Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Open Studios and Worn-out Feet

Pigeons: Birkenhead Park Series, by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 2018; oil on canvas.
The annual Wirral Open Studios Tour took place from 9th - 10th June, a free event wherein many local artists and crafts-workers opened their doors to the public. Venues ranged from garden sheds to community centres, from back bedrooms to rented studio spaces. The work displayed was as diverse as it's possible to get, and a supporting free brochure listed all the participants with little maps to help visitors find their way around.

As I don't drive, there was no way I was going to be able to see everything even though I'd like to. So, armed with an all-day train ticket and comfy shoes, I first travelled to New Brighton where Janine Pinion welcomed me into her front room which has been converted into a bright and airy studio crammed with her incredibly beautiful watercolours. Janine recently won the Open Exhibition at the Williamson Art Gallery.

Bertie, an adorable Yorkshire Terrier, was determined to greet visitors to Breda Whyte's garden shed, which she's cleverly adapted for use as a studio. Her lovely bold, expressionistic mixed media paintings filled the space, along with sculptures and some of her batik designs. Her old bicycle was half-buried beneath a glorious tangle of climbing plants which had commandeered it as a trellis.

Five exhibitors were located within the Floral Pavilion on New Brighton's Marine Promenade. There was also a book fair plus an arts and crafts fair unfolding at the same place, which helped to attract a steady flow of visitors. Emma Johnson was busy working on a lovely commissioned portrait in oils but quickly initiated a friendly conversation about my own work.  Emma creates wonderfully realistic portraits, animal pictures and landscapes, all rich with colour and detail.  Sharing the exhibition table with Emma was her mother, sculptor Jo Burton, who was deftly using a mallet and chisel to shave wafer-thin curls of wood from a block which she was slowly turning into a cat's head. For sale were delicately carved jewellery, various busts of people and animals, and ornamental pieces, all made with remarkable skill.

Also exhibiting at the Floral Pavilion was Rachel Wibrew, an art student, (who doesn't seem to have a website), who was showing pen and ink drawings based on tattoo designs. Gerard McGregor's paintings explored the complex relationship between the human memory and technology, and their fragility. He enlarges tiny bits of technology and turns these into vibrantly coloured, psychedelic, mixed media paintings. Neal Dawson has turned his urban photography into practical, printed coasters. Local buildings, pubs and landmarks, plus textures and patterns, are what inspire Neal who started out as an oil painter then got more into photography. His work is on sale at various tourist venues around Liverpool.

Journey Awaits, by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; watercolour; 2018.


Catching the train to Hoylake, a warm welcome awaited me at Susan Boardman's delightful cottage, where I was immediately offered a glass of refreshing apple and elderflower cordial. Susan's truly lovely textile art was displayed throughout the ground floor of her home. She uses torn paper, paint, dye, beads and sewing plus fabrics to create beautiful landscapes, seascapes and abstractions. She also makes fabric jewellery and cute little peg dolls. In a lovely, plant-packed garden is the shed which Susan uses as her studio. I'm always fascinated by other artists' studio spaces, how they set it out, how they develop their working environment, and of course I love looking at other peoples' sketch books. I would have stayed inside the shed studio for longer but the merciless summer heat made that unwise.

My next port of call was to the home of sea and shore photographer Marianthi Lainas, whose dramatic images have been featured in Countryfile Magazine and the national press. What would have been her guestroom now houses her computer and large-size printer, and her photos seem to fill every available space in her lovely seaside home. She also exhibited her recent experiments with cyanotype photography, describing her processes to me and making it sound like a fun thing to try.

A group of artists were exhibiting at a studio in the heart of Hoylake, and Helon Conning was about to lead a portrait-drawing session as I arrived. Helon runs a weekly life drawing group, and her own colourful, expressionistic paintings depicted her interests in experimentation and quirky ideas. Michelle Murray, (who doesn't seem to have a website), is an illustrator who creates mixed media drawings and 3D sculptures.  Suzy Chappell, (who also doesn't seem to have a website), makes bold abstract mixed media paintings, collages and prints. Emma Dromgoole, who attends the same life drawing group as I do, is a retired art teacher who produces gloriously vivid portraits and figurative paintings which express her love of colour and line. Visitors to this working studio were treated to a generous finger-food buffet.

