Monday, 31 December 2007

Feet & Noses


May 2008 bring you creative happy things and wonderful adventures...

There have been movings-about-of-things in our house to help us get on with our various projects in the new year. So now this cosy living room above with table set for dinner is also where I will paint new paintings and Tui has made a lovely nest of music making where he will sit with his almost-there-album.

And some new year tales for you ...

First Footing
~ An old custom of north England and Scotland in which the first person to step over the threshold in the new year must be a dark haired man. He would bring bring luck and symbolic gifts of salt for wealth and a lump of coal for warmth and was welcomed with a dram. If the first-footer was a woman, a light haired man or one with a squint there would follow a year full of bad luck!

Tui's mam told us a tale of New Year's Eve: that her father used to say to her as a small girl on December 31st - If you go out today, you'll meet a man with as many noses as there are days left in the year!

Knecht Ruprecht

A DARK FIGURE from Germanic folklore, Knecht Ruprecht, meaning Knight Rupert, accompanies St Nicholas when delivering gifts and represents the more frightening side of this custom. He is also known as Black Peter, so called from the soot in the chimneys he goes down.

In some places, the image of St Nicholas has merged with Knecht Ruprecht to form “Ru Klaus” meaning Rough Nicholas, so named because of his rugged appearance; “Aschen Klaus”, meaning Ash Nicholas because of the bag of ashes he carries with him; and “Pelznickle”, meaning Furry Nicholas, referring to his fur-clad appearance.

Knecht Ruprecht is there to reward good children and punish naughty ones. He sometimes carries with him a chain or birch rod to beat those who have misbehaved and an empty sack in which to carry them away! These beliefs are obviously well exploited by parents around Christmas time!

It is unclear where the Knecht Ruprecht figure has come from. Some say that St Nicholas put the devil in chains and made him his servant.

Illustration: drypoint etching

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Mother Holle

MOTHER HOLLE is a winter sky spirit of Nordic and Teutonic folklore. Also known as Perchta or Berchta, she is an old crone who presides over the dark end of the year and it is said that it snows when she makes her bed and shakes the duvet, making the feathers fly. Mother Holle is also patron of spinners and weavers, and one of her feet is flattened and longer than the other from continuous pounding of the spinning wheel treadle.

A popular German folk tale tells the story of a widow with two daughters, one her own and the other a stepdaughter.
The stepdaughter was kind and industrious, but her own daughter was selfish and idle. Every day the poor stepdaughter had to spin until her fingers bled. One day it happened that she stained the spindle with blood, and went to the well to wash it, but it dropped out of her hand and fell to the bottom. Her stepmother scolded her and told her she had to go and retrieve it. So the girl went back to the well and not knowing what to do, jumped into the well. When she came to her senses she found that she was in a beautiful lake by a meadow where a little cottage stood. There was an apple tree nearby laden with apples, and as she approached, it called out to her “Shake me! Shake me! My apples are all ripe!” The girl dutifully shook the tree until all the apples were down. Gathering them up, she took them into the cottage where a baker’s oven full of bread stood. The bread yelled “Take me out! Take me out! I’ve been baking long enough!” So she took the loaves of bread out and laid them carefully on the table. The cottage belonged to an old woman with enormous yellow teeth – Mother Holle, who invited the hardworking girl to stay and do the household chores for her. She agreed, and worked hard, never once complaining, and, as instructed, always made the bed well, shaking the duvet enough to make the feathers fly. For when the feathers flew, Mother Holle told her, it snowed on earth.

The girl spent a long while with Mother Holle, but eventually became homesick. So one day she asked Mother Holle if she could return home. Mother Holle was kind and happily led the way, taking her to a doorway, giving her back the spindle she had lost, and as she walked through the door, the girl was showered with gold. She emerged on the other side not far from her home. As she entered the yard, a cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your golden girl’s come back to you!” Covered in gold, as she was, the girl was well received, but her stepmother insisted on knowing how this had come about. Desiring the same for her own daughter, she sent her to do the same, pretending to drop her spindle in the well in the same way. Events happened the same as for the first girl, but being lazy and spoilt, she did not shake down the apples from the tree, take the bread out of the oven, nor shake the duvet. So it did not snow on earth.

Eventually, when it was time for this selfish girl to return home, Mother Holle showed her the doorway. This time, however, the girl was showered with pitch, and as she walked into the yard, the cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your pitchy girl’s come back to you!” The pitch stuck fast to the girl and could not be removed as long as she lived!

