Thoughts after Blog North


Outside the main gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Coming back to the UK after three months of travel had the potential to be something of a letdown.  Luckily I had an event on the horizon that promised to cushion my landing and gave me something to anticipate.

While living in Liverpool, I’d come across, a site devoted to raising the cultural profile of Manchester, particularly among visitors from outside the city.  They also organise events like the Manchester Weekender mini festival. The writing is sharp, the design is attractive and user-friendly, and I wish something like it existed in Liverpool.  They’ve joined forces with the similarly minded Culture Vulture of Leeds to create a new network in northern England for arts and travel bloggers. The event sounded like a perfect day out in arty Yorkshire (yes, I realise those two words might not habitually appear in print together, but they should): a morning at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park with two writing workshops, and the afternoon spent at the Hepworth Wakefield. Both were places I’d wanted to visit for sometime but hadn’t managed to haul myself across the M62 to see.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny with puffy clouds floating across the sky. The coach driver from Wakefield station to YSP could not have been more friendly and the ride over was a nice chance to chat with fellow bloggers. I hadn’t realised how big the sculpture park is until the bus was winding its way down the drive to drop us at the Hayloft, a recently restored space above the cafe now used for small group events and other functions.  It turns out that this was the student union in YSP’s previous life as Bretton Hall College–and artist Jo Brown remembered it well from her student days there. I love finding living memories and connections to the history of a place.

Creative Tourist co-founder Susie Stubbs kicked off proceedings by welcoming us and opened the day with a focused and accessible presentation about blogging.  Keeping journalistic standards, finding your niche and your voice, having focus and discipline in writing regularly (totally not my strong point and something I definitely need to work on), creating original content and knowing your audience are precepts that seem quite straightforward but can get overlooked in the quest for SEO (how much of your Twitter feed is filled with regurgitated lists? It makes up an unfortunately large percentage of content in the travel blogging world. Perhaps it’s time for a cull).  Also a reminder to actively engage with others in your field and play nice online is never amiss.

We headed downstairs and across the park for our guided tour of the Miro exhibition with YSP curator Sarah.  The show certainly opened my eyes to the breadth of his practice as a sculptor.  I really enjoyed the room devoted to bringing the creative process alive with original objects and casts that led to the final work.  Miro’s willingness to experiment with different techniques, foundries and finishes right up to the end of his career was impressive and inspiring.  Clearly he never lost a sense of curiosity.  Many of the shapes and forms connected clearly with motifs more familiar from his painting.  There was a great sense of connection between sculpture and the vibrant paintings and prints on display in the indoor galleries.  One blogger asked about the decision to keep the walls white instead of painting them. Sarah replied that colour had been considered, but once the prints were introduced to the gallery space that their colours helped lift it and that it would have perhaps lessened the effect of the prints to have them on a coloured surface.

Some of my favourite objects were the ‘phantasmagorical creatures’ that were based on fantasies Miro had in his youth and made manifest quite late in his life.  They were small, strange assemblages that were a juxtaposition of found objects with a green-y bronze, very weathered looking patina.  Maurice Sendak’s recent death must have still been floating around in the back of my mind, because the first thing that came to mind is they were the mechanical cousins of the creatures in Where the Wild Things are.

After lunch, our second workshop was with arts writer Jessica Lack. Her talk about writing about contemporary art was so helpful in unpacking different types of arts writing (preview, feature, review etc) and offering helpful strategies for dealing with problems art critics encounter (how do you write about a show that’s mediocre? what if you just don’t get a particular work of conceptual art?).  Her tips are ones I will definitely return to.  She was really engaging and not afraid to use a few mistakes she’d made as examples of what not to do.  I’d love to attend a critical writing workshop with her if the chance presents itself.

So far, so good.  I met another American expat, Kate Feld, also of Creative Tourist and we had a good natter on the ride over to the Hepworth. I wasn’t sure if the day could get any better, but the Hepworth and their team were as fantastic as Nina and Sarah at YSP.  When we arrived we were greeted by the news that the gallery had just welcomed their 500,000th visitor–and weren’t yet a year old.  That’s a pretty impressive number and had far exceeded their predictions for the first year.  We were in time to see the twice a week puppet show performance within Heather & Ivan Morison‘s exhibition.  It was an interesting dimension to the work–the puppets looked to be roughly hewn and the light and sound aspects of the performance made it a really immersive experience. I admit I struggled to hear all of the dialogue clearly, but we had been advised that acoustics weren’t really a focal point of the building’s design.

The space inside allows much more light to enter than is typical of most galleries, where windows are often shaded or blocked to protect paintings.  I realised how unusual it was to visit to venues with such a strong emphasis on sculpture.  The Hepworth has such a rich permanent collection, augmented with loans like the familiar Pelagos and an interesting range of  nexhibitions of postwar and contemporary art. David Thorpe’s arts and crafts-influenced works I’d seen before at the Saatchi Gallery and really liked, so they were a welcome inclusion.

Hepworth Gallery; still sunny.

