"The simplest way to tell a story is to begin at the beginning and go on until you reach the end, or your audience falls asleep."
David Lodge in The Art of Fiction
Acrylic and cut papers on canvas
120cm x 500cm
What does a story feel like before you find the words to tell it?
In 2006 I was trying to write fiction during the River of Words creative writing course at the River & Rowing Museum. I could feel stories wanting to emerge, but it wasn't easy to capture them on paper. I had always had better luck with poetry, but I persisted with fiction and thought about creative flow, and how much goes on under the surface, and how much more there is to creative expression than just the words we see printed on a page.
And that brought to mind my previous career as an environmental planner, when I was part of a team designing a flood alleviation scheme. We drew endless cross sections and longitudinal sections to analyze the effects of different channel designs on the flow of water through the system.
I was intrigued by the parallels between river flow and creative flow. Then one day as I walked through The Wall gallery in the museum, the space reminded me of a U-shaped flood channel. Why not use that wonderful expanse of white to create a long section through an imaginary river of words? And that is how Undercurrents came about.
The idea was to let colour tell a story without words, in ten chapters, each chapter a canvas. The story turned out to be five metres long.
The river's surface is at adult's eye level, the riverbed is at child's eye level, and a mass of flowing colour moves upstream to downstream from right to left. But there is more to the story than colour.
At a more detailed level, fragments of handwriting are embedded in the water and the riverbed, with quotations about water and flow and creative writing from science books, children's stories, and books for would-be writers. Willow leaves skim the surface like fingers, feeling for stories that rise from the depths and folding them into "little paper boats" like "a fleet of story-arks floating downstream".*
Undercurrents made its solo debut in 2007/2008 at the River & Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, and since then has travelled to other locations in the Thames Valley. It was part of my exhibition Shadow and Light in 2008, in 2009 was on loan to Windsor Racecourse, and in 2010 was part of the Querns Fine Art Exhibition during Oxfordshire Artweeks.
Undercurrents is a single work of art across ten panels that may be hung in a row or displayed in sections. New paintings based on the Undercurrents format, but adaptable to smaller (or even larger!) spaces, are in the pipeline. Watch this space.
*from my poem "Pictograph", about willow trees on a riverbank