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A second conversation with Celia

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Celia had been at a lecture; its subject was ‘The frontiers of fashion.’ Once it was over, she met me in the richly-resourced library at UCA. We decided that we would go to my home and, free from distractions, our conversation could begin.

I asked her what had led her to become so interested in fashion. She began by immediately describing the influence of her grandmother for whom she has a deep affection. From a young age her grand-mother would dress her in beautiful clothes. And so it was she who enabled Celia to have that indescribable pleasure of imagining herself as a magical fairy or a mythical princess. Her grand-mother also taught her to be ‘graceful’, ‘elegant’ and ‘polite’. In fact, Celia is unusually well-mannered. I had noticed this throughout the time we had known each other. She is also remarkably composed.

Her favourite fashion designers are Gianni Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier: Versace – the superlative excess of richly gorgeous style; Jean-Paul Gaultier – radical, outlandish and brilliant. And she told me that she is currently working on a project concerned with ‘body-shaming.’

She acknowledged how hard her parents had worked whilst she was growing up and how it fell to her grandparents to look after her. She told me that she loves all of them – but in different ways.

Good conversations are non-linear things; they take off, twist and turn – and trace patterns like super-fluid electrons – as images pulse and shine – and memories glint anew: We talked about her life in Taiwan, her original loneliness on the long flight to the United Kingdom, her first trip to Bournemouth where she went clubbing and did karaoke and flitted into casinos – and how she is a ‘fearless’ person:

I don’t feel fear,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why but nothing frightens me. Sometimes I think that I ought to feel fear but I do not.’

Twice that evening her boyfriend phoned her from Taiwan. (I even spoke to him.) The boyfriend was in a very merry mood: ‘He’s been celebrating with a client,’ she said. ‘They’ve had a bit to drink.

She likes the culture and the creative atmosphere in the UK. She finds it relatively free of constraints. Life in Taiwan is more formal. She might even choose to stay much longer in the UK.

By now my wife had spent quite a long time in the kitchen and it was time to eat. The three of us had dinner together. We never stopped taking. I was amazed at how willing Celia was to sustain such a long conversation in English. We learned about the pressures that now befall young women in Korea and China, Taiwan and even Japan. They want, she said, ‘to look westernised.’ They are prepared to undergo plastic surgery even in their teens as they search for their ideal ‘look.’ (I was shocked to learn this.)

Right at the end of our long conversation, I asked Celia to describe herself in three words. (Why I did so I am not sure. Anyway, I did.)

She paused. We sat in silence for quite a long time. Celia looked down towards the deep red Persian carpet. She still said nothing: Then:

Yes, I’m independent. And I’m … can you say: ‘varied’?

I replied: ‘You mean ‘complex’ – in the sense that there are different sides to you?’

Yes.’

She then consulted a translation on her iPhone and showed the answer to me:

It said, ‘wilful.’

Yes I can see that. You are single-minded – and I imagine that you are strong-willed. Yes, I think that ‘wilful’ might be one way of describing you!

By now it was late in the evening. It was time for her to leave.

We said ‘goodbye’ and although it was against my better judgement she had resolved to walk home on her own.

In the old days we would think me very ungentlemanly,’ I said.

Don’t worry. It’s not far,’ she replied.

And Celia set off into the night.

Later my wife insisted that I contact her to make sure that she had arrived home safely.
I did – and she had.

And, later, I thought that if I were a Human Resources Manager in a fashion house such as Versace or Chanel or Dior then she would be exactly the kind of person who, through personality, social skill and sheer grace, would be a great asset to the business.

Thinking about portraits and self-portraits

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I have been reading a long essay that takes as its subject an overview of 50 years of Lucian Freud’s paintings. It’s written by someone who knew him well: The author is William Feaver and his essay ‘Freud at the Correr: Fifty years’ was published in 2007.

