On Picasso - The Guardian

There’s a photograph of the artist Pablo Picasso drawing in his studio with Paloma (his daughter) that encapsulates what I find so compelling about him. In that moment, they drew on the same level, both of them intent on what they’re doing. Not only did he take what she was doing seriously, her freedom was what he was aiming for in his own work.

Last October I saw a stunning exhibition of Picasso sculptures at MoMA in New York. The surging energy in his work was invigorating, undeniable and fresh. It’s evident in almost everything he created. His work vibrates with unbridled creativity, curiosity and a voracious hunger for life. It’s what art in all forms is about, an expression of what it means to be alive on this earth.

Sculpture finds him at play more than his painting. Maybe, because he considered himself a painter first, he was liberated to play with sculpture. His sculpture was unbound, and included wood, plaster, pebbles, metal, clay, found objects, bronze and assemblage. To put a pair of bicycle handlebars together with saddle and see that they can be a bull, a bird running along with two forks for legs, the essence of duckness (or is it a goose?), the endless small clay sketches of animals, people and fawns. Often made in minutes, they’re the physical manifestations of thoughts running through a mind, lyrical thoughts which embody life, not endlessly laboured over compositions. 

They’re directly the essence of his famous quote “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”.

Part of my job as an author and illustrator is going into schools and reading my stories to children. I also draw with them, showing them how to draw the characters in my books. Without fail, I’m awed by the sheer energy and life in their drawings. They’ve drawn following me, but their drawings always have a zeal that makes mine seem devoid of life. I don’t think its only innocence, its the directness, there’s a kind of truth in them, no disguise. They draw what they feel without compromise. Adults learn to compromise, to worry about what others think and rein themselves in. Children just put it out there. They’re less concerned with being polite, so their drawings contain, honestly, what they feel. 

Picasso too was not overly concerned with being polite. For all its downsides, along with that came incredible freedom of expression that ran untrammeled into so many areas.

By the age of 11 children have somehow learnt that there’s a right way to draw, and a wrong way. There isn’t.

I’ve recently been working with the fantastic CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) on the importance of visual literacy. I see children arrive in primary education expressing themselves freely and intuitively through drawing. Expressing themselves in ways they can’t yet verbally. They’re also able to understand sophisticated feelings and emotions when they “read” a picture that they don’t yet have the vocabulary for. Yet, when they leave at 11, pictures are out of the equation and too many feel unconfident about drawing. They’ve somehow learnt that there’s a right way to draw, and a wrong way. There isn’t. The only thing that matters is that you do it and you express yourself through it. It’s an incredibly valuable resource that they’re losing.

Picasso painted and sculpted without constraint to express himself. He shows us all aspects of life, light and dark, its sorrows, its joys and its pleasures. This is why he inspires.

There’s another quote of his I like,

“Inspiration exists... but it has to find you working”.


A kind of paradise - British Council 

Can a seemingly inevitable course of action be changed?

It's a question I keep asking myself since being asked by the British Council to take part in FLUPP, a literary festival that just took place in one of the unpacified favelas of Rio. 

Never having been in South America, my overriding perception of favela life came from the 2002 film City of God, a brutal and shocking work portraying life in the slums of Rio. That perception was reinforced with a quick 'Google Images' search of Vigario Geral (the favela where FLUPP took place). 

Vigario Geral is one of around a thousand favelas in Rio. Infamous for the massacre that took place there in 1993. The court case continues so details remain unclear. Allegedly, a 'death squad' made up of policemen entered the favela and shot dead 21 innocent people in retaliation for the killing of four police officers by drug traffickers. 

Understandably, suspicion of the police runs high. Which is why when we arrive at the outskirts of Vigario Geral, we find a permanent concrete roadblock manned by taciturn young men carrying machine guns. They work for the local drug baron who runs this particular favela and are in place to deter rival drug gangs, but mainly to keep out the police. This is a no go area for them... and ordinarily, it would be for us too. But today we are quickly ferried from our minibus and through the large concrete blocks, avoiding direct eye-contact with the young soldiers, and then into another minibus which will take us into the heart of Vigario Geral. The difference between the somewhat high-spirited mood when we left our hotel in central Rio 45 minutes ago and now is tangible. What the hell have we got ourselves into?
In our flimsy cocoon we barrel through winding, narrow shack-lined streets, nervous observers of a world that suddenly has terminally sharp edges, unable to read the intent behind the impassive, but inquisitive looks coming our way.

