Guns, dogs, beer, and dead hares. All day we have seen them coursing the stubbled fields in their high-vis jackets, and cringed at each shot that cracked the grey skies above these flatlands. We tried to rescue a soaked and terrified hare that had fallen into the canal, but failed.
We’d left Paris in a fine rain – a mist enhancing the ‘Awful Tower’. Standing veiled, it was as if she wished to hide her emotions or the direction of her gaze. Vinegar dressed my mood knowing this would be the last time we would travel these waters in this boat.
How long could it be prolonged, this going home? I remembered the beginning of labour with my first beautiful baby when my instinct was, ‘I’ll stay pregnant – I’m not ready – I’m afraid’. The analogy is hardly appropriate, but a similar feeling – a quirk in my nature – a difficulty in letting go.
After we moored on the Île des Impressionnistes in the Seine at Chatou, the husband and I had ‘words’, (husband, aka fellow traveler – begrudgingly-named captain, the chalk to my cheese, or vice-versa).
‘We’ve no time’, he said about our long-planned swan-song of a voyage: the Seine Aval towards LeHavre. ‘I’ve had enough’, he added. And I, who had been enjoying (unusually when on the move) the vin rouge midday and continued with small top-ups all afternoon, let out my disappointment and defiance uncontrolled, until I saw the place where my words fell. Then I was silent, and escaped into a book – a very good book, it turns out.* But there was a long night of tangled duvets and too-hot pillows and some imagined discomforting noises.
Following the next tedium of a day, (in which I drowned in said book) we arrived at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a place we knew well, a commune in the Île-de-France region. Exhausted by the concentration and bad visibility, the husband/captain took himself to bed as soon as the boat was tied, and at 3pm, with no more reading left in my eyes, I joined him in the sanctuary of the shared sleep-space. But he rose to cast out fishing rods.
Less than an hour later, when I emerged blearily on deck, he suggested we find a better mooring, one less rocked by the passing barges, adding that his fishing hooks had constantly snagged the worst and unmentionable kind of human detritus. These people – living permanently, mile after mile on moored great barges, converted, or just retired, inhabited as they had been when working, their holds void and eerily reminiscent of old cargoes – why were they polluting their own waters so?
We untied and motored a little way downriver, but every place that looked like a possible mooring had a fault – a locked gate to the land, or too much weed, or too much flotsam/jetsam-litter, or evidence of a rough sleeper in an abandoned dayboat.
I don’t know who said it, but one of us uttered, ‘Let’s just go home’ – yes, ‘let’s just go home and put the kettle on’. And a relief buoyed me then and I began to think about all the paintings I would make and all the colour of our six months and every other six months onboard Foxy Lady in France that I would transfer to canvas and make sing and hopefully fill the hearts of all who might come to see, and connect to them the love I have for this water, this gypsy wandering – the lives I glimpse of the boaters, water-skiers, swimmers, divers, fishermen, vagrants, fashionistas, bank-side cyclists, roller-skaters, the dog-walkers, the markets, the reflections on water, for every wild flower, tree, reed, waterlily, or beetle, butterfly, bat, heron and kingfisher. There’s been the architecture, inhabited and abandoned, war-scars and re-birth. New fears and old traditions. There have been fellow-travellers of many nations, and many a full and empty wineglass, surprising cheese or cured meat, many a kind word and helpful hand. There have been mooring places where only an owl hoots, or mooring places where people sang and danced all night.
But with the thought of that kettle at home, dusty, as it must be, I knew it was alright – I was bringing it all back with me. And that’s when I dropped my shoulders, and relaxed my jaw, and submitted to the knowledge that there are endings, but endings are not necessarily sad, tragic or so final – and here come the clichés about every attempt to speak about endings that are not endings… (cut)
We are coming/going home.
Is this adoration? At first light they lift their heads and face the East. The sun rises, and so their petals splay and quiver like a ring of flames. Each flower tracks that object as it arcs across the sky – a field of fiery discs fixated and entranced. By evening, they face the West, and every day watch the thing they worship die. Their gathered mass bow in dark bereavement – until first light when something draws their faces to the East.
