Combing the world with Karen Stamper

Karen Stamper sketch book1The art of Karen Stamper is the kind to stop you in your tracks, pause and lean in. Seen from a distance, it’s a beautiful mass of colours and suggestions, but a closer view offers up a wealth of textures and hints, thanks to Karen’s love of collecting found objects and putting them to excellent, satisfying use.

My grandma was a traveller and a collector,” she explains. “I would spend many hours of my childhood looking through her tins of trinkets, postcards with exotic stamps, tapestries and dolls from foreign lands.” She adds with a grin: “I was always more fascinated by the foreign newspaper wrapping a doll than by the doll itself.”

Against the Tide by Karen Stamper

Against the Tide by Karen Stamper

Early forays into art were largely an avoidance exercise. “My Sunday night homework time would involve drawing and collaging, always to avoid the more tedious subjects,” she says. “It wasn’t long before my parents noticed this and encouraged me to keep a sketchbook, enter competitions and paint bright murals on walls around the garden.”

This encouragement fuelled Karen’s interest and gave her a strong foundation in creative explorations.

While on a collage travel scholarship in Paris, Karen first fully recognised the true potential of colours. “I discovered turquoise shutters, red chequered tablecloths and curling iron balconies: shapes and colours so frivolous to me growing up in the worn, tough, solid fishing town of Hull,” she says. “It was in Paris that I saw Matisse’s cut-outs for the first time; it wasn’t just the scale of his work but the colours, pin holes, crease lines and torn edges that fired my imagination. I continued to travel and work overseas for 10 years, always with a sketchbook.”

Karen Stamper sketch book

A childhood “growing up on the east coast of Yorkshire as a happy beachcomber,” seeded Karen with a deeply rooted love of shorelines. “I was, and still am, attracted to the faded painted wood, scraps of gaudy plastic, brightly coloured fishing floats and nets: all sun dried, sand blasted, salted and weathered,” she says. “My dad’s passion was sailing, and each Friday we would pack up and spend the weekend on the coast. I was free to wander, explore and collect only returning at mealtimes. This freedom set my path.”

Summer Mercy Island by Karen Stamper

Summer Mercy Island by Karen Stamper

It’s a path she remains true to today. “Old boats, harbours, the sun-salty smell of tarpaulin and diesel, and the sound of halyards tapping on a mast, are all comforting childhood memories. They have stayed with me and I still naturally gravitate towards the harbour in any coastal town.”

In over ten years of travelling and working overseas, Karen gradually developed a blend of collage, painting and sketching that is very much her own. Throughout her nomadic decade, she was “constantly sketching and collecting a rich resource of tickets, labels, packaging, stamps, paper bags and scraps of lettering – each one telling its own story – scraps of city life ready to become the first layers of a collage.”

Karen settled in New Zealand  for a couple of years, where she worked as a freelance illustrator for magazines and book covers, including her hoard of collected treasures in her designs.

Spend Some Time by Karen Stamper

Spend Some Time by Karen Stamper

“Working in collage, combining the found papers with layers of brightly painted tissue to create a vibrant integrated surface, reflects my life and travels: a patchwork of places and people bonded together; some fading, some peeling, some permanent; all full of joyful colour and happy memories,” she says. “My aim has been to remind the viewer of warmer climates of intense colours, hazy zapping heat and sun scorched walls. More recently I have focused on the urban shoreline in the UK. I am drawn to the rusting, paint peeling structures which lend themselves well to cut and ripped paper.”

Far from being arbitrary, the materials that make their way into Karen’s work are carefully selected. “I usually start with found papers on the theme that I am working on,” she says . “For example, in a French scene there could be stamps, envelopes, letters, posters, shopping lists, house sale papers, teabag labels, napkins, matchboxes and chocolate bar wrappers, all in French, of course. Stranger materials have included a Spanish fan, dried hessian tea bags, and spaghetti.”

In building up the images, Karen starts with colours and shapes from her sketches and photographs. “I usually zoom in on scenes so the view is flattened and abstracted, and then add text in different fonts, sheet music, patterns and then layers of painted tissues and washes of acrylic paint,” she says.

