Lunch with R.D.(Bob) McKenzie

I first met Bob and his wife Fay way back in 1981 in South Africa when I was apprenticed to an electrical engineer. At the time the McKenzie’s owned the farm Gray Rocks near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. Bob was at the time heavily involved in cattle breeding programs, dairy and various other farming operations. My company had been employed to ensure that the farms electrical installations complied with the regulations required for connection to the national grid. Now, nearly 28 years on, standing in Bob’s studio in “The Barn” it seemed like that history was a world away, in another dimension.

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Out of Africa – will the colours be the same and the memories as vivid?

My studio is quiet, almost as if it is waiting, knowing that I going away.

A good friend of mine used to have a dog that was very good at reading the signs. It seemed to know when preparations were being made and the family was getting ready for a vacation. It would sit silent, head down, and perform the saddest portrayal of rejection, worthy of an Oscar for a tragic character from a Shakespearian production.

That’s how my studio feels tonight as I gather and select the materials for my trip to South Africa. I find it amazing how this space, Thornwood Studio, has taken on a character, a personality, an almost human nature. Of course I tell myself that it is simply a room, a pre-fabricated room full of paint, canvas, bottles, brushes, books and music…..damn it, it’s my studio and an extension of me…that’s why it feels almost human; it’s a part of me and it knows it’s not going to Africa with me.

I have selected, for this trip, 12 fine pieces of watercolour paper, my, as yet unused Windsor Newton watercolour Travel set and a very limited selection of brushes, pens and watercolour pencils. I have limited space so am travelling light.

It is four years since I was last in South Africa, a land seldom far from my thoughts and longing. I have lived in England for fifteen years and love this beautiful land and the opportunity it has afforded my family and me; yet always there is this distant voice, almost like the sound of a drum beat in the night which draws my attention south and to the constellation of The Southern Cross. To deep, dark, velvety African nights enjoyed under the Milky Way and in the company of the hot crackling Thornwood fires from where my studio derives its name.  

My visit is mostly for family reasons; firstly I must deliver the ashes of my late cousin to those who will inter them in the family burial grounds at the foot of nTaba Temba a mountain in the Eastern Cape. Then I must acquaint my twelve-year-old daughter, who was born in the UK, and has little knowledge of her roots in Africa, with her family history. She will learn of her grand parents and ancestors and how they established themselves and prospered in the area known as Queenstown, a settler town named after Queen Victoria. She will tread the paths I once ran on as a little boy and she will inhale the sights, sounds and smells that will, in time to come, become the drum beat which will draw her back on her own pilgrimages and towards her own longings.

When we have visited all the sights, left our footprints on ancestral land and enjoyed the reunion of family and friends, I shall steal-away and rekindle deep memories of my own. If the spirit is willing, the flesh strong and the eye true, then the twelve watercolour papers will return to England, having captured something of the colours of my memories, the scenes and the emotions of what was once my life in Africa.

Wish me well everyone and pray for creativity, vision and interpretation. That my African trip would truly be a safari of the spirit and that I would return to Thornwood Studio with tales to tell to my canvases, colours to relate to my palate and instructions to give to my brushes.   

My cup overflows………

So its Friday!!!!  and in the world of Twitters and Tweets it’s that time of the week when you grab the finest coffee beans which the grocery cupboard has to offer, brew the brew, find a quiet place in the garden or studio and, as the caffeine works its magic, begin to reflect on the past week and who you would like to #FF,  recognise, honour, mention or avoid.

My reflections and thoughts this morning revolve predominantly around the amazing world which has been created by the internet and it’s associated links and streams. I have already said something about this previously so won’t go there again but thought that today I would share a little of my experiences “on the net”.

People that are cleverer than I have suggested that there is a finite number of social connections which an individual can have before managing the associated social interaction becomes impossible to track. This magic number is called the Dunbar Number, please allow me to quote from Wikipedia (I told you there was someone cleverer than I):-

 “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar’s_number

If this is true and my social interaction is to be made more difficult exponentially as my follows, friends or fan numbers grow, what will this mean and how will it impact my day and the available time I have to designate for social media interaction. You see for me the problem is this, I love people and especially those people who are engaged in life, living their adventures and pursuing their passions i.e. bloggers, Twitterers, Tweeters, artists, writers…..you get the picture. Ten years ago such contacts were limited to perhaps a small local group or one or two national groups and with any luck, an international group. Correspondence was either done through news letters and the odd email which allowed sufficient time between meetings, reunions or exhibitions to digest the news and get the picture of what was going on in your social/organization or interest group.

Not so today! In the last week I have been exposed to so much amazing material,so many thoughts, ideas and people, all of outstanding abilities and skills that my spirit is overwhelmed. Perhaps its time for the second cup of that coffee which I call snake-bite. Maybe a caffeine induced trance will offer some solution to my condition. The point I am making is this, the speed at which these opportunities to engage arrive and the frequency at which they present themselves is outstripping my ability to honour all that I would like to.