The minibus stops sharply and we bundle out into the humid day. 100 yards ahead of us, down a lane too narrow for vehicles we see a building too large for our idea of a favela, only four storeys high, but aggressively asserting itself against the breezeblock shacks making up most of the favela. Painted matte black and green with an enormous clenched fist on top resisting the sky, it makes a solidly intimidating impression.
It is the home of Affroreggae, a non-governmental organisation set up in response to the massacre and aiming to use arts and culture as a route out of the seemingly inevitable path young people are taking into drug trafficking and violence. 

It is also the headquarters for five days of FLUPP, the brainchild of the inspirational Julio Ludemir who brokered the peace with the local drug baron allowing us to stay here in safety. Allowing Vigario Geral to become a place where for five days; residents, drug lords and boys with guns watched as children listened to stories. A place where Palestinian poets discussed politics of the Middle-East and an Afghan rap duo shook the stage, where French comic artists fascinated their initially reluctant teenage audience with hi-speed intricate drawing. A place where the local residents showed the 53 invited writers, artists, poets, and thinkers how to do the 'battle of the tiny step', a dance craze sweeping the favelas. A place where government ministers discussed literature policy and UK-based literacy advocates learnt about working on the frontline. A place where a cleaner in her fifties could stand up on stage in front of everyone and with a confident voice read the poems she thought no-one would ever hear. 
It was a place where the usual barriers and suspicions were temporarily broken down. 

This is FLUPP's second year. But what is it trying to do? Its acronymic name gives the clue to its aim. FL standing for Festival Literatura and UPP, being the already established acronym for the police-led pacification process taking place in the favelas (in the lead up to next year's football World Cup and 2016's Olympics). A process that has, so far, taken place in only 20 of the 1000 existing favelas in Rio. A process, as everyone comments; that replaces violent men holding guns with different violent men holding guns. And no one with a memory wants to see police holding guns here. 
So, FLUPP argues that alongside the militaristic state solution, you need to get to the real root of the problem and access the minds of young people before they get involved in drugs, crime and violence. One way is through literature, by bringing the pleasure of reading to a wider audience who would not normally access it, and by promoting the writing talents of those who live here also. It may sound slight... but in giving young imaginations access to a world beyond the seemingly inescapable violent bubble in which they reside, and giving them a medium of self-expression you give hope to people with none. And with that hope you can bring the seeds of a desire to change the world they live in, and the tools to move beyond it. 

On the final day I was privileged to spend three and a half intense hours in the street drawing portraits of the clamouring children of the favela (alongside Boulet... the brilliant French comic artist). All of them shouting 'me next, me next'. Drawing can be an incredible form of intimacy, and I was amazed by the spirit and nerve of these children as they all confidently held my gaze as I drew them. Ten minutes of total connection with someone from the other side, someone outside the bubble. Ten minutes of realisation that we are essentially the same, 10 minutes offering each other nothing but good will. 10 minutes where my inability to speak Portuguese and theirs to speak English was of absolutely no consequence. All this whilst next to us others queued in noisy conversation to have tramlines, geometric patterns and flowers cut into their hair by a busy team of snipping barbers; and others painted on the ground alongside us, at first containing their anarchic masterpieces to the paper provided, but quickly overwhelming such flimsy support and creating a sea of paint which became an impromptu mud pit, children skidding through it in total glee. All to occasional outbreaks of dancing and French travel writer Jean-Yves weaving through the crowds serenading everyone on his African thumb harp.
A kind of paradise, if only for an afternoon.

A kind of paradise, but a fleeting one. One where some of the keen, beautiful and fiercely bright children I met are on the cusp, on the cusp of tipping into a life where they will choose to embrace violence over anything positive. Where they will choose to involve themselves in drug trafficking for the easier money. And where some will end up dead because of those choices. And for just one of the children I met to choose that will be a tragedy, because, right now that's not what they want.

