I am sitting at my table, I am eating a late lunch, I am looking out the window: the light is clear, the sky is blue, the leaves flicker the brightest of greens in the sunshine: it seems idyllic. I gaze at the grassy patch over the road – where I practice taichi every morning with Isabel (we’ve only missed three mornings in all these lockdown weeks) and where the little girl twirling at the end of my last blog plays with her sisters. I see an older woman bring out a chair, then a couple bring their two chairs and then a toddler wobbles along. The woman, recently widowed, has not long returned from a distant journey; she’s been quarantining herself, and now here are her close family visiting for the first time. The sets of chairs are planted far from each other and the two households sit down; the child wanders too close to her granny and something – a voice, though it looks like invisible elastic – jerks her back. Suddenly the whole sunny scene is overshadowed by a sinister science fiction atmosphere – the terrifying and unseen threat of the deadly virus. It’s very hard to believe that this is all true – but of course it is.
In order to cope with the unknown future I concentrate on the present as much as possible. My dear little red diary, which used to be full of notes of meetings, appointments, commitments now records not outings but outgoings; these being mainly the results of trips to the post office – we have a system – and the weekly Sainsbury’s delivery, the most exciting part of which is the replacements they provide for the items that aren’t in stock – though I wasn’t altogether amused when one wag replaced my toothpaste with a tube of steradent tabs! I believe they’re very good for cleaning the lav… But I am fortunate, very, in being able to spend at least some of the time in the moment, the now, of making – the to and fro between the brush, the eye, the hand – the conversation between the vertical me and the horizontal on the table. The long lookings and peerings – carrying what’s seen in the air and recreating something of it to retell on whatever surface I may be painting.
As I mentioned in my last blog I’ve been developing a very small collection of hand-painted clothes for Livingstone Studio, Hampstead. In a pre-lockdown (just) meeting there, the styles, types and number were decided between us all . I have used four different types of fabrics, two linens, cotton and calico, to make six special and unique new garments – two jackets, two dresses and two simple shirts, with a seventh in progress. For each one the designs are painted on the cloth – the main areas, particular pockets, cuffs, sleeves, facings – the inks heat-set by ironing, then hand-washed to clear out any loose and excess colour, ironed again, packed in tissue paper and posted off to Chris in North London (thanks due here to assorted great-nieces and nephews for their post office help). Chris cuts and sews my fabric into the garments – simple, generous, beautifully constructed– and then takes them, finished, to Hampstead for Inge and Hersilia at Livingstone, and between them they’ve modelled for photographs. Isolation means that I haven’t actually seen or touched any of the finished clothes themselves, which is quite strange. The whole thing has been conducted as an act of faith, in the spirit of trust and optimism – rather remarkable I think. And successful too – although pattern and colour of ‘my’ sort is perhaps not the usual fare at Livingstone we certainly share a spirit of excellence, integrity and joy – two have sold and we have interest in others. Here’s a little ‘fashion show’:
Another occupation for some of my days is cutting, ironing, folding (yes, there’s a helluva lot of that going on) choosing and tying bundles of fat quarters. I mentioned these in my last blog, and along with an article in the May issue of Today’s Quilter magazine the result has been a lovely whoosh of orders. And re-orders. And some special requests. And now I’m beginning to be shown pictures of what they’re being made into, from a 7-year-old’s splendidly pocketed pinny to the start of a pieced quilt – I really enjoy the feedback. I love making the parcels too – I was thinking about making a video just of that.
I’ve sent out some copies of my little Liberty book – The Art of Pattern. Due to what we currently understand as ‘the times’, only part of the order arrived from the printers – tracking tells us they’re all on their way – so I’m sorry there’s still a little more waiting to be done by some customers. From sales so far I’m able to donate £200 to the charity Refuge – so thank you to all who have ordered it. It’s available in my shop here. UPDATE – they’ve all just arrived, and I have a few copies in hand now too…..
Going back a bit now to the very start of January 2019 – the same dear friend Stafford who designed the Art of Pattern book wrote saying he had a new project in mind: “Let’s talk about it”. What transpired was a challenge to me – to send him a new piece of work every day throughout the year for him to collate into a book! He knows I’m prolific and that my habit is to keep visual notes of one sort or another, and I guess he saw this as making a natural record of a year in my working life. It could be of anything – from a teeny sketch on a paper-bag to painted yardage to artwork for clients – just with the date and a short description of what, where and how.Of course I accepted the challenge, not at all sure how it might turn out. As it happens, it was a sort of lodestone, often pulling me back to the stability of ‘doing what I can’ in what was a very rocky year. When days were sorrowful, desolate, distracting, upsetting, worrying and equally when times were joyful, exciting, promising and unknowable… the discipline concentrated my mind wonderfully.
It is a lesson for these times too.
And so there they were on December 31st– three hundred and sixtyfive of what I called my ‘dailies’ – and here’s the book that Stafford has made of them. I thank him for his very generous idea and all-embracing work. A couple of books have already gone to good homes – I’m considering my next move… here is a quick look.
Today we approach the twelfth week of the lockdown/up/in – what was to be 14 weeks of isolation, distanced living, solitary confinement and shielded protection particularly for, among many others, those of us born before 1950. As one of that gang I welcome being protected, and to that end have been extremely diligent. But I’ve felt undermined and affronted by some of the undercurrent implications that we have all come to the end of our usefulness. I, and my contemporaries, have so much more being to be, doing to do, learning to learn.
The infinite creative ingenuity of artists, musicians, performers, writers, teachers, students young and old offered via the internet is so marvellously, and typically, generous and impressive. I’m sad to admit that so far I’ve taken very little time to explore it properly, but I’m glad it’s there. On social media, I admire Alice Rawsthorne’s instagram posts generally, and particularly those about design solutions in this pandemic; find them here.
For myself, I seem to quite like silence – and actual conversations with my fellow humans when I can get ’em – by FaceTime or ‘phone or simply shouting.
Rather abruptly the isolation situation has eased, the risk apparently lessened, and despite extreme confusion and obfuscation on the government’s part it seems we can now have more, though still distanced, contact with our families, friends, neighbours, workmates. But we, you and I, have still to take the greatest care, even if it is tempting to take risks as the sunny weather beckons, seeming to whisper “it’ll be alright”, and the current behaviour of those in power is really provoking us to flick a V at precaution and authority.
I have such a mixture of feelings: caution, fear tinged with a furious devil-may-careishness. Pure anger at the lies and hypocricies we’re witnessing. Longing – just to hug someone, sit in a cafe and chat, meet my students and share a paint brush. And then too a curious compelling fondness for this being alone business – the safety of it, the enforced opportunities, the need to improvise in so many ways, the chance to experience time differently – to use it rather than spend it perhaps – to examine details and take creative risks, or to totally zone out and play solitaire for what seems like hours on end. I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to give houseroom to all these inner janglings and external confusions.
On a walk yesterday I fell in step with a man, a black man, and we shared a few socially distanced paces up the hill: “Beautiful day” “Yes, a beautiful day, but a scary world” “What can we do?” “We can listen, and be kind and be friendly.” “Yes, we can do that, we must do that.”
And we must do so much more too.
Thank you to Sophie for help talking some of this through – and for her vibrant new flower paintings.