Month four and the leaves are falling

October 2018

The falling leaves
Drift by the window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold

sung by Eva Cassidy on Songbird

I’m waiting for one of the allotmenteers, the autumn season has crept in and it’s the night before the harvest moon, the closest full moon to the autumn equinox. 
The crops are definitely changing as I look around in the dimming glow from the setting sun. Beans are picked, melons worried over, when to pick them and ripen at home, raspberries now just a ‘pick and eat one’ crop.
As we walk around we see a large casualty, a tree from a neighbouring garden to the allotments has fallen onto a plot, pushed its way over the boundary with ease and crushing a shed, but leaving the greenhouse intact - just beyond its reach. Thankfully no one was there when it happened, so no injuries to people, but it still looks devastating to plants and property. A mess of tangled roots and ivy causing chaos to a well ordered space. I haven’t met these plot owners and so have no images of how it looked before, I feel for them, this must be heartbreaking. I only draw on plots where I have being given permission to be.

 An unloved tree next to the allotments gives way.

An unloved tree next to the allotments gives way.

The temperature drops and layers of clothing are added, scarf, gloves but I’ve forgotten a hat and I notice, as the beautiful clear sky brings cold with it. As we walk around the paths our eyes adjust to the light that is available, it’s a different feeling at dusk and night here, the balance of sound changes, rustles in the undergrowth are more important than a bang in the distance. The uneven ground proves challenging and has to be respected and traversed slowly. But we’re too early to appreciate the rising moon, it’s just not high enough yet. Hunger and cold set it and we head off to warm up, as I walk in to a warm flat, there’s leek and potato soup heating up on the cooker, both the leeks and potatoes gifts from the allotments.

Tomorrow I’ll return, later in the evening and with more layers, although this time alone.

24th September 9pm
I return, dressed up in layers and layers of clothes, but ironically it feels slightly warmer this evening. The moon is shining very brightly. Harvest Moons are supposed to glow more orange but this one seemed pretty white to me. As I set up my camera I’m getting used to the sounds and tell myself not to be scared or alarmed at noises, just walk round confidently. It’s not long before I am able to tread fearlessly as I can see so much just by the light of tonight’s moon. 
I’m surprised that the camera without a flash manages to take any images, but there’s certainly enough moon from the light to make out silhouettes.

 Harvest Moon 2018, images using available light.

Harvest Moon 2018, images using available light.

I also use a flash, but even that’s a challenge as I can’t really see what I’m going to take the photo off beforehand so I set things up and add some hope. The dark ominous backgrounds are quite exciting, once I’ve taken a shot I let my eyes adjust and carry on walking around. I’m sticking to the main paths but it’s not so easy to make out which plot is which as they line up on either side of me with the distinctions lost in the darkness... 

Although I could stay much longer, I finally pack up at 11:30pm, the experience of staying quietly in the allotments during the harvest moon is rather moving and my writing is much more that of a personal diary than a blog notebook.

 Harvest Moon 2018

Harvest Moon 2018


Wind slides across the leaves and through the trees, it’s an impetus wind; one full of speed, elbowing its way through anything in its path, swaying the branches of the large poplar trees to the side of the plots. Glints of gold dot their way through the trees, the peach tree near to me has yellow droplets of leaves that hold on against the wind’s better judgment, but I am aware these will soon fall. Autumn is just a few days in, fatigue shows on the summer glory of the plots. A slower pace, that of autumnal growing creeps over the crops. A blanket of calm slides its way through. 

 Hops

Hops


S2
has dropped in to pick some crops, amazing peppers, chillis, beans and tomatoes nestle in a blue crate that sets the colours off, subtly fighting for position. 

As I wander around I spot melons hanging in nets in greenhouses, suddenly there’s a dash of wind and the leaves noisily and angrily respond to being pulled and pushed around. Then it’s gone, passed, and bird song trickles through the vacant space. I need to find someone who can help me identify bird song.

The vegetable leaves are showing their age, some appear to have dipped their edges into light green or yellow ink, sweetcorn tops have turned to beige, trying to quietly blend into the background having used all their energy to show off in summer.

