Monday, 6 February 2012

Early Memories of an Artist-to-be

Excerpts from Chapter Two: 
Early memories (1938-44) of an artist-to-be.

I’m a seven-year-old English country boy and I can’t find any drawing paper. No wonder - the Second World War is going on and the production of drawing paper doesn’t really have priority.  My family can’t afford it anyway. But we have books! I’m discovering wonderfully blank pages inside the front and back covers. So when nobody is looking, I’m quietly filling these with little line drawings, mainly from imagination - tiny men constructing bridges over deep canyons and solving engineering problems. Actually, solving problems and creating ways to reach the seemingly impossible will play a major part in my life, for the next seventy years or so.
Outside our little Worcestershire bungalow in 1942, in our Sunday best, ready for a trip to church in the city. I’m on the far right.

In 1938, anticipating the Second World-War, my grandfather initiated a family exodus from my birthplace Birmingham. He and my father had good jobs at the Austin car factory, but they were conscientious objectors to all things military and had no desire to build tanks or armaments. So the Perrymans moved to the tiny Worcestershire hamlet of Ockeridge. My father took work that was also of national importance, as an agricultural labourer, tolerant of the insults that were often hurled at conscientious objectors and determined to make do with a lower wage. So I had the good fortune to grow up far from the horrors of the bombing-raids on the big industrial cities. But if we looked east, we could see the night skies reddened unnaturally from the fire-bombing of Birmingham, thirty miles away.
Food was rationed, but we soon became self-supporting in fruit, vegetables, meat, goat’s milk, bread and eggs.  I learned how to use the colours of beets, onions, blackcurrants or spinach to paint or to decorate eggs. Our little bungalow, set in the middle of enormous woodlands, had no running water or electricity, The nearest water supply was in a field fifty yards up the road, but as the tap was often frozen in the winter, we made frequent use of rainwater.  We all had to work hard at tending the garden, feeding the pig, goats, rabbits, ducks and chickens and collecting firewood from the surrounding woods. It sounds like fun, but country life in those days was tough. We walked four miles to school every day and later we cycled everywhere.
Although my parents struggled to make ends meet, my memories of that country home are not of hardship but rather of happiness: the smell of fresh bread and cake, baked with the wood fire in our cast-iron stove; the taste of fresh goat’s milk; the frosted-up windows early in the cold winter mornings we had in those days; the sound of the piano on which my father played transcriptions of the popular classics.  We would sometimes gather round to join in folksongs and hymns or attempt fragments of Handel’s Messiah. Part of my mother’s Welsh heritage was her beautiful voice. The Welsh are born singing and Mom would sing as she worked at her Singer (no pun intended!) treadle sewing machine, making gentlemen’s suits to order in the light of a dim paraffin lamp. She also made all our clothes.
My mother’s Singer sewing machine, an essential feature of the living room, sketched when I was sixteen.

Mom’s clients – a fashion show in the woods. I’m the shy boy on the left.
I’m sure that Mom sang her babies to sleep, but the lullabies that I remember came from the piano.  Some of my fondest memories are of falling asleep at night with my father playing one of Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Schumann’s Traümerei, or other soothing melodies.  This was truly home.  No wonder music touches me at a deep emotional level.  Since childhood, my home is music – a place where my inner child can find solace, pleasure and inspiration for my wildest dreams.
Pop-music, jazz, theatre and dance were thought to be too “worldly” in our Bible-reading family.  I didn’t even hear any live classical concerts until I was a teenage student. Our crackling radio could barely transmit the wartime news and the now famous King’s Speech.  Watching that film recently, emotional memories came flooding back of huddling round the radio.

We children led a very sheltered life, socially and culturally, but we all learned to play the piano.  Music was in the family genes and my father played the organ at church.  My grandmother and several uncles and cousins were also quite musical, some at a professional level.  An old upright piano stood in the living room and I imagine I wanted to play it because my father did.  He must have given us some lessons, but the only memory that remains is the promise of sixpence when I could play Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” without a mistake.  I think this achievement gave me more commercial than musical satisfaction! I must have been about ten.

I was a dreamer, a budding romantic, dawdling and playing in the grasses and hedgerows of country gravel roads on the daily walks to and from school, lying on my back in the gently swaying branches of the big oak tree in the woodlands that surrounded our house and listening to the sounds of nature.  The distant drone of a plane would immediately prompt the question: was it ours, or a German Heinkel bomber?  I would dream of other places, distant lands that then seemed to be outside the scope of possibility for a very shy country boy with parents of limited means. I was fascinated with the German and Italian prisoners of war, set to work on nearby farms.  They would chat with us in heavily accented English and give us presents of the little wooden toys they had carved. An exotic world was out there somewhere. Little could I imagine that I would later travel world-wide to teach, exhibit and perform and that today my best friends are Dutch, American, Chinese, Swiss, French, Korean, Austrian, not to mention English!

Here’s my first example of my kinetic painting, live to the music. Exceptionally, this one has no brushwork. It’s just an introduction the beauty of flowing colour. 
A meditation inspired by the first 10 minutes of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).  Slow down! Only after the first two minutes will you start to hear the music, so turn up the volume!


Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 3 – Country Boy Moves to the City.


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