March 6, 2018

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46.1)

A Place of Safekeeping (1983) 396.3 × 315, acrylic on wood

Towards the end of my MA Visual Art degree (1982–4), I painted A Place of Safekeeping. The work referenced both verse 1 of Psalm 46 and a curious enclosure that was cut into the rock at the rear of the, then, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Visual Art Department, on Llanbadarn Road. It was a ‘man’-made (and, at the time of its construction, a secret) concrete bunker built to store valuable pictures and documents that’d been evacuated from museums and galleries in London during World War II. Here, the treasures were completely safe from aerial bombing, explosions, fire, water, collapse, and discovery.

For the psalmist, God was a strongroom – an unassailable and indestructible refuge that would preserve him from far worse calamities than the blitz: Therefore, I will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea (Psalm 46.2). The works in the bunker were returned to London in 1946. God, however, was his perpetual place of safekeeping, as well as a source of strength. It protected him in the ‘eternal now’ (as the old hippies used to say). Troubles would inevitably come. But this sanctuary was active, concerned, immediate, and remedial. God was not only the refuge, but also inside it, with the psalmist, supporting him, and changing his situation for the better.

5.45 am: I got up after a dismal night’s sleep, and made final preparations for a research trip to Sheffield. (I was last there in 2013.) After dutifully putting away the crockery, utensils, and pans on the draining boarding (my usual morning routine), breakfasted, and dealt with emails that had arrived late last night, I pushed out into the streets and headed toward the railway station:

The notification advised that Borth station (the next down the line) had been closed due to recent storm damage. 7.30 am: Off we went. With an overpriced cardboard cup of PG tips in hand (‘You never learn, Buddy!’), I broke out my computer. Llanbadarn – looking for all the world like a village that Samuel Palmer might have painted – receded into the distance. On with work.

9.16 am: I arrived at Shrewsbury and headed for a watering hole. My next train wasn’t due for another three-quarters of an hour. But I appreciated this slower pace. Parts of my mind began to thaw. 10.00 am: On the Stockport leg. I wish people wouldn’t conduct their business in public on phones. ‘I’ve not paid good money to be in your office!’, I thought:

Over the next few days, business will done (in private), aspirations framed, possibilities explored, and resolutions  (professional and personal) made. I’d made this journey, passed the magnificent Jodrell Bank (where they used to offer a really good beef burger and chips), so many times when visiting my sons at university. The power of the radio telescopes interferes with a mobile phone’s GPS, pulling the marker off the train track and into a field. Why do I always find this so inordinately funny?

10.50 am: Stockport (light and sound):

The journey to Sheffield was slow, and through tunnels and a perpetual phone-signal wilderness. I arrived at 12.10 pm, under the same weather as on the last occasion. Little in the city had changed, as far as I could see.  I’ve a penchant for reliving exactly the same experiences. It’s a close as I can get to time travel:

I took lunch at the Cafe Gallery and joined informal meetings with colleagues in order to discuss a way ahead. All hush-hush and tentative at the moment.

6.00 pm: We ate at a local Italian restaurant. Not ‘proper’ Italian. Nevertheless, they served a darned-good lasagne:

7.30 pm: Catch up. The beginning of reflection. This will be focussed, as it was the last time I was in Sheffield. Indeed, the previous occasion has prepared me for this one, in a number of ways. (Who could have known?) The I. Nothing. Lack. suite was released, quietly, now that the Commission’s permissions had been granted:





March 5, 2018

7.00 am: Awake. Warmer. The radiators were no longer struggling for dominance. After the thaw, a sense of normality has returned. There’ve been some ‘storms’ over the past six months that have changed my ‘landscape’ irrevocably, such that I could not return to the ‘before time’ without acquiring amnesia. There was a storm during the year in which I sat my 11 Plus Exam. The sky over Abertillery went darker than I’d ever experienced before or subsequently anywhere. The lesson stopped abruptly. This was an event to be remembered. We pressed our faces against the classroom window in a spirit of wonder and fear. The sky in the furthest background reddened. If someone had told us that this was the end of the world, we’d have believed them. The torrent broke as I walked home at lunchtime. (I lived next door to the school.) When I got into the house, I hid under my father’s coat and curled up in the armchair until Mam came in from work. The thunder and lightening were fearful; my world was being shaken apart, violently. The experience prepared me for far worse storms to come:

Adumbration (1990) 17.9 × 17.9, acrylic on board

8.30 am: Off to the Old College for a morning of MA tutorials. The divided man:

