September 29, 2017

Angel, Bristol (September 16, 2017)

8.00 am: The silence had filled my study even before I’d entered. The ‘sound’ was like that on an early morning after snow has fallen, dulling the world outside … like a sorrow reconciled. It was to me a quiet benediction – a promissory that all things were in hand. ‘Be still …’. (I sensed that call.) The Hebrew word for ‘still’ (חָשָׁה) means, variously, to be silent, calm, and do nothing. However, it’s not an encouragement to either sit things out or remain in a state of paralysis. Instead, the word implies an active state of waiting, anticipating, readying, and trusting … come what may. A communion.

9.00 am: There was a conference call for papers to attend to. This was the first opportunity that I’d had since the beginning of the I. Nothing. Lack. project to write an overview describing its rationale, nature, and objectives. The text will be serviceable to other ends, such as publicity and as a descriptor at the project’s completion and release. Writing about our work:

  • encourages us to conceive of it as our audience might perceive it
  • forces us to come clean (with ourselves, in the first instance) about what we think we’re either doing or have achieved
  • structures and clarifies our thinking about concept, content, method, process, and their interaction
  • enables us to critique the integrity of such, and better remedy the deficits in the writing, and thereby, in our practice.

In short, writing makes us make better.

Throughout the morning, my research was punctuated by incoming and outgoing emails about teaching and supervision, meetings and responsibilities, allocations and dislocations. At this time of year, I’m reconciled to these necessary intrusions. Shortly before lunch, I also indulged some fatherly banter via Messenger with my younger son about photography and the ways by which young people promote the causes they’re passionate about.

1.30 pm: One of the most liberating experiences that I encountered when first at art school was in response to things like this:

There, I was able to express inordinate enthusiasm, without embarrassment, for the exquisite nuances of surfaces, lines, marks, colourations that inhered objects and phenomena that lay beyond the pale of what was commonly understood as being of interest. I was free to love with a reckless abandon nothing of importance as though it were something of significance.

In between spurts of writing, I reacquainted myself with the sound system for I. Nothing. Lack. My hands will be all over this tomorrow. There’s an undeniably sensual pleasure in the manipulation of analogue and digital devices – one that’s denied when processing sound using modifying software via a mouse and a keyboard. Physical controls are responsive and delicate; devices grow warm to the touch; some tremble exquisitely under one’s fingers; and yet others yield a mild electrical discharge affecting a tingling excitation. In other words, the machine and the machinist experience a genuine and tender relationship of exchange:

5.10 pm: ‘Stop what you’re doing, John! Look behind you’:

How many wonders either come and go, out-of-sight, or take place beyond reach? Our role as artists is distract ourselves sufficiently, so as to catch what otherwise would be either missed or ignored on the periphery of human experience.

7.30 pm: Consolidation. The text of the conference proposal was refined, tightened, and made more persuasive. Literally, at the eleventh hour (11.03 pm), I pressed ‘send’ and dispatched my efforts to the conference convenor. Before a yielded to bed, a letter needed to be dispatched and a Message acknowledged with gladness.



September 28, 2017

7.45 am: Once again, sleep was sporadic. When I dreamt, it was of black, fuzzy geometries on a white background within a grid that was itself slipping out of focus. I awoke in a semi stupor. 9.00 am: ‘Wake up, John!’ (I need to get back to a routine of jogging.) A register of the new MA students was compiled, so that the process of studio space allocation could begin this afternoon. This will be a challenge like no other for Mr Garrett and myself. (In the background, some David Bowie – to humanise the task and elevate the heart. Am I a blackstar too?)

10.30 am: Off to school to attend the First Year Induction session in the main lecture theatre. They add up to a mighty number. Representatives of the Students’ Union and Library gave ‘cool’ introductions to their patch in a manner that works for 18+ year olds. The young have an advantage when talking to their peers. They share instincts. There’s a texture to contemporary ‘teenageness’ that I can’t touch. My teens felt otherwise. These days, the students are younger than my own children; and I’m now older than most of their parents. (Obsolescence looms.) I’m conscious that my interests in, and approach to, art practice and its teaching may lose its relevance eventually. It’s said that painting is an ‘old man’s’ game; but art teaching is for the middle aged and younger. There’ll come a time when a day will be called:

Today, universities are multi-faceted, ‘thrusting’, and competitive. HE is big business. But, students do get so much more for their money than did I. And they spend themselves far further too.

