I rise


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The American Flag, Alcatraz, 2016

 

I say this to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

Martin Luther King


Today, on this historic day; a day which will surely be taught in future history lessons as a day when a nation lost faith in herself following the UK’s own crushing despair but a few short months before her; a day when wounds which were yet fresh and tender were ripped open anew, when hearts which were trying to heal were once more broken to find that once again, fear and hatred had won out over hope, and love. Today, on this average day in the school calendar of an average-sized middle school in England, in a poetry lesson with a class of year 7 students, a poem was read, and this poem was called ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou.

I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even given the lesson much thought, so wrapped up was I in the immediacy of my routine concerns. Yet, as we talked about the historical context: the civil rights movement in the 1960s, about Martin Luther King and about other issues of race and prejudice, I realised how significant it was that we were reading this poem, on this day. I wondered how Martin Luther King would feel if he could see what has become of his legacy; fifty years later and we are really no closer to finding the equality he dreamed of. I thought about how Maya Angelou would have felt today. Devastated, no doubt. If the children had questions about Trump and the future, they didn’t ask me. They listened and instinctively felt the power and importance of Angelou’s message. After all, it is more important today than ever. We watched this song version and they joined in as they worked, singing along. It was a positive mood, uplifting and life-affirming as this poem is.

My year 8 class, on the other hand, was more vocal. We are reading ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we came across the word ‘indignant’: “Many people are ‘indignant’, I said, about the results of the US election”. They were angry. They are angry because they know, instinctively, that it is morally wrong. Yes our young people are angry. Young people who are on the verge of adulthood. Young people who have questions, which demand our attention. It is my job – our job – not to answer their questions, because sadly, there are not always answers: whilst I can tell them what indignant means, or how to find imagery in a poem, I cannot alleviate their fears for the future. No. It is our job to listen and to encourage them to question. I will teach them about history so there is a chance they will not repeat our mistakes; I will teach them that words can have the power to unite, and inspire passion, or to divide and inspire hatred, but the most important thing I can teach them, is to ask questions. Because it is people like Angelou and Martin Luther King; people who dared to ask questions, who gave hope to those who were oppressed and did not have a voice, whose words were not heard. It is people who ask questions of those in power who themselves have the power to make people stop and think that maybe there is another way. It is people who ask questions and keep on asking them with dogged persistence and do not give up, who give us hope.

Today was a good day. Today I felt humble and at the same time as though my job was the most important job in the world. When I looked around at the eager, determined, inquisitive faces of the twelve and thirteen year olds before me, I felt proud. I felt a well-spring of hope rising up inside me.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978
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A Californian Poppy, 2016
© images and words (apart from the poem) by Emily Hughes, 2016
(Written yesterday)
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moonshine

12

Brazen world
overcast with sorrow;
a concrete sky
slinks into a frothy slick
of ashen wilderness
and the moonshines,
quietly.

© image and words by Emily Hughes, 2016

the dreamer

interrupted by a daydream

‘interrupted by a daydream’, 2014

The Dreamer

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Dreams: as vivid in my eyes as orchids.

Like them brilliant and opulent,

like them drawing through the giant stem

of living sap the juices of their strength,

like them flaunting an absorbed life-blood,

revelling in the fleetness of the minute,

then, in the next, pallid as the dead.

And when, softly, worlds pass overhead,

do you not feel their winds, flower-scented?

Dreams: as vivid in my eyes as orchids.

Yep, still here, still daydreaming …

This is the latest image in my in defense of daydreaming series, which is taking me in interesting directions. You can read more about it and find all the images in my artfinder shop.

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

serious play

The work you do as an artist is really play, but in the most serious sense […] Like when a two year old discovers how to make a tower out of blocks. It is no half-hearted thing. You are materialising – taking something from the inside and putting it out into the world so you can be relieved of it.

Quote by Leslie Dick, from Seven days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton

 

Haiku of grass and sky2

 Haiku of grass and sky, 2014

 

As I try to move forward with my practice, I find myself reflecting more and more on what it is I am doing, and to what purpose. I read the book Seven days in the Art World last year (kindly sent to me as a gift by a fellow blogger). In an attempt to unravel the elusive workings of the art world, Thornton tries to engage various academics with the question: “What is an artist?”, to which she receives a range of answers, mostly disparaging and dismissive, as she records, presumably because many found the question naive, distasteful or even irrelevant. An obvious question it may be, but it is a pertinent one, and one to which it seems to me someone involved in any way in the discourse of art and art practice, whether as scholar, producer, seller or critic, should have an intelligent sounding answer.

