Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

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By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

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Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

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A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

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Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

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Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

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The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!

Four Fabulous Women

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I think of my fab four for International Women’s Day. I trawl the internet for suitable images. My intention is to write a brief glowing paragraph on each. I look at my chosen images. I reflect on the awful truth: Malala, shot by men.

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Simona, abused by a man.

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Marilyn, adored by men – and maybe adored to an early death. Her dignity abused after death.

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Ellen, imprisoned by men. Went on to become the first female leader of an African country.

I’m not feeling great about the collective Y chromosome thing. I extend my search. I reflect on the extent to which the lives of famous women been adversely affected or even determined by violent men or men with power or authority? (And then why should I focus only on famous women??) I go to Google, type in “famous women” and then hit “Images.” Google’s powerful algorithms make the case. Spot the odd one out!

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Perhaps 7th March should be the International Day for Men to Reflect on International Women’s Day?

Cosplay at the 2017 Geneva Gaming Convention

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I’ve been looking forward to the Geneva Gaming Convention for a very long time. In happy anticipation, I drive down to Palexpo. I’m in heaven. Surrounded by hundreds of gamers, all there to celebrate their love for games. I particularly enjoy the retro corner. I grew up with many of these games. GoldenEye! Street Fighter! But, my favourite thing this year? Cosplayers!

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In case you missed it: Cosplay (costume play) is a rapidly growing hobby-verging-on-culture in which the participants dress as specific characters from films, games, cartoons or books.

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Cosplay has multiple long roots that can be traced to the carnival dress of the 15th century, the costume balls of the 19th century and the “fancy dress parties” that were in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The first big leap was when attendees at 1930s science fiction conventions increasingly turned up in a pertinent costume. As a hobby unrelated to a specific event, it began to boom in 1980s Japan. No surprise there!

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Now, cosplay is much more than a costume ball writ large. It is globally connected being fuelled by social media, dedicated websites and specialised conventions. A hijab wearing Captain America even made the BBC news!

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There are cosplay competitions too. Cosplayers are judged on: resemblance to the original character in terms of appearance; quality and details of the costume and props; character portrayal and performance; stage presence and connection with the audience.

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An undercurrent of cosplay is based on sex appeal – by choosing a particularly alluring character – and changing gender (crossplayers!) This, unsurprisingly in today’s non-fantasy, pc world has precipitated fierce debate about what is and what is not appropriate.

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I’m a role-playing, hack-n-slash kinda guy, but I’ve never quite had the nerve to dress up as a character from a film, game or cartoon. I’ve always admired those that did. They really throw themselves into it.

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What is it about dressing up as a fantasy personage? I admit, it kind of appeals. Maybe next time. Maybe in a Vault 13 jumpsuit. Yea!

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Revisiting David Stacey’s Natural World

Scientific latin flows easily as painter David Stacey and I talk about frogs in his gallery-studio in Kuranda, Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

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Turning from the subject of Litoria xanthomera breeding in chlorinated swimming pools we move to view his painting of Litoria rothii. This fabulous rendering of a Northern Laughing Tree Frog clinging to a lichen covered tree with its sucker-like toe pads is simply exquisite. The identification points and character, or ‘jiz’, of this species, one that I know well and have painted myself, is captured to perfection. The fine, warty detail, camouflaging patterns and striking yellow and black ‘flash markings’ are, to me, deliciously amphibian. I want to touch it. I notice other frogs in the original works, reproductions and greetings cards around me. They all have the same effect on me.

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Orange-thighed Tree Frog – Litoria xanthomera

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Northern Laughing Tree Frog – Litoria rothii

I have written about David Stacey before. His work reveals a man deeply connected to his subjects; namely, the environments, ecologies and species of the world’s most ancient rainforests which are found only in this part of Australia. This connection seems to lead naturally, in his words, towards ‘obsession’. The sheer volume of his output since our last meeting does indeed testify to an obsession.

