The Mythic Art of Alan Lee

Young Arthur and Merlin by Alan Lee

"I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth," Alan Lee recalls, "sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met and disposed of the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends, and folklore in our two nearest libraries."

The young boy entranced by ancient tales never lost his taste for magic and myth, and grew up to become one of the finest book illustrators of our time. His distinctively elegant watercolor paintings -- adorning Greek myths, Arthurian legends, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and other magical  tales -- have earned him a world-wide following, the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award, museum and gallery exhibitions around the globe, and the deep respect of fellow artists and writers in the publishing field. Like Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac from Britain's Golden Age of illustration, Alan's work imbues imaginary landscapes with such startling reality one can almost step inside the paintings to travel beyond the visible horizon. Walking into his Devon studio, filled to the brim with paintings and books, is to cross a portal into the Otherworld of a master artist's vision, a place where stories come to life in pencil strokes and washes of color.

Merlin Dreams by Alan Lee

Alan was born in Middlesex in 1947, and decided at a young age that art would be his life's vocation. After training at Ealing School of Art he became a freelance illustrator, working in the fields of book publishing, advertising, and film. During these early years, his London work space was shared with a number of other artists -- including Brian Froud, a painter also drawn to myths and legends. These two friends teamed up to create Faeries, a book exploring the rich tradition of faery lore in the British isles, reaching past the modern image of the creatures (sweet little sprites with butterfly wings) to capture the faeries of the old oral tales: earthy, wild, mysterious, and capricious as a force of nature. Published in 1978, this ground-breaking book became an international bestseller, and an influential text for a whole generation of artists, writers, and film-makers to come.

The Faery Ring by Alan Lee

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee

Just prior to the creation of Faeries, Alan, his family, and Brian moved from London to rural Devon, settling in a small village at the edge of Dartmoor. The mossy woods, wild hedgerows, and mythic grandeur of the moor had a strong effect on Alan's work: he is, in truth, a landscape artist as much as he is an illustrator, creating imagery born from the lines, textures, colors, and forms of the natural world. Dartmoor proved to be the perfect setting for an artist of Alan's temperament: a land of great and varied beauty, rich in history and myth, full of Bronze Age ruins, clapper bridges, and standing stones on the wind-swept hills.

Merlin by Alan Lee

In Arthurian lore, Merlin (the great magician of Arthur's court) retreats to the Forest of Celydonn after the Battle of Arderydd, living an elemental existence alongside the wolves and the deer. It is only after this retreat into nature that he comes fully into his magical powers -- an initiatory process echoed in myth cycles throughout the world. For Alan, the move to Devon was his own retreat into Celydonn. Wandering over the moor, through Wistman's Wood, and up winding paths by the River Teign, he came into his full powers as an artist, a magician upon the page.

The success of Faeries allowed him the time to pursue a project dear to his heart: paintings inspired by The Mabinogion, the great myth cycle of Wales. These magnificent tales are firmly rooted in the soil of the Welsh countryside, so he followed the threads of the stories to Dyfed and Snowdonia, soaking in the colors, forms, and spirit of these myth-haunted landscapes. Returning to his Devon studio with reference photos and sketchbook notes, Alan created a body of extraordinary paintings to accompany the Jones & Jones translation of the text. This edition of The Mabinogion, published in 1982, remains one of the artist's finest accomplishments to date.

From the Mabinogion, illustrated by Alan Lee

The Mabinogion by Alan Lee

Over the next several years, he continued to chose book projects with mythic resonance, such as Castles: a book of imagery drawn from myth, romance, and magical literature, with text by David Day; Merlin's Dream: Arthurian tales beautifully retold by Peter Dickinson; and two children's picture books: The Mirrorstone, with text by Michel Palin, and The Moon's Revenge, with text by Joan Aiken.

