Book review – With One Eye On The Cows

with-one-eye-on-the-cowsGathering together 137 stellar micro fictions, With One Eye On The Cow: Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four is an anthology full of stamping, harrumphingly insistent words.

I have a particular fondness for slow-burn flashes, by which I mean the ones that burrow in and quietly stop then restart your heart. Not the well-worn trope of a twist in the tail, but the stories that seed in subtle clues that burst into bloom with startling vivacity. Those authors in my opinion have mastered the tricky craft of the short short.

A Kind God by Jesse Sensibar is a particularly fine example, beginning with the sublime and finishing with the prosaic, with a sliver of shock in between.

Elsewhere we rub shoulders with displaced families, and a vastly varied assortment of starting points of PTSD. We encounter the bravura of sexual, awakenings and dawning realisations, and seethe with the knowledge of thoughtless wrongs impossible to undo.

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Book review – My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonI have a stubborn streak that makes me shy from the books that hit mainstream esteem. Part of me wants to seek out the underdogs that will really benefit from the boost of a review. However, My Name Is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman whose childhood placed her squarely in the camp of underdog, with a level of poverty that Elizabeth Strout paints with visceral skill, rendering it utterly relatable without oiling the hinges with sentimentality.

Throughout the novel we are entirely within Lucy’s head, seeing her experiences through her own eyes. At times her memory is uncertain, in the way that all childhood memories are to a degree, but because she doesn’t view her early years as pitiful, neither do we.

We join Lucy during an extended stay in a New York hospital following an operation to have her appendix removed. Lucy’s long-estranged mother arrives to keep her company, and the pair drift through anecdotes from the past, while Lucy observes her mother with a fond yet wary eyes. It’s an interesting set up, made more complex as Strout parkours into Lucy’s future, where she is taking a writing class and the novel, or rather Lucy’s memoir, is taking shaping. The opening line forewarns of this chronological fluidity: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.”

Strout is an agile and fearless writer, freerunning between past, present and future in a way that sharpens our understanding of Lucy’s nature, as well as the backdrop of her life in Amgash, Illinois and New York at the start of the Aids epidemic, when yellow stickers were placed on the hospital doors of patients suffering from the virus, and outside “gaunt and bony men continued to walk by.”

We learn that Lucy is the youngest of three children in a family once so poor that for a time they lived in a garage, that she was aware from an early age of her differences compared to the other children (“We were outcasts”) and minds this less than her older sister does, and that as soon as she can read she takes refuge in fiction.

We know that her parents punish their children for crimes such as lying or wasting food, but that they, particularly the mother, also on occasion hit out “impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our blotchy skin and sullen dispositions.”

Yet she feels a great fondness for that childhood and her family. “I missed my mother, I missed my father, I suddenly missed the stark tree n the cornfield of my youth, I missed this all so deeply and terribly.”

Lucy, like any of us, is complex, contrary and swirled through with emotions built on experiences, deprivations and desires. She sees her good fortune in having moved on from the meanness of her beginnings, but argues, if only in her head, with those who believe she came from nothing: “No one in this world comes from nothing.”

This is a novel that will deepen your empathy for others, while impressing on you the value of compassion and forgiveness, as demonstrated by Lucy. It’s a story that is relatable at the most innate levels, and one that will give you hope that however dire things seems, a bit of courage and obstinacy might just carry you through to something brighter.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is published by Penguin Books and is available to buy here.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

Your indie Christmas list

Christmas gifts by Judy DarleyI’ve been reading and rereading books from numerous independent presses recently. Here’s my pick of the titles I believe warrant a place on your festive wishlist.