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Pandanus fruit segments, beetles and other matter

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Gmelina fasciculiflora

David is generous with his time. We talked about technique and style, composition and reference material. His style is unique; a ‘Stacey’ would be recognised anywhere. His latest major exhibition, featuring 70 paintings, was held at Brisbane’s prestigious Redhill Gallery during November 2016. The exhibition consisted mainly of his fine, pen and ink drawings which he then “colours in” with wonderfully opaque acrylic washes overlaid, where necessary, with thicker acrylic application. (All the works shown in this post are from the exhibition). We also discussed problems that being ‘artistic’ can bring!

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Amorbus Sp – Davies Creek

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Resting – Azure Kingfisher

However, it is David’s sense of composition that particularly impresses me. How he thinks his trademark compositions through to completion is a marvel. He balances colour, tone, form and space. He leads the eye; sometimes by not colouring or leaving something out. It is as if he considers your peripheral vision as well as your focus when composing. Clever! Some of his paintings leave me imagining what might be there that he has left out. This is the same feeling I get in the rainforest where so much is hidden in the green, luxuriant half-light.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

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Emerald Dove

This compositional prowess effectively renders each painting far more than just a portrait of a species. (My own paintings, however hard I try, always end up being just that). David’s works stand alone as accomplished creations, pleasing to the eye, where the subject matter of the painting becomes simply one element among many that make up the whole.

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Peacock Spider – Maratus speciosus

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Harlequin Bug – Tectocoris diopthalmus

David has another ‘style’ which is extraordinary. He describes it as ‘surrealist’. It is these works that hold me in fascination as I explore them. They are conglomerations of images: landscapes, creatures and plants, abstract patterns and even maps. They are dream-like, thematic and thought-provoking and are woven together with his accomplished, compositional artistry.

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The sky has fallen

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Fragmentation

Our conversation was far more than just an interview for this post. I learned stuff! I also identified our shared obsessive need to portray the natural history that fills our minds with interest, respect and appreciation. We have in common those lonesome journeys and vigils in the wild places where we observe and photograph reference material and add to our knowledge and understanding of the wild. We talked of the difficulties of being obsessional ‘artists’ and how our work is profoundly personal being often difficult to market. At times, we have both ‘prostituted’ ourselves to create for a commercial market driven by conventions, expectations and desires of others. More than once David used the expression “money is corrupting”.

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Double-eyed Fig Parrot

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Zodiac Moth – Alcides metaurus

These days in Kuranda are my last in Australia. I am about to migrate back to Britain after four years of trying, unsuccessfully, to assimilate into life here. But David Stacey is where he should be. As a man so connected to the rainforests of his home he clearly understood my similar connection to the natural history of Britain and Europe. We spoke of the recognised phenomenon where an Aborigine may die if removed from his ‘country.’ In this extraordinary painter-naturalist, I found a kindred spirit who understood and acknowledged my expression, ‘homesickness is a gentle term for grief’.

A Letter to Tracey Emin

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

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Tracey Emin “My Bed,” Installation, 1998

Dear Tracey,

I know you’ve come in for quite some stick for “My Bed.” Is that really art? Anybody could have done that! How was that shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize? etc. etc. I have to admit I was a bit baffled myself. (Was it really worth that much?) But as I tootled happily around Tate Britain the other day, I happened upon “My Bed.” I found myself intrigued, then mesmerised and ultimately quite moved.

The blurb on the wall says “By virute of bringing the domestic into the public sphere without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.” I’ll say! I stood and looked. I walked around. I then realised that “My Bed” was boring into my heart. The mess of the soiled sheets together with the bedside scut of discarded underwear, fluffy toys, well-worn slippers, vodka, cigarettes and KY recalled a whole raft of good, bad, sad and indifferent moments of my life. So many things and times I might – or might not – want to leave behind! And then, to my surprise, I found the sad, saccharine squalor of it all quite eye-watering. In fact, it made my day. So, thank you, Tracey. I hope you’re doing OK now.

Lots of love,

Bonnie

PS I really went to Tate Britain to see the Frank Auerbach exhibition. Not my cup of tea!

PPS As you know, “My Bed” is installed next to two Francis Bacon paintings and a series of your own drawings. I’ve never liked FB’s paintings.

PPPS I need help with your drawings.

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Tracey Emin “I could feel you” Gouache on paper, 2014