During these years he also pursued his second career as a concept artist and designer for feature films, working on such fantasy classics as Legend, directed by Ridley Scott, and Erik the Viking, directed by Terry Jones.*

From the Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

In 1988, Alan was approached by J.R.R. Tolkien's publisher to create fifty new paintings for The Lord of the Rings, to be published in a handsome edition celebrating the centenary of Tolkien's birth. He immersed himself in this work for two years, resulting in illustrations so perfect, and so universally acclaimed, that they are now ineluctably bound with Tolkien's great story for readers all over the world.

"I first encountered  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen," he remembers. "It felt as though Tolkien had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative. And, even more important for me, he had created a place -- a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape -- which lingered in the mind long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways."

The Hobbit, Alan Lee

How, I ask, does an artist even begin to approach a project like this? Particularly when illustrating a text that has meant so much to so many.

"Humbly," Alan says promptly. Then he pauses to give the question more thought. "Every artist works differently, of course, but my own approach to The Lord of the Rings was to allow the landscapes to predominate. In some of my scenes, the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This helped me to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures in the reader's mind, which tend to focus on the characters and their inter-relationships. My task lay in shadowing the heroes as they traveled on their epic quest -- often at something of a distance, coming closer at times of heightened emotion -- rather than simply re-creating the dramatic highpoints of the story. Later, when I illustrated The Hobbit, it no longer seemed appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a hobbit which quite convinces me -- and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer to Tolkien's vision myself with my depiction of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with my picture of him standing outside his home, Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down -- but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators."

Bilbo Outside Bag End by Alan Lee

In 1992, Alan began a journey into a very different kind of landscape when he agreed to illustrate The Illiad and The Odyssey, re-told for young readers by Rosemary Sutcliff. He'd loved these stories since childhood, and yet he hesitated before taking on the books.

"I was apprehensive," he explains, "about spending so much time on the battle plains of Troy when my natural home, and main source of inspiration, was the woods and sodden hills of Dartmoor. I'd rarely attempted to paint a landscape that wasn't at least as wet as the watercolors I worked in. I travelled to Greece, for the first time, with a copy of Pausanias as a guide, weighed down by paints, sketchpads, and camera. Most of the action takes place in Turkey, not Greece, but I'd heard that there wasn't a lot to see at the site of Troy itself, so I thought Mycenae would be a good substitute. I visited all the sites and museums I could, drawing artifacts and large crowds of Greek school children. I fell in love with all the Korai at the Acropolis; and, best of all, I went to Delphi. It had nothing to do with the story I was illustrating, but it's set in one of the most remarkable and beautiful landscapes I've ever seen."

Alan Lee

Alan describes his research process as a way of "priming the pump," filling himself with ideas and images before he actually sits down to work. Though his painting process is an intuitive one, it is nonethless grounded in the real. Armed with hundreds of reference photos, sketchbooks filled with notes, and the visual impressions of his travels through Greece, he returned to his Devon studio to create a magical Greece that never was: half-way between myth and history, between Homer's world and the realm of the gods. The landscape, as always, came first -- and then he recruited family, friends, and neighbors to model for the extended dramatis personae of the tales. (I recall coming into his courtyard at the time to find a dying Odysseus laid out on the picnic table, Penelope swooning above him.)

Sadly, Rosemary Sutcliff died before the art was completed, and never saw her words brought so vividly to life in The Black Ships of Troy (winner of the Kate Greenaway Gold Medal) and The Wanderings of Oysseus.

The Wanderings of Odysseus

At the end of the 1990s, Alan traveled to Wellington, New Zealand to begin work as Conceptual Designer of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy; and in 2004, he won an Academy Award for his role in translating Middle-earth to the big screen. For many years we didn't see much of him as labour on the films went on and on, followed by Jackson's two Hobbit films. But when they were done, and he finally came home, our small village felt suddenly 'right' again. His quietly presence had been deeply missed.

