Just a few pictures of the work I have been doing this week – I loved designing and making this handmade tribute to the well loved novelist Jane Austen – quite rightly she continues to be enjoyed across the globe – Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20 million copies world wide! I like her because of her wit – and her recognition that self worth is more valuable than external validation albeit knowing that money also makes life far more comfortable! If you like what you see, head across to my pages at Etsy – you may find something you want me to make for you!
Sharing a few images of my work in progress – I am making a new title to sell in my Etsy store – handmade coptic stitched books that connect you to the beauty already in the world – I have found amazing solace and inspiration from writers down the ages – and this little volume focuses on work by Emily Dickinson and Thoreau – both loved observers of the natural world. I have found inspiration for illustration from historical botanical painting, and found the natural complement to the written word. A celebration of new life, from old – Spring always follows Winter. I was recently very moved by a dedication requested by a customer for my Mindfulness book – and it reminded me why I love making my keepsake books – sometimes we all need a time for reflection and consideration of what is really important – the connection I make with my customers is special.
Saul Bellow’s own words on his impending death…and who to judge? But the man was a tour de force in his own lifetime and this is a portion of his speech when he received the Nobel prize for Literature. He says it best.
‘What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species – everybody – has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own. Conrad was right to appeal to that part of our being which is a gift. We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held – or thought I held – and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by. As for Hegel’s art freed from “seriousness” and glowing on the margins, raising the soul above painful involvement in the limitations of reality through the serenity of form, that can exist nowhere now, during this struggle for survival. However, it is not as though the people who engaged in this struggle had only a rudimentary humanity, without culture, and knew nothing of art. Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers – and readers – from being at once simple and true.
Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish….
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as “true impressions”. This essence reveals, and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.”’
Every now and again I manage to complete one of my ongoing projects! This one has been on the back burner for some time – I already have a title that includes three of this poet’s work , but I wanted to investigate the poet a little further.
I was an early fan of his poetry – the musicality within it is magical – and I really do know how much my life has been influenced by listening to the power of the written word by a genius. I count my poet influencers amongst my friends – they have informed my thinking and feeling for the majority of my life. I truly believe they are life savers.
What I really find out when I dig deeper about any of my literary heroes, is how human they are – how full of paradox and confusion – and that endears me more. They above all others have shown me how truly miraculous it is to be human and alive and suffering as well as exalting. I lead a secular existence – and I am no apologist about that – but the spiritual exists within and poets help me to embrace that side of my nature.
A deep gratitude to artists everywhere, for the attempt to connect. And to Mr W. B Yeats – the everlasting love of the listener and the reader.
‘Like along-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon the silence’
If you are interested in seeing more of my finished tribute, it is going to be available here Tribute hand made book at Etsy
Beyond hyperbole,’ The Lost Words’ is a book that demands attention. It is a classic in it’s infancy – an about to be great. A spell book that weaves it’s magic with immediacy , like shivelight and shadowtackle – Gerard Manley Hopkin’s term not mine, it reminds me of those feelings when I am immersed in nature. Fleeting moments of lightness, beingness, the commonplace miracle.
“We must look a long time before we can see….’ Thoreau told us, exhorting the value of feeling ‘the marrow of nature. As a close observer he wanted to bridge the apparent gap between science and art, valuing the poetic in the endeavours of the scientific classification of plants and animals prevalent in his age. “Facts fall from the poetic observer as ripe seeds.”
This is genuinely a gift of a book from a joint venture between wordsmith Robert MacFarlane and the stunning illustrations by Jackie Morris. To share this book with anyone is to share in the joy of being alive
If you are near you may want to try this – The Lost Words Exhibition at Compton Verney
Alternatively , to get more of a close look at this joint endeavour and to find out about the author and artist , this link is a fabulous introduction, I hope it inspires you to find the book out. Penguin books Q and A
Just a quick post to remind my readers (!) that creative endeavour can be life enhancing – a dancing in the dark sort of preoccupation, the moments that transcend time. Lost in flow, all appears in balance – the world is a more comprehensible place to inhabit. In focusing on the small things, the big things seem to appear in greater perspective. I like losing myself in my handmade projects which I sell on Etsy. Each handmade book is designed and made by me – every one is unique as I like to make something different each time , so the covers you see on the photos may differ from the book you receive. But don’t worry – I pour oodles of care into each one – and I haven’t disappointed yet! All my reviews from sales are viewable on the Etsy site and I am extremely grateful to my customers for their generosity in sending me them. It is always moving getting feedback that tells you of delight and astonishment!