At this point, memories or themes relating to a place start to emerge,  “and so the compositions starts to evolve. I am happy with bold abstract areas next to real or recognisable imagery. Viewers need a little clue into the ‘scene’ but then I would like them to make their own story.”

To Karen, “life is a collection of experiences – I need to collect, layer and absorb the places I visit – the colours and the countries are embedded in my artwork and in me.”

Moored by Karen Stamper

Moored by Karen Stamper

Karen says that she feels most grounded when working in her studio in Cambridge, “totally focused, creating a piece of work that sings. The visual energy of composition, colour and surface of my work feed my soul. From beach comber to city comber – I’m always seeking, gathering, arranging, sorting, storing, enriching and sticking.” 

You can see more of Karen’s work at Byard Art Gallery, CambridgeThe Darryl Nantais Gallery in Linton, CambridgeshireThe John Russell Gallery in Ipswich and at The Cambridge Art Fair on 1st-2nd October, as well as on her gorgeous website,

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)

Writing prompt – home

north-dakota-lodge-balcony-stair-railing_James PaderThis images was sent to me by James Pader, with permission of the homeowners. I think it’s a truly extraordinary scene.

Look at the taxidermy deer in the alcove! The chandelier of cream-coloured candles! The flatscreen TV set into a recess in the stone wall! The beautiful tree-inspired railings! There’s so much to see and exclaim over.

Imagine the person who lives in a house like this. Who might they invite to a dinner party? What might ensue?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on

Book review – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman coverThe title of this short story collection by Margaret Drabble was enough to make me put it on my wishlist. There was no doubt in my mind that the smiles of the woman in question would be hiding a multitude of less presentable emotions.

The women in Drabble’s tales are often to be found smiling in the face of adversity. They’re quietly courageous individuals, usually unnoticed for the most part by the boorish men in their lives, and that’s how they like it, because it frees them up to get on with the serious job of living.

This particular collection from Penguin Modern Classics is laid out nose to tail, by which I mean the stories are organised chronologically according to original publication dates, beginning with Hassan’s Tower, published in 1966, and culminating with Stepping Westward, dating from 2000. As a result, we get a sense of Drabble growing and developing with her narratives. Her characters age and so do their preoccupations, not to mention their self-confidence.

Continue reading

Autumn’s literary events 2016

Cherry red cherry tree cr Judy DarleyOctober is full of literary events to tempt you out of your cosy home to listen, participate and be inspired. The Bath Children’s Literature Festival is on from Friday 30th September until Sunday 9th October 2016. I’ve picked out three other topnotch literary festivals happening in October for you to pick from.

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival – 7-16 October 2016

The Mandibles A FamilyAuthors presenting new releases include Ian McEwan talking about NutshellGraham Swift discussing Mothering Sunday, Edna O’Brien introducing her first novel in ten years: The Little Red ChairsEimear McBride with The Lesser Bohemians, Sebastian Faulks on Where My Heart Used to Beat, Maggie O’Farrell with This Must Be The Place, Jacqueline Wilson on Clover Moon, and Tracy Chevalier presenting At the Edge of the Orchard.

There will also be powerful poetry from Salena Godden and Lemn Sissay, a Big Read book group focused on Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, and Stroud Short Stories sharing writing by new and established authors from throughout Glos and South Glos.

My pick: Orange Prize-winning author of We Need to Talk About KevinLionel Shriver introduces her unsettling new novel The Mandibles A Family, 2029-2047.

Visit for details and to book tickets.

Manchester Literature Festival – October 7-23 2016

Look out for numerous events celebrating writing in all its forms. Speakers include Valerie Bloom, Gillian Slovo, Margaret Drabble, and Johnny Marr, plus the chance to have afternoon tea with a variety of A-Lister novelists.

