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I’m finally going to visit the place I have felt instinctively drawn to since a child. A country with more vast chasms of inequality than I have ever experienced in my life. Where many children live in slums, collecting rubbish from landfill sites in order to earn enough to eat and survive. A place of extremes, where around the corner from these heartbreaking scenes bustling cities thrive and a country on its way to commanding immense international power drives forward technologically and financially. A place with a deep cultural and spiritual history comparable with nowhere else on earth. A country where colour and light and life assault the senses in the most intense and beautiful ways.

So I’ve heard.

I’ve never actually been to India, but after being accepted onto an artist residency with the Kalanirvana International Art Centre, I’m due to fly out on 1st Feb 2019 for two weeks in their shared studio/artist accommodation in Bhubaneswar. The setting looks more perfect than I could have imagined. Bhubaneswar is said to be the birthplace of Bhuddism, a belief structure I have come closer to being able to accept than any other throughout my life. The area looks inherently ‘local’, not untouched by tourism, but not its captive either. A place so steeped in history, culture and spirituality I can’t imagine I’ll want to leave at the end of it.

Aside from the amazing location, I will be allowed access to a 24hr shared studio in which to create and to explore the responses my journey illicits in me. The organisation will introduce me to local residents and guide me around the most pertinent spots to visit while I’m there. I couldn’t be more excited!

Even better is the chance to work alongside and to meet, other international artists who will be staying in the residence. Almost all of my art production until now, and particularly recently, has been very much a private practice. Undertaken in my bedroom at home, in familiar surroundings. A literal comfort blanket. I’m excited to see what effect such an extreme change in circumstances and setting has on my artwork.

I have ideas already, thinking of sketching from life when on tour and then extending delicate pencil drawings of sculptures and temples into abstract designs in pen back at the studio, perhaps adding washes of watercolour too. I will almost certainly combine my photography with my pen work, in collage styles I am already beginning to experiment with now in anticipation of the trip.

I’ve only just booked my flights and the trip is 3 months away, but I’m already feeling my imagination and creative urges bolstered by this amazing life experience. Watch this space for daily updates while I’m away…

http://www.kalanirvana.com/one-world-residency/

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An old friend, sitting high on some comforting moral ground, once said to me that tattoos are now so ten a penny that it is more of an original act to not get inked than to tread that historically well-worn path of pleasure and pain. Although this is probably statistically incorrect, the point addressed an interesting truth in that we are part of the first generation where the concept of body as canvas is more or less mainstream. I found out years later that the same friend had eventually scrambled down from his ivory tower and happily succumbed to the temptation. The truth is, it is both compellingly tempting and delectably addictive.

I in fact spent last Friday morning having an old and ill-advised tattoo covered with a rather spectacular abstract design by Flaming Art Tattoo in my nearby Crayford. Technically this is my 3rd tattoo, although I am left now with only 2, my initial choice a Celtic triangle design on my right shoulderblade dating from 3 days after my 18th birthday (11 distant years ago); it’s attraction was part rebellious indignation at parental disapproval, but mostly just an instinctive connection with the idea that skin can be as much a canvas as vellum, wood, paper, board etc. I had already started to develop, at this young age, feelings which would continue and expand; passionate beliefs I still hold today and which run throughout everything I say and do.