Soon the rhythm of row, row, row the boat, becomes automatic. I am relaxed. It’s after dinner and I have wine in my veins. I concentrate on the way the blade of each oar cuts into the surface. I want to make as little impact – slice cleanly then draw against that chill thickness that provides my propulsion. I watch the regular whirlpools left in my trail. When the oars are lifted, they leave a line of droplets that make a continuous Celtic braid.
The proximity of water. The sound of water disturbed – air plunged into water – a sound akin to music.
At the margins, ferns like great green feathers dip. At the green, green margins, reed warblers sing. At the margins, the water I have moved peaks and falls over clay and mussel-shells. The blue of sky, white of cloud and green of trees swirl into a kaleidoscope of circles and snakes, and figures of eight.
In my mind – nothing – nothing more than this. Water. The proximity of water.
Early July. I was walking this evening along a riverbank – the Saône to be exact. To my other side was a field of recently cut long grass giving up its scent and sap in the late heat. All the germinating, sprouting, budding and fanning out of green is done. Our three months since March, floating boatwise on waterways, keeps us close to growth and change. Now I begin to see the fruiting, and I think about human life and its growing, flowering and fruiting. At my age I relate to ripening, and sit here to write this, and know I am fortunate not to be in a high-rise office where the air-conditioning is failing, straining my eyes on a computer screen. I am not breathing the pollution of this era’s transport – in short, I am close to nature. And being close to nature brings on the metaphors.
I think about my life and wonder when exactly my growing changed to flowering, when my flowering became fruiting (I guess as a mother that one’s easy) and when began my ripening. There are so many uses for fruit – sustenance to other life, or to fall and add nutrients to the earth – even if it withers on the branch, some essence is given to the atmosphere and recycled. And yet we are so scared of death.
Really I believe many of the problems in human society began when it moved away from nature, when it began to believe itself superior. Of course it is not. The weather teaches us that. How many lives are lost simply to weather, or mosquito bites? Our superiority is a delusion, and to try and manipulate and control nature will always fail. Husband it – nurture it – sure. But roots push up under tarmac, vines engulf buildings, seas rise and fall over great cities.
Oranges from Seville, thick skinned and cloud-dense pithed. They speak of marigolds or a candle flame – the one between us that night perhaps – our bodies leant towards each other, hands resting on cool, grey marble.
I quarter the fruit, tearing out its bitter flesh, separate the lozenge pips, and begin to slice, falling into the rhythm of repetition. Soon there is bubbling, magma in the pan, a liquid turning to bright copper, or deep amber, like the earrings you gave me. Did they tremble that night, as I pushed my hand across the table?
Toast – crisp and thick, steaming inside with harvest and yeast. Butter melts, and I spoon marmalade, sticky and glistening. Trapped within it, Spanish sun, Jamaican cane, and the memory of so many morning-afters – a blue and white willow-pattern plate, a red gingham tablecloth…
· How did you get started as an artist?
I earnestly ‘got started’ in 2015 with a resolve to explore full-time my abilities, and learn more about mediums and techniques.
It was definitely nature not nurture. My mother was an artist, but left us when I was four. As a small child, drawing was my favourite pastime, but at the age of seven, a new stepmother confiscated all my materials and I was regularly punished for attaining A+ in art at school. I think to her mind, being ‘artistic’ was synonymous with the archetypal eccentric, non-conformist – qualities that should be stamped out. I ran away from home at the age of fifteen, but didn’t escape the ‘mustn’t paint police’. They had become internalised.
My creativity was channelled positively for many years however, through my own successful business as a specialist antique restorer, using diverse skills involving sculpting, air-brushing, and needlecrafts. Later, I studied literature at university and began to explore my creativity through the written word.
· What inspires you to be creative?
