Category Archives: Admiring

Papercats – a story

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a cold kitchen and warm bedroom – a sure sign of someone who spends too much time in their own head. Tom didn’t have a family and he didn’t have friends. Instead, Tom had paper.

Throughout the day and long into the night, Tom made things out of paper. He made animals and plants, buildings and landscapes. He crafted bridges and bred dinosaurs. He built people and sat them around tiny paper plates, cups and saucers. But at the end of every day, Tom would examine his work sadly and realise that something was missing. Perhaps a crease was messy or there was a smear on the crisp white card. And, sadly, Tom would crumple the paper figures up in his hand, stack his paper neatly at the edge of the table and shuffle slowly up the stairs to bed, where he would sleep badly.

Day after day, night after night, Tom worked steadily on his paper world. And day after day, night after night, he went up to bed disappointed. Until the night that Tom ran out of ideas.

He sat at the table, frustrated and dismayed. He had never before been stuck for inspiration, but this time it seemed like he’d already made everything there was to be made. His hands started to itch to fold paper, but his brain didn’t know what shape the paper should take.

IMG_0328Finally, he lifted a sheet, turned it over in his hands, and eventually started to work. He realised that among the many animals he had made – weasels, parakeets, dogs, frogs, zebras – he’d never made a cat. And that’s what he was going to try to make now.

When the cat was finished, Tom looked it carefully. This cat would never do. Its left ear was too small, and its tail a stubby mess. Immediately, Tom crushed the cat in his fingers and started again.

The second cat was better than the first, but still – it simply wasn’t right. There was a smear on the right haunch, and the head was at a funny angle. Usually Tom would simply move on to the next thing; in fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even given anything a second chance. And now, as he feverishly grabbed another sheet of paper, he was trying for the third time.

Tom set to work. Piece after folding piece, crease after folding crease, the cat began to take shape. His hair began to fall into his eyes, the cold chill in the kitchen crept up around his shoulders and his fingers began to feel stiff and sore, but still he went on. At last, the final fold was in place, and he gently set the cat on the table and eased down his aching shoulders, staring at the paper pet.

This attempt was….

Perfect.

Tom sat back, confused. He could not find a single fault with the cat. It sat upright on its haunches, a neatly proportioned tail curled around to the side. Its head was tilted with a curious expression, its ears were pointed and perky, and the curve of its back was smooth and blemish free.

Tom slowly rose from his chair. He stacked the paper neatly on the table, never taking his eyes off the cat, and then turned his back and walked up the stairs to bed.

In the gloomy, cold kitchen, nothing moved. Until the cat suddenly yawned, stretched and wandered off into the darkness. It was hungry, and thirsty, and bored. It sniffed at the paper stack, and tasted the edge of a sheet. It jumped down off the table, and chased dust across the floor. It clambered up to the sink and tried to lick droplets from the tap, but this made its muzzle soggy so it edged to the lukewarm radiator and stayed there a while, trying to dry its nose.

Upstairs, Tom was having the worst night’s sleep he’d ever had. In fact, since every time he was about to drop off he jerked back awake, sure he could hear clattering and banging in the empty kitchen, he couldn’t even really call it a night’s sleep at all.

Finally, he gave up and made his way downstairs. Everything was exactly as he left it. Well, almost. In the middle of the table, where he’d left the cat, was… nothing.

Tom looked on the floor, in case the cat had somehow blown over. There was nothing there. He crawled under the table. Nothing there either. He lifted the stack of paper, even though it was flush to the table top. Nothing at all. But the edge of the topmost sheet was strangely frayed.

Finally, Tom sat down, placed the damaged sheet aside, and began to make another cat. And it was just as perfect as the first.

After staring at the new cat for a long while, Tom once again left it in the centre of the table and went up to bed. And this time, for the first time, Tom drifted off almost immediately into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

The cats met in the middle of the table, approaching each other cautiously and then circling around and around. Then they began to explore.

Eventually, they came back to the pile of paper. They looked at the stack, then looked at each other. Their noses quivered. Together, they turned to look out of the window, where the moon was still high in the sky. And then they turned back to the stack.

The sun was burning brightly by the time Tom woke in his bed. He felt rested, and that in itself was strange, since he never usually felt rested. He felt calm. He felt happy. He felt… hungry.

Tom got up, went to the bathroom, got dressed. He stood at the top of the stairs and stretched. Then he shuffled downstairs to the kitchen, where he stopped in the doorway, stunned.

Every inch of every surface was jammed full of paper cats. They crowded the floor. They cluttered the ceiling lights. They clustered on the chairs. The table. The worktops. The sink – apart from a space around the plughole, where the cats seemed to be edging away from the drips.

Once there was a boy called Tom, and he lived in a world of paper.

