Thursday, October 29, 2009

An interview with Helen Hollick
And a book review: Pendragon’s Banner

(Listen to a podcast interview with Helen Hollick at Voices of Living Creatively)

It turns out Helen Hollick and I share a love of Mary Stewart’s Arthurian fantasy novels, Crystal Cave and Hollow Hills. Both of us remember enjoying these wonderful stories about Merlin and the young Arthur. But for Helen Hollick, it was something in the back of Stewart’s book that brought another sort of magic into her life. “The thing that intrigued me was her author’s notes which said if Arthur had been real, he would have lived around post Roman times. Now that really got me interested. Because I had never liked the stories that had placed him around Medieval times. When I read that, I thought, oh, I’ll check into that.”

That started Helen on a path leading her to write a trilogy of books about Arthur before and after he becomes king.

The first book, The Kingmaking, I reviewed here last year and loved for its detailed down to earth portrayal of Arthur as the supposed bastard son of Uthr who takes the throne and becomes king. The second book, Pendragon’s Banner covers the years between 459-465 A.D. and tells the tale of Arthurs struggle with the power, politics and family strife.

What I like about these books are the many, many wonderful details about the daily life of Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, their three children, servants and soldiers. The fighting among the family for control of the throne is just as believable as the battle scenes.

I wondered, how did author, Helen Hollick write so richly of a past that may or may not have happened. Some of it comes from Hollick’s extensive research and diploma in Early Medieval History. Helen explains, “I looked into what facts we do know of that period, really researched post roman and early saxon, so in weaving in the real facts, that can make what we don’t know for sure to be more real. I looked into daily life. I looked into what kind of horses they would have had, harnesses, armor, and the buildings.”

Helen’s research includes personal experiences as well. “I’ve actually been to all those places in the books, Glastonbury, visited Summerset, been to Scotland,” says Helen. “It makes a great excuse for a holiday.”

Some of the plot details, like the scene where Arthur’s young son falls into the river, come from her feelings and experiences as a mother. “We were actually on vacation camping by that very river,” Helen explains. “My own little girl was about 5. It had been raining, and we went down to look at the river. It was in flood, flowing very fast exactly as in that scene. I held my Cathy’s hand so very tight, because I had a vision of a child falling into the water. I pulled her back from the bank, told her to be careful and picked her up and held her. Then I went back to the camp and just wrote the scene down. It was very hard to write. I was in tears the whole time.”

That wasn’t the only scene that was hard for Helen to write. “I have to say I don’t know how I manage to write the battle scenes,” says Helen. “It really helps to be in a bad mood. It’s a really good way to get rid of angst, to write a battle scene.”

The battle scenes details aren’t the only thing that grabbed me as a reader but the depth of Arthur’s feelings about the work a soldier must do. Helen agrees, “Yes, when you read a story of battle it’s always made out to be a glorious thing, propaganda, of course, to get people to go out and fight. But you don’t think about the other side, people get killed, horses get hurt. This is the reality.”

The battle scene that begins Pendragon’s Banner came after a long period of writer’s block. “I got to the point where I thought, if I don’t do something about this writer’s block, I’m not going to get this book finished,” explains Helen. “And I was determined to write the words, ‘the end’, even if I never got published. So I went along to a writer’s course and the teacher said, I want you to write down your feelings. I just wrote down the first word that came into my head. Before I knew it, I wrote the word, sword, then the word battle. And all of a sudden the whole battle scene just came into my head and I just sat and wrote. It was really funny because then the teacher said, ok, you can stop now and I said no way, I haven’t written for 6 months and if you think I’m going to stop now, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Even though Helen’s extensive historical research gives the scenes detail, it’s not what got her started writing. “I hated history when I was at school, absolutely hated it,” says Helen. “When I was 13 I was writing pony stories, because I really wanted a pony of my own and we couldn’t afford one. So I made one up.”

From then on, writing has been a life long passion. Even when her original publisher stopped printing her books, she got the copyright back and self-published them in the U.K. Then found a new home for her trilogy here in the United States with Sourcebooks. In addition to her Arthur trilogy, Helen Hollick has written a fantasy adventure series about pirates for fun and most recently, a movie script about the battle of Hastings called 1066. “We hope to shoot in the UK but it will be on release in American as well,” Helen says. “We’re talking big blockbuster here. Fingers crossed, I’ve even got my dress.”

Whether or not her books or movies about Arthur, pirates or a battle are a success, Helen would never stop writing. “I’m always scribbling something down, even if I’m not working on a book. That short time when I heard that they weren’t going to publish my books, I was devastated,” says Helen. “I sobbed for 2 weeks. Then I pulled myself up and thought come on, it doesn’t mean you can’t publish your books.”

And she advises everyone to follow their dreams, too. Helen’s advice, “Do it. Don’t think about it, go out and do it. At least try, I feel that at least I tried and I’ve managed it. Ok, if my books don’t sell it doesn’t matter, at least I’ve done it. Rather than looking back in a few years time and thinking oh, I wish I’d done that. At least have a go, give it your best shot.”

In my opinion, Helen Hollick’s given it more than her best shot. Whether it’s The Kingmaking or Pendragon’s Banner, it’s an enjoyable, fascinating read into the past that feels like you’re there, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

'Reflection' Copper repousse

Sculpting a life and a living.
Writing. Showing. Teaching. Making.

