The Fourth Island

This is another experiment in improvisation, and something that I’d like to do more of, even to the extent of creating an entire book of stories like this.

I met the artist Conrad Clarke a couple of months ago, while he was setting up an exhibition in Cheltenham, where I was working at the time, and taking a lunchtime stroll. We got talking about his paintings, and a little about my comics work. Afterwards, I realised how much his non-narrative paintings were suggesting narratives to me, and I decided that I’d like to try exploring the way that paintings and other static/non-narrative art suggests stories. I’ve done some similar things a couple of years back, using famous, dead/out-of-copyright artists. The key to success then, and now, I think, is not to tell the obvious story.

Anyway, here’s a first draft of a comic based on Conrad’s work, also using footage from my Improv sessions at LICAF 2015. Followed by my explanation, by email, of what I was trying to do. (In my books, I tend to add prefaces to the strips, I think the story behind the story can often help.)

“I wanted to talk about whether one treats one’s life as an adventure, something to be experienced, or as a “product” to be consumed, something that can be neatly put in a box and put aside while one switches off.  There are two different poems that I think influenced this. One is by the Persian poet/mystic Rumi, in which he talks about “spiritual window shoppers” who pass through their lives without engaging in them. The other was by James Hillman, I think, in which he describes three layers of emotional engagement with life: the superficial “have a nice day” sort of level, the “negative” emotions of rage, hatred, despair, self-loathing etc., and the deep peace and sense of connectedness. His assertion is that to really reach the third layer, you have to go through the second layer first, and make contact with, and own, your negativity.

I’ve transposed his three layers into three “islands” here, because your paintings are predominantly landscapes, and I want to explore the emotional responses that I had to your paintings, to the places where they took me, I suppose. So the first double page consists largely of happy/relaxing stuff, contrasting with the tangled, organic jungle (with that beetroot red shot through it!) on the second “island’. The third one is still and peaceful, but it’s frozen, because he hasn’t taken his time to properly experience the second one, brushing off the suggestion to assert himself, and dismissing it with a “two star” rating. So all he brings to the third island is the anger that he’s not expressed properly on the second. He hasn’t really left the starting point, he hasn’t lived (I chose the notion of him writing a TripAdvisor-style review as a way of demonstrating that non-engagement – he thinks he’s just here on holiday, at first)
So the final double spread considers the possibility of a fourth layer, but concludes that it’s just a cycling back round to the first one. I’ve reversed the layout here – the landscapes are now in little boxes, and he’s taking up the big space at the top (not sure why I decided to draw him more loosely than the tight cross-hatching of the first three sets of pages, but it felt right). He’s made a superficial and narrow evaluation of what life has to offer, isn’t really that interested, and just pigeonholes it. (The choice of your pictures for that final double page is still up for grabs. I added the fire watchtower because I liked it, and wanted to put some words with it, that I then dropped in order to simplify that last section.)
That’s my reading of it, anyway. Like all good poetry, there ought to be some ambiguity, and other meanings that other readers can draw out.


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