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What a wonderful surprise!

Great Art Pic.jpg

Know how to make an artist happy? Give them art supplies. Stuff to play with. Great Art (whom I buy the majority of my wonderful linen canvases and paints from) sent me a lovely surprise this morning. They sent me an “art box” and a Seasons Greetings card. I am absolutely delighted. The two artists in this house will be fighting over the contents, however, those chocolates are mine! Thank you Great Art!

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And the winner is….Coventry.

So it wasn’t to be. Swansea wont be the UK city of culture in 2021. It will be Coventry. How disappointing.

We went down to a venue on the High Street called the Hyst to see the result announced live on BBC TV. There was a lot of excitement and cautious hope. We had to wait 20 minutes whilst we endured what must have been the dullest ever TV show called “The One Show”.

The winner was going to be made at the end of the show. In the meantime, I looked around for clues that it might be Swansea’s night, such as famous artist-media-types or interested journalists. There were none. The few people that looked like reporters looked as bored as we felt having to watch a TV programme interviewing some people about Master Chef (a competition cookery show) and then a segment about a new battleship.  At this point some “livelier” members of the crowd booed the footage of ex-Tory MP, Gyles Brandreth.

Gyles – not popular in Swansea

When the announcement was finally made the chap reading it didn’t bother with the usual fake suspense you see on “I’m a Celebrity” of “X-factor”. He just opened the envelope and read it out. Coventry. A massive groan went up! There may even have been few more boos but then a polite round of applause went round for the winning city. If it was decided on the numbers of people each city got to come out to hear the result, Coventry won hands down. There were plenty of people in Swansea but Coventry had a seemed to have lot more maybe, hundreds of supporters. So good luck to Coventry.

We still have plenty of culture here in Swansea but I’m very sad that Michael Sheen won’t get to do his production in Swansea now. It all reminds me of why I don’t get involved in sports, its very depressing when your side don’t win!!

Coventry celebrates, Swansea looks glum



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Swansea, city of culture!

Swansea is nervously awaiting to hear on Thursday if its has been selected as UK city of Culture 2021. We know that no UK city can be a European city of culture thanks to Brexit. Swansea has made the short list before and lost out to Hull. This time the other shortlisted cities are Coventry, Paisley and Stoke (Coventry is the bookies’ favourite at 7/4).

These are all post-industrial cities looking for a boost and Swansea would use the title well. This city is full of talented artists, writers and musicians. There is more to Swansea than Dylan Thomas and Kingsley Amis. These are the things that come to mind (in no particular order). We have a fantastic bay (second largest in Europe) with a very long sandy beach. We have a beautiful art school, two universities, and about 100 artists studios in the town centre, we have the Glynn Vivan Art Galley, Elysium Art Gallery, Mission Gallery, Volcano Theatre Group, Dylan Thomas Theatre, The Dylan Thomas exhbition in the Dylan Thomas Centre, Dylan Thomas house and trail, the Grand Theatre, Nawr experimental music gigs, several music venues in the Uplands, Swansea Museum, the Martime Museum, the Egypt Centre, Gower Festival, Troublemakers’ Festival, Gower Folk Festival, Blue Grass Festival  and I know I have forgotten lots of other things like Premiership football team.

the-grand-hotel-swansea-the-egypt-centreAward winning Egypt Centre

If we win, actor Michael Sheen, has promised a city-wide theatre production like the brilliant “The Passion” Easter production in Port Talbot in 2011. There are many other events planned too.

The Passion 2011

There is so much talent here and Swansea would really flourish given half a chance. The bookies have placed us at 10/1 but I have my fingers crossed that Swansea will get to be the first Welsh UK city of culture tomorrow. Pob Lwc, Abertawe!

Michael Sheen, Rhys Ifans and Bonnie Tyler


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Art of Protest (Chinese Style)

I am an arm-chair revolutionary. I shout at the TV and radio and lot and disagree with a lot that is going on in UK politics at the moment. However, in the UK, that’s no big deal. Its quite normal, in fact. However, in most countries around the world, free speech is a luxury and political comment or protest can be extremely dangerous for artists and their families. Badiucao (巴丢草) is a Chinese political cartoonist, who lives in self-imposed exile in Australia. The young artist, like Banksy, hides his identity with a pseudonym. Badiucao is an alias and he also hides his face by wearing a mask at public exhibitions of his work in Australia and the West. The reason for this secrecy is that his work is very provocative and much of it champions human rights causes. In China having strong opinions can land you in prison or at best under house arrest. I was ignorant of his existence until I heard him being interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service)  last week.