My pick: Refugee Tales: Marina Lewycka and Dragan Todorovic. In an event event presented in partnership with Comma Press, and chaired by Ra Page,  Marina Lewycka (author of author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and herself born in a refugee camp), and the poet and novelist Dragan Todorovic (author of Diary of Interrupted Days) will share stories commissioned for The Refugee Tales Project for which they worked with refugees who had direct experience of Britain’s detention system, re-telling their stories anonymously as a modern day equivalent to The Canterbury Tales.

For the full programme visit

Guildford Book Festival – 9-16 October 2016

Take a creative writing workshop, attend a literary lunch with Anne Sebba and Elizabeth Buchan, discover the inspiration Behind Doctor Zhivago with Anna Pasternak, the author’s great-niece, then watch David Lean’s epic 1965 film, and gain insight into how  Anthony Horowitz wrote his latest whodunit Magpie Murders.

My pick: Broadcaster and comedian Graham Norton will be discussing his debut novel Holding, described as a surprising, compelling and gripping read.

Find the full Guildford Book Festival programme here

Writing prompt – gone

Cloud_Perretts Park cr Judy DarleyImagine a place you know well with something fundamental missing – clouds, trees, birds, children… Or whatever comes to mind.

How different would that place be? Why would that thing be gone, and what impact could that have?

Add in two characters, one who remembers when this item was still a regular sight, and one for whom that time is no more real than myth.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on

Theatre Review – The Rivals

The Rivals at Bristol Old Vic Theatre. Photo by Mark DouetAs part of its 250th anniversary celebrations, Bristol Old Vic is showcasing The Rivals, an 18th century comedy of pretence and frippery all in the name of snaring a spouse.

The play emphasises the vanity of late 1700s, with women sporting bustles and anyone of note wearing towering wigs, where social status is as much about the person your contemporaries believe you to be as who you actually are.


Julie Legrand, Desmond Barrit, Lee Mengo and Keith Dunphy in The Rivals

Enter Captain Jack Absolute (Rhys Rusbatch, a posh boy passing himself off as a penniless soldier in order to win the affections of the splendidly named (and splendidly performed by Lucy Briggs-Owen) Lydia Languish. One of the running themes of the play is the idea that reading can damage women’s minds, a fancy perpetrated by Lydia’s apparent brainwashing by romance novels into craving a life of poverty.

In addition to her affair with ensign Beverley, Lydia has unknowingly inflamed the desires of Captain Jack’s pal Bob Acres (Lee Mengo), while her maid Lucy (Lily Donovan) is passing love notes between her aunt Mrs Malaprop and Sir Lucius O’Trigger, the latter of whom she has duped into believing he’s receiving them from seventeen-year-old Lydia.

Then there’s Faukland (Nicholas Bishop) who is in love with Julia (Jessica Hardwick), a straightforward match complicated by Faukland’s paranoia, which results in him testing his sweetheart’s affections until she is at her wits, and patience, end.

In short, all the ingredients of a delightful farce, set against the charmingly over-the-top opulence and theatricality of the era.

The set, designed by Tom Rogers, aptly conjures up the sense of a doll’s house, with oversized wallpaper prints and vast paintings of 18th century Bath. The impression of art, and artifice, is enhanced by a clever use of frames, from doorways to hollow mirrors – even the chair backs are left empty to provide additional glimpses.

Towards the rear of the stage, pianist Henry Everett provides suitably tinkly musical accompaniment to the scenes.

It all weaves together the atmosphere of a place and time full of passion, much of it woefully misguided.

Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lydia is comically adept, bringing modern-day teen melodrama to her character’s lines. At times in her fervour it looked as though her wig might take flight, while her ability to slouch and swoon her way around the set belied the constrictions of her 18th century garments.

Julie Legrand as Mrs Malaprop masterfully delivers lines packed full of misattributed words: at one point she urges her niece to “illiterate’ ensign Beverley from her memory, while at another praising Captain Jack as the “very pineapple of politeness.” In some sentences there are so many false words that the only way to get the gist is through Legrand’s effusive performance: the sentiment is always clear, even if the actual meaning has slipped awry.


