Return to Painting

It’s always hard to get back to painting after a break. I’ve had a couple of false starts since Christmas but I have resolved to try to develop the work in a number of ways. I want to make some larger work this year for one and I also want to make my painting looser, less busy, and more expressive somehow. Yes, quite the tall order I have for myself indeed. This will all take time and it’s frustrating to begin with clear ideas like these in mind and then to find that it’s not so easy to translate into something actual straight away. It’s a process of course and it will take time.

So, here’s how my first painting for 2013 began – it’s really more of a sketch because it’s on quite a lightweight paper.  It’s similar to some bog paintings I made at the end of last year although this was not my intention exactly. I used an easel for the initial part of the painting in an effort to keep the composition loose and energetic.

 

First stage of painting

 

 

 

 

Now for some more paint..

 

Second stage of painting

 

 

 

 

I’m still using the easel at this next stage but I’m finding that the ink is dripping vertically ( of course! ) which is not necessarily where I want it to go.

 

Third stage of painting

 

 

 

 

I finish it on the table and I darken the whole piece with more brown and blue. I discover about now that if I use any more paint or ink the page will dissolve in front of me so this is my main reason for stopping!  I’m reasonably satisfied with it at this stage in any case – my problem with it is that it does seem a bit of a muddle in terms of composition. I like the colours and the diagonal thrust of it but it did seem to work better earlier on. What’s your view?  I think I’ve more work to do..

 

Fourth stage of painting

 

Ballinafad

I drove to Galway city on Wednesday morning, a hundred mile round trip from Clifden town. It’s a journey I make about once a month and usually out of necessity when I have a sufficient amount of errands to run. This particular morning was beautiful – crisp  and sunny and still. Fortunately I had my camera with me so I was able to pull in at Ballinafad and take some pictures. You might think that I’ve photoshopped these but it’s the real thing and exactly as it was ( I’m not a great fan of photoshop, especially when it comes to landscape ). This is the N59 looking towards Galway with ‘Lissoughter’ and ‘Binn Ramhar’ mountains on the left.

 

The N59 Road towards Galway

 

 

 

Here’s the road looking back towards Clifden with the lower slopes of Benn Lettery on the right and Ballinahinch Lake to the left.

 

N59 Road looking back towards Clifden

 

 

 

And here’s the view south west taking in the lake and forest beyond.

 

Photo of Connemara in November

 

 

 

Facing south now and some gorgeous reflections in the lake which was as clear and still as glass – the posts supporting the new saplings, the tree line of the forest and the fisherman’s beats outside this little shed. I love the grasses too, golden like burnt caramel and warm to the eye.

 

Another view of Ballinahinch Lake

 

 

 

I find myself marveling at it all and the fact that I live in such a beautiful part of the country. I think back to the first time I took this road about twenty years ago and the thoughts that ran through my head. It was like going deeper and deeper in to the unknown, into a kind of wilderness. The water almost touches the road in places as it twists and turns around the lakes ( much narrower then ) and I remember finding this a bit unnerving. The remoteness of the landscape, which seemed to recede in to itself further and further was more than a little daunting for a city girl like me but the extraordinary beauty of the place was unmistakable. You might imagine that you would get used to it, stop seeing it perhaps and begin to take it all for granted but this simply isn’t true. Every season brings a change and each season has it’s own special kind of beauty and moments like these in Ballinafad are made for savouring.

 

One last photo of Ballinafad

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.

 

 

Epitaph

 

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

 

 

*Tri-Lakes

*Wabash

* I-80

November Bog

Near Maam by Laureen Marchand

 

This is another painting in the Black Bog series that I’ve been working on. It’s similar to the last one featured here but it’s twice the size at 10 x 8 inches. This is how it began;

 

November bog painting first stage

 

 

 

Next, I added a line of brown ink and dragged the colour downwards with a broad brush to give the lower part of the painting an under colour. I also used some gold paint.

 

Second stage of November bog painting

 

 

 

Here’s the next stage below. I’ve used lots of colour – browns, reds, yellows and golds. I’ve manipulated the way the inks react with the paint to create interesting textures and I’ve worked with a variety of brushes to make different kinds of marks.