 A pepper just before it’s cropped.

A pepper just before it’s cropped.


I drop into the allotments on my way somewhere. It’s drizzling so I set myself up to think on a bench under a large umbrella. I don’t mind drizzle, in fact I really enjoy being outside in drizzle, it’s partly the returning to a warm dry home that holds appeal and also listening to the sound of rain on the umbrella. From the bench seat I can watch bugs and insects hiding and scurrying around under leaves. Nothing appears to be happening on the surface but so much life is crawling and slithering around on and in the top layer of earth.

 Drizzle set up

Drizzle set up


Saturday and I’m ready to go to the allotments and draw, which I do, but it’s raining, very hard and it is also rather windy. The combination of the two is pretty unworkable. I could hunker down under an umbrella  - if there’s room between plants but the wind will whip the raindrops onto my sketch regardless. There’s not a lot I can do and I only have a couple of hours spare. But the colours with the rain are intense I can’t just walk away.

 Too wet to draw today

Too wet to draw today

There’s no let up and it doesn’t look as though it’s going to ease up. Still, I am determined to work with the weather not against it. I concentrate on the smell of the newly watered ground, how different this is to summer’s heat. And sounds, dripping, water pooling in the middle of leaves, wobbling around in the centre of a nasturtium leaf. Clinging onto the bottom of a dahlia and sweetpea flower, it holds on, moving with the wind, as though building up courage to drop… and disappear. For a moment the light holds this fragile raindrop and all my focus is held here.

In the meantime I pick up discarded leaves to draw in the studio. October is always a busy time for me so I will need to draw images in my studio. As it’s Inktober on social media where many artists take to the web with ink sketches, I will focus mine on things found and seen at the allotment. And I decide they will all be small drawings, no larger than 3.5” or 9cm, although most will be smaller.

 Tiny allotment ink drawings

Tiny allotment ink drawings

Month three and we've had rain

September 2018

The leaves of brown came tumblin' down, remember
In September in the rain
The sun went out just like a dying ember
That September in the rain

Dinah Washington’s version

 Painting at the allotments

Painting at the allotments

Jays, or is it Magpies, squabble in the tree to my left. It’s Tuesday, 10am, I’ve only spotted one other person, somewhere there’s a creaking shed, and nature is already discarding its leaves.

I’m back on Y1B, capturing the plot on paper, from one day to the next the leaves move, grow, droop, twist, bend and fall. I know I’m sitting in the same place, but I struggle to see what I drew before.

Post rain, 7pm, snails creep around on newly planted crops. I think I’m alone, well, just me and the snails. The light is fading fast this evening, I can hear barking, perhaps foxes. There are always noises here that sound close, today apples are dropping, bouncing on the hard ground. I’m trying to record the dahlias on O6, wandering on their collective noun; a handful? It’s difficult not to have a handful when these flowers explode onto the scene. The light has dropped to the point I can’t see what I’m drawing, time to leave

 Drawing in the fading light

Drawing in the fading light

I’m away for a week housesitting in Cornwall. It rains, a lot, after the summer of dry blue skies. I’m missing the allotments more than I thought I would. I’m not in a city, there’s an expanse of sky over the water, I usually love this vista and never want to leave, but the allotments are calling me back. I feel I’m missing all the growth and change by not being there at least for a week.

I’m in charge of checking some small seedlings while the plot owner is on holiday. I find myself talking to them very quietly, and to the snails that I then whisk away to another life in different part of North London. I know these little creatures have excellent homing instincts but it’s going to take them a while to get back. I carry on my lookout while drawing Swiss Chard.

 Sketching a Swiss Chard leaf

Sketching a Swiss Chard leaf

O6 and I enjoy a flask of tea together, sitting at the table, glorious sunshine, hats on.

We can’t sit still for long though, as the conversation meanders around the plot we’re jumping up to inspect more closely something we’re discussing. Two cucumbers, about two foot in length are cut, tomatoes, chillis, dahlias, aubergines, strawberries, all part of today’s crop. I don’t turn down the generous offer of tomatoes, a few of which don’t last the journey home, they’re so deliciously sweet.