He built his reputation on ­social media, though he pulled out of Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, when it began to be heavily censored, and now ranges energetically across platforms, including performance art space and galleries. This year he painted, in Melbourne, in Hosier Lane, a double full-length portrait of Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, with his wife Liu Xia, just ­before the human rights activist died in prison on July 13. Liu Xia is currently under house arrest

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Melbourne Mural

Badiucao uses satire and pop culture references to get his point across. He often manipulates archetypal images from Communist Party propaganda to make subversive political statements. His work has been used by Amnesty InternationalFreedom HouseBBCCNN and China Digital Times; and has been exhibited around the world. Although he lives most of his life outside of China, he says that means he has a better understanding of events inside China because he has full access to uncensored media and the internet.

His cartooning technique also borrows from printmaking, he says, and from an older generation of Chinese propaganda. He favours black and red: “China’s complexion … iron and blood”.

Dictators and autocrats famously have no sense of humour and can’t stand being laughed at. President Xi Jinping is no different and cartoon images of Chinese leaders are banned in mainland China. One popular image Badiucao uses is that of Winnie the Pooh, whom apparently has more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese President.

Badiucao cartoon: ‘Winnie the Trophy’

He says “It’s not hard to become a political cartoonist from China because there are only five or six others” — the best-known being 44-year-old Wang Liming, who draws under the name Rebel Pepper and also had to leave China. Wang now lives in the US.

His political work has come at great personal cost. Badiucao has recently given up his Chinese citizenship after he gained Australian citizenship as China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship. Although he’s out of reach of the Chinese authorities he is still very protective of his identity in case the authorities turn their attention to his friends or family in mainland China.

“Dream” is made from the bed Badiucao first slept on when he moved to Australia, and 4,000 individually-sharpened pencils Credit: Badiucao


“Cancelled” features Badiucao’s Chinese passport, which was invalidated after he gained Australian citizenship. China does not allow its people to hold dual citizenship Credit: Badiucao


2018 Update:

Its hasn’t gotten any easier being a dissident artist. Badiucao was due to have an exhibition in Hong Kong, but it has been called off after threats made by Chinese authorities.  His show was part of events examining free speech in Hong Kong since the 2014 pro-democracy “umbrella” protests.  Badiucao had also been due to take part in a question and answer session at the opening alongside pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong and members of Russia’s feminist protest band Pussy Riot.

Badiucao was going to use this restraining chair of the type reportedly used by Chinese police in his show
Badiucao was going to use this restraining chair of the type reportedly used by Chinese police in his show

The Hong Kong is a “special administrative region”, and although Hong Kong’s system of government is separate from that of mainland China, it is clearly not immune to threats from Beijing. The cancellation comes as a timely illustration of the claims by pro-democracy activists that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being eroded by mainland China.


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Still Life?

Giorgio Morandi – Still Life Blue


“I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquillity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else.” – Giorgio Morandi.




Still life #24, 1963 by Tom Wesselmann


“The challenge for an artist is always to find your own way of doing something.” Tom Wesselmann (pop artist)




Adelheid Dietrich 


Once upon an time artists were regarded as skilled craftspeople. The purpose of their work was to glorify God and other religious subject matter. The Renaissance changed all that and in Protestant Europe, in the Netherlands in particular, painters had to find new wealthy patrons.

Some artists, like Vermeer, painted beautiful domestic scenes and other painted lush and abundant still lives. In a time before photography, the still life painting was a status symbol. A way of preserving one’s riches in a visual medium.  Long after those flowers had wilted and died, the painting was still on the wall of the patron’s house.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with still life painting. I think I associate the painting of still lives with the art I did at school. I suppose it’s because I like the outdoors as a subject as well as lots of natural light.  Here are a few examples from long ago. The first two on the left are done in oil pastels and the fruit with bottle was done in acrylic paint.