One of the Open Studio Tour's organisers is Xitina Ferres Zendrera, whose home directly overlooks the broad, sweeping sands of Hoylake beach. Born and raised in Barcelona, and widely travelled, Xitina has worked as an international fashion designer for major-label companies, and as an illustrator.  Her paintings show her interests in surface pattern and abstraction.

On the train to West Kirby, I got chatting to a bearded man whose name I don't know but who I'd seen treading a similar Studio Tour route as myself. We both agreed that it's a great event, allowing visitors to not only see contemporary new art and crafts but to see different workspaces and to meet the creators themselves. Our only regret is that it's impossible to see it all in the time allowed, as the venues cover the length and breadth of Wirral. Even with a car it would be a struggle.

Life Drawing by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 8B pencil on cartridge paper; 2018.
It was 4pm by the time I arrived in West Kirby. With 18 people exhibiting in West Kirby and neighbouring Caldy, I was left having to choose only two to visit before the event closed for the day. The nearest place was Seagrass Studio and Gallery, which is virtually opposite the train station.  Gallery owner Jo Smith was exhibiting her deliciously textural seascapes - she mixes sand and soil into her atmospheric works. Jo also makes jewellery, and offers work by other local artists. I got talking with potter Jo Williams, who had exhibited last year at Janine Pinion's studio.

We ended up talking about Pretty Ugly Pottery, where I used to work many moons ago. Jo told me that Stan Johnson, who also worked for that company as a thrower, would be exhibiting alongside potter Carla Pownall at her back-garden studio. I would have liked to have visited them both, but constraints of time proved too limiting.

With just half an hour left, I arrived at Lois Hayes-Holland's flat, where the foyer and stairway served as her exhibition space. A retired art teacher, her work was incredibly diverse; she told me she had had to learn how to be, in order to meet the needs of diverse students! I fell in love with two watercolour floral paintings, which had a narrative quality brought to them by the inclusion of straw hats and small gardening tools. These had been commissioned, Lois told me, but the man had vanished without paying. (Unfortunately, this isn't the first time I'd heard similar stories).

Watercolour sketch by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; handmade Khadi paper; 2018.

On Sunday, partially due to having other commitments, I was limited to visiting venues local to me, and so my first destination was Wellington Road Studios in Oxton. The resident artists have been creating a pretty garden area for themselves, which features an old rowing boat. Marie Louise Williams was busily demonstrating her enviable basket-weaving skills, while Marie Louise Mairs was encouraging visitors to sample the lovely buffet on offer. (That's not a typo; there are two Marie Louises there.)

I enjoyed looking through Marie Louise Mairs sketchbooks and seeing her cluttered workspace, which she told me she had deliberately made no attempt to tidy up as she feels visitors need to see a real working studio rather than a carefully manicured space. I have to agree, but then I think that seeing quirky innovations - such as re-used wooden crates fixed to the walls for use as shelving, which I saw in one studio - and organised chaos only add interest. She was also exhibiting her lovely ceramic work, and a large and deeply thoughtful painting about the human cost of war.

Every nook in Wellington Road Studios seemed to have a different artist tucked away within it. These included mixed media artist Janet Ewing, who offered hand-painted baseball hats, plus other works; Mary Bryning, who is inspired by maps and by nature; photographer Victoria Evans and abstract painter Nicky Perrin, (who don't seem to have websites). I hope I've not missed anyone out... The range of work was entirely diverse; something for everyone, really.

Round at the Williamson Art Gallery on Slatey Road, Oxton, there were two photographers exhibiting: Karen Lawrence and George Evans, both interested in land- and seascapes but with quite different styles. Both had a huge amount of prints available for purchase.

I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with David Jones and his partner, who I know as we all attend the same life drawing group. They're about to move to north Wales, but meanwhile David was exhibiting his paintings, illustrations, and miniature model boats which he makes from thin card.