 Colour pencils for a tiny tomato

Colour pencils for a tiny tomato

We’re just about to get going, I have my drawing materials in my hand when the heaven’s open. Quick as a flash everything transfers to the shed’s inner sanctum. This is the first time I’ve had to resort to waiting out a downpour in the shed, I’m ever so grateful that I’ve been lent a key, it’ll no doubt be my saving grace this winter.

It pours, the aroma of wet rain on the plants is all consuming, deep, deep breaths. I could happily wear a perfume called ‘after the rain’. Scents are intensified, the soil reaching up to touch the sense of smell. The joy of rain after heat.

The sky is still black so I don’t venture far as I’m not prepared for wetness today. I sit just outside the shed, hunkered down out of the way, starting to record pears on a tree. Soon, the sun returns and bakes my back again. Flies and insects scuttle and buzz around me. One hungry wasp sits on top of a pear, twisting and turning in a hole, oblivious to me as I lean in to take a good look.

 Drawing pears as they are being eaten

Drawing pears as they are being eaten

When I’m set up, settled, working away, I often fall into a reverie or slightly ‘removed from reality’ state. So focused with what I’m doing I get lost in the world of drawing that I’ve entered, not completely, but easily unaware of things around me other than the subject of my work. In the words of Nina Simone, “and I’m feeling good”…

Autumn has breathed its freshness over the plots today. The sun is behind me, it’s 6pm, I have a cardigan on for one of the first times this summer. A cotton scarf I’m wearing matches some dahlias, exactly, it’s not often shocking pick is a camouflage. 

 Scarf and Dahlia unexpected colour coordination

Scarf and Dahlia unexpected colour coordination

The coolness is refreshing and the unworkable heat of just a couple of weeks ago feels like a fading memory of a summer holiday in a different country.

A robin hops around in the sweetcorn bed to my side. As I work I become aware that I’m feeling cold and my hands are icy, it’s been so long since my body has experienced this that I sit for longer enjoying the feeling.

Laughter trickles across the plots from one to the south of where I’m sitting, joyous laughter.

 Borlotti Beans

Borlotti Beans

Sunday

I arrange to meet E2B at 10am. We time our arrival perfectly and walk through the gates together. We sit and chat and the frustration they arrived with ebbs quietly into the distance as we recount funny stories and end up crying with laughter together. That’s what the allotments do, they heal, they take the experiences from outside and they gently cleanse them away. It’s a joy to sit and talk, it’s easy to talk profoundly in this space, it feels protective. I watch wasps on the ground going mad with joy at fallen fruit, so much to feed on.

E2B has to go and I carry on sitting at the plot, drawing. It’s quiet, having taken a time for people to filter through the gates this morning. A few hours later I go to leave and see an allotmenteer who has been working hard all morning relaxing in a chair, in the sunshine.

 Starting a drawing

Starting a drawing

Month two and it's hot!

August 2018

We’re over a month in and it’s hot
Just give me another chance
This could be a new romance
Heat wave

Heatwave / Martha and the Vandellas

 Drawing in the evening light

Drawing in the evening light

I’m choosing my time carefully at the allotments. 

I’ve managed a few full days, but it’s been easier to work in the evenings when the temperature isn’t so scorchingly hot that my watercolours, painstakingly mixed, dry before I’ve had a chance to put them onto the paper.
***
There are clouds in the sky and at last a breeze. I place myself on the edge of a main path and started drawing. However, the sun being on its decent, is moving swiftly and the light changes every few minutes, which brings its own challenges.

 Bean Leaves in the evening light

Bean Leaves in the evening light

Two jays croak and cry their call while I can get completely lost in my work, again. I often forget I’m in the centre of London here, until from the south west, a helicopter’s rotor blades rhythmically slices through the peace and quiet. The breeze picks up and all of a sudden things come crashing down around me onto the path. I hesitantly turn round just as there’s another gust and suddenly the culprit is obvious, the bark from the tall London Plane trees that line the fence is falling off the trunks and tumbling down to earth.