I have usually only painted still lives when I have been stuck indoors because of bad weather or winter darkness. It has been very gloomy and wet here lately, So I have been playing around with still lives as a subject matter but I have been dissatisfied with the composition of the pieces I did.

I eventually decided that my view point was too high up. Maybe the problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted from these paintings. Giorgio Morandi was interested in the relationship between the objects in his paintings. Tom Wesselmann’s pop art evoked the wealth of the USA consumer society and drew on the language of advertising.

I liked the utilitarian plainness of the enamel plate, cup and the white tea pot but my objects looked a bit lost on the table. In the end, I decided that my canvas was too big and the viewer wasn’t connected to the objects in the paintings. I needed to be closer and lower down. So I have now come down in scale and view point and toned down the colour, a lot. I ditched the fruit.

It seems to have done the trick. I feel closer to what I am painting. I find that whites against white background are surprisingly interesting (this is coming from  someone who loves bright colours). I like the clarity and simplicity. Painting like this is very challenging for me. You have to be very precise and there’s no where to hide. So perhaps I am coming round to Morandi’s “sense of tranquility” after all!

Bottle and Milk Jug

Milk Jug and Green Bottle


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Art of Protest (German Style)

I always admire imagination and creativity. Political protests usually are ignored by the media unless they are spectacularly massive or particularly eye-catching. Remember the anti-Trump “Pussy hat” protests of January this year? Of course you do, they had a “thing”, those pink hats that made the protest eye-catching.

“Pussy hats” of January 2017

So I particularly enjoyed reading the story of the latest work of a Berlin-based Collective, called Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für politische Schönheit -ZPS). This group of activists and performance artists say they want to expand the notion of what art is. They “blend performance art and politics to end political apathy.” Their projects are always linked to civil disobedience, acts of resistance and participatory engagement with the public. They set out to provoke a reaction. They go to great lengths get one too.

Bjorn Hoche
Bjorn Hocke (AfD)

Their latest work is a replica of the country’s national Holocaust memorial. So what? Its where they built it that’s genius. They built it outside the cottage belonging to Björn Höcke, one of the leaders of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) as a protest. Björn caused outrage earlier this year with a speech in which he described the memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s attitude to the Second World War… This laughable policy of coming to terms with the past is crippling us.” (Funny, how that raised arm in the photo of Mr Hocke is so different from those in the “Pussy Protest”)

Phillip Ruche
Phillipp Ruch (ZPS)

Philipp Ruch, one of the organisers of the protest, said the protest group had secretly begun renting the property next door to Höcke’s house in the village of Bornhagen in Thuringia, ten months ago, in response to the controversial speech. Then overnight on Wednesday this week, the activists erected 24 massive concrete columns outside Mr Höcke’s cottage.  Ruch said: “The Dresden speech, which ignores any serious argument about the annihilation of six million lives, may have shaken us more deeply than anything… we are slower than the media, but we are also more thorough.”

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The miniature Holocaust memorial installed outside Björn Höcke’s home

“He will now have to deal with the fact that he has neighbours who don’t consider the Holocaust Memorial a ‘monument of shame’, but who try to remember what had happened, to prevent it from happening again. We are doing our neighbourly duty” Ruch said. “We hope he enjoys the view every day when he looks out the window!”

Mr. Hocke’s new view

The installation is intended to send a daily reminder to Mr Höcke about the horrors of the Holocaust in which 6 million Jewish people were murdered. On the Centre for Political Beauty’s website, the collective said Mr Höcke should show contrition by “falling to his knees” in front of the memorial (see below for a really good example of how to do it).

Geschichte / Deutschland / 20. Jh. / Bundesrepublik Deutschland / Außenpolitik / Europa / Polen
German Chancellor, Billy Brandt 1970 at a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

The artists launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to keep up the protest action for at least two years, and reached its initial goal of €28,000 (£25,000) by mid-morning on Wednesday. It is now hoping to raise €54,000 to maintain the installation for five years. Asked for his reaction to the protest, Mr Höcke said he would respond “at another time”.



