Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Mother, the Artist

My mother, fourth from the left, in the white dress, accompanied by a group of her fellow artists, at a camp retreat in the early 50s. Note the Brownie camera held lovingly in her hand.

Born in the south of England, on October 23rd, 1932, my mother, Phyllis Holland, was the only child of vegetable farmer named George Holland, one of four brothers who had each inherited a quarter of their father’s farm. Nicknamed Pudge, her father was a hard-working, kind-spirited man, who met, fell in love, and subsequently married an equally generous sole named Winifred (known as Winnie to her family and friends), a servant from a nearby manor house whose lineage was an open question, one leading to an unfolding of deep family secrets and the clandestine relationship between one of the heirs of the property and a member of the work staff.
Raised in a tiny cottage without running water or electricity, Phyllis soon found an inherent artistic inclination, one not in evidence in either of her parents. Nevertheless, she was encouraged to pursue this interest and was soon excelling at art in school, eventually going on to attended the Kingston School of Art in London, where she again excelled, especially in drawing and painting classes. Upon graduating, she went to work in the design department of a local ceramics pottery and proceeded to build a resume of her illustration work, selling card designs to Gordon Fraser, the top greeting card company in Britain, as well as living the life of a young artist in the early 1950s, experiencing the burgeoning bohemia of that pivotal period of European culture. It was during this time that she met my father, David Eaton, while on a cycling tour. The two were married soon after and, in an efficient manner, produced four children, the third of which was I.
Sadly, Phyllis found being a mother and keeper of the family’s domain left precious little time for her artistic pursuits. Throughout the years, my older sister and I (also blessed with the “art gene”) have attempted to resurrect this latent talent, offering regular enticements in the gift of art supplies, but the resistance is always strong, such a prolonged absence creating little confidence. Of course, every sketch I have managed to eek from my mother’s hand, over the years, has been a treasure worth keeping. I will showcase some of these later period works in a future post, for now I’d like to introduce artist, Phyllis Holland, by way of some of her earliest student sketchbooks, a series of drawings done from life, of her family (and a poor bird), at work and rest, about the old farm house, as well as a couple of illuminating photographs. I hope you enjoy.

My mother, as a baby, with her parents, Winifred and George, 1933.

Finally, here’s my mother, in 1951, as a student at the Kingston School of Art, being costumed for a New Year’s Eve party. This photo was published in the Sunday Graphic newspaper. The amusing caption read: Wouldn’t Father Neptune be proud of this attractive young daughter of the deep? Wouldn’t anyone – even a fishmonger – be happy to make a catch like this? But Phyllis Holland is a mermaid for one night only – New Year’s Eve. In her salty sea-suit she will join other students of Kingston School of Art in their tableau at the Chelsea Arts Ball.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Chicken Skin Gloves and a Faggot of Thunderbolts

This is an odd little book of illustrated verse that I drew in 1987. It was based on a similar volume from 1983, entitled Talking to the Fat Man by the Laundromat, a title inspired by the song You Can’t Fool the Fat Man, from Randy Newman’s 1974 album, Little Criminals. The original version featured radically different illustrations.
The unusual title originated with a hitchhiking trip about Great Britain I’d taken the previous summer, the chicken skin gloves having been spotted on display in a military museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. The “faggot of thunderbolts” refers to the bundle of lightning often pictured in the hand of the god Zeus.
The style employed was mostly influenced by the American illustrator/cartoonist, Gahan Wilson, and his English counterpart, Ronald Searle, two of my favorite darkly humorous illustrators at the time.
The words, dubious at best, penned when I was still nineteen, are a reflection of my desire to write nonsense rhyme in a lyrical form, most probably inspired by having read a lot of Edward Lear, and John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works.
Living in Portland, Oregon during the summer of 1987, training to be a puppeteer, I set up an appointment with an editor at Seattle's Real Comet Press and took the train north one Monday morning, intent on selling them on the peculiar book. I was given but a few moments in the editor’s office, as she flipped through the photocopied version I’d mailed the week before, smiling and taking deep breaths. Needless to say, she didn’t know quite what to make of it, or what to do with it. It certainly wasn’t Lynda Barry.
And thus, it’s been sitting, hidden away in a box for some twenty one years.
If you’re curious to see the whole of what still exists of this orphaned little project, simply click here for a slideshow presentation.