After an hour or so in the galleries, we got to chat over some very tasty nibbles and wine.  Conversation kept drifting off as we gazed out the window of the auditorium; the building is actually built into a river bank and the weir and resident heron (cheekily named Patrick by Hepworth staff) transfixed us.  One member of the team admitted it was sometimes difficult to have meetings in the room because everyone was looking out the window.  I wish I’d taken a picture now, it was a great panorama.  When we did get back to conversation, it was great to meet bloggers from different backgrounds with different interests.  There were students, artists, diarists and I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to everyone.

A massive thank you to everyone who helped organise such a fun and interesting day out.  The only downside to it is that there was no way of taking everything in at either gallery; I’m definitely going to have to go back and explore both further.  I felt revived and inspired as a blogger and very supported by the idea of this network.  I look forward to being involved in future events.



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My digital home

Welcome to The Northernist.  This is the umbrella for my loves in life: travel, art, food and conversation.  I think I might finally have managed to create a site where they all intersect and overlap.

Thinking about what I wanted this site to be, I came to a few realiasations. I’d been a digital vagrant for most of the last decade, starting a blog here or there on a whim. Most of them have been on another platform, whose limitations were starting to frustrate me.  So it was probably time to settle down and get stuck in on WordPress, where I’m bringing over previous content (ie my writing in Liverpool and eventually my travel writing from earlier this year).  I also want to use this as a platform for conversation (interview sounds too formal) with some of the most interesting writers, travelers, critics and creators I’ve encountered on the interwebs.

As for the title? I’m a northerner by birth (US) and marriage (UK).  The two have different connotations in each country, but I’m proud to call them both home.  Certainly there’s plenty to celebrate about my adopted northern home, and that will be my focus until the next foreign adventure reveals itself.

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"Magritte: The Pleasure Principle" at Tate Liverpool

Last Friday I finally got around to seeing Tate’s summer/autumn blockbuster Magritte show. There was a special evening viewing for Tate members and a visit from broadcaster Jon Snow in his capacity as head of the Tate Members’ Committee. He was a genial speaker and did his best to fly the flag for increasing Tate’s membership. I spoke with him briefly after his talk and he was very pleasant and obliging, signing autographs when asked.

The exhibition itself was worth seeing for the usual reasons, namely bringing together a large number of works, many never having been on display in the UK before, and showing another dimension to Magritte’s oeuvre by including some of his commercial output, personal photographs and home movies. In that sense it bears some resemblence to the recent Picasso: Peace and Freedom and Nam June Paik exhibitions.

The actual experience of being in the first gallery was surreal in a sonic sense. It was an extremely windy night and noises from the roof (which at times sounded like you were beneath a bowling alley) combined with the periodic squeaking of a visitor’s folding portable seat was distinctly unsettling. The grey and wooden walls, occasionally glaring lights and darkened windows added to an atmosphere heavy with uncertainty. Perhaps it was just my height or where I was standing in relation to the pictures, but I found the lighting to be overly harsh at times and dazzling to the point of obscuring the works. This may not have been an issue in the daytime, but it did affect how I was able to look at some of the paintings. One stand out in the first section was The Age of Fire which was far closer to Dali and Ernst in its use of Surrealist imagery than to Magritte’s usual subjects.

Because the rooms were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, it was easy to see recurring ideas, such as the pipe. Works spanning twenty years were grouped together, making the interplay between image and language more interesting. Two versions of The Flavour of Tears hung side by side, possibly for the first time since leaving Magritte’s studio, since each was created for a patron who didn’t know of the other’s commission. Artistically they weren’t Magritte’s strongest work, but raised questions of originality and reproduction similar to those Marcel Duchamp considered in his readymades and miniature versions of his best-known works, the Boites en Valises.

The final galleries were easier on the eyes, decorated in soothing blues to reflect the streetscapes of day and night and the sky of Golconda. There were also several female nudes and a gallery of erotic illustrations (discreetly curtained off from the main gallery space). Overall it was an impressive show in terms of quality and quantity and will doubtless pull a similar number of visitors when it moves on to Vienna next month.

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A Pie for Mikey

The internet’s a funny thing. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Jennifer Perillo or her husband, Mikey. Then, via Twitter, I learned of his sudden death. Jennifer posted the recipe for his favorite pie and said anyone who wanted to do something to help her could simply make this pie in his memory and share it.

As these things do, the word spread quicky and even appeared on CNN’s Eatocracy. I’m making this pie along with many other people, for many reasons. It’s been a difficult and exhausting week here in several ways. Riots have torn across much of England, churning up issues many people would rather not acknowledge except to deal out punishment. My own city has been affected, reminding many that while Liverpool has changed a great deal since the Toxteth riots of 1981, desperate social problems still persist. And I’m standing at a crossroads in the dark, not knowing which path to follow.

Something I read earlier I know to be true: “One thing I love about cooking is that when things don’t make sense, cooking allows you to DO something. Even if it is only baking a pie.”

Right now, the world is not making a lot of sense to me. So when I didn’t know what else to do, I made this:

Jennifer Perillo‘s Creamy Peanut Butter Pie

Shauna James Ahern has gluten-free and dairy-free alternatives (and some very heartfelt and moving words) over on Gluten-Free Girl

Serves 10 to 12

I’ve added approximate weight measurements, where not already stated, for those outside the US and because, and I can’t quite believe it either, I prefer to bake with measurements in grams (or ounces at a push) rather than cups. This American never thought she could cook in metric.