Nia coverNia by Robert Minhinnick

Published by Seren

Written in a style that verges on stream of consciousness, this dream book follows protagonist Nia around her home down fringed by sand dunes, underground and through her memories. With no speech marks in place, it’s occasionally uncertain what is spoken and what’s thought, while some conversations drop all attempts at signposting who speaking. It’s akin to eavesdropping in a place where voices are murmurs blanketed by a sea breeze – curiously soothing. Minhinnick is probably best known for his poetry, and his innate lyricism glows throughout. “Dad down on his knees pulling away the ivy. The ivy leaving scars, that’s how close it clung. I can still see the nettle blisters on the backs of his hands. All these white bumps. Like the ivy scars on the stone.” There is threat here, at times, but the painterly scenes make this a far gentler read than the hint of plot supposes. Ideal for early mornings in bed while the central heating clanks into life.THE COLOUR OF THINGS UNSEEN cover

The Colour of Things Unseen by Annee Lawrence

Published by Aurora Metro Books

An unerring respect for the spaces required for cultural differences underlines Annee Lawrence’s novel. From Java to Sydney, she paints a young artist’s blossoming understanding of the world as he travels from his rural village to art college in Australia. Yet, the real journey is far more internal, as Adi grasps at his own expectations, particularly with regards to women, and learns that there’s more than one route to follow for a relationship to thrive.

Adi is a character who is difficult to know, as Lawrence keeps him at arms’ length. His emotions always take on an abstract sense that not only reflects his own artwork, but illustrates how he feels as he navigates Australian values, so at odds with the ones he has grown up with.

Lawrence’s descriptions of Adi’s painting process, as well as of the locations in Java and Australia, make this an evocative novel that will inspire the urge to travel and discover the richness of cultural diversity for yourself.

Read Annee Lawrence’s guest post for SkyLightRain on how writing connects us across cultures and borders.

The False River coverThe False River by Nick Holdstock

Published by Unthank Books

“It had ben a year of four funerals and a poisoned cat,” writes Nick Holdstock in his story ‘New Traffic Patterns May Emerge’. “His flat had been burgled; his car stolen; he’d been punched in face by a stranger. His perfect girlfriend Rachel had tried to stab him, then broken up with him by text.”

Don’t you want to read on?

This story trembles with the narratives that ripple beyond its confines, sometimes overtly with lines such as “Fifty years later, as he walks through an airport, one of the huge lights will drop from the ceiling and miss him by only a foot.” Holdstock has harnessed the omniscient viewpoint with an enviable aplomb, walking a tightrope between characters that keeps your focus taut. It’s a skill evident throughout his debut collection.

She Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear coverShe Was A Hairy Bear, She Was A Scary Bear by Louisa Bermingham

Published by Valley Press

For something entirely different, Valley Press’ most experimental title to date should tick a few boxes. Not quite poetry, and not quite prose, the story of a fuzzy, passionate bear succeeds in covering issues around depression, self-doubt and the power of embracing our inner bear. Every page features author and artist Louisa Bermingham’s quirky mixed media artwork, with line drawings and paintings brought to life with bundles of her own hair trimmings, not to mention elastic bands and other household scraps.

Don’t let the hair put you off! Our Hairy Scary Bear is a fierce, vulnerable and entirely lovable heroine who will remind you that it’s healthy to have the occasional emotional outburst, but that you might do better to fight fire with water in tricky situations. Plus it’s beautifully printed, so there’s no risk at all of bear hair ending up in your tea.

the everumblethe everrumble by Michelle Elvy

Published by Ad Hoc Fiction

Without a doubt, this is my favourite book of 2019, if not the decade. Just thinking about it, my head fills with its colours and textures.

Described as a small novel in small forms, this book is far larger than the sum of its parts. I know people who devoured it in a single indulgent sitting, but for me it was so quenching that I drip-fed it to myself – page after page, moment by moment. It offered me a place to return to for peace, quietude and stillness, and now that I’ve read it from cover to cover, I know I’ll return again.

Delivered in a series of flashes, served up with plenty of space to hold the words and ideas safe, this is a book of contemplative joy.

Author Michelle Elvy has somehow conjured a multi-sensory experience through her writing, and, even more powerfully, compressed sensations onto the page that will eke into your everyday life.

Weaving in dreamscapes with glimpses into a long life, set against geography and literary musings in the form of notes on books that have captured Zettie’s attention, the everrumble is a glorious odyssey of one woman’s exploration of connectivity.

Read my full review of the everrumble by Michelle Elvy.

