All posts by Johnbolland

NEOS 2019 Exhibition

Only two days left in my NEOS 2019 exhibition at Leith Hall.

Really exciting and inspiring event this year, sharing a space with cally Smith, Fiona Leask and Roselyne O’Neill. Over the last week we’ve had almost two hundred visitors and lots of interesting discussions on practice covering the range from watercolour and acrylic painting through woodcuts & engraving to MIG and TIG welding…and the finer points (sorry!) of damascene steel.

Looking forward to getting back to writing and making next week but with two days left to go…do come and see. And…in this fine late September weather, the countryside and the grounds are fine. And in the meantime, I’m making good progress on a set of woodcuts to complement my First Winter sequence of haiku. really good to get a solid run at work in one form and the process of ‘translation’ from poem to wash to woodcut to print is fascinating.

It’s that time of year again…

That orbital thing that happens when mass encounters space and spins…September almost on us.

Personally, it has been a difficult summer and an ‘interesting’ year. I’ve survived cancer when others, very close to my heart, haven’t. I’ve kept on keeping on…writing, painting and printing…developing my music. Discovering my new ‘place’ hear in Huntly.

So..it’s NEOS season again. This year I’m exhibiting in Leith Hall in excellent company with artists Roselyne O’Neill, Fiona Leask and Cally Smith. We’ll be part of the Strathbogie Trail (map below).

I have a range of new work and, of course, copies of Fallen Stock will be on sale. So..whether you’re interested in painting, prints or poetry…or all 3…come along and chat.

Open from the 14th and 23rd September (Closed Wednesday to go see everyone else!). Check out the many other venues and artists in the NEOS catalogue and website.

That man again..

It is Spring here in the Northern Hemisphere of planet Earth.  Yesterday I heard a lark sing.  The daffodils here are almost done.  Tulips come. There are buds on all the trees…and blossom on the plum.

Six months of chemotherapy ended at the beginning of March.  A long winter after the dark autumn of illness.  I am feeling better. Tired but better.

And I have been busy.  Busy launching my debut collection – Fallen Stock. Busy reading and meeting friends.  Busy getting ready to flow. Again. So thank you – to everyone who has helped me on this journey out of winter – to my family and my friends, my fellow artists & collaborators (also friends) , those who have come to readings and generously bought the book, those who have viewed my paintings.  Thank you to all the nurses, doctors, helpers and volunteers at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary & Doctor Grays and Huntly.

Now for the good bad news…I’m back.

Let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow.

5-4-3-2-1…

Launch day.

A beautiful morning here in St. Andrews. Cloudless sky and the wind that was promised seems to have taken itself elsewhere (for now at least).

Perfect conditions then.

Launch day. What am I…an astronaut?

And I notice the coincidence. My first publication…on the wall of Mrs. Thompson’s class in St. Paul’s Primary – a story about pyramids. I was 11. It was 1969. They hadn’t quite landed on the moon yet.

Launch day. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a writer – a poet, a novelists, a fabulator : (yes…a clype).

Archaeologist, explorer, big-game hunter even…before the blush came off that peach. Astronaut…not so much. Who takes a golf club to another planet? A man…I suppose. (Yes…I know…satellite! Words and meanings matter.)

Yuri Gagarin had a better label. And all those earnest statues, plaques, memorials in Russia still there when I visited…up there with Vladmir Ilych…up there and beyond. Even Pixar knew Buzz was a made-up name.

Launch day. I have waited 50 years for this. There are other books…still born or waiting – books in limbo : but that’s a whole other (meta)physics. But this one…now…on the table in J & G Innes window on South St., St. Andrews.

Yes…you can always write. You can! I’ve been a writer since I was at least 11 years old & Maurice Lindsay (bless him) published me and paid (handsomely) when was just 18. I have always written, scrievit, flyted, fabulated, clyped.

But no matter how much math and simulator hours and pretending to be weightless while your jumbo jet plummets thousands of feet and rehearsals and sleepless nights and number one haircuts…are you really an astronaut till blast off?

