Seeing out loud

A blog of illustrations & ideas by Catherine Stones

Found, not lost, at sea

thegulfI remember a line in a film that said ‘Fear is what you pay for adventure’. A terrifying but enlightening boat trip in Cambodia recently brought this to mind. How strange those situations when you look at an empty beer barrel sliding on the deck and wonder if it would float if you clung to it and you wish, with all your heart, for your mother…

Treasuring treasure


The Illustration Friday word this week is ‘Treasure’. It’s a good word. Both noun and verb like all the best words, it encompasses both fiction and fact as well as the material and ephemeral. It’s old fashioned. I can’t remember the last time I used the word which, again, indicates a good choice for the weekly illustration challenge.

My image relates to the treasure of the heart, as if the kiss at the end of a special correspondence is a cross that leads to buried gold of a kind. It’s not the hand-written map that counts or the material treasure, it’s the journey inwards.

I’ve taken a few cues from Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful map of Treasure Island where he was kind enough to warn the reader and the protagonists of strong tides and swamps as if they were going to tackle them together. The reality of fictional maps is compelling. A fictional maps says ‘exactly here is where it never happened’ – a beautiful paradox, a false memory by someone else.

The reality of treasure – of greed and of feeling a right to something that is not inherently yours – is actually much less romantic. A recent visit to the beautiful How Stean Gorge in the Yorkshire Dales and a visit to a cave rumoured to be the hoarding place of a famous highwayman Tom Taylor brought this home. Coming out of the darkness, in parts like the darkened ribs of a whale, I read that apparently Taylor had been caught and hung in that very spot where he’d hidden his stolen goods. Taylor’s story is as mythic, when you search for references to it, as Stevenson’s. Truth here is stranger than fiction or actually the same when no one is there to remember it.

Treasure, then, is a word to treasure. Loaded with ambiguity, mystery and story it offers a powerful motivation to dig deeper.

Illustration Friday word – ‘Danger’

I thought for this Illustration Friday I’d reflect some of the feelings I had after seeing a Bull Run in Spain. It certainly was adrenaline-filled and dangerous, though I secretly wanted the bulls to take revenge for all the terrible taunting they got. Clearly the bulls were more terrified than the my giant bull lets off steam and wreaks havoc on the streets of this town.danger

“Maps of the imagination” – a great book to be guided by.

One of the benefits of having the messiest desk in a shared office (by quite a mile) is the easy rediscovery of a great book that resurfaces as the rest of the much duller paper clears.

This week ‘Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer‘ by Peter Turchi reappeared, to point the direction for thoughts to come – a true ‘compass’ book. This books draws fascinating parallels between the act of map making and the act of writing, discussing all those fantastic maps that bridge the surface area of the novel and the ‘flatland’ of a place. It’s beautifully written. Turchi says on the first page -‘To ask for a map is to say, “Tell me a story” and the rest of the work flows as effortlessly. Visually the book is beautiful too, full of illustrations.


One of the best chapters is the wonderfully titled ‘A wide landscape of snows’ that discusses the importance of blanks in relation to silences…from the fragments of Sappho’s poetry and Henry Beck’s 1933 underground map (successful due mostly to what it leaves out) to John Cage’s famous composition of silence. The book is full of quotes  – Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville and Louise Gluck – and Turchi himself is worthy of many a quote…

“The blank page is only a beginning, as opposed to the beginning. Even after we mark the page, there are blanks beyond the borders of what we create, and blanks within what we create.”

Silence is a vital part of the novel too and Turchi quotes Hemingway in a wonderful line – “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows”. Turchi acknowledges the risks of communicating through silence, the challenge that the reader faces trying to make ‘associative leaps’. However “the rewards” he says “include the powerful bolt of understanding a leap can make, an understanding that reaches the reader beyond words, beyond rational explanation, and so is more intensely felt”

It’s refreshing to find a very non-academic ‘academic book’, one that twists and turns full of energy and ideas in a way that reminds me of Ernst Gombrich at his best. Like Gombrich, Turchi offers new and accessible analysis and connections, free from the turgidity of academic writing or the need to ‘prove’. If you have an interest in both maps and literature you’ll be hard pressed to find a better book to set your head spinning…

Spring has sprung

springSpring flirts with the remnants of winter….passing seasons like a clumsy relay race, dropping the baton several times before finally taking over. I think though, that spring is here at last and the spring pictured is definitely equipped with a new broom.

The ambiguity of spring is very special. We literally change time for Spring’s arrival and mark it on the calendar but we are never quite clear when it’s really going to get here in person. Ambiguity is an important word. Whilst we may want to cling to certainty, ambiguity (the might or maybe or never) is perhaps the life raft we should swim towards.

My spring is punctuated by the ambiguity of the wonderful Leonora Carrington at the Tate Liverpool and the women connected, by proxy, with her such as Marina Warner and Angela Carter. Imagine being the baby brought up in the amazing cot/boat decorated by Carrington  – a brilliant object in the exhibition! Leonora Carrington seems to offer the Tate something very different to the heavily curated contemporary art around it in the other galleries – an imagination that seems free of ‘the painted word’ and one that offers more questions than answers.