Of course it wasn’t literally paper. He had a house, with broad stone walls, a scarred wooden table and a warm kitchen. Tom had family, and Tom had friends. And every one of them was a perfect paper cat.

A little background: As a result of my #100forchildsi sketching, a few stories to accompany my scrawls began to grow in my head. One of them was just a single image, and I drew it once in pencil and once painted – that’s it above. I hoped to next try a plain ink version… it’s never been quite right. Anyway. It was never intended to be more than just a single image, but then Ramona invented a game where we each had to tell a story, and they were becoming increasingly outlandish. Eventually, this image popped into my head and as we were walking through town, crowds milling around us, she held my hand and listened carefully to the story of Tom and his paper friends. If my 100 days of artwork taught me anything, it’s that an unrefined bird released to the winds is worth two fully-polished articles in your head, so I thought better to commit it to screen, faults and all, than to keep replaying it in my head and watching the colours dim each time I failed to do anything more with it. And besides, Ramona might ask me to tell it again.

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I am Squarehead – Simon Frank and Margit Mulder

I am Squarehead book coverIt’s always awkward writing about something created by people you know. For the full record, Simon Frank is someone I’ve known for a fairly long while as part of former third sector agency Beautiful World; furthermore, my graphic designer husband Ashley was employed by them and still works with Simon on occasion at Bats in Belfries.

None of that, however, is why I’m writing this blog post (and I certainly wasn’t asked to). While I admire I am Squarehead greatly, I wouldn’t have decided to put my thoughts out there if my daughter hadn’t recently fallen in love with it after being given a copy by our friend, and Simon’s business partner, the inimitable Rochelle Dancel.

The thing is, it’s actually really difficult to get Ramona to like anything. Sure, parents can influence, show approval or outright ban stuff. But that doesn’t always come to much; both Ash and I absolutely love Jon Klassen’s beautiful and wickedly brilliant I Want My Hat Back but Ramona has gone from being gut-wrenchingly terrified of it to merely being deeply suspicious of it. Also, I swear she can sense enthusiasm and just says no to wind us up sometimes. Some books she has never taken to, or been scared of – Mog in the Fog, Edwina the Emu – others she has loved instantly – all the other Meg and Mog books, Possum Magic, The Day the Crayons Quit . Still others she has suddenly flipped from hating to loving, dependent on God knows what – like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. So for her to so quickly, passionately love a book with a deliberately scary moment in it – albeit one that is quickly turned on its head – is something we always find worthy of note.

See, Ramona is definitely a kid who does some round thinking in a square world – just like Squarehead, who has to leave town and make some friends who also don’t fit the spaces they’re being forced into before coming back to change things for the better for everyone. She’s always been immensely good at dealing with the things that I know often throw kids for a loop – changing nurseries, starting school, moving into a big girl bed – but she can also find some apparently innocuous things very hard. Sometimes this has included introducing new books, where she is very wary of scary moments. School, where she burned through the reading scheme and is now allowed to choose books written for kids two or three years older than her and reads them mostly independently, has really helped with this as her confidence is constantly climbing and she changes books almost daily. Still, she’s one of nature’s overthinkers (can’t imagine where she gets it from).

The thing is that, as Squarehead points out, once you’ve had a thought, you can’t unthink it. But, as Squarehead discovers, you can sometimes be accosted by something you think is utterly terrifying, only for it to turn out to be something you love very much.

I don’t know whether I am Squarehead appeals to Ramona because she sees herself in it at some level, as I do. I don’t know whether she just likes the idea of a story written by someone Mummy and Daddy know (Simon has since signed it, and now she reads the dedication aloud to me). I don’t know if she’s just charmed by Margit Mulder’s deceptively simple illustrations – my personal favourite is the bathtub with square bubbles. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it just seemed so perfect to me that I wanted to record this moment; too soon she’ll abandon this and move on to the next thing. For now, awkwardness aside, this is a snapshot I wanted to keep.

Alex’s Arty #100forChildsi

My first sketch for the #100forChildsi challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

My first sketch for the challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

The short version of this story, without the biographical waffle, is here. It’s the most important bit, and I’d love it if you would read it and consider donating. 

It’s a funny thing, but I didn’t realise until very recently how much I wanted to be an artist.

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s my favourite part of my job, I go to Urban Writers Retreats, I read lots and I think about writing a lot. But, if I’m really honest, other than professionally – and here on this blog – I don’t do that much of it. I find it hard to write except in specific ways and spaces. It’s not something I find easy to do scribbling down a few ideas by hand; I need a laptop, a lack of diversions, a focus.

Writing will always be my first love. But it’s not really the form of creativity I employ most of the time. What I do – what, I’ve only just recently come to realise, I’ve always done – is draw.