Anthology review – No Good Deed

No Good DeedUnexpected gems abound in Retreat West’s 2019 Charity Anthology. You’ll unearth them like lost ancient treasures by  roadsides where characters dreamt up by an assortment of outstandingly original writers immerse themselves in stories of generous acts, for the most part committed for no better reason than to alleviate someone’s anxiety or improve a slim chance of a better life.

In the case of the latter, it’s not only humans on their way to hopefully improved circumstances. Johanna Robinson‘s exquisitely wistful Bufo Bufo juxtaposes an ailing father with a communal project to help toads cross a road. “A toad stirs next to my foot, and I crouch and reach. I’m careful to hold it and not-hold it. It’s a new sense, to grip but not squeeze. Not too hard; not too soft. (…) Body soft but bony and skin glowing like topaz. Dangling legs every now and again pumping the air, like an electrical fault.”

Climbing Wall by Rosie Garland offers an askance view of what happens when we only take care of others and forget to look after ourselves, while in Seedlings by W.T. Paterson, a child’s belief converts a father’s lie into a startling truth.

“‘The first language a child learns is story,’ Navi said. ‘The second language is games, things like risk/reward, probability and chance, and what if. Their third language, which is spoken, becomes their native tongue.’”

A Longing For Clouds by Amanda Huggins is redolent with aromas that weave through the passages, evoking the rich, sensual squalor of heat, from “the pungent scent of overripe mangoes” to “sandalwood on warm skin”. Huggins’ story is a masterclass in engaging the senses, as she evokes scenes vivid with jewel colours, textures and flavours, overlaid with a yearning nostalgia.

“The only sound she could hear was the faint tinkle of the tiny bells on the women’s bracelets and ankle chains. The noise reminded Maggie of the dress she wore to Deepak’s wedding; cerulean blue with bells around the hem. It conjured the warmth of the soft Jaipur dusk; the air heavy with incense and sandalwood attar, the gate adorned with flowers. Bright saris, silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes. The bride, nervous and pale, beautifully gift-wrapped in red and gold.”

Thought-provoking lines shine throughout the anthology, often revealing a wealth of backstory in only a few, carefully chosen words. In Blue Swing by Matty Bannond, it’s the memory of a father “who was always there but usually facing the wrong way”, while in Dancing Crimson by Claire Hinchliffe, we encounter the zigzagging narrative of a woman, Miranda, who we begin to decipher through her simple yet poetic description of a common kitchen implement: “There’s a strange silver bowl covered in tiny holes, like rain and sprinkles and Blackpool.”

The breadth and variety of the stories is at times startling, with a focus that zooms into the minutiae of everyday lives before swooping outwards to carry us thousands of miles across our planet to concentrate on another life, another viewpoint and another example of empathy.

In many cases, the theme of ‘Help’ is the only connecting thread among these compact, heartfelt, and occasionally surreal stories. But what a strong thread that is, reminding us that regardless of our protagonists’ preoccupations and concerns, the underlying characteristic they share is humanity and the desire, however confused or grudging, to reach out and make a positive difference. An uplifting read for our times.

Sales from No Good Deed raise funds for the Indigo Volunteers charity. No Good Deed, edited by Amanda Saint and Sophie Duffy, is available to buy here.

Confession: My story What We Talk About When We Talk About Owls is included in this anthology.

A coppice of poetry

Three Seren poetry titlesI recently experienced the joy of arriving home to a package full of poetry collections from the inestimable Seren Books. It got me wondering what a collective noun for poetry collections should be. A library seems too literal, so I began thinking about what poetry offers – how it provides the space to pause and reflect before carrying on with the busy act of living. So, a poetry collection is a coppice, in the forest of everyday life.

Each of the collections on my doorstop hummed with its own resonance.

Footnotes to Water cover

Footnotes to Water by Zoë Skoulding immediately rose to the surface, in part thanks to the quirky duck feet displayed on the cover as though glimpsed through ice. This quiet collection shines with Skoulding’s finesse – she plays with shape, form, punctuation and alliteration to paint an impression of rivers’ movements against your skull. Throughout, we’re invited to view water in its relation to human feats of engineering, and to compare our own dances and dalliances to that of a river, as in Observation Chamber, “where no light falls surface/ except * in pin-pricks on red water*” Gorgeous.