***

It’s 10:20am Saturday morning. I’ve spotted one other person here so far, watering their plot, otherwise, there isn’t a lot of activity, yet.
My plan is to start understanding the plot boundaries, I pass forlorn apples that have dropped onto the ground to the utter glee of wasps, I see lavender awash with bees and butterflies.

The plots are a bit of a maze as I wander round I meet more people. I talk to J2 and I am cut a marrow and donated beans. I’m going to be torn between painting these beautiful vegetables and cooking them. If I’m lucky I’ll have time to do both. 

I sit with E2B for a while discussing the history of their plot, the process of getting the plot and how they tend it, every snippet told is fascinating to me.
As I leave, it isn’t the first or last time that I wish I was able to spend a full year working on this residency, not just part time, as and when I can afford time. I start to wonder about sponsorship again…

***

I am watching jam being made with gooseberries grown at the allotments, I learn and record the process. Intending to make it into a little artist’s book.
While I’m there we discuss how the plot is laid out, looking at notebooks recording day to day jobs and planting over the years, studying plot plans which I absolutely love. Plot plans are records showing the rotation of crops, these send me home with many ideas…

***

Saturday evening, clouds scurry by for, what feels like, the first time in weeks the rain has fallen and the temperature has dropped. The wind that steadily whips across the plot bring coolness. Clouds have turned a threatening grey and the heat that was so unrelenting is already slipping into a memory.

The sound of a breeze through leaves that edge the allotments, airplanes and distant sirens slide through when a momentary respite of the more playful wind allows.

It feels and smells very different here when the heat isn’t baking the earth. I am reminded of a new word I recently learned, Petrichor, ‘the pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather’.

This Saturday evening it’s quieter, people walk along the path at a faster pace.

 Writing, Painting one of the plots

Writing, Painting one of the plots

***

11am Saturday, I see only three people on plots but I hear so many more, rustling amongst the leaves as yet another promise of a hot day is borne out. I find dappled shade in the corner of Y1B. I throw fashion to one side and wear a hat I mistakenly bought a year or two ago. Again tucked away in the corner I can draw and paint undisturbed, thinking of nothing more complex than trying to identify the birdsong I hear. 

 Tiny plums fall around me like hailstorms

Tiny plums fall around me like hailstorms

Small plums drop from a tree is sited in the garden next to the allotments and which hangs over. They scatter around me.

As my arms become sticky with sweat flies on them, cabbage white butterflies float past and ants crawl over my pencil case. When the breeze picks up the plastic bottles sitting on top of the bean stakes dance and play their own tune.

***

I’m back on O6, this is my bedrock plot, I know O6 well, to every question I am given plentiful answers, to every query I am given history, to every rumble of my stomach I am given another fresh tomato! It is also where I leave my gardening/drawing seat and makeshift drawing board so that I don’t have to bring it along with me every visit. Today I sit in front of an espalier apple tree. 

 Espalier apples

Espalier apples

Hidden by trees children play on the plot behind, dipping in and out of water excitedly, squealing with delight and mock horror at spiders and bugs, trying to frighten one another with ever increasing large insects. O6 and I eat tomatoes warmed by today’s sunshine from the greenhouse while we take a break, there is nothing sweeter, more delicious, more fragrant than freshly picked fruit, particularly tomatoes from the vine, eaten seconds later.

***

 Under the shade of a Quince tree, I meet Harry

Under the shade of a Quince tree, I meet Harry

The day after I return and head to X2 where I sit in the shade of a quince tree on a bench. I’m visited by wasps, flies and Harry, an elderly chap with a personable character, a mongrel who has been sitting on G5 but meanders over to see who I am and if approved of. I didn’t realise how grateful I would be when first offered the use of chairs and benches by plot owners, although I have a drawing stool a bench offers me space to sit and put my paints and pencils down. And a back rest is sometimes a bonus.