Before lunch, I held a group Personal Tutorial with my first-year contingent. During the course of the next three years, a few of them will face some of the greatest challenges of their lives. There’ll be heartache, dreadful losses, failure, confusion and despair, and loneliness. As Personal Tutors, we must be prepared to walk with them through the very worst.

At lunch, my new PhD Fine Art tutee and I met for lunch and a discussion about the beginnings of the endeavour. It’s a fearful time for both student and supervisor – launching into the unknown without either a map, or much sense of the journey, or a knowledge of the destination. Which is why mutual trust is so necessary. We’ll walk into the dark, hand in hand.

2.30 pm: Mr Garrett and I took the bull by the horns and assigned the new MA students to their studio spaces, both at the School and Old College. It was like completing a jig-saw puzzle, and then finding that you’ve one piece left over. ‘Aaah!’:

4.00 pm: Back at the mothership, I processed admin related to the morning’s and afternoon’s business, and continued my rumination on where to place the outstanding jigsaw piece. 5.25 pm: Homeward. The mothership had well and truly left space dock:

7.00 pm: The administrations resumed and would be absorb my energies into the early hours of the morning. I needed to finalise student-staff allocations, the student-space situations, and tables of staff supervision figures, and also to distribute module outlines to the new MA students. If I could clear my desk of this before I hit the pillow, tomorrow would be mine alone. 1.15 am: A promised letter to a ‘stranger’ was written and, then: ‘No more!’





September 27, 2017

8.00 am: Correspondence and communion in union. 9.00 am: This would be a long and full-on kind of day. Today, the postgraduates came into focus. There was admin and a lunch to prepare to that end. But, first, I’d a pressing deadline to honour: the submission of a proposal in response to a call for papers. This needs to be with the conference convenors by the close of Friday. I want to make a presentation on the I. Nothing Lack. project. The paper doesn’t fit their remit, but I’ve overcome that problem well enough in the past. ‘Cast your bread upon the waters’. I drafted ideas.

An aside. We would not walk through dark valleys voluntarily and solitary. This is why we’re led. You can’t see the landscape in the dark, so it’s easy to lose one’s bearings and veer from the path. But go through them we must, if we’re to reach the green pastures beyond. There’s no alternative route; no bypass. But there’re other roads to other places. We could walk instead, as Shakespeare put it, ‘the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire’. It’s a axiom of life: the easy path leads inevitably to a dismal end; the hard course, to the ‘land of plenty’.

10.30 am: Off to School to help prepare the Postgraduate Lunch. ‘There was a great abundance of food’, as Dale Cooper once said, and of new students too. (I wish I could remember names better.) This year’s contingent (27 in all) is made up of a healthy balance of the mature and 21+s. The degree schemes are fuelled by a fusion of sagacity, experience, and vitality. It’s the students, not the scheme, not the resources, and not the teaching that contribute most to the ethos and success of the provision:

My name plaque has fallen of the office door. It’s a good job that I’m not superstitious:

Once staff introductions were delivered and the food consumed, we prepared for the formal process of induction. There is no predictable outcome for study at MA level. I’m aware that I present the ‘journey’ that they’re embarking upon in almost metaphysical terms. But from my experience the process of metamorphosis that they’ll undergo will exceed the boundaries of transformation that one might normally expect as a student interacts with an educational experience. It’s a privilege to behold.

4.00 pm: The Postgraduate Show opened officially. It gave the new MA intake a vision of what they could aspire to:

6.30 pm: At the end of a very long time without any respite, we held a Dementia Friendly workshop to inform and prepare for the task those who will be working, in collaboration with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, on the Explore Your Archive: Memory Archive’ project, on November 22:

The talk was fascinating and fearful in equal measure. The thought of a person’s memories and history being gradually erased and corrupted, and unanchored from the emotions associated with them, fills me with horror. Our memories embody our identity, sense of self, and continuity with what has been; they’re the archive of our experiences, feelings, and past presence.

8.30 pm: Admin catchup at home.


September 26, 2017

8.30 pm: I packed my bag and made ready for School, just as I’d done since I was an eleven years old. Throughout my secondary-school, barring my attendance for one year at a good grammar school in Abertillery, I caught the 8.20 am school bus from outside Price’s Shop, at the top of my terrace, and travelled six miles to Nantyglo and a dismal comprehensive school. Now, it takes me six minutes to get to school on foot. Some conditions in life do improve. The mothership was quiet. Today the students began the process of registration at the Arts Centre. Induction moves from the larger to the small: they enter the university, then the School, then the degree scheme, and, finally, the modules.