Skoulding writes of our attempts to confine and control rivers, and of the floods that follow rainfall: “wicking up cracks in plaster/ where the houses drink it in.”

Her rivers mirror our bodies; each striving to speak and make themselves heard, and each craving to explore beyond their outer edges. There’s something ancient in the descriptions surfacing here, even as Skoulding’s sculpted lines tether modernity: “There are/ three days of gathering clouds/ and the cheapest is free.”

The collection is divided into three parts too, with Adda, focused on Bangor’s covered river, followed by Heft, a word meaning, Skoulding explains in Notes & Acknowledgements, “localised knowledge passed on through generations of sheep” or “habitat”. At once, we’re redirected from webbed feet to hooves, celebrating the “twitching flanks”, “wild primrose eyes” and “the silences between.”

Part three is Teint, dreamt up during a Paris residency where the theme of habitat and hidden rivers is continued with the idea of movement, of sound and repetition carrying us back and forth and forth again, so that progress towards our conclusion is barely discernible yet inevitable. Each of these begins with what Skoulding is not describing: “Not flooded marsh but ice/ with skaters engraving/ continuous serifs/ on the halted waters.”

Skoulding examines how we sit against the world around us, as well as how we strive to make it fit around us.

A Second Whisper cover

A Second Whisper by Lynne Hjelmgaard takes us on a different sort of journey: “It opens with the sweet lapping/ of water on a rock/ and closes gently where the tide/ has nowhere to run.”

A deep tenderness ripples through evocations of quiet intimacy. Examinations of time, memory and seasons thread stanzas with subtle fragrances – the smell of yellow autumn leans and the scent of old paper anchor hints of a richly sensuous life. There is humour in the fondness captured here: a baby magpie described as a “little trollop”, daffodils are “still hibernating”, and rats leave teethmarks “on apples and soap.”

Simultaneously, seemingly light lines shiver with feeling: “whenever it rains/ now or anywhere the rain/ stops everything/ to think of you.”

In Once, Hjelmgaard remembers a long friendship: “Now we write careful letters/ as if they are to lost versions/ of ourselves.” To me this describes the entire collection of thoughtful, inward-reaching poems, and we are privileged to be privy to them.

The Black Place, titled after Georgia O’Keefe’s name for a beloved yet desolate strip of land, is Tamar Yoseloff’s unflinching look at the subjects we shy from. Beginning with The C Word, “Not to be confused with the other c word/ that cuts at both ends”, the poet lets us know at once that the contents may challenge and delight in equal measure.

Touching on fairytales and mythology, Yoseloff treads a line where glib and godly rest side by side: “There is a God,/ at least a guy who’d buy a round/ for the lads outside The Pineapple.”

Elsewhere, in Darklight, Yoseloff harnesses words like the shooting stars she describes as making “a sound like a scratch in vinyl”. “Our lives are brief”, she reminds us, “like the bank of candles in cathedrals, each a flame for someone loved.”

It’s a comfort to cling to those stanzas as Yoseloff draws us onwards towards Cuts, and has us consider the bleakest of prophesies: “I’m an open book/ I want to close.”

There’s beauty in this collection, trussed to hope and a hunger for life. Perfect for days when dusk insists on arriving early.

All three titles are available to buy from Seren.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, get in touch.

A silent space

Rhythm of Silence #2 (close up) 44 x 56 cm by Johannes NielsenAn artwork that cries out to be caressed is a potent object. Sculptor Johannes Nielsen appears not only to understand this power, but to harness it, with sculptures that all but shiver with a desire for a human hand. His latest works are sleek and solid, yet with a suggestion of belonging to dreams, and even in their stillness they suggest a vigour that’s deeply alluring.

And yet, in the opinion of Johannes, these works are all about space.

“In my art there is no real story to be revealed or statement to be told,” he says. “It’s more Iike I want to create a silent space for rest and relaxation. In that space I believe we can get in touch with our own inner voice that may communicate something much more of value that I ever can express through my art.”

