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Seeing the Stars through the Clouds.

Written by Matthew Tate for Tales Magazine’s Issue Three – Tales of the Airborne.

The symbolism in Garth Nix’s books really interested me as a young reader. The Keys to the Kingdom series were the some of the first examples of my discoveries in allegories in literature. The way Garth Nix builds each of his worlds alongside his characters invited my imagination so much that they have stuck in my head ever since I read them.

Saturday and Sunday have their own interesting antagonistic relationship. Saturday herself represents the deadly sin of envy, and Sunday represents pride. Saturday in her envy sits atop an enormous tower building it higher and higher to usurp Sunday, a position which she believes is rightfully hers. Sunday on the other hand owns a huge zoological garden at the centre of the universe above Saturday giving her tantalising glimpses and exciting her envy further. Both of these places are allegories of the Tower of Babel, and the Garden of Eden respectively. As an artist and designer I wanted to visually communicate those allegories to the character designs as well.

Both of the characters in some way have a slight inspiration of birds, Superior Saturday based on crows, and Lord Sunday is designed around peacocks. With this avian theme I designed them both to look as though they were flying, which itself is a love letter to the chiaroscuro woodcuts of Hendrick Goltzius.

Superior Saturday is designed around imagery of rain, clouds, wind and birds. Saturday’s tower is in perpetual rain, so her colours and patterns are overcast and bleak. Her hair though was one part of her that I personally enjoyed designing, as I was thinking about other stories with towers such as Rapunzel. I liked the idea of Saturday leaving her hair as an indicator for how long she has waited for her tower to be built up.


Superior Saturday

When it came to designing Lord Sunday, two things influenced my direction. Firstly I studied the work of Heironymous Bosch for colour palettes and the overall concept. Secondly I asked myself the question of what is physically higher than clouds; answer – stars, and in a pattern stars and flowers look quite similar, so it stuck with me. My favourite part of Sunday’s design was his jacket. This was an opportunity to show the garden itself. Like a hive each hexagon is a representation of each exhibit in the Incomparable Gardens, and continuing with the theme of stars each section has a constellation to represent a species of animal.


Lord Sunday

As I mentioned before these books were some of my first interactions with allegory. But the real main driving force to explore these stories again was the need to return back to basics with my practice. But If I am completely honest for a time I have been struggling to rekindle some sort of enthusiasm with my artwork since graduating from university.

To explain this firstly I think you should know a bit of context about my history as an artist. I work as an illustrator, printmaker, photographer, and part time teacher and writer. I am currently about to start my second year as resident artist at King Edwards boarding school. I have always had dreams of studying at the Royal College of Art. I applied but to cut a long story short, unfortunately I wasn’t accepted. Which started a spiral of creative blockage and doubt.

If I could describe my creative landscape at the time it was these dark thunderheads clouding the sky above my eyes, blotting out the stars.

I found even starting any print to be pointless and even engaging with my artwork on any level to be tiring. Personally what troubled me was that I was in a position to be inspiring students and individuals to create work, and yet I felt paralysed myself in even doing a simple sketch. But in doing my residency, I found the answers I needed by answering other peoples questions.

First question I get asked a lot is about being able to experiment in different mediums or styles of work. I find usually students that I work with wish to define themselves, box themselves in. Which is natural especially for people who are trying to apply to study art at university, where a course title can sometimes sound like a flaming hot brand.

For example; if I choose to study Graphic Design then I won’t be able to study film. This I have noticed can even plague artists when they are curating their work for their final show. If I show this piece of art, will I only receive more work based around this?

How I answered this was in my own art. For example I have been exploring printmaking for a year now, and have studied many techniques of each process. When it came to describing myself to people, I would say that I am a printmaker. But recently I grew frustrated with printmaking, and my love and patience quickly dropped. I remembered though that like these students I had asked myself; “if I study illustration will I be able to explore printmaking?” Yes art allows exploration. I realised that printmaking, is one facet of the many sided decahedron of my art and personality.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. Albert Einstein

As artists we need to drop these ‘definitions’ that we cling to, and instead seek to find options. Options to me sound more mysterious and exciting, and less restrictive than definitions. I still say to people I am a printmaker, but printmaking isn’t the primary direction of my practice. Printmaking to me is the boat that gets me across the sea, not the island that I am sailing to. We need to think less about what we can’t do because  of the need to specialise or need to fit into one area, and consider the options and skills that you have now that you could bring when experimenting with new art.

Second question; Art isn’t an economically viable career, therefore I need to choose a ‘safe’ art. This one bothers me quite a bit as it actually is a deceptive, veiled form of self doubt. Especially from talented artists this is a real problem. By making excuses about financial environments we are telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough to be successful. I myself am constantly having fears about dropping art and picking up a more financially beneficial career.

During my period of creative doubt I contacted Kate Malone after attending one of her lectures in London. I asked her questions about starting a successful career, and maintaining some sort of motivation.

I needed money to live so motivation, was and is still present. But my deep motivation is to create new things not money, but it is needed to move forward. Kate Malone

I think it is all too tempting to become distracted by the financial when exploring an artistic life. A joke my friends and I had at university was to omit the ‘work’ in artwork, when asking how we were doing with our assessments. I think this is fundamental when making art.

Its funny that we live in a contemporary landscape in which geeks can scream whilst playing video games in their bedrooms and record themselves on a camera (in their pyjamas sometimes), and can make millions. Yet with that in mind for some people making money off a skill like art seems impossible. I on the other hand think it is entirely possible to be somewhat financially successful with art. I tell these students that only by being motivated by the art that you want to make, will the money you make alongside your art feel rewarding.

The third question that I am asked which was integral to my own creative renaissance, is similar to the first and second questions, but quite raw to me.

‘I don’t think I am good enough to go to this university/ job/ artistic life.’

To discuss this after my own recent rejection was difficult, but I have noticed that artists place importance and value in other things and not our art. I see artists focusing too much on the grade, the first class degree, the promotion, the money that will quantify our artistic successes, but in the spirit of making new art now I don’t think it matters. I realise after working with students and friends and colleagues that what I value in them is their creativity, and not their career prospects, and I should do the same for myself.

For me now, the importance isn’t necessarily the masters degree – it should be that I want to study art further. By being paralysed I wasn’t focusing on my art. Julia Cameron says that it is far more difficult to be uncreative than creative. I had forgotten that the clouds drift and the ground may move beneath my feet. But the stars above my head stay the same.

Ultimately in the end, I think of the final lines of Dante’s Inferno, in which Dante descends into the earth through each circle of hell. He must then physically climb over the devil’s back until he can finally see the stars again. I think artists have to do the same before we can make great work again.

By that hidden way

My guide and I did enter, to return

To the fair world: and heedless of repose

We climb’d, he first, I following his steps,

Till on our view the beautiful lights of Heaven

Dawn’d through a circular opening in the cave:

Thence issuing we again beheld the stars.


Dante’s Inferno, The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

Read the original article with Tales Magazine here;

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