Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 29 July 2011


Rex and Howard, off on Hols!

H – So what are we doing today, Rex? 
R - Well, this is going to be our last blog post for the summer.... 
H - You mean we're going to take a break? A holiday?!!
R – A working holiday, Howard. 
H - Hm. 'Thought it was too good to be true. 
R - Yes, there’s no rest for the wicked.
H - So we won't be posting over the next four weeks?
R - No, we won't be writing new posts -- but we're going to send postcards to the blog every week, with views from our holiday tour of the world!
H - Great! And then when we get back at the start of September, a lot of stuff starts to happen, doesn’t it?
R - It does.
H - Would you like to enlighten us further?
R - I certainly would. We're going to have a new look for the blog, for starters.
H - Wowsers!
R - And we also have a fascinating ‘Around the Table’ discussion with our village's favourite son. He’s the boss, he’s the pip, he’s the championship; he’s most tip top…he’s Alan Lee.
H - Double wowsers!
R - That’s right.  We should explain to our readers that I managed to kidnap Alan whilst he was briefly back in town a few weeks ago. We plied him with croissant and coffee and had a very interesting chat about his art, his tango, and his misspent youth running with the Ruislip rebels.
H - Now you’re making stuff up again, Rex. I’ve told you about that before....
R - Sorry!
H – So, as well as a new look for the blog, and our 'Around the Table' chat with Alan, what else is there for readers to look forward to? 
R – We're going to open a shop.
H - What?!!
R - Well, Howard, it appears that there are some self-proclaimed John Barleycorn addicts out there, and I believe that one should feed one's addictions. 
H - Are you sure...?
R - Yes. Don’t you remember the old saying, “starve a fever, feed an addiction”?
H - No, actually I don't. What are we going to sell?
R - JB mugs!
H - Triple wowsers, in me trousers!
R - You can’t say that! It sounds a bit...rude. You could say, “Triple wowsers in me jumper,” if you like.
H - That doesn’t rhyme, though.
R - Don’t be elitist! Do rhymes have to rhyme in order to be rhymes, now?
H - Yes, they clearly do, Rex. And that is why I am the writer, and you are the drawing type person. 
R - I see. 
       H - And so, dear readers, au revoir. We'll send you a postcard every Friday, and we'll be back again at the beginning of September.

Next stop Heathrow!

Friday, 22 July 2011

ad referendum

H - This week we dive into the mundus for the first time. It's a strange place, so keep your wits about you.

R - Hold onto your hats...

H - Yes, quite, Rex.

R - ...tie your boots up tight, clip on your harness, pull up your socks, put on your cricket box, adjust your goggles, tighten your belts, feed your dogs, tether your camels, lead your horse to water, say your prayers, buy your shopping, leave a note for the milkman...

H - Rex!

R - Yes.

H - Shut up!