Illustration: drypoint etching

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Baba Yaga

LEGENDARY RUSSIAN OGRESS Baba Yaga, is reputed to feed on young children. She lives deep in the forest, in a house that moves round on chicken’s legs, surrounded by a fence made of bones. She is the wild old crone who is guardian of the Fountain of Life and Death. She flies through the air in an iron cauldron or pestle and mortar, sweeping away all trace of her passing with her broom.

Few people manage to reach the Fountain of Youth safely, but as the Old Bone Mother, representative of age, death and winter, she is also a renewing force, who will sprinkle decaying white bones with the water of life and resurrect them.

Her hut is said to spin, raising and falling according to seasonal changes. To approach Baba Yaga’s hut is believed to be symbolic of facing one’s own deepest darkest fears, or death. However, this confrontation usually results in renewal and greater wisdom.

Illustration: drypoint etching

PS ~ It's snowing!
And I know it has nothing to do with Baba Yaga but Oliver from next door says
"Let me in!"

Friday, 28 December 2007

Cailleach Bheur

SCOTTISH MYTHOLOGY tells of a blue-faced hag associated with winter – the Cailleach Bheur. According to ancient tradition, she reappears each year at Samhain (Halloween), bringing with her the cold weather and snows of the winter months. The Cailleach Bheur is the ancient Queen of winter – possibly the oldest Goddess of the British Isles. She sits crouching in a cave wrapped in a tattered shawl, peering out of her one good eye, waiting for her reign to begin at Samhain.

Throughout the winter she is the guardian of wild animals including wolves and deer. She carries a magical staff which freezes the ground with each tap. In later legend the Cailleach Bheur has tended to lose some of the more fearsome aspects of her character, and has been linked with the Loathsome Lady of Arthurian and Celtic myth.

The reign of the Cailleach Bheur ends at Beltane (May Day eve) when she is replaced by Brigit, the Goddess who ushers in the spring. On this date, the Cailleach Bheur is said to lay down her staff under a holly or gorse bush and turn to stone.

Illustration: drypoint etching

Thursday, 27 December 2007


every farmstead has its own “Tomte” or farm gnome. The Swedish word means that he is on the “tomt” – the site of the house. The oldest Swedish literary record of the Tomte’s activity is to be found in Saint Brigitte’s revelations from the 1360s. On Olaus Magnus’ “Carta marina” from 1539 one finds the oldest Nordic picture of the Tomte, drawn as a devil cleaning out a stable. In spite of all the propaganda from the church, it was impossible to suppress the idea that the heathen Tomte in general was an asset to the house.

By nature, the Tomte is slow thinking and kind, but quick to take offence. Since it is believed that humans are living on the Tomte’s domain, it is important to remain friendly with him. He cares for the household and lands, especially in the winter, and tends and protects the animals. In return he expects a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve. He is generally believed to be a small gnome-like creature, wearing a grey homespun tunic and a red knitted cap. Tomtes can live to be hundreds of years old, and mostly have long grey or white beards.
Tomtes also look out for animals and humans lost or injured in the forest. Originally the Swedish Tomte was active throughout the year, but today he is mostly associated with Christmas.

Illustration: drypoint etching

People of the Winterlands

IN KEEPING with the celebrations at this cold end of the year, for the next eight days I will be posting the text and imagery from a book I made entitled People of the Winterlands - a collection of folklore characters from wintry northern climates...

In ancient times the climates of the northern lands brought cold, hard winters and long, dark nights. In the midst of a frozen white landscape, the need to keep warm and find enough to eat was vital. It is therefore understandable that all cultures held winter celebrations to welcome back the warmth and light, in hopes that the frosts and snow would not last too long, and that spring would return the green once again to their lands. Nowadays, we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, but the date of the celebration of Christ’s birth was in fact altered by Pope Julius (AD 337–52) to December 25th deliberately to coincide with ancient popular pagan midwinter festivals. The Christian myth links in well with the theme, celebrating, as it does, the birth of the child of light and hope, conquering death.

In the days before central heating and electricity, the prospect of a harsh winter was frightening. To people who lived so close to the land and shaped their lives around its turning seasons, winter represented death – of root and field, and of livestock. It was recognised, though, that death and harsh frosts were necessary in order for life to spring up again once more, and for the wheel of the seasons and of life to continue turning. Indeed, the word Yule (the traditional name for this season, and specifically for December 21st – the midwinter solstice when the night is the longest of the year) probably derives from the Old Norse “iul” or the Anglo-Saxon “hweol” both meaning “wheel”.

