Join me for a walk with the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and his dog Jack. Clive and his partner Peter Wakelin live a few miles from Aberystwyth in a beautiful old place called Ty Isaf, which I’d been reading about on his Artlog for a couple years now, and was lucky enough to visit — and even stay three nights in — earlier this month.
I thought it would be fun to record a tour of Clive’s neighborhood for the podcast, allowing us to hear how a major artist relates to, and finds inspiration in, the land and people around him. For those unfamiliar with his work, it’s worth mentioning that specific places have always featured prominently in his paintings. Even elements which I had assumed to be fanciful, such as castles beside the sea, turn out to have been common features of the local and regional landscape. (For more on the sense of place in Clive’s work, see the essay by Andrew Green, “The Place of Place,” in the new monograph simply entitled Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from the British art publisher Lund Humphries in cooperation with Grey Mare Press.)
Be sure to check back next weekend for the conclusion of our walking conversation, in which I prompt Clive to talk about his journey from the theater world to art, what he looks for in painting, and more.
Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).
Time-travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Shortly before I left, I heard a mention on the radio about the effects of jet lag on memory — it sounds worse than marijuana by far. I heeded the advice to expose myself to plenty of sunshine, though (I was fortunate that my visit to Wales and England coincided with an unusually sunny period) and managed to reset my body clock fairly quickly. What I didn’t get used to was the longer day. I would wake up when the blackbirds started singing at dawn and discover that it was only 4:30 in the morning.
Traveling home, of course, I got back the time I lost on the flight over. It was just about the longest morning of my life, starting at midnight when I was en route on the express train from London to the Birmingham airport, continuing for many hours at the airport lounge (I didn’t bother getting a motel room), and then on the flight itself, which left at 9:00, lasted for seven and a half hours, and arrived at noon. I had a window seat at the very back of the plane, and spent much of the time gazing at the tops of clouds from 35,000 feet in a state of mild stupefaction, the combined effect of sleep deprivation, a recently contracted head cold, and the sheer wonder of it all.
The plane was a Boeing 767 and bucked and heaved a lot more than I remembered from my previous intercontinental flights on 747s, and this combined with the wave-like tops of the clouds made it feel almost like a sea voyage. From time to time I’d switch on the screen in the back of the seat in front of me to check our position and verify that we were, in fact, hurtling along at 500 miles per hour. I thought back to my very first day in Wales, when I got a chance to ride in a small, flat-bottomed boat known as a coracle, a version of which the Irish St. Brendan supposedly crossed the North Atlantic in. Thousands of newly hatched mayflies were rising off the river as we took turns trying to pilot the rudderless, slow-going craft against the current.
The boat had just been made two days before by John and Cathryn Warren, the next-door neighbors to my hosts in Wales, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Peter Wakelin (that’s Peter in the coracle after me; Clive’s voice is in the soundtrack, and he did the filming while I took a turn in the thing). I had simply happened to mention that a good friend of mine in the States was crazy about coracles, and asked if they knew where I might see one.
Somehow the unreality of flying across the Atlantic in a few hours was balanced by the unreality of having my desire to see a coracle instantly granted, sitting in it and finding myself unable to go anywhere very quickly except in circles. In fact, at that moment, there was nowhere I particularly wanted to go. Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to The Voyage of St. Brendan, could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar. I could see their point. Almost everything — trees, wildflowers, birdsong — was new and miraculous to me, and I wanted nothing more than to stop and soak it in.
UPDATE (5/19): I’m honored to report that this post has spawned not one, but two responses from my friend Kristin Berkey-Abbott. Check out “Coracles and Communication,” which includes a poem called “Coracle of Prayer,” at her personal blog, and “Coracles and Currents” at Liberation Theology Lutheran.
I was woken at 6:37 a.m. by a nearby police siren. This wouldn’t seem so remarkable if I were still staying in London, or Aberystwyth, or Brooklyn, but I was home in my own bed in Plummer’s Hollow. Why had my unconscious mind decided to awaken me in this manner? I pondered it briefly, turned over and went back to sleep.
When the plane lifted off from the Birmingham airport Monday morning and flew west over the English and Welsh countryside, I got a brief view of fields and villages dwindling below before the clouds closed in. Picturesque, bucolic? You bet. I felt a pang of sorrow to be leaving my friends — old ones and newly made alike — and wondered when or if I’d ever visit the UK again. But many hours later, as I stared through the bus window at the lush and seemingly uninhabited forests of northeastern Pennsylvania, groggy as I was from almost two days without sleep and a recently contracted head cold, my spirits soared. This was exactly the way I used to feel years ago in Japan, whenever I’d escape the city and take a train into the mountains: giddiness, as if meeting an old flame, combined with a sense of deep satisfaction. Yes, Wales was green, too, but much of that green was pasture; the mostly bare, sheep-haunted hills struck me as stark and sad.
I like cities, I really do. While killing time in Manhattan yesterday afternoon, I paid to enter the subway and just sit on the platform for a while, enjoying the ambient soundscape, eavesdropping and people-watching. Few people anywhere are as flamboyant and interesting as New Yorkers. The thunder of the trains approaching and receding in their dim burrows evoked the romance of travel as well as anything, I thought. It seemed an appropriate coda for the trip, which had begun with a visit to an old friend in Brooklyn on May 1.
When I finally dragged out of bed this morning and sat out on the porch with my coffee, though, I was gobsmacked. I’d gotten home late the previous night, so this was my first good look at the mountain, and man, did it ever change in the last two weeks! The oak leaves were just beginning to burst their buds when I left. Now the edge of the woods is once again a solid wall of green, the grass is high, and birds I haven’t heard in more than half a year were calling in the rain: yellow-billed cuckoo, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole. I heard a scarlet tanager’s chit-bang call, followed a few seconds later by a cameo of the singer himself on a black walnut branch, an ache of red against the greenery. A hen turkey clucked nearby, presumably with chicks somewhere in tow. Huge success as the trip may have been, I’m glad it didn’t last any longer than it did. It’s good to be home.
For a different recollection of my trip, from one of my hosts, see “Boots” at twisted rib blog.