Thursday, September 30, 2010


I like this time of year when the season changes so noticeably. Autumn is one of my top four favourite seasons.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvest.

Britain, thanks have been given for successful harvests since pagan times. The celebrations on this day usually include singing hymns, praying, and decorating churches with baskets of fruit and food in the festival known as Harvest Festival. I was going to a Harvest Festival last Sunday – to see what it was like in a traditional church setting – but I was unwell.

I don’t know how it’s celebrated where you are.

Also, the Celtic new year begins on November 1st. Samhain marked the end of harvest and the beginning of the new year. The first month of the Celtic year was Samonios - ‘Seed Fall’.

I don’t work to deadlines or schedules, but I like to work to seasons.

Over the last few months, I don’t feel like I’ve been working on anything much.

But everywhere I look there are piles of drawings, photocopies, printouts, magazine cuttings, articles, bags of ribbon, bags of sticks, photographs ...

As I’ve been gathering various bits and pieces together I’ve realised that I have a number of related ideas and themes that have been growing and developing. Many of these are now at a mature stage and something needs to be done with them.

They need to be harvested.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I should never go out.

I’ve known this for a long time but I keep telling myself that it won’t be so bad this time.

But it always is.

It seems my capacity for making a fool of myself is boundless.

In Japan there is a caste of Japanese youth called hikikomori - mostly young men - who lock themselves away in their bedrooms.

I think they’ve got the right idea.

It worked for the poet Emily Dickinson too.

I’ve given up taking my camera or sketchpad out with me. On a number of occasions I’ve been accused of working as a Surveyor for the Council as I’ve drawn and photographed local scenes. Usually by suspicious local farmers. One thought I was planning the route of a Motorway across his land … indeed, across the whole valley.

I was just drawing trees.

But even when I go out unarmed and so-not-dangerous, strange things happen that unnerve me for days.

It usually involves me meeting people.

I’m currently living in the area I grew up in and I keep bumping into people I haven’t seen for 30 years or more.

They usually recognise me but I don’t recognise them. Even when they introduce themselves I can rarely remember how, where or when I knew them.

It’s very awkward and embarrassing.

It’s happened again this week. Twice.

The worst one was yesterday.

I was walking down the road when I passed a postman. I knew he was a postman because he was wearing a postman’s uniform. And he had a bright red bicycle. With a big basket on the front. With a sackful of letters in it. Please bear this in mind.

As I walked past he called out …

“Excuse me, are you Peter Birch?”

I hesitated before I turned around. I was honestly thinking of saying “No”.

But I didn’t. Big mistake. Huge.

I asked him who he was and he gave me his name. It rang a bell but I couldn’t place him.

He seemed delighted to see me and chatted away happily for ages, asking me all about myself.

Then there came an awkward silence. I realised I hadn’t been very forthcoming and hadn’t asked him much about himself. Mainly because I was still trying to figure out who he was.

And then these words fell from my mouth.

“So what do you do for a living?”

Boundless, I tell you.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Another week, another show

Another exhibition of paintings has opened in Cardiff. This time a series of works by Corrie Chiswell who was winner of the 2009 Welsh Artist of the Year.

The exhibition is being held at a relatively new contemporary art gallery called Off The Wall. The Private View was on Thursday and was packed. There was a great buzz.

The paintings are figurative and tell ethereal, disturbing stories that seem linked to fairy tales. One of the main pieces was called “The Princess and the Pea” and was a beautiful and enigmatic piece. (You can view it on the homepage of Corrie Chiswell's website).

All sorts of images and themes emerged with a visual language that I barely understood – lots of half-eaten apples, pomegranates and a green orb. I like what she says in her biography that "Her perception of reality can be compared to a crime scene where clues are left to indicate what is happening."

Apart from the paintings there were drawings and studies as well as a portfolio of press cuttings. That made for a greater sense of connection with the artist and an understanding of her work. It was also helped that the gallerist (who I have known for some years since she was at a previous gallery) took the time to mingle and to talk about the work.

We talked about how difficult it was to run a successful contemporary art gallery in Wales when the work that sells is largely traditional landscapes with cottages and miners! I have to say, I wondered how contemporary the work was when there is such a serious lack of any video, sculpture or installation art. I’m sure there are artists producing this stuff but you never get to see it! Maybe I’m just not connected to the right people and places.

Nevertheless, a good, imaginative and technically excellent show of work.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Creative Methods

I’ve always been interested in the processes creative people use to produce their work. I’m particularly fascinated by the methods used by people in creative industries other than the visual arts.

So I was very excited to come across this book about one of the world’s best chefs at his restaurant just outside Barcelona.

A Day at ElBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adrià.

ElBulli is “one of the world's most famous, sought after and mysterious restaurants. Having held three Michelin stars since 1997, and regularly voted Best Restaurant in the World by a panel of 500 industry professionals, elBulli has been at the very forefront of the world restaurant scene Ferran Adria became head chef in 1987.”

The way they work is fascinating and the book goes into great detail about exactly how they do things.

The restaurant closes for 6 months of the year while the creative team develop new dishes, concepts and techniques. These are then developed in exact detail in the restaurant kitchens in the weeks before it opens for the summer season. At the end of the season, everything is assessed and the creative process begins again. The restaurant is like a workshop where new ideas are developed, produced and shared with the guests.

