Art to rock your weekend

Seawall by Karen Stamper

Seawall by Karen Stamper

The Other Art Fair returns to Arnolfini in Bristol tomorrow, and I can’t wait! It offers up countless brilliant examples of the exceptional art being created, and I’ve met a few of my favourite artists there, including the wonderful Karen Stamper.

Look out for hand poke tattoo artist Sarah Lu aka Needle and Chopstick, screenings from Encounters Film Festival, plus interactive poetry feature ‘I, the Poet. You, the Poet’ by the Cole sisters, Biba and Laurie. There will also be masses of exceptional exhibiting artists. Don’t miss Rosario Galatioto, Evie Kitt, Alan McLeod, Grace Green, Richard Heys and so many others, along with Karen Stamper who will be there again with her vividly atmospheric collage work.

The Other Art Fair is at Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA from 1st-3rd September 2017. The opening night is 5-9.30pm on Friday, with the show continuing from 10am till 6pm on Saturday and till 5pm on Sunday.

Find full details and buy your tickets here

Writing prompt – time slip

Port Meadows cr Judy DarleyVisiting Oxford recently for a friend’s significant birthday, we took a boat ride down the leisurely River Thames to where the waterway assumes the name of The Isis. Away from the hoards of punts and hapless tourists, we reached Port Meadows, where cows and wild horses meander the banks and wade in the shallow water.

It was remarkable to reach a space where nothing has changed for hundreds of years, In fact, its history stretches back to 2000BC. This is where Lewis Carroll rowed with Alice Liddell and told her stories of Alice in Wonderland, and where William Turner drank in the scenery while working on his early landscapes.

Imagine a boat ride that carries its voyagers through time to encounter the people who once walked alongside here, or paddled through its water. What might they learn about their own time?

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 might publish it on

Remembered textures

Giselle, detail, oil on linen, by Sophie PloegI love to run my fingertips over beautifully enticing fabrics. Artist Sophie Ploeg is playing with our tactile desires through oil paintings and pastel works that tempt the eyes instead of our sense of touch. It’s a skill that’s somewhat confusing at first glance, as our mind conjures memories of these fabrics against our skin, filling in the information presented by sight. In the same way that a description of food can make us salivate, Sophie feeds other more sensual urges simply through pressing colour to canvass or page in such as way that she perfectly captures the play of light and shade and the texture of draped fabric.

After growing up in the Netherlands, Sophie has made her home in England for a very simple reason. “I fell in love! During my research for my PhD, I spent a lot of time in London in various archives and libraries,” she comments. “I met my British husband during these trips and decided to stay. It has been nearly 20 years now and until Brexit I could not imagine ever going back. I am completely integrated and at home here, though I do admit a preference for Dutch cheese.”

Despite Brexit, Sophie is hoping to remain in the UK. “I will stay as this is my home and this is where my children are growing up,” she says. “I love Britain for its love of history and its beautiful nature but I will remain a Dutchie in my heart.”

A passion for art, architecture, photography, fashion and theatre have provided Sophie with the foundations of her life here, but it’s her experiments with recreating lusciously textured textiles in her artwork that caught my eye.

Looking Back, detail, oil on linen by Sophie Ploeg

Looking Back, detail, oil on linen by Sophie Ploeg

“I was always fascinated by painting various textures and have tried to challenge myself with painting water, rocks, sand and so on,” she says. “When I tried fabrics I was hooked.”

To up the ante, Sophie started painting depictions of lace. “This has kept me busy for a few years now,” she says. “It’s still a challenge to really capture the crisp, transparent qualities of the fabric and I doubt I will ever be totally happy about my efforts. Other fabrics like velvet, silk and patterned woven or printed textiles supply an endless source of inspiration.”

Her favourite materials when drawing fabrics are oil paints and pastels. “Other artists might get on better with watercolour, digital mediums, photography or even textile itself,” she comments. “I love oils for its depth of colour and pure beauty. It can make the deepest blacks and the richest blues or reds. With glazing and scumbling you can create beautiful effects. It is hugely versatile and easy to use, it doesn’t dry up and you can play with it endlessly.”

