The Library of Obscure Wonders

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Newsletter October 19

Fossil Oyster
Devils Toe Nail – Oil on Canvas

This is the first post for quite some time. I had a difficult summer moving flat, but I’m now all moved into my new place, which is lovely, and ready to start looking at exhibitions again.
This month I’ve just been to a wonderful exhibition in the basement of the Hundred Years Gallery, Pearson Street E2. It is called The Floating Forest and is by Montse Gallego. If you are interested in the power of forests, trees and the beauty of hanging rice paper, Montse is well worth looking at, unfortunately I think the exhibition is only on till the end of this week. Free
I’m very interested in going to see the William Blake exhibition at the Tate Britain. The poet, artist and printmaker (1757-1827) spent his life creating mesmerising, tiny works to illustrate poems. histories and mythologies. This is one of the largest exhibitions of his work in a long time, it’s on till the 2nd February 2020 and costs £18
Gaugin portraits is an exhibition on at the National Gallery, from 7 October until 26 January 2020, it should be a good show and a bit different from the normal exhibitions of his work.
Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is a very famous artist in Finland  The exhibition at the Royal Academy is the first chance London audiences have had to see her work. Tickets cost £14.
Lastly, and going back to my days as an art student when I was a big fan of Phillip Guston, Co Westerick, another artist whose work is rarely seen in London, is on display at Sadie Coles HQ, Kingly street W1, until the 2nd November. These paintings remind me very much of Guston’s work, though the colour is more subtle. Free.
Classes and workshops
Monday classes are back on at Lordship Hub in Tottenham where we explore all sorts of subject matter in relation to watercolour painting. 11.30 to 1.30pm. Beginners are very welcome, as are those with more experience. It costs £10, or £8 if you book 3 or more sessions in advance. It is ‘drop in’ so there is no need to book in advance.
Thursday the 10th I’m starting a new 10 week series of evening classes in Drawing and Painting from Nature at South London Botanical Institute.This course is run by Imperial College London. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/evening-classes/autumn-spring-courses/october-courses-list/drawingnature/
I’m running the Botanical illustration class stage 1 at City Lit this term starting on the 16th November. This class goes over 4 full days on Saturdays and gives you all the basic knowledge and skills you need to draw effective plants and flowers. https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/botanical-illustration-stage-1Enroll soon to get a place.
Patterns in Nature is another course I’m running at City Lit this term. This looks at the geometry and patterns within nature, such as the honeycomb, cacti, shells and insects, and how these can be used to create effective designs for textile or print. It starts on 27th November, 18.00 to 21.00 and lasts over four weeks. https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/drawing-workshop-patterns-in-nature.Painting tip: ways to create black that will be more interesting than just using a ready made black.1. Mix Alizarin crimson with viridian green in equal measure for a rich strong black. 2. Mix ultramarine with burnt umber. 

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The Snake Amongst Rubbish.

Art work - Snake painting

Watercolour and Gouache on handmade paper, with bed springs and litter.

This beast has just successfully got to America, much to my relief. I could see the authorities objecting to rusting bed springs in a package arriving from across the continent, but it got there safely. It is one of my earliest experiments in embedding and painting on handmade paper. It is an incredibly lengthy process with a high possibility of it going wrong at any stage – the paper-making, the drying, the embedding, and when it comes to the image, well you can’t rub out on handmade paper! The error possibilities are enormous, quite crazy in fact, but it is very rewarding once finished. There is also the curious thing that because it’s created from recycled materials the materials and the making process play a role in how the final image turns out, almost tell their story by influencing my decisions as I make it.

I found the bed springs in my garden, when I was trying to build a pond. An entire mattress is buried under the ground, rotten away so that it is just a huge bunch of strings and wire. I thought I saw a snake slithering amongst the strings, but it was probably my eyes playing tricks on me again.

The snake is a fascinating animal. The word snake comes from the term “to creep”. The forked tongue smells as well as tastes, and is constantly in motion sampling particles from the air. Many snakes also have infrared-sensitive receptors to detect the heat given off by warm blooded creatures. Most impressive, from a visual point of view, is their  jointed skull and highly mobile jaw which enables them to eat prey far larger then their heads, and often live.

The Devil’s Toenail

Fossil Oyster

Gryphaea – Devil’s Toenail – Oil on Canvas. If you happen to know someone who might like a pretty picture of a shell on the bedroom/lounge wall you can buy it here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/115644293/painting-of-a-shell-fossil-devils-toe, probably best not mention the devil’s toes though.

This is the fossilised shell of a now extinct oyster from the Jurassic period. Found on the coastlines of Britain, they are called Devil’s Toenails because they look like they might possibly be just that!

It used to be believed that taking crunched up Devil’s Toenail as medicine could relieve a bad back and help cure rheumatism.

My favourite example of the devil is given in The Karamazov Brothers by Dostoevsky. He appears to one of the brothers in a hallucination. He is a gracious, dignified gentleman, educated but fallen on hard times, his clothes are tatty and run down. He  says what he dreams of being is the fat 18 stone wife of a merchant  “and to believe everything she believes”. Then he wouldn’t have to worry, no responsibilities or guilt, just live in luxuary and believe oneself to be a good christian “my ideal is to walk into a church and light a candle in all sincerity”. I can see the devil having that point of view, and in his well made but hole ridden shoes he would have curled deformed toenails that look very much like this.