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Friday, 15 July 2011

vita brevis, ars lunga

H - It was very interesting to revisit our ‘Around the Table' discussion with Yoann Lossel over the past two weeks. Since the original conversation took place a few months ago, I’d forgotten half of the things we’d talked about. Reading the transcript of it brought back some lovely memories. 
R - I have repeatedly said that they are a charming couple, and I think I have been vindicated in that opinion.
H - Vindicated? 
R - Yes!
H - Why, who was against you?
R - Everyone is always against me, Howard, as you well know.
H - I think you might be a little bit paranoid, Rex.
R - Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get me.
H - Who on earth would be out to get you?
R - On earth?
H - Don’t start all that nonsense again. There are no aliens trying to abduct you, Rex. 
R - We’ll see about that!
H - Well, while we’re waiting, what will we post this week, Wex?
R - Huh? What do you mean, 'Wex'?
H - It’s alliteration, Rex. Alliteration. 
R - …
H - This material’s wasted on you. Never mind. What do you want to talk about?
R - Um…I’d like to talk about the three new Tarot cards I’ve just produced. “Ah,” I hear you cry, “there are only twenty-two major arcana cards in the Tarot; how can you possibly produce more major arcana?” 
H - ….
R - I said: “Ah,” I hear you cry, “there are only twenty-two major arcana; how can you possibly produce more major arcana?” 
H - Oh for heaven’s sake, Rex, yes, I'll say it: Ah. There are only twenty-two major arcana; how can you possibly produce more major arcana?
R – Well, since you ask, Howard, the answer is that in the spirit of this enterprise, I’ve changed them.
H - How have you changed them, Rex?
R - One of the characters from our story has been pulled out all together, and two characters have become far more relevant to the tale, hence they've found their way onto the John Barleycorn Tarot to replace two other characters that have diminished in importance.
H - This character shift came about during one of our Days of the Long Knives, when we cut several scenes, and merged others together, in order to make the story flow better. We're now happy that the story arc is working, and the first draft is going on a pace.
R - Yes.
H - So who are these new characters, Rex?
R - Maria Cross, Maggie’s mum has become Le Monde. Maggie’s friend Ally has become Le Toille.
H - And we introduce the rather charming character of Death! 
R – Yes, I tried several versions of Death -- first of all looking at the traditional Tarot death card, with the skeleton, and then, after several unsatisfactory attempts, opting for a comic book Grim Reaper, who is more in keeping with the style of the John Barleycorn Tarot.
H - Let’s have look at them then….

Maria Cross



Friday, 8 July 2011

around the table with...Yoann Lossel. Part 2.

Part II of our 'Around the Table' discussion with Yoann Lossel and Claire Briant. (For Part I, go here.) 

Dramatis Personae:
R - Rex                Y - Yoann
H - Howard         C - Claire

Crépuscle Impérial.