As a child, I doodled incessantly. My rough book and homework diary were covered in sketches and lettering, particularly the recurrent themes of skirts and dresses, shoes and boots and mirror writing. I drew a lot of eyes with dense, spiky eyelashes; bottles were another favourite so I could shade in the curves and give them a little bit of three-dimensional depth. My art teacher – ah, wonderful Mrs Aplin – told me it was a shame I didn’t continue on to GCSE art, and I assumed this was because she was kind and tactful. It occurs to me now she might have meant it, but it’s rather too late to ask. When we could choose a number of subjects for free general study at A Level, I was right back in the art room, making theatre masks (one was unspeakably awful, like some sort of horror movie sex doll) and then hastily changing track to ink and watercolour, where I was merely a bit crap, and sometimes okay. I remember once doing quite an involved pencil copy of the cover of a magazine and realising that – albeit in a lumpen, potato-y kind of way – it was recognisably similar to the source material. (The cover shot in question was of Jan de Bont; that stayed with me because of the infamous scalping story). And this really has been the essence of my life in art: everything’s always looked more or less how it was meant to, kind of – but not exactly.

And so gradually, I began to wish that I was “good at drawing”. That I was some miraculous talent who could seamlessly translate what was in my head onto paper. Who could have a gift for a dash of colour here, a smear of white there, which would just so render the shape, lighting or depth I wanted. I was drawn to deceptively simple, cartoonish sketching – since my favourite artists range from Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon to Mary Blair and Oliver Jeffers, I’ve never been about photorealistic, perfect portraiture, but about colourful, sometimes impressionistic, worlds. I wanted to be able to swish a pencil across a page and instantly create an understanding of the form I was going for in someone else’s mind. But, I wasn’t born with the talent, so…

So, yes, for a relatively smart person, I can be pretty stupid, huh? Of course there are natural talents, but as a very smart lady, Stacey Conway of AXES, once reminded me about her own musical abilities, it takes a shitload of hard work to turn the seedling of talent into the blossom of good art. And I wasn’t really doing that hard work. Or at least, I didn’t think I was, except for maybe that time I doodled – while listening! I always listen – through that meeting, and when I bought acrylics and created Moomin pictures for Ramona, and when for several nights in a row Ash would sit with me and challenge me to draw various animals in minute-long pencil sketches, or every single time I mapped out any project, content calendar or presentation in diagrams and sketches, or all those times I said “I can’t explain this, let me draw it for you”. I’d been practising all along. Just not regularly enough or in a focussed enough way to make it really come together.

Late last year, I decided to carry a notebook and some fineliners around with me all the time. At least once a week or so – alright, maybe once a fortnight – I’d sketch something, and while I was on holiday a week or so ago I spent two days at the V&A, one of them mostly devoted to sketching. I’ve become semi-serious about getting better, thinking of characters to develop, and even planning a stop-motion animation that will involve painting and crocheting some sets. But I’m used to having big ideas and then distracting myself away from completing them.

And then, #100forChildsi happened. I was challenged to get sponsorship to fulfil a life’s wish. And I felt pretty embarrassed, because the kinds of life’s wishes that Child’s i grants – well, God it makes my droning about lack of talent extraordinarily pathetic. These are children who for one reason or another have been abandoned, and found themselves in emergency care. And Child’s i works on the principle that children are better off in homes than institutions, and where possible they’re best off with their families. And so it reunites family members and helps children avoid orphanages. Now that’s what I call fulfilling a life’s wish.

Next to that, my lack of commitment to something I enjoy is pretty ridiculous. So I’ve joined the #100forChildsi team to raise £100 by doing a drawing or sketch or painting every day for 100 days and snapping the results for Instagram (or at least bits of them – I reserve the right to edit down the really rubbish stuff!). And I’m asking family, friends or generous strangers to encourage me by helping the extremely deserving charity, which is pretty tiny and punches well above its weight. Your money will be put to good use. My JustGiving page is here, and you can see what the rest of us have pledged to do on the team page. You can also find out more about it there, and maybe join us. Everyone is welcome, bucket list in hand.

Now, best get moving so that I have enough time to do my next sketch tomorrow…

David Bowie at the V&A, and why my sister nicely ruins everything

My sister, in the nicest possible way, ruins everything. Take snow. I used to get excited about snow! And then she pointed out that it was fairly miserable for people with nowhere to shelter from it.

Then there was that time she ruined Together in Electric Dreams by pointing out that if the object of his affection didn’t smile until it was time to go away, then maybe they didn’t like Phil Oakey that much anyway.

Or the time that she snorted at the idea of conditions being remotely ‘normal’ in Enola Gay. I mean, honestly. Am I really supposed to think about things?!