A Curious Contraption

Flyer for a gig. A fish trapped in a time Machine.The Library is putting on an event!  Storytelling, music, poetry, film. Its called Mr Slaptail’s Curious Contraption (after a children’s book about a group of river animals that build a scientific contraption). The Librarian will be there collecting ghost stories, the Rude Mechanicals will be conjuring up monsters, Bitten by a Monkey will be chanting disturbing monk-like improvisations, Bird Radio shall be the modern day one man band he is, and Miss Roberts shall be loving and abusing musicians and audience alike. It will be held on 7th Nov at the Vortex Downstairs, Gillet SquareLondon.

Thought I’d show a taster of some of the exhibits on here. First the beautiful films of Chiara Ambrosio.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlElDZJ23nY&feature=plcp

Conkers

Watercolour sketch of a horsechesnut seed and its shell

Conker and it’s shell. By JV Roberts.www.etsy.com/listing/113424758/conker

I found these in the shadowy park by the disused school where the old tramps sleep. There were absolutely loads of them scattered all over the floor, their little spiky backs threatening my flimsy shoes, and Monty’s paws (my dog). It reminded me of when I was a child, my brother and I used to collect bag loads of them to play conkers with. We’d take them home and test out ways of hardening then – soaking in vinegar, boiling, coating in varnish.  One particularly hard looking one would be picked from the bunch and we’d be convinced it was going to be the champion at school, but I don’t actually remember ever getting round to playing conkers at school, too worried our superior conker might get damaged.

Apparently now, in the Conker World Championships, we’d be banned for cheating, competitors can only use the non hardened conkers provided.

The word conkers refers to the game rather than the nut itself, which is the seed of the horse-chesnut tree, the name conkers may come form the word Conqueror. A similar game used to be played with snail shells. Now all this researching conkers has led me to buy this book http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Garlands-Conkers-Mother-Die-Roy-Vickery/9781441101952, which I’m sure I will be quoting later in a blog.

Here’s how to play the game via Wikipedia:

The game

  • A hole is drilled in a large, hard conker using a nail, gimlet, or small screwdriver. An electric drill such as a “Dremel” using increasing drill-bit diameters at intermittent intervals, produces less internal damage to the nut’s core and is highly effective during the hardening period / process. Once ready for action, a piece of string is threaded through it about 25 cm (10 inches) long (often a shoelace is used). A large knot at one or both ends of the string secures the conker.
  • The game is played between two people, each with a conker.
  • They take turns hitting each other’s conker using their own. One player lets the conker dangle on the full length of the string while the other player swings their conker and hits.

Conker seed and shell

Horse-chesnut seed and shell. Silverpoint by JV Roberts

Cupboard Exploration: The Last Days of Half an Onion

So 2005 I finished the painting commission, discovered nematode worms, and realised that the everyday world really was full of weird and amazing things. One day, on a clean out of my kitchen cupboard (disgustingly dirty) I discovered half an onion that had started sprouting a shoot. It was beautiful so I kept it and wrote this short diary about it:

28th March 2005

Half an onion was discovered at the very back of the kitchen cupboard amongst a quantity of crumbs of indeterminate origin and a dried up carrot. It’s outer skin has started to rot, but from its centre emerges a large white horn, bareing a striking resembalance to what may be described as a minature Rhino’s horn, only far whiter. I took it out of the cupboard and placed it on the window sill.

 14th April 2005

The horn has grown so quickly it is four times larger now than it was when I found it (in fact it grew from 3.3cm to 14.1cm approx), and it’s tip has turned green. I did think that I should sit down in front of it and watch it for a whole day, but grew bored with that and gave up. Instead I looked up some health facts about onions on the internet (I’m feeling rather cold ridden today).

 Health facts about onions that I was oblivious to before my onion discovery:

 ‘They appear to be at least somewhat effective against colds, heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases and contain antiinflammatory, anticholesterol, and anticancer components.

 In many parts of the underdeveloped world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. In the United States, products that contain onion extract (such as “Mederma”) are used in the treatment of topical scars.’ Wikipedia

 18th April 2005

It has now started growing another horn like shoot, plus the first horn has developed two offshoots. I’ve given it a bit of water, though not being watered at all didn’t seem to bother it. I guess it gets nourishment from what remains of the onion. I decided to paint a picture of it. 

Watercolour and pen sketch of the onion sitting on the kitchen window sill. 

21st April 2005

Although the abandoned state seen above is clearly aesthetically pleasing (the curved onion base tilting slightly forwards to balance the horn, giving a sense of strain and desperation that can only be felt by the liberated onlooker) I’ve decided to plant the onion in a small brown ceramic bowl with a little mud. I felt that in order to fully explore the onion growing process I needed to encourage growth and that the best way to do this might be to plant it.