I cleaned my screen. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body’, and the computer monitor, a window onto a world:

On, then, with Personal Tutor (PT) matters. I’ll be seeing my new, first year cohort on Thursday. The PT is their point of contact for matters pastoral and academic. Some students will meet the greatest challenges of their university life this week. Leaving home and school for the first time is not always unproblematic. Homesickness, insecurity about their choices, shyness, lack of confidence in themselves and their ability, and a failure of conviction can have them back on the train and bound for home before Friday. (And parents need support too. Rendering up a child to an institution that’s not on the doorstep is nothing short of a mini-bereavement.)

Little lists of ‘must do nows’ were beginning to accumulate. And, then there were the intrays to depopulate, and old admin files to turf out. ‘Show no mercy, John!’ Disposal is very cleansing. (I associate clutter with anxiety and a loss of control.) Above my office’s flakey ceiling (an objective correlative), the painting studio was being reconfigured. Mr Garrett ably slotted together dividers. (THUD!) The divisions serve not to separate the students so much as to honour the individual’s right to some personal space:


12.15 pm: A lunch time Painting Committee at the town chambers with Dr Forster. We work as a team. From 1.30 pm to the end of the day, I caught up with my PhD and MA Fine Art contingent at the School and Old College. On the way to the latter, I photographed the stucco side wall of Bethel Welsh Baptist Church. This will serve as an element in my poster for the I. Nothing. Lack. event:

7.30 pm: Email catch up, forward looking, and a re-engagement with the event poster. 11.30 pm: Done!:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • Whatever’s happening on the canvas is also happening in you.
  • Two complimentary questions addressed to the same artwork: What passages could be omitted? What passages could you not do without?
  • We paint towards an answer, not in the light of one.
  • Some parts of the painting are but the scaffolding that help you to erect the building. As such, they should be torn down after it’s finished.
  • Unity and indivisibility: the part is the whole and the whole is the part.
  • We learn by stumbling haplessly towards something.
  • The moment comes not a moment too soon or too late.
  • Don’t spend too long in your favourite part of the garden. Walk in the bigger picture also, and often.
  • An ideal: consistency, constancy, coherence, and integrity; in art, as in life.
  • To find nourishment and satisfaction in mere bread and water: learn the sufficiency of simplicity.
  • Be reckless when your tentativeness threatens to neuter the process of painting.
  • If you can work in the face of public and critical indifference, then you’ll prove to yourself the true measure of your commitment.
  • Don’t worry about who’s looking over your shoulder. Turn around, you might discover that there’s no one there.

September 25, 2017

Over the weekend, I bashed on with module and degree scheme admin, attended the Private View of our current Postgraduate Exhibition, and finalised arrangements for the I. Nothing. Lack. sound presentation. This will take place at Bethel Welsh Baptist Church (where MacMillan had delivered the sermons on Psalm 23), Aberystwyth, on November 24. The event is supported by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and CADW. Previously, I’d made two high-relief paintings in wood of the Bethel’s interior. These were transitional works that straddled my previous interests in landscape and The Pictorial Bible series, which began in 1999:

Bethel I (1995) acrylic and woodstain on plyboard, 44 × 48.5 × 12 cm

The works were the most austere and abstract that I’d made up until that point. Moriah is the name of a chapel in Blaina, Monmouthsire, Wales, where my parents were married:

Moriah (1995) woodstain on pine, 71 × 101.5 × 7.5 cm

Saturday evening was spent at dinner in the company of some old friends (and their old friends), who’d now begun a new life in South Wales. On Sunday, we welcomed our new Vicar, the Rev. Mark Ansell, to Holy Trinity Church.

Sunday evening, I listened to part of Keith Jarrett’s Vienna Concert (1991). He includes the following reflection on the CD insert:

Evocation of emotion determined by a resistance of emotion. As Bach, at the organ, explained to an admiring pupil: ‘It’s a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment’. 

