Story has always been a huge driving force behind Human creativity. Our first paintings told stories of the world around us, music and dance evolved as story telling devices, and it is this tradition that drives much popular music these days. Story has also been a huge part of my practice, indeed of my life.
I grew up with stories. We didn’t have telly, we had books, and I, socially awkward, with very few friends and with an active mind in need of entertainment, became an avid reader at an early age. Reading played to my love of exploration and encouraged my vivid imagination to develop. Myth and legend became my playground, for in the 60’s books for kids were relatively rare. There were some, and I consumed them, but somehow the adventures of upper middle class kids in minor public schools failed to resonate. Lacking relevance, they simply seemed fantasy, and could not compete with Hercules, Anansi, Achilles, Siegfried, Beowulf and a legion of Norse deities and Judeo-Christian saints. These were stories, and they were set in worlds that I could create, and occupy. I still read them, fantasy remains my favorite genre though my tastes are much wider these days, but I still read for the worlds that have been so beautifully sketched, enough to allow me to visualize as I move through the journey of the plot, not so much that my imagination is redundant.
The approach I take to painting reflects this history. In themed shows I may create 20-30 different works inspired by the title, and each contains a story. The Arctic Convoys exhibition, For those in peril, was 25 paintings as pages of a book, or postcards home. I created my visualisation of actual historical events in a few of the paintings, drawing on the narrative of survivors, imagining the possible scenarios that accompanied the stories. In others I tried to place myself in the position of my lead character, and paint the world he occupied. In A Sense Of Ancient Stories, my last show, I told my story, or parts of it, and where I fear that story could go, all in context to what I have seen, and heard, of the world I have seen evolve and the one that appears to be emerging. It’s an interesting approach, and it may one day lead to a graphic novel, but it has elements that cause me to wonder.
It is true that for many viewers the stories that accompany my paintings are both useful and welcomed. For those in peril was as much a wander through the pages of a book, with accompanying audio ambience to encourage immersion as it was an exhibition of paintings, and visitors told me of the emotional impact it had upon them. Story, especially the untold one, remains powerful. However, we also like to see our own stories. By relating my work to specific stories I run the risk of minimising the extent to which the viewer can place themselves in the worlds I create for them to wander through. There is a danger that knowing the story can remove the ambiguity, fix the work in place, effectively deny what I seek to encourage. Like the writer, there is a thin line between not enough and too much information, both in the painting and in the accompanying text.
Shattered, the title painting for this post, is drawn from my reading about the lives of the Fishing communities of the Aberdeenshire coast (where my Mother’s Father grew up). My first inspiration for the series of which it is a part was seeing the decaying remains of a wooden fishing boat in Johnshaven. The painting is not drawn from any story I have read or heard, and in the spirit of my thoughts in this blog, I leave you to write it. Many thanks for reading.