Launch day. My thanks to everyone in Mission Control and all the vast hinterland of Fallen Stock – a circumfusa half a century deep. Now…

5-4-3-2-1…we have ignition…


On a personal note.

2018 was an interesting year here in the long grass.

In the course of those 12 months I…

  • Moved out of our marital and family home of over 20 years
  • Finally found a place of my own in a place of my choosing
  • Built myself a working studio – almost single-handedly (though my sons had to rescue me now and then!)
  • Allowed myself to be diagnosed with small-cell lymphocytic lymphoma
  • Attended the wedding of one of my sons and his amazing partner.
  • Exhibited my paintings & prints both in my own studio (NEOS19) and in other venues (WorM, Moray Arts Centre)
  • Had some poems published and agreed a publication date for my collection – Fallen Stock
  • Embarked on 6 cycles of chemotherapy.

So…much is changed.  I could reflect on what I didn’t do – or maunder on about the works in progress (there are several) – but those seem important milestones for me.  As you can imagine, it was a year of slow ascents and sudden falls.

I had known about the ‘lump’ in my neck before all of this.  It was sitting there – swelling – but I was busy and besides, stuck as I have been for so many years, the burgeoning lump seemed like a bit of a get out clause.  Maybe it would all end and I’d be free?

But I was also sleeping 15 hours a day and the night-sweats were getting tedious.  I decided these symptoms were probably related to my mental health or my on-going struggle to control addiction.

Eventually, however, professional advice (a very astute dentist) prodded me to see a doctor.  The doctor assured me I did NOT have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but referred me to the hospital anyway.  The maxillo-facial consultants at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary very quickly assured me I DID have Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma – an indolent form known as Small-Cell Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL) or Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (the terms are interchangeable).

For a while I thought I was going to die.

I was a bit miffed that my cancer was indolent – I hated the idea that anything to do with me could be seen as indolent!  It is currently incurable.  It’s a slow burn thing that will weaken me over years and then, like any ailing creature, something else will kill me.  But, for now at least, it is not painful or disfiguring.  And I realised, as I began to navigate through waiting rooms and day-units, that that was a blessing compared to many others.

I am not going to die – for a while.

Thanks to modern medical technology and the excellent health-care at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr. Grays Hospital in Elgin – both NHS and free at the point of delivery – I will, they assure me, get better for a while. Be better.

After five cycles of Fludarabine-Cyclophosphamide-Rituximab chemotherapy, my many ‘lumps’ have shrunk and two weeks out of four I feel quite well.  My hair has NOT fallen out and I haven’t caught any secondary infections.  The anti-emetics I have been prescribed seem to manage the nausea of the first week of each cycle.  Again, I have had a fairly easy time compared to many others I now meet on a monthly basis.

That camaraderie – which is not much more than a nod, a smile and, often, a ‘Good luck!’- is important.  Just as with addiction recovery groups, I think it’s important to be there – to acknowledge to yourself and others, “I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”

How we laughed when hospital radio played Don’t Fear the Reaper last month!

So where is this moment of disclosure going – this brief glimpse of me as I cross the path between two thickets? 

This Spring I will be reborn and there will be things to do – things of my choosing, in this place of my choosing.

“I am one of us.  I am like you.  I am mortal.  I am suffering.  We persevere.”

John Bolland – First Solo Art Exhibition

Painting & prints hung and labelled. Studio clean and (fairly) tidy. Signage out. What have we missed? First-timer at North East Open Studios #NEOS but looking forward to my first #OpenStudio.

Thanks to all the NEOS team & members for their excellent organisation and constant encouragement and to those who’ve helped in the set-up and preparation for the event. . A variety of landscape, still life and abstract paintings and prints in a variety of media – my best work over the last 2 years.. But it only works if you come…

Open from Saturday at 12. Venue #29 – North East Open Studios. Most of the art on show can be previewed on the Visual Arts page for this site.

Imagining the Late Anthropocene

In a previous post, A New Realism about the Anthropocene, I reflected on recent scientific and academic speculation on the inception date of the Anthropocene – the period of our planet’s history which is visibly dominated and effected by human social practices such as
• burning,
• selective breeding and species elimination,
• terraforming,
• trans-oceanic migration,
• mining
• the release of synthetic compounds and man-made (transuranic) elements.