The quote by Bach sounds like something Miles Davis would have said. What caught my attention is Jarrett’s counterpoint between ‘evocation’ and ‘resistance’. His thesis implies that expression is (paradoxically) dependent upon suppression. Or put another way, emotional expression is achieved through the denial rather than the exercise of feeling.  Instead, feeling is conveyed, very deliberately, by the exercise of a cultivated discipline, a command over one’s means, and a wisdom and discernment that are at the root of artistry. (This is what lay behind Bach’s explanation, I believe.) This truth is no less applicable to visual art practice.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s grave, St Thomas Church, Leipzig

Today. While teetering towards fractured sleep in the early hours of the morning, I experienced a waking dream. To whom it may concern: I said to them, ‘Be hopeful!’. They responded, ‘Of what?’. I replied, ‘All possibilities’. 7.45 am: I failed to get get up at 6.45 am, having only dropped off to sleep properly at 4.00 am. 8.20 am: a express-communion followed by an overview of today’s agenda, along with email responses to replies responding, in turn, to my weekend’s missives. Between 10.00 and 11.00 am,  several opportunities related to the development of the I. Nothing. Lack. and The Talking Bible projects (the former is now a subset of the latter) had opened up. It was very encouraging.

An aside: When we plumb the depths of our being as artists, we do so not by dropping a bucket down a well and pulling the water to the surface. Rather, we ourselves descend the shaft and work the seam like a mineral miner. That dark drop has been excavated by deep and prolonged suffering, for the most part. The task of searching and scouring for the ore buried in the shadowy cavities of the heart is, itself, often a source of discomfort, but of an entirely different order. This type of suffering is productive, ennobling, and glorious. We willingly submit to it in the sure hope of unearthing something solid, valuable, enduring, remarkable, meaningful, and profoundly personal. (The wise and the maimed are one and the same.)

11.30 am: Later than anticipated and desired, I opened last year’s folder for the ‘Beginning of Term’. More of the Vienna Concert to lubricate the admin and remind me of higher things.

1.30 pm: Following lunch, I pressed forwards and downwards from PhD to MA to, finally, BA study preparations. This semester I’ve responsibility for third-year painters again, an art history module on Abstraction, and contributions to the Research and Process in Practice and Professional Practice Fine Art modules. By mid afternoon, I was getting a little jaded from carpet bombing the School’s FaceBook pages with up and coming information. In between, I worked on the publicity for the I. Nothing. Lack. project and updated my Personal Tutor profile, portrait, and handout. Will I look intimidating or friendly to new students? I wouldn’t dare ask them (or the staff)!:

By 4 o’clock, I was in a position to address the particulars of my Abstraction module. 5.00 pm: the annunciation:

7.15 pm: The first year Welcome Party. This has a long tradition at the School. There were students from the far reaches of the UK, Spain, and Bulgaria; and those were only the ones I’d talked to. They appear socially well adapted, confident, open, and committed to their education and the School. Good to meet them:





September 22, 2017

6.00 am: Sleep had evaded me. I woke and completed various church orientated tasks that required an immediate resolution. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.45 am: Adminy things to begin, followed a fresh cup of tea and shuffle into the studio. Before induction next week, I needed to finalise aspects of the sound composition – otherwise, I’d find it difficult to pick up the threads again after the dust of inaugural talks and meetings has settled.

9.30 am: I returned to the overlaid sermon composition material, and began to fold sounds on top of each other in order to create an overall timespan of 19 minutes and 45 seconds:

Once the tracks had been stacked, I listened again to ‘The Silences’. (This is the file descriptor rather than the title for the composition. But, sometimes nicknames stick.) If I’m looking forward to hearing a track after a period of abstention, then I know that it works. There’s a tipping point at the completion of creative process when the artist becomes the artwork’s audience also. In that moment, the umbilical cord connecting the maker and the made is severed, and it becomes viable without support. Some artists consider enjoying their own work to be a guilty pleasure. I do not: There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour (Ecclesiastes 2.24).

Never neglect to examine the beginning and ending of a composition before signing off. In particular, pay attention to the relative volume levels. Once the peak amplitudes had been normalised throughout, I let go of the composition. Any longer, and I would start fiddling to little or no effect. While the composition is complete in itself, it may yet prove to be either the background or an accompaniment to something else. I hold all options in an open hand.

11.00 am: Back, then, to the overlaid sermons composition. The multiple overlay creates a Babel-like cacophony. Hectoring in the extreme. I consulted the runes (Oblique Strategies) again. My chosen card asked: Where’s the edge? Where does the frame start? There’s no frame, metaphorically speaking. And the edges of the composition (on the x-axis) are determined by the beginning and ending of the sermons. But what of the y-axis: the vertical dimension defined by the highest and lowest amplitude of the composition? The strategies always provide food for thought – an encouragement to consider the art work … well, obliquely.