During the 6 months of creative development, Ferran Adria and his team explore ideas and possibilities from all over the world, and develop new techniques from other disciplines - such as art, fashion, architecture and nature. The process is one of extensive research, testing and development leading to the production of exciting and highly-desirable new dishes with which to delight their customers.

One of the reasons this book inspired and encouraged me so much is that it shows there are different ways of developing and producing creative ideas. It doesn’t always have to be a daily grind (though when the restaurant is open the amount and pace of work each day is phenomenal).

I’ve always read widely and am excited by new ideas and concepts. Many of these seem random and are little more that hyperlinks in my imagination and understanding. I’ve often been criticised for being too much of an “ideas person”. But I like the idea of allowing time to let these ideas brew and develop, to research them more extensively and to follow wherever they lead.

In recent months I’ve been developing ideas about sticks, ribbons, doors, words, colours, clouds and lots more. They all seem disparate and I’ve been tempted to abandon them and get better focused. But the ideas continue to niggle away at me.

More recently I’ve been thinking about putting on a few shows in 2011. Suddenly many of these ideas have started clicking into place and fitting together. Now I need to push these ideas through into production and show them.

So I like the idea of a broad framework for each year of

• researching and developing new ideas;
• sketching and modelling these ideas;
• producing and exhibiting them.

Obviously it will not be as neat and tidy as that and there will be a lot of overlap.

But it helps to think that there are other ways of working creatively and successfully.

What about you? Do you have any particular processes for developing and executing creative ideas?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Good Show

Yesterday evening I went to a Private View of new paintings by Darren Hughes.

“Born in Bangor, in 1970, Darren Hughes is one of the leading figures of the new generation of Welsh landscape painters. Following recent sell-out exhibitions in London and Wales, Darren returns for his third solo show at Martin Tinney Gallery”. (Click the gallery link to see the paintings.)

This guy can PAINT! His paintings are technically accomplished, attractive and atmospheric.

But, for me, there are a few other things going on in them that make them particularly interesting.

Firstly, there’s a darkness in them that appeals to me. This is a feature of the light on the landscape but it also captures the inherent sense of melancholy that pervades the Welsh. The singer, Judith Owen, sums it up well in this interview where she says, “The Welsh are the Irish without the fun. We're a very melancholy bunch, and we sing truly melancholy songs. When I say melancholy, I mean people talk about operations and death at the dinner table all the time.”

And if you don’t believe that’s true, spend five minutes with me in the local library or in the local shops.

But I don’t just mean it facetiously. I think there is a creative, highly-expressive melancholy in the Welsh psyche. It summed up in the word “Hiraeth” ( which doesn’t easily translate into English but has something to do with a deep longing for the land, for a sense of place and a sense of home. Darren’s paintings show a close affinity with the land - with all its shadows and moods.

Which brings me on to the second thing that I see in Darren’s wonderful, dramatic landscapes. They are real scenes of real places, mostly near where he lives in Bethesda. Stone walls, agricultural fencing, telegraph poles, small houses, communities and schools. I was first struck by this when I saw one of his paintings a number of years ago. It didn’t show a typical Welsh chapel, or a traditional stone cottage or any of the usual postcard-type stuff. It showed a temporary, prefabricated school building with a flat, galvanised roof that is so typical of schools around here. And that made me identify and feel at home with his work. He was painting places similar to where I grew up and went to school.

Thirdly - and following on - I think Darren’s paintings of Wales as it really is are an important record of this time and place in our history and culture. Like good still-life paintings, they take the simple, ordinary, everyday things and put them in front of us - and future generations - and say “This is what it is like here and now. This is how it looks and this is how it feels to live here.”

When we look back at history there are many approaches we can take. But looking at the art of the time and thinking about what it represents is a good way to understand the cultures, beliefs and experiences of people and communities.

This is an exhibition that will live with me for a long time.

So not all Private Views suck after all.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


I’ve just got back from a very enjoyable ten days in Mallorca - one of the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain. What’s not to enjoy in a place where you can buy a litre of very drinkable wine for less than a pound?!

I have always loved travelling and have a soft spot for Spain, though I have never been to the Balearics.

Every time I go to Spain I want to stay there - to live and work. And one day I will. I just won’t come back. The culture and the climate suit me. I feel at home there.

Travelling is always an enriching experience as well as being a ‘time-out’ from the same-old-same-old and a chance to reflect and plan.

I enjoy the sound of a different language; the feel of a different climate; the sight of a different landscape.

Mallorca being a small island it was possible to explore the mountains and the plain, the coast and the city. Which all sounds very relaxed and groovy except that I was driving a hired car, on the right-hand side of the road. And often through narrow, twisting mountainous roads. I was terrified much of the time I was there!

I also like to chat to people and have random conversations and exchanges. I tried a few jokes, but they didn’t work. The best, though, was in Deia - on a mission to find the house of the poet Robert Graves. Having been unsuccessful, I asked in a bar for directions. The man standing next to me said “I can help you - I’m his son”! And it was true!

After finding the house and having a fascinating and inspiring time looking around, we met Juan Graves again, sat in the shade (it was 40 degrees) and chatted for a good half an hour.
A special day.

Mallorca has it all - craggy mountains, rolling plains, fabulous beaches and medieval towns.

And lots of Germans.

I mean, LOTS. Being British meant being in an ethnic minority and that was a strange and disturbing feeling.

Coming back to Wales I’m noticing how cold and wet it is.

And how expensive the wine is.

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