Some might view this characterisation of what might conventionally be called agriculture, manufacturing, travel – civilisation, progress – as unduly critical and damning. We have burgeoned haven’t we? We thrive. We have created complex social structures within which most of us live longer and less stressful lives that our remote ancestors. For the majority of us more of our children live and live longer, reproduce in turn. This is what life does after all. It reproduces itself. It persists.

It could be argued that we have transcended the ‘natural’ barriers to growth – the limitations of terrain, of topographic obstacles, of seasonal patterns. Our ingenuity has enabled us to cover the earth, colonise every advantageous niche, eliminate competitors and biological threats. Why, in the debate around the Anthropocene, should there be a tone of dread and pessimism?

Perhaps it is that the limitations that we now conceive and have the scientific tools to interpret and imagine not biological but physical. Climate. Toxicity. And that the breakdown of temporal and spatial barriers our ingenuity has realised may result in a rate of change in these factors which is likely to be unprecedented in human history.

I have exchanged with sceptics who insist, of course, it’s all a con – it’s all about the sun and nothing we can do…a comforting fatalism diluted with a dash of Micawberism (something will turn up). This wilful irresponsibility, often revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between energy and heat, ignores the fact that, even if it’s not our fault, we are the only species in any position to address the issue…and if we don’t, in either case, it is we who will suffer.

Of course, the biosphere will respond – some species by dying out, others by multiplying. Productive land will become arid. Dry land will be submerged. Storms will intensify. Plants will not be pollinated. Harvests fail. Patterns will be disrupted.

I believe the human species will survive – among others.

The question which I believe is unique to us is – how? In what social form? And in what numbers? We count. It’s is one of our foibles.

Megadeaths?

Dystopias in art are comforting. More comfortable, perhaps, than Utopias to which we don’t feel quite adequate. Better a final reckoning then – apocalyptic and definitive – or the thrill of sordid and heroic ‘post-apocalyptic’ struggle – a new Dark Age of zombies, brigands, tyrants. We came through the Dark Ages didn’t we? So Dark Ages are survivable. That’s known.

Well yes….and a lot of people died.

Survivalism is romantic escapism. Individualistic. Mock-heroic. It ignores kith and kin, that which is precious to us in our social fabric. It ignores our humanity.

In contrast to the comforting wallow of fatalism and machismo, others attempt to imagine a ‘sustainable’ world beyond ‘our’ civilisation. A world in which we have come to terms with the pathological aspects of our behaviour – the uncontained appetite for meat, speed, distance, things – a world which recognises limits – boundaries – and the vital productivity of edges where cultures and ecosystems abut, overlap, intermingle.

Some, like Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Beast’ and Em Strang in her stunning poem ‘Stone’ seem to exhort us to reconnect with the animal in us – the panther, the horse – creatures which flow with and through ‘the natural world’ channelled by its barriers and limitations – hedgerows, rills, its seasons. These texts portray solitary human protagonists who have, to some extent, stepped free of kith, are finding a new way to be in straightened circumstances and closer to an animal simplicity.

I suspect most of us will find ourselves in ‘straightened circumstances’ in the decades to come and there may be a need for greater self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline. But we are human. Our humanity is as natural as any pantherness or equine nature (horses themselves an artefact of human interventions). Our humanity is social. Communitarian. Linguistic.

What persists over the longue duree is not technology or social organisation but stories, music, dancing, systems of belief, cooking, painting, carvings, trade routes, pathways – things we share. In imagining the Late Anthropocene, I believe we must imagine a social world, perhaps a world defined by the re-instatement of boundaries, a mosaic of social and ecological experiments but a world in which the protagonists are human and animal – not zombies, not orcs – social not solitary – and where the challenges are to eat, to love, to reproduce, to trade, to sing, to celebrate. Life as normal in an abnormal world – for us – the world beyond the bump. I offer up that challenge.

