Art and angels

Madonna del Parto by Pierro della Francesca

Since we were discussing angels last week (at least in metaphorical terms), I was reminded of this post from 2013 on Madonnas, angels, and inspiration:

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto," so I smiled to read this in "Heaven on Earth," Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York (Feb-May 2013):

"One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the 'Legend of the True Cross' frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous 'Resurrection of Christ' ('the best picture in the world,' according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual 'Madonna del Parto.' An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic."

Monterchi, Italy

A detail from Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity

A detail from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True CrossSome years ago I made the same pilgrimage to Arrezo, Sansepolcro, and the Tuscan hilltown of Monterchi -- but unlike Schjeldahl, I was already under Piero's spell when I did so. Although what I really wanted was to see the Madonna del Parto freshly painted on the wall of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (which would have required travelling back in time to the 15th century), it was a deeply moving experience nonetheless to stand before the Lady at last, even in her rather sterile new home in the small Museo della Madonna. 

A print that I purchased that day in Monterchi hangs framed beside my drawing board still, where I draw and paint underneath the Lady's calm, enigmatic gaze. I am not Christian, so for me Piero's luminous figure represents the feminine and maternal mysteries, and the fecund spirit of creativity. This is not, of course, what the painter intended...but works of art, if they have any power, take on lives of their own once they leave our hands.

The Lady of the Studio

As Samuel R. Delany once wrote (in his ground-breaking novel Dahlgren): 

"The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

Indeed. But I do trust magic. Especially the magic of art.

The other lady of the studio

The sketch on the drawing board

Paintings above: Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto" in Monterchi, a detail from "The Legend of the True Cross" fresco cycle in Arezzo, and a detail from his unfinished "Nativity" -- which is now in the National Gallery in London.

Drawing: A close-up of the "bunny sisters" sketch which is on the drawing board in the photos. The completed drawing eventually ended up in a collage, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep."

Photographs: Monterchi, The Lady of the Studio, and the other lady of the studio. The latter photos were taken five years ago -- so the furniture has moved around since then; Tilly and I have both grown older; but the Madonna still hangs by the drawing board, gazing down on bunny girls, bird boys, and other beasties.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Irish migrants to North America

Folk music has long been used to tell raw, honest stories about what it is to be human. Today, our theme is migration, exile, and displacement -- for the old stories remind us to have compassion for those facing such journeys today.

Above: "The Maid of Culmore," a traditional ballad performed by Cara Dillion, from County Derry in Northern Ireland. "“Having lived outside of Ireland for most of my adult life, I identify with songs of departure and longing for home on a very personal level," she says. The ballad appeared on her first solo album, Cara Dillon (2001).

Below: "Leaving Saint Kilda" by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts and poet Robin Robertson, from the album Hirta Songs (2014). The islands of St. Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia, until its last residents were officially removed in 1930.

Above: "Adrift, Adrift" by English folk singer Rosie Hood. "I started writing this song," she says, "when I read about the Ezadeen and Blue Sky M in the news -- two large ships that had been abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea carrying hundreds of Syrians fleeing the civil war. Each person on board had paid around £4,000 to reach Europe on ships that the crews set to auto-pilot (risking them running aground) and abandoned." The song appears on Hood's first solo album, The Beautiful & the Actual (2017).

Below is a festival performance of songs drawn from a revival of The Transports, the great folk opera by Peter Bellamy: a harrowing story about a man and woman unjustly exiled to Australia in the 1780s. The performers are Matthew Crampton, The Younguns, Rachael McShane, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, and Faustus. To learn more about this updated version of the opera, watch the introductory video, visit the Transports website, or listen to the show's CD.

Above: "Ballads of Child Migration," from a project based on Britain's shameful history of forced child migration. The performers here are John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick, Boo Hewerdine, O’Hooley & Tidow, Chris While, Julie Matthews, John Doyle, Jez Lowe, Andy Seward, and Andy Cutting. The narrator is Barbara Dickson. To learn more, read Helen Gregory's review of the project, or listen to the show's CD.

Below: "Ghost" by the Anglo-Scots duo Winter Wilson (Kip Winter and David Wilson) -- a song about a different kind of exile that happens to countless young people every day. It's from their new album Far off on the Horizon: twelve songs about "love, emigration, and everyday people."

