Tunes for a Monday Morning

Morwhellam Quay  Devon

Today I'm looking at folk songs about work and working people -- starting with the video above in which Seth Lakeman discusses one of my favorite albums: Tales from the Barrel House (2012). Seth grew up here on Dartmoor, lives by Tavistock, and writes songs rooted in the history and folklore of the West Country. This album, about lost country skills and professions, was recorded in a disused barrel house at Morwhellam Quay mining port.

Blacksmith tools

Above: "Blacksmith's Prayer," from Tales from the Barrel House.

Below: "More than Money," a song about the mining life from the same album.

Above: "The Handweaver and the Factory Maid," a broadside ballad performed by Pilgrims' Way, from the north-west of England. The song appeared on their first album, Wayside Courtesies (2011).

Below: "The Four Loom Weaver," a broadside performed by Irish singer Karan Casey at Celtic Connections in 2010. She recorded the song on her 4th solo album, Distant Shore (2003).

These ballads rise from spreading industrialization in the early 19th century, when handloom weaving was replaced by steam weaving machines, throwing whole communities out of work.

Above: "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore," a Johnny Cash classic performed by England's Billy Bragg and America's Joe Henry. All three musicians are known for folk/roots/country songs chronicling the stories of working men and women past and present. You'll find this one on the Bragg/Henry album Shine a Light, which I highly recommend.

Below: "Burn Away," by Megson (folk duo Stu & Debbie Hanna), from north-east England. "It's a song about steel, iron, and the blast furnaces," they write, "which, being from Teesside, is in our blood. The industrial language of steel-making is in danger of being forgotten, but it is full of colour, energy, and easily sparks the imagination." The video contains footage from a 1945 documentary on the British steel industry.

Megson's song takes me back to my own childhood years in eastern Pennsylvania, where the steel mills that employed so many relatives and neighbors were closing down, one by one....

Above: "Honest Work" (audio only), a song that could have been the anthem of my out-of-work step-father and his drinking buddies. Written by rocker Todd Rundgren (also from Pennsylvania), it's sung here acapella by the great English folk singer Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span. Although I'm a strong believer in unions, I love Rundgren's poignant and timeless lyrics.

To end on a lighter note, here's "Handyman Blues" by Billy Bragg (below). My step-father was a troubled, difficult man, but the one thing I remember with admiration is how he could do damn near anything with his hands: carpentry, plumbing, wiring, auto mechanics ... whatever needed fixing got fixed. He passed those skills to his sons, but not to me -- and they're ones that I often wish I had now. I am bookish, artsy, and not very handy -- so the song below makes me laugh.


Bunny Gifts

A painting of mine called Bunny GiftsThey'd been very naughty and peeked inside the presents, but they promised not to do it again.


On Black Friday and in the holiday season ahead, please help make the world a better place by supporting independent bookstores, artists, musicians, craftspeople, local farms, & small businesses -- rather than big, non-ethical, tax-avoiding corporations (like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Disney, Mattel, etc....and even, alas, the Waterstones book chain. Go here for the worst offenders.)

And please recommend some good online & offline shops, including your own (don't be shy), in the comments. I'll start us off here:

Tired bunnyFor Art, Craftwork, and Jewelry from the magical hills of Dartmoor: Virginia Lee, David Wyatt, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow of Atelier Bee, Rima Staines & Tom Hirons of Hedgespoken, Miriam Boy Hackney of Silver & Moor (who made our wedding rings), Jason of England (who made our anniversary rings), Linda Limeux of Wood & Rush, Yuli Somme of Bellacouche, Suzi Crockford, Eleanor Ludgate, Lunar Hine, and Alexandra Dawe.

Plus visit the Artisan Gallery here in Chagford (which carries local arts, and is also the home of Leaf Leather), check out the online artisan shop Gifts from Dartmoor, and then head north to Exmoor to see exquisitely magical things at Number Seven Dulverton.

More mythical, magical jewelry: Parrish Relics, Hannah Willow, Alchemy From the Hedge, Bauble Yaga's Hut, and Lioness.