A New Realism about the Anthropocene

New Realism and the Anthropocene

I have become increasingly aware of the use of the term, Anthropocene in debate around human impacts of the Earth’s systems and processes whilst recent developments in philosophy speak of a New Realism, opposing itself to Post-Modernism. It is a problem, after all, what comes after Modernism (for we are all Modern) and then what comes after Post-Modernism? But a characteristic of New Realism, as articulated by thinkers such as Mauricio Ferraris, is a recovery of experience and stuff – facts if you will – from the web of interpretation and deconstruction associated with Post-Modernism and Constructivism. Stuff exists. Experience occurs, independent of the science or ideology by which we categorise and describe it. Ontology is distinct from Epistemology.

We can’t be post-fact because the facts just won’t go away.

is less ice. The world is warmer. The storms grow more frequent and more intense. This is experienced.

In a 2015 paper in Nature, Lewis and Maslin wrestle with the scientific challenge of assigning a start date to the Anthropocene. A point in time when humans definitely began to make a mark of Earth’s biological and geological systems. Their method is to seek a geological global signature, a record in the ‘rock’ which can be unequivocally connected to human history and practices – gases trapped in ice-cores, lake bed sediments, a fossil record.

They dismiss the point of coflexion in global methane levels at the beginning of the Neolithic (8000 BPE) as too vague, favouring instead the minimum CO2 levels around 1610 associated with the Colombian Exchange, the death through contagion of 55 million native Americans (90% of the pre-1492 population) and the consequent rewilding of the Americas. It satisfies the criteria, providing an unequivocal signature associated with a clear biophysical event – the arrival in the Americas of migrants from Europe and, subsequently, Asia and Africa.

Other signature points follow – the great acceleration in CO2 levels associated with the industrial burning of fossil fuels, the nuclear fallout from weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s – but 1610 is the first unequivocal blip that ‘fits the science’.

And here we enter the entanglement of interpretation. The numbers who died in the Americas at that time are informed inferences, the processes of rewilding of previously cultivated land and the associated take up of CO2 in forests is an interpretation of known patterns and processes. Those who deny the significance of human agency challenge the interpretation – deny the experience – but CO2 did dip (look at the ice cores) – millions died – look at the Aztec codexes. The social interpretation of these experiences – as a tragic accident or God’s will or a civilising mission or a vile act of plunder and destruction are texts, stories, social constructs – but death by small pox or exhaustion or gunshot wound are experiential facts and those individual experiences accumulated – like the germination and burgeoning of trees – engender shifts in reality – shifts in what is real.

Of course, human agency has been impactive from the beginning.

Humans burn forests. It’s the thing we do that no other species does – we burn things.

Humans selectively breed other species to meet their needs, rebalance numbers, exterminate competitors.

Our regional and local impacts can be traced to the Neolithic and before. Debate around whether the Anthropocene begins in 1610 or 8000BPE or 150,000 BPE are matters of cultural fine tuning set against the qualitative fact that humans are a major – and the only sentient – drivers of biophysical change on the planet.

It is believed that the Earth’s potential for life – net primary productivity – remains relatively constant over time. Stuff grows – be it cycads, conifers, jellyfish or salmon, humans or cockroaches. This resides in the balance and circulation of energy and nutrients within the biophysical system. At the moment it is estimated humans have appropriated between 25% and 38% of all primary productivity for our own use. We are – or control for our own purposes – one third of the biosphere. How can we not impact the unfolding of biophysical processes? How can we deny the reality of the Anthropocene?

Science – yes, modern science – has sharpened our interpretative awareness of experience in deep time. We experience the moment and have means of imagining experience and processes over the longue duree. And of imagining the future too. Understanding that the path of evolution, the events and instances, may be unpredictable, with unexpected tipping points and feedbacks, still we can imagine the direction of travel and the lack of resilience of our current social practices.

So this is where we get to the ART bit. The need for new stories. Realistic stories. Factual stories. Stories which acknowledge that the earth is currently in an epoch which we can think of as The Anthropocene and that that epoch will not end suddenly. That we must find a way to continue to live in and through the Anthropocene if we are all to live at all. And that, as the primary sentient change agent in the biophysical system, it is incumbent on us to have a good story, a narrative, a plan which recognises the experiential fact of our impulse to persist, sustain, procreate, survive.