Above, in a shift of mood: "Traveler's Curse" by the irrepressible Ben Caplan, from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The song is from Old Stock: an album, music show, and stage play about two Jewish Romanian refugees fleeing to Canada in 1908. For more information, visit the Old Stock website, watch the introductory video, or listen to the show's CD.

Below, let's end as we started with music from Cara Dillon: "Lakeside Swans," from her new album, Wanderers -- a song about the decisions we make throughout our lives to go or to stay.

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Pictures: The drawings above are by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Related music posts: "Stone's Throw" from Rachel Taylor-Beales' poignant album, Lament of the Selkie; "Here" by Sengalese singer Awa Ly; and The Lost Songs of St. Kilda. Also recommended: "The Stranger's Case" (from Shakespeare's last known play script, Sir Thomas More). In a short video produced by London's Globe Theatre and the International Rescue Committee, refugees from Syria, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan recite Shakespeare's text alongside renowned actors. It's a powerful piece. 


Unfolding our wings

The Angel of Childhood by Terri Windling

I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.

" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, George Eliotand not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.

"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sigh of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."

Boy, did Bessie get that right.

I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years...not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.

The Angel of Language by Terri Windling

My Life in Middlemarch

I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:

"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.

"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....

"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."

Middlemarch book art by Stephen Doyle

Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864  (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.


Embracing Uncertainty

The edge of the woods

From Carl Jung's "Memories," an autobiographical work written in his eighties, published posthumously in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

"I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am depressed, distressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgement about my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about.

Merlin during his time of solitude in the woods  by Alan Lee"The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. Probably, as in all meta-physical questions, both are true: Life is, or has, meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and win the battle.

"When Lao-tzu says: 'All are clear, I alone am clouded,' he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age. Lao-tzu is an example of a man with superior insight who has seen and experienced worth and worthlessness, and who at the end of his life desires to return into his own being, into the eternal unknowable meaning. At every level of intelligence this type appears, and its lineaments are always the same, whether it be an old peasant or a great philosopher like Lao-tzu.

"This, too, is my experience of old age, a letting go of life-long certainties. Yet as they go there is much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in ourselves. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things."

Border patrol

''The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man's, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possesses the truth. To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, 'There could be more, there could be things we don't understand,' is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.''

- Barry Lopez (Of Wolves and Men)

''When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.''

- Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

Beech leaves in autumn

"There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say 'It is yet more difficult than you thought.'  This is the muse of form.

"It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us Woodland spirit by Alan Leeand deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey."

 - Wendell Berry (Standing by Words)

"I try to remember that the job -- as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy -- of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it." 

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

Woodland spirit

So let us embrace baffflement and uncertainty for the role it plays in all our lives -- a role that can be alarming, but also filled with creative potential. We don't ever really know where we're going; and for artists that's a very good thing. In the tension between certainty and doubt (or, to use yesterday's language, between hope and despair), we often find, strangely, that our best work is born....sometimes out of the very situations that seemed to threaten our ability to work the most.

Bird fairies by Alan LeeAs Mary Oliver says in her poem "Yes, Mysteries":

      Let me keep my distance, always, from those
     who think they have the answers.
     Let me keep company always with those who say
     'Look!' and laugh in astonishment,
     and bow their heads.

Fallen beech leaves

The art above is "Merlin in the Woods," "Woodland Maiden," and "Bird Fairies" by my Devon neighbor Alan Lee. According to ancient Celtic texts, Merlin (the wise and wily magician of King Arthur's court) autumn leafwent mad after the disastrous Battle of Arderydd and fled into the forest, where he lived like the wild boars and the wolves, eating roots and berries, sleeping in the rain. In the Welsh Black Book of Carmarthen, Merlin says: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild...only lack keeps me company now." Through his period of shamanic madness, Merlin learned the speech of animals and the secrets of wood and stone. By the time he emerged from the forest, he'd come fully into his magical powers.


What is the point of writing?

