The Back Story
What is a ‘back story’ and why is it necessary? If you just love to paint and explore what is before your eyes, it’s not at all necessary to have a back story! It’s completely true that most modern masterpieces are done entirely as improvisations; “in process”, not thinking of anything at all. Don’t get me wrong – I love to paint from life, and I love to paint with spontaneity and improvisation; It’s that sometimes I am inspired by an image and/or story that is so evocative to me, it changes me in some way, and I thought it might help you to consider your own sources of content if I shared some of my ‘back stories’…
In a very real sense, you are a prism for your life, as I am mine. As a human being … the work you do in the world and how you do it reflects where you have been, how you cope with life’s ups and downs, your enthusiasm, tenacity, etc., etc.; Your many facets reflecting what has happened to you; Your personal ‘output’ bearing witness to how you have responded to those happenings. As an artist, to a discerning eye your work describes all of these things by viewing what has moved you to paint, and how you’ve painted it.
In my case, these days, the internal/psychological aspects affect me, perhaps more than what is apparent in the visual field. As previous lessons explain, I call it “digging for gold”. The result are works I call “below the neck” paintings; Paintings ‘felt as if by the whole body’ rather than just impressed by ‘the head’.
I considered that sharing some ‘back stories’ might encourage you to “dig in” for your own gold. The above painting is one with a back story… Here it is:
It’s August 11th … summer in England. In the small hamlet of Haigh, the sun has been up since 4 a.m., enveloping the hillside with it’s gentle light and all appears to be serene and quiet. The country lanes are alive with the buzz of insects, the joyful, ever-present birdsong, beautifully scented with the heady smells of hawthorne in bloom. On the surface, it’s the quintessential summer day so typical to the English country idyll, and yet the Hewlett children are in turmoil, for it is 1914 and the Great War has begun.
Belgium seems so far away, but recently the war landed squarely at their cottage in the Hamlet of Haigh in the north of England. The Army have already visited the cottage and the Hewlett children have recently said goodbye to two of the family horses in the first round of conscriptions. The fear of losing their beloved pony, ‘Old Betty’ in the next round of conscriptions is too much to bear… What could they do? In their anguish, they decided to implore the great Lord Kitchener himself, asking that their pony be spared… The letter reads:
“Dear Lord Kitchener,
We are writing for our pony which we are very afraid will be taken for your army. Please spare her! Daddy says she is going to be a mother early next year and she is 17 years old. It would break our hearts to let her go. We have given 2 others, and 3 of our family are now fighting for the Navy.
Mother and all will do anything for you, but do please let us keep old Betty and send official word quickly before anyone comes.
Your Troubled Little Britishers,
Freda and PL Hewlett.”
They received their response, a letter from Whitehall, saving the pony.
Don’t you just love the creativity and passion of children? It was reported that the ‘Old Betty’ letter also provided inspiration to the author of the play, War Horse; It certainly inspired me to paint!
I suppose like most people, I am interested in and inspired by the past. Last summer we visited the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England and found these letters, along with a photograph of Old Betty. The documents were inspiring enough, but coincidentally, Old Betty and the children lived down the lane from my English home, and no doubt rode along the very same lanes I did as a child. As a keen artist, I was inspired to paint, and began the painting you see here as an art demonstration at a World War I centenary event commemorative event at Haigh Hall, Wigan, a stone’s throw where the letter was written, all those years ago. It was only after I’d painted it that I realized that the date was highly significant to a personal family milestone.
I love coincidences. I think they’re like spiritual markers, to lead us along life’s path, and only we can read the signs sent for us. I ask myself, “Did people stop dreaming, stop seeing their own ‘burning bushes’ 2000 years ago? Does everything we believe have to come filtered via someone else’s prism?” I think not. So, how do we read the signs sent for us? Artists are supposed to be good at finding the road less traveled. Where is our ‘insight’? How do we recognize images and symbols sent just for us to contemplate? Consider the following:
Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart alluded to the need to finding out own path via symbols when he said …
“When the soul wishes to experience something, she throws an image before her, and seeks to embody the image.”
Also, I was reading about Kabbalah and maybe found a clue there too … It went something like this…
“You will know the truth for she will ring like a bell within you”
Enjoy…. “1914 : Old Betty, War Pony” by Lesley C. Humphrey is a 30” x 40” oil on canvas. It bears fragments of the “Little Britishers” letter and Lord Kitchener’s response. Colour and strong, gestural lines wind turmoil with hope in this painting, about gentle children caught in the turbulence and mayhem of war.
Want to see the process in action? Click below.
PAY IT FORWARD
My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”. In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information. The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey. If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."
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