Y – I would like to show a painting that is part of a larger project, as it may clear up certain points we've been talking about. Also, I would like your opinion, as you are part of another culture. 
H - Have you got it online?
C - He's got it in his pocket!
R – Wow!
H – It's a USB stick, Rex. Welcome to the brave new world we live in!
Y – This piece is called “Imperial Twilight.”
H - “Imperial”? Is that from a French historical perspective?
Y – No, it’s not “imperial” as in French royalty -- what I wanted to show in this painting was the Celtic notion of royalty: the man, the King, linked to his soil, to the landscape. If the landscape dies, the King dies. If the King dies, the landscape dies. Landscape and man are very linked in Celtic myth. The ancient role of the King is this way.
H - This is something that is also important to [my wife] Terri, very fundamental to her work and being: that landscape and community are linked. Shakespeare explored this relationship too; in Macbeth, for example, when Duncan is murdered, nature goes crazy.
C - In this painting, the central figure is a woman, so it is also related to the notion that the woman is the soil. Without a woman, without a Queen, there is no kingdom. That is why Arthur chases after Guineviere, after Lancelot steals her, because without a Queen there is no crown.
Y - This is very true, because man and landscape cannot be separated -- and if you do separate them, life has no meaning anymore. Your landscape makes you what you are. I want to show the importance of this notion in my work. It is also the same with social context and political context. It has no meaning for us anymore. It just constrains us. I want to put more of the sacred in my work, to come back to the primary things.
C - What Yoann wants is your first impression of the painting….
R - It’s very, very beautiful. Who was your model?
C - A friend of ours.
R - She’s gorgeous.
H - Because of your use of the word “imperial” in the title, it brings up thoughts for me of Britannia (who is a mythic figure here in England, a female personification of the British Empire), as the woman in your painting is sitting on a throne. What is she holding?
Y - A dagger.
H - Pointing towards her?
C – Yes.
R - And the throne is a tree?
C – Yes. It's a real tree, an elm. People around where we live, in Broceliande, say it is a tree that you have to visit before you enter the forest because it is your door. It is really big, and the branches here are like two arms just hugging you.
H - She is holding the dagger out, but pressed into her.
Y - Yes. This is the first painting of a series of paintings in which the subject will be shown as a double: in its Golden Age form and in its Twlight form. Here, in the Twilight version of this image, the woman represents the land and the dagger is placed against her heart -- but she's just supporting it there, she's not putting it into her heart herself. If the land is to be killed, to be sacrificed, then you are the one making that choice. This is an invitation to think about the choices you are making. She says: “I am dying, the spirit of the land is dying, because you are not believing in me anymore, you are not paying attention to me. You are putting this dagger against my heart. If you truly want to do this, I won't stop you. It is your choice. But make that choice wisely. After all, if you choose to kill me, I will come back, because I am immortal . . . but you are not!” 
C - So think!
R - There are shades of this in John Barleycorn as well.
H – Yes, there's a story line in our graphic novel that follows this idea...
R – ...as though we are writing in tandem with what you are painting.
C – Yes, every time we read your blog, we say: “Those guys are thinking like us!” We can see where you are going.
Y - I very much wanted to discuss this with you, because there are so many things to compare between my work and your work. I am very happy to be here.
R - And we are very happy to have you here!
H - Another idea you've brought up that resonates with our work is the sense of choice, of paying attention to the choices we make. This is a very important thing for me, both spiritually and politically. 
C – It is always about choice.
        H – Yes – and yet society, it seems to me, so often makes the wrong choices! Life presents us with choices all the time -- between “this” and “that.” If you choose “this,” there are certain inevitable consequences; and if you choose “that,” there are other consequences. When we look back at history, we see bad choices made and we see the consequences of them -- but then we seem to go on making those same choices again, somehow expecting a different result! On the personal level, too, we so often blindly repeat negative patterns in our lives – seemingly unaware that we can actually make the choice to behave differently, and therefore create a different outcome. The consciousness that I want to awaken, through the use of this theme in storytelling, is that at any moment one can chose to do things differently. You don't have to wait for things around you to change. You can make a choice and make a change yourself.   
Y – Yes, that is what I, too, want to show. It is very important, not for just me, for all of us.  
H – Can I ask you a technical question now about what medium you work in? Some of the illustrators in our previous 'Around the Table' discussions started off as painters, but now work primarily on computer.... 
Y – I am a painter foremost, and this is book is my bible: La technique de la peinture a l’huile by Xavier de Langlais. Again, it is all about making choices. I am trying to tell something; I want my paintings to bring a message to people, like in older times. . . so why not use the older ways? This book has all the old techniques -- even how to mix your colours yourself. You know, van Eyck had a better technique than painters three or four hundred years after him, and even now some of his methods are still a mystery to us. Oil paint is very demanding. You need to posses the technique or you will ruin it. 
C - You do have to be very aware of the time it takes to work in this way. For example, this painting takes two days of work, and then ten days of drying, and you have to do this again and again and again.
H - So that's very different than the speed of working on a computer! 
Y – Yes. It's related to the idea that we talked about earlier, about the spiritual nature of art: The way to work is to think your work, and then pass this out to your hand, and from your hand into the matter.
R - So thought becoming matter…which is a form of magic.
Y - Yes!
H - Do you work on computers at all then, Yoann, when you are doing illustrations or book designs? 
Y – After the painting, yes. And you, Rex? How do you work?
R - I love working with pencil or inks on paper, or oil paint on canvas. I don’t work on a computer at all.
H – When we spoke with Didier Graffet, he told us he works on computer a lot, but is trying to go back to painting. Dave Wyatt illustrates on computer as well, but is returning to painting and drawing for his personal work. The commercial world demands speed, but it seems that when artists want to do their own art, they return to pen on paper.
Y - I think that work that is not brought into the material world is not really existing.
H - David said that as well, that work created digitally is not “real”...
Y - It is nothing.
H - ...and printing it out isn’t the same as actually having the tactile artwork, made by hand. 
R - I came back to painting maybe seven years ago, after years of working in commercial illustrating and story boarding. It was the first time I'd worked with oils, and it was an absolute delight.
Y - Oil painting nourishes itself on light, and on time -- both the time that passes, and the time you put into it. In this way, it nourishes the artist in turn.
        R - Can I just mention Rembrandt? One of the reasons that I love Rembrandt so much is because his technique, in his latter years, allowed him to do amazing things with just single strokes. Like the way he interpreted pattern on cloth: If you back off from the picture, the cloth looks very real; if you get up close, it's just a very fast movement of the brush. No one else can do that like he did. 
Y - This book, La technique de la peinture a l’huile, says that each painter has his own technique. It is something that develops out of old techniques, but also contains something of himself too, a chemistry that can’t be imitated. Rembrandt used a lot of resin in his paint -- the resin makes it a touch thicker, but at the same time the paint is still transparent. Nobody uses that resin anymore, but it is a necessary ingredient in his paintings. It gives a glaze to the paintings.
H – We are almost out of time, but before we finish, I want to quickly return to a previous conversation about colour, and ask a question. What is your favourite colour, Yoann?
Y - I cannot choose, because each colour is important, and each colour is telling a story. That is why I dress in black, because I do not want to make this choice! But of course, in art you must make a choice, you must find the right colours to tell the story of your painting. And if you do this right, so your painting will be right. Again we talk of the importance of making choices.