The Morellian Method by Barry McGlashan

From "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee:

"My generation of writers -- and yours, if you're reading this -- lives in the shadow of Auden's famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that 'poetry makes nothing happen.' I had heard that remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what he really meant by it....Auden wrote the line in an elegy for Yeats. And Yeats, it should be said, was a hero of Auden's. To read the whole poem is to know he meant, if not the opposite of what this line is often used to say, something at least more subtle: an ironic complaint. This isn't even the sharpest line Auden wrote on the subject. But somehow, the line handed anyone who cared a weapon to gut the confidence of over fifty years' worth of writers in the West. As we face the inexorable creep of William F. Buckley's intellectual conservatism that used anti-intellectualism as its arrowhead, this attitude, that writing is powerless, is one that affects you even if you have never read that poem, much less the quote. Pundits, reviewers, and critics spit it out repeatedly, as often now as ever, hazing anyone who might imagine anything to the contrary."

Tone Poem by Barry McGlasham

What then is the point of American writing, Chee asks, particularly in these dark political times?

The point, he says, is "the point of samizdat, readers and writers meeting secretly all over the Soviet Union to share forbidden books, either written there or smuggled into the country. The point is the widow of Osip Mandelstam memorizing her husband's poetry while in the camps with him in the Soviet Union, determined that his poems make it to readers. The point of it is the possibility of being read by someone who could read it. Who could be changed, out past your imagination's limits. Hannah Arendt has a definition of freedom as being the freedom to imagine that which you cannot yet imagine. The freedom to imagine that as yet unimaginable work in front of others, moving them to still more action you can't imagine, that is the point of writing, to me. You may think it is humility to imagine your work doesn't matter. It isn't. Much the way you don't know what a writer will go on to write, you don't know what a reader, having read you will do."

Purgatorio by Barry McGlasgham

I believe this is true even for those of us in the Fantasy and Mythic Art fields. Our stories may not be overtly political, but we work with the powerful tools of archetype and metaphor, and everything we put out into the world has the potential to touch the lives of others in ways we may never know.

Here's one instance that I do know about. Years ago I published an anthology of fairy-tale-inspired stories reflecting on the dark side of childhood. This was back in the days when child abuse was still a taboo subject, little discussed. A few years later, I received a letter forwarded through my publisher. It was from a stranger, a lawyer, in the American south. He'd come across my book while staying in a house where there was little else to read -- and despite having scant interest in either fairy tales or fantasy, out of sheer boredom he gave it a try. The thing he was writing to tell me was that the book had changed the direction of his life. Haunted by those stories, he decided to volunteer his services to a child advocacy group -- and had recently left his corporate law firm to work in the service of traumatized children full time.

Such letters are incredibly precious, but rare. Most people do not write to authors or other artists whose works have had meaning for them. There are books that literally saved my life, yet I've never written to their creators to say so. Most of time we will never know where our work has gone, if it's reached the right readers or sank like a stone; we just cast it out like a message in a bottle*, hoping it will reach the right shore.

Waiting for the Light by Barry McGlasham

"Only in American do we ask our writers to believe they don't matter as as a condition of writing," says Chee. "It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time.

The Father by Barry McGlasham

"By the time I found that Auden quote -- 'poetry makes nothing happen' -- I was more than ready to believe what I thought it was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic. My mother's most common childhood memory of me is of standing next to me trying to be heard over the voice on the page. I didn't really commit to writing until I understood that it meant making that happen for someone else. And in order to do that, I had to commit the chaos inside of me to an intricate order, an articular complexity.

The House of Bruegel by  Barry McGlasham

"To write is to sell an escape ticket, not from the truth, but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have only seen in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other....All of my life I have been told this isn't important, that it doesn't matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who would take everything from us say this. I think it's the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing."

Tradescant's Ark by Barry McGlasham

As a teacher of writing himself now, Chee tells his students "that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art -- even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness...is not weak. It is strength. "

The Botanist by Barry McGlashan

At the end of the essay, he challenges us all:

"If you are reading this, and you're a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes -- and make no mistake, it is already here -- be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can't imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I write even for them."

The Extraordinary Mary Anning by Barry Glasham

Alexander Chee's essay can be found in his new collection How to an Autobiographical Novel, which is simply stunning. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can also read an earlier, shorter version of the essay online here, in Paris Review.

Work-in-progress in Barry McGlasham's studio

The art today is by Scottish painter Barry McGlasham, whose new exhibition, "The Line of Beauty," opens at the John Martin Gallery in London on November 2nd.

Raised in Aberdeen, on Scotland's north-east coast, he studied painting at Grays School of Art, gradulating with first class honours in 1996. He then taught at Grays for seven years, until leaving to focus on painting full time. In 2001, he traveled throughout America on a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship; it is a country that continues to fascinate him and to influence his work.