The Wanderer  illustrated by Alan LeeOther film jobs followed, but Alan managed to keep up with the book world too -- illustrating Tolkien's posthumous publications (The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, etc.), as well as Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses (retold by Adrian Mitchell) and The Wanderer (a splendid Folio Society edition of Old-English poetry). In between book and film projects, you'd often find him rambling the moor or sketching trees in the local woods: rendering the land he loved best in paintings, drawings, and etchings. 

"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he explains. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."

A Dartmoor river by Alan Lee

Alan works from a two-floor studio in an old stone barn half-smothered in ivy and roses. It's a magical place, with a silvery light and a sense of calm and tranquility -- despite an overflow of papers and books, and perpetual deadlines looming. In the large upstairs room, the walls are covered with etchings, drawings, and printers' proofs; the shelves hold rows of black sketchbooks filled with drawings, whimsical doodles, and notes; and the drawers are packed with paintings created through decades of steady work. Downstairs, an etching press sits among paintings boxed-up to ship to exhibitions. Across a courtyard is a second barn, newly renovated and largely empty -- a space adaptable for music, or dance, or solitary contemplation, whatever the moment might call for.

An illustration from The Hobbit by Alan Lee

Sketchbook drawings by Alan Lee

We sit in the cobbled courtyard now, tea, scones, and jam on the table before us. The white roses are in bloom, and music drifts down from an upper window.

"I like working in watercolor," Alan tells me," with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you are more in control, responsible for every mark on the page -- but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint. It responds to you, and you respond to it in turn. It's a conversation. Printmaking also has this quality, this unpredictable element -- requiring an intuitive response, encouraging a spontaneity that allows the magic to happen.

"When I begin an illustration, I usually work up from small sketches -- which indicate, in a simple way, something of the atmosphere or the dynamics of the picture. Then I do drawings on a larger scale, supported by life studies from models if figures play a large part in the composition. When I've reached the stage where the drawing looks good enough, I'll transfer it to watercolor paper -- but the drawing is still fairly loosely rendered. I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes of color. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it's too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation."

An illustration for The Hobbit by Alan Lee

I know so many young artists who look up to Alan, so I ask him which artists he looked up to himself in his youth. He answers readily:

"I was strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by the early 20th century book illustrators -- Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular. And by Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites. Also by the various artists of the Arts-&-Crafts movement in England and Scotland. Going further back, I'm continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I've often wondered whether his brilliant "Tower of Babel" inspired Tolkien's description of Minas Tyrith), Hieronymous Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. It's not that these earlier artists have influenced my pictures in any obvious way, but that their example raises my spirits, and re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us. They show me how much further I have to go, and how much is possible."

We'd been in Florence and Venice together with a group of friends, so I bring up the Italian Renaissance painters and Alan's face lights up.

"I'd always liked the Italian masters," he says, "but now I'm completely besotted with Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci, and the rest. To see their work in its natural landscape and light is a revelation. The paintings are calm, controlled, and yet each face, each form, each hill or flower or tree contains such passion. In Botticelli's paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion. There's a reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone...turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer. I'm still thinking about it, still working through what effect this may have on my own approach to drawing and painting."

From the Mabinogion

I ask whether he, too, sees painting as an act of communication with something beyond our human ken: God, Mystery, call it what you will.

"Yes," he answers slowly, "but perhaps in a more mythological sense than the religious orientation of the Renaissance. To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is indeed an act of reverence -- not only toward the tree, but toward our human connection to the tree, and to nature. It is one of the magical things about drawing: it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element (hair, wind, rocks, water) is portrayed with one material (graphite, ink, paint) which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony that we know, and science confirms, exists in nature -- created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.

'This is the power of myth as well: it binds to the natural world. There have always been mythic tales of figures whose function is to act as an intermediary between humanity and nature: the shaman, the shape-shifter, the trickster, the embodiments of creative power,  appearing in myths, fairy tales, and medieval legends all around the world. Often they have a touch of 'divine madness' -- like Merlin, or Shuibhne in Ireland, during their years of exile and madness in the woods, through which they gained their divinatory powers. It's interesting to me that in our century it is often artists who fulfill this function. And who, in popular stereotype, are given the license to be a bit mad. Look at Picasso, a classic trickster figure if there ever was one.