I’d be running from pillar to post for the remainder of the day. Again, there were a number of significant realisations made during the course of teaching. The best ideas and solutions seem always to arise in the context of conversation. Meg’s palette:

12.00 pm: Off to the station to buy a rail ticket. 12.30 pm: A further tutorial followed by MA inquirer’s meeting. 1.30 pm: I ate lunch over admin. This isn’t to be recommended. But the principle of ‘needs must’ prevailed today. 2.00 pm: A Skype tutorial. 2.30 pm: A collaboration meeting with the head of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and one of our PhD Fine Arts students. This has the making of a productive working relationship. 3.30 pm: I held two postponed third year painting tutorials before heading home in the rain.

4.45 pm: Catch up, and the last of the packing. 6.45 pm: Off to the Vicarage and to my other life: Holy Trinity Church committee:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • Things that we make, for which we may have an initial aversion, can in time become objects of our affection. (The reverse is also true.)
  • T: ‘If I tell you which option to choose, then I’ll defraud you of your right to make a mistake.’
  • The work may shout at us for a very long time before we are ready to pay attention.
  • T: ‘What is the nature of the struggle?’
  • We may struggle to know what to do, while at the same time knowing how to do it. (Understanding is not always linear.)
  • Turn your instincts into cognisance. This is of the essence of learning.
  • T: ‘Look at Lowry’s seascapes‘.
  • Style = a consistent manner of working over time.
  • In painting, the solution must be found. For it cannot, first, be known.
  • Discern the principles behind the successful work and, then, adapt them to subsequent works.
  • When we stop being precious about a work, things start to happen. So, let go of your high expectations and let it be.
  • It’s no longer an accident when you turn it to good effect.

March 3, 2018

‘Snow on snow’.
Day on day.
Buried deeper,
Without moving;
Without trace.
‘How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift’

And after the storm came a gentle whisper: ‘Stay quiet still longer, friends’. Birdsong returned. Cars moved cautiously. I could hear my heartbeat. The sky opened. A thaw had begun. But the heart grew colder. Renunciation. (Like a hard winter borne.)

8.00 am: A communion. 9.00 am: Back to Pedalboard III. A trussing was in order – that’s to say, neatly bundling and strapping down the cables and joiners underneath. My shiny trousers (which make me look like a biker-boy) are losing their sheen:

11.00 am: All three boards were tested and optimised. I found this to be an immensely satisfying task. Back to the ‘Men as Trees, Walking’ composition. All the parts of the text had, now, been distributed along the spine of the drum track. It remained, at this stage, to micro-adjust the position and length of each sample.

12.45 pm: My ears could no longer hear. Therefore, I set the composition aside and reviewed the turntable samples that I’d generated on Thursday and Friday. After lunch, I continued. There was less useable material in the samples than I’d anticipated. Far too much silliness, obviousness, arbitrariness, and unimaginative modulation. One must attend to the semantics, syntax, and hermeneutics implicit in the narrative. The text should be the principal determinant of its own interpretation. My present approach may not be the right way to go about things.

For over thirty years, I’ve kept an archive of personal memorabilia. The material covers the period from the year I was born to around the mid 1990s. (I really need to sit down, one day, and talk to myself about my reluctance to let go of things.) Every so often, I’ll draw attention to one of those historical artefacts in this diary.  They have no importance in themselves, other than as an embodiment of a memory about someone or something that was important:

In the 1960s and 70s, Mrs Richards ran the school shop/local store from the front room of her terraced house, four doors up from where we lived in Abertillery. When I visited to buy either chocolate bars (usually) or a can of something for my Mam, she’d invariably draw one of ‘Uncle Alf’s pigeons’ on a sweet packet for me. Uncle Alf and Auntie Nance lived next door to my parents. He kept racing pigeons in a cot ‘out the back’. Neither were related to me. In the valleys, all close neighbours were referred to as either uncle or auntie. Whereas all true uncles and aunties were called by their forenames. Mrs Richards was evidently not a trained artist. But I was captivated by the ‘magic’ of the representation taking place in front of me, and the way in which she adapted the image to fit the format of the paper – which was different on every occasion. Her efforts made me want to draw.

5.20 pm: Roger and out!