Our Christmas derives from various traditions, including the raucous Roman “Saturnalia”, and Greek “Mithrasian” fire celebrations, but here in Northern Europe, it owes most to Yule – with its ritual fires, evergreen decorations and sparkling lights. Sacrifices were made to the old gods and goddesses to confirm the mystical moment of the sun’s rebirth. The church tactfully turned a blind eye to deeply enshrined pagan delights and long-established festivals and, in return, pagan joy in earthly pleasures came to warm the Church’s own austere feast. Christmas became merry, homely and appealing to simple humanity; a lovely child in human shape, welcomed and rocked in a cradle, whose birthday was celebrated in earthly style with feasting, lights, gifts and music, replaced the cool incarnate God of the early years. Many cheerful pagan aspects remain in our Christmas festivities, including the Christmas tree, Yule log, evergreens, candles, gifts and festive meals. These images mingle without much conflict with the more dominant Christian message, as after all, they have much in common – pleasure in family life and friendship, in hospitality and gift-giving, in warmth of heart and hearth, sparkling lights, greetings and goodwill.

Over recent years, however, Christmas has had all that was at its heart brutally commercialized. Plastic, neon and money seem to be all that Christmas is about nowadays, and the old pagan gods have been sanitised into the sickly-sweet American Santa Claus. We cannot appreciate the realities of a harsh and bitter winter, and the vital dark side of this ancient festival is therefore lost to us.

There are many folk figures and mythological pagan deities amongst the cultures of Northern Europe who are symbols of this winter season, or who protect the people from its severity. Winter spirits are the embodiment of the popular experience of winter in ancient days, and as such can be either benevolent or frightening. They can represent both the warmth of the hearth and the heart, and the bleak reality of death. These are the elements which have been removed from today’s commercial Christmas, and which I believe need to be honoured once more.

In this book are a just handful of the winter spirits, all gathered from Northern European folklore. You will find figures both male and female, both friendly and frightening. This small glimpse will, I hope, conjure for you an enchanting, icy winter landscape and a world of the “in-between” where animals speak, and where the spirit world is not far away, but where death is always just round the corner ...

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Happy Christmas

AND WE RETURNED ON CHRISTMAS EVE with coffers full and tired as sleigh-pulling reindeer .. so here's a belated winter wish to you all for a very happy Christmastime and warm days with books and cosy...

Telling Stories to the Trees

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Squeezing Boxes

WELL TODAY I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET four friends of mine. They are an odd breed and they sing with a voice that I love. Um-pah um-pah they chatter to each other in the corner of the room.
I first played an accordion a couple of years ago and knew that it was my instrument. My mum played one too as a small girl in New Zealand.
Accordions are not an old instrument, they have been around only since the early nineteenth century and became an excellent means of making a piano transportable in order to accompany small musical groups.
My first friend, this green fellow below was sold to me by a man who'd had it in his attic for years, and had found it years before amongst melons for sale on a market stall in a Ukrainian village where he was delivering medical supplies. The stall holder told him that it had belonged to a soldier who had died. I learned by ear tunes that moved me and it was not long before I felt brave enough to play on street corners to others. Once I had crossed the hurdle of two-hands- doing-different-things-at-once, like patting your head and rubbing your belly, I bounced along and loved to play it very much.
And a little squeezeboxgeekery for you: I play a B-System chromatic button accordion (also known as a bayan). This is the system of button arrangement favoured in Russia and the Balkans, and so these are harder to find over here. My first accordion has a deep and gutsy sound and three rows of buttons.
The second and third characters in this troupe I have acquired along the way because I like accordions, the second, and most beautiful of the lot (despite some missing teeth) and sadly least playable, from my friend Gretel.
Finally, the magnificent Bugari, with its five lovely rows of buttons, I bought with my own hard earned pennies from Mr Allodi, and it is a joy to play.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Winterdust and Heather

THIS MORNING AS WE LOOKED FROM OUR WINDOW we saw the beginnings of a white-delicate whisper of winterdust moving down from clouds to roofs to windowsills with just a faint damp murmur of a soft sound as it fell.
So today was the day for painting a new winter painting. I trundled the van down the windy roads with a pot of rather horrible medicinal tea and some sticks for the fire and a handful of pencils. Parked in a little corner where the snow fell all about me and pitterpattered on the van roof, I sat in the warm firelight and drew until dark ...and through the porthole I could see a quiet hillside patchwork of winterdust and heather.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Seven Paintings

I HAVE BEEN ASKED TO PAINT seven paintings ... seven characters representing the seven chakras in each of the seven colours.
Chakra is a Sanskrit term meaning circle or wheel and describes a system that is used in many belief systems. Each chakra point is a place in the body and represents also a spiritual aspect. Taken together the seven chakras describe a flow of energy and a development within.