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Dusk on Kemble Street
Dusk on Kemble Street 24x30cm

Twilight is one of those words that sounds like a contraction of two longer words – like fortnight used to be “fourteen nights” or Goodbye used to be “God be with you”. The word has Dutch and Germanic origins. It was first used in England in the 14th century and probably is a contraction of “Tween” and “Light”- meaning light between, or half light. In Welsh, “cyfnos” means dusk, twilight but  “gwyll” also refers to  dusk, gloom, twilight. There is a very good Welsh language crime drama (Welsh Noir as they call it) called “Y Gwyll” (Dusk). There is an English language version (same actors, and storries but dialogue in English) but they changed the title to “Hinterland“. I much prefer the Welsh language version (click on the link to watch a clip here with English subtitles). Dusk suits the brooding nature of the landscape and the story lines much better, I think.

Dusk is a strange part of the day. It does not last long. It happens in the morning as well as the evening but it’s twilight in the evening I particularly love, especially in winter. The sky rapidly slips from light blue to a wonderful mauve before becoming darkest blue of night. The strange soft mauve glowing light is caused by the sun even after it has dipped below the horizon, as the sun’s rays are reflected from the atmosphere. A few minutes pass and lights are switched on indoors against the fading light but curtains have not yet been universally against the cold winter night. Just like Dylan Thomas’s “starless and bible-black” night in Under Milk Wood.

Evening on Brynmill Ave
Evening on Brynmill Avenue 48 x 38 cm







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Lights! Action!

imagesWe are two artists in this household. My husband, James Henry Johnston (known to friends and family as “Seamas”) is a portrait artist. With the gloomy light of winter making photography difficult we decided to invest in some softbox lights to so to take better photographs of our paintings.

I spent a good 40 minutes tidying the downstairs gallery/studio and then unpacking and assembling the lights. I actually like trying to assemble things like furniture or new electronic equipment, as I am quite geeky in that way. I only looked at the instructions once, only to  then to decide they were utterly useless.

E27 bulbs (not actual size)

The huge photographic lights have to handled with care as they can smash easily, as I found to my cost a few years ago. I was unwrapping my first E27 Lighting Lamp, ordered online, but I was laughing so hard at its unexpected size that I dropped the thing and it broke into powdery dust!

I had studied the helpful diagrams I’d found and added to my pinterest account. Whilst they made it plain that a 45% angle was necessary for the angle of the light, they were not so clear on how close to the painting they should be or high or low they should be positioned.  We took some photos of each other and then Seamas then spent several hours experiment with distance and angles.  So you can see from the photo below, my initial angles and heights were all wrong!

Seamas, concluded that every time you wanted to take a photo of a painting that you needed to several photographs at different heights and distances to see which one came out the best. I think that’s code for “I haven’t quite worked it out yet!”

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The Art of Protest

The “Old” Romantics were born in very uncertain times.  They flourished towards the end of the 18th century and lasted until the middle of the 19th Century.  They were a lot like us. They valued experiences, feelings and the individual. They loved wild places and were fascinated by the past, especially medieval times. The Romantics had plenty to say about the contemporary world, especially politics. The world they lived in was changing fast; everything was up for debate thanks to countless wars, revolutions and technological change.

Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”
Goya’s Third of May (1814)

With their emphasis on feeling they were born protestors. With their emphasis on emotion, their paintings were very dramatic and still speak to modern audiences. They painted very large paintings. Paintings so large that it was hard for the viewer not feel immersed in the scene too.


When Gericault exhibited his huge work, “The Raft of the Medusa”, almost 200 years ago in Paris it attracted a lot of strong comment, both good and bad. The painting was a self-conscious act of political protest.  The painting depicts a moment just before the rescue of the 15 survivors from the wreck of “Meduse”. It had taken almost 2 weeks to rescue them after their ship had sunk and in that time they had been forced to cannibalism. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain. The Romantics’ Protest Art still resonates today. Gericault’s’ Raft has spawned many homages over the years from Asterix the Gaul to Britain’s Banksy.

Protest Art began long before the camera was invented but I believe that a painting can still have a greater impact than a photograph ever can because of the emotional resonance it can bring to the subject matter. A painting that is an act of protest is all the more powerful then that artist does not normally deal in political themes.