It was a pleasure to chat with LiWei Chen again, whose gorgeous traditional Chinese paintings demonstrate great skill with brush and ink. She has recently begun painting on silk, a time-consuming and delicate process which can require up to 20 layers of watercolour paint - but the results are amazing. LiWei taught art at Yunnan University, China, then at the Multicultural Centre in Birkenhead. She still offers Chinese painting and calligraphy lessons for all age groups at her Phoenix Gallery in Bebington.

Life drawing by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; 8B pencil on cartridge paper; 2018.

Well, that was the end of the Wirral Open Studio Tour 2018 for me. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. As I've already mentioned, there was a large number of other venues that I simply couldn't get to due to time constraints and distance.

One thing which genuinely surprised me was being asked, by several artists, why I wasn't exhibiting my own work. I replied by saying I wasn't sure if it's ready yet, if exhibiting it wouldn't be premature. Almost as with one voice they all said effectively the same thing, that artists never feel ready, and to just dive in and go for it. I truly don't have a huge amount of material, yet...  Maybe, next year, I could borrow a corner of someone else's studio?

Monday, 28 May 2018

Cheep-cheep, Quack-quack!

Is there anyone who fails to smile when watching newly hatched chicks? They're so fragile, so tiny, yet bravely scoot across dark lakes swarming with huge fish, or waddle determinedly after their parents through long grasses threaded with fox runs and rat holes. Or, like the little gosling in the photo above, amble contentedly on the mossy bank in full view of a murderous heron.
The two parent geese were keeping a sharp eye out, helped by a large white goose which seemed to be behaving like a visiting aunt who, not entirely approving of the parents' skills, did her best to shepherd the two little goslings closer to safety. (You can only see one gosling in this photo, and the parent birds were quacking at the other youngster which had wandered too far. Aunt Goose was having none of it, and was photographed mid-march in readiness to gently usher it closer once more).

If you peer through the tangled branches in the photo above, you can see a nest filled with ginger-headed coot chicks waiting for their parents, who were very close by and making frequent trips to and from their brood with beaks full of food. One of the chicks was scrambling out of the nest ready to paddle off by itself. While I watched, several of the chicks did this and the parent birds kept nudging them back into the relative safety of the nest which had been built on top of some low lying branches on the water level.
The fallen tree overhanging the lake is the regular sunbathing spot for three terrapins which have been living free in the park for at least two years that I know of. If you view this photo at an enlarged size you can see two of them on the branch next to the purple flowers, at the water's edge. There's also a heron which likes to use this tree to hunt from, and the tree usually has a few snoozing ducks dotted along it.
Pigeons are everywhere in Birkenhead Park. Pale ones, dark ones, ginger ones... They're all well fed and are so used to people that the second anyone stands still and reaches for a bag which might  contain bread or birdseed there'll be a flurry of wings heading their way. The birds seem to favour particular trees to roost in, but will also snuggle down on to daisy-carpeted banks. In this photo, you can also see some mallard chicks, probably about two weeks old, swimming with a parent duck.
I wonder if pigeons ever watch the ducks and geese gliding by on the water and think,  "I wish I could do that...?"
Birkenhead Park, spring 2018.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Climbing Ladders, Brush in Hand, Nose in Books.

Estuary Moon by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; watercolour; 2018.
I've been busy decorating my art studio, stripping off old wallpaper, mending dents and holes with Polyfiller, (one and a half tubes' worth!), and then climbing up and down an ancient step-ladder in order to paint the walls with three layers of plain, pristine white. The job is not quite finished; one small wall needs a final coat of paint and its skirting board doing with white gloss, and the door frame needs white gloss too, but the end is in sight. Photos to follow once it's completely done!

I've also been pulling out armfuls of forget-me-nots from our garden. There are supposed to be 74 official species of forget-me-nots, some of which are very pretty. Unfortunately, we're lumbered with horrible hairy things which self-seed prolifically and swamp all the other flowers and, once they've bloomed, flop over, turn brown and go brittle. Pull them out then and the spiny hairs cause a nasty rash.

We both enjoyed watching The Dressmaker, a film starring Kate Winslet whose character gets revenge on small town malice. She played the role so well, and having gown up in a small town myself I could easily relate to the issues of gossip, boredom and narrow horizons.