Rhys Rusbatch as Jack Absolute and Julie Legrand as Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals

And yet, occasionally her word choices are particularly telling, as when she describes her niece as  “a deliberate simpleton.”

In Dominic Hill’s interpretation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s script, the gender divide becomes a shrewd part of the comedy. While the men thrust and parry their way through the show, the women get on with living, using the men’s underestimation of them as an advantage. Maidservant Lucy is making a fine extra income through sharing carefully selected eavesdropped morsels, while the ever-resilient Julia quietly prepares for every eventuality. Even Mrs Malaprop shows some astuteness when she recognises that Captain Jack’s “good-breeding” has not prevented him insulting her through letters written as ensign Beverley.

This is a play in which the men rampage as rambunctious fools, while regarding their women as air-headed children, while in truth the females steer every twist and turn of the plot. Quite simply, a really entertaining, understatedly forward-thinking historical show.

The Rivals is a Bristol Old Vic, Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Playhouse co-production. It will be at Bristol Old Vic until 1 Oct
 2016. Tickets from £9.50. Find details and book tickets.

All photos are by Mark Douet.

I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Swirling seas and skies

Reeds All About It by Rachel

Reeds All About It by Rachel

Textile artist Rachel Wright recreates the world with a rich palette of threads, building up scenes that shine with beauty. She grew up surrounded by her father’s paintings, etchings and engravings, so felt that entering that world was a natural step, even if she did choose an entirely different medium as her paintbox.

“By the time I was in sixth form I was already looking for a university course in textile design,” she says.

Rachel was determined to bring her drawing skills together with her textile work, despite the fact that the college she attended really didn’t regard being able to draw an asset – “in fact, I’d go as far as to say they almost tried to beat it out of you!”

Happily, since leaving college, she’s had the chance to explore the possibilities offered by melding her talent for portraying the natural world with her fabric prowess. “They lend themselves to the fluid restless motion that I try to portray in my skies and seas.”

Any Port in a Storm by Rachel Wright

Any Port in a Storm by Rachel Wright

The vivid swirling shapes captured in her work conjure up a sense of energy and movement reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In Any Port in a Storm, above, there’s a palpable sense of peril and the drama of being at the mercy of a wild sea. To create a piece like this, Rachel selects the fabrics with care, and then machine sews them into the shapes that reflect the image in her mind.

Floating City Detail 02 by Rachel Wright

Floating City Detail 02 by Rachel Wright

“My first love was hand stitching but it was taking me far too long to complete each piece and once out in the real world I needed to start earning some money from my work,” she says. “My grandma had bought me my first sewing machine – it’s 30 years old now and still the one I still use everyday!”

Selling her work offers an emotional benefit too. “It’s such an enormous pleasure to know that people are prepared to part with their hard earned cash, to own something that I have made,” she says. “I love walking into and exhibition and seeing those little red dots on my work. It’s the best feeling!”

Her earliest pieces were beautifully abstract embroidery works, which provided her with the training to create the vivid landscapes and seascapes she’s now known for.

“I learnt a lot about using colour and composition, all of which stood me in good stead for the landscape pieces – using using fabrics, with all their wonderful colours, textures and patterns as my palette and threads as my paintbrush, adding in the details.”

Starting a brand new picture is the hardest thing, she admits. “I call it ‘Blank canvas syndrome’. Sometimes even the housework can suddenly seem like an attractive proposition when I should be starting a new piece. I really don’t like the beginning but inevitably, once I dive in and get going it’s usually only a matter of an hour or so before I’m hooked again.”

Almost Home by Rachel Wright

Almost Home by Rachel Wright

Rachel likes to work from photographs taken on walks or family holidays. “When I start to plan a piece, I will often sketch directly onto the calico before starting to work in the fabrics, “ she says. “I always like to have an image or several images to work from. I may not translate them literally but I think it’s important to know how something actually looks before you can start to play around with it.”

