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© 2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

Interview with Ruth Lacon

Ruth, you are perhaps unusual in having both science and visual art degrees. Do you see both these backgrounds active in your work in art and in your academic writing?

Very much so. Having gone through the courses for a science degree taught me a great deal that’s been of real value elsewhere. As far as academic work goes, it taught me to approach my material with both rigour and imagination. Rigour, because if I missed the obvious on my science course, even at undergraduate level, my lecturers would have had my hide! That’s a very valuable discipline to bring to the Arts side, which can be – how to be polite about this? – a little less careful about making sure it has covered all the background. Imagination, because a scientist as great as Albert Einstein could say that imagination was one of the most important things to have. You don’t make real breakthroughs in science by plodding along; you make them by asking, ‘Yes, but what if ...?’ That’s how you can learn genuinely new things, in science or in the humanities. And of course that’s the great question behind all speculative art and fiction too.

On a far more basic and practical level, all that time spent on a Zoology course learning how living things are put together taught me to use reference for my art. I don’t work photo-realistically, but I do like to make sure there is a level of realism there. If I draw animals, for example, I really don’t feel happy unless I know I’ve got the right number of legs moving in the right way, and the head and body in the correct accompanying pose. Having done a lot of scientific ecology, studying how whole ecosystems are put together, has been great for world-building too – I cheerfully admit to being a world-building junkie when I write fiction. The real world has an intricate elegance that is a huge challenge to even begin to match in a fictional construct.

Do you find there is a creative interaction between your analytic work on Tolkien’s writings and your art inspired by him?

Absolutely. To take one good example, there are two paintings of mine with Arthurian subjects which were shown at the Preview and are listed on my flyer ( Both of those sprang from doing some serious work on Tolkien’s last major unpublished piece, ‘The Fall of Arthur’. There are five-and-a-half lines of it in Carpenter’s Biography, and a one-sentence summary of the whole thing. Trying to work out what Tolkien was doing writing in that area at all, when if we take the famous Milton Waldman letter at face value (something which I don’t actually recommend – it’s always worth looking a little harder) J.R.R.T. really didn’t like the Arthurian legends, is tough enough. Trying to work out what might actually be in ‘The Fall of Arthur’ is a lot harder still. Even so, the hard, nitpicking grind of the evidence-gathering for the analytical work led me to a lot of exciting and interesting ideas. One of those was the driving force behind the making of those two pictures. ‘Sir Gawain Steals the Ship Guingelot’ is a picture about a tale that doesn’t exist except as a construct pieced together from the real medieval legends, the information we have about The Fall of Arthur, and Tolkien’s known thinking – and I’ve gone off and illustrated it.

Has Pauline Baynes – illustrator of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – been an important influence on your artwork? In a way she harks back to medieval narrative art as you seem to do, transforming it with a modern idiom.

Pauline Baynes must have been an influence somewhere along the line, because her illustrations are so much a part of Tolkien’s books. Several haven’t yet been illustrated by anyone else. So I knew Pauline Baynes’ art from a very early age. She’s never been consciously someone I tried to copy or develop from, however. By the time I became a seriously dedicated artist, there were a number of other, much more definite and more important sources for my developing style.

What or who then are some of the important influences on your illustrations?

The first important influence was certainly medieval European art. I’d been reading around in art books for many years, but one event in particular was really formative. Very early on in my Science course at Aberdeen University, our library was encouraging people to use it more. As part of that, the Special collections held an open day, and I went along. This very senior gentleman came along and asked what I would like to see, and I took a deep breath and said, ‘Something about Medieval manuscripts, please.’ Ten minutes later I was holding a 15th-century Book of Hours. I was totally swept away by the colour, the page design – everything. And I’ve never looked back. The next step was the discovery that other than biblical stories, there isn’t much published narrative illustration in the European medieval tradition. (Note to the Bibliotheque National in Paris – will you PLEASE publish your illustrated histories and Arthurian legends?!!). So that led me to medieval Persian and Islamic art. From there I moved on into Chinese and Japanese art. I do have some recent European influences – nobody who works in black-and-white can get away without at least name-checking Aubrey Beardsley! – but most of my really important influences are much older.

Niggle's First Sight of the Tree.

For many years your painting and writings have focussed quite a bit upon Tolkien’s work, both his scholarship and his fiction. How did you discover Tolkien and why has his work played such a large part in your life?

