Visiting Ty Isaf

Ty Isaf front view

Ty Isaf is not merely a postal address and a property of moderate grandeur and repute; it is also a work in progress, a collaboration between Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Peter Wakelin, their team of highly skilled workmen, and the various wild and domesticated beings they share the property with, including a small colony of pipistrelle bats in the attic and a noisy rookery in the treetops adjacent to the house.
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Woodrat Podcast 40: A walk with Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Part 1)

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
(l-r) view of Llanilar, Clive and Jack at table, three Welsh cows

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.)

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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).

Study for St. Kevin and the Blackbird

in response to a drawing by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The blackbird has built a caravan park
on a roundabout where five roads
join a hot pale highway.
What led her to choose the straight & narrow
over a hedge’s Medieval maze of streets?
She eyes the lights, which only blink,
& cocks her head at the pulse
of unseen traffic.

The Book of Ystwyth

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, which includes all of the poems from my Temptations of Solitude series, is now out. It’s a stunningly beautiful book; you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. Carolina Wren Press does have some review copies available, I’m told, so if you have a well-trafficked blog or magazine, please consider writing it up.

The book was launched on Friday night with one of the best group readings I’ve ever been privileged to take part in, relaxed and well organized, with no bad readers and an overflowing and attentive audience. One of the six poets, the fantastically gifted (and much too modest) Callum James, blogged about the reading as well as yesterday’s launch of the exhibition, which was and is mind-blowing, for anyone who can get to the National Library at Aberystwyth by August.

I expect I’ll have more to say about all this after my return to Plummer’s Hollow and my own computer. I’ve been bothering all manner of people, including Clive, with my audio recorder, gathering material for the Woodrat podcast, and we have video of the reading, so I’ll have my work cut out for me. But for now, I intend to vacate for another week. Wales is spectacular; were it not for the shortage of forests, I think I could live here.

House Sparrow

in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Paper Garden

They said you were blue
so I got you a card.
It sings when you open it.
The clouds move, & the usual
stars & crickets: a card
like a garden, missing only
the mated pair of primates
flinging their feces at some snake.
I’ve just flown out from the tree
beside the tree beside the tree
& there you are, your eye on
my hugger-mugger life.
I have to say
you’re beginning to creep me out.
Where did that enormous
coffee mug come from
& why is it wearing a leopard’s spots?
And God, much as I appreciate
you holding my world in
your mitt, I have to ask:
whose damn blue egg is that?

Long Gu

in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold

Calm are the thoughts, serene the visage & regular the bowels of he who partakes of a dragon’s bone. Swallows visit him with eternal summer. For as every doctor of traditional Chinese medicine knows, dragon bone powder (long gu) is the king of sedatives, subdues manic episodes & tames insomnia. In order to be fully efficacious, its collector too must calm his mind, by (for example) ingesting dragon bone. Therefore it is said: If you want a dragon’s bones, become a dragon. A true sage can rest in emptiness & ride the wind, not knowing where he’ll stop, can turn into a bird & become immortal. The mere sight of him mortifies a dragon, whose proper realm is the boundless void, & it writhes like a candle flame in the wind & gutters into stone. From this rapid constriction comes its famed astringency, so useful in the fight against night sweats & diarrhoea. The sage has only to pierce the dragon’s skull & let its spirit loose, becalmed in the void called extinction.


Another alternative reading. (I think Clive thought he was painting St. George.) One website I looked at said that these days, long gu is derived from fossil bones — presumably dinosaurs and mammoths. However, Chinese medical use has driven other, actual species to the brink of extinction, such as the black rhino and the Siberian tiger.


in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Touched

Will you dance? I fear
the chance won’t come again.
Cold nights and dry days
have loosened our once-
youthful grip & put
a sunset color in our cheeks.
Let’s take a turn, swing
to the wingbeats of the rust-
voiced grackles. Let’s swirl,
break trail for the rain,
for everything good.
Later we can have a tete-a-tete,
escape the stares of those
golden-haired debutantes
& lie whispering together
in a golden bed.
We can dream of increase
in the sleek crops
of nightcrawlers.
But first we must part
from our parent oaks.


Update (10/27): I should explain what I’m up to here. Clive’s painting is his take on the Annunciation, a creative re-imagining of an oft-painted myth. Marly Youmans noted in a comment that she’d never seen an Annunciation in which Gabriel actually touched Mary like this, and the sunflowers and the abundant oak leaves were novel additions as well. Traditionally, the Annunciation is celebrated in March, but the leaves and flowers suggest late summer or autumn.

I thought it would be fun to try an intentional misreading of the painting. My first draft had them as a human couple, with Gabriel as an Edward Scissorhands kind of mostrosity, the wings actually deformed limbs from a partially reabsorbed twin. But the more I looked at the painting, the more I focused on the oak leaves. At first they were simply the occasion for the dance, but soon they took over and the figures at the center of the painting became something like leaf spirits.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has a blog!

It’s true, he does. Well, O.K., he actually calls it a log — an artlog. Go visit.

What, you’re still here? Look, if you’ve been reading Via Negativa much at all this year, from the various comments he’s left you must already have some idea of the man’s generosity and way with words, not to mention his stunning artwork, as exemplified by the Tempations of Solitude paintings I wrote about. All three qualities are on display at his brand-new blog, which reproduces the contents of letters he’s been sending out to a few friends over the past eight days chronicling the progress of a major new work.

This ‘Artlog’ has been set up to provide a glimpse into my studio and the way in which I work. I’m kicking off with a day by day photographic diary of the current painting on my easel. (A bit of an experiment as I’ve never done this before, so bear with me.) The subject is Saint Francis Preaching to the Birds. The idea had been long gestating. I had a notion to conjure a more threatening mood than the usual bucolic approaches to the story. The key image that kept niggling at me was a violent maelstrom of birds with the saint at the heart of it. Almost as though he’s being mobbed. (Tippi Hedren comes to mind in Hitchcock’s The Birds.)

I’ve thought for a while that Clive should be blogging, and I’m glad he finally seems to agree. Since he was already an inveterate letter-writer, I didn’t think it would require too big a shift in his patterns, though granted, I am a shameless evangelist for this medium. It will be interesting to see how Clive uses it. Anyway, do go say hi and check out those birds!

“Tempations of Solitude” series now half as solitary

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


I’m very pleased to announce that my “Temptations of Solitude” poems now appear side-by-side with the paintings that inspired them on the artist’s own website. Though we’ve become regular email corespondents, I barely knew Clive Hicks-Jenkins when I started writing this series last spring, and was blown away by his enthusiasm for the poems. After all, he’s a fairly major figure in British painting, and it’s not as if I was the first to write poems in response to his works. In fact, I’ve joined a small online exhibit which includes five other poets (click on their names to view their pages on the site). I am particularly pleased to be published alongside my friend Marly Youmans and the wonderful Callum James.

I put these poems into the proverbial (and wholly suppositional) bottom drawer for many months, but didn’t end up making more than a few, minor changes when I finally took another look at them. This should probably worry me more than it does. I used to be such a perfectionist! Then I discovered blogging, and realized I was only as good a writer as my next post. Some of the poems in the Temptations series are stronger than others, and I’m O.K. with that. You can’t hit a home run every time, you know? I’ve decided there’s value in unevenness, and that if you attempt to reach the same peak each time, you end up with a featureless plateau.

At any rate, thanks to Clive for the inclusion — and for creating such damn fine paintings in the first place.

The Beating of the Falsely Accused

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

This ash-colored immigrant come
to steal an honest man’s job —
give him the business, why don’t you.
Let every slack muscle learn

what real work feels like,
how it aches & bruises.
Then let him go swimming
with a cast-iron kettle around his neck.

The sanitarium should’ve known better,
trying to hire orderlies from outside.
We’re hungry here.
The sun itself only gets in

a few licks each day,
& the sea eats like a drunk —
a nibble here & a nibble there
to steady itself against the shore.

We’ve all been tenderized.
We marinate in the tall salt cellars —
the rapeseed oil cans —
the cold ovens of our houses,

watch the flickering pilot light
in the corner of the room
& dream of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Let us pray for the firm

flesh of angels, white,
with eyes that can sprout,
that can finger, that can shove
green fists through the dirt.