 

Third stage of November bog painting

 

 

 

Once this layer of paint had dried completely, I worked on the piece again (below). I deepened the blues of the hills in the background and I darkened some of the colours to give the painting more contrast.

 

Fourth stage of November bog painting

 

 

 

This is the finished piece below. Once again, I added more paint and ink when the last layer was completely dry. I altered the line of the bog slightly to make it less horizontal and I’ve given the bog more depth with these additional layers of colour.

 

Finished 'November Bog' painting by Deborah Watkins

November

November is a difficult month. It’s the shock of losing the hour and the suddenness of it – it always feels more like losing two when overnight it’s dark at 6.00pm instead of 8.00pm. A sixth of the day gone, just like that, slipped out of the day and vanished into the blackness. I think the body reels from it for a while, misses the light without knowing what is the matter or what it is missing. It seems like a starker thing here in Connemara where nature is magnified; bigger spaces, bigger winds, giant silhouettes of mountains and grey days of rain in blustery torrents or invisible misty sheets. It’s taken me a long time to learn an acceptance of this and I have spent too much time resenting the end of the year and fighting the gloom of the approaching Winter with a grumble and a moan.

This changed for me after a trip to Brigit’s Garden just outside Galway city where I began to see the Winter garden sculpture (below) for what it is. This image of the sleeping woman is such a beautiful one. She is so peaceful looking and such a quiet, gentle figure in the space that you want to tiptoe around her for fear her slumber might be disturbed. Unexpectedly, it was she who woke me up to the reality of Winter as a necessary time in the cycle of the seasons. Just as we humans must sleep at the end of the day, the earth needs to rest and recover, to shed it’s leaves and all it’s colour and to sleep, so that it can prepare for new growth ahead. The secret for me was to see this changing time as a human form.

 

Winter garden sculpture in Brigits garden

 Image taken from Stream

 

 

Robert Frost has personified the gloominess we might feel at this time of year in his poem ‘My November Guest’ (below).

 

My November Guest

 

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture land.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list;

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted gray

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reasons why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

 

Robert Frost ( 1874 – 1963 )

 

 

The humanising of sorrow in this poem lessens it. It is no longer an overwhelming feeling but a human being, a woman who has simply stepped in, although she is uninvited. Frost acknowledges her presence and by doing so he accepts these feelings while he tells of the beauty of Winter, the ‘faded earth’ and the silver ‘clinging mist’. It’s a struggle because she ‘vexes him for reasons why’ but he is listening and seeing nature’s beauty for himself, he has learned to ‘know the love of bare November days.’

As I think perhaps I have too.

 

 

Cover image is ‘Harsh Life’ by Inez Streefkerk

Captivating Brightness

 

 

So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light

Of Connemara on a Sunday morning

As a captivating brightness held and opened

And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake

Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home

Into core timber.

 

 

taken from Ballinahinch Lake a poem from the collection entitled Electric Light by Seamus Heaney

 

 

The 35th Clifden Arts week  festival is upon us and there is a rich and varied programme that encompasses the visual arts, poetry, music, dance and performance. It is one of the very best times to be in Clifden and because it is a community arts week no section of our population is excluded as the artists visit and perform in our schools and throughout the community. The ten day festival concludes on Saturday night next with a lantern-lit costume parade and aerial dance performance. This is always a spectacle and involves local national and secondary school children under the guidance of the multi disciplinary ‘Fidget Feet’. This year we are honoured to welcome President Michael D. Higgins who officially opened the celebrations last night.

‘Captivating Brightness’ is the title of an exhibition that was specially curated by IMMA ( The Irish Museum of Modern Art ) to celebrate the festival and to pay homage to Irish artists in the last century who have drawn on the West of Ireland for their inspiration. The title for the show was taken by kind permission from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Ballinahinch Lake’ (above). This impressive exhibition includes paintings by Jack Yeats, Paul Henry and Mainie Jellett alongside contemporary works by artists such as Dorothy Cross, Barrie Cooke and Sean McSweeney.  I went along to the show which was launched by Mary Banotti. Speakers also present were Christina Kennedy – Senior curator and Head of Collections IMMA, Desmond Lally – Arts Committee, Clifden Community Arts festival, our very own Brendan Flynn who is founder and leading light of Arts week and Eamonn McLoughlin.