The writer Leslie Dick, however, does have an answer, and one which is somehow obvious and clever and thoughtful and disarmingly simple all at the same time. I have a terrible memory for quotes (and most things), so when I do remember things other people have said, or written, it usually means that it was something which resonated deeply with me and was apposite to me or my situation. Indeed, I was, at the time, spending a lot of time pondering this creative impetus and the overwhelming necessity which I was feeling to express it.

I was asking myself a lot of questions, and the internal monologue went something like this: Is this normal, to feel the need for space to just ‘be creative’? If so, why don’t other people around me get that? Is it selfish to want time away from my friends and family to satisfy this craving? Why do I find it awkward to talk about? What is it I am trying to achieve, though? Is it art? Is it a hobby? Or is it something else entirely? How do I know? How do I find out? Does it really matter?

So you see, when I read these words, they just seemed to slot so perfectly into my thinking, like missing pieces of a jigsaw which had previously brought nothing but sheer confusion and frustration – it suddenly all transposed neatly together to make a perfectly whole picture of where I was at. Which made perfect sense. Because here is the ‘guilty’ stuff which was also going through my brain:

1 – I am being indulgent (there are so many other useful things I could be doing – like the ironing, or sorting the cupboards, or baking nice treats for the family, or volunteering my time for a charity… I could be so much more organised! And charitable!)

2 – I am wasting my time (just playing around – who cares about my pictures and my confused ramblings anyhow? Why bother?)

3 – I just need to do this.

And with that efficiently eloquent turn of phrase I was able to, if not exactly answer my questions, place them, settle them, and realise that the questioning in itself was a perfectly normal, even essential part of the process. Because it does feel like being a toddler at play, in the sense that you are gifting yourself the luxury of time (and we all know how precious that is) and sometimes money also, to play. It does feel indulgent. But no-one would ever dream of accusing a toddler of wasting her time building a tower of blocks, because we also all know that play is an essential part of a toddler’s development. What is one day a tower may the next day become a bridge, then a castle, and then, when the necessary motor skills are in place, only the child’s imagination and opportunity to practice is its limit. And her mother’s (or father’s) little squeals of joy and rain showers of kisses are all the feedback and encouragement that child needs to know that she is on the right track and should continue in her modest endeavours, which will eventually become greater ones.

It’s a bit more complicated as an adult. We tend to seek recognition from a wider audience for one thing, and that toddler’s world is yet reassuringly simple and primitive, in the sense that the meeting of basic human needs and impulses are of primary concern over social ones. We cannot always seek to satisfy our desires so freely. But why do we as a society tend to advocate that play should be ring-fenced for childhood?  Adults need play too, and they need it in the most serious and fundamental sense. Just like the toddler, they need time and space to explore and experiment; to practice and develop ideas and processes; to put them ‘out there’ so that they may then have the opportunity to evolve into achievements for which they can be recognised and of which they can be proud, however small or big they may be.  Inside every adult is a little toddler desperate for a high five or thumbs up for good effort, or even a small squeal of joy.

Soon after I wrote the first draft of this post, I went away to a music festival with (husband) Alex for the weekend. We try to get away and do this every year, just the two of us and our tent, to indulge our shared love of music and escape (just for a while) from the trappings of a terribly bourgeois existence. There was a young unsigned American band who were all over the festival and generally working really hard, but having a great time. We saw them play a couple of times, and on one occasion the lead singer introduced a song called “Innocent” saying that as people get older they often feel the need to get all serious and tortured about creativity, but that really, well, it should just be about having a whole lot of fun. Yup. And that “fuck it, let’s just have fun” vibe of a festival is just generally the best kind of atmosphere to spawn creativity. Even tonight, I start to reprimand my children for blowing bubbles in their milk and making a mess all over the tablecloth, but whilst launching into the familiar rhythm of weary chastisement, I suddenly stop and check myself. Because I realised they knew. They were already getting the cloth to clear up the mess they had made (even if they made a terrible job of it). Play is good. Play is experimenting. Play is learning. But like anything good, it must have its limits, and as adults and educators, that is our job, in our wisdom and experience, to gently and sensitively educate our children in the seriousness of play, and thus instil a sense of individual responsibility for any mess they may make in the process. And maybe next time they will know exactly how hard they need to blow to get maximum bubble fun without spilling the milk over the edge of the cup (here’s hoping at least).

