Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Notes from the mid-life crisis: body art edition

I was 21 when I saw my first nose piercing. He was a blond god of a lorry driver and I couldn't take my eyes off his nose ring. I asked all the ignorant questions you'd expect from a sheltered Trinidadian girl and he was remarkably patient and polite. When I told my then-husband I wanted one, he threatened divorce. I still wanted one.

Fast-forward through to the divorce, Boy and I were living at the university in family quarters. There the lecturers and students were pierced and tattooed and I wanted both. I was lucky enough to hang around with a group of people who were willing to give good advice about body art. I wanted a tattoo but I could never make my mind up what and where. Then there was the rebound relationship with a straighter-than-straight financial adviser who loathed even henna tattoos and would rub off any I had. 

When that collapsed, I gathered my courage and had my nose pierced. I loved it. As soon as I could I had a nose stud popped in and contrary to the finger wagging, it never got in the way of any employment I've pursued. 

Fast-forward sixteen years: it's now about a year since my melt-down and what I call my mid-life crisis. Last October, I had my first tattoo. I did write about it, but never posted pics. Well, here it is. Boy came with me to have it done, I'm so glad he did. I was so nervous. I ended up having it in two stages, the first was the outline. As time went on, it felt unfinished to me. In May, I had the shading done and I went by myself for that one. 
A symbol of female divinity and strength
I've been thinking about how to mark the anniversary of my mid-life crisis and I had been considering a small phoenix to go on my inner right arm. After all, I have a history of rising from the ashes. 

It never ceases to amaze me how life unfolds. About ten days ago, Dave tells me Strangers at Large were booked to do the Norwich Body Art Festival.

The weekend was brilliant. My coffee-making skills are steadily improving and the venue was awesome. Dave kept telling me not to get used to it! We weren't in a field getting soaked or baked, with portaloos flushing sticky blue and access to running water in an actual kitchen! Total bliss, in fact. 

As soon as we set up on Saturday, I had a walk around and approached a tattoo artist with the design I'd found on the internet. He looked at me and it, and then sat me down. His name is Terangitu Netana and he is a traditional Maori tattoo artist. We talked about my heritage, where I am now, what I am trying to achieve, where I want to be in the future and what the tattoo would represent for me. He showed me the image of what he had in mind and then talked me through the design and what each aspect of the strokes, what they meant, where it fit in the Maori tradition. We agreed that I'd come and have it done first thing, so Dave wasn't left to fend for himself.

I woke up in the middle of the night and thought things through. The design was beautiful, but it wasn't from my culture. I've got fairly strident opinions on cultural appropriation that are informed from growing up in a former British colony and living over here in jolly old England. I thought about the aspects of the design and how appropriate they are to my creative journey. The more I time I spent with it, the more right it seemed. In the end, I concluded that with my mixed race heritage, the very complicated family history and the fact I moved from Trinidad to the UK, mean I don't belong anywhere; I straddle too many cultures. Therefore, I belong everywhere. I chose where I want to belong.

I didn't want this design when I started considering my second tattoo, I didn't know it was even possible. Life and the way the weekend unfolded, made it happen and I am so very glad it did. 

In the twelve months of profound insights and experiences, this touched my soul. I was tattooed with prayers and song, there was laughter and friendship and an exchange of history. The tattoo I now have, I look upon as a gift. 

This is a kotuku, the white heron. She is a shy bird, inconspicuous until she spreads her wings, it's only then her size is truly known. Within the design, there are references to the gaining and passing on of traditional and ancient knowledge. She belongs to no one, only herself. She is a creature of beauty, grace, wind, water and solitude. 

And this is my tattoo. I have a lot to live up to. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

We cross three bridges

We cross three bridges

We cross three bridges
brave the electric bites of nettles
choose our picnic spot
on prickly brown grass
where cows come to drink

I wiggle bare toes
in the same soft July breeze
that brushes willow leaves
from sky to dark green water.
It sounds like rain
gnarled trunks and branches
squeak and crack like thunder

We unpack our small feast,
dutifully eat cold meats
and cold, pale melon chunks.
It is the glossy red strawberries
as big as tomatoes we are greedy for.
Pinky red juice drips down our chins
wind flicks drops onto my vest top

We could fall into endless sky
fall into clouds that waft above
if it wasn’t for the constant spin.
A squadron of skylarks bomb
a lazy hawk, until it flicks
round wings and wheels off

He takes leftover bread
rolls it in sticky palms,
aims for the long, languid fish.
They meander in the shadow of cigar
shaped leaves. He watches
this season’s batch
dart in the shallows
His thoughts carefully hoarded,
I am alone.