I found myself engrossed by EV Thompson's novel, The Dream Traders, which follows the struggles of a young Cornish merchant whose dream career opportunity in China brings him into conflict both with his European peers and with the Chinese rulers on Hong Kong in the 1830's. The factual politics behind the story describe the East India Trading Company's heavy involvement in opium production in India and subsequent illegal sale of that same opium in China for vast profit, with the British government's full knowledge.

Also good reading was The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman, the first in a fantasy trilogy about the life of a boy raised to be an assassin. He is equal parts naive and vicious, knowing only the confined and brutal world of the fanatical monks who trained both him and others like him.

I've also just finished re-reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which I've loved since my teens and have lost count of how many times I've read it. Many years ago, in 1981, I watched Granada TV's serial production of this novel, which featured Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. A film was made in 2008 but I wasn't keen on this version as it messed up the plot by having Julia Flyte go to Venice with Charles and Sebastian, and lost many of the novel's underlying themes. Anyway, as anticipated I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Waugh's novel, and have no doubt I'll read it again at some point in the future.

Do you have a favourite novel which you've read and read again countless times?

Haven's Approach by Adele Cosgrove-Bray; watercolour; 2018.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Daftness, Dogs and Drawing.

Life drawing; pencil on A4 paper; 2018.
First take a look at this interesting and diverse series of photos which depict womens' jobs from around the world, then have a good chuckle over the absurd descriptions of women by some male writers. The contrast between the two is quite telling.

I am reminded of a conversation, which took place years ago, between an ex-boyfriend and myself.  He remarked that it must be marvellous to be a woman as we have breasts. I looked at him in bewilderment, and then pointed out that we also have knees and elbows but don't pay them much attention most of the time.

"Oh," he said, crestfallen. "You disappoint me."

"Really? You're the one with the delusions about female anatomy."

It is no co-incidence that he became an ex.

Life drawing class, March 2018. Photo credit: Marie Mairs.

Here's a photo of my hands holding a pencil. The A4 sketchpad I'm using here is nearly full, mostly of life drawings done during an enjoyable class I've been attending, which is organised by Wirral artist Marie Mairs. It is held in a church which has a towering pointy spire, in a side room of the community hall which has a high ceiling and lots of tall windows, so the quality of light is good for artwork. There are plans for some kind of summer exhibition for the group - more info will follow, as dates and details are confirmed.

In the garden, daffodils and narcissus have taken over from the snowdrops, which have finished flowering for another year. The cherry tree's branches are knobbly with ripening buds. The bird feeders regularly attract blackbirds, robins, wrens, sparrows, pigeons and wood pigeons, a shy pair of collared doves, blue tits and a pair of hooded crows who perform acrobatics as they try to hover in mid-air to peck at the hanging seed feeder even though it would be much easier to land on the patio and eat from the seed tray placed on the paving there. Maybe that's just not as much fun.

Here're two small oil paintings, Tree #1 and Tree #2, which go together and which form the start of my Birkenhead Park Series. There are heaps of sketches and photos for this series, waiting for me to turn them into paintings. If you click on "Art" in the menu at the top of this page you can watch a video showing some of these. I thought I'd finished painting Tree #1 when I shared an image of it in my last blog post. I changed my mind, and the one you're looking at here is the finished version.

These two trees are both in the park, and these paintings taken from my ever-growing collection of pen and ink sketches done in pocket-sized sketchbooks. I've taken a shine to pocket-sized sketchpads for the stunningly obvious reason that they fit in a pocket, which makes the activity less cumbersome when there are two fidgety Jack Russell Terriers tugging at leads held by the hand which is also holding the sketchpad.

Emily and Poppi are quite patient, sitting by my feet as I scratch away at the page, but after a while their quiet 'gruggle' noises get steadily louder and the tugging on the leads gets more acute, and they know that eventually I'll stop drawing and say something like, "Oh, come on then, let's go a bit further." This is usually when they'll walk 6" along the path before slamming on the brakes to painstakingly sniff a stick.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Trees, Snow and Confused Dogs.