Some of the designs you will find on the Etsy site are books I have wanted to research and produce myself – many of them arise from lifelong interests in nature and in poetry. Others are created in collaboration with customers who ask me to research a them and produce a book around it. The book celebrating Moths was created on behalf of a customer wanting to surprise a lepidopterist family member! I have created books that illustrated a wedding proposal – a young man had written a poem to his fiance which he asked me to create a book around. She said yes! He even sent me photos of the ring he commissioned!
I think handmade creates connection – between the commissioner, the maker and the recipient. It is as though it has imbibed love – much like houses do, we have all felt the difference between houses that have been filled with love, and those that are just places to function in. It may be strange, and somehow difficult to quantify, but it is real.
I have lots of pictures on the site at Etsy, Storefront
There are cards that I design too, and that I can personalise if required. They are printed on a wonderful textured watercolour paper, and look great mounted and framed too.
I don’t always get round to sharing my handmade books which I make on Etsy – but this time I thought I would . The book came about from a conversation with a wonderful customer, who often orders from me to gift to her ( numerous) grandchildren and friends. One grandson had recently graduated and specialised in moths, and she was curious whether I could make a book to celebrate his interest. That is always a great starting off point for me – someone else’s interest. It stimulates and challenges me to research a subject that I wouldn’t have necessarily considered. This was going to test me, because I could not possibly tell this young man anything he didn’t know about his special interest. But I decided that coming to it from the angle of art history may be a way in. And it was. I was blown away by the fine work that Wencelaus Hollar produced in 1646 in Flanders . I found the drawings in a collection by Gothard Monrad at Te Papa.
Gothard Monrad (1811–1887) was a prominent figure in nineteenth-century Denmark: a bishop in the Lutheran church, he was also a noted scholar and politician. Privately, he was a connoisseur of art, collecting fine prints by numerous European old masters and paintings by contemporary Danish artists.
Monrad’s collection includes engravings, etchings, and woodcuts, beginning with two engravings from the 1470s by Italian artist Andrea Mantegna. The collection’s sixteenth-century German engravings form a significant group, and include works by Albrecht Altdorfer, Albrecht Dürer, and the brothers Hans and Sebald Beham.
The collection has now been reassembled at Te Papa according to Bishop Monrad’s own catalogue of 1869.
Two facts I discovered about the Moth world that I will share – moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth and scientists estimate there are 150,000 to more than 500,000 moth species. Wowzer!
I was delighted to send this little volume to my customer, and was thrilled to receive in return these lovely comments;
‘The MOTH book arrived safely and in fine time. How very astute you were for the covering of the moth pages. It is perfect for a young man, very handsome. As I look through the pages several times, I am beginning to wonder if John will appreciate this work as much as I do. Should I or should I not? Oh, I guess so, I will gift him with it with the stipulation I can view it off and on. I must quit looking through you web site, as I soon will spend all my pennies on your art. Thank you for this piece especially since I ordered it and you came through with flying colors
Appreciation is a wonderful thing! So if you have any subject you want me to consider adding to my bookshelves over at Etsy, send me a line. Or you could browse the items I make to order here Coptic stitch books at Modestly at Etsy
‘ It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the one fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all. ‘ Graham Swift ‘ Mothering Sunday’
This , then , is what I have to bring today. The closing sentences of the book I have just laid down. It did not disappoint. Within its narrative Graham Swift refers to one of my storytelling heroes – Joseph Conrad – who himself has an interesting comment on storytelling, whose quest was ‘ by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’
And the overriding sense I am left with is how fiction gives us permission to be most fully ourselves. I cannot imagine being the me I am without having encountered the characters and the writers I have met throughout my days. Science is mastering many of the facts , we are illuminating the darkness, but only dimly. Science is the first to corroborate how much is still unknown. A particle acts differently dependant upon it being observed – does this strike you as prescient on the human condition? We are and simultaneously are not the person we imagine ourselves to be. The codes we observe do not rely merely on the context of our time and culture, but also on our perception of them and of the fluctuating circumstances. That is confusing, much easier to narrate to you a true account of behaviour which shows how I hold personal codes of truth and loyalty , of fidelity and duty to be central to the person I am and yet act in complete opposition to them, choosing to end one marriage to a wonderful man , and father of my two sons because I had walked blindly into a new relationship where I felt at home. Not even a choice. And reader – I married him.
I haven’t learnt enough just from the handful of people who are present in my life, or who have been there in the past – they are priceless, but they do not bring me the breadth and depth of experience which helps me to understand I can forgive myself for frailty, for impatience, for laziness, for ineptitude. Because I am not alone. Because growing up is not just trying to imitate some version of being human handed down by parents et al, it is about encountering the various selves you inhabit, and allowing yourself not to be intimidated or frightened by them. Listening to voices from elsewhere can somehow bring you closer to knowing how to be your own.