More artwork (paintings, cards, prints, etc.) with mythic or naturalist themes: Jeanie Tomanek's EveryWoman Art and EasyBeast Designs, Kathleen Jennings, Jackie Morris, Catherine Hyde, Hannah Willow, Greta Ward, Rick Berry, Angela Harding, Karen Davis, Flora McLachlan, David Hollington, Jessica Roux, Julianna Swaney, Julia Jeffrey, Rovina Cai, Hazel Ang, Amy Bogard, Susan Sorrel Hill, Xine Ann's Artsy Craftsy (classic fairy tale prints). Plus Lynn Hardaker when her Etsy shop fills again.

Sculpture and glass with mythic or naturalist themes: Beckie Kravetz, Rossi Studios, Sophie Ryder, Ellen Jewett, Tamsin Abbott, and (if you've got very deep pockets) Adrian Arleo and Tricia Cline.

Fabric arts, critters, dolls, and masks: Mister Finch, Celestine & the Hare, MossMea, The Pale Rook, Anna Brahms, Friedericy Dolls, Claire Smith, BK Mask Studio, and Mythical Designs. Plus The Fernie Brae gallery in Portland, Oregon carries work by Wendy Froud, Chandra Cerchione Peltier and others.

Ceramics and homeware of various kinds: Lush Designs, Guy Veryzer, William Morris Tiles, and Hannah Nunn.

Photography: Stu Jenks, Juliette Mills, Rachel Lauren, and Ashley Lebedev.

I could go on listing artists I love all day, but I must get back to work on my manuscript-in-progress...so if I haven't yet listed you here, or any other artist whose work you'd like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.

Some bunnies

For those who have kindly asked: No, I  don't have an online shop for my own art this year -- I haven't had the spare time and funds to cover the expense of running one (printing costs, office help, etc.). But if you'd like to support the creation of a Bumblehill Shop for 2018, perhaps you'd consider becoming a Bumblehill Patron? Funds raised through my Patreon page are precisely for these sorts of endeavors.


On Thanksgiving Day: elemental gratitude

Nattadon waterfall

Prayer for the Great Family
by Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 2

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 3

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 4

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 5

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 6

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 7

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife,
so be it
.

Waterfall 8

To which I add:

Gratitude for the things that will help us get through the long winter ahead: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after.

Gratitude for it all.

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

The poem above is from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder (New Directions, 1974); it first appeared on Myth & Moor in the winter of 2014. The poem in the picture captions is from Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


What fiction does

Ponies on the path 1

From "Looking for the Spark," an essay on the writing life by novelist Joanna Trollope:

"I have a couple of tattered little quotations that lie about my desk and that become only more valuable to me as time goes on. One is from the English critic Phillip Toynbee: 'The definition of moral progress is the realization that other human beings are fully as human as oneself.' Quite.

"The other is something from Trollope -- the real Trollope. It comes from his autobiography, that peculiar, cantankerous book, published posthumously, which did his reputation such acute damage because the late Victorians could not bear his refusal to be high-minded about his art. He said many remarkable things in this book  -- including the accurate observation that 'nobody gets closer to a reader than a novelist, not even his mother' -- but my own particular favorite is on the subject of the novelist's central preoccupation. Trollope was not so much concerned, he said, with the landscape of the grand passions (was he thinking of Tolstoy, whom he much admired and who admired him in return?) as with something else, something less glamorous perhaps, but just as intense and certainly more universal: 'My task,' he wrote, 'is to chronicle those little daily lacerations upon the spirit.'

Ponies on the path 2

Ponies on the path 3

Ponies on the path 4

"I feel a thrill of recognition every time I read that, or even think about it. Yes. Yes. Speaking absolutely personally, that is what the writer's life is all about, for me. The point of it is to emphasize that we are none of us immune from longing, or disappointment (much under-rated, in my view, as a force of distress), or frustration, or idiotic hope or bad behavior. What fiction does, in this difficult world, is reassure us that we are not alone, nor are we (most of us) lost causes.

Ponies on the path 5

Ponies on the path 6

Ponies on the path 7

"There is a theory -- Puritan in origin, no doubt -- that suffering strengthens and elevates us in a way that joy can never somehow do. I'm not so sure about that. Isn't it just that we have, on the whole, so much more suffering than joy that we have resolved, out of our great surviving instinct, to insist that something worthwhile must be made of it? And isn't fiction a handrail, of a kind, which we can all grasp while we blunder around in the dark?"