Answers to my questions? I haven’t really found them. What I have found, I think, is some reassurance that what I experience when I need to ‘create’ is derived from a most basic and natural human instinct. Whilst other people may feel the need to pigeon-hole my outward self as one thing or another and may find this confusing, really it is OK for me to be ‘just me’ on the inside and to continue to play with serious focus, energy and passion and a self-reflexive approach in order to push my practice forwards. All the rest is just a fine balancing act (and that, of course, is a little more complicated).

 

This image is part of a new investigation into photography and poetic expression, in which I am exploring the relationship between photograph as both surface-object and subject-referent. I don’t really know if it’s art, or if it’s any good, but I’m definitely having lots of fun playing.

 

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

 

In defense of daydreaming

We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is nothing but an expression of poetry that was lost.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

 

in defense of daydreaming1

 shelter me from the storm

In defense of daydreaming2

lose me in the mists of time

Who gives a truer account of history? The poet, or the historian?

Thank you to Chris Bronsk and his excellent post repercussions for reminding me about and bringing me back to Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which I have always read and savoured as an unreserved celebration of the pure joy of intimate poetic expression. The power of the poetic image is something which transcends history, time and even language. It is able to speak directly to our consciousness without the need for translation or interpretation. Through poetry, we can connect with our past, and with our imagination. Bachelard believed that “for a simple poetic image there is no project; a flicker of the soul is all that is needed.”

I have always been a fierce defender of daydreaming, and make time for it every day. I believe it is more than ‘escapism’; daydreaming makes us more open to the possibility of poetry – both receiving it and expressing it. It gives us the opportunity to indulge our dreams, create and practice the possibility of alternative realities; to reflect, be brave and honest with ourselves, and speak directly to our weary souls which are generally neglected, bruised and battered by the necessary drudgery of the day-to-day. Indeed, Bachelard has also been linked with the surrealist project which advocated the practice of (day)dreaming, or dislocation from reality, as a deliberate political act. Ultimately though, daydreaming (the ‘irrational’ primitive realm of dreams, poetry and imagination) provides us with a counterpoint to rational thought, and can actually help us to live happier, more fulfilled lives.

Let us then safeguard reverie, as our rich inner lives provide a vital antidote to reality, and I hope that today you are able to carve out a little chink in your busy schedule for daydreaming.

 

 

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

her mama sang

her mama sang

she waited whilst her mama sang
songs to strangers
for sweet blow-kisses
only to her

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

My grandfather’s faces

It’s been a while since I posted any pictures from my grandfather’s house. Here are some from last August I have only just gotten around to sorting through. My grandfather is a man who has loved and treasured beautiful things all of his life. He is a collector, and he has been fortunate to have the means to surround himself with beauty. When we are young we try so hard to distance ourselves from our roots; to assert our independence and turn our faces outwards, fiercely, towards the future we want so badly to carve out for ourselves. But as we get older we realise that the past has so much more to teach us, and looking back is not to be dismissed as shameful, or wallowing in nostalgia. After all, how can we really know ourselves without understanding where we come from?

I have always loved things. Trinkets, treasures, knick knacks. When I was small I made collections of marbles and rubbers and dolls – all sorts. I would line them up and categorise them obsessively. I began to understand, as I grew up, that I lived in a family that valued things. I didn’t appreciate that for a long while, but when I began to emerge from the secluded oyster of my world I saw that it was not so in every household, and now I find it is important for me to make my home a place where things are allowed exist, and not obsessively tidied away. I enjoy the gentle chaos of a home life which I grew up with, where there is comfort in the incongruity of mismatched objects, each of which holds meaning for us as a family in some way, and which live happily, haphazardly, side by side.

Many peculiar faces haunt my grandfather’s world. I’m sure he barely notices them now, but when I go there the wonder of a child froths up inside me as if I am seeing these things for the first time. And as time ticks on slowly, inevitably, they seem to want to tell his story more urgently to me.

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night:
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls ensilvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard:
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Shakespeare, sonnet number 12

clock face

Cat

Cherub boy

horse head

Chinese lady

Broken statue

Winged archer_edited-1

Ivory girl

Grandpa2

You can find out more about my grandfather’s house in previous posts on my blog here and here, and here.

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

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