Same Body Different Day #1 by Johannes Nielsen

Same Body Different Day #1 by Johannes Nielsen

Born in 1979 in Falkenberg, Sweden, Johannes graduated in Fine Arts from the Lunds Art School in 2003 and worked as an artistic assistant in Dublin before returning to Sweden in 2007. Currently, he lives and works in Beijing.

His motivation to seek calm through his work stems from within. “I have a strong need for clarity and to understand things, often at the beginning I have a question in the back of my mind, then, throughout the creative process I find answers and solutions,” he says. “And I find a way to communicate that without saying anything. Later In the result, I have all of that recorded in to my sculpture. Finally, when I look at my own creation it reminds me of my inner discoveries and the journey during that time.”

Same Body Different Day crop_by Johannes Nielsen

Same Body Different Day #2 (crop) by Johannes Nielsen

His words make sense of the energy his figures and animals exude. The process of creation allows Johannes to empty his own emotions, and so it’s perhaps only natural that his sculptures resonate with the buzz of unspoken emotion. Despite this, the pieces seem open to welcoming more – to soak in human anxiety and replace it with quiet.

Contrary to the perfection of the completed sculptures, mistakes are a crucial part of Johannes’ methodology. “My creative process is often about giving myself permission to fail,” he confesses. “For each finished sculpture there are several failures behind it. I keep trying and trying, modeling and carving in the sculpture: sometimes it crashes, other times it fails. At the end I try to save the best accidents and throw out the bad ones. And often the original idea and the finished result are two completely different pieces of art.”

Echo From the Soil by Johannes Nielsen

Echo From the Soil by Johannes Nielsen

He adds: “I rarely have a previous image or a vision for a new piece of art. Often I only know how large I want the finished sculpture to be, and then I see my creative process as a way to sketch and daydream. It’s then I feel there can be magic moment captured in the result.”

Johannes believes he is growing ever closer to his creative goals. “In general I feel more and more happy for each new pieces of art I create, I feel my recent work hold more and more of my own language and truth.”

The Edge of Silence (side) 16 x 14 cm by Johannes Nielsen

The Edge of Silence by Johannes Nielsen

Johannes describes his motivation as the urge for “a finished piece of art (to) somehow reveal an timeless experience. One way I do that is by sourcing my inspiration both from classical as well as contemporary art, from eastern as well as western culture. I also like to work in bronze for this reason; it’s a timeless material that only becomes more beautiful as it changes with the passing of time and the touch of people’s hands.”

There. I knew it. Art created to be touched.

Find more of Johannes work at DegreeArt.com.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judydarley(at)iCloud.com. 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)iCloud.com.

All aboard The Spooky Ship

Dorothy Collins as Emily Lancaster, The Spooky Ship 2017. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ss Great Britain, moored at Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, is a wonderfully intriguing vessel. Populated with impressively realistic models of people and animals, it also has a hint of the uncanny about it.

Each year in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, these characters are brought to life in an eerie succession of immersive performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering, drawn from the depths of the ship’s history…This year The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked focuses on the night in 1846 when the ss Great Britain ran aground.

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship - 2016 - Photos by Jon Rowley

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Previously, I had the chance to go along, bringing a friend with me to hide behind if necessary. We were expecting something along the lines of a haunted house, but what we got was so much more, as our guide led us through the impressive architecture of the ship to witness vignettes from a pitiful bride, a broken soldier from the Crimean war (Scott Bayliss), a vengeful nun (Kirsty Asher) and a ship’s butcher (Hal Kelly) who happened to enjoy his work just a little too much.

The ship's butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ship’s butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

We paused in the first class dining saloon where a 19th couple (Julia Head and Matt Landau) were feasting and gossiping – all good and fine until one confessed to chowing down on a plague-ridden rat and the other commented on the deliciousness of the ship’s pudding-faced cat, then turned their eyes hungrily on us.

The atmosphere was heightened by overhearing fragments from early set scenes – while Sister Benedict talked of the fallen women she despised, shrieks from the distressed soldier rose through the floor. Our guide fed us titbits of the histories that gave the performances their foundations, while cabins fitted out as they would have been in previous centuries, complete with realistic figures in the midst of their own frozen adventures, added to the creepiness.

