RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Tag: Family

Letters and Layers

There can be few, if anyone alive who faught in the horror of those fields in Flanders during the First World War and the family threads which tie myself, like so many others to that generation grow ever weaker as each year passes.

Over the last four years we have seen many services, exhibitions and publications in commemoration of the 1914-1918 Great War and they may well be the last of any major significance.   And commemorate is all we can now do, first hand experiences have exhausted their testimony as the final battalion of veterans have joined their brothers in arms.  And yet the war has influenced, however indirectly, each and every one of us and the world in which we now live.

It’s effects resonate and rumble on, the bass tone which echoes around the world of which we are barely aware, as the sountracks of each generation since have been laid down and mixed atop.  They can no longer be separated, as fresh paint meets rust, it peels and flakes, old with new.

For many family life and history was forever changed as layers of desperate, heartbreaking pain and fear forced their way into the very DNA of homes across the land,  plastering them with an unwanted, enveloping layer of ‘wallpaper’, whole families captive within the confines of this compound.  The rumble of the guns have ceased but the fallout has echoed down the generations, defying the latest paint and fashions, etched into every nook and cranny.  Precious letters so carefully tucked away,  come to light as homes are cleared and another generation takes up the mantle.  Faded photographs of life before and life after – ghostly abscences, once there were four now just three.  Scratch beneath the layers a little and there you will reveal the evidence, the reason for enigmas and  secrets and sadness.

There you will find answers to why things are the way they are.

 

Top:  ‘Madame Brugiere’

Above: ‘Un Petit Mot’

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The Red Hat

 

Sometimes I’m asked about the stories behind my paintings.  More often than not they’re personal to me and I prefer to leave the viewer to connect (or not) in their own way so that the image becomes meaningful to them.  However, this year I have been working on a collection inspired  by the World Wars in particular the First, the end of which in 1918 left a trail of fragmented families and shattered lives.

I’m not even sure that ‘inspired’ is the right word – how can you be inspired by such carnage, such ‘….guttering, choking, drowning ….’ as Wilfred Owen wrote?  I think it would be more correct to say I’m awed by the people who were there and those who were left behind, by their ability to ‘carry on’ in the face of extreme adversity.  It’s this ability of a human spirit to navigate the unknown, the uncertainty, the highs and the awful lows which speaks to me.  During those long endured years the highs were to be snatched and savoured, wherever and whenever possible, moments and memories created eagerly, providing new escape routes for an anxious mind.  Like buying a new hat.

A year ago I attended a talk by Magnum social photographer David Hurn.  Now in his eighties he was both fascinating and entertaining, not just for his wonderful images but for his personal and insightful stories.  He’d never considered becoming a photographer until one day he picked up a copy of ‘Picture Post’ and saw a photograph which changed the whole course of his life.  The image was of a Russian Army Officer buying his wife a hat in a Moscow department store.  It moved him to tears as it reminded him of how his own father, home on leave from the Second World War, had taken his mother to buy a hat.  In that moment he realised the power an image can have on it’s viewer and he was hooked.

This story only came into my mind as I was in the final stages of painting ‘The Red Hat’.  The woman wearing it is my maternal grandmother ‘nana’ – her husband I never knew even though I carry his genes.  As a career naval man he survived the First World War and despite being in his mid fifties was called up for the Second, which he did not.  I don’t know what to call him – grandfather or grandad implies a familiarity which we never enjoyed.  I’d never seen a photograph of him until last year and it was a powerful moment, to witness for the first time someone who I recognised despite never having met. It moved me to tears too.

This series of paintings called ‘Futility’ – a reference to Wilfred Owen’s poem of this name –  is my way of acknowledging his existence and contribution, of weaving some kind of relationship between grandparent and grandchild.  So the paintings are full of stories, not just mine but other people’s.  As for the hat, I don’t know whether it was red or not so I indulged in a little artistic licence!

‘The Red Hat’

Rebecca Pells Fine Art

Still Life – a Personal Heritage

 

001‘Silver Jug with Lime’ 2016

Many of us seek an identity – or perhaps seek to escape from ourselves – through the things with which we choose to clutter our lives. Most are transient, outliving their usefulness, unable to keep up with our changing desires as the years pass by.  Few linger long after we have gone, travelling in time in a way which is closed to us.

There is a comfort in the familiar, in the multilayered existence of inheritance; a stabilizing, grounding sense of belonging which comes from things with which we grew up, the landmarks by which we navigated our early years. They are the threshold between our history and the present, between what has been, what is and what is yet to come. A kind of immortality we ourselves cannot achieve.

Such objects become integrated and entwined in our personal history handed down from generation to generation.

A familial wave passing through our lives.

001‘Silver Spoon with Lime’ 2016

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Olive’s Table

005‘Olives’s Table’ 

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A couple of weeks ago I was contemplating the subject of my next painting and looking for inspiration.  Around the same time I took delivery of a small mahogany sewing table which originally belonged to my great Aunt Olive.  When she passed away some thirty years ago it came into my father’s possession and has lived the last three decades in his spare room, somewhat forgotten.

A journey of two hundred miles in the boot of the car has brought it to rest in my home.  An ideal size and height and with a suitable covering for protection, it is has found it’s place in my studio as a table for my brushes and water pot.  Practicalities aside, I’m surprised at how fond I have become of this little table, this physical link which ties one female generation of my family to another.  Slightly battered in places it is of no great monetary value, neither would it take pride of place in a smart antique shop.

