The last gift

Fire they had already in abundance.  They had no need to steal it, nor to commission its theft for pity.  What heaven’s burglar gained them was the hearth, and later metal casings to make the fire work.

After fire, though, came the gifts, freely given.  They unwrapped these in awe, each miracle more wondrous than the last.

The waves were tamed, accepting the actual oceans were unruly.  The sails were filled, though of course they could not direct the wind.  The baby’s head was guided.  Skins could be made more durable with piss and fibres woven into cloths.  Water was directed and fields sown with bland food so rock could be hewn and cities built.

Sisterhood they had had for ever, but brotherhood through shared ideas was new: yes, empire and slavery were among the gifts, and the capture and exchange and use of women too.

Some gifts showed great workmanship and had been long in the making.  From the very first, encapsulated life defended its integrity by capturing, cutting, splicing and inserting invading parasitic genes.  This was the gift, that they might use life’s defences as a tool to change the sequences encoding their own nature.

When the basket seemed empty, they carried on looking, turning it over, shaking it and feeling at the seams.  They knew the story, of course, and were looking for hope.   They wanted a myth they might believe in, so they might act positively, winning against the odds.

They found something almost as good.  The last gift of all was wishful thinking, that this might all go well.

control of space

This is another sketch from “Women Power Protest” at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. As in the last sketch, the foreground shows  “La Feuille”, Germaine Richier’s response to two world wars.  Behind is Melanie Manchot‘s photographic and mixed media portrait of her mother.  By mishap, in my sketch, the proportions of the face are of a younger woman whereas in the original, Mrs Manchot has the gravitas of age.

Three colours

Claudette Johnson‘s larger than life self-portrait, Trilogy part III, Red, holds us in her gaze.  In front is Germaine Richier‘s La Feuille, a bronze figure stripped of markers of femininity, imprinted with debris from the forest floor, decayed, impoverished and dehumanised.  This was a witness to two devastating world wars in the artist’s lifetime.  Painted three decades later, Johnson’s images reclaim visibility and control for black women.

Richier died the year Johnson was born.  Johnson is about my age so we have seen the same world through different eyes.  Now, the 1980s, when she painted this, feels like a different, historical, world.  “Lest we forget” is a much used phrase.  We must remember the battles of the 80s as much as the previous wars. Last night I watched the film Pride with my 11 year old daughter.  In response to detailed questioning, I had to explain what I know of the Labour Movement,  the Miners’ Strike, how the hardship of that industrial conflict disrupted working class social norms and changed womens’ roles, the nature of HIV and AIDS, the death of activist Mark Ashton aged just 26, civil rights and the nature of solidarity across boundaries that has transformed our society.

I drew without structure, starting with the bronze.  I find I have exaggerated the broad shoulders of Johnson’s image, emphasising their power.  As I drew, the museum guide planted himself in my line of view to explain to a tour an art critic’s view on interpreting feminist art.  He made it explicitly clear to me who he felt controlled the space.  This was likely just accidental snobbery and rudeness, but it felt like found performance art.

The “Women Power Protest” exhibition is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until March.  It celebrates 100 years of universal suffrage and, importantly for the future, showcases what should be unremarkable, that BMAG’s acquisitions from female artists balance or exceed those from men.  Dignity, Hope, Activism are the exhibition’s universal themes, building on the three colours of the suffragettes’ banner.

piece of sky

Here are two ten minute sketches.  The first was made from a road by a marshy area as darkness fell, with varied marks resulting from each implement in turn running out of ink as I drew.  I coloured it later with light conte crayon marks, rubbed in and lifted.  The second was done waiting for a train,  with a couple of strokes of colour overdrawn with soft graphite.

I discovered an extensive cemetery near the station.  It holds a large arena type area with what I guess must be mausoleums built into its walls – that is for a drawing another time.  Here is a simple pencil sketch with pen picking out some details.


Birmingham Jazz put on live gigs Friday nights.  Here are Greg Abate– Sax; Elliott Sansom– Piano; Ben Muirhead– Bass and (not shown because I was sitting behind a pillar) Nathan England-Jones– Drums.

The sketches are done small in a pocket book, soft pencil on rough paper, some of them inked over at the time or a day or so later.

I only started drawing in the final few tracks, letting the music guide the pencil.  What i wish I had captured is the way the pianist and bassist grinned at each other at the feats they were performing.

This was athletic music, rhythmic, dexterous, controlled, coordinated and, above all, fast jamming.  Abate has clearly been around, but these other guys, the Elliott Samson Trio, are young, barely out of college.