Lets take #FF on Twitter for example. This is a great way to recognise people who make the Twitter experience so colourful and worthwhile. This week I have tried to check each profile on my followers list to “get to know” the faces behind the Tweets. In the process I have visited websites, blog sites, journals and galleries all of which have been so very interesting. I have read short blogs, long blogs, looooooooooonger blogs, comments and viewed some work and art of the highest quality and finish. Here’s the rub, I have  so much to say to each one I visit that all my available social networking time is blown in a flash…..and I still have not even visited Facebook where I have 250 friends, some of  whom I am corresponding with now for the first time in 30 years. Oh, did I mention that I also write and manage a few commercial blogs and tweets; you can see my problem, so many wonderful opportunities and people……not enough time. Alvin Toffler the American futurist, in his book future Shock, held the hypothesis that in the future technology would outstrip humanity’s ability to keep up with the speed and volume of information which was to be created; Alvin, buddy, I know what you mean. 

I am now on my third cup of caffeinated venom and all is becoming clear. If Dunbar and Toffler are right then their ideas trash the modern concept of having 2000 people who you can possibly follow with any grain of integrity. Even Jesus decided on 12 as the most effective number to disciple and just in case you have forgotten, He is God.

Here’s what I propose as the solution to my current state of self-imposed overload. I am going to be led by my heart, which after my scan in May I am assured is working just fine. I am going to allow chance, providence, artistic energy, spirit and faith to each play their part in directing me to the relationships and experiences which present themselves. I will resist the temptation to feel guilty about who I have not touched base with for a while, who I have not heard from in a weeks or who I have forgotten to #FF or email. In short I am going to let my cyber-life evolve and just see where it takes me; this seems like the most creative way to go about this adventure.  So when we run into each other again, share a tweet, blog, direct message, fan page, group affiliation, email or call,  it will be sweet, it will be fresh and it will be unforced……it will be serendipitous.

Oi! waiter….bring me another cup and make it a double Americano please, I think I am beginning to see the light. 

A Hidden Catharsis within the Creative Process

Finally, after nearly 30 years I was standing, for the first time in a small room which I could call a studio. After a summer of renovations and domestic DIY I had redirected funds from our home decorating funds to convert the back-end of my garage into my first,  real dedicated creative space…..Thornwood Studio.  The space was small but it was the kind of space which would submit only to me and my dictates, that would respond to what I wanted and did not have to morph into someones bedroom, study, lounges or store.

For the first time I was able to purchase a real easel, unpack the storehouse of artists materials assembled over the years and fill the shelves of the small bookcase with the volumes of art books I had collected. After days spent arranging and rearranging furniture, lighting and materials; I was ready, the only question now was, what do I paint first.

After searching for material to paint I settled for a slide which had been taken by my late father. It was a rather dark picture of a scene from what used to be our family farm in South Africa and where I had spent most of the first 13 years of my life. The slide was of the view from the farmhouse veranda looking south into the early dawn. It was a very frosty morning and the sun was still behind the big mountain which stretches across the sky from north to south. One could be forgiven for thinking that the slide was a black and white picture because none of the colours had yet been activated by the first rays of the sun.

The immediate problem which confronted me was that, while it was the very scene I had always dreamed of painting, the colours were not those which I wanted to represent this important first painting. I suddenly realised that if I was going to achieve the scene I wanted, I would have to take myself back, in my head, to stand on that veranda and imagine I was a little boy again. I would have to dig deep and imagine the colours that I would have been looking at from that spot and at the time of day I wanted to have as the defining image.

As I began to paint, first laying down a base of Van Dyke brown and then building a more tonal sketch, I became totally engrossed in the picture. The real surprise however came when I started to add colour to the painting. I realised that it was not that hard to mix the paint to give me exactly at I wanted and I began to apply the colour with a new-found excitement. Nothing however could have prepared me for what happened next.

On the left-hand side of the canvas, about a quarter of the way up the scene, I had sketched in the shape of the massive old apricot tree which I had played in as a little boy. In a moment I was transported back in my mind to sitting alone in the crook of one of its big branches. It was a hot summers day, about midday and I was enjoying listening to the rustle of the leaves in the breeze as it cooled the air under the tree. It was the strangest sensation, standing in my small studio in Dorset England, 30 years down the road, yet at the same time feeling the scene I was paining in such intimate detail. Even to the point of tasting one of my mother’s home backed biscuits which I had removed from the stash in my khaki shorts pocket.

I remember looking out from under the dark shadow of the tree towards the south and over the crops in the fields to where my father would be buried some six or so years into the future. I could feel the warm burg wind brushing over my face and with it came the rich smell of the bush and vegetation growing along the irrigation furrow at the top of the field. The sensation of all this was so powerful that I suddenly realised that I had tears streaming down my cheeks. The memories that had been evoked by entering that painting at such a personal level in order to extract the memory of the colours, had stirred some really deep memories and emotions.

As a result of the experience I began a journey, which I am still on and one which continues to yield both sweet and bitter and bright and dark memories. With the sweet and bright I have remembered many warm and  wonderfully magical moments with my family as well as a few bitter and darker ones as well. What started out as the first painting in a little studio has become an ongoing movie of my past, a kind of rerun of my life. Out of it has come the opportunity to rethink, with the benefit of age and time, a myriad of thoughts, memories and emotions.

What a serendipitous event and what a cathartic experience, all because I chose, in a creative moment, to re-create memory from the past. Somehow the creative process and the application and transmission of the memory onto canvas created a vehicle  which comes to  ameliorate the dark and bitter and revive the sweet and the bright.