Sunday, 30 June 2013


People in Edinburgh familiar with my spoken-word performances will know that images often accompany my writing. Recently I performed my sequence Walking on the Water – inspired by Antony Gormley’s installation along the Waters of Leith, 6 Times. Using my own photographs as visual aids, and interspersing the six sections with Gregorian plainchant made the performance memorable, certainly, if a bit weird.

Combining aspects of the arts is not only important to me as a writer; it is essential to me as an artist. As well as engaging with all art-forms at some level, it is important to support other emerging artists. This year, I went to four end-of-year shows featuring work of students or graduands of our various art colleges. And what a treat it was!

At Edinburgh College of Art, I was able to visit all the departments, over several visits. Being slightly biased, I was particularly pleased to see work by people I know. In Illustration, I enjoyed seeing the intricate paper-cuttings of Alice Spicer. Alice is also a writer, and her work effectively combines both disciplines.

Another illustrator, Jode Pankhurst (who has illustrated one of my poems, which may or may not be published as you read this) combines illustration and ceramics to produce stunning, original and moving work. Call it favouritism, but her work was the highlight for me, and I urge you to visit her website.

One work that especially caught my eye and (although I’m bored with this cliché) captured my imagination. Maria Hadam constructed pieces out of cassette tape, stretched in lines across white board frames. Some were very small, others large, and each contained something extremely beguiling; buried sounds, memories, and the transience of technology and life itself, shimmering and changing colour depending on where the viewer stood. I was fortunate to spend some time in conversation with the artist, whose website is here:

Deep in Leith is a hidden gem that I’d not visited before: the Leith School of Art. A friend who had a picture displayed invited me to the end-of-year show; a curious mix and wide range of talent and ability, from folk who are perhaps following a dream or a passion for art, and others who having completed a foundation level are destined for greater things, whether or not they go on to established Art Colleges. 

I cannot claim to know about the technicality of painting, but I’m picked out one artist whose work I found work profoundly moving on many levels. In her artist statement, Emily Ponsonby said, ‘Through multiple layers of oil, varnish and wax I aim to interpret the essence of my model’s personality and what makes them tick.’

I was immediately impressed by the scale and realism of these portraits, but failed at first to pick up on one essential element. My friend, who I eventually found in the warren of studios in this redundant church, said to me, ‘But did you smell the paintings?’ I confessed I had not. She told me, ‘They smell of honey.’

So we went back to view them, and at that point the artist was having her picture taken with the model of one of her pictures: a beautiful, rugged-looking man with a mass of grey hair and a beard – not the easiest of subjects – in front of his portrait. He was even wearing the same jumper! There was a feeling of pride, pleasure, and above all, a visible rapport between the artist and sitter.

In my conversation with Maria Hadam, at the E.C.A. show, we discussed how rarely people are truly moved by visual art, certainly not in the way other art forms move us. We are stirred by music, provoked by theatre; we laugh at comedy and weep in the movies (well, some do) Perhaps it is our sense of reserve: it would seem absurd to stand in a gallery, laughing at, applauding or sobbing in front of an installation.

And yet, when I returned to the L.S.A. in Leith to have another look at Emily’s paintings with fewer people around, I got up close to the picture, observed the way the layers of wax and paint were built up to give the work immense depth and intensity; and then I breathed in deeply (as a singer might) through my nose. Even more than the joy of seeing ‘Gerry’ in front of his picture, I was quite overcome and found myself welling up. Get a grip, I told myself!

But the thing that really moved me was the thought that this experience (unless I were to put my money where my emotion was and buy one) was ephemeral and, being of the moment, in that sense, unique. What’s more, her work spoke on more levels of eloquence than I can hope to articulate in writing.

Interpreting art, especially modern art, is hard. The Death-to-Death show at the Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh is tough, since so much of it is provocatively weird, frankly. The multi-sensory experience of the Ernesto Neto installation is another example of how nothing needs explained when experiencing art (although, having heard Neto speak recently, he certainly has much to say, and every word is a gem!)

If the ‘artist’s statement’ should say anything, save explaining or justifying the work we may struggle to interpret, it should contain a glimpse of what has inspired them.

So, what inspires me to write? Art, life, a compulsion to make sense of the world and the transient experience of our short time on earth: all of these. But above all, it is people. As I go about galleries, museums, shops, or sit in cafés, on buses or wander the streets, I am soaking up stories, leaching lives, inhaling the air they breathe.

In these last weeks, I have been inspired, vitalised, moved and thrilled by the new art I have seen, much of which has been greatly inspired. At its most basic, inspiration means ‘breathing in.’ Thanks to Emily Ponsonby, I must remember when I look at all art to breath in deeply, through my nose, and be inspired in every sense.

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