I was there also to make a film in response to one that I'd co-created with Candy Gourlay for Pop-Up Projects in London. A film made with and about the children of Nightingale Primary School in Hackney, introducing themselves to the children in Rio. Speaking about their lives in London, what they like and what they don't about where they live. What they're reading, how they engaged with the Olympics and what they'd like to do with their lives. 
After FLUPP departed I spent a day with the children at their school just outside Vigario Geral, filming with them and finally interviewing them. Trying to get an unadorned idea of what they actually felt about where they lived, good or bad. And, what might be done about any of it.
The eventual aim to create a lasting connection between the two schools, one where they can speak honestly about their lives.
And it was in these interviews that so much simple but hard hitting truth came out that it was genuinely hard to hear and not be overwhelmed by the incredible spirit and bravery of children who witness unimaginable violence throughout their lives. Children six years old who live in fear of stray bullets, who live with constant disruption, who see neighbours being set on fire, who will soon find it hard not to be sucked into that world of drugs. Children who loved FLUPP being in Vigario Geral for many reasons; because they met people they normally wouldn't and they saw a world they normally don't, and because they could dare to dream that their dreams might turn out to be more than that. And for many, it was the only week of their lives they haven't heard a single gunshot. 

Maybe that is how you start to change a seemingly inevitable course of action. You gain trust and you open minds. Maybe that is how.


How to be a Lion - Empowering quiet voices

I wrote How to be a Lion because I wanted to say to children, there are many ways that you can be you. Don't be afraid to show it. If you're quiet, gentle, or a dreamer - they're all valid. I wanted to show how you might resist the pressure to conform - to stand up for who it is you want to be. To think for yourself - not to accept someone else's point of view just because that makes it easier to fit in.

We'll only ever be truly happy if we can confidently be who it is we actually are. That goes for adults as much as for children.

If we want to teach children to become 'whole' adults, we need to celebrate all sides and allow them to be a functioning part of us. 

The pressure to conform can start early. Before a child begins nursery or primary school they're safe in their own world. Free to be whoever it is they are. Free to show a sensitive side, to be gentle and to dream. In the rough and tumble of a social setting, at nursery or primary school, showing these sides can make them feel vulnerable. It's vital to socialise, but peer pressure frequently goes further and suggests that to fit in you need to conform to another way of being, that it's not cool to be a certain way or like certain things.

This is the same for boys and girls, but I noticed growing up, how boys have to demonstrate a narrow idea of masculinity to fit in. It can be difficult to show gentler or more sensitive sides of yourself. Those with the loudest voices tend to dominate - pressuring others to follow. If we want to teach children to become 'whole' adults, we need to celebrate all sides and allow them to be a functioning part of us.

Quiet voices easily get lost among louder ones, but we shouldn't let that happen. Often the quieter voices are the thinking voices.

Quiet voices easily get lost among louder ones, but we shouldn't let that happen. Often the quieter voices are the thinking voices. Creative thought requires time to think and 'daydreaming' is a part of that. Gazing out of the window lost in thought is frowned upon at school - but I know very few writers who don't spend some time doing exactly that as they're turning ideas over. We should be empowering children with quieter voices - they have a lot to say.

In How to be a Lion we meet Leonard, a lion who thinks for himself. Big and strong, but with a gentle side; a poet and a dreamer. One day, he meets Marianne, who helps him out with a poem he's stuck on. They have much in common and become the best of friends.

The problem is, Marianne is a duck.

The fierce lions say; lions should chomp ducks! Lions aren't supposed to be gentle and they definitely shouldn't be writing poems!

Lions are supposed to be fierce. Leonard is doing it all wrong!

What will Leonard and Marianne do? Must Leonard change his ways to fit in?

Should he gobble up Marianne?!

The idea for How to be a Lion came at the time of the 2016 US election campaign. One belligerent, bullying voice was getting all the attention. He's now the figurehead of the 'free' world, setting a disastrous example. I can't help thinking that this voice will inevitably filter down to children and that they, inevitably, will learn from it, and possibly in time, learn to become like it.

I hope I've written a book that counters that voice, and the intolerance behind it, and instead demonstrates the importance of kindness and empathy. I think it's time we celebrate the power of quieter more thoughtful voices (anyone who's read Susan Cain's 'Quiet' may recognise this call).

I also wanted to address ‘toxic’ masculinity. If you remember, some truly awful quotes relating to women came from Trump. We need to demonstrate a different idea of masculinity. 'How to be a Lion' tries to show that being gentle, compassionate and exhibiting a sensitive side are not weaknesses... they’re part of being a well rounded, thinking, human being.

Most importantly, How to be a Lion is a book about thinking for yourself and having the courage to stand up for who you are: because, if we go through life not being ourselves, we'll never be truly happy.

