Wednesday 16 December 2020

Artists in their Landscape - My interview with Jackie Morris by Steve Gladwin

In the summer of 2007, I was completing a pilgrimage memorial walk by doing 49 miles of the coast path, following a route from areas new to me, beginning in Sandy Haven, and then walking to Marloes, Broadhaven, Solva, and ending up at St Justinian's. A short bus - of which there are conveniently many on the coast path, took me back to St David's and the part of Pembrokeshire we had known very well.

On my last day there, I went in search of something hare-connected, because Celia and I have a big connection with hares. I looked and looked - including in the cathedral shop - and found nothing suitable. After a sit-down and a snack, instinct took me back to the cathedral shop in case I'd missed anything. I don't know whether it had been hiding, but almost the first thing I saw was a book of poems for children illustrated by Jackie. The connection was welcome because we'd once or twice corresponded with Jackie and she'd sent us several things, including her story about the white raven of Ramsey island and pictures of king raven and a white egret. 

All that there was left for me to do was to open the book.

First of all, Jackie, thanks for agreeing to talk to readers of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

I'm happy to do so.

We've decided to spread this interview over two months, which gives us plenty of facets of your work to explore. However, while we're going to go back to your early career in the second part, I'd like, if I may, to concentrate here on both the theme of landscape and how important it is to you, but also on your recent collaborations with Robert Macfarlane.

But let's start with landscape and the one in which you live. If you open your front or back door, whereabouts are you standing and what can you see?

A garden path snakes away through a disheveled space to an old ash tree, past an old rose that in summer scents the air. There's a fire basket hanging on a tripod. The tree is often peopled with birds, and always, somewhere, is a wren.

To one side the land stretches out towards the sea. To the other the fields lead up to  a rocky outcrop where I go for shelter from storms, (in the head) and also to sit and think.

At night the Milky Way stretches high overhead and birds migrate and bats fly. The light from Stumble Head lighthouse sweeps the sky and the quiet feels like a texture.

Thank you. That's a lovely comment about 'texture', I'd imagine this is an idyllic place to live and give birth to so much in. How important would you say that is - for an artist to have some kind of landscape on their doorstep? There is clearly such a thing as a landscape in which you feel settled; and hopefully one that's conducive to work.

There's always landscape. It might be city scape, town scape, or wild. I feel happier in wild. And even in cities it's what I seek.

So, let's return to your childhood. Can you describe where you were born and the places in which you walked. How important was this environment for your life as an artist?

I was born in Birmingham, grew up in Evesham, was drawn to the riverbank and bank voles and swans. As I was a child it was the only thing I knew and I made the best of it.

For the remainder of this part of our interview, Jackie, I want to concentrate on your on-going creative collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. There must presumably have been a point where you both became aware that familiar and beloved words were in danger of disappearing from the dictionary, and therefore from children's knowledge - a truly worrying state of affairs, which I could hardly believe when I first heard it. You decided to work together to do something about this. How did it come about?

The story of how The Lost Words came into being is a long one. It began with the realisation that a decision had been made by a children's dictionary to replace some very common natural words with new and more technological, possibly transient words, (at least this is how they justified their decision). What this highlighted was a lack of awareness of the wild world. A study in Cambridge showed that children knew the names of Pokemon characters, but not common wildlife. (It is a lesser known fact that Macfarlane knows more names of Pokemon characters than I!)

To address this I thought it might be an idea to take the 'refused' words and make a dictionary that honoured them. I wrote to Doctor Macfarlane with a request that were this to happen he might write an introduction. Our book grew and changed from this small seed. And over time we have become good friends. Our collaboration on the books is such that we email each other constantly, back and forth, constantly with ideas. Rob sends me words, I send him sketches. If I have concerns I will take photos, ask. If things are going well I photograph work in progress. And now and again we meet.

From your side of things, Jackie, how do you approach such a big project - although clearly from what you've said it's the growth and the back and forth between the two of you which matters in your collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. But presumably from your side there must be similarities and differences to other work and projects?

I approach all the work I do with the fiercest open- heartedness I can. At the moment my head is father-filled. What's hard is, being so immersed in a new book and having to go back and talk about a previous work that is maybe a year old. The Lost Spells is different. This time last year I was half way through. It was an astonishing amount of work to produce in a short and difficult time.

Now clearly The Lost Words was well-received, and it's clear to see why. For me it's just the sort of book I'd love to have found rummaging through the shelves at primary school. Tell us about the reaction of teachers and everyone else.

I can't really talk about this, other than to say the word 'overwhelming' seems inadequate. Children have produced the most amazing work inspired by the book. Teachers have given us astonishing feedback. And now children are learning the spells by heart.

I love seeing their drawings they do inspired by mine. And love to see and hear them finding their voices and learning about the wild with enthusiasm.

What about the decision to produce a CD next? How did that all come together? Did you have individual singers and musicians in mind, or a specific mix, and how easy was it to persuade them?

That's not how it happened. At the Winter Weekend in Hay, Caroline Slough of Folk by the Oak was in our audience. We began the event with a setting of the wren spell by Kerry Andrew. She is an amazing writer and musician. This seeded the idea with Caroline with a project with her, and Adam, her husband, approached our agents for the licence to work with our book. They curated this astonishing super group of folk musicians who wove together music that takes the message of The Lost Words deeper into the soul. I think some of the musicians, Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis, had already approached  Rob about musical settings for the words. Kris Dreyer drew on the images to find music.

We've other music also, from Jamie Burton and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful choral pieces for young voices, (google Jamie and the Tanglewood festival).

There are beautiful audio books, downloads and CD versions with the spells being read by diverse voices and illustrated by the wonderful sound landscapes of Chris Watson.

And so, to your latest collaboration. the new book, The Lost Spells. The moment I opened it I immediately thought that what you had done was to create something a bit more manageable in size, but that you'd also played with the form - especially the poetry, with the wonderful added bonus at the back of the book.How did you go about re-inventing and re-visiting a success like The Lost Words? Was there a conscious feeling of wanting to do something both different and similar?

The same but different..... this one grew organically. Rob had been writing new spells and I had the idea of working them in to an exhibition with Rob writing on my paintings. Red Fox was commissioned for The Lost Words Prom at the Albert Hall.... that's when the spells transformed into the idea of a small, talismanic spell book that was easily portable. The size requires the spells to move through pages in a different way and the puzzle of the glossary came towards the end as I realised that I was treading through so many species and people might not know the names of them. So it became a curious poetic field guide.

Finally, Jackie, we've been avoiding any talk of all the changes we've had to cope with for most of this year. Has any of your recent work been informed or affected by Covid 19, or indeed by anything else? Do you have any new goals.

I have been asked this question several times but never given a true answer. This is because it is very difficult. In some senses Covid's restrictions have not affected me. I like to work alone, at home, in solitude, in peace. But in other ways it has.

My father died just before lock down. Days after he died I had to paint the cover if The Lost Spells. How to push past the grief barrier and paint? That is one of the hardest things I have done, but how the echoes of what was happening formed into the wings of an owl, and how owls in mythology are caught up with the space between this life and after, well, there's poetry as well as grief in that.

I've talked about this in public before. What I haven't talked about about was living through the suicide, in the same week, of a close family member, the grief and the turmoil that arose from that. It's something I want to talk about, when I can, as suicide and the chaos that ensues around it, the heartbreak, heart ache and inhumane bureaucracy, all need to be dragged into the light.

And later a good friend who I'd not been able to see because of  lockdown etc, died. Judy Dyble and I often talked, and our communications inspired each other's work and we tested out on each other. None of these deaths were covid related, but it impacted on how the rituals of mourning took place.

So, burying three close people during covid, that is hard. I hadn't really realised how life continues around death and now have a deeper understanding of the 'stop all the clocks' poem. There were times during those months when it was hard to breathe, let alone paint. But creativity is both my work and my sanctuary. All my work is always informed by my life. The two are tangled and entwined.

My main goal remains the same. To live as well as I can, to speak out against injustice, and to do no harm.

Thank you so much, Jackie. It occurs to me that this blog began with the subject of loss and ends with it. My experience was all about how I should celebrate and commemorate my wife Celia. Now people will be able to see and hear you describe below and eventually find their way to the other project which has come out of these difficult experiences. So, with grateful thanks to Unbound and you - I'm going to allow your own words to describe the ideas behind The Space Between.

The Space Between is a quiet creature of a book that grew from the silence of lockdown from a desire to play, to see what happens if you type with a typewriter onto gold transfer leaf.

Small, to fit in the hand with ease, or be carried in a bag or a pocket, it is a natural successor to The Unwinding. Here, words revert to their natural form, becoming images, ink on gold, in their islands of leaf. Each sheet is a breathing space. The image on the cover is the Japanese symbol – 間- Ma - roughly translated as ‘gap’, ‘breath’, ‘pause’, and essential to all forms of art - negative space made positive.

The book may settle into sections – Birds, Hares, Hiraeth, Land, Sea, Sky, Dreams – but some sheets will stand alone. Again, as in The Unwinding, these can be catalysts for dreaming, a focus of vision, a small prayer to the wild. Some connect like a trail of pebbles through a forest. Some might be short stories told in gold pages. Through others, I explore my grief for my father who died last year and left me his vintage typewriter. The act of using a typewriter also hones my writing. Each word earns its space (which is what all writing should be).

And here is the link to Unbound, where you can also see Jackie's beautiful and personal film about this unique book, and - should you wish - pledge in order to help the fledgling take flight in the wider sky.

If you wish to buy any of Jackie's books, her site, has information  about how to do so, as well as a fascinating biography page, information about future projects, and of course lots of her art work.

Finally, if you are one of the few people who haven't discovered the film about the making of The Lost Words CD, look no further. I'll guarantee you'll be singing this as you catch up with household chores.

This version is one of many, but the covers of this song alone are growing, and you can find most of the other spell songs too on youtube.

Next month I will be continuing my chat with Jackie, where we will be discussing a\ great deal more of her career, inspirations and enthusiasms, especially those of the animals.

And in February I'm pleased to announce that I will be interviewing one of the participants in The Lost Words CD, the Gaelic folk singer Julie Fowlis.

Until then, and with thanks for sharing a quite wonderful year of interviews with me, my thanks also to Jackie Marchant, Sue Purkiss, Kit Berry, Scott Telek, Elen Caldecott, John Dickinson, Hugh Lupton, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jackie Morris, and anyone I've forgotten. Thanks all, and have a magical solstice, a merry Christmas and I look forward to seeing you in the new year.

Coming up next year.

Folk Singer Julie Fowlis on The Lost Words project, the landscape of home and singing in her native language.

Storyteller Nick Hennessey on the landscape of Finland and the Kalevala

Writer and folk-lore expert Katherine Langrish on the road that began with Narnia and led all the way to her new book.

Celtic expert and writer John Matthews discusses the Celtic landscape and its perils with me.

And at Beltane, a special between-the-worlds discussion on the figure of the magical Selkie and its many and varied inspirations, where I will be joined by writers, musicians, artists and storytellers who have a special connection with it.

And that's just the first four months! 

Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks to you Steve, and to Jackie, for this wonderful interview. Fascinating to hear more about all that goes into Jackie's beautiful books, and very moving too.