She adds: “My kids often get asked to draw things at school but are not given any reference to look at. It makes me mad because my dad always taught me to spend twice as long looking at the thing I was trying to draw, as I did actually making marks on the paper. Seeing what is really there is at least half the battle. It’s in noticing the small things that something becomes lifelike and realistic.”

That said, she has a passion for letting her creativity have free reign at times too. “I certainly like to allow my imagination in on the act. This is probably most evident in my foaming, swirling seas or my dynamic, dramatic skies.”

Find more of Rachel’s embroidered artwork at

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Writing prompt – I-spy

View from St Peter's Church tower, Frampton CotterellI love getting a new perspective on a view, especially by going up high. In this instance I took a tour up the tour of St Peter’s Church in Frampton Cotterell, a really pretty part of the English southwest.

Below to the left are allotments and a pub garden, to the right a field of horses, then a field of geese and beyond that trees hiding the River Frome. So bucolic and pastural!

But here, underneath the tower where I stand, are graves laid out in such orderly rows that they resemble dominos or hospital beds. In fact, they don’t look all that dissimilar to the allotment plots just up and left – here’s a peek for you.

Allotments, Frampton Cotterell cr Judy Darley

What do you think? Can you think of something seen and misunderstood from this vantage point that could start a tale?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on

Poetry review – Wordstrokes

Wordstrokes coverActually, I have a confession – this is partly a review, partly just me tooting my own trumpet, because I have four poems in this anthology. Tooo-ti-tooo!

Published by Avalanche Books and edited by the keen-eyed and astute Deborah Gaye, Wordstrokes: The Poetry of Art reveals how different creative mediums can energise one another. In this case, every piece of writing featured has been prompted by paintings, sculptures and art museums, with the result that the crisply printed black text on white seethes with colour.

As a passionate advocate of bringing different expressive forms together, I found this assortment of poems (and a single work of prose) to be a page-based equivalent of visiting a gallery, only the images appear inside your head, generated by the words as you read them.

Among the most moving examples are Bird of the Sea by Susan Taylor, after a carving by Bridget McCrum, which opens with the elegant stanza: “remember/ her like /the font /that was leaking/ the water/ that held/ first flight”.

There isn’t a single dull note in the anthology. Other highlights include In Response To The Sea by Sarah Miller (prompted by Emil Nolde), which is a sultry poem that zings with flavour: “We talked sweetness/ until the wind took it/ sucked what was left/ of the fading orange sun”.

Likewise, Stitching Twilight by Kay Lee (inspired by Paul Klee) is richly layered with colour and texture: “This could be a new embroidery,/ one you made from a grandson’s drawing –/ see the bird, its beak open/ to drink in the last of the daylight.”

Deborah has arranged the assortment of works to build up impressions of thoughtfully curated rooms, where each piece subtly elevates its neighbours. Moods spill into one another, while narratives gain momentum, and more abstract creations present the impression of an endlessly shifting, shimmering ocean.

Inspirations are wonderfully varied, but include Edward Hopper, Millais, Paula Rego, David Hockney, Frida Kahlo, Kandinsky, even Yoko Ono, as well as a raft of lesser known but equally emotive painters, sculptors and makers.

My four pieces are Tea (inspired by Ai Weiwei), More Water Than Land (inspired by an untitled abstract painting by Katy Webster), Last Night I Dreamt (prompted by the sculptures of Paul Smith) and This Gallery, inspired by a host of visual artists.

To get your hands on a copy of Wordstrokes: The Poetry of Art, head down to your local bookshop (Waterstones will do, or any other with friendly, intelligent inhabitants), and ask nicely for them to order it in. The ISBN number is 978 1 874392 26 2. They should be happy to oblige. Alternatively, click here to buy it from Amazon.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)

Writing prompt – hive mind

Bee cr Judy DarleyI recently lent The Bees by Laline Paull to my mum, and it reminded me what an extraordinary book that is, exploring societal values through a bee’s eyes.

This week, think yourself into a mind utterly unlike your own – an ant’s, a bee’s, or even a tree’s, and try to see our world through its perceptions, to write a truly original tale.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on