I have asked myself the same question that I asked the people in Sri Lanka – ‘After the worst thing you could imagine happened to you, when your existence was clouded with grief and loss, what were the moments that called you back towards life?’
I made a list. I counted my blessings, and started to paint them; Pete catching three fish on his birthday, Philly reaching the Canadian border, 2650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail behind her, me and Joanna listening to a nightingale.
Now I am painting again and I can’t stop. I love the activity of it, the physical qualities of the paints, some shiny and translucent, others thick, matt, sticky (I’m using acrylics but also household emulsion, the scores of colour test pots that Bill and I accumulated over years). I am painting on pieces of old marquee canvas, complete with stitched seams, ragged edges, stretched out of square by weather and tent poles. Time also becomes stretchy, plastic; it doesn’t behave in its normal predictable fashion. My hand feels clumsy, fingers like a bunch of bananas, inept, out of control – but sometimes the very accidents that they produce please me.
I am excruciatingly nervous, shy and embarrassed about the results. They seem naïve, child-like, sentimental, old-fashioned. I find the bright colours irresistible, and am compulsively drawn to a dramatic sky or the punchiness of a silhouette. The images are narrative, reminding me of stained glass windows in churches or the illustrative posters we had in primary school (‘The Escape from Bethlehem’, ‘Modern Transport’…). But most of all they remind me of the Ladybird books of my childhood. I’m not embarrassed to claim them as an influence. When Bill and I met we combined our collections of snowdomes and Ladybird books. I particularly loved the ones illustrated by John Berry. He seemed fascinated by the way that light falls on human skin and clothing. He painted people in action, in their natural habitat, making things, mining, fishing, working machinery. You can see concentration in their faces, skill in their hands, effort in their bodies. If only I could paint like him…
Here are six paintings that start to count my blessings, with the stories that inspired them…
Three Birthday Fish
September 1st, the last sparkly day of summer, my brother Pete’s birthday. Pete and Philly have camped on the beach at Porthchapel. I bring them grapes from the vine that Joanna gave me, and champagne for breakfast. Pete catches three fish, one each.
Funeral of a Beloved Dog
My sister’s crazy dog, Stu, sickens and dies. He’s been a challenging companion – naughty, disobedient, noisy. But he is sorely mourned. We make a beautiful ceremony for him.
Wedding in the Rain
This is our first joyful family wedding. Bill and I married at the last, but quietly, five weeks before he died. There was little joy in it – except a sweet primrose posy from my next door neighbours, who witnessed the ceremony. My niece Jessie marries her navy officer Matt, given away by Eric her dad, in happy drenching rain.
Nicky invites me to ride the horses with her to Tremayne Quay. A still, perfect afternoon, the river is glassy. With a little encouragement, the horses wade in and stand, snorting gently, snuffling the water.
Listening to the Nightingale
It is just over a year since Bill died. Joanna and I go to a secret location in Kent to meet Sam Lee and walk with him into the night-time forest to hear the nightingales sing. We walk in silence for an hour and a half. Finally we find one, a virtuoso singer. He sings, we listen. Sam sings, the nightingale listens. A magical call-and-response and then duet ensues. Trance-like we feel ourselves dissolve into the forest.
I share the allotment with my sister Di. It is a great consolation. After Bill died it was the only thing that allowed me to think about the future. You plant seeds in the confidence that with time they will germinate, grow, bear fruit, become food. Jowan loves the allotment. He is another little piece of the future, Di’s first grandchild. He especially loves the hose.
Three of the paintings are now being exhibited in South Block, the gallery at the Wasps Artists Studios in Glasgow, along with beautiful work by two other Sura Medura artists, Pippa Taylor and Maria McCavana, and photographs of the painted boat, that I worked on with Pippa.