H – Thank you, Yoann, and Claire, for making the choice to come and talk with us today!

R – Yes, thank you both. It's been a real pleasure.

We end with this drawing that Yoann gave to me, Howard, as a gift when he left Devon. Thank you.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Around the table with...Yoann Lossel. Part 1.

Yoann, Claire, Howard and Rex.

French painter, illustrator, and designer Yoann Lossel was born in 1985, studied at the Ecole Pivaut in Nantes, and now lives in the Forest of Broceliande in Brittany, a landscape steeped in Celtic and Arthurian myth. Yoann is an attentive and contemplative traveler through mythic and imaginary lands, seeking to weave colour and light into pathways of connection between body and spirit. In this he is inspired by his immoderate love of the Masters: the compositions of Velasquez, the colours and atmosphere of Monet, the light of Turner, and the symbolism of Morreau, as well as by a passion for ancient tales and the mysteries of the natural world. His paintings have been published in a number of books including Le Chaudron Magique, L'Univers des Dragons II,  and The "Sir Lanval" Exhibition Catalog; his distinctive book designs have appeared in Le Chant des Brumes and other volumes. 
Yoann lives and works in an old stone farmhouse with his partner Claire Briant, a writer and potter whose ceramics have been exhibited both in Brittany and elsewhere. Both artists joined us "around the table" during their most recent visit to Devon. We should note that this discussion, in its original form, was conducted in both French and English. Claire speaks both languages fluently (and did a valiant job of translation in both directions), Howard speaks French, Yoann speaks some English, and Rex speaks English only -- so conversation ranged back and forth between the two languages. In transcribing it into English for this blog, we've tried to keep the sense and spirit of our talk intact.