I’m inspired by light, contrast, colour, drama – something quirky or in surprising juxtaposition. I’m a people-watcher. I stop and look closely at tree bark or the wings of an insect. Creative is my core. I’m often pointing at things, drawing others’ attention to details that they would otherwise pass without notice – for instance a broken guitar floating in a pond, or a pair of beer cans hanging in a tree. I walk a great deal (with my dog) and carry my camera everywhere. I recently joined a life-drawing group. It meets weekly, and the poses and subjects, often from art history, are inspirational. For instance, the theme one week was Egon Schiele, so in the preceding days I studied his work, noticing how defined the muscles and tendons were, how contorted the fingers; so that session I gave more attention to the same.
· How would you describe your creative process?
Day-dreaming – being compelled to create in an explorative way, or to ‘capture’. More day-dreaming. A random spark of something seems to fall then ignites until my mind is burning with an idea. But sometimes an experimental thought will come: ‘why don’t I try such-and-such?’ or ‘what would happen if I did so-and-so? Having expressed myself through the written word for many years, I probably approach making a painting in a similar way to writing a poem, but am now resolved to explore ways to communicate through visual media. I have escaped the ‘mustn’t paint police’!
· What is your favourite medium to work in and why?
Oils – I like the way I can ‘push’ them around the surface, the way they remain pliable, sculptural, allowing me to play (although sometimes I feel impatient for them to harden). Also, if I make a muddy mess, I can scrape them off. They forgive and let me start again. I usually have two or three paintings on the go at a time, this gives me something to get on with while I wait for drying/hardening. I like the smell of oils and their texture is sensual. For sketches, I like to work with pastels on black paper – it gives a neon effect and keeps my marks minimal. Sometimes I live on a boat, so having a wet canvas in that confined space would be impractical. Then I use acrylics on canvas board or watercolour paper.
· How do you tackle a blank canvas?
It depends on the subject and my mood. Sometimes, I will plan carefully, draw, layout and underpaint main areas and shapes with a thinned medium. I leave it to dry, then return to build up detailed layers from dark to light, fat over thin. But another time, there will be no careful planning, just attack with a very basic sketch made with brush and unthinned paint. With a glass of wine in my other hand, singing to the music, I’ll use the palette-knife to work in one session, intensely, with marks coming more from my shoulder than wrist.
· What do you find the most challenging about the creative process?
I’m most challenged by self-belief. Sometimes I feel exhilarated by what I create, believing in my capability to paint and improve – another time I am filled with doubt, wondering if I have the ability to see anything I create objectively. Sometimes I’m full of confidence, sometimes fragile, and this can create a hiatus when I can’t paint at all for days.
· In which ways do you differentiate your work from that of other artists?
I’m self-taught – I do what I please, but sometimes I wish I had been to art school to learn the ‘trade secrets’. I think currently I’m on a steep growth and development climb, having inhibited the urge to paint for so long. A lot of my work this year shows technical ability, in my opinion, but I’m working towards more freedom and expression. My work is individual just as my voice or signature is individual – I enjoy looking carefully at the work of others, and find inspiration there constantly, but never to imitate, just assimilate and allow it to brew in my sub-conscious.
· What are your essential tools?
The right frame of mind is essential – ignoring other tasks and concentrating only on the project. I have a vintage wooden palette that I found at a boot-fair years ago. Aesthetically pleasing surroundings are essential. I keep my brushes in vintage pottery vases and jugs. I’m a little sentimental about my tools. I have a large wooden easel that I bought years ago, with good intent. But after one portrait, it stood folded in the spare room, unused for years. I have a natural fibre Chinese brush that I use to blend or smooth. I prefer synthetic brushes to coarse fibre for portraiture. If I’m given money for a gift, I go straight to the suppliers, which makes me feel like a child in a sweet shop. I want everything there! When I use the tools I’ve bought, I always think of the person who gifted me the money. I’m increasingly using the palette-knife for applying paint generously, also for sgraffito. I need music, because in silence I get distracted by ‘noises off’. Classic music is best, and it makes me smile, how, when a piece of music is faster or more dramatic, I paint faster, with more drama.
· How would you describe your studio/workspace?