I crudely mapped out the progression of each track relative to the others in terms of their amplitude shape (rising and falling from -10 dB to 0 dB):

The implementation was straightforward.

1.30 pm: I bombed into town to do homely business. A buzz was growing as students made their first tentative steps out of their accommodation and into the shops. In my day, the initial expedition was always to buy a mug tree, two mugs (just in case you made a friend), and a yucca plant. They were wide-eyed (but not yet legless), happy, and hopeful … even under the desultory light:

2.10 pm: At the mothership, I picked up the latest PhD Fine Art delivery (which came in at 4lb, I estimate).

2.30 pm: While the four-part overlay mixed down to a single track, I looked over the PhD thesis to eye any obvious anomalies before the text was soft bound and dispatched to the examiners. The mixdown sounded complete, but insufficiently engaging; it required a contrasting counterfoil. What to do? To begin, I played with MacMillan’s recitation of Psalm 23. By decelerating the sample 800%, while preserving the pitch, his voice became painfully plaintive; it’s as though the preacher was experiencing increasing difficultly in thinking and articulating (which are attributes of dementia). I could not use this outcome as an accompaniment. It was too complete in itself, as well as abundantly engaging. All that was required to resolve the composition, is to play it in the chapel and record the piece together with the ambient sounds inside and outside the building. Again, the art, in part, is knowing when to relinquish your grip on the initial idea or intent, and to allow the work to dictate its own path.

7.30 pm:

A list of ‘to dos’ as long as my arm will grow in the next few days. I cleared the decks of all outstanding admin and began to make ready for the semester ahead.

September 21, 2017

8.15 am: A communion. 9.00 am: A refurbishment of my study chair was initiated. It’s twenty years old, and by now I’ve now worn out the seat. Back to the studio with fresh ears, and to ‘The Silences’ composition. I adjusted the timescale for the introduction and departure of the various looped samples to align them with the minute and half-minute measures on the DAW’s x-axis. In other words, I conscripted my tools to be responsible for certain creative decisions on my behalf. Speaking of which … What did my Oblique Strategies card advise today?:

So, I slowed down the pace of composition considerably, giving attention to the sound at intervals of 10, 15, and 30 seconds. (I’ll be deploying the strategies in my postgraduate fine art teaching during the coming year.) Not every piece of advice is useable. But even those that aren’t suggest a ‘shadow’ or inverse approach that just might be. However, in this case, the card mediated sage and timely wisdom, as from a trustworthy tutor. It’s the sort of advice that my former tutor Keith Arnatt would give me in response to one of my many quandaries as an undergraduate. His instructions, however abstract they sounded initially, never failed to be relevant.

‘Of what are you fearful, John?’:

  • Repeating myself
  • The quiet passage
  • The too gentle climax
  • Being at the mercy of the process
  • Not being able to take the work beyond the threshold of 90% resolution
  • Not realising the implications of the composition
  • Not being able to fully grasp the shape of a large-scale composition
  • Failing to identify and nail the governing mood or ‘tone’ of a composition
  • Insufficient contrasts
  • Overcooking the composition
  • That my best is not good enough

These are the demons that whisper in my ear. They’ve done so (on a wide range of topics) since I was a student; they’ll do so until I burn out. I’m no better than my students in these respects: dogged by doubt, unseated by uncertainty, and unnerved by the unknown. We are treasures in earthen vessels, at best.

12.00 pm: Slowing the pace of work yielded appreciable improvements. I rested my ears, and undertook postgraduate admin. 12.30 pm: A final round of listen-throughs (on the ‘cans’ and then on the studio monitors) at above average volume. I wanted to hear the details. 1.40 pm: After lunch, I implemented small but significant improvements arising from the review of the work. There are a few seconds of complete silence after the final fade but before the track concludes that are the most crucial in the whole composition. It’s the first occasion since the beginning of work that the listener has had to rest their ears and reflect upon what has gone before. Familiarity was beginning to breed contentment. Not good. So, on to something else. I’d listen again to the whole, tomorrow.

2.30 pm: I anticipate that the combined length of the four compositions comprising the suite will be coextensive with the longest sermon, which is almost one hour and nineteen minutes in duration. There was no justification for editing out 20 minutes worth of material (the length of the composition) from the whole. After all, what would I leave out and why? The most reasonable solution was to divide the whole into fours parts, each 19 minutes and 45 seconds long, and fold the parts upon themselves.