Consider Robert Capa’s photo of an air raid in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War alongside a photograph of the aftermath of the German bombing of Guernica. Capa’s photo conveys deep anxiety (with the mother looking up at the sky) and the carnage in the second photo is ugly but essentially still.

Now, look at the horror of Picasso’s massive painting “Guernica”.The painting was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.

Here, despite the fact the painting is monochrome, horror is very real. Very present. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, and flames. You can feel the limbs being torn by the falling bombs. Like the Romantics, Picasso made his painting on a massive scale so its message could not be easily ignored. It is huge, standing at 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide. As early as 1968, Franco, the Fascist Dictator responsible for the bombing of Guernica, had expressed an interest in having Guernica come to Spain. Franco clearly did not understand the message of the painting but he knew enough to know it was a great work of art. However, Picasso expressly refused to allow this until Spain was a republic again.

Picasso’s Guernica has also spawned a host of homages.


This final image is a Chinese political cartoonist, Badiucao, whom I will be writing about in a future blog.


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How to Spot a Fake Artist

The world is full of fakes and fakers, and thus it has ever been. Art forgery dates back more than two thousand years. Roman sculptors produced copies of  Greek sculptures. During the C16th Printmaker, Albrecht Durer’s prints were ripped off, which was why he produced his own logo.

Durer’s logo

For good measure, he added a curse to his engraving of the Virgin Mary “Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others”.

Art forgery can be extremely lucrative, but modern dating and analysis techniques have made the identification of forged artwork much simpler. However, it is not this sort of the creators of fake art I want to discuss here. The fake artists I am concerned about are not the ones that try and pass off their work as that of famous artists.

These “artists” are passing themselves off as creative individuals when in fact they sweated labourers in a factory somewhere in China. There have been several articles in the international press about (Huffington Post, Daily Mail and Der Spiegel) about art “villages” that mass produce art. The conditions in the factories look to be very basic although the skill of the artists, as copyists, is pretty impressive. That’s what these trained artists do, produce dozens of replicas of iconic paintings daily to make ends meet. Incredibly, these factories produce roughly 60% of the world’s oil paintings. The majority of these paintings are meant for WalMart shoppers. You can even buy your cheap Chinese oil painting direct on  for an average price of about $60 (£40).

Buy Direct from the Wholesalers

However, it seems that these factories (or possibly middlemen) have worked out that their paintings can be sold more if they can pass as legitimately original art produced by a genuine artist.  I have come across the story of a dodgy salesman who bought Chinese painting at wholesale prices and passed them off as his own to tourists in Italy. So it seems that people are buying up these pastiches of Western art and created artists’ persona with a vague backstory to give the work more kudos. Their paintings are large, cheap and often come with free shipping.

They know that many people who buy online don’t always know a lot about art and cannot tell the difference between a real art and generic Walmart/Ikea fodder. They are exploiting this and it threatens to discredit the online art business.  It is the job of the online galleries that purport to sell “original art” to act as gatekeepers for the customers, so they are not fooled by these mass produced fakes. Trust is paramount. Some online galleries do this well and have a rigorous selection process.  Others, particularly those with thousands of artists, are less assiduous in how they vet their artists and this is worrying to independent artists like myself.

So, here’s what to look for:-

  1. A photograph of the artist. Unless you are a street artist like Banksy there better be a good reason why there isn’t a photo of the artist. Even better if the artist is photographed in the act of drawing, painting or standing in front of her paintings at an exhibition. That way you know the photo hasn’t been lifted from facebook.
  2. A surname, not just “Rosa” or “Luigi”.
  3. A detailed backstory, preferably with details of education and exhibitions.
  4. A website, facebook page, a blog, an Instagram page with a back story of paintings this will help prove that this a real artist and not the product of a factory.
  5. Subject matter – are they generic Tuscan villages/mountains/seascapes/lakes or are they of particular locations that are named?

If you buy a cheap Gucci bag on your holidays you know its a most likely to be a fake. Art is an investment. Make sure you are getting the real deal.

(these paintings may have been painted in Italy or China, I have no way of knowing for sure).