To be continued in Imagining the Late Anthropocene
Imagining the Late Anthropocene

Tha ceilidh agam

Ceilidh. In Gaelic, A’ cèilidh is a verb. Though it is a noun. Its meaning settles upon ‘visit’ in the Gaelic-English and English-Gaelic dictionaries – distinguished, therefore, from ‘meeting’ – cruinnich, coinnich.

Then again – there is ‘the session’ – seisean (which seems like an interloper).

Ceilidh slips back and forth across the boundaries eadar gaidhlig agus beurla like a smuggler, a drover, a reiver.

The Dee and Don Ceilidh Collective launched its programme of 6 weekend workshops, ceilidhs and sessions on Saturday 14th May with a spectacularly successful and enjoyable series of events in Ballater on Aberdeenshire’s Deeside. Thanks to the effort and leadership of the Collective’s volunteers and the sponsorship of Crerar Hotels, participants enjoyed a range of workshops in fiddle, small pipes, whistle, guitar, singing and song writing in the course of a long hot Saturday in Ballater’s Victoria and Albert Halls and the Deeside Inn. The professional tutors at the event included Fraser Fifield (pipes and whistles), Jenny Sturgeon (songwriting), Paul Anderson and Averill Blackhall (fiddle), Shona Donaldson (singing) and Pete McCallum (guitar).

The workshops were followed by a spontaneous session of music and singing and rounded off with an evening of dance, music and more song in a ceilidh which blended the dance music of The New Distillery Band with contributions from workshop tutors and participants.

I am a Scots-speaking Scot – which might be almost (though not quite) indistinguishable from Anglophone bit isnae really. Despite a vocabulary of Doric and a few stumbled phrases of Gaelic, I lack the easy fluency and interchangeability of language I have so often admired in others I have met on my travels – South Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans.

Despite having danced at ceilidhs since I was a child – An Comunn Ghaidhealach ceilidhs in Whiting Bay on Arran where the Highland Schottische was an endurance test and Strip the Willow was (then as now) a blood-sport – I’ve never sung nor played. Until this week and then briefly, meekly (I hope). And I hope to again.

A fiddle is an awesome thing. The small pipes – wondrous. The human voice…

People come together. People play and sing and people dance. Ordinary people who practice and play and feel abashed in the presence of more experienced musicians…but who play in any case to be a part of it.

It is not a ‘professional’ activity…though excellence deserves its due and tariff.

It is a session, a meeting…a visitation.

There is a sense that a ceilidh might be an entertainment – like a Burns Supper or a discotheque (yes…I know…who goes to discotheques these days?). The word which is omitted though – for it might be seen as a profanation – is comanachadh. Is that too blasphemous?

Ceilidh agus comanachadh.

Dipping, ineptly, into the flow of music in the session on Saturday, in the company of like-minded strangers – yes, I was visiting but equally I felt community, communion. Comann. Collective.

Tha ceilidh agam
.

Andrew Wyeth : Is this still life?

What do you write about? Or…sometimes…What do you write?
This followed by a frantic pause (sic).
What do I write? What has been published? What do I write about?
What do I paint? Where can they be viewed? What do I paint about?
The second set of questions seems, to me, more obtuse and that quality throws light, for me, on the precariousness of the first.
What do I write (about)?
I have been ‘writing’ – consciously, compulsively ‘making up stories’ whether as prose or plays or poetry – since I was at least 11 years old – 47 years.
But what was I writing about?