If all this sounds pretty didactic, I hope the book isn't. I wrote it to be enjoyed. The story of what can happen when a lion meets a duck. I hope it's funny, and touching, and I hope you'll love meeting Leonard and Marianne.

Wildlife Heroes - Born Free Foundation talk

What a privilege to be here speaking with you all, and to have been in Kenya with Will seeing the incredible work that Born Free is doing. 
To meet the dedicated people who are part of the Born Free family. And to see the vital community work that Will describes.

As we encroach on wild habitats globally – and from every conversation I had in Kenya, it is obvious that successful conservation is about working closely with those communities. 

Drawing and talking with the children in Kanjoo was to experience pure unbridled enthusiasm and joy. As it was in Ol Moti school in Amboseli. 

But to stand further back is to see how little chance these kids have to succeed.

The odds are stacked against them – they just don’t know yet, by how much. 

Government investment in infrastructure is minimal. Impassable roads. Very little secondary education, no sanitation. To see a 5 year old collect his family’s drinking water from the polluted river we’d just driven through was sobering. 

If a community has so little… if you, as a parent, don’t have the means to put a proper roof over your child’s head or give them clean water, never mind an education. If lions attack your cattle or elephants trample your crops, then caring about wildlife comes way down your list of priorities, it could even feel like an asset to strip. 

Born Free is doing incredible work with the communities around Amboseli and Meru. Dedicated teams on the ground working on a daily basis to find solutions to complicated problems. Predator proof Bomas in Maasai communities, protecting livestock from lions. Working with ‘Big Life’ to build elephant corridors between reserves. 

At Ol Moti school in Amboseli, children taught in the Born Free funded classrooms and for those who live too far from school to walk, a dorm. 

At Kanjoo in Meru, more classrooms, books, support for teachers and something as simple as a new toilet block. The old one was a dilapidated rusty shack built precariously over a deep long drop pit.

Whilst we were there, Will was able to announce funding for a new kitchen.

Work with the schools goes hand in hand with work across the communities. Bore holes to bring fresh water, Discussions about buying a plot of land for the community to farm. Clearing invasive lantana and planting new saplings which will then help to aquify Meru.

Bringing awareness of how protecting the environment brings economic benefits for the community which will also benefit the wildlife. 

Those children are our future wildlife heroes… if we teach them wisely. 

I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books for children for 15 years. In that time, I’ve learnt how foundational a good children’s book is.If a child loves a book, the message it tells goes in deeply and stays with them all their lives.

I was in Kenya for 5 weeks, researching, painting and writing. Partly visiting Born Free projects, and partly bouncing around, hanging off the top of a Land Rover painting and photographing wildlife. 

The best job in the world… 

But not without dangers. Anyone who’s seen the film Born Free will know that the top of a land rover is also highly appealing to lions. When you’re three feet from an athletic young lion - the top of the land rover feels like a mad place to hang out. 

I’ve been gathering material for a book, a written and visual travelogue that will show the natural wonders I saw, the dangers they face and the ways organisations like Born Free are trying to protect them. 

I’m not a conservation expert, but working with Born Free, I’ve had the chance, at first hand, to witness nature as lived in the wild…  And to learn from those at the top of their field who are trying to solve the animal/human conflict cycle.

My journey of discovery, my eyes opening, will be shared by all who read the book we publish together.In libraries, schools and at home with their parents. 

If I can create a book that engenders a love of nature in children along with an understanding of the threats to its survival, perhaps, when they’re grown and assuming positions of responsibility in the world, they will become better stewards of the natural world than we have been. 

Children marched last week to urge us to finally take action to protect the natural world. We can help by sharing with them the knowledge they’ll need to become tomorrow’s wildlife heroes.

The richness of nature in Kenya is overwhelming. There’s so much to take in. Everywhere I looked, I saw something truly incredible. Life there feels abundant. 

Of course, it’s not... it’s fragile. 

A friend of mine who knows Kenya well said to me ‘Breathe it in, because it’s not going to last.’

Very close to my studio runs Regent’s Canal. On its banks and open from the start of March until early November is a lovely outdoor cafe where I go to write and procrastinate wildly.  All of us who go there, love watching a pair of coots who nest in a tangle of branches that emerge from some broken brickwork on the opposite bank. 
Each year they bring up a new brood of chicks, who we watch with joy as they grow older. 