And then she ruined 30-odd years of thinking perfectly nice but faintly indifferent thoughts about David Bowie (except as Jareth, of course, where he is the Best Thing Ever), by asking me to go along to the V&A retrospective about him.

Because actually, as it turns out, his body of work screams pretty much every life lesson worth knowing. The exhibition – lovingly curated and presented beautifully in an enjoyably immersive experience complete with headphones that play a soundtrack triggered by the nearest display – is not very much about David Bowie himself – except as he can be known through his work – but mostly about the art of and around his work. It includes sketches and lyric notes, a piece from the graphic designer about the creation of the cover for The Next Day, videos of collaborators and influences. It’s a massively rich collection, and it’s only a tiny slice of the massive volume that could have been displayed, I’m sure.

We stopped at one point, in the middle, already overwhelmed with the quality of what we’d seen – and before we’d even reached the man’s mid-20s.

“If you just completely commit yourself to it, and keep producing work so prolifically,” she commented, “you’re simply bound to strike gold more than other people.”

I thought about other vastly active artists – the obvious ones for me at this moment are Gaiman and Palmer – who might not always hit the target but whose monolithic archives mean that they are always producing something, and therefore are more likely to produce something excellent. And, besides, practice makes perfect, right?

I’m not suggesting that innate talent isn’t important. But as my former colleague Stacey, bassist for Axes, once said to me: “It pisses me off when people think this kind of thing just comes to you. Sure, I’m musical, but I worked my arse off to get this good.”

And, crucially, it’s not enough to be good on your own. You have to share it with someone else. Perhaps with everyone else. Because then it takes on a separate life of its own, too (here I think of Mark Billingham, author of the Thorne detective novels, who – rightly, in my opinion – figures “a book isn’t a book until it’s read”).

Basically, the brilliant, when it comes to what they are brilliant at, simply don’t do shy, even when it hurts, and they don’t do lazy, because that doesn’t make sense to them.

They also don’t have to do drama. Have you ever noticed? People like working with them, and hiring them, and talking about how easy they are to collaborate with. When you’re reasonably secure in your ability, and totally passionate about and dedicated to the production of whatever it is you produce, you simply don’t have to be an ass about it.

And so, back to Bowie and my sister. My sister, who ruins things by not ruining them. By, in fact, forcing me to think, and reflect, and love her ever so much for it,  even while I resent the nagging feeling that I should set my bar higher, and rise to meet it.

As we were leaving, she said to me, contemplatively:

“You get the impression that the world is just a better place for having had him in it.”

Now what a legacy that is.

Parenting a Toddler: The Conversation – Part 2

Remember this post about how, basically, I wasn’t allowed to use the bog on my own?

Here’s the visual version:

Ashley Goldstein Weaseldance Design Watch You

Need some more of this creepy talent in your life? Hire the artist. Tell your friends.

You should see the one inspired by our cat

 

Hey, look! A new header!

I felt the need for a header that spoke more of me, and happily I seem to live with Designerus Domesticus, or the common or garden graphics hipster. He’s great, isn’t he? (He works for these lovely people if you think he could be great for you too. You know, in a more appropriate way.)

I asked him to draw inspiration from the classic EPCOT Center designs of the 80s since that’s my Disney Golden Age (every fan, except maybe the brand new ones, has one) and it seems extra appropriate as we approach my very favourite park in the world’s 30th birthday. Since I can’t be there in person…

I still have my mouse ears, but sadly I have long since lost my rainbow-hued, red-brimmed sun visor with the old logo. This is my way of bringing it back into my life a little.

And now, back to business.

The Artist: Yes, it’s that good

Last week, Dogs Trust was chosen as the recipient charity for a special screening of The Artist, in Leicester Square. Uggie the dog, the film’s main canine actor, came along to be charming in front of the cameras (something he found effortless) and hang out with Freddie, our CEO Clarissa’s ‘granddog’.

When you have a toddler it is, in any case, always a treat to get to go to the cinema, but it also means you can feel you need to justify the night out by seeing something good. (This is silly of course; spending the night out is justified by the fact that you have a toddler.)

In any case, I found The Artist to be exactly as good as the gushing suggests. It’s better if you know less, rather than more, going in, but the general premise (a silent movie about silent movies) is pretty widely known. It’s wonderfully deft; a clever idea made lovingly with an excellent cast and beautiful attention to detail. Oh, and the dog is in it a lot more than you expect.

If I had to drag out a criticism… oh, you know what? No. Of course there are flaws but since the successes are far more a) numerous and b) memorable, why ruin it by dwelling on them? I’m not reviewing this for a national, I’m chatting with my friends about it.

If you really want to know, ask.

But better still, go and see it.