 

29th April 2005

The onion has continued to grow, I give it a single drop of water every day. I have decided to explore the biological constituency of the onion further. I dig part of it up and peel off a tiny bit of inner skin. From this I peel off a transparent film which I put on a slide and dye with a drop of iodine, I then put the slide under the microscope.

 

 

This activity is one of the first uses of an optical microscope that most students encounter in a biology lab. Onions are used because they have large cells that are easily visible under a microscope and the preparation of a thin section is very straight forward..An onion is made of many concentric layers. Each layer is separated by a thin skin or membrane.

30 May 2005

The half an onion grew rapidly for a bit but now appears to be dying. I did it up out of its ceramic bowl and place it on the window sill. It has a different type of beauty now, full of rich purples, deep reds, and the withering of its stems has a dramatic appeal.

Dying Onion half, 12ft by 8ft Oil painting on Canvas
Evidence, 12ft by 8ft Oil painting on Canvas. This very large painting was done from a sketch of the dying onion. I won Challenge the Nail art prize that year and had my first solo London show. I painted this picture for that. Why so large I don’t know, perhaps I was paying my respects to the onion somehow, or appeasing the god of onions.

Building Bookshelves out of Library Books

Book Sculpture

Book Sculpture by The Library of Obscure Wonders.
Photo by Charlie Murphy

Every now and then the library takes on a 3-dimensional form and goes on tour. We are currently planning a short tour  next year so I’m making some new light-weight bookshelves for travelling and I’m making them out of  old library books.

It’s not that I enjoy destroying library books, quite the opposite, but I do enjoy making new books (and shelves) out of books nobody wants anymore. Old,  water damaged, scrawled in books, out of date encyclopaedias, tatty Jeffrey Archers or Mills and Boon novels, books which really have reached the end of their life span. The Library of Obscure Wonders recycles them.

This all started the  year before last when the Library of Obscure Wonders was asked to create a public sculpture for Pollard Hill Library in South London. This was to herald the opening of a new library building to replace an old one. When they closed the old building they went through all their books and decided to throw out all the damaged, out of date ones. But what were they to do with them? Well thats where we came in. They said “take your pick of the old books and build us a sculpture out of them”. So that, along with children’s workshops and a public talk, was what we did. (For more information and pictures of this project visit obscurewonders.co.uk/pollard.html)

Some of the books we kept almost as they were, but others we broke down and turned into paper pulp, then from this pulp we made new paper and paper-mache. I recommend John Plowman’s Papermaking techniques book if you are interested in paper making yourself.

During this process we researched a lot about paper and found that you can make almost anything out of the stuff! (well thats a bit of an exaggeration) People have made sailable boats, houses, armour, tables, clothes, all sorts. So we thought in future, instead of buying new shelves for our books and art displays, we might as well try to build everything out of recycled paper and card. So that is what we’re doing. I particularly like working with recycled materials because the material has a recognisable history, character even, that can be allowed to influence the new work.

In the studio as I attempt to build shelves and display cabinets.

Hand made paper from old library books and Blue Eyed Mary Flowers.

Hand made paper from an old Mills and Boon book, with ‘Blue Eyed Mary’ flowers from my garden.

Nematode Worms

Ink drawing of a nematode worm on paper, by JV Roberts

Pen drawing of a nematode worm by JV Roberts.

One in every 8 creatures is a nematode worm.

Several years ago I undertook a painting commission for a Scientist at Cancer Research UK. I remember he took me on a tour of his laboratory and on casually looking down a microscope I discovered these, nematode worms. They looked incredible! I could see their insides and watch their digestive systems in action.

Although the Scientist’s information on his research into human blood cells was both fascinating and baffling, it is the visual memory of the beautiful nematode worms that sticks with me the most, and the knowledge that they’re everywhere and I never even knew they existed.

A handful of soil will contain thousands of microscopic worms. Nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. In size they can range from 0.3mm to over 8 metres (found in the guts of whales).Both parasitic and free living types exist and they live in almost every environment, from fresh water to oceans, mud, desert, the bottom of gold mines, it is rumoured that there is even a type of nematode that have developed to live in beer matts.

“In short, if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.”

Nathan Cobb, Author of  Nematodes and there Relationships 1914

The Cyclops

Cyclops

Example of a Cyclops

A cyclops is a primordial giant with a single eye in the centre of his forehead. They are strong, stubborn and emotional. They are also very good blacksmiths and the noises proceeding from the heart of volcanoes can be attributed to their operations. Cyclopes are present in Greek and Roman mythology . On escaping Troy after the Trojan War, Aeneas landed on the Island of the cyclops.

Other creatures similar to the Cyclops include:

The  Arimaspoi, a legendary people who lived in the foothills of the mountains north of the Black Sea. They liked trying to steal gold from griffins so were constantly at war with them.

The Hitotsume-kozo of Japanese folklore are the size of ten-year old children, resemble Buddhist monks and have a “single, giant eye peering from the center of the face, along with a long tongue”

And apparently Odin, king of the Norse Gods, gave up one eye to gain wisdom and power.Cyclops ID Kit - mask, filing cabinet, drawings, bones, an eye.