She also loves the precision required to get the most from pastels. “They are very direct in that you cannot pre-mix colours. You have to layer colours in order to mix, which not only forces you to learn about colour but also automatically provides textures and depth.”

The Ritual, oil on linen, by Sophie Ploeg

The Ritual, oil on linen, by Sophie Ploeg

For Sophie, fabrics are brimming with stories – lived, invented and imbued. “Fabrics are full of associations, and history,” she says. “They are tactile and sensuous. They are used for fashion and home furnishings, film and theatre costumes, drapery, sails and sacks. Many people have memories evoked by clothes, many have associations with certain types of textiles. It is one of the richest sources of inspiration for me and I hope to evoke these associations in my paintings. The most lush fabrics such as lace, velvet and silk are the most fun to work with as they are so beautiful and take us to another world of history and imagination.”

Winning the BP Travel Award in 2013 and having her work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London has given my career a very definite boost, she says. “It was a fantastic experience to not only be included in the show and the buzzing activity that surrounds it, but to have an opportunity to really dive deeper and combine my love of art history with my love of painting,” she says. “It was a proud moment to have a series of works on show at such as prestigious location.”

Sophie is currently working on a new series of paintings that springing from her imagination, with some inspiration sourced from works by Old Masters. “These works are freeing me up to experiment and play a little, both of which most artists need to develop their work,” she says. “I am sure this period will help me move my work onwards, and I am excited to explore where it will take me.”

Sophie is also writing about art, art history and painting on my blog and for other publications, “which I enjoy immensely. Find more about me and my work on”

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judy(at)

Writing prompt – hardware

Clamp by Judy Darley

I love a random bit of hardware – the more industrial-looking the better. This one seems ripe for transformation into a clue, a character or a threat.

Imagine it scaled up to something far bigger, or re-envision it miniscule. Now build a story around that image.

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 might publish it on

How to confound categories

The winding mechanism on a lock gate by Kate Dunn

As authors we’re often asked to define our writing genre, but is this always the right option? Today’s guest post author, Kate Dunn, thinks not.

An article in the Kirkus Review about my new novel The Dragonfly mentioned that it is difficult to categorise, something that I was rather pleased about as I was keen not to bend the integrity of the story to fit into a particular niche.  It is an unusual tale.  Its two central character are a middle-aged man, Colin, and his nine-year-old French granddaughter Delphine, who are thrown together after the death of Delphine’s mother Charlotte.

To divert her from her sorrows, Colin decides to take her on an extended trip on his little day boat, the Dragonfly. Having these two protagonists at the heart of the novel already creates certain tensions – they come from different generations, genders and countries; they don’t even share a common language, so there is plenty of scope for conflict here and therefore the potential for drama.

Locate the emotional truth

I set myself more challenges than perhaps I meant to with these two. Neither Colin nor Delphine come from worlds which particularly chime with my own and I find it very difficult to account for their origins and evolution: they made themselves known to me.

What I’m trying to do in creating characters is to locate the emotional truth in each of them. That seems to dictate how they speak, how they think, how they behave and I guess there is a certain universality in the emotions all of us feel – the author’s job is to make these individual and particular to each of her characters. I’m slightly superstitious about analysing whatever it is that happens during this process, in case it stops working!

The book has two different locations: firstly, the achingly beautiful canals which wind through the Burgundy countryside in France. My husband and I are lucky enough to have a little river boat which we keep on the French waterways.

We have had rather more adventures then I would like: it turns out that as a sailor I have a very low threshold of panic and an over-active imagination – not good for boating but quite productive in terms of writing fiction, and I have certainly drawn upon some of our scrapes when plotting The Dragonfly.

Colin’s boat is based on one we saw moored in a marina – it was absolutely tiny and a middle-aged man and his granddaughter had been sailing on it together for thirty-six days.  That got me thinking…

Draw from unconventional experiences

The sub plot of the story takes place within the four walls of a prison cell in Paris where Colin’s son Michael is awaiting trial for the murder of Delphine’s mother, living in close proximity to his villainous cellmate Laroche while attempting to come to terms with recent tragic events.