Harry sits next to me and his owner appears. I learn how and when to prune soft fruit trees, as I am handed a greengage and although it’s incredibly tempting to eat, I must take it away to draw first.

 Figs

Figs

Shortly afterwards I am offered a fig straight from the tree, when I say this also has to come home to be drawn first I am offered a second and sit in a delicious dream as I eat this sun warmed fruit. With less than a minute from plot to palette its sweetness seeps into my very being.

 Aubergine

Aubergine

Next I am delivered a perfect shaped aubergine, but as this is going to be X2’s supper I don’t get to take this one home! I need to record this perfect specimen. I am frustrated and challenged by using watercolours which dry too quickly for me. I battle on, and work with pen on top of the watercolour to bring more structure into the piece.

I return the aubergine to X2 and I am handed a number of windfall cooking apples which I cook up that evening. As I turn to leave we spot a sparrow hawk swooping into the tree on the allotments’ boundary.

Arriving on Y1B the kettle is on and we sit to discuss the plot, I ask pre prepared questions but the conversation flows its own way and it is obvious that along with the other plot holders I have spoken to, Y1B love their plot, from the produce they grow to the sanctuary and happiness that comes hand in hand with the hard, but rewarding, work.

I return to O6 and am met by my new eight year old friend from O7A. She is interested in my drawings and paintings which I show her and we head off to her plot to draw together. I am on my stool, she on a chair beside me, while her four year old sister sits beside us, surprisingly quiet, watching. As her parents work on the plot we start to draw a rhubarb leaf together, the same leaf from different angles. We talk and work on our drawings discussing the leaf shape, marking out an outline shape so that we can correct it as we realise that elements are the wrong angle or in the wrong place. We both have our diagram and begin to draw detail, looking and studying together. She asks me questions about the leaf, how to draw it but she actually needs little help from me just the occasional piece of guidance. I look over to her drawing, there is such sensitivity, and such careful drawing I am delighted to sit and watch for a moment. We both work with coloured pencils, before starting to use colour we do a little work on how to merge colours, using blue and green to produce a darker, deeper green, and yellow and green (or blue) to produce a lighter, brighter colour. We also work with the weight of the pencil, lightly to let more of the white paper shine through, and heavily which covers the white paper to give a darker feel. Drawing together I have completely lost track of time and soon it is time for the family to go. My plot drawing partner finishes her piece, although I suggest she doesn’t rush it her enthusiasm takes over and  she is determined. I meanwhile leave mine officially ‘unfinished’ but in a state that I am happy with. I like drawings that don’t appear ‘finished’, they lead the mind to fill in and explore what’s missing. It’s a technique I sometimes use through choice.

 Rhubarb leaves. L's leaf left, my leaf right

Rhubarb leaves. L's leaf left, my leaf right

I am really impressed by the drawing of my new friend, she has worked hard and conscientiously and has produced a drawing she can be proud of. I’m sure I have gained as much enjoyment from this experience as she has, we hope to do it again. 

As I walk away into the evening light I am handed a beautiful bouquet of herbs, fresh mint, sage and rosemary, a wonderful gift.

 My herb bouquet

My herb bouquet

 

 

The first month of my residency

July 2018

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn't it a pity
Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city
- Summer in the city // Lovin’ spoonful

 Drawing in the shade

Drawing in the shade

I’m sitting on an old wooden chair on O6. Hiding from the blistering midday sun in the shade of the tree. She’s growing veg and that’s what I start drawing, but I have no idea what vegetables they are.

 Drawing vegetables

Drawing vegetables

In the distance the usual city backdrop of sirens carries on, but here, in this space, it’s calm and peaceful. There’s a rustling as a light breeze plays with the leaves while insects and butterflies silently flutter by. The sky is blue without a cloud, so no momentary respite from the sun.

Just like in my garden at home, there are old sash window weights by the side of the plot. I’ve kept ours because they look so useful, but whatever that use is has escaped me, perhaps I’ll find out what it is here.