*For Amy Seed






March 2, 2018

 It was also called Mizpah because he said, ‘May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other’ (Genesis 31.49)

There’s a tradition in the Old Testament of setting up stones as either a witness of an agreement between parties or to commemorate a significant act of God. Today, we’d regard it as a mode of spontaneous land art, made from raw materials native to the site. Jacob and Laban (the Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long of their day, on this occasion) constructed a pile of stones and titled the work Mizpah (מִצְפָּה) which, in Hebrew, means ‘watchtower’. So, the construction is likely to have made a figurative allusion to a lookout post. Quite apart from its legal status – formalising a separation and marking a division of territories – this collaborative artefact spoke of what would be an enduring bond between these two men. The stones memorialised a desire, namely, that God would watch over them (to keep them true to their commitment and one another) after they’d said farewell. This symbolic watchtower was, then, the materialisation of a mutual compact made in God’s sight. In Jewish culture, subsequently, Mizpah has accrued additional sentiments. It connotes a sense of a long goodbye that isn’t final; of the hope that relationships will endure and be restored once again.

8.00 am: A communion. When I awoke at 3.00 am this morning, the gale had died down. It was quiet enough to hear the roar of the sea in the far distance. Presently, there’s a dull white noise in the air, as the wind pushes itself through the branches of the trees like hair through a comb. In the house, doors, casements, and blinds bang and rattle with the enthusiasm and unpredictability of an avant-garde percussion ensemble. The snow in the garden looked like fine salt:

‘School’s out for Winter!’ (to adapt Alice Cooper’s anthem). The university campus was closed due to the weather conditions. 9.00 am: Medical matters. 9.45 am: Studiology. I completed modifications to pedalboard I. Its power supply unit (a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus) doesn’t have an output higher than 250mA. I needed 300mA to run my greedy Digitech Freqout. Perhaps the effector could be incorporated into pedalboard III instead. (‘Think on, John!’):

11.00 am: I returned to ‘Men as Trees, Walking’. Q: Could the drum track be conceived as the foreground to, rather than the background of, the composition? The voice, then, would assume a subservient position. The composition moved at a pace. There’re occasions in creative practice when the logic of the work’s development is manifest. It’s as though the work is directing its own path and dictating its own form.

Over lunch, I rethought pedalboard III (which has a Voodoo Lab ISO5 power unit) in a bid to incorporate my 300mA-hungry effector. I would ‘potch’ over this, at intervals, throughout the afternoon. 3.00 pm: The effector was attached … but now the board didn’t work. (Sigh!) Throughout the afternoon, samples of the spoken text fell into place effortlessly … as though finding their own place within the whole. I was humbled:

7.30 pm: Betwixt a composition and a failed pedalboard. The latter problem was easily fixed. An oversight on my part. I’d switched off the ‘dry’ signal on the feedback emulation pedal, which meant that, unless the pedal was activated, no signal could pass through it. In contrast, the problems of the composition were self evident, but more time-consuming to resolve. Creative practice is fundamentally about isolating troubles and finding solutions. Art is calculation:

9.45 pm: A breather before the ‘night watch’.

March 1, 2018

12.45 am: A late night. The room through which the moonlight shone, before I lay me down to sleep:

8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: Into the day: light flakes tossed in the air from place to place:

8.45 am: At the School, I took a hot cup of tea in order to prepare myself for the morning’s session of third year painting tutorials. Some of the students living in the ‘off-world colonies’ (anywhere beyond Machynlleth) may be snow bound today.

9.00 am: Off we go. One of the worst and best aspects of the Edward Davies Building (the School of Art) is its enthusiastic heating system. Today, however, it’s a blessing: fierce and intemperate. In the spaces made by legitimate absenteeism, I got up-to-date with postgraduate admin. (It never ends.) Am I developing a tea addiction?

12.30 pm: Done! If I can leave each student confident that they know what needs to be done in the week ahead, then I’m content. Found painting:

12.45 pm: A research consultation lunch with one of my PhD tutees at a local eatery. We developed a campaign of action. 1.45 pm: I returned to homebase battling with the Siberian wind. I’ve not known it to be so cold in Aberystwyth before. Frosted salt stained  the pavement: a rare phenomenon in these parts:

2.00 pm: I caught up with all the correspondence that had fallen into my inbox, like snow from a laden roof.

2.30 pm: ‘Keep up the pace, John!’ Studiology. I manipulated each spoken account of the two blind men stories separately, modifying the outputs through hand modulators. I’m not keen to over-process the source material. There are several reasons for this. First, because there needs to be a rationale in the text for changing the sonorities of the spoken word; secondly, all types of modulation evoke significances and associations, and not all accord with, or are relevant to interpreting, the meaning of the text; and, thirdly, the sonic characteristics of the source material are often sufficiently engaging in their native state, if presented imaginatively. Economy in all things.