One of my first jobs was working as a solicitor’s clerk and occasionally I had to visit prisoners on remand in Brixton prison – seeing the conditions back then had a huge impact on me and certainly informed the writing of these scenes.

My years spent in a particularly grim English boarding school helped as well: the place was spartan and institutional and the iron bedsteads (complete with horsehair mattresses) had Kent Summer Prison stencilled on them. It was a brutalising regime and left an indelible impression on me, which I think also may have influenced my portrayal of the dynamics at play in my Paris prison.

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnI wanted Colin and Delphine to begin their adventure together from opposite poles in order to create enough space for them to reach out to one another.  To increase their stress levels, I decided to place all of my characters in situations where space is the one thing that isn’t available to them:  Colin and Delphine are on a small boat, and Michael and Laroche are confined to a cell.

My hope was that in setting up these polarities within the story and putting my characters in a pressure-cooker situation, I would maximise the opportunities for narrative tension: there is plenty of warp and weft in the novel. There are all kinds of contrasts at play that might not have been available to me if I had confined myself strictly to one genre.  A thread of domestic violence runs through the book, posing some tricky questions: can a victim ever be complicit in what happens to them? Does the fact that somebody commits a violent act preclude them from being otherwise decent and well meaning?

These are issues I wanted to explore, without necessarily coming up with answers – I’ve left that to the reader to decide.  Although the central theme is serious, there is lots of humour in The Dragonfly, which provides another source of structural tension.  The fact that the story straddles different genres and can be read as a mystery or thriller, a family drama, a love story, an adventure full of mishap and misjudgement or even a road trip, is an expression of all the contrasts and contradictions that define it.

Kate-Dunn-writer-authorAbout the author

Kate Dunn comes from a long line of writers and actors: her great-great-grandfather Hugh Williams was a Welsh chartist who published revolutionary poetry, her grandfather, another Hugh Williams, was a celebrated film star and playwright, and she is the niece of the poet Hugo Williams and the actor Simon Williams.

Kate has had six books published, including novels Rebecca’s Children and The Line Between Us, and non-fiction books Always and Always – the Wartime Letters of Hugh and Margaret Williams and Exit Through the Fireplace. Her novel The Dragonfly was shortlisted for The Virginia Prize for Fiction.

All images in this guest post have been supplied by Kate Dunn.

Read my review of The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to Judy(at)

Writing prompt – idyll

St James Park, London by Judy DarleyVisiting London recently on a fiercely hot summer’s day (remember summer? It lasted a few uncommonly good days!) the happiest i felt was when we stepped from the crush of streets into the leafiness of St James’ Park, where this photo was snapped. Yup, those are our shadows, right there.

Lakes, sunshine, waterfowl… What’s not to love?

And yet, even here, darkness waits to catch you out. As we admired ducks diving and swimming beneath the surface, an old man approached to tell me how he’d watched a seagull drowning ducklings, and a friend later told me the familiar story of one of the park’s resident pelicans swallowing a pigeon in front of his eyes. Gulp.

Could you twist this into a political satire or something more poetic? Think about the surface beauty of settings where threats lie in wait…

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 The Dragonfly by Kate Dunn

The Dragonfly by Kate DunnA father incarcerated for killing his wife. A grandfather ousted from solitude into the care of his granddaughter. An angry nine-year-old, a toy monkey and a boat slicing through the waterways of France.

Got that?

Kate Dunn’s set-up seems as much a surprise to her characters as to readers, seeking a genre to hook her book onto. As we meet Colin, an English man who has buried his loneliness in boatbuilding, there’s a curious comfort in not quite knowing where we’re going.

Colin holds himself separate to us so that it takes a while to get a sense of him and the great, multiple heartbreaks that separated him from his son years before. This aloofness is no error in judgement from Dunn, however, as the pages drift by and you find yourself warming to Colin and his awkwardness.