Ages ago (nearly 70 years in fact) Lucian Freud published ‘Some notes on painting’ in the journal ‘Encounter’. William Feaver intersperses his commentary with selections from Freud’s text. Amongst these assertive, aphoristic and sometimes metaphysical ‘notes’ he, Freud, wrote something that has been puzzling me for some time. It is this:

The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life but must acquire a life of its own.

I have sometimes tried to quote this remark. Often, though, I find myself trying to remember the exact wording. I make a start – and then misquote the words. Why is that?

Perhaps more importantly I have wondered if any of my ‘pictures’ do more than merely remind one of life. Have any acquired a life of their own?

Post script:

Everything is, in some sense or other, autobiographical. The still-life in the photo above is, in part, about someone’s life. (A portrait even). I’d like to paint like that because it’s something that endures and something that is a little bit ‘out’ of time. It is as if it tries to escape time. And, although it places me in a tradition of art history (goodness, I’m hopelessly lost in the past), Cezanne said something that appeals to me:

The goal of all art is the human face.’

So,  I paint the faces of people – people like the age-ing honey-seller in the Atlas mountains, or the old ferry-man in Upper Egypt –  or my daughters and my wife  – because I find, in their faces, an awareness, as well as the mystery of being.

The photo below shows my wife Jo – perhaps unfinished … perhaps something more than merely reminding us of life … perhaps not!

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The borders of our lives: Conversations with Celia

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The light in the room had gradually softened until every shape and every form had begun to merge into the surroundings. Soon we were sitting in something less than twilight. Celia remained almost as still as a crystal. She spoke in a voice so melodic, so delicate that I felt as if I had been transported into a dusky mist-laden land of enchantment. We had been talking about art and fashion and beauty. Music had been playing – almost unnoticed – in the background: sometimes we could just discern a piano sonata; sometimes a muted symphony; largo, adagio and then adagietto …

In a moment of silence I recalled a song that I had first heard a long long time ago. A singer proposed the line: ‘And you read your Emily Dickinson – and I my Robert Frost.’ I had always imagined the two people, a young man and a young woman, both sitting in the fading grandeur of a high-ceilinged room; a room made for poets; and, both were reading, when each would occasionally look up to remark on something that had occurred to them, each separated by mood, and then, by time. The same singer reflects on their ‘dangling conversation’ before that moment in which he identifies the couple now on ‘the borders of their lives.’

Celia and I were meeting at the borders of our lives – on the border of hers and on the border of mine.

By now the light had been silently taken, spirited-away by the God of night. We were sitting in a deep blue-grey darkness. Celia, the sofa upon which she was sitting, and the room – with all its books and glass ornaments and its bright green curtains – had become one.

I wanted to move across those borders. I wanted to discover, and get to know and sense so much more about the depth and the qualities of this beautiful person.

A month went by. Celia had been ill. She had a great deal of work to do if she were to make up all the lost ground that had befallen her during her course in Fashion and Fashion Design.

At last we were able to meet. I had found a pamphlet featuring an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s exquisite fashion photographs, photographs of that exclusive elegance once belonging to high society. I was so pleased to be able to give this to Celia. I was sure that she would like the style (and even the opulence) of that world, a world that has gradually disappeared as our cultures have moved into the age of bright and shiny surfaces that now surrounds us all.

In our second conversation, Celia would come to tell me about her life, her identity and why she felt as if the United Kingdom was now becoming her second home. And, in return, I would paint a portrait of her. I would set out to express something that is remarkable about her graceful presence.

Celia is 27 years old and is from Taiwan; even the relentless rain of the last month or so in England has not diminished her appreciation of its culture. In the next conversation Celia would disclose more about herself, her love of fashion, her values and her sensibilities. Soon we would cross the borders of our lives.

Footnote: Celia is studying Fashion and Fashion Design at the University for the Creative Arts. She has a degree in English and, in addition to her first language Chinese, she speaks English, French and Spanish.

The title of the song I recalled is: ‘The Dangling conversation‘ by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. It was released in September 1966 on their album, ‘Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme.’

The photographs above and below show Celia in different contexts. The one below features the setting for our second conversation. The one above could be on a fashion shoot somewhere …

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