more about TALES FROM THE INNER CITY

The original illustrations in Tales from the Inner City are almost all oil paintings on canvas, and quite large, being about 150 x 100 cm, without any significant digital work. I like the direct materiality of tradition media, and enjoy being able to use whole-arm gestures for varied textural effects at this scale, using brushes, palette knives, pieces of cardboard and sometimes a shower squeegee drag wet oil paint across a canvas in large swipes before resolving details. Prior to painting, I create a number of sketches and smaller paintings. For this book, a lot of preliminary work was digital, and took the form of photo-collage – piecing together collected found images – which is why the imagery in the final paintings remains quite naturalistic, drawing on photographic references. In some cases, I built small scenes, like museum dioramas. The opening image ‘Deer’, for instance, was based upon small toys in a little forest constructed in a cardboard box on my windowsill to recreate the desired lighting and composition.

I’m often asked which comes first, the story or the illustration. It’s a bit of both, a very to-and-fro process, one act informing the other throughout successive revisions. Initially I usually have some kind of fuzzy mental image, like partially recalled a dream: a lungfish in a gutter with a slightly human face, a cloud of butterflies descending, or factory workers riding a yak home on a snowy afternoon. I’m not always sure where these images come from, although I can usually identify a few influences, whether from news stories, conversations, or misinterpretations of something only partially seen or heard (a common source for ideas.)

Painting or writing is almost a way of trying to figure out what those originating daydreams might mean, as they are sketched out in both words and pictures in small notebooks, using a pencil or a ballpoint pen, often repeatedly, trying alternative variations of the same idea. This is an evolutionary process over hours, weeks or months, and I often end up with something quite different to that which I originally imagined. What interests me especially is the way that an absurd premise – crocodiles on an office floor, bears with lawyers, an orca lost in the sky – can begin to make perfect sense if you spend enough time writing or drawing them. Hidden meanings, fears, revelations, philosophical questions and real-life concerns seem to naturally bubble up, almost of their own accord.

The overarching thought that flowed from a lot of this work was simply this: humans are animals. It’s something we tend to forget, that we are just one species among several million on this planet. Our laws and religion tell us we are special, but are we really? One thing we know for sure is that we are self-aggrandizing, and weighed down by very human notions of superiority, so much so that we tend to separate ourselves and only communicate inwardly. Fictional writing and painting is actually part of this process, it’s an internal dialogue that forever turns inward, but at least it tries to look outward too, at non-human things, the way a naturalist does.

I often wonder if our distant ancestors had a better grasp of other animal life, being inherent naturalists. When you think about cave drawings, which are so often stories, the dominant motifs are animals; and when you look at children, many of their very first words and concepts and toys are animals. Not human figures, but bears, elephants, giraffes, mice. Our daughter was born around the time I began thinking about this book and first writing these stories, and it cemented the idea that there is something very fundamental about a human longing for closeness to our non-human relatives, either through pets, stories, toys, television shows or visits to the zoo, which for a while I was doing on a weekly basis, living not too far from it, joining a small army of other new parents with strollers.

And yet we also seem to disrespect animals greatly, when you look at the way they are treated, the destruction of their habitat, the cruelties of factory farming and many other deprivations and injustices. And that’s just by our own measure. There are no doubt further problems we are yet to become aware of, such as the recent discovery that noise from cargo ships interferes with long-distance whale communication, with possibly fatal consequences. Increasingly we live in environments far removed from forests, plains, deserts and oceans, from cities to cyberspace, and then constantly feel that something is deeply missing. We are also belatedly realizing that our own fate is deeply entwined with that of our fellow creatures (something our distant ancestors already knew well) as we continue to degrade the land, ocean and air, and tick off species as they become routinely extinct, disrupting a finely-tuned network. As I was getting this volume ready for print, the last male Northern White Rhino died, just like the rhino in my own poem, bringing countless millions of years of that subspecies’ history to an end. We are living in the Anthropocene era, the first time it can be said a single species is responsible for global changes on a geological scale, and arguably a period of mass-extinction not known since the demise of the dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous.

My book is not so much about these issues, but the vague and confusing sense as contemporary humans, especially city-dwellers, that life has become very strange and complex against the backdrop of this massive crisis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because strangeness and complexity opens the mind to imagination to possibility, a heightened awareness, a self-critical appraisal that drives us to think about the world differently. But that imagination does, I believe, need to be routinely steered back to things that matter, as an important means by which we realise the things that matter. Things that always seem bigger, older, wiser and ultimately more enduring than ourselves.

STORY ORIGINS

Specific inspirations for each story came from many different places, and while I don’t think it’s important to know about them – and sometimes much better not to – I’ll explain a little below for curious readers. I only hope that these notes do not adversely colour your own interpretations or impressions, or limit any other possible reading and understanding. Please click on the links below, or you can access a complete PDF (text only) of all of these notes here.

CROCODILE
BUTTERFLY
DOG
SNAIL
SHARK
CAT
PIG
MOONFISH
RHINO
OWL
FROG
SHEEP
HIPPO
LUNGFISH
ORCA
TIGER
PARROT
BEAR
EAGLE
FOX
PIGEON
BEE
YAK
HUMAN

A small diorama construction using toys, sticks, leaves, paper, paint and photography as a means of exploring visual ideas.

Preliminary sketch for 'Yak', charcoal on paper

Preliminary sketch for 'Hippo', paint and digital

Preliminary sketch for 'fox', photocopies and paint

Preliminary drawing for 'snails', pastel crayon