Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Every portrait tells a story

Every portrait tells a story
Margaret Green, watercolour, 60 x 40cm.

This season appears to be one of portrait commissions. It’s a real privilege to be entrusted with the image - in effect the life story of my subjects. Painted in Amsterdam, this recent portrait shows a visionary musician, gazing into the distance. In her mind’s eye she sees Kecskemét (Hungary), where she had just completed her MA at the Kodály Pedagogical Institute. I like that fond gaze, reflecting yet ambitious.

We can see that she has the maturity of one who has wrestled with life for quite a few years, but the portrait also depicts a great newly discovered joy in her musical life. She already played the piano, French Horn, and sang. And now she believes fervently in the Kodály-inspired approach to music education and hopes to inject new life into efforts to spread his philosophy in England. This portrait is an ode to the sensitivity, strength and aspirations of this woman, surrounded by music.
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, linguist, and philosopher, a friend and colleague of the composer Béla Bartók. In the nineteen-thirties he embarked on a long-term project to reform music teaching in Hungary's lower and middle schools. His work resulted in the publication of several highly influential books on a child-developmental approach to the experience of music, that gradually spread internationally. The full story can easily be found on internet.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Commemorating Greg and Gary

September 7th: an Amsterdam street party to commemorate the Christmas Twins

Five years ago Gary Christmas joined his twin brother Greg on the other side. I can't make it to the Amsterdam street party to commemorate the legendary Twins. So for those who missed my blog about them in March, here it is again:

The dancing crocheted garments of the Christmas twins.
The twin brothers Greg and Gary Christmas were born in Boston in 1931/2 (just before and after New Year's Eve), a striking mixture of Afro and Native American origins. They toured the world in show business, dancing with The Supremes, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and many more, then finally settled in Amsterdam, where they served coffee and snacks in their highly colourful Backstage Boutique, dishing out bawdy humor, gems of personal wisdom, uncanny spiritual insights or surprising kindness to all comers. "Yeah, yeah, our mother's name really was Mary Christmas". "You want my coffee or my body?"  For a while, my studio was situated near their café, so we became good friends. Inevitably, I dashed off a watercolour, as they gazed out of the window, commenting on the passers-by. "Oh, not her again! Hey, he's hot!" They liked my painting. "Not bad for a white man!"

Gary (left) only had three and a half fingers on the hand that crocheted the most snazzy dresses, skirts, tops, hats, even flowers. "It's show-time, honey - what's your sign?  Okay try this one on!" Greg (photo below) would supervise critically.
Their garments looked great on skins of all colour and one of their black friends modelled these fanciful creations as she danced for me at the studio. I used watercolour and oil crayons to make the garments unravel, jive or move across the page to various jazz classics, taking lots of liberties with the lyrics as they became more or less integrated into the picture.
Sophisticated Lady - and "You can have what you want if you handle what you got". 
"Ain't got no rest in ma slumbers, ain't got no feelings to bruise; ain't got no telephone numbers, ain't got nothing but the blues. Ain't got no coffee that's perkin', ain't got no winnings to lose, ain't got a dream that is workin', ain't got nothin' but the blues". As she stares hopelessly out of the window, I've turned her "dress" into a veil of sorrows. A real blues painting.
"Gimme a rhythm, gimme a beat, Gimme a rhythm, turn on the heat. I wanna be hot, I wanna be bad, I wanna be someone you wish you had". She's "wearing" a crocheted skirt that has got carried away with the jumping, barely legible lyrics. My oil crayons were really hoppin' with that rhythm.

I thoroughly enjoyed pushing my limits with this series - very saucy indeed for a shy English country boy whose headiest youthful experience was Worcestershire Sauce. Here's the link to those early days. This work might seem a far cry from the ethereal emotions of Kylián's modern dance with classical and contemporary music. But I'm having fun with lines and marks, tapping a different gut-level rhythmic energy, possibly long-hidden, laced with humorous mischief.

There were many more paintings in this 1989 series. But in those days I was also hopping between Amsterdam and The Hague for other creative work with the Netherlands Dance Theater, and across to Birmingham for the first discussions with Simon Rattle for a performance and with the BBC for the television documentary about my life with music: Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra (1993). 

Gary and Greg are now undoubtedly in major show business on other planets, but they became a legend in Amsterdam's multi-cultural society and for tourists looking for quirky entertainment or spirituality, between the seventies and 2009They left an indelible impression on this artist too. I really miss them.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Rope-walking on the diagonal line

As a twenty-year-old art student, I would experiment with walking on a slack rope, spanned between the iron girders that strengthened the walls of our Birmingham Art College studio. Balancing in my own space became an obsession that extended into many of my paintings. For example, I loved stretching a "dancing line" of people, houses or a landscape horizon across empty space, trying to focus on this line, to create space around it and ignore a mass of seemingly irrelevant information. But placed diagonally, such a line seems to gain energy. Here's a very early example:
Bernard Haitink rehearsing the Concertgebouw Orchestra, oil on canvas, 
110 x 70cm,1966.

