Hunter Gather: Art and Writing

This is a different kind of post. I’ve been so focused on writing this year – finishing the first rewrite of Bury the Sun and applying for various unpublished manuscript opportunities for both Sun and Birch. I’ve been pushing myself guiltily into pursuing the first New Year’s resolution I’d ever made: planning to submit Birch (seven years of redrafts later) to the agent of my dreams, and if I was unsuccessful (considerably feasible) go the route of submitting directly to a publisher. Something, anything, rather than be caught in perpetual fear of forward movement and likely failure.

It’s now September. When I made that resolution I didn’t realise how caught up I’d be in rewriting Bury the Sun. I completed the first draft over two years of NaNoWriMo challenges, putting it aside each December. The overhaul took most of this year but it was infinitely more productive than the previous manuscript. Maybe I’d learned something in the completion of the first manuscript, maybe it was a case of a writer needing to get a first manuscript out of her system, or maybe Bury the Sun is just the right story at the right time. I couldn’t sleep without thinking about the characters and what they would face next. I dreamed of them. They’re not likeable people. In fact, I’ve often thought the protagonist, May, would hate me in real life. But I’m in her corner.

Orchid collageAs I tried to understand the work I was producing, I reached into a part of my artistic life that has been neglected for a long time: painting. I wanted to delve deeper into the symbols of the story and physically handle them the same way I handle paint. I’m a notorious finger painter, finding it impossible to keep my hands off the canvas… or in this case, the board. I began this work in March. In subsequent months I’ve experienced elation, inspiration, and bouts of being infuriated to the point of tears. At one point I laid the panel of wood on my thigh, ready to smash it in two. I was so close. I made mistakes and rushed and thought and looked at this work that kept appearing and disappearing in front of me. I wanted abstraction, I wanted realism, I wanted visible brush strokes – as rough and harried as the trauma May undergoes – and I wanted it smooth and calm, a cleaning-up of the rage that could not be contained in the words I’d written. I was unsettled.

Orchid Skull complete
Hunter Gather

I came to realise that painting is a story. There are choices to make and the choices made lead to specific outcomes. This is just as true for the characters in a novel as is it for the writer who directs their choices.

Five years ago I would produce at least three good, finished works, usually derived from life drawings, usually on canvas. Last year, I finished one work. One measly artwork on paper, a gift for extended family. The hesitation worsened, the time when it felt right to creative ebbed away. Writing was a salvation, a way to experiment with creative compulsions without committing to painting and mistake-making.

My downturn in art-making coincided with several life events. In 2009 I finished uni, I got a job, and I returned from the most formative journey I’d made in my adult life – Saint Petersburg. Coming back was difficult. The loss of that time, that place, still strikes me in unexpected moments and sends me reeling. All it takes is the smell of cigarettes on a day of near alchemic warmth and damp.

And now I’ve finished a painting. Hunter Gather (formerly known as Orchid Skulls).

I used a real dog skull as a reference, provided by a work colleague with a rural property. There is no knowledge of what kind of dog it belonged to or how old it is. It might have been an abandoned stray, decaying where it fell, or a family pet, its burial spot dug up by foxes. And then I began to transform that object itself. I’ve always been intrigued by assemblage sculpture, finding incongruous things and connecting them in a way that makes it seem they always belonged together. In 2008, as part of a major body of work in creative arts, I obtained a horse skull and transformed it into a kind of totem, set into the cocoon of a clock and balanced on a wooden pole. It was an engineering challenge and in the end it managed to stand chiefly due to my father’s prosaic way of solving the creative problem I presented him with. Since I was a child this has been a source of fascination for me, helping my father in the garage, mending things in ways that could be considered haphazard.

The skull sculpture that accompanies Hunter Gather is not yet complete. It has been cleaned, sanded, bleached and painted. I’ve affixed replica 3D-printed miniature skulls to the real thing. I don’t yet have a clear plan for where this iteration is going.

I took the painting outside when I finished it, or rather, when it finally felt finished. In a different place and in the sunlight, it became a new entity. It’s no longer just a visual response or illustration for the manuscript that inspired it, yet I’d like to think that Bury the Sun would not be the way it is without the painting. The two processes operated in a kind of mutual, if disjointed, synthesis – one informing the other. Was that partly the reason the writing felt so productive? That even in times I was ready to hit ‘delete’ on the whole thing, I kept thinking, kept considering through that eternally unfinished artwork? Maybe all the difficulties were transferred to the thing on wood.

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