Detail from a drawing by Alan Lee

"The power of both myth and art," he continues, "is this magical ability to open doors and to make connections -- not only between us and the natural world, but between us and the rest of humanity. Myths show us what we have in common with every other human being, no matter what culture we come from, no matter what century we live in. And at the same time, mythic stories and art celebrate our essential differences.

"When I first encountered Greek myths as a child, the stories provoked a degree of excitement that can't be explained by their value as adventures, however great that may be. Although the stories were new to me, I felt a sense of recognition.  My response to them, in particular to the otherworldly elements, suggests they were meeting a spiritual need that had not been touched by dull lectures at school, or the church services I regularly dozed through. I'm not suggesting that I wanted to sacrifice a bull to Zeus or consult a Sybil -- I didn't known any Sybils -- but that I'd found, unconsciously, a wider and deeper context for my hopes and fears. Myth gave me a sense of continuity and communion with the people of different times and cultures, and an enhanced and more imaginative relationship with the natural world."

The Tower of Annowre by Alan Lee

The intersection of myth and art can indeed produce a form of magic connecting us to the numinous world -- and this is evident in the timeless beauty of Alan's illustrations of classic tales. The wandering paths of Middle Earth, the great green valleys of ancient Wales, the vistas over the plains of Troy, and twisted trees of the Devon woods all create a spell as potent and lasting as any conjured by Merlin himself.

Yet the quiet magician behind the paintings seems unaware of the power of the magic he creates with pencil, pen and brush.

"I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river," he says. "I'm still learning how to see them. I'm still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I'll get it right."

Alan Lee in his studio

Gormenghast by Alan Lee

Drawing by Alan Lee

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Alan Lee, and may not be reproduced without his permission; all rights are reserved by the artist. The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Tension, balance, and walking in beauty

King Stone  Scorhill

Friday's post, "Doing it for love," touched on the difficult balance between making art and earning a living, and why we should be wary of allowing the latter to determine our self-worth -- particularly during a global pandemic when funds are drying up everywhere. But we must also be wary of valuing our work solely through other public marks of success: publications, exhibitions, praise from critics, etc., fine though all these things may be. As the world slows down in response to the pandemic, and the public side of our work is swept away (book launches postponed, concert tours cancelled, rehearsal stopped, galleries closed), what we are left with is the daily practice of art-making, and the personal value we find within it. Which is, I firmly believe, the most valuable thing of all. 

Some years ago, I came across the following passage in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by the American abstract sculptor and color field artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) -- who, despite major recognition in the form of museum shows and prestigious fellowships, still found it difficult to support herself and her three children through making art. Truitt wrestled with how to determine the worth of her work: was it by the praise she received from galleries and critics, or by her failure to make a sustainable living with it? She concluded that the answer was neither of these; the true measure of her work rested closer to home:

"I don't know why I seem to be able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don't even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I'm an artist, being an artist isn't so fancy because it's just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems more to it than that. It isn't 'just me.' A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

"The 'just me' reaction was an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist; a life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories.

Scorhill 1

Scorhill 3

"The Renaissance focused this sole attention on the artist's individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists' egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma.

"It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one's self that is realistic. The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their work decisions.

Scorhill 4

Scorhill

"Sometime during the course of their development, artists have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

"This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze."

Scorhill 6

Scorhill 8

Keeping a careful balance between our public selves and our private selves is important for everyone, I think, but vital for those of us in the Arts. Turn too far inward, and you may find yourself creating work that doesn't communicate with anyone else...which is, at very least, a lonely place to be. Turn too far outward to the gaze, the applause, the financial rewards of the marketplace, and you may lose connection to the vital spark that fuels your art, and your love of the practice of your craft. Creating art, like creating an artful life, is all about balance. About standing firmly in the center of the circle, and not tipping toward one extreme or another.