However, it does exude charm and on investigation of the deep drawer suspended below the table top, I found my aunt’s personal sewing items – half used reels of thread, a wooden darning ‘mushroom’ and most touching of all – a felt needle case embroidered with her initials.  Immediately I was reminded of my mother’s needle case with it’s navy blue initialled cover and I clearly remember how she taught me to make my own.  I now have all three, a very real thread to the women of my family, items which would have been in daily use by them and as a young girl my own was too.

Then it became unfashionable to make do and mend and financially possible to buy new socks, or a skirt from a boutique rather than homemade.  And thus  a small sewing table became just a piece of furniture, no longer used as the cabinet maker conceived.  But this little table has come into my life just at the right time and  has found a life anew and is in daily use once more.  I also found my inspiration, as I felt this small piece of my heritage deserved a painting of it’s own and so I set it up with a vase of white roses in memory of my recently deceased father along with a book of Longfellow’s poems, a favourite of my mother’s and the result is ‘Olive’s Table’.

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Heirloom Bouquet

Bouquet of Heirlooms

Heirloom Bouquet Rebecca Pells 2015

Never have so many owned so much as we do in the 21st century.  Consumerism is spreading like a virulent disease infecting huge numbers of people.  Far from fleeing and looking for an antidote it’s welcomed by many who seek to catch the bug and embrace it.

From where does our love affair with the inanimate come?  The first objects were practical and necessary – clothes, tools and utensils and then excess commodities which could be traded in exchange for ‘foreign’ goods brought wealth and the ability to purchase more. But from earliest times we have evidence of purely decorative items such as jewellery and ornaments, artifacts which quickly became an indication of status or something cherished.  Items became integrated and entwined in our personal history handed down from generation to generation, a familial wave passing through our lives.

 Although many of us today continue to judge our success and that of others by what we own, abundance seems to have changed this relationship – things are replaced with an up to date version or simply because we have become bored and enjoy the fleeting satisfaction of acquiring the new. Many of us seek an identity  – or perhaps seek to escape from ourselves  – through the things we clutter our lives with.  Barely grasped and with little time for emotional attachment, we no longer truly inhabit the gift of inheritance. Perhaps that is the way it should be, the inanimate remaining transient, pleasing one moment and forgotten the next.

  However, there is a comfort in the familiar, in the multilayered existence of inheritance; a stabilizing, grounding sense of belonging which comes from things with which we grew up, the landmarks by which we navigated our early years.  They are the threshold between our history and the present, between what has been, what is and what is yet to come.  A kind of immortality we cannot ourselves achieve.  Often they are not of much monetary worth, but offer the far greater value of connection.

In the above painting the jugs are from a collection of my mother’s, the string of pearls my grandmother’s and the oak cabinet on which they rest from my great grandparents home.  By contrast, the flowers arranged in a mass produced vase offer a metaphor of contemporary ownership, admired for a short time before fading and being discarded to make way for the fresh.

My Great Grandfather Arthur Pells  1851-1927

My Great Grandfather Arthur Pells 1851-1927

A Sense of Un-Belonging

006

Singapore 1966

Am I to be forever on the outside looking in? It has become a place – a feeling – so familiar, that I now fear the very thing I seek.  I carry it with me and yet it doesn’t have form, this nebulous  thing;  I cannot grasp it, and yet I can feel it’s elusiveness.  I have looked for it in my home, work, relationships and among my things.  I have few items from my family home –  they should evoke a warmth of feeling, a welcome symbol of my belonging somewhere but I find none, only a physical ache for something lost – no for something I’m yet to experience: an ongoing penance for daring to be here at all.  It’s not my destiny, it is and always has been my reality, the outsider as one country became another and I learned to count the number of schools in different languages.  Letters sent to best friends who’d formed new allegiances before the postmark had dried.

For a moment, I felt I belonged to something or someone, I wasn’t sure.  It was a feeling unfamiliar despite my one score year and ten. It was only later with divorce papers in hand that I realised I hadn’t belonged at all, I’d wanted it so much that I believed for a while only to discover I’d found something different, an identity that didn’t even begin to fill the void.  I’m trapped in this waiting game, on the outside while everyone else is within, strangely similar to my childhood punishment of being left out in the hallway while the rest of the family were in the sitting room with the door firmly closed.

And so I find myself on the outer edge of others’ comfort zones, kept in some kind of friendly exile as they perceive my differences.  Or perhaps it is I who perceive them, me that does not know how to fit in.  The roots of belonging are established in childhood and strengthen as we mature.  If for some reason this fails to happen, I have come to accept, at least for me, that it will never do so.  A sapling starved of essential nourishment, continuously uprooted and replanted in new territory every few years will struggle to thrive,  it’s energy channelled into mere survival, unable to blossom or reach it’s full potential as a mature tree.  It will never have the stability of it’s contemporaries, it’s roots exhausted by constant disturbance have little strength to weather the next storm.

Unlike the tree, I can choose my environment and find shelter from stormy weather and in the calm of my simple life I can thrive and flourish, untethered by my un-belonging, abiding by society’s rules but unbound by it’s conventions. There is a freedom to this existence from which I can emerge at my choosing.  In this existence I can create my own place unrestrained by outside expectation and dictates.  I’ve ceased to seek this thing called belonging – the need, the void is still there but I have learned to carry it not as a burden but like a warm coat.  There is now a comfort in not belonging, a familiarity I would miss.  I can finally embrace being on the outside looking in, not in judgement but with a welcome sense of reflective clarity that is borne by detachment as a gift.  These are the desired nutrients for the flourishing of creativity and unfettered freedom to blossom.

003

Acrylic on Canvas 2014 Rebecca Pells

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