Looking at this month, I’ve been blessed to be able to do everything I love to do.

As an artist, I sculpt out of metal and clay. I’ve made jewelry and garden art and started new masks out of mesh and copper.

For two weekends, I was part of the Portland Open Studios Tour and opened my studio to men, women and children interested in finding out what I do and how I do it. It’s always a little hectic getting ready for the event. I clean out my studio, set out demonstration materials, put out some of my pieces for display. It’s a lot of work. But what makes it all worthwhile are the looks of wonder, the words of appreciation and the people who come back every year to see what’s new.

Right after my open studio event, I delivered a large copper repousse’ piece to a juried exhibit downtown. My piece, “Reflection” will hang in the First Presbyterian Church as part of the Works of Faith exhibit until January 2010. It was wonderful to meet my fellow artists and the people from the art committee on Sunday.

Later in the week, I started an artist in residence at a local elementary school. The project is based on my ‘Ethnic Portrait’ series and involves the students in art and writing, two of my favorite activities. I met with the teachers, went over the supplies and the timelines. Then I went back to my studio, made an example of the project and prepared some supplies. At the school, I set up, presented the project and taught the classes with the help of the wonderful teachers and students. It was a great experience!

Today, I’m setting up interviews for articles I write on my blog and others. Writing advertising copy. Making a list of the supplies needed for the second week at the school. Getting work together for a photo shoot tomorrow. Putting some paint on one of my mesh masks. Taking my dog for a walk in between rain storms and making dinner.

Sometimes I worry whether it will all get done, but it does. Somehow, in spite of the bumps, I am able to sculpt a life and a living doing what I love to do. I’m grateful.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Portland Open Studios:
Opening my studio and my creative process to my neighborhood.

I do sculpture work in aluminum screening, copper sheeting and clay. I love faces and animals and the concept of shapeshifting. I see faces and figures in the landscape around me, the leaves on the trees, the clouds in the sky, the rocks and even the marks on the ceiling. My source of inspiration and materials seem right to me, that’s why I do it.

But to others, I realize it may seem a bit odd. Since I work on my own, in my studio, this isn’t a problem, really. I can do what I do and no one knows the difference. Until now.

As part of the Portland Open Studios Tour, I invite people to come into my studio and watch me work. They get to see me push a bear shape out of aluminum screening, press dragon scales into copper sheeting and read some of my stories. I explain how I do what I do. I show them the materials and the process. I answer their questions.

I have some of my finished pieces on display, so they can see the finished product as well as the process. I hope it helps them to understand what I do and why. I hope it helps them learn more about art, the creative process as well as inspiring them to honor their own creativity.

Every year, I feel a little like the curtain is drawn back on my creative process and there I stand, alone and revealed to the world. It’s a little scary. But every year, I find out just how wonderful and generous and eager people are to share in the creative process.

If you’re ever in Portland the first two weeks of October, get a tour guide and come and visit my studio! This year, I was interviewed by a fellow artist and you can read the interview on the Portland Open Studios Tour blog

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pushing and pulling.

Punching and painting.

For me, making art is a physical act. I cut copper sheeting or aluminum screening and push it into a beak or nose, round it into a moon or rock. Whether I'm making a mask, landscape or pendant, it takes strength and delicacy to get the images and textures into the copper or aluminum.

I've been working very hard the last few weeks to get new work done for this year's Portland Open Studios Tour. I wanted to have a variety of pieces in copper, aluminum mesh and clay to show the people who come through the tour. I want them to see that although the stereotype of an artist is working in one medium all the time, that's not necessarily the reality.

I love masks. And I make masks in clay, copper, aluminum, as well as teaching mask making to children and adults in clay, plaster and collage. I love animals and landscapes and jewelry. And I make animal sculptures that have human qualities, landscapes that have faces in the rocks and sky. When I was a teenager, I loved making jewelry. This year, I decided to do more of what I love, so I've been busy in the studio making earrings, pendants and pins out of the copper I love so much. It's a great way to use the good pieces left over from my larger work and to play again in a familiar and happy playground.

The tour starts next weekend. I still have work to finish like an aluminum eagle sculpture, a lamp, as well as mounting, glueing and setting up all the work for display. I'm feeling a little stressed with the deadline looming right now. But I know that next weekend, I'll be ready. And I look forward to meeting the people from all around my city who come to peek over my shoulder, watch me work and ask questions about how and why I do what I do.

Before I was on the tour, I took the tour. I loved seeing all the different work, studios and meeting all the artists. It not only gave me a better idea about art but it gave me the courage to do my own art.

My hands may be stiff. My shoulders and back are achy. My mind is reeling with to-do's that still need doing, but I'm happy to be working in the studio. I'm grateful I get to do what I love and next weekend on the Portland Open Studios Tour, I get to share that with all of you who visit me.

If you live in or around Portland, Oregon, take the tour October 10, 11 and 17, 18 from 10am to 5pm. Just pick up a Tour Guide at Art Media, New Seasons, Powell's Books or online at Celebrating our 10th year, the Portland Open Studios Tour brings 100 artists and art lovers together to share the process of creativity.

I hope to see you! If you want to know more about the art and artists in Portland Open Studios Tour, check out our blog at