My studio/workspace is my old writing study and is too small. I get frustrated sometimes, but on the other hand it forces me to tidy and not get too chaotic. ‘Organised chaos’ describes my surroundings well.
Over the past few years, in an historic public building, I painted numerous large murals for charity events like Halloween and Christmas. But now I paint for myself. The contrast between those huge spaces and surfaces to my little study is great. I dream of a large studio.
· Any tips for preparing a portfolio?
I did prepare a portfolio about 20 years ago, placing into it a variety of work – a large charcoal still life, an oil portrait, and my sketch books. I also put in a brochure of drawings I had made for christening robe designs. I think a portfolio needs to show proof of commitment. I was admitted into Canterbury University for their undergraduate course on the strength of the portfolio, but a divorce changed my circumstances so radically, I was unable to take up the offer.
· Do you have a favourite art tip that you can share with our readers?
When painting from my photography, if I am struggling with lines, I sometimes turn the canvas and picture from which I am working sideways or upside down. This stops me from making assumptions about the form and forces me to see shapes. I also take the canvas from the easel and hold it to a mirror. This can reveal an imbalance.
· Where can our readers find out more about you?
My website is http://www.carolinefox.com/category/paintings/
I also have a facebook page
Let me stay to see them ripen, said the plaintive voice too proud to speak.
Oh let me stay to see them sweeten and burst their purple syrup to stain my lips and fingertips.
But words must be eaten, for words to stop this storm’s momentum would be words of supplication.
No words will be spoken, and the berries ripen for other eyes and mouths to sweeten.
Trees cut a dark contrast – almost silhouettes that tremble and flicker, heavy with waiting and solitude and the certainty of an end. Their sap begins to drag a course. Soon they will drop their burden and sleep – and dream of regeneration – and wait again.
Mile on interminable canal mile – the boat’s engine drones northward.
It’s been three months. Three months of a six month voyage aboard Foxy Lady in France.
I love the moving, the possibility of each new destination, but more than destination, I simply love the moving – the whorls and bubbles in our wake – the surprise of a scene revealed by our advance.
But sometimes it leaves me weary, the moving. Sometimes I would like to stop, not knowing where I want to stop – not wishing for land – just longing to stop.
It’s been sixty years now. Sixty years in this vessel my body. My wake not so pretty, and I know I’ve passed the middle, and the name of the destination, which will still be surprising.
Between. Between house and boat. Between will and wish – between husband and wife. One rooted, one a wanderer. Between seasons, but feeling this – this is the way – the way of water – but knowing only the kindness of summer – not the cruelty of winter’s ice or torrent.
Choice. To have one’s selfish way? To have one’s way alone and know regret? Or not to choose and live always longing. Neither is a choice.
This middle is a tightrope slackening, and I teeter.
Beyond the tall reeds with chirruping warblers, are flat acreages. First the maize, bright green, waist high now but with ambition, drawing growth from deep below a split, baked surface. All this lush, vibrant life seems against the possible, it not having rained for weeks. Across the track, bordered by tissue-thin poppies – more acres. These are potatoes, with dark leaves, just beginning to bud pink flowers, and busy storing hidden energy in their cool tuber clusters.
Then the barley, an ocean of blonde paintbrush tops that bristle and bend with one accord. The grains are fat. I squeeze one between my teeth. It gives a sweet milk, and the air is drowsy with the scent of its coming harvest. Then there will be roaring monsters, great clouds of dust and disturbed grasshoppers. There will be threshed tons, pouring like thick liquid, ready for the tall silos and the barges to carry it far away for beer, for malt, for broth. There will be an aftermath of bruised straw fallen in regimental rows, its sap filling the mind like an ale-fueled muzz. But for the moment there is the ripening stillness – a blue sky, a thin line of purple horizon broken by a few rooftops, a few trees, and there is an emotion rising, an evaporation, making me spread my arms and spin until dizzy.