Actually, Tolkien wasn’t where my interest in the fantastic started. The real origins lie in the folklore of the Scottish Borders, where my family comes from. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a wonderful man, I’m not sure if you’d call him an amateur folklorist or a storyteller – or both – but he knew all the old folktales. But he died when I was quite young, eight or so, and I was left knowing that I had heard only parts of some stories, and no more than the titles of others, because of my age. So when I started using my local library at home in Edinburgh, I was looking for stories like Grandad’s. Most fairytale books were for younger children, most folklore books for adults – and I sort of stumbled over fantasy fiction in the middle – Tolkien, Lewis, Joy Chant, Andre Norton on the sci-fi side – I read anything I could get my hands on. Which wasn’t always much in the mid-seventies, but there you go. And I simply found that out of all of them, Tolkien’s world was one that I really liked, one that I could share with my best friend – one where I slowly realised there was room for me to play too. Reading the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings with their huge vistas of an imagined history was a real eye-opener. Reading The Silmarillion, blithely unaware at age twelve that this was a ‘difficult book’ (well, next to Victorian books on Borders folklore, trust me, it wasn’t) was another. I’ve stayed interested because there are few if any other modern writers who give you that sweep, that scope, that room for ‘other hands and minds’ as Tolkien himself put it. If you want that, and I do, then apart from Tolkien you pretty much have to go back to the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Homer.

Take us through a characteristic piece, “Niggle’s First Sight of the Tree”.

Oh, Colin! Did you have to pick that one! Okay, here goes ... Any picture of mine has two roots; the text, and my visual, imaginative response to it. In this case, well, if you’re going to have the chutzpah to tackle ‘Leaf By Niggle’, with its creative manifesto, that is the central, iconic scene, the one that encapsulates more of the message of the book than any other. From there, it was close reading of the text, and trying out possible compositions in very rough drawings. You have these elements – man, tree, bicycle, forest, distant mountains. In the first rough sketches I’m trying to work out what goes where. Then slowly the piece is refined, in more and more detailed drawings, until I know what its outlines are and what size it needs to be (if as here it isn’t set by a commissioning patron or editor). For some pieces I’ll do quite extensive colour roughs, trying out variant colour schemes over copies of a drawing (a great excuse to slosh loads of watercolour around). For others I don’t; if I’ve got a very clear picture in my head, then I can go straight on. The final piece is on watercolour paper, stretched on a board so it won’t warp while I’m working. How each one is built up can vary quite a lot, again usually depending how sure I am that I can ‘see’ what I want, or not. ‘Niggle’ is mostly in gouache, an opaque watercolour paint, but there is some acrylic, my other medium. I don’t normally use the two in the same main-panel of a picture like that, but ‘Niggle’ needed it. Rather unusually, there are quite a lot of small details in it that weren’t forecast in the initial drawings – I knew there had to be birds in the tree, but the different kinds I ended up with are nothing like the ones in the drawing! The border is very carefully worked out, and it’s not fully complete for a reason – I haven’t got the pride to say such an image by my hands could be complete. Like Bishop Eadfrith of the Lindisfarne Gospels, I left a corner not fully worked through. The saints in the corner panels were very carefully chosen to match Tolkien’s interests and the message of the story – another little bit of analytical work feeding into the artistic side.

I think I’ve gone a bit much on the technical end in my answer. Any piece of art is a marriage of inspiration and practical craft – inspiration most in the initial choices, craft in following that out. I picked ‘Leaf by Niggle’ because it is such a great statement of support for the role of creativity in the world, but it doesn’t have the problems for a visual artist that ‘On Fairy-Stories’ does. And of course it is a story; it lends itself to narrative art as an essay like ‘On Fairy Stories’ doesn’t. But which scene to show, what to choose – that was decided by inspiration, by visual imagination. I could see that scene, as much as appreciating its centrality to the tale from a literary, word-driven viewpoint. I wanted to paint it, and the rest, as they say, was history. It’s after that that the craft kicks in. Then you have to work your way through the process of taking that inspiration, that flash of vision, and turning it into a real object, a painting. That’s hard work but great fun at the same time – if it all goes well! – seeing what was only in my head slowly materialising on the paper in front of me.

Can you pick out some examples of your illustrations which illustrate the different concerns of your art?