At the top of the field
cows come back after milking
More people are killed by cows
than shark attacks I say.
We fold the blanket upon itself
cross the first bridge in silence.
At the second, I tell him
The 1916 Mattawan Creek attacks
were probably bull sharks, not great whites

Single file we cross the last bridge,
he leads and holds
the grasping bramble branches clear,
stamps down nettles.
Sticky strawberry juice glues our palms
his fingers braid mine,
we hold on.

Rose Blackthorn

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Attack of the 50 foot To Do List

The last couple of weeks have focused on my wrangling my ambition with finite resources. The issues are quite simply: not enough time, not enough energy. I can't say I'm winning yet, but I am playing with a strategy that seems to be working. 

I have three different areas in my creative life I am working in at the moment: writing, poetry and art. I am clawing my way up the respective learning curves with dogged determination. This has meant journalling every day as part of the process, however when I do my art, I do a separate journal for that too. My morning pages comes out of an exercise made popular by Julia Cameron in her Writer's Way (which reminds me, I must source another copy of that and the Artist's Way). It is cheap therapy in that I get to dump all the day-to-day, boring shit that's in my head, onto paper where it stays out of the way and lets me get on with my creative stuff. Art journalling, is a more productive exercise in that I focus on what I will be doing that day, the media and exercises. 

In each of the different creative disciplines, I have exercises to do. I am currently trying to do my exercises in the creative activities every day and once that's done, focus on one particular thing. I also am very aware that I need to up my reading. Both in poetry and prose.   My personal reading drifts towards genre, the trashier the better. However, if I am to take my poetry and writing up a level, I must also read more. I have now timetabled Monday as my reading day. 

I find the Pomodoro* quite helpful in getting the exercises done. Bite sized chunks and all of that. It also helps in the fact that, unlike many of the great masters, I don't have a loving wife who keeps the household running as I dedicate my time to my art. Or a housekeeper. Or a gardener. Dave has his hands full right now, but I do know when I am particularly struggling, I can call him to put a pinny on. 

I am also using my To Do Lists daily. I can't tell you how good it is, especially when I'm feeling anxious about my productivity, to cross stuff off. 

My current timetable looks a bit like this: 

Monday: pottering and reading
Tuesday: arting
Wednesday: writing prose
Thursday: writing poetry
Friday: free day

I'm keeping Friday as my free day, simply because I have been doing coffee over the weekends with Dave. Also, if necessary I can always swap Mondays and Fridays about.

I started this new regime after I completed my 5-day art course a couple of weeks ago. It is still too early to tell how successful it is, especially since I was out of action for three days last week (long story, don't ask). The timetable, should work with the two courses I will be picking up in September. Should, being the operative word.

And of course, there's the whole exercise and fitness regime to pick up. You remember I bashed my foot? I think I definitely broke something, it still is a bit sore and shoes can be an issue. Thankfully, it is improving, but it will be at least another two weeks before I can go back to the gym. This isn't a bad thing at all. The enforced rest has helped my knee and wrists and it also means I can get my new regime properly bedded in before I start diverting energy to the workouts. One thing is for certain, I can't do all this head stuff without balancing it out with something physical. I'll burn myself out and go crazy otherwise. 

Are you exhausted reading this? I'm exhausted writing this and it worries me. I don't know how else to get things done. My default position is sofa. I am one of the most bone idle people I know and if I don't motivate myself, my arse hits the sofa and doesn't move. I am using my anxiety to push me forward. I am trusting with experimentation, I'll find the best  way of getting things done that fits me (if you see what I mean). 