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos," said the Nobel-Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow. "A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

Indeed it does, as the strange new world of a global pandemic reminds us. 

Scorhill 7

The photographs here were taken at Scorhill, a Bronze Age stone circle on the open moor past Chagford and Gidleigh. From its center, the sun balances and sets on the largest stone on Midsummer's Eve. Whatever else it may be, it's also a work of art, holding age, time, and stillness in an embrace of sky and granite.

Walking among the ancient stones, I thought about Gretel Ehrlich's words from The Solace of Open Spaces: "The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."

Athough Truitt's art was very different from Ehrlich's, or mine, I think she'd agree.

Scohill 8

As Howard and I turned to leave the stones, I spoke a prayer I learned long ago from the Diné (Navajo) people of my own country: Beauty above us. Beauty below us. Beauty in the four directions. May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

All of us are artists as we create our lives, our families, our communities. All of us balance the conflicting demands of the marketplace and our deep, earth-centered selves. At Scorhill, the noise and flash of the consumer world disappears, and there is only this, granite and sky. There is only this, and it is enough.

May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

Scorhill 9

Terri Windling 2015

Words: The quotes above are from Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Penguin, 1984), The Solace of Open Spaces (Penguin, 1986), and Conversations With Saul Bellow (University Press of Mississippi, 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Two related posts: On fear of judgement, (about pernicious perfectionism), and a lovely piece on the Pale Rook blog about why you should stop apologising for your work.


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

In yesterday's post, Wendell Berry argue for the importance of love (that old-fashioned word) in maintaining the bonds of community; and what could be more important when facing the challenges of a global pandemic?

Today, I'd like to focus on love as a vital part of the art-making process too. Love is the fuel that keeps us creating in fearful, uncertain times -- despite isolation, despite worries for loved ones, despite the desperate loss of income, despite projects halted and performance tours cancelled, despite theaters, studios, galleries, classrooms and concert halls shutting their doors. I see so many artist friends struggling right now and yet they keep on going: working at home, working online, working in any manner they can. In a world grown dark, their art provides sparks of light, and they do it for love.

Novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong once wrote:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely to be rewarded with wealth, publicity and homage; but tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

A couple of years ago when I first read those words, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money," I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for Erica Jong to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, visual artists, performers -- not the size of the paycheck our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. No, I don't make my living entirely from writing; I also work as an editor to get by. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won a clutch of awards in my field, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do as well, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

This is why all over the Internet you see artists offering their work for free right now (stories, concerts, workshops, and more), an outpouring of creativity to brighten the gloom, turn straw into gold, and strengthen the ties that bind us all. Those on the front-lines of fighting Covid-19 (doctors, nurses, medical staff), as well as those keeping vital services going, are the true heroes of these challenging times -- but I'm proud of the arts community too. And I am grateful to every one of you who continues to tell the world's stories, re-imagine the future, and keep wonder alive. 

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


Turning Black Friday into a rainbow...

77294650_10158120760024009_4903864285567909888_n

As "Black Friday" begins the gift-buying season, please consider giving your money to artists, artisans, indie shops and local small businesses instead of low-wage paying, tax-avoiding, book-industry-damaging Amazon (and similar companies). Artists and small local shops make the world a better place, and many depend on holiday sales to keep going the rest of the year.

There are many visual artists, artisans, writers, publishers, musicians, etc. who sell mythic, folkloric, magical, and nature-inspired work online. Please recommend some of your favourites in the Comments below so we can spread the word about their work. If you're an art-maker yourself, please do list your own work. Don't be shy; we want to know about it.

And if you're anywhere near Dartmoor, the annual Winter Artisan Fayre is tomorrow at Endecott House here in Chagford, featuring the work of Virginia Lee, Danielle Barlow, Silverandmoor, and other fine local artists....