Umm. Depends what you want to call different concerns, I suppose. The Preview pieces fell into very clear groups. ‘Dinas Bran’, Gwraig y Gogledd/Woman of the North’ and ‘Kelso races’ are probably the closest thing to straight art that you’ll see from me. All of these do have underlying narrative, but it’s not less important than the formal, visual aspects of the image, just less than usually visible, partly because of a much more abstracted though still representational style. Those three are what I call ‘British Aboriginal’, inspired by Australian Aboriginal art (yes, I grew up with a lot of Australiana around, courtesy of a father who at one time was deep-sea with the merchant navy), but working with a very different colour range, and my own choice of fomal and symbolic language. That’s based absolutely on my ‘country’, the landscapes and their legend of Britain and British archaeology too.

Apart from those, the acrylic pieces such as the two Arthurian ones have much more painterly, emotional concerns, whereas the gouache pieces such as ‘The Sunken Palace’ are far more precise, dryer, more narrative.

Your subjects clearly are much wider than Tolkien-inspired illustration, but usually seem to retain an affinity with his work. How are your pieces that are concerned with folklore, myth and sacred or historically special places linked with your specifically Tolkien-inspired work?

Well, for one thing, you don’t look far into Tolkien’s work without discovering its links to the whole web of medieval story, and that takes you deep into folklore and philosophy on all hands. It’s one way to get a good education, actually! So there are deep-lying links, but they can be very thin, several links in a chain down the line from something learned from studying Tolkien’s works. Or they can be quite close. It very much depends. Sorry if that’s a woolly answer, but there really is no one answer to that; it’s quite individual to the piece.

OK, onwards and upwards!

Design seems to be a unifying and constant feature of your visual work. What is the relation between design and narrative in your art?

They’re equally important, to put it simply. Composition, design, is the ‘bones’ of a picture. Narrative is the subject, and gives you the elements which hang around the design, the ‘flesh’ if you like. You have to get both right.

Dinas Bran.

Your strong, bright colours seem to be part of the uniqueness of your work among Tolkien-inspired artists. How have you developed colour as part of the meaning of your art?

As I mentioned, I started out with an interest in medieval art, first European and then Eastern. That will teach you not to be scared of colour if anything can! When any colour was so hard won, all colour mattered, and some colours could be as valuable as gold. Vermilion, ultramarine – using those was a mark of expense used and pains taken. I suppose with that background, and two media which both allow very strong colour (gouache is fairly close to medieval tempera, acrylic is cutting-edge paint chemistry), I see no reason not to use colour. This isn’t something ‘long ago and far away’, it’s something intensely visualised, in full colour, just like real life. So why not?

I love the way that you take your public into new and mystic paths. Your “A Portent at Persepolis” is a particularly evocative work. What is your own interpretation of it?

‘Your guess is as good as mine!’ she says cheerfully. ‘A Portent at Persepolis’ is something quite unusual, a painting with no text behind it. It just growed like Topsy on the paper. What does it mean? You choose ... It has many possible meanings, and all are valid. What I think of it, I’ll keep to myself – just this once I rather enjoy challenging my audience.

Your work has a huge range of reference -- including Shakespeare, Tolkien, Arthurian legend, Welsh folktale, medieval illuminated manuscript and even Eastern folklore. How on earth have you managed to hold this rich and eclectic mix together?

The same way most of us can believe six impossible things before breakfast and hold mutually contradictory ideas in creative tension. I can’t really give a good answer to this one, it just happens! What dominates in any painting springs in part from choice of subject and consideration of the text (not always in the obvious direction – I’ve gotten some very good results looking at Tolkien through the lens of my understanding of Japanese art – but then Carpenter does say Tolkien collected Japanese prints at one time, so maybe that isn’t as off the wall as it might seem). It also depends on which medium I’m using, and frankly, what I would like to do just then. Again, go back to Tolkien; study him and you learn how wide and how genuinely international medieval art and literature was. Stories could migrate from India to Iceland, transforming as they went. So I’m working in an honourable tradition.

Tolkien and his close friend C.S. Lewis were constantly hoping that their writings would capture glimpses of what lies ‘over the wall’ of the world. Do you have a similar hope for your work?

In my wilder and more ambitious momnts, yes. If something I did ever made one person look beyond the mundane and ask some of life’s more fulfilling questions - that would be a real achievement. If anything my hands had made could capture something of the eternal verities, then like Niggle I’d have to say ‘It’s a gift!’ I don’t think you can ever really say that came from inside you. You have to open up to the wider universe to catch a spark of it in your work, wherever your creativity lies.

A Portent at Persepolis.

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