Taking a Line for a Walk
Alan Smith has been shielding at home in Allenheads for the last four months for health reasons during the lockdown. He has produced an abundance of drawings after not having drawn much at all in the last twenty odd years. My filmed interview with him is here.
Alan described drawing as calming, meditative, akin to plastering a wall, as much about the process as the end product. Some of his drawings are abstract, hieroglyphic and often based on listening to something on the radio or TV such as The Shipping Forecast or the latest Coronavirus update on the news.
‘They arise,’ Alan said, ‘from doodling, from muscle memory’. Other drawings are more figurative and reference the COVID-19 pandemic. A few depict the Pennine landscape that Alan is spending so much time walking in alone. ‘I’m seeing the landscape afresh.’ Other drawings are self-portraits that mark the passing of time, moods and emotions during the lockdown period.
Images emerge from the marks like something, as Alan describes, that is uncertainly perceived with a flickering candle in chthonic darkness underground. Drawing, he writes, is ‘thinking that happens on the periphery of other more direct thoughts or observations’. It is, he reflects, like working to see in limited light, drawing imagery out of shifting shadows, related to the rhythms of handwriting and the spoken word. The image has to be extracted. It comes out of the paper rather than being put on it, although, he says, ‘of course, I have to find those images’.
I asked Alan about the drawings in relation to the topics of being or getting home and the sense of time and momentum during the virus crisis and lockdown. In one of his blogposts, Alan writes about how the virus ‘makes me behave differently, respond more dramatically, emotionally and purposefully from this imposed and comparatively motionless state’. In some of the drawings, two figures appear in a kind of duet that I might guess to be imaging a relationship with a partner during lockdown.
At this point in the pandemic we are witnessing and feeling, on the one hand, a hysterical need to be released and on the other hand, a form of agoraphobia after being cocooned in our home spaces for so long.
A drawing of the horizon conjures the specific place—Allenheads—high in the Pennines, perched atop a steep hill, overlooking the bowl of the valley and engaged visually with the curvature of the horizon. It also gestures at a sense of frustrated momentum and destination.
Alan described dramatic changes in his relationship to time. ‘The world seems to be travelling around me rather than me travelling across it. If I travel, I always travel home. My only destination is home. The world seems to be travelling past me, while I am stationary.’
I’m hoping, I remarked, that we might be new-world-making as a consequence of the pandemic and lockdown as Martyn argues in his Call Centre blogpost, but also fearing that we might be merely returning to a worse normal in which many of the people who weren’t well off before are now a lot worse off. I’m wondering about how we might hang on to some of the positives and reevaluations that have, variously for each of us, been part of this extraordinary experience. ‘I can only speak for myself,’ Alan said, ‘about the changes, values and memories stirred by this disturbing and special time.’