The smell of hot sun baking the earth is so reminiscent of my childhood that the memories of my grandfather working in his allotment, memories from about 50 years ago, come flooding back. The heat on the earth has its own special scent.
I wished my grandfather and I had shared a common language, we used basic sign language and smiled at each other a lot, but we also spent companionable silences together on his allotment. If we’d shared a language I probably wouldn’t be sitting here unable to identify what it is I’m drawing.

 My insect attracting lanyard

My insect attracting lanyard

The bright yellow cord of my lanyard is attracting a number of little beasties who find the vibrant colour irresistible. A white butterfly and bee drift around me, but soon realise I have nothing other than perspiration to offer in the way of food. As they work away to their own timetable, mine slows down and relaxes. This is the perfect place to be to draw, I can lose myself in spaces and feelings like this, lose myself in the drawing, become completely in tune with the moment, what I’m doing now, and nothing else intrudes on that feeling or space. It’s not often I’m able to work like this, without interruption or my mind wandering, so it’s very special to find that I can tune in so quickly to that feeling at the allotments.

As I draw and time passes I’m beginning to realise what a formidable task I have ahead of me. I could easily become overwhelmed by the numerous things I want to draw and the season won’t last long enough for me to record everything. I could spend a year just drawing one plot, watching, sketching, recording growth and then decay. The sheds and signs intrigue me, but that’s definitely a subject for winter. The patterns of raised beds and rows of different leaves are beautiful. 

 Plant beds

Plant beds

And as I contemplate this, the metal end of my pencil has become so hot it’s difficult to handle.

 Drawing Sweetpeas

Drawing Sweetpeas

Another visit, in the evening, it’s still hot but there’s far more activity on the plots. The trickle of water is everywhere, surrounding me as people arrive to hydrate the earth. I’m sitting down, between artichokes and sweet peas, I can hear the allotment near to me on the left as it’s being irrigated. The pattering of water on leaves. That doesn’t stop numerous insects from landing on my arm and probably drinking jewels of sweat.

Drawing sweetpeas during my Artist in Residence at Highgate Allotments Association. Working in real time.
 Sketching an artichoke

Sketching an artichoke

I’m one of those people that find I need to take some time to wind myself up ready to talk to a lot of people. I’m not naturally outgoing, I’ve been described as a public introvert and a private extrovert and that feels like a good description. But, sometimes we just have to put ourselves out there and be brave and determined. I thought the annual allotment BBQ would be a good opportunity to show my work and introduce myself and my project to the allotmenteers.

It’s always a little disconcerting to put yourself and your work on the front firing line, nothing between you and unusual comments you don’t have a ready answer for. When an artist puts their work that they’ve spent hours working with on public display, it’s like putting your inner most secrets on show.

However, the allotmenteers I met were generous, many had read the newsletter and knew that there was a new artist in residence, so were ready to impart useful information, history, stand with me and chat. Those that weren’t aware of my residency were equally welcoming and interested to listen to my explanatory chat about my plans for the next year. I couldn’t have hoped for a friendlier audience.

Conversations were incredibly varied, there are so many different personalities, backgrounds, jobs and interests that are drawn together in allotments. It’s so exciting to find I have this ready source of fascinating information in this space. One person offered to help me identify the botanical names of plants, but I had to own up I was struggling to identify the common names so that was perhaps going to be outside of my remit and requirements! I even get a chance to talk to someone about my Bay Leaf Curl at home, but they didn’t have any folklore remedies to help me.

As the smells of the BBQ drifted towards my table by the shed, a plate of cooked vegetables also drifted over, along with a glass of wine. There were so many gestures of friendship and kindness in my day, I was moved by the generosity of spirit.

However even with a parasol I was finding the heat somewhat oppressive and regularly moved my table with work on, to hug the shade of the shed, with the occasional breeze attempting to play with my work and whipping away one or two of my artist’s books when I wasn’t keeping a close eye.

As the afternoon turns into the early evening the BBQ packs up and I see baskets full of stunning home grown produce and flowers, walking out through the gates. All of these I’ve missed a chance to draw!