The relationship’s been difficult. Reportedly, my shoes weren’t upsized regularly enough when my feet were pre-school, so I developed two bent toes on each foot. I have long toes (and fingers). After the age of nine, a visit to the shoe shop was an occasion to dread, because my stepmother decided the best correction would be boys’ shoes. There was a ‘Start-rite’ poster on the shoe-shop door – a picture of a boy and girl holding hands and walking away up a path. It reminded me of my brother and myself, but also of Hansel and Gretel, or Austria (not that I knew anything about Austria – but I did know about Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm).
My husband has good feet – surprising for someone who played football, but they are white – so pale, except for a few blue threads of vein, visible where the skin is delicate near the ankle. In short, his feet never see the light. Except for bed, they are permanently covered. He is a fine example of that masculine fashion faux pas – socks with sandals. This saddens me, because I like bare, suntanned feet – they symbolise qualities I value and find attractive.
…And one of my girlfriends has perfect feet – smooth skin, straight toes and a faultless pedicure. When I first met her, her toenails were painted in a pale glossy caramel. She laughed when I later told her how I covertly admired them.
So, as a child, I would be fitted with boys’ lace-up square-toed leather shoes, in black, made by ‘Tuf’. I’d look over the displays of round-toed girls’ shoes with their shining buckles and patent leather – maybe an embroidered or punch-worked pattern. ‘Well, do they fit?’ my stepmother would demand. I’d merely regard my feet dismally – sullenly, and she’d have to summon the shop-assistant to press around my toes, then I’d be commanded to walk up and down to ensure the heels didn’t slip. I was made to wear boys’ long grey scratchy woollen socks, while all my schoolmates skipped around daintily in short white ‘bobby-socks’. To complete the look, my stepmother had my long hair cut short.
One evening when I was chopping old pallets for kindling (a regular on my list of after-school chores) I stood on a 3-inch nail. It went through my frayed slipper and my foot. I put all the weight onto my other foot, and a nail pierced that too.
After I ran away from home, I worked with horses. My feet were sixteen hours a day in rubber riding boots. After six months, I developed so many painful verrucas I couldn’t walk, and eventually had to be carried to the doctor’s to have them removed.
In the 70s, I began to wear the latest fashions in footwear. Back then, it was the platform, although when I first saw them, they reminded me of the special medical shoe I’d seen on a boy with a clubfoot at school. My Estonian grandmother needed a size 9 shoe. My feet reached size 7 (41 in international). Although that’s quite normal now, the largest size in a fashionable shoe then was 6, so I spent the next fifteen years crushing my feet like an Ugly Sister into the most outrageously high and, I thought, sexy, shoes I could find and afford. There was pain. And eventually there were bunions, leading to more pain – also embarrassment. On the beach, forced to be barefoot, I would wriggle my toes into the sand, hoping no-one would notice these (to me) terrible deformities.
Eventually I visited a specialist who prodded and poked, scribbled on a form, and told me I would be put on a waiting-list for an operation. I married, and my husband wouldn’t accept my hatred for my feet. He massaged and kissed them. I was astonished when the pre-natal doctor asked me the size of them. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that means you have a good pelvis for childbirth.’ Ten years had passed. I’d begun to wear more relaxed footwear. There was seldom pain. Then a letter arrived giving six days’ notice of the op. I’d forgotten all about the specialist and the waiting-list. I wasn’t sure if I still wanted the op.
I was admitted into hospital healthy and pain-free, but woke in agony with both feet in plaster. Recuperation was long, and when the casts were removed, my leathered soles came away too, leaving my feet newborn and tender, but with lurid scars. But more than that – I seemed to suffer a change in personality. The thought of returning to the marginally glamorous job I held in P.R. became a source of horror. So I gave up the work that provided us with a good Thatcherite lifestyle, and decided a more rustic way was for me – that, and at thirty-five, it was now or never for another child.
I wore men’s shoes to go window cleaning. I liked the simple immediacy of the work – you provide a service – you get paid. No backbiting or office politics. Ladder climbing had taken on a new meaning.