Listening to a radio programme yesterday I was reminded of this as I realised that the question which blighted my whole university experience is still grinding on and is likely to do so for as far as I can foresee. ‘What is Art?’ To me the definition is clear, it is indefinable. In the same way people will continue to ask ‘What is Love?’, which I suppose is an attempt to search for guidance, to know which decisions to make, which artworks to buy, which ones to like. But, despite claims to the contrary, to know the history of art does not mean you are able, or qualified, to designate between good Art and bad Art; of this, as a graduate of the subject, I feel certain. Many people disagree, Grayson Perry spoke in Start the Week recently of what he considers to fit these categories (although he did detail in his first Reith lecture yesterday an interesting view that the quality of artworks is judged via a natural distillatory process whilst they move through the art world) but I have always been strongly of the opinion that Art itself is both everywhere and everything. To classify Art only as within the man-made sphere is to me a shocking oversight of the absolute beauty of nature. We FEEL it. Not only nature in the traditional sense; flowers, plants, living creatures, geology, but also in circumstance, coincidence, the way things look and are seen. Every day, even in the seemingly most dull situations or moments; light shining through trees, reflections on windows, line formations in buildings, landscapes, the way a gum mark and a puddle on paving can create an interesting composition. But conflicting definitions of art continue and tattooing in particular, like graffit art, has always been considered a ‘low art’ amongst the contemptible Brian Sewells of this world, if they would deign to consider it Art at all. Rejected by the high-brow crowd as being the domain of prisoners and sailors, it was always written off as being for a class of people deemed unqualified to know what art is. As technology speeds ahead and tattoos become increasingly beautiful and complex, I hope these people are beginning to eat their words.

Anyway, entering my local (but extremely well-renowned) tattoo studio on Friday morning at 11am, I hastily produced from my handbag a large sleeve bursting with example images. Not entirely sure what it was that I wanted, this was my last chance at a design on this very painful spot; an entirely necessary cover up of the result from a disastrous spur of the moment decision, of which the story goes something like this:

Towards the end of a debauched hen weekend in Ibiza in 2010 (need I really say more?) a friend, the hen, stated boldly that she was planning to get a tattoo on her foot proclaiming ‘I *heart* Ibiza’. Having already planned to acquire another design myself at some point in the near future, I went foolishly with the spirit of the moment and decided to immortalise the signature experience of the holiday (a distinctly raucous evening at Pacha nightclub) through imprinting the club logo, a pair of cherries, on my ankle. Not only was this a terrible, terrible decision on all fronts, but add to it that 1. Said friend sensibly bottled out at the last minute, leaving me to venture forward on pride alone and 2. The inevitable language barrier culminated in me being utterly certain that the tattooist sternly instructed me to keep it entirely dry. He didn’t, of course, a fact which became all too clear in a moment of horror two weeks later when the huge scab which my tattoo had become, suddenly made a swift exit. Rather ironically, I was away on another hen do, this time in Brighton. As we all leaned in to see what was left, my strangled cries of ‘MY TATTOO FELL OFF!’ rang echoing through the corridors of the premier inn, followed swiftly by bursts of cackling and roaring laughter from my companions. The result of this debacle has been quite at home on my ankle for the past 3 years, but thankfully, no more.

After a mere 20 mins of discussion with my esteemed tattoo artist Martin and another 10 mins of his instinctive freehand drawing, I was shown an outline sketch of his proposal. Very nice, I thought, but seeing it without colour or shading makes it pretty difficult to judge the final result. You are entirely dependent on the vision of your artist, the imagery which is forming in their mind’s eye; it’s a highly pressured and skilled role which they step into bravely. They don’t get to spend weeks doing studies or  have the option to start again if they don’t like how it seems to be going. One chance to get it spot on; now that’s skill.

The final result (after 3hrs of just about bearable pain) was exactly what I wanted; an abstract composition combining my favourite colours, the hummingbird (national symbol of Trinidad, the home of my father’s family line), monochrome vintage flowers and the symbol of peace, an achievable yet still mostly uncharted territory in which I believe passionately. Although there are many morals to this story, the most obvious being do not get nightclub logos permanently printed onto your body, the most important, I think, is to respect the art of tattoo, it’s beauty, skill and intricacy; it’s veterans of craft producing unique works of art, to whom I will be forever grateful and utterly in awe of.

My tattoo was envisaged, designed and produced by Martin Ellis at Flaming Art Tattoo in Crayford.

BEFORE - The infamous cherries

BEFORE – The infamous cherries

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AFTER

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Initial stencil

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The Artist’s Palette

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.