3.30 pm: I power-walked up Penglais Hill to attend a briefing/postmortem on the Institute of Arts and Humanities performance at the last NSS and in relation to other league tables – which has been excellent. One day, I’ll have the freedom to speak my mind about what has become of Higher Education in the UK over the last decade. The last of the summer’s sunlight was a welcome salve:

7.30 pm: A change of orientation: intercessions needed to be composed in preparation of Sunday morning’s service of Holy Communion.

September 20, 2017

9.00 am: Off to School for a PhD Fine Art tutorial via Skype:

[For ‘S’: This is not a ‘selfie’; this is a double portrait for the purposes of evincing a dialogue, visually. :)] Some tutorials, and this was one, lift off and generate a large number of relevant ideas, fit together many pieces into the jigsaw, effortlessly, and reveal undercurrents of thought to which both the tutee and the supervisor were hitherto oblivious. We received moments of ‘vision’ today, too, as longstanding problems evaporated and new ways of understanding emerged. These are the ‘blesséd’ times.

10.45 am: Back at homebase, I culled the assessment criteria for undergraduate levels 2 and 3 of Painting. Dr Forster and I will walk the students through these very deliberately at the module induction classes. We believe in standards, and that standards are articulable, defensible, and achievable. The students’ greatest battle is with not the limits of their talent but, rather, the principle of inertia. Students who underachieve do so, more often than not, due to insufficient confidence in the nobility of the enterprise, a want of commitment (which is usually expressed through hard work and perseverance), and an addiction to prevarication.

I’m a sucker for graphs:

2.00 pm: Studiology and teaching prep in tandem. The studio needed a tidy, and the new cassette-tape recorders, to be integrated into the sound system for [I. Nothing. Lack.] While tracks were mixed down, I returned to my study and put the finishing touches to the PowerPoint presentation for One-to-One Tutorials and Assessment Criteria: Definitions and Expectations. On completion, I sat back in the studio and listened to those tracks that I’d completed last week. In all likelihood, a suite of four related compositions will evolve, the same number as sermons preached during that week in 1979. I listened to the transitions from one sound to another, principally:

7.30 pm: I listened again to ‘The Silences’ mix on a different set of headphones. My rule is to always to bounce around from one set of speakers to another and from one set of ‘cans’ to another, throughout a mix. Each audio-monitoring set up presents the sound in a particular way. That way is not necessarily going to be the same as someone else’s experience when hearing the same sounds on different equipment. The aim is to achieve a mix that works well on several contrasting types and qualities of gear and contexts of audition.

On the second mix, I gave each sample more space to solo and varied the amplitude’s dynamics further. The composition was getting close to optimisation. However, after two hours of listening I could hear, but without discernment. The ears, like the eyes, tire. Rest!

September 19, 2017

9.00 am: Upwards, to the Hugh Owen Building and a 3-hour meeting on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), as it will ‘impact’ upon practice-based research. I’ve always had considerable misgivings about the ideology and methodology (the one proceeds from the other) of research assessment. I’m now clearer about both, in their current iteration, and firmer in my convictions. In some ways, my own practice fits well within the strictures of its expectations. But it hasn’t always and, someday, may not again. What then?:

On my return to town, I picked up the remaining two cassette-tape recorders from Argos and headed to the mothership for the final MA Fine Art examination board meeting. Once again, the External Examiner was impressed by the overall standard of professionalism. This coming year’s contingent have much to live up to. The aftermath of a working lunch:

2.15 pm: The release of the MA feedback sheets (ex-marks), and a general catch up with incoming mail. 3.00 pm: Consultations about entry to the MA Fine Art degree in 2018 have already begun. Increasingly, we receive inquiries from folk who’ve been out of education for a while, and unconfident about immersing themselves in a taught course again. Their reticence is understandable. They’re asking a great deal of themselves. And we’ll be asking a great deal of them. Our policy, for such, is to begin a discussion, and to set preparatory projects that they can undertake during the year prior to application. As a result, both parties will be, by the end of the process, more convinced that they’ve a fighting chance of success. We move towards the goal together.

