Poet Liz picks up her pencils again

Ten years after giving away her pencils, artist Liz Atkin has returned to drawing, as she explains to Tamzin Lewis.

Ten years after giving away her pencils, artist Liz Atkin has returned to drawing, as she explains to Tamzin Lewis.

This conversation, like many with artists and writers living in the North-East, comes round to Julia Darling.

The highly respected writer and poet, who lost her battle with cancer aged 48 last year, provided both inspiration and generous encouragement to many.

In addition to writing and teaching, Julia founded Diamond Twig, a non-profit making press, with fellow poet Ellen Phethean. Diamond Twig has nourished new women writers since 1992 and printed Liz Atkin's first poetry collection, Glee With A Blue Background, in 1999.

Liz says: "I met Julia in The Strawberry pub within a year of moving to Newcastle, about 20 years ago, and got to know her from then. When I started to write poetry she was like a mentor for a while, and then Diamond Twig published my first book. This gave me a confidence boost. Julia is a massive miss."

Writing meant a complete break with art for Liz, who had worked in pencil since attending St Martin's School of Art, London, in the 1970s. She exhibited across the UK and Europe, and one of her last shows was at the Laing Art Gallery in 1990. Five years later Liz decided to give her pencils away.

"I had always wondered whether I could write poetry. It niggled away in the back of my mind and I was a bit fed up, so I thought I would try.

"I was used to exhibitions when you stand back and no one knows who you are. But I enjoyed doing readings, much to my surprise. "

Liz's second collection, The Biscuit Tins of England, was published by Cullercoats-based Iron Press in 2003 and her third book, Still, is published by Flarestack Press in Somerset.

Liz, 55, who lives in Newcastle, says: "I gave my pencils away to a friend who has since moved to the Czech Republic. I didn't draw for 10 years; this is my first exhibition since then, so there has been a degree of working back into it.

"Poetry and art didn't really cross over. I can do one or the other wholeheartedly. I am now beginning to wonder if I can merge the two. Words and images are valid in their own right. I didn't draw on my art in my writing, but if I can marry the two together I will in the future."

Ten years after giving up art for poetry, Liz was inspired to start drawing again. Her new body of work focuses on the oddities of the human head and 50 drawings of old and young heads are on display at Newcastle Arts Centre. Liz is attracted to weird and unusual faces and her pictures are usually distorted, deformed and in some cases a bit disturbing.

The exhibition is structured by different series of works including Real Imaginary Friends, Bombshell, Collaged Heads and Dead Heads. There is also a group of pictures called Case Histories where the heads have extra eyes and teeth.

Little Insanities are like children's drawings with features in the wrong place. And This Way Up is a series of upside down heads. Liz's use of pencil adds to the starkness of her subjects' abnormalities.

"I am fascinated with people, faces and heads," Liz said. "These drawings are an exploration of looking at the human head. No two are the same. There is a poem about stones on the beach being like human heads. At first glance you think every stone is the same, but of course they aren't."

She added: "My favourites are the imaginary friend drawings, as I had an imaginary friend as a child. These pictures are of a child drawing the friend on tracing paper with a picture of the real friend behind. People who have imaginary friends always interest me."

Seven large-scale industrial drawings entitled Flowers from the End of Life Yard resulted from visits to a car scrapyard.

"They are based on cooling fans and radiators in cars.

"They struck me as looking like flowers. I linked flowers for mourning with the cliched idea of a car graveyard. They are an exercise in patterns."

A portrait of Liz by nine-year-old Alek Bartos, her Polish friend's son, hangs as part of this exhibition.

* Liz Atkin's drawings are at Newcastle Arts Centre until September 23. Open Mon to Sat, 9-5pm, admission free.

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