Part of the problem is I don't see where any of this fits in my grand plan of World Domination. The future is off in the murky horizon. All I have to go on is the persistent gut feeling that I must do this and I must do this now. 
found this on Facebook today...summed things up perfectly

*time management tool that is a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that marks 25 minutes, plus short breaks and includes a longer break every 4 or 5 Pomodoros. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Courage to be creative

This week, I've been doing an art course through Norfolk Adult Education, it's called Skills & Methods and was basically an opportunity to play with as wide a variety of arty media as possible to squeeze into a five-day course.

Earlier this year, when I started exercising my atrophied creativity muscles, I began with adult colouring books. I moved on to painting shapes with watercolour and crayons. Dave raided his and his mum's art supplies and kitted me out with some fab stuff. A bit later on he suggested I do an art course. His reasoning came from years in a laboratory and getting surly PhD students to learn "why spend an afternoon in a library, when you can spend six months in a lab?" Exactly.

The course literature wasn't exactly clear about the level it was aimed at. I thought it was a beginner's course, but actually it required some basic artistic knowledge. The last time I did art was in high school (mumbles 1983). My creative writing degree focused on Conceptual Art rather than Fine Art. 

We began the week with drawing. My lack of skill was particularly obvious, especially compared to the other course attendees. I came home exhausted and demoralised. I did try to find a beginner's beginner course i.e. here's a sheet of paper and here's a pencil, but there really wasn't much else about. The next day, I spoke to the course tutor.

She was appalled that I felt so ground down and was incredibly understanding and supportive. She said I was definitely in the right place and explained that people come with strengths and weaknesses with the different media and it's about playing with everything to see what bites. It also gave me the confidence to ask her to show me how to do things.

She was absolutely right. My drawing skills might suck hairy gorilla's arse (with diarrhoea), but it turns out I'm not bad at other things. I didn't think I would like oil paints. I had assumed oil paints were for proper artists, not really for the likes of me. Except that when I started dipping my brush into the paint, I fell in love. Head over heels, jumping-on-a-sofa kind of love. A love that hits me square in the guts. I love the fact that oils are a slow process. It's a textural thing, you can do long, slow brush strokes, or you can dab it on the canvas with a palette knife. Oil paints are tricksy. What you see up close, isn't the experience when you stand back from it.

This week I've played with ink and stick drawing, charcoal (willow and compressed), chalk and oil pastels, watercolours, acrylics, oils and mixed media for collage. It's been tiring and exhilarating. I stayed over with Dave on Wednesday night and tentatively broached doing the follow up course starting in September.

I was taken aback at his response. Overwhelming support and encouragement. He pointed out the setup expense was pretty much a one-off, once I'd got everything I would only need to buy paper and canvasses. He laughed and compared it to golf. 

If I wanted to take up golf, I'd have to buy a set of clubs - at least £500. Then there would be balls, lessons, green fees and then membership fees. Not to mention silly trousers, shoes and the obligatory glove. My art habit is coming in at a tenth of the cost. 

More importantly, I love it. It gives me The Happy. Doing art does something weird to my brain. It brings to mind a quote from Maya Angelou I saw this week about courage. She likened courage to a muscle that you have to exercise to make stronger. You start off with little steps and the next thing you know you're taking on the world. Yes, she meant it in the context of challenging social injustices, but I find it equally applicable to my writing. 
Still life, oil on canvas (incomplete)

Collage, mixed media
I started off thinking I could write genre fiction because that's all I could write, having written nothing but throwaway copy for eight years. I started doing my art and then I picked up my poetry. Writing poetry again has widened my horizons. Doing the art this week reminded me of the bigger stories I've archived because I've been too scared to write them. Big, scary, painful and important stories that won't be thrown out despite my insecurity.

Doing the art means I am beginning to take my creativity seriously. Very seriously. 

I can't tell you how absolutely terrified I am. The worry about money and my financial future wakes me up and jumps all over me at 3 am. But I can't not do this. To go back to a job now,  to do the sensible thing - even thinking about it feels like failure. 

I am so much more terrified of looking back in 45 years at my cowardice. I may die an impoverished and obscure poet/writer/artist in a workhouse, but I refuse to die disappointed and ashamed that I never properly tried. 

Waiting for Paint to Dry

Yesterday evening, I thought I'd finished the triptych. I kicked back, drank a glass of raspberry beer and contemplated my work. As I co...