Mary Banotti spoke about the ghosts in the room – a century of artists brought together and bound together directly or indirectly by the landscape of the West. Paul Henry’s ‘Lake and Blue Mountain’s of Connemara’ (above) depicts the landscape sensitively and just as it is. Other artists such as Louis le Brocquy and and Mainie Jellet spent time here while others such as Gerard Dillon made Connemara their home.

Christina Kennedy talked about this exhibition as part of IMMA’s wish to bring art back to the people. There is an enormous sense of this and I had to remind myself that I was standing in the old Supervalu in Market Street ( now a transformed space ) and not in a gallery in our capital city. It’s proper place you might say, where it all began and now returns. Yet it is still a remarkable thing and a credit to the Arts week committee and the high esteem with which this Clifden festival is held Nationally and Internationally. Enjoy it while it’s here.

 

Megaceros Hibernicus by Barry Cooke

 

Megaceros Hibernicus by Barrie Cooke

 

 

 

Saddle by Dorothy Cross

 

Saddle by Dorothy Cross

 

Night Bog

I found this painting (below) in a drawer of old works. It’s very small, about 4″ x 3″ and I’d started it about two years ago for a group exhibition. I was unhappy with it at the time and decided to put it away. Sometimes these discarded paintings don’t seem so bad later on so when I came across this one recently, I thought I might rework it a little. The white patch in the middle ground is a damaged area where something stuck to it and then the paint was removed. While I like the colours in the piece, I think it lacks definition.

 

Found painting by Deborah Watkins

 

 

 

This is the finished piece below. I’ve given the sky more interest and direction using some white paint and a little charcoal. I’ve also added a fine wash of gold and blue. I tidied up the white patch with some brown ink and then I put some gold grasses in the foreground. I’ve pushed the grasses diagonally across the bottom of the image to give a sense of atmosphere. Finally I added some tiny gold highlights in the middle ground where the light of the moon might be catching the tips of the lighter bog grasses.

 

Finished painting by Deborah Watkins

 

Bog Furrow

 

I’ve been working on this one for about a week. It hasn’t come together as easily as the last couple of paintings, I’m not sure why. Perhaps my enthusiasm has waned a little since the first and I need to change direction for a while. Here’s how it started below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the next stage. This large furrow is the main interest and I’ve added a grey pool to draw the eye down and in to the painting. I’ve tried to vary the colour and texture of the grasses but I think this middle ground looks confused. I also think that the brown line following the direction of the hill downwards has the effect of slicing the picture in two..

 

Penultimate stage of bog painting

 

 

 

 

Here’s the painting as I have left it below.  I’ve developed the background a bit by adding some colour and definition to the sky and the mountains. I’ve tried to make the grasses interesting by varying the blocks of colour on either side of the furrow. I’ve also softened the brown line so that it doesn’t break up the composition as much. The direction of the grasses pushes against the direction of the hill, hopefully to give a stronger sense of movement. I’m still a bit unsure about this one – I can see the struggle in it and I wonder if this is obvious to the viewer. Let me know what you think.

 

Finished Bog painting by Deborah Watkins

 

Bogland – Seamus Heaney

I came across this photograph with Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Bogland’ on the Connemara Heritage and History site. It is such a beautiful image and it mirrors the words of this poem perfectly.

Seamus Heaney is of course our very own Nobel laureate and arguably one of the most celebrated and popular poets in the world today. This poem was written in 1969 and is regarded as a milestone in Heaney’s career because it was here he first realised ‘an image for the unconscious part of Ireland through a natural part of the landscape where history reposed and was revealed’ * I love this idea of the bog as a metaphor for our psyche, our subconscious and our innermost secrets. It also brings to mind a tree with it’s outer crust and hidden rings underneath, circling time and out of sight until the surface is broken.