What are we looking for in a prospective MA Fine Art students:

  • A consciousness of their need for advanced instruction.
  • A curiosity about other artists’ work.
  • A hunger for something that is, as yet, undisclosed to them.
  • A willingness to discover something deeply significant about themselves, and to evolve towards that realisation.
  • A track record of hard work, bloody-mindedness, and reckless abandon to risks, and a deep passion for the subject.
  • An openness to hitherto unconsidered possibilities.
  • Teachability.
  • A sense of vocation and a desire to move from mastery towards professionalism.
  • A love of the materials, processes, tradition, and art history of a medium.
  • Evidence of an above average competence in that medium and in writing.

4.15 pm: Having assessed the MA show as module outputs, I returned to the gallery in order to engage the students’ work as art:

5.15 pm: Homeward.

7.30 pm: The clouds spilled across the sky: a sea of marks like quill strokes, plumes, and blotches of indanthrene ink:

I settled to construct the PowerPoint for an introductory talk to the second and third year painters on the nature of one-to-one tutorials. Simultaneously, at the far end of my thinking, I started to compile a list of decisions that have to be made shortly. By the end of evening, two statements that I’d heard during the day had impressed themselves upon me. The one was not related to the other another, except in my apprehension. In and of themselves, they were barely memorable. Often, it’s how another’s words fit the lock of our perplexities, questionings, or sense of unfulfillment, just at the right time, that make them profound for us. Our need prepares us for listening, and listening, for acceptance.



September 18, 2017

September 14-17. I’d not visited Bristol in decades. The landmarks that I remember are, now, concealed behind offices and hotels that have grown up in the spaces in between. When I was an art school student at Newport, Monmouthshire, I used to visit the city regularly in order to view exhibitions at the Museum and Art Gallery and Arnolfini. It was at the former, in 1978, that I first saw William Didier-Pouget (1864–1959)’s Corrèze, France (1911). The painting, of a region in south-western France, recalled my experience on top of the Arael Mountain, Abertillery, looking across to the Coity Mountain on the other side of the valley. Until then, I’d not considered landscape, and specifically the formations and associations of my home, as an appropriate subject for art. There’re certain encounters with paintings, places, and people, that have, for me, either changed everything to a degree, or a few things profoundly. This work is of the latter order:

Before leaving Bristol, I attended the morning service of Eucharist at the magnificent Bristol Cathedral:

From the sublime to the ridiculous. En route to Aberystwyth, I broke journey at Tintern Abbey – the ruin beloved of painters such as J W M Turner and Samuel Palmer. To my horror, a wedding had been held in the grounds the day before. The couple (and I’d rather not know who they were) had commissioned a faux-Gothic, plastic canopied ‘tent’, which was installed in the Abbey’s nave. It looked like a Weta Workshop reject. I can’t begin to imagine the cost of its construction and electrification. Inside were chandeliers and a dance floor. Tack! And all this just for one day. I don’t believe in the intrinsic sacredness of religious buildings, but this misappropriation of a major site of historic Christianity in the UK borders upon the sacrilegious. We have a duty to honour the building’s original function and those who built and worshipped within it:

Today. 9.00 am: Dr Forster and I undertook our viva voce examination of the finalising MA Fine Art students in their exhibition areas. They each acquitted themselves well. A time of testing, and a time for goodbyes, too. During the second part of the morning, I wrote up my feedback reports in readiness for the external examiner’s review and assessment this afternoon and tomorrow morning:

After a light lunch, I reviewed PhD thesis material. One of my cohort will deliver their ‘baby’ tomorrow morning. Another is in the last stages of ‘labour’. And yet another, at the beginning of their ‘first trimester’, as it were.

6.30 pm: Off to Holy Trinity Church to prepare for the licensing service to appoint our new vicar. This has been a long time in coming. I was on sound and photographic duties:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • We must take risks with our work (as we do with our lives). At the very worst, our failures will be instructive. And, after all, we learn next to nothing by playing safe – other than our about our own cowardice.
  • In order to find ourselves in the work we must first lose ourselves to it.
  • It’s in the intelligent repetition of an activity over time than we understand its significance for us and its possible meanings for others.
  • Our commitment to the work is in direct proportion to our confidence in it.
  • The depth and profundity of the work cannot exceed that of the artist’s personality and understanding.
  • Consider how far you’ve travelled during the past one or two years on the degree. That ought to encourage you to expect much regarding how much further you might go during your lifetime as an artist.
  • Write in order to comprehend, crystallise, and communicate clearly, rather than to impress.