I opened the ‘Men as Trees, Walking’ composition again. To date, I’d not done more than slice-up the relatively short text into sections. To it I added, what I call, my Purcellesque drum track. Immediately something began to gel. Something to push forward tomorrow.

7.15 pm: Following a period of pastoral correspondence, I switched on some of my guitar hardware: Pedalboard I and the Yamaha THR100H Dual amp. I felt the need of a more physical engagement with sound and equipment. My volume pedal had failed:

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • What justification do you have for abandoning a project?
  • The work that you’ll undertake for the coming exhibition should be: a) a declaration of your full potential; b) doable in the time that remains; c) resolvable at the highest level you can achieve; d) coherent in its intent; and e) clear in its realisation.
  • Consider the matter of quantity in terms of not the number of works that you need to produce but, rather, the number of hours that you need to invest in each of the works.
  • By the time you’re thirty, you’ll have finished building the house that is you. Thereafter, its just a matter of adding extensions, knocking down partition walls, putting in more and larger windows, sealing up some doorways, and replacing lost and broken tiles.
  • A student may have facility but no trajectory.
  • We may begin a work in ignorance but develop cognisance of our intent as it proceeds. (Meaning rises to meet us.)
  • It’s what the painting requires, and not what either the subject suggests or you desire, that’s most important.
  • As in life, sometimes you need to paint over (paint out) a problematic area in order to create a fresh foundation on which a better solution can be rendered.


February 28, 2018

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48.10)

The ore in which silver is found contains other less precious metals besides, such as lead, copper, and antimony. In ancient times, one of the processes by which the silver was separated was cupellation. This involved heating the ore in a fierce fire until the silver liquified. Substances such as nitric acid were added, in order to dissolve the silver into silver chloride, along with sodium carbonate, to separate off the dross and leave the silver in its most pure state. This operation, or something like it, is frequently used in the Bible to illustrate the way in which God refines his people. They are impure. But he is committed to removing the dregs and rubbish that would otherwise contaminate their lives: those things which are unworthy, inconsistent, unhelpful, distracting, debilitating, and sometimes downright dangerous. Usually this process takes places constantly, progressively, and in the background, like the action of an anti-virus software (to switch metaphors). But there are also particular times of intense heat when especially recalcitrant refuse is burnt off. Affliction (be that bad health, dire circumstances, crippling disappointment, inconsolable loss, unremitting persecution, or appalling injustice) sometimes serves as the purgatorial fire. While the ordeal is profoundly unpleasant, the fruit is salutary and long lasting. The suffering is not senseless.

8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: Off to School into a blistering cold that nevertheless enlivened. 9.00 am: A PhD Fine Art Skype tutorial. My students always look far better than do I in this medium:

We discussed the possibility of developing a hypothetical art history module based upon the student’s research. In seeking to explain a complex idea to others, we’re better able comprehend it for ourselves. 10.00 am: What?!:

Could I reinvent myself? Could I pull off a paper on chemical engineering? As of today, I know a little more about refining, smelting, and calcining. I’ve received emails like this ever since my sons began studying science at university.

On with postgraduate admin before and after conducting an undergraduate dissertation advisory session. (The second year students are touting for potential supervisors.) 12.00 pm: A further PhD Fine Art Skype tutorial:

1.00 am: Home for lunch. 1.45 pm: The frost had embedded itself into the tarmac, and produced a curious crystalline pattern:

2.00 pm: Against expectation, an MA inquirer had braved the journey from London to Aberystwyth by train and got here on time. ‘Well done them!’ My ‘interrogation’ of applicant was entirely benign. What’s to be gained from unseating them? Quite apart from the quality of the work, I was curious to know about their ambitions beyond the period of the MA, and why they want to undertake the degree now, of all times in their life.

2.45 pm: Homebase and admin catch up before taking up the cables where I’d left off last night in the studio:

I began the session with the two accounts of two blind men from Matthew’s gospel (one on each vinyl), and proceeded to mix between them, using the stop/start and slider mechanisms. It was a hit or miss operation. So many attempts were necessary in order to secure something worthwhile.

7.15 pm: Studiology. I was prepared to generate a great deal of obvious turntablist tosh before achieving something even barely passable. The night was young. Two-handed manipulation was next on the tables. Better.