If you were to look for imagery of the chakras you would most likely find swathes of rainbows and swirling misty colourful evanescences. I chose instead to paint seven interesting and strange characters, in broken oil paint on wooden breadboards. This commission will take time and I will work one by one through the seven from tailbone to the top of my head. In each painting I will include a horizon which crosses the body at the chakra point and an animal associated with the chakra's spiritual aspect. In each painting a colour will dominate, but quietly. I hope that when hung together on their owner's wall, they will look like a series of old icons, strange and perhaps mystical in a very different sense from many other visual representations of old eastern belief systems.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Pencils and Pens

THE STREETS OF THE TOWN OF SKETCHBOOK are thronging with people today .. old and new folk, strange and stranger, wanderers and returners, pen and pencil people, tales half-thought and half-told, and over it all tiptoes a far-off strain of a half-remembered music played on instruments tied together with string ...

Monday, 19 November 2007

Hickory Dickory

TO BE ABLE TO MEASURE TIME ~ the passing of the days, months, seasons and years ~ by means of watching the sky, has been an obsession of ours as humans since the beginnings of agriculture. By observing celestial movements people were able to organise their work on the land and so representations of the passing of time have long been linked to the earthy concerns of ordinary folk trying to survive from their crop yield throughout the year.
Calendars produced in the middle ages often depicted personifications of the zodiac or representations of the activities undertaken by the peasants on the land. There are some beautiful examples including the well known fifteenth century Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry (above) and the months of the year depicted in the 1475 Bedford Hours (below) which is housed in the British Museum.

If you would like to read more about medieval calendars I recommend the excellent book The Art of Time by Teresa Perez-Higuera.
It is a strange thing to allocate measurement to something like time .. which I think we all experience differently. I have never been known to follow the rigours of a strictly measured regime particularly .. indeed an early school report stated ( quite truly ) that "Rima has no sense of urgency" And I still find myself in a ever-so-slightly-floating-world that skips alongside the Other One that most others seem to operate in.

Well .. the point of all this was to tell you in a tiny little voice that I have a limited edition of small desk calendars featuring 13 of my illustrations for sale here ... by no means as exquisite as the medieval examples above ... but a little idea I had for selling my work in another way, and a chance for you to buy 13 little prints all in one go!

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A Tale of Two Tinkers

MAKING A LIVING as an artist can often be a trudge down a rocky and pot-holed street .. so today I will tell you a tale of a pair of tinkers who travel from town to town selling their wares on Britain's streets and managing to gather pennies enough for life for a while by selling their artwork directly to the people who pass them by.
Their wagon is home and warm and they love best of all to wake parked in a forested byway with their mistbreaths curling out into the bright crisp morning air, and a cup of tea in hand, and the little woodfire crackling and a new town to visit that day full of new as yet un-met people to buy their pictures.

Some towns welcome them and watch with fascination as they carry piles of pictures and sacks and haul wonkywheeled trolleys up the high street and then set their work against an empty wall and the people talk to them friendly and happy to meet.
And some towns do not understand them and walk by with noses skyward and tuts on their tongues or offer unimaginative taunts, official badges and clipboards.

They display their pictures side by side like a fleeting street-gallery; she, small prints of her paintings and he, his photographic works, all framed with fine wooden frames stained by hand in Ikea carparks en-route. And folk are drawn across the street by the occasional tune from her accordion and the tantalising sight of their image-menagerie propped against the wall.

Encounters with a hatful of the town's drunks and wanderers, madmen and eccentrics pepper their days and are interspersed with interesting conversations and sales of pictures and cups of coffee.
As the days get shorter, their fingers are bitten by winter and folk hurry past on blustery days. If a drop of rain should fall, the two must hurry to gather their wares and dash to the nearest doorway, and pack away their Only-There-Sometimes-Shop until the next sunny day and the next town.
So back they trundle to their home-on-wheels to drive off and away for dinner and a fire and a chocolate bar and a rest by the side of a road somewhere while they count their pennies (and sometimes pounds) glad that people liked their artwork.

