Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Drawing & Memory: Fay Ballard

Flipper, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

The more complicated and technical the production of art becomes, the more I admire drawing. One of my personal highlights of the Ravilious exhibition was his drawing of sunflowers, while earlier in the year I much enjoyed the RWA/Ingram Collection exhibition 'Drawing On', which offered work in contrasting styles by Elisabeth Frink, Edward Burra and many others.

A new discovery for me is Fay Ballard, who made a name for herself a decade ago creating beautifully observed botanical illustrations, before finding inspiration for a sequence of drawings that she exhibited in her 2014 exhibition 'House Clearance'. With a few exceptions each of these depicts an object in isolation - an old glove, say, or a blanket, or a chess set. These everyday things, none of any financial worth and most fairly battered-looking, have been drawn tenderly, some from life and others from memory.

Dead Bird, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

So unpretentious are the drawings that, leafing through the equally modest catalogue accompanying the exhibition, it takes a few minutes to notice how odd some of them are. Among the objects drawn from life is a creased receipt dated 5.5.67 from the Metropolitan Police, for 'Restoration of dog'. A dead bird is among those drawn from memory. We are looking at two different sets of images, one a record of things encountered during a house clearance and the other memories made manifest, but there is much else going on besides.

You might have guessed by now that Fay Ballard is the daughter of JG Ballard, novelist and cult hero. I was introduced to his work via the wonderful mobile library that brought civilisation to remote corners of Lincolnshire in the early 1980s, and via my mother, who picked out 'The Unlimited Dream Company' as a book she thought I might like. So I was introduced to the mythic suburb of Shepperton (a place I will probably never visit for the same reason I can never watch film versions of favourite novels), little knowing that its most imaginative inhabitant was also a father of three.

Car in Desert Photograph, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Subsequently I learned more about JG Ballard's life, from his childhood in Shanghai - where, coincidentally, my mother was born - to his early career as a writer of speculative fiction. He married in the mid-1950s but lost his wife Mary to a sudden illness in 1964, and thereafter raised their three young children himself, while writing a series of extraordinary and often disturbing books, and drinking heavily.

I was quite a Ballard obsessive for a few years, but all that was in the distant past when I came across a notice for 'House Clearance'. The exhibition had already been and gone, but I was directed to Fay's website, where the haunting clarity of the drawings instantly caught my attention. In an accompanying essay the artist described how, in 2008, she returned with her father to her childhood home, a place she hadn't seen for fifteen years as they invariably met elsewhere.

Opening the door with the key I'd kept all those years, the home had not changed since my childhood, the holiday flipper was holding the nursery door open, the dried lemon was sitting on the nursery mantelpiece, the plastic flower ornament was lying on my old bedroom window sill and our family hairbrush, still full of strands, was there on the bathroom ledge. Time had stopped still.

Memory Box: About My Father (copyright Fay Ballard)

A year later JG Ballard died and, while writers around the world expressed their admiration for his achievements, Fay returned to the house, feeling the past in rooms and on the staircase bannister, and most potently in objects. The flipper, so incongruous as a subject for a drawing, prompted a vivid recollection.

Yes, I remember how my brother swam across the bay in Rosas wearing that flipper as my father and I looked on from our apartment balcony at the tiny dot moving across the horizon terrified he'd be swept away by the currents. 

Of her mother, Fay tells us, her father had barely spoken after her death (when Fay herself was seven). There were no photographs on display. Now, going through her father's things, she began to find clues: a powder compact, and then a collection of tiny black and white photographs. For two of these her parents took turns to pose in front of a statue of a sphinx, in Chiswick House Gardens, proudly holding their first-born. This was in 1957, and the baby was her.

Omen (i), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Omen (ii), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Drawings of these photos were included in the exhibition, along with those of objects real and remembered. For Fay this was a profound personal experience. As she put it:

The drawings of my mother make concrete her presence. The process of drawing and making marks on to paper brings her back, and makes her real. 

But these drawings work on other levels too. In a way no literary biographer could emulate we see JG Ballard simultaneously as celebrated avant garde writer and as a girl's father, a man who used a carpet sweeper and taught the family origami, but who also drank whisky after breakfast and read 'Crash Injuries' by Jacob Kulowski on an orange corduroy sofa. Good artists make you see the world differently, and these drawings have done that for me.

For more information on Fay Ballard and her work, please visit her website

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