In ‘Mothering Sunday’ Graham Swift practices his alchemy – his narrative is from a woman and it has one of the most authorative voice of being woman I have encountered. He is masterly in how deftly he practices this – the small sentences slipped in that are the ‘tell’ of what it feels like to be 22, free, single, and enjoyably bruised by sexual encounter ( not in a violent, abusive way). On removing from the scene, she mounts her bicycle ‘ slightly sore where she met the saddle’ .
I imagine the novelist’s challenge to himself – inhabiting not only the woman’s pysche at 22, but also later on – in her nineties and remembering. I imagine him imagining the reader – me – enjoying his playfulness, his zest for finding the right word, the correct tone, the piercing stab of the dramatic.
The point I am making, albeit clumsily is this – we need stories to remind us not how to live, but that life is mystery. Inexplicable paradox is what exists around us and about us, and the navigation around this mortal coil is facilitated by the storytellers, the magicians, the soothsayers, the lyric writers, the graffiti artists, the dramatists, the teachers.
There is now such a thing as a bibliotherapy – the art of listening to someone’s personal dilemnas and furnishing them with appropriate bookwear. (bookware?) . Such a stance should please me, but I am contrary enough to find something unsettling in it. Something proscribed – but then why not – we go to doctors, why not book doctors? I have a healthy disposition to challenge anything that is ‘good for me’ , and have only just discovered the heady delight of sucking up oranges. Now I evangelise about oranges. And for me they are the only fruit. I still have a long way to go.
I leave the last words to a woman author of impeccable skills, Marilynne Robinson, author of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Gilead’ and others you may want to discover.
“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.”
I was entranced to discover there is a word for the feeling of well being I share with millions of you – Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term that means “forest bathing”. The idea being that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine, lowering stress. Allelochemic substances ‘phytonicides’help slow the growth of fungi and bacteria. When humans are exposed to them, these chemicals are scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, relieve stress and boost the growth of white blood cells. garlic, onion, pine, tea tree and oak are all examples of plants emitting phytonicides.
When we walk in Scotland, we spend most of our time simply being in the landscape, enjoying the feeling of well-being that we both find there. I take lots of photographs there and these inform much of what I do when I am creating both illustration and the handmade books. I go back to those photographs time and again, both to recreate the feeling of creativity, and to inspire new designs. Just browsing through my back catalogue provokes a feeling of joy, remembered tranquillity and when I am in a slump of not knowing how to move forward, I take a step back and invariably come across something to make the spark reignite.
Today I rediscovered these woods, and immediately I am reminded of the wonderful treatise by Herman Hesse on the sanctuary of trees. I breathed a sigh of recognition when I first read his words – they are beautiful – I can only urge you to find a copy.
You can find the essay online here ; Herman Hesse Wandering
In the meantime, don’t forget to get some time in to shinrin-yoku
“But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”
I have sons and stepsons- five young adults – and I am vexed about the same concerns for all of them. How can I help them to live well in the world? And every time I ask myself this question I come to the conclusion that I can’t. I am still struggling with the question myself as we all do. I know in the rational part of my mind that each individual must ask their own questions, find their own path to some sort of equilibrium. That said, there is the other part of me, the spark of optimistic longing that wants to share that wealth of experience from authors and artists that have resonated with me, moved me, performed some magical alchemy that has allowed me to feel some sort of transcendent moment which makes life worthwhile, meaningful, exciting. It’s also why I write a blog, a catharsis of sharing what I have found valuable to my living. A howl into the wilderness to connect with other lives, belong to a tribe where I am accepted, nourished, nurtured.
Thus I come to the nub of today’s post – the illuminating writing from Rainer Maria Rilke in ‘Letters to a young poet’. The words of that hopeful young man preface the Penguin Little Black Classics version, as an older version of himself speak for themselves.
‘And where a great and unique person speaks, the rest of us should be silent’
-Franz Xaver Kappus , Berlin , 1929.
I will choose some of the text of the letters and share it here, but recommend the book to be read in its entirety,
On being asked to give criticism to the poets verses, Rilke writes to him ;
‘You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before, You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry…let me ask you to give up all that. You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’
‘…read as little as possible in the way of aesthetics and criticism (of works of art) – it will either be partisan views, fossilized..or neat wordplay, where one opinion will triumph one day and the opposite the next. Works of art are infinitely solitary…. Only love can grasp them and hold them and do them justice. – With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights. Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered. ‘
Rilke doesn’t just advise the young man about art – it is fuller than that – but expresses his views on sexuality too – ideas about how to take deep pleasure in mature love, acknowledging that man often gets it wrong when ‘he loves only as a man, not as a human being’. If I could just take that line and impress it on my progeny, that would be enough.
More to follow!!