In 1966 I sat in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, trembling with excitement as I sketched a young Bernard Haitink rehearsing the orchestra. I had sneaked around the hall to find a good vantage point and discovered that from the balcony, the silhouette of the cello and bass group provided me with a dancing, rising diagonal line for my composition. The energy of the orchestra was palpable. I was just thirty-three, still learning how to paint, you might say. My works were dominated by the visual impressionist oil painting I had learned at college and I was struggling to convert that into more abstract terms. You can see the struggle in the paint. Below is another, quieter example of my work from the same period.
Lakeside road through Weggis, Switzerland, oil on canvas, 80 x 60cm. 1965.

I had yet to discover a medium with which to express the energy of this dancing line more freely. That medium was watercolour, and it had a revolutionary effect on my work. See what happened (below) in the twenty years that followed. I no longer needed to paint the space. Influenced by a visit to Japan and by Asian calligraphy, my brush-strokes have acquired a freer dynamic that carries you across the paper. The conductor, cellos and basses are still just perceptible, but they have now become mere dynamic elements in a celebration of the music.

 Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Beethoven, watercolour, 70 x 50cm, 1985.

Twenty years or so later another compositional device - the zigzag - was frequently appearing in my paintings - a diagonal interrupted twice or more. In the recent watercolour below the zigzag starts bottom right, then finally arrives in the top lefthand corner, after first delineating the bowing of the strings, then the score, the baton, and Andris Nelson's left hand, flinging the music into the air as it were, as he urges the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to even greater heights during Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, 
watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 2013.
How did I think of this? I didn't. It's part of my DNA. As you listen to the music, you just follow what comes naturally.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Stage fright

Stage fright: your instrument is a paintbrush!

The violinist Tom Eisner recently wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian on the problems of stage fright before and during a concert. A traumatic business for performing artists of all sorts. But there are not many, I guess, who have to face the challenge of nerves with a paintbrush as their instrument. I hear you asking "are you nuts?"

After designing, choreographing and memorizing my kinetic visual equivalents to the music, I paint these live in concert. As I paint, you can see enormous enlargements of my brushes on a screen of say 9 x 6m. that hangs behind the orchestra. Rather exposed, you might say.

My largest brush, performing with the Circle Percussion ensemble.

My brush may sometimes be trembling. Everything can go wrong! There are times when you have to be absolutely in synch with the music, so obviously the right brush in the right pot of colour is ready, placed one second away from the glass plate I paint on. But you must have just the right amount of paint on the brush, then stroke it with the right gesture, gently or with gusto on the slippery plate - and oh, I'm painting everything upside down (standing behind the overhead projector, so I can see the screen). Piece of cake. Using an instrument made of wood and hair, it's just like playing the violin. Yeah, it helps if you practise for forty years.

Rehearsing in the studio, using two brushes on one of five projectors.

The still shot below is a moment towards the end of Scriabin's sensual Poem of Ecstasy, when the orchestra has been pulling out all the stops fortissimo. I pick up the pulse of the trumpet solo with tiny drops of window cleaner on the glass plate, just enough to make it expand with the crescendo at the right tempo. In my rather ragged studio rehearsal video (see further below), I just miss the trumpet entrance (at No. 38 in the score) by one bar, but I practise to get it right on the night. Only two thousand people will be watching. No sweat.

Nerves? For me the nerves kick in before I go on stage. My personal solution is to tap on the acupressure points of the energy meridians that we all possess, using the EFT method (Emotional Freedom Techniques) founded by Gary Craig. The routine is simple - you sit quietly in a corner, tap on the karate-chop part of your hand, saying to yourself something like "Even though I'm as nervous as hell, I accept myself and my situation completely". Then tapping gently on the energy meridians, I quietly affirm my resolve to show to the audience something of extreme beauty that they have never seen before - and I'm going to enjoy doing it! Breathe out and repeat three times. 

Well that's the short version. It's easy to find more on internet, but it helps if you start with an EFT counsellor like the wonderful woman who helped and still helps me to deal with stress, stage fright and much more.  
My portrait of Gabrielle Rutten, my EFT therapist, tapping on the karate chop spot.

A 10 min. montage from my studio rehearsal of Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, performed 
                                     with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010.