Indeed it is. At least, it is for me.

Ponies on the path 8

Ponies on the path 9

Ponies on the path 10

Autumn leaves

Tilly on the path

Words: The passage above is from "Looking for the Spark" by Joanna Trollope, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). The poem in the picture captions is from In Broken Country by David Wagoner (Little, Brown & Co., 1979). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies met on the path to the village Commons during a morning walk with Tilly.


The small things

The Wiggley Tree

When life, art, or a particular work-in-progress seem overwheming, confusing, or especially difficult, I take comfort in these words from Rainer Maria Rilke's wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet:

"If you trust in nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling. Not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge."

Trust. Simplify. Value the small things. Live fully in the natural world.

Whether it's a life problem I am wrestling with, or a story that will not take shape, or a painting that won't properly cohere, these are -- for me -- the things that help me move forward again, almost always.

Fungi on the foot bridge

Streamside path

Autumn bloom


Tunes for a Monday Morning

A misty morning the River Dart

Once again, with the news of the world pressing in, I'd like to begin the week with music that shines a light in the dark -- and the toe-tapping, spirit-lifting music of Laura Cortese fits the bill. Cortese was born San Francisco, studied music in Boston, and now peforms solo and in a variety of musical collaborations -- my favorite of which is her all-women folk & roots band, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards.

Above: "Stockholm," from the band's fine new abum, California Calling. The video was shot on tour in Scandinavia.

Below: "Women of the Ages," with lyrics adapted from the poetry of John Beaton. The video was made to raise funds for Rosie's Place, Boston, the oldest women's shelter in the United States.

Above: "Into the the Dark," an old favorite from the album of the same name (2013).

Below: "The Low Hum," from the new album, California Calling.

And one more:

"Skipping Stone," from California Calling. The video features the Rose City Raindrops (a synchronized swimming group) in the Willamette River of Oregon.

Dawn over the River Dart

Photographs: Dawn over the River Dart here in Devon.

 


Tomorrow here in Chagford:
Art Auction & Tea Party

Fairy Tales by Terri Windling

For folks within travelling distance of Devon:

A number of women artists (including me) have donated art-work and craft-work to a charity auction happening tomorrow (Saturday, November 18) in Chagford's Jubilee Hall, 2 - 5 pm.  No ticket required, no entrance fee. Please come if you can.

My friend Susan Harley organised the auction to raise funds to support women with breast cancer in Gaza, via the Amos Trust. As a cancer survivor myself, I can't imagine what it's like to face any sort of cancer under the kinds of conditions these brave women cope with. From the Amos Trust:

For women with breast cancer in Gaza, Israel’s and Egypt’s near-total closure affects nearly every stage of their diagnosis and treatment. Doctors in clinics and hospitals say that vital medicines, including chemotherapy drugs, are hard to procure. Patients have reported having had their chemotherapy course interrupted when drugs could not be supplied, or simply having been unable to complete the course at all.  Radio isotopes used in bone scans or for guided biopsy of axillary lymph nodes are forbidden entry into Gaza; and Gaza’s surgeons are prevented from travelling out to attend conferences or further develop their skills, freezing surgical practice many years behind the rest of the world.  A Harvard Medical School study has shown that five-year survival rates for breast cancer patients are as low as 30-40%, compared with around 85% in England. Having breast cancer is bad enough -- but having it in Gaza is unimaginable. The Amos Trust supports women with cancer, and runs community outreach prevention and early identification programmes as this is the women’s best chance of survival.

Please come if you can, have some cake, look at beautiful art, and support women helping women.

Update: Thanks to the hard work of Susan Harley & team, this event raised over £3000.00! Many thanks to the young woman who bought my donation to the auction (the "Fairy Tales" collage above) for giving the bunnies and tree girls a good home.


Finding your voice

Inspiration Board

I've been asked to re-post this piece on creative influence, so here it is. I wrote it several years ago, but still stand by every word....

Reading a recent interview with French book illustrator Didier Graffet, I found myself pausing at this line: "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work," he says, "but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

Today, I'd like to reflect on both ends of that sentence. First, on the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us. And second, on that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

A Devon blacksmith photographed by James Ravilious

Let's start with the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart: those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, trained as chef by apprenticing in Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Learning to cook as Williams' cooked, which she was expected to do without deviation, was the first step toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art.

Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work...until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

Photograph by James Ravilious

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own.

Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia; or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (and would you have guessed that last one?). Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

Hedger's Lunch Break by James Ravilious

The second part of Didier Graffet's comment is important too, however. There comes a time when an artist needs to stop looking at others' work.

This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.

For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.

Jo Curzon and her Flock by James Ravilious

These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.

What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey. I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather.  And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.

Gathering apples by James Ravilious

When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.

Poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

Wistmans Wood by James Ravilious

A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.

No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter.  It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.

Archie Parkhouse and his dog Sally by James Ravilious

It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.

Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.

Moving the Sheep by James Ravilious

For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.

For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.

3 Amigos by Stu Jenks

Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, living in New York City and Boston and gazing across the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart --  was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.

It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)

Secret Place by Stu Jenks

The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides --  like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of  tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.

Icon by Stu Jenks

To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing.

And then get back to work.

Down the Deep Lanes by James Ravilious

About the art at the top this post: In the field of Mythic Arts, we walk in the footsteps of countless storytellers, writers, painters, and other creative souls who have gone before us. To honor them, I keep a bulletin board in my studio full of works by the men and women who are my muses, much like the bulletin board above. These are just some of creative folk whose work provides daily inspiration (from top to bottom, right to left): Arthur Rackham, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kay Nielsen. Sulamith Wulfing, Dorothea Tanning, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo's drawings, James McNeil Whistler. Adrienne Segur, Holbein's drawings, John William Waterhouse. Jessie M. King, photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Dulac. Gwen John, Remedios Varo, Susan Seddon Boulet, Lizbeth Zwerger & Beatrix Potter, Frances MacDonald. Vanessa Bell at her easel (by Duncan Grant); photographs of William Morris, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Paula Rego at her easel. 

About the photographs: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press site to see more of his beautiful work. All rights reserved by Stu Jenks and the James Ravilious estate.

About the text: The essay above first appeared on Myth & Moor in January, 2011. All rights reserved by the author. 


On Becoming a Public Storytelling

Bumblehill Studio

I think it's high time for me to officially announce that I now have a Patreon Page. I still feel a little shy about it all...so if you'd be kind enough to have a look, I'd be grateful. And if you can help in any way to spread the word, I'd be more grateful still. Here's the link: www.patreon.com/terriwindling.

Bunny friendsIt took some arm-twisting by friends to get me to do this, but now that I understand how how Patreon works, this gentle form of crowd-funding art & artists appeals to me, resting as it does on something I deeply believe in: the power of community.  

I have spent three decades in the commercial publishing world -- which has genuine value (as well as certain limitations), so I am certainly not proposing that we all stop publishing in traditional ways. But I very much like the thought that each creative community (especially the strong and passionate community we have here in the Mythic Arts field) can have a direct hand in making sure that the art that we love gets made.

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common," writes Scott Russell Sanders, "and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents."

Lace and paper (ollage detail)

"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious," Sanders adds; "and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant bartering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us. The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid...Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships , the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

By setting up a Patreon page, I see myself as joining a long, historic line of public storytellers, setting up my busking pitch at the edge of the Commons, and putting my hat out for any coins you care to throw. Yes, it makes me feel shy, and vulnerable -- but it also places me in that "web of relationship" that Sanders speaks of.

I am trusting it will hold me upright. And I am trusting I won't disappoint you.

Tree Caps (collage detail)

"I have inherited a belief in community," writes Terry Tempest Williams, "the promise that a gathering of the spirit can both create and change culture."

I believe in that promise too.

Fairy Tales

"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community," said George Bernard Shaw, "and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can."

And so will I.

Briar Rose

I want to note that funds I am raising through Patreon are to support the writing of novels & essays, and painting projects, not to monetize this blog. Myth & Moor is a strictly nonprofit endeavor, offered in the spirit of Gift Exchange for all who create, study, and love Mythic Arts.

The passage above by Scott Russell Sanders is from "The Common Life," an essay in  Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1997); all rights reserved by the author. For those who would like to know more about the history and practice of Gift Exchange, I recommend Lewis Hyde's brilliant book The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage, 1983).