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Many of the tales pulled at the heart strings, such as that of Mrs Gray (played by Stephanie Kempson), who arrived at docks to welcome her husband Captain John Gray home only to discover he’d mysteriously disappeared a month earlier when the ship was still at sea. Her wailing grief sent shivers through the crowd.

The story of Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins – shown top of post) was particularly disturbing. Crouching on a flight of steps beneath the dry dock, she told us how she’d succumbed to the pox and been flung overboard before she was dead. Her anger and sorrow was palpable, enhanced by the wonderful setting.

The mix of frights, facts, horrors, dark humour and laments, all staged in and around the ship, made this a fabulously immersive Halloween voyage.

The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked is on from 31 October until 2nd November 2019.

All photo by Jon Rowley. Find out more and book tickets at https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/spooky-ship-shipwrecked.

The art of pyrography with Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Inlet_Oil, pyrography and gold leaf on wood_by Michelle Loa Kum CheungSometimes an artist’s power lies in their prowess with certain techniques and materials. With accomplished pyrographer Michelle Loa Kum Cheung, that’s certainly partly true, as she commonly works with heat on wood. However, it’s her rarity of vision that elevates Michelle’s art to the status of truly covetable. By recreating rural and coastal scenes in her own precise way, she converts our familiar world into something otherworldly, revealing the precious and fragile beauty of our planet.

Michelle takes her unique viewpoint almost for granted. “As with most young people, I was a creative child who liked to make things out of paper and draw,” she says. “This fascination with analogue, tactile techniques endured throughout university, where I completed Honours in Fine Arts in Australia at the University of New South Wales. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I travelled for the first time to Europe to France, Italy and England and was so drawn to the art and culture that I have now been based in Europe for the past five years.”

Pont_Acrylic and pyrography on wood by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Pont. Acrylic and pyrography on wood by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Michelle’s intricate use of pyrography – using heat as a drawing medium – is particularly impressive.

“I am so fascinated by pyrography as a way to make a mark, and find it very different from the conventional two-dimensional mediums of pencil and paint,” she says. “I first started the technique shortly after finishing university, where my focus had been on trees in the environment as an exploration of phenomenology where I was interested in the science of conscious attention to the surrounding environment.”

Untitled, pyrography on wood by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Following that period, which she describes as “fairly experimental”, Michelle began investigating wood instead of canvas, and developing her understanding of its potential “as a naturally burning material.”

The proves captivated Michelle. “Pyrography requires a lot of attention, focus and delicacy, which I love,” she says. “There is also an irreversible element as you cannot undo a mark once it is made with the pyrography pen, but I believe that all the marks made add to the finished product.”

Against The Current by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Against The Current by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

She finds herself returning to the same questions time and again through her artwork. “What peaks my interest and forms a lot of the ideas in my art practice is the angst of not knowing and desire, memories and nostalgia, particularly memories which aren’t my own and fabricated nostalgia for places that I’ve never been,” she explains. “Moving from Australia and interacting more with old family photos as a result led to me exploring the concept of displaced heritage.”

Penglai_Oil, pyrography, liquid leaf and conte pencil on wood, by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Penglai_Oil, pyrography, liquid leaf and conte pencil on wood, by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Michelle is also exploring the Chinese concept of shan shui. “My understanding of shan shui is that a realistic depiction of the landscape is not as pertinent as how the artist perceives it, emotionally and mentally,” she says. “Focal points and perspective function differently in traditional Chinese landscape painting than in Western art. Looking into Chinese mythology has also introduced me to Chinese utopia and mythological mountains and landforms which represent an idyllic world which could exist concurrently to ours but which is, as yet, unmarred by human interaction.”

Archipel_Acrylic and pyrography on wood_30x30cm_2017

Archipel by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

As a very visual person, Michelle says “Each new piece is generally inspired by something I have seen personally or a memory which I have ingested second hand through someone else, whether their own recent memory or an old family memory, before I was even born. I try to walk every day and even moving through my environment in a casual manner not only brings new visual inspiration but also clears my mind for imagining.”