To see more of his art, please visit his website, the John Martin Gallery, and the beautiful online copy of Barry's Glass Mountain catalogue. I also recommend his Instagram page, where he posts drawings, paintings in progress, and wonderfully atmospheric photographs of his working studio.

Deep Thoughs by Barry McGlasham

* Jeanette Winterson has said: "I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's sayin, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime.' "

The passage quoted above is from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee, published in How to an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018). I recommend reading the full essay (as well as the rest of this excellent book). All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist.


Into the woods

Woods

I had a post half-written for you today, but gremlins in the wires conspired against it: first problems with my blogging platform and just when it was up and running again, the power went out across our village, and stayed out for a good long time. At which point I gave up on tech altogether, threw my notebooks into a bag, and headed for the woods with Tilly.

Woods 2

"What keeps you going," writes Barbara Kingsolver, "isn't some fine destination but just the road you're on, and the fact that you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open, you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into, and you ask yourself, 'What life can I live that will let me breathe in out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?' "

Today I ran off into the woods, but tomorrow I'll be back. Goodnight, all.

Woods 2

Leaves


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Sketch by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier (1852 – 1934)

Today's post goes out to American women, who have had a very rough couple of weeks. I'm with you, sisters, I'm with you; and with the men and nonbinary folk who stand tall beside us. Today and always.

Above: "Resilient" by Rising Appalachia (sister Leah and Chloe Smith), from the American south. The gorgeous song is the title track of their new album, recently released, and the gorgeous video was shot by Alex Allaux.

Below: "Happening Again" by Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel, from her third album, Citizen of Glass (2016).

Above: "Soaking in the Bathtub" by The Poozies, an all-women group making music since 1991. The band's current line-up is Mary Macmaster, Eilidh Shaw, Sarah McFadyen, and Tia Files, all from Scotland. The song, written by McFadyen, was released as a single last month.

Below: "Wisely and Slow" by The Staves (sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor), from Watford in Hertfordshire, England. The song is from their first album, Dead & Born & Grown (2012).

Above: "Game to Lose" by the American folk & bluegrass group I'm With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O'Donovan). The song appears on See You Around (2018), their first album as a trio. The video was shot by Genéa Gaudet.

Below: "Done" by Canadian singer/songwriter Frazey Ford (a founding member of The Be Good Tanyas). The song is from her second solo album, Indian Ocean (2014), but it could have been written for today.

Stay strong. Hang on to your joy.

Photograph by Dorothea Lange

The images above are by Gertrude Käsebier (1852 - 1934) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), pioneers of American photography. Follow the links to see more of their work. I also highly recommend Erin May Kelly's fine, fierce poem "Little Girls Don't Stay Little Forever" over on the BBC's The Social site (with a trigger warning for abuse issues). I also recommend Rebecca Traister's timely new book, Good & Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger (Simon & Schuster, 2018).


I Shall Go Into a Hare....

In the Land of the Faires by John Anster Fitzgerald

Last week I took a train up north for the second meeting of the Modern Fairies working group. Our project (outlined in a previous post) started with a workshop at Oxford University, and then we'd carried on working from our different parts of the country (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales) until it was time to meet up again.

Now we were coming to the University of Sheffield with a wide range of works-in-progress to share: songs and poems and other creations exploring the many facets of fairy lore. We brought tales of shape-shifters and shadow hauntings....of strange happenings at the edge of perception...of the fractured nature of fairy time and the power of magic in the old wild places...of white ravens, green children, witch hares, otter brides, and ghostly hounds crumbling into the dust...and of fairies infesting the planes of World War II and the depths of the internet.

Flint Hall at the University of Sheffield

A fairy ring

"The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans," writes novelist Ben Okri. "They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight."

In this project we're looking at Britain's fairy tradition, seeing what such stories have to tell us today. To do our work well, perhaps we must all become griots or shamans ourselves, steeped in Mystery, letting the old tales speak through us as they will.

Ben, Marry, and Jackie's notebooks

Andy and Lucy fall into enchantment

Music is one of the Mysteries to me. I love folk music in all its forms, and yet I am not a musician myself -- so in Sheffield I listen, spell-bound and enchanted, as music rises from the corners of the workspace. New songs are born...take shape...take flight...

Calling the spirits...