8 ounces/225g chocolate cookies (I used the Co-op’s Double Chocolate Chip cookies. It only came in a 200g pack, so I’d get a larger amount next time. I had to improvise the sides of the crust using some graham crackers, as you’ll see below)

4 tablespoons/2oz/50g (approx) butter, melted

4 ounces finely chopped chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Divine 70% Dark Chocolate, but milk chocolate would probably be fine for the base)

1/4 cup/1 oz/35g chopped peanuts

1 cup/250ml heavy/double cream

8 ounces/225g cream cheese (Again, you may find the 200g regular pack isn’t enough, but that’s what I used. Get a large one and use the rest on bagels if you prefer).

1 cup/10 oz/285g creamy-style peanut butter (I used crunchy as that’s what was in the house)

1 cup/5 oz/145g confectioner’s sugar

1 – 14 ounce/397g can sweetened condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 oz/25g melted chocolate to drizzle on top, optional

Add the cookies to the bowl of a food processor and pulse into fine crumbs. Combine melted butter and cookie crumbs in a small bowl, and stir with a fork to mix well. Press mixture into the bottom and 1-inch up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave. Pour over bottom of cookie crust and spread to the edges using an off-set spatula. Sprinkle chopped peanuts over the melted chocolate. Place pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

I had a 100g bag of peanuts, so I just used them all.

Pour the heavy cream into a bowl and beat using a stand mixer or hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a small bowl and store in refrigerator until ready to use. Place the cream cheese and peanut butter in a deep bowl. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in the confectioner’s sugar. Add the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract and lemon juice. Increase speed to medium and beat until all the ingredients are combined and filling is smooth.

Stir in 1/3 of the whipped cream into the filling mixture (helps lighten the batter, making it easier to fold in the remaining whipped cream). Fold in the remaining whipped cream. Pour the filling into the prepared springform pan. Drizzle the melted chocolate on top, if using, and refrigerate for three hours or overnight before serving.

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March is review month

Or so it would seem. Seven Streets has posted my review of the new branch of Pi on Rose Lane. I’m chuffed to have a byline on one of my favourite Liverpool sites. I’ll summarise if you don’t have time to read: the beer is great, the pies are good, it’s been very popular so far and well worth a visit. But please do click through if you get a chance.

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guest blog at Liverpool Daily Post

I can’t quite call it my first byline proper, but a review I wrote on the Walker Art Gallery’s latest exhibition A Collector’s Eye: Cranach to Pissarro has been published on the LDP’s Arts Blog

Thanks to Arts editor Laura Davis for putting the call out.

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so long A Foundation

Apparently it’s been rumoured for a few months, but their press release of Feb 10 confirms that they have now closed. Seven Streets first announced it yesterday and an interesting discussion is going on in the comments about the extent this closure reflects wider threats to arts organisations across Liverpool as the funding cuts take hold.

I’ll miss A Foundation. It helped begin the push to rebrand the Baltic Triangle area as a creative quarter and it really is a fantastic space. They put on exhibitions unlike any other gallery in Liverpool and while the quality of the art could vary widely, a couple shows have stuck with me in the five years they were open.

The exhibition that opened A Foundation was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s collaboration, Silent Sound. Initially performed at St George’s Hall in September 2006, then transformed into an installation that immersed you in layers of sound mixing subliminal messages and Victorian spiritualism with sonic architecture. I wish I’d written about it at the time, but I remember it now as mysterious, dark and enchanting. I remember making my way through the Blade Factory to its upper floor, not knowing what I would find or hear, but once I arrived I simply wanted to lie in the middle of the space and let their work wash over me. I’ve just discovered Silent Sound is part of their solo show PUBLICSFEAR at the South London Gallery, which runs until March 18.

A Foundation became a place to visit during Biennials; I can’t recall now which exhibitions took place between 2006 and 2008, or even during 2008’s ‘Made Up.’ I’m a bad art blogger. But last year A Foundation came back with two strong artists performing throughout the Biennial, Sachiko Abe and Antti Laitinen. Sachiko’s Paper Mountain and Laitinen’s boat of bark questioned boundaries of art, performance and dedication.

Occasionally the atmosphere was as cold as the building itself; some of the work in the New Contemporaries shows made me question what was coming out of art colleges these days (I’ve seen better degree shows). I really didn’t appreciate the way guests were physically corralled and forced to leave at the PV of the last Biennial. And it was a schlep from the nearest bus stop. But these are quibbles; A Foundation leaves a gap in Liverpool’s cultural landscape that won’t be easily filled in the short term. I don’t know what will become of the building, which is somehow greater than the sum of its already substantial parts. I hope James Moores takes on a new creative tenant or group. I would love to be able to go in and do something interesting with it: art space, event space, tech space, social media hub, bakery, cafe and rooftop bar. And a permanent home for The Swan Pedalo. Who’s with me?


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