Last week as the cafe opened for Spring, I looked across the canal and saw that the opposite bank had been neatly trimmed. Untidy branches, nest and all, thoughtlessly tidied away from sight. Nowhere now for these coots to nest. 

How little thought or care we give to even the smallest bits of nature that are trying to cling on despite us. Until we change this unthinking mindset in all of us, the natural world stands very little chance. 

As far as I see it, education is the only possible way forward.

Born Free Foundation - Blog

Where do I start?

Maybe the monkeys on the roof, waking me up in Nairobi? Or the vast herds of elephant I followed across the lush grassy plains of Amboseli with Norah and Katito, learning each one has a name and each a unique personality. It could be the lioness who walked through my garden two nights running. Or, teaching the irrepressibly lively schoolchildren of Olmito Primary School how to draw elephants. The stunningly wild beauty of Kenya. The Lion Guardians’ permanent tented camp in the very middle of the bush. The magnificently ever-changing Kilimanjaro, catching dawn’s early light. The knowing appraisals and hard bargaining at the Maasai cattle market in Kimana. Trying to capture a baboon’s questioning expression as I draw it from the top of a Land Rover. Watching a pair of lions behind long grass who are watching a warthog getting closer, closer, ever fatally closer. Seeing the effectiveness of lion proof bomas encircling Maasai dwellings, and meeting the communities whose lives have improved as a consequence of them. Tracking lions by following their paw prints in the dusty red earth. The many stories of Martin who drives for Born Free. The large poisonous snake we were certain we saw slithering into our Land Rover while we were having our lunch... and then having to drive immediately afterwards, expecting it to strike at any moment. A train journey from the Hay Festival which was the start of the conversation. Or perhaps meeting Virginia McKenna and talking about Born Free, artists in residence and how they might create a new story together.

I’ve been in Kenya for a couple of weeks already, researching, painting and writing. Gathering material for a book, a visual travelogue that will show the natural wonders I see, the dangers faced by them and the different ways organisations like Born Free are trying to protect them. The richness of nature here is overwhelming. There’s so much to take in. Everywhere I look, I see something truly incredible. Life here feels abundant. Of course, it’s not... it’s fragile. A friend of mine who knows Kenya well said to me ‘Breathe it in, because it’s not going to last.’

Think of these two figures; There are 20,000 lions left living in the wild in Africa and, in the last decade, 10,000 lions have died through poaching or hunting. Put those figures together and you see how precarious their existence is. Which is to speak of one species only. 

What can an artist in residence achieve in a conversation about conservation? I’ve been writing and illustrating picture books for children for 15 years. In that time, I’ve learnt how foundational  a good children’s book can be. When children love a book, the message it tells is driven in deeply and stays, sometimes all their lives. If I can create a book that engenders a love of nature in children along with an understanding of the threats to it’s survival, perhaps, when they’re grown and assuming positions of responsibility, they will want to be better stewards of the natural world than we have been. Drawing and painting are ways of communicating a message that can’t always be achieved with words, ways of expressing how we see and experience the beauty of the world. A way that children respond to naturally. 

We live in an increasingly urbanised world, ever more detached from nature and its rhythms. The more disconnected we become, the less we understand what animals need in order to survive us. Their wild habitat is encroached by us in all places. Do we make allowances for nature as we expand our world into theirs? How does an elephant travel from one range to another in the modern world, when now there are roads, villages and farmers’ fields crossing their ancient routes? What do we do when a subsistence farmer, whose crops and livelihood have been trampled, spears an elephant in retaliation for this destruction?

I’m not a conservation expert, but, working with Born Free, I have the chance, at first hand, to witness nature as lived in the wild and to learn from those at the top of their field who are trying to solve the animal/human conflict cycle. My journey of discovery into Kenya’s wild beautiful places, will be shared by all who read the book we publish, in libraries, schools and at home with their parents. I hope its message will go in deeply. Children marched last week trying to urge us to finally take action to protect the natural world. I hope, when they’re in charge, they’ll be able to do much more than we have done. We can help by sharing with them the knowledge they’ll 

need to make a difference.

I’ll be publishing this book with the Born Free Foundation in the next year. In the meantime, I’ll be updating the progress of the residency on the Born Free website, and on my twitter and instagram feeds. 

I hope you’d like to share this journey too. 

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