Richard was undeterred by the weather.
So far this week we've had snow (twice), icy winds, torrential rain and a fleeting glimpse of spring sunshine. This figures, as I'm on annual leave for a few days.

On Monday we decided to take the dogs to the beach, seeing as the first batch of snow had melted. Would it be New Brighton or West Kirby? We chose to board whichever bus came first, and a short while later we disembarked at Hoylake. We meandered round the shops along Market Street then took the public footpath which runs between the railway line and the golf course, coming out on Greenbank Road in West Kirby.

Emily got  a bit confused and wanted to turn left, the route we used to take to head for home - or rather, to what used to be home three years ago. The familiar sight of the beach cheered her up, even though the tide had only just turned and much of the sand remained underwater. Poppi gave a chunk of seaweed a good barking at because it was there.

Richard is currently watching a DVD which shows every goal ever scored by Everton FC. My updating of this blog is not coincidental.

Sport bores me. It always did. I simply do not care who can run in a circle the fastest, or who can jump over the highest stick. If people wish to risk life and limb by hurtling down an icy tube whilst clinging to a little metal sledge-thing, then they are totally welcome to do so. Each to our own, etc., etc. Just don't talk to me about it.

Moorland Stream; watercolour.

Tree #1: Birkenhead Park Series; oil on canvas.

I have begun working on paintings for my planned Birkenhead Park series. Here you can see the self-explanatory Tree #1, though it's not a particularly good image as I had to scan it while holding the still-wet oil painting off the screen. Consequently the focus is marred, and the scanner has zoned in on the weave of the canvas.  

Tree #2 has been started. Both paintings are just 7.5" square, and based on sketches done in the park. The tree in Tree #1 stands very close to the Roman boathouse, and I've sketched it a number of times as I'm fond of its lovely gnarly, twisty shape.

Our Garden, 8th March 2018.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Stingy Chips and Sidestreet Surprises

Gentle Waves and Tranquil Days; watercolour,2018.
Eagle-eyed regulars have already noticed that I've changed the name of my online merchandise store from Spooky Cute Designs to something more direct.  There was nothing wrong with the old name, as such, but had become rather misleading.  The store's earliest designs tended to be teddy bears wearing a witch's hat, or the ever-popular Beelzebear designs or similar, and while many of these items are still available, (printed onto T-shirts, bags, household furnishings, posters and more), the majority of the store's merchandise now derives from my art and photography, plus the range of items for writers which remains popular.  Therefore the old store name was misleading to new clients.  I only changed its name recently but sales are already improving.

One of my nieces recently posted on Facebook that she was thinking of combining her two YouTube channels into one.  As I said to her, a hazard of having any kind of website is that you then spend forever tweaking the thing.

New store banner - it sells exactly what it says on the sign!
My birthday was on the 17th.  There's an old superstition - in which I don't believe, incidentally - which claims that the predominant theme of events on a person's birthday will continue to be the main theme for them throughout their coming year.  The main activity of my morning was a life drawing class, and in the afternoon Richard presented me a box of Dairy Milk chocolates and two paperbacks, The Underground Railroad by Colin Whitehead, and Birdcage Walk by the late Helen Dunmore, who's one of my favourite writers. 

Richard also took me out to dinner.  We had planned to dine in Chester but the torrential rain encouraged us to cancel our plans.  One hour later, with the two of us moping around, he suddenly said, "Oh rhubarb to it", or words to that effect, "let's go out anyway."  As Southport's Lord Street in mostly under cover, that's where we headed to, and we both enjoyed a lovely day out.
Life drawings, 17th February 2018.
We lunched at a small but busy cafe which annoyed me by serving chips wrapped in a paper napkin and tucked inside a little aluminium bucket whose base was stuffed with a second napkin in a lame attempt to disguise the miserly portion.  It's not as if a couple of potatoes are an expensive commodity in line with, say, a bottle of Rothchild's finest.  Easy solution:  we'll dine elsewhere in future.

When heading back towards Southport train station, we wandered down a sidestreet which we've obviously not been down before as we came across a fabulous bookshop.  Spread through cramped rooms over several floors, it sells both old and new books which are stacked to the rafters, and the subjects are split up intelligently so you can find what you're looking for.