Perhaps you'll catch a glimpse of them one day peeping out of their porthole or holding hands as they walk down a street before they scuttle back to their home in the hills to make more beautiful things.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The Woods

TODAY'S TALE TAKES US INTO THE WOODS where things are not quite what they seem, where children get lost and maybe never found again and where the trees alone are witness ...
I have always loved the combination of music and strange imagery which has sparked my long interest in animation and all things puppety.
Stop frame animation holds a particular charm for me in its wonky darkness, its dark wonkyness; especially the masterful works by animators from Eastern Europe like Yuriy Norsteyn and Jan Svankmajer.
Thus inspired I took up the challenge of making a cut-out stop motion animated video for Polly Paulusma's single "The Woods" released earlier this year on One Little Indian records from her latest album, "Fingers & Thumbs".

Below is the result .. a five-and-a-half minute extravaganza of cardboard legs, wire butterflies and many painted backgrounds; each piece moved tiny bit by tiny bit ... at 24 frames-per-second ... which actually means that I made between 8000 and 9000 single captured images for the whole video.
It was a labour of love and I learned a lot as I went along .. It is filmed with a fairly high res webcam and the characters and sets are laid on layers of glass ( a trick I learned from reading about how Mr Norsteyn works )
Polly's lyrics inspired the forest-as-witness-to-a-dark-happening story ... which calls to mind a rather less than sugary Hansel & Gretel tale and conjures imagined fears of the archetypal forest as well as a real horror of a terrifying bogeyman, in more tangible guises. It speaks too of the turning of the year ...
I am pleased to say that it was received with smiles and kind words and even got played on MTV in Italy! And I must add that I would never have made it to the end if it weren't for the patience and brain of my kind brother.
It was my first ever animation .. but not my last!
I will be making a new and quite different and gentle-beautiful animation for the new Orla Wren album due out next year ...

Click here to see the video if you are having trouble viewing it.

Move-click-move-click-move-click-move-click ...

Thursday, 8 November 2007


XAPHOON ... a strange word for a beautiful sound.
It was hand made by
the instrument's creator, Brian Wittman, from bamboo cut from the rain forests of East Maui, and it arrived on my doormat yesterday accompanied by a description which calls it the new instrument for the musician, vagabond or professional and urges me to play it everywhere, to my brothers and sisters, in the dark, in places of magic, in stairwells and mountain-tops, alleyways and caves, to frighten the demons and summon angels and with it to greet those beings who cannot speak my language.
Here you can learn more about this unique instrument whose maker works in a remote self-built house in Maui supplied by rainwater and solar power.
And most of all - listen to this
Yiddish folksong played on the Xaphoon... which I will be able to do ... one day ...

Tuesday, 6 November 2007


HERE ONCE was a scurry of foxes
Who liked keeping objects in Boxes
The walls of their lairs
Were laden with squares
With little mechanical lockses


I like them
a jumbled mumble of miscellany

So here is where I paint:

Monday, 5 November 2007

Remember Remember

HAVE you ever stepped into a book so deeply that when you come out, you blink and look about you with wobbly day-old-colt-legs at the world and the beautiful things make you cry because you have just been picking away at an inner heart-lock with your reading and left the door ajar?
I did that today and am still a little bit teetering in the romance of this sad tale across time.

On this Night of Remember ..
remember to remember
there is only now
and our tales of tales ...

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Warm Windowpanes

WELL ... A small story for this day for you ...

Here it is the time of tree branches against cold skies which I love best and looking in through warm windowpanes
and wondering
and making fires
and things

You can have a look into our warm windowpane
and wonder what we have been making ...

I have made paintings and drawings and played my accordion for Tui... who has woven wonderful things around it.

Now this night we have made potatoes and a fire and will settle down for the evening, perhaps in a book or a film where we will make imaginations and wander and wonder off away somewhere and not somewhere.

Tomorrow I will paint a new picture which is secret.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

An Old New Tale and the beginning of its Telling

OME TALES wait shy until they tell themselves..
and this is one of them.

It has sat long time in the corner of a tree with a whistle on its lips and thoughts on its shoulders whispering to me quietly and sometimes loudly.

I am not sure when it began, but today it seems to have given me its hand and a book of pages and here it is for you .. to smile to.

Some folk may have heard it first here ~ this Hermit's house, this Sanctuary for Strangeness.

I will be here from time to time and show you things on my journey, which has taken me from the Hermitage to the hills of Scotland and the love of a man who is beautiful and whose interesting path happily crossed mine a short while ago and a long age ago. This tale is ours and it will be fun in the telling .. because we have much travelling and much making of beautiful things to do.

You are welcome along.

Stories are the most important thing...