the artifact

His handwriting is very hard to read.

the artifactHis woodcuts, however, are a delight. I’m talking about Alan Dixon, who did the prints on the covers of the most recent pamphlet and its insert. I think he is a remarkable artist, and there’s an interview with him on the Sphinx website, in which, among other things, he says:

“Most of my printing is done in the garage with the door open. No passing neighbours have shown any interest. I have never used a press: I tread on the back of my blocks, even the smallest.”

Most of the HappenStance graphics are done by Gillian Rose, my daughter. However, the pamphlets for dead poets have all had Alan Dixon woodcuts on the covers: the Ruth Pitter publications, Thomas Hardy and contemporary Dorset poets, and now Jean Mackie. To me, there’s something both old and startlingly new about woodcuts. I love them, and I think Alan does marvellous work in this medium, right up there with the best of the expressionists.

When I ask him if he will do one for me, he reads the poems very carefully first—he is a poet himself as well as a practising artist. He has a sharp eye too, and invariably spots some proof-reading anomaly that I’ve missed.

Then he sends suggestions. I delight in the way they slither out of his envelopes on little slips of paper, usually with a piece of card to support them. Sometimes they’re on tissue paper. I imagine him chipping and scraping in his garage, the passing neighbours wholly impervious to what’s going on.

For the Jean Mackie publication, the poem that caught Alan’s interest was ‘The artifact’. That in itself was interesting because I don’t think it’s the poem that would first catch the eye of most readers. It’s a town and country poem, a bit of magic. Here it is:

Shaped like a plant it was,
With thirteen little knobs of light
On wires as thin as harebells.
At a touch it shivered into life,
Sliding against the thick, unwilling air
Till all the shopworn people smiled,
Not for the urban oddity
But because
Sweet as molasses
Here was a toy for four pounds fifty
Could emulate the lonely grasses.

He sent a print for this that we didn’t use. From a design point of view it was arresting. But the toy itself and the head of one of the onlookers seemed to merge. It’s at the top of this page, looking slightly blue because I’ve just photographed it on top of a sheet of blue paper.

Do you see the thirteen little knobs of light (cutting light from darkness) and the shopworn people, and a little perky child grinning up from the right hand side? There were two prints of this. He added an earring to the second, which is the one I have below. Where’s the earring? It’s on the ear of the person with his back to us, a slightly butch figure with his hair gelled upright (or startled into attention).


There was another possible print too. It was a much more rural scene and would have done nicely but Alan himself wasn’t satisfied. Charlie Allan, Jean’s son, liked the thought that the figure at the front, in silhouette, could have been Jean herself, who never liked her picture taken.

duckpondJean’s pamphlet, A Little Piece of Earth, is unusual in that it has an insert. One of Jean’s poems (‘Granddaughter’) refers to “O, my loving innocent, my pretty dear,/ Who sit now eating cake/ Watching the ladies who have come to tea”. Characters in poems don’t usually reply. This one, however, did.

Susie Malcolm, Jean’s grown-up granddaughter, in ‘Nervosa Nouveau’ and ‘Visiting Grandparents’ writes about the situation from a different point of view. Three poems are inserted on a small separate publication inside the main pamphlet and I wanted a graphic for this too. So I cut a detail from the scene with the ducks. I knew, of course, that Alan would not be keen on this. The woodcut as a whole has its own balance and proportion. The slightly wonky edges and the degree of ‘grain’ are matters of some deliberation.

He returned a second set of prints, which are the ones that are on the publications now. One is the artifact again, this time with the faces more agog and with a hand pointing out the wonder of the thing. And there was one of adults, with children, in profile for the granddaughter insert.

I’m struggling with the technology this morning. It doesn’t like my files and won’t upload the granddaughter one. The main print, from the front cover of the pamphlet, however, is on the left.FINAL PRINT

So these are what we have used. Alan writes letters too, in spidery, almost indecipherable (but not quite) handwriting. Each one is signed, ‘Your woodcutter, Alan’.

Do you know how long these blogs take to write each Sunday morning? Breakfastward the ploughman plods his weary way. But how wonderful life is in its gifted twists and turns, its glorious papercuts, longcuts and woodcuts: “sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine.”


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