Danxia No. 1_oil and pyrography on wood by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Danxia No. 1 by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Michelle says her personal favourite artwork is Danxia No. 1. “It was one of the first circular paintings I have done, and in fact one of the first paintings since permanently relocating to London,” she says. “Dana refers to the naturally occurring red landforms in the Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, which for me hold resonance with the Chamarel Coloured Earth in Mauritius, where my parents were born.”

Once she has an idea for a fresh piece of work in mind, Michelle’s creative process is precise. “There are certain works where the mark making is very planned, usually if I am combining paint and gold leaf, because the preparation of the wood and intentional empty spaces dictate it,” she says. “In this way mistakes can be particularly unforgiving. My art book is a combination of rough sketches, finished sketches and measured grids. For these artworks, it is important for me to pre-visualise the structure.”

However, the colour is usually applied instinctively, while many pieces are almost entirely intuitive. “It surprises most people that the most intricate pyrographic works on wood and paper which are usually monochrome have the least planning – close to none. There are no mistakes in these works, just the continuation of form.”

Sierra, Oil, pyrography and liquid leaf on wood by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

Sierra by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung

The beginning phase of the artwork spans from the design process right up until Michelle has filled in the first layers, “whether that be of pyrography or paint. Generally I will do most of the pyrography first as the foundation and switch to the paint. Once these areas have been blocked in, contemplation starts because I tend to not plan the colouring as much as the initial structure.”

The next stage requires a little more space from the actual work. “I’II sit back and stare at the painting for almost as long as I actually work on it,” she says. “I usually need to leave an artwork for a few days and come back to it before realising it is complete. As artists work in such close quarters to their art, separation is definitely needed so we can contemplate what we have done and regard it from a distance.”

Find out more about Michelle and her work at www.michellelkc.com, on Instagram @michelle_lkc and on Twitter @michelle_lkc

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judydarley(at)iCloud.com. 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)iCloud.com.

The unlikely magic of bitumen

Leaping Through The Dragon's Gate by Nigel Shipley

Leaping Through The Dragon’s Gate by Nigel Shipley

“In a world of hard-edged technology, expressionist painting connect us with the human hand and emotions,” says artist Nigel Shipley. “My abstract paintings don’t represent things that already exists, but do have connections with the real world.”

The title of Nigel’s latest exhibition, Wine Gums and Moonbeams, sums up this ethos with mouth-watering immediacy. One is tangibly flavoursome, drumming up the inimitable sensation of a mouth full of colourful sweets (especially vivid thanks to their childhood connotations), while the other shivers with impressions of ethereal beauty, other-worldliness, potential romance and possible danger. In other words, they’re each jam-packed with suggestiveness. His work is deliciously evocative and playful.

Following on from my 2018 interview with Nigel, the artist has continued to experiment with abstract painting, finding new routes to capturing the images he envisions. “In many of my recent painting I have used bitumen paint, which is made to repair leaking roofs,” he says, “It is dreadful stuff to work with, sticky, stinking and as black as can be. It is like the dregs of a barrel of crude oil, but when dried on a painting it can be a sublime, rich, and deep black. It’s pure black like Japanese lacquer, but with a velvety softness.”

Nigel has fully immersed himself in investigating the behaviour and effects of this medium. “Oil paint applied in a thin wash over a pure white base acts like a sheet of coloured glass through which light passes and reflects back off the white base. This can illuminate the colour from behind and make it glow, contrasting vividly with the dark bitumen. The black has a dramatic effect on a thin wash next to it.”

Melancholy by Nigel Shipley

Melancholy by Nigel Shipley

Other materials also come into play. “I can make a simple mould out of clay and melt metal to cast silvery pieces to embed into bitumen – the black and silver challenge each other like yin and yang.”

Nigel’s influences inform his trial-and-error process. “The emotional rawness of Abstract Expressionists attracts me, as does the composition of Japanese prints and the light and movement of Renaissance painting. Like Japanese lacquer, bitumen paint gives a sublime, rich, deep black which I contrast with thin transparent misty washes of paint. It creates a hint of a landscape with objects floating in space give a suggestion of surrealism.”

Interference by Nigel Shipley

Interference by Nigel Shipley

The result is a glorious visually tactile series of paintings brimming with emotion yet utterly open to interpretation.