Heaney alludes to the ancient bog bodies in much of his early poetry, particularly the viking bodies found in Denmark in the 1950’s.  One of these is Tollund man, a male body which has been carbon dated to 230 BC. This man received a violent death like many of the other bog bodies and Heaney has used this in his poems as a political analogy to the unravelling violence in Northern Ireland. Grauballe man was found two years after Tollund man, also in Denmark. Heaney wrote a poem in his honour which begins;

 

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

 and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

 

taken from The Grauballe Man

 

Such beautiful, tragic and human imagery. It is thick with blackness, a darkness and a beauty that feels uniquely Irish.

The poem ‘Bogland’ has a different perspective. It starts with a comparison to the vast prairies of America. Later, there is an image of ourselves ‘striking inwards and downwards’ – self searching rather than the explorative, outward search of the early American pioneers. He concludes that ‘the wet centre is bottomless’. Here too an image of blackness, like space, a romantic void of disappearing sludge that is rooted in earth and has the preservative qualities of the womb but which falls away to some vast infinite place.

 

 

 

Bogland

 

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening –

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encroaching horizon,

 

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

 

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate of air.

 

Better sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

 

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years,

They’ll never dig coal here,

 

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

 

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

 

Seamus Heaney

 

 

* taken from Landscape or Mindscape? Seamus Heaney’s Bogs by Diane Meredith, The University of California, Davis.

Cover image taken from Connemara Heritage and History

Belonging

I came to the West of Ireland when I was in my twenties so I am not from this place.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, how Connemara has become my adopted home and how privileged I am to be able to live and work here. I’ve also been thinking about my grandfather who was a farmer in Leixlip, County Kildare where I grew up. He made his living from the land but in a different kind of Ireland, one of struggle and deprivation the like of which I have never known. His working days would have been long and hard, tending his few cattle and working the soil as best as he could. I’m sure that he often felt anxious about meeting the needs of his large family and it was a terrible shock for them all when he passed suddenly at just 46 years of age. I hope that while he was alive and in spite of the hardship, he was able to draw strength from the land and from his honest work in the clear fresh air with nature as his companion. The perspectives are so different – different generations, different eras on opposite sides of the country. For all of this, I like to imagine that perhaps we have shared an appreciation and a gratitude for the same things.

This brings me to Robin MacArthur, a writer and musician that I’ve had the pleasure of discovering recently. Robin is from the New England area of the northeastern United States and she lives and works in a place that was inhabited by her ancestors in Marlboro, Vermont. I am intrigued by the sense of belonging that this must bring. There is something very powerful about such a long thread of attachment through time and family and Robin’s consciousness of this is immediately apparent in her creative work. I discovered an essay by Robin called ‘Abandoned Landscapes‘ in which she explores and celebrates the use of landscape in fiction and makes a plea for it’s return. I immediately connected with the sentiment – this little excerpt summarises the piece well;

 

 

‘Big sky, memory, erasure, allegory, history, decay, and metaphor; all acknowledge that we as human beings are still connected and a part of the physical world around us. Landscape, in its myriad forms, takes us literally “outide” of the self. And this escape from the self is, for me, at the heart of what I yearn for in life and in fiction.’

 

taken from  Abandoned Landscapes by Robin MacArthur

 

 

I went on to discover that Robin is also a blogger ( woodbird, them mornings ) and a talented musician and band member with her husband Tyler Gibbons ( Red Heart the Ticker ). Her sense of belonging and reverence towards the land and it’s gifts is woven delicately but firmly through her writing and her music which I encourage you to discover for yourself.

Here is Robin’s “Love letter to Vermont,” which aired on NPR’s State of the Re:Union. It is accompanied by photographs taken by Sara Brooke Curtis and the music is by Red Heart the Ticker. It is a love letter and a thank you letter and a prayer all at once and it is written and spoken from the heart.

 

 

 

 Cover image taken from woodbird, them mornings