In June 1936, Salvador Dali appeared on stage in London at the International Surrealist Exhibition. He wore a deep-sea diving helmet, and held a billiard cue in one hand. In his other hand was a leash. This had a pair of Afghan hounds attached to it. Speaking in Catalan, he launched into a lecture about a philosophy student who survived for a month by eating his way through a mirror-fronted wardrobe. Unfortunately, a few minutes into the address some of his audience noticed that he was turning puce and slowly suffocating. A poet was dispatched to find a spanner but in the meantime a quick-thinking member of the audience managed to prise open the window of his helmet. He took a few deep breaths and then carried on with his lecture. It was reported that some of the slides were upside down, but whether this was because of discomfiture or surrealist contrariness, history does not recount. It does record, though, that the audience loved what they saw and thought that it was all a well-rehearsed act.
I want to produce a piece of art. Not performance art. What I want is something tangible. Call me mundane but I want something I can frame and hang on the wall. The problem is that I can’t draw. Or perhaps the problem is that I believe I can’t draw. That’s the message I got from my parents and teachers from when I was small. But despite this I loved messing about with my little tin paintbox with the thin dimpled lid. The names of the colours were mystifying but also exotic and fascinating. Crimson lake…burnt sienna… ultramarine…I want to play with these again and to challenge my view of myself as a non-artist.
The good news is that according to research carried out by psychologists at University College, London, then anyone can learn to draw. But most people don’t practise enough. Like me, they’re put off by being told that their early attempts don’t look anything like they’re ‘supposed to’. It’s true that some lucky people are blessed with a better visual memory than others. This makes it easier to remember the relationship between lines and angles and to transfer them to the page, authentically. The research also says that it’s important to be able to ignore the surroundings and to focus on the detail.
Each of my sixty treats has had its moment and recently I’ve been pondering how I’m going to make this art one come to life. Then, just as happened with my crossword treat, I realise that I’ve found what I need. A friend who can help me, and who in spending time with me will turn it from an activity into a true treat. Claire.
Not only does Claire paint portraits and still lifes, but she’s also an experienced art teacher. And luckily for me, she’s got a special interest in helping people who don’t think they can draw or paint. She gets them to think of vivid childhood memories and when they try to capture them on paper, they forget their inhibitions. I ask if she could help me to do my project and am thrilled when she agrees. We’ve fixed a date in August when I’m going to go and stay for a couple of days. In the meantime she’s given me a smart hardback notebook and instructions to think about childhood memories and to gather relevant images but not to start drawing anything yet. So I’m immersed at the moment in recollections of my childhood where the river met the sea in Devon. Of slipping about on the seaweedy steps that led from the embankment to the water where I’d catch tiddlers in my stiff little nylon fishing net. Of the smuts and sulphurous coal smoke as the steam train puffed by full of lobster-red tourists. And of the ferry that crossed the river with a cormorant sitting motionless on the prow. So much is coming back to me that I haven’t thought of for years…