Nigel is an ardent fan of what he terms controlled accidents. “By painting a thin wash of oil paint over a white base of water based acrylic paint, the oil and the water may react and create natural patterns that reflect those in nature,” he says. “These patterns can have an infinite complexity that it would be impossible to design, and mirror the patterns found when frost settles on an icy winter’s window, or the cracks of a dry muddy river bed. Scraping wet paint with a squeegee can create similar accidental textures or rhythms that reflect nature.”

In The Beginning by Nigel Shipley

In The Beginning by Nigel Shipley

His approach is purely based on intuition and curiosity, which contributes to the originality of the finished pieces.

“My method of working is to follow my instincts and not to try to communicate an idea about a social issue but to celebrate beauty,” he explains. “I work on many paintings at a time. I make marks, leave the paint to dry and then come back to look at it afresh before deciding what I feel to be the correct next move. At some point I either decide that it’s finished or throw it away as a painting that didn’t work but from which I learnt something.”

Wine gums and moonbeams will be on at The Hours, Colston Yard, Bristol, BS1 5BD, from 4th-31st October. Viewings by arrangement. For details, visit www.nigelshipley.com 

Art review – Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

In Real Life by Olafur EliassonI became aware of Olafur Eliasson thanks to ‘The Weather Project‘ at Tate Modern in 2003. It was one of my first encounters with the way art can influence viewers’ behaviour, so that they become active participants. As people sat, sprawled and sunbathed in the cold hall of the Turbine Hall, it was clear that through toying with our perception, Eliasson and his team prompted us to grow more playful.

The same can be said of every installation in his In Real Life retrospective, which spans more than twenty years of imaginative experimentation and creative absorption.

Stardust Particle by Olafur Eliasson

Stardust Particle by Olafur Eliasson

Like a magician revealing his tricks, Eliasson is keen to offer insights both into his idea-generation stage and how these initial thoughts become physical entities. The exhibition begins with a cabinet of curiosities crammed with models, and ends with a replica of his studio wall crammed with press cuttings, fragments from fiction and other intriguing elements. It neatly bookends the works of art, presenting us with an insight into the artist’s preoccupations. I love the way this induces a sense of being part of something, rather than simply looking on. Eliasson’s works are intrinsically collaborative, not only with the input from his team, but in the dialogues and even problem-solving discussions they seed and enable.

Moss wall 1994 by Olafur Eliasson

Moss wall by Olafur Eliasson

Not all the works are as interactive here as they’ve been elsewhere. Here, ‘Moss wall’, originally created in 1994, is a sight to marvel at rather than dig your fists into, while in ‘Beauty’, the rainbow is out of reach behind a barrier, like an exotic creature in a zoo.

Beauty_Olafur Eliasson

Beauty by Olafur Eliasson

Other experiences are fully there for the grabbing. For me the ‘Your blind passenger’ was eerily enchanting. The space brims with colour-shifting fog so dense I had to trust the ground to remain safe and reassure myself that no dangers lurked in the inches beyond the scope of my vision. The sensation was akin to how I imagine it feeling to be lost at sea.

Interactive highlights include the kaleidoscopic walk-through ‘Your spiral view’ and the extraordinarily vivid ‘Your uncertain shadow (colour)’, in which prisms cast spectators’ shadows in a glorious array of colours – perhaps the perfect modern-day family portrait.

Your uncertain shadow (colour) by Olafur Eliasson

Your uncertain shadow (colour) by Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson’s interests lie in changing as well as reflecting the world. ‘The glacier series’ is step one of a photography project, with the second currently in progress, tracking melt patterns and climate change over the past twenty years. His work raises awareness of our impact on our home planet, as well as inventing practical solutions in some cases, such as with his ‘little suns’ – solar lights created to illuminate off-grid African villages at night.

Eliasson has been described as a renaissance man for his breadth of works covering everything from sculpture to architecture. Perhaps more widely he is an instigator, reminding us of the volume of influences we can harness in seeking solutions, and that even in these alarming times, human ingenuity could hold the answers.

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5th January 2020. Find details and book tickets here.