The final words have to go to one of Carrington’s fictional characters (she wrote fiction too) – “The answer is hiding somewhere, if I could only read”

No clicks but plenty of snips…

The new year sees new non-digital working methods and a Wickes’ long paste table in the living room, scissors and glue, like a bad surgeon’s operating theatre. The first one under the knife was the ballsy ‘dancing princess’. A result of a four hour montage session where the only constraints were one found magazine and one evening. She dreams of a house built on the mountain side and takes no nonsense (more on the significance of ’12 dancing princesses’ to come soon).

The second speedy experiment is a half-man/half-dog who hates being told what to do, and resents thinking about Monday’s work on a Sunday. It’s lovely to work when the picture suggests itself and you don’t know what you’re going to make until you’re making it. The materials, that you’ve never seen before, ‘tell’ you what they want to be (without sounding insane!).
It all seems to make some kind of sense. I’ve recently discovered a forgotten book accompanying a Hayward Gallery exhibition from 2006 ‘You’ll never know: Drawing and random interference’. There’s a great quote about randomness from the dada-ist extraordinaire, Tristan Tzara: “What we want now is ‘spontaneity’ not because it is more beautiful or better than anything else. But because everything that comes from us freely without intervention from speculative ideas represents us”

In praise of slowness

slow2A cute one for Illustration Friday this week. The word is ‘slow’ and I was inspired, of course, by the slowness of the tortoise. I was also reminded of my grandma’s tortoise, Napoleon, who had white emulsion paint on his shell to help my nana see him in dark foliage. I thought this ‘creep’ of tortoises could be painted with the letters of a Shakespeare quote about slowness. It takes a bit of time to pick it out but that’s exactly the point.

The word this week made me search out ‘Hare Brain Tortoise Mind’ by Guy Claxton from my bookshelf. The book extols the virtue of slowing down and not thinking too hard, and importantly letting your subconscious mind work things out in its own time. It’s not an easy read though is full of ‘golden nuggets’. I particularly like the quote from A.A. Milne:  “Did you make that song up?”.”Well I sort of made it up”, said Pooh “It isn’t Brain..but it comes to me sometimes”. “Ah” said Rabbit, who never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.

For those in peril on the sea…

trouble-largeThis is my first ‘Illustration Friday’ in a very long time. It’s such a good website and perfect when you just want a quick fix of illustration activity. The word ‘Trouble’ isn’t particularly easy and my first thoughts were of troubled sailors out at sea and the waves themselves being like monsters swallowing up the boats. I’m currently reading Moby Dick, so it’s not a surprise that my mind went there. As well as some very long sentences, the book is stuffed full of poignancy  – “Ship and boat diverged; the cold damp night breeze blew between; a screaming gull flew overhead; the two hulls wildly rolled; we gave three heavy-hearted cheers and blindly plunged like fate into the lone Atlantic”

A tribute to Autumn

autumn-birdAutumn is a wonderful time of year and there are certainly many writers who have written beautiful words about it:

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”  – Albert Camus

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns” – George Eliot

“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face” – John Donne

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile” – William Cullen Bryant

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons” – Jim Bishop.

My Autumn is joyous too, inspired by the words of my mother when she was a child seeing a chicken being plucked: “Oh! The chicken is losing all it’s leaves!”. My bird’s lost leaves keep winter safe until it’s ready to hatch.

Terrifying Toys

A recent visit to the Toy Museum at Brighton, a little place built into the railway arches, threw up all kinds of wonderful and macabre toys amongst the Hornby railway sets. I never liked dolls at all when I was little (and my equally tom-boy sister used to fill her doll pram with soil and use it as a wheel barrow) but I appreciate them much more now as objects of terror rather than of nurture. Here are images from a sinister cabinet of dolls.

doll1 doll2 doll3

Other highlights in the museum was a beautiful box full of jointed Alice in Wonderland Characters. It was unclear what they were for but they featured every character from both books and I particularly like the way they are displayed interacting with each other. Another highlight was the Punch and Judy cabinet where an unusually primitive crocodile lurks at the front. I love the way they’ve been arranged as if they were posing for a family photograph, as if a hanged man was an everyday occurrence. Punch looks particularly calm and proud.

alice punch

water-puppets The Brighton Art Gallery and Museum also had a fascinating gallery about performance and puppetry where, again, Punch and Judy featured. It had a particularly great set of Vietnamese Water Puppets (pictured here) – I’ve been lucky enough to see more of these in the Taipei Puppet Museum actually in the water.

It’s not exactly clear why life-like dolls are so sinister though there have been attempts to account for it by the ‘Uncanny Valley‘ theory used in robotics. The theory explains that once faces and movements become just too lifelike they evoke all kinds of innate fears in us such as fear of being replaced. How amazing that extremes of realism should provoke extremes of imagination. For me, I really like to see objects that disturb as it’s a ‘safe’ fear – they’re behind glass after all. There’s a real beauty to all these figures, beauty found in the textured, flaky paint and the crude sculpting that can’t be found elsewhere so the Toy Museum is a bit of gem in my view. Just don’t make me go there alone at night time…

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