The story really comes to life when Delphine, the afore-mentioned angry nine-year-old, and her precious soft toy Amandine. Fizzing into the plot, Delphine is full of a barely contained rage that seems only appropriate given the death of her mother Charlotte and subsequent imprisonment of her father Michael. Continue reading

Invigorating imaginations with At-Bristol

Nephew exploring At-Bristol by Judy DarleyAt 10am yesterday, my eight-year-old nephew was the first person to enter At-Bristol. For the fleetest of moments, he had the whole, magical place to himself. The expression on his face was one of awe, but also faint panic. As a child with ADHD, being presented with limitless possibilities can be daunting. Swiftly he focussed on his favourite exhibit and we hurried over to feed a skeleton and watch his energy levels rise and fall.

This is just one of countless interactive exhibits at the Bristol hands-on science centre, and before long we were moving on to listen to music through our teeth, play with pint-sized parachutes, and test our reflexes in countless ways, as rain drenched Millennium Square beyond the plate glass windows.

Glass Microbiology by Luke Jerram1

Glass Microbiology by Luke Jerram

I crept way for a few moments to take in Luke Jerram’s stunning Glass Microbiology exhibit – breathe in a moment’s peace among the viruses sculpted in glass and head back out into the mayhem where my husband was helping the nephew milk a pretend cow.

Exploring the Solar System Planetarium show

Exploring the Solar System Planetarium show

We’d deliberately timetabled in a couple of shows in the Planetarium to allow the nephew and ourselves a bit of quiet time. I’m also partial to a bit of space travel, and the 3D shows offer a sense of swooping through the solar system. We visited Venus (too hot, very stormy, not the best place for a holiday), and Saturn’s Rings (too cold, but very beautiful), before swooping back to Earth (just right, and the most beautiful of all). We spent time on Mars and Pluto, and learnt about atmosphere, gas giants and that Neptune is the most glorious shade of blue.

Nephew in Planetarium by Judy Darley

The Planetarium is also on the floor with some of the most engaging displays, in my opinion. The Aardman area animation is ideal for children and adults who like to doodle, while an impressive wind drum provided the chance to build structures to mimic a sycamore seeds spin. We discovered the cause of the Bermuda Triangle’s many ship disappearances, and entered a tilted room where perspective skewed in a pretty magical way.

Constructing roadways

Elsewhere the nephew devoted himself to building roadways for plastic balls, spun metal disks and proved himself to be impressively adept at creating bubbles within bubbles within bubbles. Just watching him get to grips with his surroundings was a masterclass in harnessing a fizzing mind to gain the most rewarding experience possible.

Exiting the science centre into sunshine, the research continued as we headed up to College Green and discovered the tree full of shoes (close to the cathedral, in case you’d like to see it for yourself), met a shy juggler (the nephew’s many questions seemed to alarm him somewhat!) and discovered that it’s possible to skim pennies on the water surrounding the fountain – four skips across the surface from one side to the other.

At-Bristol is a marvel for curious minds, giving adults a way to access their own inquisitive side and nourishing children’s natural sense of wonder. The clamour and chaos is all part of the mix, but if you get in tune with that, you’ll emerge prepared to reinvent the world.

Find out more about At-Bristol

Writing prompt – adventure

Climbing by Judy Darley

Today I’m looking after my middle nephew, who is quite an extraordinary child. Strong, speedy, inquisitive and bright, he’s endlessly hungry for adventure. That’s him in the red jacket, negotiating a climbing frame.

Here he is making friends with a pair of girls who apparently got the same memo as him about wearing red.

In his effort to make friends, my nephew used to attach himself to other families he encountered, and sometimes even follow them out of the park.

It reminded me of someone who once told me about how they took a gaggle of their children’s pals out for a birthday treat, then got back home to find out they’d somehow ended up with one extra…

Use that as the conundrum for a new short story.

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

New Flash Fiction Review invites submissions

Arnos Vale tangle tree cr Judy DarleyThis attractive online magazine caught my attention thanks to the alumni of excellent contributors, including Jude Higgins, and the editor’s apparent passion for brief, splendid, often whimsical works.

Founded in 2014 by author and editor Meg Pokrass, they describe themselves as “an online magazine devoted to flash fiction and prose poetry.”

They are open for submissions under 1,000 words in length until September 12th 2017. How could you resist?

Happily, simultaneous submissions are encouraged. If your piece has been accepted elsewhere, simply withdraw it from the Submissions manager.

Find full details here: