RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Tag: photography

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

Advertisements

Images in Time

Images in time, do you still see

the girl who was lost or the woman flown free?

A gathering lining of rich silver hue

clouds part once more to capture anew

one step at a time reluctant to stay

accept at last that time goes away.

The moment has gone, now do you see

the girl who was lost or the woman flown free?

Photographic Memories

088

The past is never just the past, it is recalled in the now,

a visual invitation to step into a life.

076

Memories laid down in layered pixels of existence

moments in snapshots faded by time.

043

photography by http://www.rebeccapells.co.uk

 

Lusitania 101 – a Life before the Tragedy

029

 

On the 7th May 1915 the British liner RMS Lusitania, the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world at the time, was struck by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland.  Of it’s 1962 passengers and crew only 764 survived – my great uncle and aunt were among them.  Their one year old son John was not.

An account of their trauma is taken from statements made by both  Mary and Elmore upon their eventual arrival in England.

“(Cyril) Elmore and Mary Anita Pells, travelling with their infant son John from Canada to England where Mr. Pells was to join his regiment, despaired of ever leaving the ship safely. At the time the torpedo struck  they were dining in the second class salon and returned to their E Deck cabin to retrieve John, and Elmore made a second trip below for lifebelts.  Not expecting to survive, they took seats together somewhere on one of the upper decks presumably on the port side, to wait for the end. When it came, they were pulled down deep with the ship, and in the torrent John was wrenched out of his father’s arms and lost. Elmore and Mary surfaced and were able to pull themselves atop an overturned lifeboat.”

Following a short period of recovery in London, Elmore joined his regiment as originally planned but after receiving a brief note telling of his safe arrival in France, Mary never heard from him again and he is documented as having been killed in action during the Battle of Aisne-Chemin des Dames on May 27th 1918.

The human element of this disaster, which has largely been lost among the controversial nature of the incident together with the passing of time, is now coming to light, re-surfacing along with the personal stories.  I have researched Elmore and Mary’s accounts with the benefit of the internet and personal family history.  However, I am also in possession of a wonderful photographic record of their lives in Canada prior to their fateful journey. The images long since faded, document a young couple in love.  Elmore met Canadian born Mary in the UK and following their engagement they emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia and and were married at North Lonsdale in April 1914.   Their son John was born in February 1915.   The images tell a story of a vibrant life together, socialising, fancy dress and tennis parties and picnics on the beach with friends.  Just one image remains of their infant son John.

007

011

 

015

033

It is their own record of their life together, each photograph carefully entered into the small album by their own hands, unaware of the tragedy which was shortly to unfold and change their lives forever.  Faces reach out from the faded images, ethereal and yet full of life, crossing the threshold of a time long since gone and reaching into the 21st century in an effort to be remembered.  A reminder that they lived life to the full during their short time together:  there was life before the Lustania and for Mary a life after but very much changed.

021

012

026

Through the remainder of the war Mary served as a nurse, and she was awarded a sum of $1089.15 for the loss of her personal property and Elmore’s medical expenses after her return to British Columbia.  For a time she lived in California, where she continued to study nursing, before returning for a third time to Canada, where the trail is lost in time.  However, somewhere along the way she maintained a connection to the Pells family – in 1936 she received a legacy from Elmore’s mother upon her death.

013

027

 

023

Elmore – ‘lost in action’- has no known grave but is remembered at The Soissons Memorial located in the Aisne département of France. The memorial lists 3,887 names of British soldiers who were killed in the area from May to August 1918 during the Spring Offensive.

And somewhere, somehow, this little album has found it’s way from Canada back to England, passed down my family and  following the recent death of my own father John, who was named after his young cousin, is now one of my most treasured possessions.

 

004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patterns

046

Patterns are everywhere.  Life is made up of them.  We are their product.   From the extraordinary beauty of a single snowflake to the relative simplicity of the double helix which forms our DNA, patterns dominate life.  Nature produces them over and over, evolving yes but still within the boundaries of a recognisable pattern.  Man has replicated them from ancient times, everywhere you look you will find a pattern, not always obvious, sometimes we must seek them out.

There is a comfort in patterns, familiar, predictable they have boundaries and therefore a certainty about what has been, what is happening and what is yet to come.  Patterns dictate our behaviour too.  The rebellious teenager who pushes the boundaries of parental control and wisdom, wanting to forge their own path, unaware that they too are following an age old pattern.  They do not, however always work in our favour.  Behavioural patterns can be destructive, like a mutating cancer replicating it’s ugly cells the pattern forges forth, carried by belief that we are right, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

 I recently visited an installation by UK artist Carl Jaycock in a local church.  Photographs of all the men and women from Shropshire who lost their lives in the First World  War – including Shropshire born poet Wilfred Owen – were formed into the shape of shell cases.  Alongside the beautiful floor tiles this human pattern was a haunting sight.  All those involved in that dreadful war unwittingly became part of the pattern of history.