Richard bought a couple of old Star Trek novels, while I picked three second-hand art books:  The Big Book of Painting Nature in Oils by S Allyn Schaeffer; Fresh Watercolour by Ray Campbell Smith; and Coastal Landscapes by David Bellamy. We'll definitely be calling into this bookshop again now we've found it.  We were told it had been there since the 1920s, which is quite an achievement in itself.  These-days there are hardly any independent bookshops left, all squeezed out by Waterstones and WH Smith's, plus exorbitant high street rentals and rates which crush small businesses, plus competition from online outlets.

I'm seriously thinking of changing the title of the final Artisan-Sorcerer novel.  The previous four novels in the series were each named after the predominant character in that novel.  However, while I'd planned to call this last book Morgan, it is more about Bethany Rose than Morgan himself, though his presence is felt throughout.  I've already told Bethany's backstory in the third novel, Bethany Rose, but this fifth novel focuses on her life in the here and now, her choices, issues, problems and resolutions. Obviously, I won't be calling it "Bethany Rose #2". I'm toying with the idea of giving it the simple title of The Artisan-Sorcerer.  Another underlying reason for this will come clear when you eventually get to read the finished thing!

Snowdrops are in bloom in our garden, and in the park there're drifts of purple crocus.  Spring's on its way, folks!

Monday, 15 January 2018

Goals for 2018

 Since 2012, I've created a list of annual goals which I aim to achieve during the next twelve months.  This is one way to keep track of the progress of various projects, and it's a bit of self-entertainment.
These were my goals for 2017:-
  1. Write a minimum of one short story per month; 
  2. Write a minimum of one poem per month; 
  3. Write the 1st draft of Morgan, the 5th of the Artisan-Sorcerer series; 
  4. Paint, draw & photograph; 
  5. Take up swimming again.
Well, the first two goals weren't met at all!   I wrote only three short stories and four poems, which is a spectacularly lousy output.  However, the reason for this is my focus on #3, ( and #4), and progress with Morgan is doing very well.  Will it be finished in 2018?  Here's hoping, as I've been playing around with an idea for another novel for some time already, which explores the subject of reincarnation, karma and soul growth.  It will be a stand-alone novel; in fact Morgan will probably be the last in the Artisan-Sorcerer series.

#4:  Throughout 2017 I was sketching in Birkenhead Park again.  If you scroll down this page, or use the menu to go to the Art page, you can watch a video slideshow of these sketches, plus previous years' work.  I've finally begun the first in a planned series of oil and watercolour paintings in this theme.  Watch this blog for progress reports!

Why Birkenhead Park?  I often walk my dogs there, and it proved too tempting not to start carrying a small sketchbook in my pocket. That's all anyone needs in order to to go sketching:  a pad and a pen or pencil.

The park is an important green space in a heavily built-up area, and offers a range of subjects for any painter - woodland copses, ponds, wildlife, buildings, bridges, meadows...  The sketches tend to be done very quickly out of necessity, as people and wildlife move continually.  Some of my sketches of people look more like cartoons, probably due to the rapid speed that they're drawn at.

I find myself attracted by the shapes of old trees, and will continue to sketch their twisted, arching, gnarled forms.  Winter's great for this as their shapes aren't hidden behind foliage, but then summery leaf coverage brings another whole range of shapes and tones to explore.

I've done quite a bit of photography around the park, too, and I plan to use my photos in conjunction with sketches.   I use photography as a reference but don't reproduce "reality" exactly as I'm more interested by impression, atmosphere and the effects of light. 

So, it's time to create my goals for 2018!

  1. Finish writing the 1st draft of Morgan;
  2. (Then if I've done #1) Write one short story per month;
  3. (If I've done #1) Write one poem per month; 
  4. Paint, draw, sketch & photograph!
Incidentally, I did keep my 2017 goal of taking up swimming again, which is something I enjoy.  However, after around six months I cancelled my membership due to the unsatisfactory hygiene conditions of the facility.

Monday, 1 January 2018