After the second baby, and by the time of my divorce, I’d begun to wear hippy clothes. They were long and flowing, ornate with fringes, jingles, mirrors and embroidery. And on my feet: nothing – nothing but nail-varnish and a silver chain. Once, when I was running across the road in sandals, all dressed up and ready for a summer wedding, I tripped. It dislocated my second toe, making it stick up vertically. I went to A&E and was given gas and air while the joint was relocated. It made me giggle. I still made it to the wedding.
Now? Shoes are a necessity for uneven, cold, or wet surfaces, but whenever I can, I kick them off. Now I’ve learned to accept these feet. They’ve carried me well, considering. Last year I met a Compostela pilgrim on his way, and felt drawn to the idea of that walking – not to a physical destination, but with the mantra of steady footsteps – to an inner knowledge. Maybe… one day. In the meantime, I just keep putting one in front of the other. The results expand my exterior and interior world. And the scars? They faded.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t fully appreciate a turquoise Aegean sea, or a white sand stretching forever, fringed with palm trees, (me emerging from the waves with a conch shell, like Ursula Andres) or exploring fascinating ancient South American cultures, but right now, right here, is perfection for me. There is so much green – green reflecting in green, and birdsong, and clean air – just the occasional creak of the mooring ropes. However, into every dream creeps a little pique, a little something to gall, and the ninth battalion, front offensive, Ants has decided to make an expedition up our mooring ropes and onto the deck. But there are wild strawberries flowering here, and sticky fir-cone flowers; and I’m glad I can appreciate them as much as seeing a couple roller-skating hand in hand on the canal path, or window-shopping in the most exclusive Parisian districts – or wondering about the bundled-up tramp in the Basilica porchway at Epinal.
The sun is giving me freckles – alluding to the fire that once was in my hair – now icy white. But my freckles still tell of fire.
Epinal, May, 2014. In the old town square, Chapitre district, lunchers sit at pavement cafes, salads and soups, with fizzing drink and conversation – exchanging confessions of no account. Nearby, the Palais de Justice, (its task, imposing rules for fools) gives penance and penalties, and has on its steps, a group of youths. One turns his head and spits. Across the way, the Basilica St-Maurice has worn stone walls that heard many a misdemeanour, and has for ten centuries – imagine that. Stained glass and incense – the weight of forgiveness.
May, and after the exuberance of blossom, comes the gradual swelling of fruit. Some flowers fail, and wither to brown, but most begin to flesh around the pip – hard and sour at first, but with the sun and rain, nearing sweet maturity. Then the mistle-thrush becomes impatient, and it must have a share, but I will wait – my Kilner jars sparkling and ready. June, still full of possibility for the long days ahead, will be captured and kept for winter evenings, glowing red, like the embers of summer’s memory.
Now the clouds become a spill of Stephens school ink – blue black on a Basildon Bond grey blue. It seeps across, blotting – yes, blotting whatever the sun was trying to inscribe or maybe paint – light, vivid, in carefree hues.
Then a breeze, tipping to reveal the white undersides of poplar leaves. I splay my fingers and comb through the feather tops of long grass. The knock-knock of a woodpecker is answered by its echo, then all, apart from the low bumble-buzz of a bee, drops back to a stillness.
At the water’s edge they dance their courtship – up and down – around. When one comes to rest on a swaying reed, I look closely at its delicate black wings. They remind me of my stocking tops – the ones I thought would win in our dance of courtship – suspenders and suspense – the tease and slow removal; until all that remained was removal – yours. Turned out there was more to love, than lingerie and fireside sex.
How did you learn to make your web, arachnid dear, with your delicate thread? Those in Chantilly play bobbins for years, are taught to weave lace with patience and tears. No instruction book, no word of mouth, yet you twine away with mathematical stealth. How does the knowledge pass down between, when there is no school for eight-legged-eyed things? And how did you know it was the way to a meal – the result of your art would provide you with fuel? You wrap them so neatly and pack them away, save them for rain-times when flies cannot play. It’s difficult to say ‘no grand design’ when I watch you craft your work so fine.