...conjured by cello, viola, bass, and banjo...by mandolin, squeezebox, saw, and voice...

Calling the fairies.

...by artist's pencil and composer's pen.

Calling the ghost hounds and the geese...

Jackie and Fay plot witchery

''I shall go into a hare,'' Fay sings.

I've never worked on a project like this before. I've collaborated many times, yes, but always with fellow writers and illustrators in the publishing field...

Fairy tales and fairies' tales.

Sarah finds fairies in cyberspace.

...never with artists from such a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and genres. It's an interesting brief, but a daunting one, pushing me out of my comfort zone. I know how to write a book, a story, an essay...but a song? a spoken word narrative?

Andy and Carolyne pull the project's research all together

Fairies Dancing by William Blake

I am married to a theater director, so I know very well that performative arts are very different than the literary arts, created in a very different way. I have to ignore my usual working methods, throw out all my preconceived ideas and approach the work (as my husband likes to say) with a "beginner's mind." I am walking in unknown territory...a perfect metaphor for walking into Faerie itself.

The magic of music

The magic of play

Wait! Wait! by Arthur Rackham

The magic of collaboration.

The magic of song

The magic of sound.

The magic of word and film

Twilight Fantasy by Edward Robert Huges

I'm reminded of these words by Ursula Le Guin about magical tales in all their forms:

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence," she said. "It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe."

No, I don't feel safe. Why should I feel safe? The Faerie Realm is a dangerous one. But I do feel inspired, and awed by the creativity around me. I am happy to be on this journey.

The magic shaped by an artist's hands.

The magic that swims across the page.

The magic that takes on a life of its own.

The creativity produced by this team could, I swear, power the lights of the city. Our days in Sheffield fairly crackle with energy, with ideas emerging, shape-shifting, coalescing into song, art, and story. I find that I keep turning to my companions to say: I don't want the week to end.

But it does end, of course. On the final eve, we share some of our work-in-progress with a small audience in a Spiegeltent at The Festival of the Mind...and this is a bit nerve-wracking too. We're all used to presenting work in completed form: a book, CD, a canvas or show, honed and polished. A work-in-progress is a rough, raw thing. What on earth would an audience make of it all?

The fairies are clearly with us that night, and every one of them is in Trickster mode: microphones don't work, other tech goes wrong...but none of that matters in the end. When Ewan sings of fairy shadows, and Lucy of the shifting properties of time, and Marry of the Green Children legend, and Fay of turning from woman to hare, the old stories come to life again. Perhaps they had never really died.

The Spiegeltent at the Festival of the Mind

Marry sings an old, old tale...

...while Fay, Lucy, Ewan, and Ben summon the fairies to our modern world

And so, the journey continues. Our next meeting is in Newcastle in January, then we're aiming for a public presentation (of some kind) at The Sage in Gateshead in late April. If you'd like to keep up the project's evolution, please visit the Modern Fairies website and blog, Facebook page, and Twitter page.

I'll continue to post on our progress here too, and share our discoveries with you.

Hare by Jackie Morris

Fay's banjo

Tales  Songs  and Hares

I Shall Go Into the Hare

The Modern Fairies team is: Fay Hield, Carolyne Larrington, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Marry Waterson and me, all pictured above, plus Patience Agbabi and Inge Thomson, who could not join us in Sheffield. Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley provide adminstrative and production support for the project.

Credits:  The beautiful drawings & notebooks belong to Jackie Morris. The "hare woman" oil paint sketch is one of mine. The four fairy paintings are by John Anster Fitzgerald  (1819-1906), William Blake (1757-1827), Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914). The photographs were taken by me, Jackie, Fay, Marry, and others on the Modern Fairies team. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the imagery and text pictured here are reserved by their makers.


Words and acorns

Tilly and oak

These are words I am living by right now, pinned to wall above my desk:

"Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.'' - Vincent van Gogh (Letters)

Oak leaves & acorn

If you haven't yet read The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, I highly recommend them. I have the old Penguin edition, edited by Ronald de Leeuw; but if you can afford the six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: the Letters, published by Thames & Hudson, it's extraordinary.

Oak leaves & words

Fabric art card by Michele Campling

The lovely art above is a card made by my friend Michele Campling, who is a fabric artist here in Devon. The poem in the picture caption is from Selected Poems by Barbara Guest (Sun & Moon Press, 1995). All rights reserved by the author and artist.