In Andrew Wyeth : A Secret Life, Richard Meryman’s biography of A.N.Wyeth, the American 20th Century realist painter, he asserts that Wyeth’s painting ‘Spring Fed’ has ‘in the back-ground’ – in its emotional and aesthetic hinterland – the death of Robin Hood. The tempera – in Wyeth’s characteristically austere cold tones – depicts a water trough in a byre, fed by a trickle of clear water ‘spring fed’. A bucket hangs on the wall to the right. Through the window above and beyond the trough, cattle graze the middle ground before a gently sloping hill in the distance. Reading more deeply into Wyeth’s biography, the cattle are Swiss-Brown. The byre, trough and hill belonged to Karl Kuerner, a first-generation German immigrant who farmed near Wyeth’s home in Pennsylvania. Wyeth was a 3rd generation immigrant to the US on his father’s side (German-Swiss). Kuerner had been a machine gunner in the German Army during World War One.
These are, of course, the details I select. What resonates for me amidst what resonated for Meryman (and Wyeth). Robin Hood, dying in the hospitable seclusion of a convent gathers his men, shoots a final arrow through the open casement and wills that where that arrow falls will be his final resting place. My heart is in the Highlands, my heart is not here etcetera.
Windows, and people looking out of windows, are a regular feature in Wyeth’s work. Even, paradoxically, in a painting such as Christina’s World there is a sense of the protagonist being on the inside looking out. So too is the device of painting a portrait of an individual, a deep and emotional, biographical representation of a lived life through the depiction of a lived in yet presently vacant interior (as in Groundhog Day for example) or of implements or clothing by which/in which the individual has lived (as in Sea Boots or Willard’s Coat). Like Kuerner’s trough and Kuerner’s bucket. Like the spring water that flows from the hill into the byre and the viewer who gazes back from the byre towards the hill and Wyeth’s childhood romance of the aging hero longing to be again. Cattle apart, this is a still life. Nature morte. And yet, with interpretation, each element orbits mood and meaning.
Once again, I think, we are in the territory of still life as innuendo rather than eye-candy but not, simply, the wistful-moralistic mood of Dutch ondbitjes – ‘all flesh is grass’, ‘there’s always the morning after’ – but rather an entire life-theme, not a whole life but strand of it, a sustained emotional strain.
So what do you write about? And – what do you write?
Life.
Really? Whose life?
Aye, there’s the rub.
For a while now I have been very interested in (auto)biographical writing – Life Writing in the current parlance. How do you earnestly and honestly engage with lived experience and attempt to excavate – the only verb I feel that fits – some sort of narrative ‘explanation’ for ‘what happened’? I’ve been aware for many years that a great part of the motivation to write – to fabulate and to confect fictions – is, in me, to clype – to point out that that’s not really (quite) how it is or was and that some of us (at least) don’t experience life that way and mothering can be an ambiguous experience and the apple pie may well be laced with strychnine.
One’s self-confidence, in this, is, of course, undermined by shame and, in my case at least, the suspicion of a certain psychological ‘volatility’. Is that really what happened? I know you think that happened but…? So one creeps into the undergrowth – the long grass I suppose – and conceals oneself amidst the ‘make it that’. And ‘make it that’ becomes the laboratory in which our personal Mr. & Mrs. Hydes can be conjured, cultured, trained.
The Arvon Book of Life Writing edited by Sally Cline and Carole Angier makes, in this context, salutary reading. It makes it clear, I think, that ‘Life Writing’ is a dodgy pastime, that autobiography is (always) morally reprehensible and biography problematic unless all of the protagonists, their children and their childrens’ children have shuffled off. It might be OK to write a biography of Sappho or Prester John – otherwise the author is on thin-ice frankly. One of the charms and virtues of the book, and there are several, is that the authors and contributors are so upfront about this aspect whilst encouraging wannabe life-writers (like me?) to ‘have a go’. Running a crack-house may result in socially questionable outcomes but think of the upsides why-don’t-you?
But what does a writer write about if not his or her lived experience? Fantasy alter-egos living a life of crime, historical importance, sentimental overload, sexual disinhibition or super-empowerment? I know that is what stories are ‘for’…but what do you write about?
In response to which, I return to a figure (on the viewer’s side of the picture plane) gazing out through a life, through a window – alone and reticent in his telling and remembering – observing a life, his own or another’s, and constructing an evocation in the present of how it is and how it was that everyone can (sort of) live with. An evocation constructed of trompe d’oeil make-it-that’s and a perfect command of tone.
Is that what I write about? Is that what I paint about? Well, it’s something to aim for.