Neil Gaiman and the Good Icons

Copy of Studio Info —

Why paint author Neil Gaiman on a piece of 5000 year old prehistoric bog oak carved into the shape of a book and not a canvas?


by Lorna May Wadsworth

It was in a lecture I saw online, given by Neil in 2015 at The Long Centre, that I learned that the oldest living things on the planet are probably trees. Actual alive ones, not ones perfectly preserved in the boggy earth. In his lecture ‘How Stories Last’, Neil himself used the example of the Californian Great Basin Bristle Cone Pine, which is over 5000 years old. While the audience ponders quite how old this is, Neil states, with a storyteller’s timing: “We have stories that are older than this...”  He speaks of the tale of the beautiful woman sacrificed into a volcano from the Pacific North West. The Chinese Emperor who was guarded by thousands of terracotta warriors amidst lakes of mercury. The brothers Anpu and Bata, whose not-safe-for-work escapades were inscribed on papyrus. He speaks of the power of stories over time, how stories are the most effective way to pass on information beyond three generations - if they contain elements that people love to tell - and it is in this way that we know that vast solid mountains sometimes shake and spurt fire. Stories are how we communicate across ages.

One night my unconscious brain suddenly threw up a fully formed idea for painting Neil on a form created by a sculptor whose work I had come across some months before. Adrian Swinstead makes exquisite pieces of art and fine furniture from strange and exotic timbers, principally prehistoric bog oak, which he finds in the fens and exhumes from the ground himself. As a counterpoint to his complicated glass and oak tables and cupboards, I remembered a series of bog oak book sculptures, so pleasing in their solid simplicity. The resonance with Neil’s work was irresistible. There seemed something deliciously apt about painting the conjurer of trolls and giants, of gods and monsters, of the Endless in Sandman, of someone so utterly enmeshed with the legends and stories of the past, on a tree lost for 5000 years in a bog. A tree which a man of the woods has unearthed, and polished, and planed, into something so tangibly alive with beauty and form. The piece of oak from which this book is hewn dates from pre-history. For me it is the perfect metaphor for the myths and tales of old which run through all Gaiman’s work, in every medium he touches, and his unique talent for reweaving these ancient tropes and themes into stories which resonate entirely in the present.

I texted Neil there and then in the middle of the night with a photo of Adrian’s books and swung the idea past him, as being somewhere in America meant it wasn’t 3am where he was. I woke up to a one word handwritten response from him: “Yes!”.

To my extreme joy, when I called Adrian out of the blue that next morning, after a white night of brain buzzing excitement, and blathered excitedly down the phone at him about my idea, he was open to the idea of some artist daubing on one of his beautiful sculptures. Excited at the prospect of a collaboration he invited me out to his workshop in the woods. When I visited one misty day, and Adrian showed me the family of ten or so books he had created of various sizes, I was immediately and overwhelmingly drawn to the first book sculpture he had ever made. To the first piece of wood which had whispered to Adrian that it was meant to be a book, to the precedent in his oeuvre. It is less emphatically a ‘book’ than its subsequent brother and sister bog books. It is becoming a book. It is shape shifting and coalescing into that form, like some strange magic not quite effected. To my endless gratitude, Adrian let me have his first born book, and it is on this which I have set Neil.    

I immediately knew I didn’t want to paint directly on the bog book in oil, as would be my usual practice. I wanted Neil to look as though he had been captured within the book form, as though by a spell. I remembered a tiny wax portrait someone had once shown me, which I didn’t think was especially good, but I was struck by how the paint or pigment wasn’t on the surface. Dreamlike, it floated somewhere beneath.

I also liked the direct link that painting within wax would make with one of the earliest methods of communicating the written word that was portable and reusable: the wax tablets of antiquity. Beeswax would be melted and poured over a wooden substrate, often two linked together that could be folded to protect the wax. Our modern phrase ‘clean slate’ comes from the latin ‘tabula rasa’, originating from the Roman tabula used for notes, which was blanked by heating the wax and then smoothing it.

Wax is also a principal component of the earliest surviving portraits we have, The Fayum Portraits from the 1st to the 3rd centuries. They were painted by Greek Egyptians who had settled in Egypt four centuries earlier after the conquest of Alexander the Great, and were crafted in the same age in which the gospels of the New Testament were written. The portraits were discovered in Necropolises in the province of Fayum at the end of the 19th Century and were created to adorn the mummified remains of the departed. John Berger likened them to “passport photos for the dead on their journey with Anubis, the god with the jackal’s head, to the kingdom of Osiris”. This same god is reimagined in Gaiman’s American Gods as Mr. Jacquel, now the prosector for the county medical examiner. He leads a recently deceased Mrs. Fadil up her fire escape, which extends up to the heavens to a desert land, where he takes out her heart from her chest with his hand and weighs it on a set of scales against a feather. I find it fascinating that the oldest portraits were painted specifically for the afterlife. Berger states “ Neither those, who ordered the portraits, nor those who painted them, ever imagined them being seen by posterity. They were images destined to be buried without a visible future.” It reads like a line out of Neil’s Sandman. Oh, and Neil went through a bee keeping phase. He was a bee keeper. He even wrote a short story about a bee keeper creating the elixir of eternal youth by breeding some very special bees on a mountain top.

Hours of research online led me to the encaustic artist Sara Wickenden, whom I contacted and asked for advice. Wax painting, or encaustic painting, is not very widespread in the UK. Sara has undertaken several courses in the USA over the years, where artists like Jasper Johns have given the medium more prominence. She generously agreed to come to my studio, with a car load of specialist and slightly odd paraphernalia, to teach me wax painting techniques. The set up is pleasingly witchy, involving an enamel saucepan kept at an optimum temperature on a hot plate, into which one sprinkles pellets of sun bleached beeswax. One method immediately felt like the exact visual language I was after - she taught me how to paint using special, encaustic compatible, oil pigment sticks between layers of the beeswax, which were brushed on in between paint layers. (Yes this is as scary and potentially blurrifying as it sounds, but produces incredible depth effects.) So I practised and practised on 5000 year old wooden off cuts until I felt the technique was mine. Then one day I took a very deep breath and started laying the wax base layer on Adrian’s book. This is what happened next...