026 (2)

In recent weeks Germany has lead the way welcoming those seeking refuge from Syria and other ravaged countries.  There is a collective will to break the historical dysfunctional pattern of their homeland and create a new one – for some perhaps a form of absolution.  But scratch a little beneath the surface as one journalist did and the old prejudicial pattern is soon revealed, veiled but by no means dormant.  Collective will is shunned when reality challenges the pull of our individual autonomy  and the old destructive pattern snaps sharply back into place. Like the rebellious teenager we refuse to listen to wisdom even when we know the consequences may be devastating.

Why do we repeatedly do the same things and yet expect a different outcome?  Most of us are driven, controlled even by our ego, our immaturity beckoned and  seduced toward false havens – a flawed, myopic  isolation of the present suspended from historical context.  We witness the arctic melt, we see that prejudice leads to conflict, we feel when our repeated actions damage our personal relationships.  But still we resist the fluid, less unilateral stance which maturity demands of us, safe in the false belief that it is another at fault, another who must shoulder the burden of change.

   If we are to liberate ourselves from the cancerous, cyclical patterns born of short-sighted self interest, we must learn to cross familiar thresholds with a different, more determined intent in our step.

031 (2)

“Courage was mine, and I had mystery    

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery.”

Wilfred Owen

Why a Decade of Debris is Good for Your Spirits

015

For the last three years I have observed my garden bench as it morphed from an often used, aesthetically pleasing addition to my garden into a drab collection of wooden slats, in danger of being claimed by a snaking wild bramble. By last summer I utilised it rarely, due in some part to the dismal weather but largely because my once favoured place had become a neglected corner,  visited only by local cats to sit for a quick wash after which even they declined to linger more than a few minutes before departing in search of a more comfortable spot.

Purchased some fifteen years ago, the wood had long since lost it’s natural beauty, fading gradually from a rich cedar tone to a silvery hue quite charming and delightful, before subsiding to a dull dark brown, stained by time and nature.  After the first few years I failed to cover it in the autumn but still expected it to to flourish with welcoming comfort the following spring.  With the first appearance of cracks I gave the bench the attention it was calling for in the form of  linseed oil applied with an old rag, which it consumed like a hungry child giving it a healthy glow once more, the affect of which lasted but a few months and provided little sustenance to see it through the cold, wet winter.  Tree branches overhung the seat providing welcome shade from occasional burst of strong sun but were also a favourite with the birds.  It soon became a chore to clean the bench before it was habitable and gradually I didn’t bother and somehow this previously cherished place in my garden had become an eyesore and it in turn stared resentfully back at me.

Finally, I have taken notice.  And what a journey we have been on: half a dozen sheets of coarse sandpaper to remove a decade of debris, along with several hours of elbow grease.  No electric sander for me! If this effort was rewarded as the colour and grain of the wood revealed itself once more, it was surely the gentler application of fine sanding that helped it glow with life.  The benefit of this transformative action was not for the bench alone; for me the physical effort blended with the creative activity – taking one thing and through a series of processes discovering  another – is one that cannot be matched for pleasure, satisfaction and achievement.  It distracts from the ever present background ‘noise’ of the mind, taking you deep into the present moment where worries about what has been or what might be, do not exist.  It’s the reason art therapy is offered as an alternative to drugs for those who are strugglimg with anxiey and depression and I was witness to it’s gentle transformative effect when I worked in a centre which used anthroposophical therapies, including art, for people with long term health conditions.  The reason it works has little to do with the end result but much more the process it takes us through, allowing the mind to gently find a way free of the unhealthy groove it habitually remains stuck in.

I do wonder, if we engaged with activities which have an underlying creative experience on a regular basis, whether it would promote a healthier, more satisfying life experience. So much of modern life is stripped of the opportunity to strive, experiment, experience and feel, make mistakes, get it wrong and spend time finding a solution.  From mass produced goods, where imperfections result in a ‘return for our money back’ attitude rather than seeing irregularity as the signature of the craftsman; from the preference for uniform supermarket produce  over  the knarled vegetables which, freshly dug from your garden and sweet smelling are proudly presented on your plate.  The digitally produced music to which our ear has become accustomed but fails to quite move us in the same way as the old vinyl and the photographer who enhances the image in order to please the constant demand for perfection, belying the truth he witnessed and perhaps too his own sense of satisfaction.  In this manipulated and ‘perfect’ world how can we hope to be truly connected to the reality of life – are we not by default always one step removed? Could this be the reason for the modern ‘dis-ease’ of vague disatisfaction that so many of us experience yet can’t quite put our finger on why? It is as if much of modern life has been stripped bare of the very things which nourish the soul and maintain a healthy equilibrium.

I could have ditched my bench in favour of a new one, the buying of which may have provided a moments pleasure.  But I figured that one tree had already given it’s life for me to have a comfortable place to sit in my garden and with a little work and attention it would provide me with a good few more years. After some deliberation I decided to paint the bench in the hope of protecting it a little longer.  A once mass produced item has now become something personal, complete with imperfections and nuances and a history all of it’s own with which I am now uniquely and intimately bound.

%d bloggers like this: