these are woven with moments from the past so that somehow he makes these intensely personal experiences into something more accessible, something more universal that we can all understand.

The suicide of the writers cousin ‘Nick’ is at the centre of the collection, simply titled ‘Paradise, Indiana’ but the poems are never indulgent or sentimental. He manages to convey the weight of human grief and loss in a few carefully chosen words that create vivid flashes of imagery, his landscape acting as a kind of compass for memory as he seeks to make sense of the inexplicable.

I especially like this one, called ‘Epitaph’. The images are by Connemara based photographer and hill walking guide Inez Streefkerk.





Because I could be written anywhere,

I loved the hard surface of the blade,

my name carved into barn doors, desktops,

the peeled face of a shag-bark hickory.

I pressed my whole weight into it, letters


grooved deep as the empty

field rows along Tri-Lakes* where I’d seen

my cousin Nick buried in ground so hard

they had to heat the dirt with lamps

before they could dig. I gutted squirrels


my grandmother fried, hanging

skins from the window,

and with the same knife gouged a B

at the base of the frozen creek bank,

the season breaking


like the rose our teacher, Miss Jane,

dipped in nitrogen so it would shatter.

There were more atoms, she claimed,

in the letter O, than people in the entire state.

I could feel God inside that letter,


the vast sky configured, buds scrawled

on the black limbs of trees.

Trucks carried spring feed down

Highway 9 as I wove through the headstones,

tracing names in the late frost,


looking for Nick’s plot

with the wax white roses,

his lucky fishing lure. I could sense

him down there, satin-lined,

curled like the six-toed cat


we’d found bloated in the creek, alive

with lice and maggots. Sometimes

I was sure I could hear him, restless,

waiting for me, the Wabash*

pushing its icy waters, my tongue


humming with the fizz. It never ended,

that stretch of road snaking back home

like an artery through my own heart

where an owl gripped a rat in its claw

over I-80*. I’d put my hands in my pockets


and walk, dreaming of the places I’d go,

the things I’d do, the dump rising

to meet me at the edge of town,

chrome bumpers twisted as the owner

himself, withered arm swinging a fist.


I waited for something to escape –

mouse darting from a glove box, oil

from a cracked sump. I could stand

on a crushed Chevy, feeling it all

thaw inside me: asphalt


and barbed wire, cows and steaming

pails of milk, even the graveyard

rising, new stones nursing old griefs,

slow bones and winter’s cherry trees

making their long walk to leaf.


taken from ‘Paradise, Indiana’ by Bruce Snider


Twisted Oak by Inez Streefkerk

 ‘Twisted Oak’ by Inez Streefkerk

Cover image ‘Birch Bark’ by Inez Streefkerk





* I-80

Paris & Painting

We had a magical time in Paris with the kids last week. It was a dream for us to be able to take them to this beautiful city and share in their excitement as they saw some of it’s treasures for the first time. It’s been more than twenty years since my last visit so the excitement was just as real for me too. We tried to make the trip as family friendly as possible and included trips to the wonderful Cite des sciences et de l’industrie ( Science museum – full of interactive games and challenges for kids ) a night time visit to the top of the Eifel Tower and a day trip to Euro Disney. We also wanted them to see the Musee d’Orsay, more child friendly perhaps then the Louvre and full of original paintings that they have seen reproduced in print and modern media in their own lives. They immediately recognised Van Gogh from his self portrait below.


Vincent Van Gogh Self Portrait

 ‘Portrait de l’artiste’ ( Self Portrait ) by Vincent van Gogh




I remember being struck by the vividness of the colours when I saw these paintings in the late 1980’s. They are so clear and bright that it’s hard to believe that they are real and I imagined that perhaps the hazy originals lay in a dark vault somewhere, the worlds best kept secret. This radiant, vibrant, intense colour takes your breath away and each mark sings out against the one beside it. The texture of the paint really made an impact on me this time, the depth of it and the clear impression of each stroke, as if the weight of the hand behind it had been taken away just a moment ago, the shadow of it still there like the  presence of someone having just left the room.


Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

‘La Nuit Etoilee’ ( Starry Night ) by Vincent van Gogh




Close up of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Detail of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh




I was also greatly moved by the paintings of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Unlike Van Gogh, the paint is sketchy and thin but nonetheless full of vigour and energy. This one below is called ‘Le Lit’ ( The Bed ). It is such an intimate scene and must have been quite shocking at the time as it appears modern even to our eyes.


Le Lit by Toulouse-Lautrec





I love the roughness of the lines and the sweeps and smudges of paint that he has made with such conviction. He seems to have cast all convention aside, all notions of what a painting should look like and lost himself in the desire to bring this scene to life with all it’s nuances of tenderness, sleepiness, attachment and warmth. It is so wonderfully human and surely made by a man who knew this moment himself, really felt it so that he was able to put it down so earnestly and faithfully.

I also loved this next painting called ‘Seule’ ( Alone ).


'Seule' by Toulouse-Lautrec




It’s a study made on cardboard of a woman lying on her back across an unmade bed, her long limbs in a pose of complete collapse and abandon. I’m wondering who she was – her black stockings and light dress suggest that she might be a prostitute and we know that the artist liked to go to brothels. He moved in permanently at one point so that he could observe and capture the women where they lived and worked. He makes no judgment on her however and she might just as well be a worker or any other ordinary person captured at a very private moment.

The overriding feeling in all of these paintings is the sense of them having been made by a human hand. The magic of this wonderfully versatile material and the relationship between it and the artist is paramount. The energy and the will behind each stroke is clearly visible and I think there is enormous value in being able to read this expression. It makes me question the point of photo realism and any other technique of painting which disguises the material. Really, what is the point? There is so much humanity and feeling in these works because of the way that they were made and it was a huge pleasure and an inspiration to see them again.

What do you think about this point of view?



Cover image ‘Church at Auvers’ by Vincent van Gogh taken from John Brody Photography

Inspiration from others – Ghislaine Howard

Ghislaine Howard is an English painter whom I have admired for some time. Her drawings and paintings are bold and expressive and I love the way that she uses her materials so powerfully.
Although Ghislaine has done many landscapes, her work is primarily about the human figure.

Her maternity paintings are the ones I admire most personally, the portraits of her expectant self and the series she made as an artist in residence at the women’s hospital in central Manchester in the 1990’s. Here is a link to a gallery of these paintings on the artist’s website;


Drawing seems to be at the core of everything she does and I love the expression she gives each mark – sweeping black lines that sometimes stand out and sometimes merge with colour.

These two images below are taken from an exhibition called ‘The Choreography of Walking’ which took place in the University of Salford in 2011. This work was done in conjunction with the university’s Podiatry department and celebrates the simple act of walking.


Painting 1 by Ghislaine Howard



Painting 2 by Ghislaine Howard

( reproductions from Arts Development Team, University of Salford’s photostream on Flickr )



I love the sense of movement in these paintings and the bold use of colour and line. I admire too the way that each gesture – line, brush stroke and smudge sits undisguised just as it was made. This brings the paintings alive for me because it is as much a celebration of the act of painting itself as it is of the subject matter.