Coming Home

4288
Amy Liptrot on Orkney. Photograph: Rebecca Marr for the Observer

“In London, I was hiding from my life and family in Orkney, breaking up and trying to escape. By coming back, I faced it and now Orkney is trying to keep me.”

– Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I fell in love with Amy Liptrot’s book, The Outrun this September. Maybe it’s because we’re close in age, or I too spent my childhood in a quiet, out of the way place, craving escape and the excitement of cities. Like Amy, I also grew up in the shadow of depression, coping with the fallout of my dad’s erratic moods.

The outrun that Liptrot describes, is an odd, in-between place, part wild, part cultivated, perched on the edge of the Orcadian sheep farm where she grew up. Islands are shaped on the cusp of fierce, wild nature, and strange things happen there: ships are grounded on the cliffs; residents hear weird booming noises and feel tremors shake the earth as the sea encroaches.

The Outrun is also very relatable because I’ve reached crisis point a number of times in my life. As a teenager, I railed against living in a tiny village in The New Forest, where nothing ever happened. Public transport was pretty much non-existent and I often felt cut off. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, using alcohol and relationships to avoid ever having to feel alone.

“I don’t want to have to admit that I’ve come back – that I’ve failed. I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.”

– Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

In 2012, disjointed, adrift, I graduated University. Sitting in my childhood bedroom, unemployed and depressed, I felt like a failure, like I’d taken a step back. I dreaded bumping into people I knew, having to explain why I hadn’t moved on.

Nature became a salve then, and still is. I have a deep connection to the forest, having grown up there, and I often find myself craving time away from people, preferring instead to hunker down amongst the trees.

The longer I spend living near the woods, the more I feel a part of nature and its cycles. Often, I find myself thinking about all of the life out there, about how much there is still, to explore. Walking outside, in all weathers, I notice the seasons change and follow animal tracks through secret copses and clearings. I know where to find the best blackberries in summer and, in autumn, I prize sweet chestnuts from their spiky shells. It feels like it’s in my blood it’s so familiar, but that’s the thing about nature, no matter how tamed and cosseted, it always has the capacity to astound.

Asemic Writing

After @accidentalmystery posted this 19th century blotter page, I googled asemic writing. Turns out, it’s a form of illegible, wordless writing and better yet, there’s a whole art form based around it.

Influenced by cave paintings, doodles and children’s drawings, the meaning of asemic writing is deliberately left open so viewers can interpret it in their own way. It’s primal and works on an unconscious level, blurring the boundaries between writing and art.

Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993-5 by Cy Twombly 1928-2011
Quattro Stagioni: Autunno 1993-5 © Cy Twombly
20170525_123647
Asemic Photograph © Rosalia Touchon

Asemic writing has its roots in the earliest forms of written communication and strangely, is thought to stem from the work of two drunk Chinese Tang Dynasty calligraphers: “Crazy” Zhang Xu and Huai “Drunk” Su. Legend has it that whenever Zhang Xu was inebriated, he would use his hair as a brush to perform his art, and upon his waking up, he would be amazed by the quality of those works but failed to produce them again in his sober state.

怀素_苦笋帖.jpg
One of Huai Su’s surviving works
Crazyzhangxu
An example of Zhang Xu’s calligraphy

In the late 1800s, Japanese Zen calligraphers built on from Zhang Xu and Huai Su’s work, founding Hitsuzendō or The Way of the Zen Brush.

In Hitsuzendō, the whole body is used to push a large brush and ink, usually on newspaper roll. Often practised standing, the process results in expressive, spiritual works that aim to focus the mind.

6606215_orig
Jiun Sonja (1718-1804), Nantendo (1839-1925) and Kasumi Bunsho (1905-1998)

More recently, poets, writers and artists have experimented with wordless mark-making to explore abstraction and express their ideas.

Man Ray’s poem, Paris, Mai 1924 consists of different sized black dashes, Henri Michaux‘s compulsive, calligraphic drawings expressed his “interior gestures” and Cy Twombly‘s paintings often incorporated frenetic scribbles and scrawls.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; it’s a fascinating subject. Go take a look at Tim Gaze’s magazine to see the breadth and scope of asemic art worldwide.

If it wasn’t for the day job

Scan20002 - Edited (1)
Photograph found in a library book

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a day job. That instead of going to work in a library most days, I could devote all my time to writing and taking pictures.

Then I remember all of the odd, inspiring events that happen while I’m at work, like the kids who think our automatic doors are magic because they open by themselves, the photographs I find slipped between the pages of returned books and the interesting conversations.

_Scan20002 - Edited
Photograph found in a library book

My job connects me to life and feeds into my art in unexpected ways. I mine these events, storing them for later. Thinking like this keeps me sane on the trying days, days when I have to deal with difficult customers or under-staffing.

So really, it’s not so bad. It’s this I’d miss, if it wasn’t for the day job.

Containers

img_20180606_131719667 - Edited

At the beginning of the year, I bought a week-to-view diary. It’s nothing special, black front cover with generic silver writing and wafer thin paper, it cost £1 but it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made, period. Rarely now, is it not to hand.

Growing up, I always kept a journal. Those hallowed pages bore witness to rants about boys I fancied, friends I’d fallen out with, things my parents did that made life unfair. For years I avoided writing one again because I thought it would be too boring. Full of the mundane, diaries smack of repetition and routine.

Mine isn’t like that. Full of sentences from books I’m reading, overheard conversations and half-formed thoughts. My journal has become a container for intriguing things, forever growing and expanding, much like this blog. It’s a place for snippets, not perfect content, where disparate ideas gather. I love writing and photography but it doesn’t stop there. Everything has the capacity to provide inspiration.

I think of blogs and journals as touchstones, providing the motivation to keep making work. They’re places to come back to again and again, no matter how stuck.

The cartoonist, author and teacher, Lynda Barry says that “when you were a kid, you’d never write a book unless you had a book to write in in” and it’s true, having my containers inspires me to fill them.

Artist research

27877266172_77593044c0_o - Edited

One of the great things about writing this blog is that it encourages me to learn about different artists.

Until recently, I had no idea that Nan Goldin’s older sister committed suicide at 18 and that her art is a way of coming to terms with this loss. I didn’t know Robert Frank made contact prints of 2 ¼” negatives and glued them onto cards while sequencing The Americans or that Charles Harbutt liked performing magic tricks.

It’s not just the famous ones either, I’m constantly stumbling across inspiring people who take photographs. All of us, for whatever reason, have chosen to look at the world through a viewfinder, and I find this fascinating.

Empty days

21550284928_18e409e5a5_o.jpg

I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. A day when one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing one can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room.

May Sarton

I’m getting better at accepting the empty days. The days when I don’t make anything, or if it happens, I let it happen naturally. Maybe I’m tired, run down or I just don’t have the energy to write or pick up a camera. Instead, I’ll read, walk or take a nap.

Empty days get overlooked but they’re so important. They’re days when the pressure to perform, lifts. Forced productivity all of the time is, ironically, not productive. It leads to burnout, ambivalence and exhaustion.  

So, take a day off, if you can. Make time for yourself. Live in the changing light of a room, like May Sarton, and feel the pressure lifting.