You can only know one thing when you set out to make art: there is a lot you can’t know. Will you finish? Will it be good enough to share? Will anyone connect with it?
To make art that helps us to connect as creative beings is a magical act of hope. Artists make something out of nothing. Art is an illusion embodied in reality that’s given life by our shared imagination.
I promised myself that I’d say ‘No’ to taking on commissions. My logic was grounded in hard-nosed commercial thinking. Commissions are a risky business venture.
It’s one thing to make art and offer it for sale after the act of creation. To expect someone to pay you to embark on a journey of so many unknowns and where the outcome is uncertain is a very different scenario.
A broken promise
When Mike Featherstone approached me about a commission, I listed my reasons to say “No thanks”. I even rehearsed some phrases that would allow me to politely decline.
We caught up for a chat. I’ve known Mike for a long time. However, I had no idea that he was a passionate art collector. This discovery simultaneously encouraged and terrified me. On one hand, I love that a collector wants some of my work. On the other, he knows the difference between good and bad art. It’s time to draw down on my list of ‘polite declines’.
The art of trust
Then Mike said two things that stopped me in my tracks.
“I don’t want to dictate anything,” he said. “I know you have your process and way of working.”
Strike one reason to say ‘no’ off my list. No problem, I have more.
“Could I share some of my writing, to see if you can use it for inspiration?”
‘All art is a form of vulnerability because at least part of the artist goes into the piece.’A.D. Posey
I had no idea that Mike was a writer. When another artist invites you to make art that draws inspiration from their work, you can’t say ‘no’.
So, I said ‘yes’.
A magical walk
Mike shared a short story that he’d written, called “A Walk In That Park”. It’s about a woman, walking home after a substance-fuelled night out. She’s addled. Confused, disoriented and suffering a melancholy self-critical peering into the soul. Her imagination runs riot and Mike laces her inner journey through torment with rich, wild imagery of gravediggers, sniggering mites and wizened old wizards until she finally surrenders to the moment to find her peace.
Little people peer bespectacled
I lost myself instantly in Mike’s evocative imagery. Every line in the story offers a jumping-off point.
…small, tiny, little people peer bespectacled from beneath liberty caps and whisper mischievously to one another.“A Walk in That Park”, Mike Featherstone
Early explorations featured hordes of rather smug-looking spectacle-wearing characters. They were entangled in the roots of the tree where the young woman came to rest. In this image, it’s a little difficult to see where she ends and the tree begins. That was a ‘mistake’ that would make sense later.
Tea with the undertakers
The darkness of Mike’s imaginary story world appealed to me. Especially the undertakers, who I envisaged as gravediggers.
black cloaked undertakers, spades in hand, idly chatter over china tea cups and butter biscuits and play rummy and recite poetry and make jokes about the dead.“A Walk in That Park” , Mike Featherstone
This sketch shows me playing with the idea of the gravedigger as an older, wiser version of the young woman in the story. The young woman dreams while the elder takes a rest from digging her own grave.
Wizards in sherry wagons
There in the exhausted expanse of my spent mind I can quietly sit and contemplate everything and everywhere and share with the grey withered destitute wizards, fallen from their sherry wagons, the silence that answers all of our cries and pleas for understanding and belonging and love.“A Walk in That Park”, Mike Featherstone
Such a literal illustration felt like a ‘Where’s Wally’ trap. The moment of pause draws you into a conversation with an artwork and by extension, yourself. If the technical device takes over, there’s no conversation, just a gimmick, so I decided to tone back the wizards.
Sadhbh: an Irish myth of transformation
I make art that explores the crossover of Irish mythology into today’s world. The theme of transformation that comes through in Mike’s short, evocative story reminded me of the Irish myth of Sadhbh (pronounced ‘s-eye-v’).
Sadhbh is transformed into a doe by a dark druid for rejecting his love. She is only freed from the spell when she finds refuge in the fort of the hero Fionn MacCumhaill. Sadhbh regains her human form and marries Fionn. He forgoes his beloved hunting and fighting and settles into peaceful matrimonial bliss.
Fionn eventually heeds the call to repel an invading army and reluctantly musters his men, leaving Sadhbh behind in the safety of his fort. When he eventually returns, he learns that the dark druid lured her out of the refuge by disguising himself as Fionn. The druid tapped her with a hazel wand and transformed back into a deer, before escaping into the night.
Fionn spent years in a grief-stricken search for his beloved, all in vain. He was about to sink into a final depression when his hounds led him to a wild boy in the woods. Fionn recognised Sadhbh’s eyes in the boy’s gaze and he realised that he had found his son, Oisín (Osh-een). He grew to match Fionn’s legendary status in Irish lore.
A Walk In That Park
The moon and the forest itself are powerful characters in Mike’s story. The protagonist finds peace within the woods. She becomes ‘of the forest’. She finds comfort by surrendering to her wilderness.
She’s depicted as an ancient lone whitethorn tree, sleeping under a full moon. In Irish folklore, the whitethorn is linked with ‘the Other People’, or the faeries. Her body is gnarled and twisted. Yet she’s at peace, having surrendered herself to grow with wind and weather. She’s liminal, a portal to another world, a hollow tree with roots that tap into the depths of a world of visions of whimsy and darkness that must be reckoned with. She is transformed and transformative.
In the final work, the main character is an older woman. When I read Mike’s story at first blush, I visualised a younger woman. As I worked through this process (it took 5 months!), she grew older in front of me. Somehow it made sense. Time’s relative, as they say.
I welcome questions about my art. Or if you have an idea for a collaboration or a commission, you can drop a line