Studio in the square

Art above: Embracing the Bear by Virginia Lee and The Wisdom Keeper by Danielle Barlow.


The gift blocked up

Oak

From The Gifts of Reading, a gorgeous little chapbook by Robert Macfarlane:

"Great art 'offers us images by which to imagine our lives' notes Lewis Hyde in his classic 1983 book, The Gift, 'and once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we have to say.' This is a beautiful double-proposition: that art enlarges our repetoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

"I was given a copy of Hyde's The Gift -- and I don't have that copy any longer, because I gave it to someone else, urging them to read it. Gifts give on, says Hyde, this is their logic. They are generous acts that incite generosity. He contrasts two types of 'property': the commodity and the gift. The commodity is the acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other). In the market economy, value accrues to the individual by means of hoarding or 'saving.' In the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving.

"This, for Hyde, is why gifts possess 'erotic life,' as property: when we give a gift, it is an erotic act in the sense of eros as meaning 'attraction,' 'union,' a 'mutual involvement.' ... Unlike commodities, gifts -- in Hyde's account and my experience -- possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire."

White pony

Lewis Hyde's The Gift was a seminal book for me when I first encountered it as a young writer/editor, forming the way that I think about art: as a passing of gifts through the world, through time, and through the generations. I write, edit, and paint to make a living of course, to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, but for me the first and most important impulse in the art-making process is, as Pablo Neruda once said, " to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood" ... to which I would add the gifts of sisterhood, and of a deeply cherished relationship with nature and the more-than-human world.

Sheep

Sheep

In a previous post on gift exchange I noted:

"Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

"The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale)."

Sheep

Path

And yet somehow over the last few months, I seem to have lost the knack of breathing: the natural and mostly-unconscious cycle of in and out that sustains my life. I was working...writing...but the work didn't flow. My regular morning posts for Myth & Moor slowed down to a trickle, then stopped altogether. My inbox filled with unanswered mail as my ability to communicate -- the very thing I've built my life and career upon -- seemed to vanish altogether. I can point to particular reasons why: Exhaustion. Medical problems, both time-consuming and worrying. Too many demands upon my time and attention, and too few spoons to distribute among them. The weariness of spirit caused by the constant assault of the daily news since the Brexit vote and the American election. It was all of those things and none of those things. I hadn't gone to ground intentionally; I kept trying to speak, and found myself dumb -- which is not a comfortable situation for a professional writer, a creature with language at her core. As novelist/memoirist/poet May Sarton once wrote:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

Cow on the hill

What has changed, then, since the silent summer months, allowing me to return to work and resume this blog?

This, too, is mysterious. Perhaps it's simply the turn of the season: the air growing crisp, the leaves turning gold, the reminder that nothing in nature stands entirely still. Perhaps it's just the need to breathe out after holding my breath for too long. Perhaps it was a visit by two old friend, writers themselves, pulling me back to the literary world. Perhaps it's the way that the things that serve to frighten us into paralysis -- whether medical issues or other challenges -- eventually grow familiar, become the things you simply cope with, learn to fold into your days because you must...and life goes on...and the birds still sing...and the hound still wants her afternoon walk...and you find yourself speaking, once again, hesitantly at first, and then just a little louder...re-finding the words...re-finding yourself...until one day your fluency in your life's language returns.

Cow on the hill

Braising on oak leaves

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Kathleen Dean Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?"

By noticing them. By honoring them. By holding them close when the world goes dark, and passing them on when the light comes back.

Climbing the hill

The door of my studio stands open. Myth & Moor is back on schedule again. Autumn is here. I am moving forward, and I suddenly have so much to say.

Reaching the top

Moore  Hyde  & Macfarlane

Credits: The passages quoted above are from The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2016); The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); and Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore (Shambhala, 2010). The May Sarton quote is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors. Three related posts: Gift Exchange (and the making of art), Doing It for Love, Knowing the World as a Gift.