Dramatis Personae:
R - Rex                Y - Yoann
H - Howard         C - Claire
H - Hello to you both; it's great to see you again. I remember that the last time you were here in Devon, we sat in a pub until the early hours having a very deep metaphysical conversation about art. 
Y - Yes. I remember.
H - So I’d like to start our conversation by asking: In what way do you find art to be a spiritual practice? An easy question to begin with!
Y - I think that there is no difference at all between my spirituality and my painting, because those things all come together. I develop my spirituality by painting, and painting develops my spirituality as well. My look (the way that I view things) continually strengthens my perception that there are many different ways of looking at things -- so if painting develops my spirituality, I also, in turn, use my spirituality to look at my art in a different way. My work demands that I do a lot of research, and this increases my knowledge  -- which has an impact, again, on my perception, and most of all on my intuition. 
H - As a theatre practitioner, my theatre work and my spiritual understanding have been linked -- in large part because I work with masks, which have long been used in spiritual practices world-wide. But the theatre that I produce isn’t necessarily spiritual. It has spirit deep within it, but it doesn’t necessarily…
C - It’s not religious.
H - No, it’s not religious. Do you see your finished product, your art, as spiritual?
Y - There are two kinds of painting that are very different, one must remember. At first, historically, a painting was intended to deliver a message. The message was in the painting. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, there were illustrators, like Rackham, whose paintings or illustrations were at the service of the message, but were not the message itself....
R - It’s said here in England that illustration sells something, but a painting sells itself.
Y – Yes, and this difference is something I keep in mind. Before the First World War, in France, there was something very pure in art, and then between the wars, something broke. After that came a time of commerce, marketing, and we're still in that time today. I want to be back in the period where art was pure, and to deliver a message.
R - Certainly that timeline rings true in England too.
H - Do you think it was the war that “broke” this purity?
R - I think this possibly began with the First World War, and then continued during the Second, but certainly the big World Wars did change many things, including art.
C - Probably our favourite period of art history is the Art Nouveau period
R – At the turn of the 19th century. 
C - Yes, so just before the First World War.
H - I’m going to change the subject a little here.... I tend to think of French artists and dramatist (and this is probably a stereo-type) as very deep philosophical thinkers...which I don’t believe is necessarily the same in England. Is there any truth in that, do you think?
C – No, I don’t think that's so in France.
H - Clearly I'm entirely wrong, then!
R - That's just nonsense, Howard! That's just your projection. Your fantasy.
H - I have the image of the French artist-philosopher, like Camus, with a Gitanes hanging out of the corner of his mouth, sitting in a cafe….
Y – But there are also a lot of English artist who I admire a great deal. It can be easy, when you admire someone, to make them over philosophic in your imagination! 
H – So perhaps it’s just artists in general, then, and not a French trait.
C – It's about the personal, not the general…. But thank you!
H - It’s a pleasure.
R - I’ve experienced some of this projection, myself. When I was a child I was left-handed, and at school they made me use my right hand. About twenty years ago I started to use my left hand again, so now sometimes I use the left hand for drawing and the right hand for inking. Some people have seen me do this and have made it out to be very mystical. I once heard a story about myself where, apparently, I was working with both hands at once!
Y - It is interesting, the history of the idea of the left hand being ‘wrong.’ It goes back about two thousand years.
H - In Italian, left is sinsitra. “Sinister,”  of course.
R - In my first school, I was hit with a ruler if I used my left hand, so I didn’t. I would use it privately, of course, in secret. This was in the early sixties, so not that long ago. They were still doing things like that. To me!
H - Of all people!
C - This was happening in France too.
R - It’s a tragedy!
H - Yoann, I get the impression that you do a lot of research into the esoteric when you create art. We had a comment on our blog a while ago, from Rima Staines, talking about artists' use of the Golden Section. I wonder, when you do your work and plan it out, do you specifically put esoteric design into your paintings?
Y - “Esoteric” is very subjective. Symbolic, of course. I deliberately use symbols in my painting. Esoteric...what is esoteric? Esoteric for whom? Can you define it?
H – Yes. Hmmm.... No.
R - You just said “yes,” Howard.
H - And then I said “no,” Rex, but I'm going to say: maybe. Yoann, you ask: “Esoteric for whom?” --  which I think is an interesting question. What is “esoteric”? There are strands of philosophy that one can define as esoteric threaded throughout Western history, from Plato and the mystery religions through gnosticism and the Renaissance, right up to the present day. Scholars such as Antoine Faivre point out four main characteristics related to esoteric concepts, one of which is the notion that there are  “correspondences” between different levels of being, so that the material realm, the realm of ideas, and the spiritual realm have links between them.
Y - It is like a tree.
H - Yes, that is a common symbol. Another characteristic of esotericism is a sense of “living nature,” which is that the whole of nature is alive, conscious….
Y – Okay, okay! Yes, then, it’s very, very esoteric, my work! The role of the artist is to wake up consciousness. What you say is very true. We are all connected to an ancient memory -- a humankind memory deep inside us. And as artists, we are under an obligation to create something new out of it. For example, where we live, in the forest of Broceliande, we have a strong Celtic tradition and the myths are very present. Some people who are living there are trying to dig up the ancient Druidic tradition, and to walk this path. But it is a path with no path, because it was an oral tradition, so nobody today can know what the old traditions really were. You can walk this path if you want to, but if you are aware that the old path is not existing anymore, you have to walk, I don’t know, along beside it, or below it. We can recreate a new path, because we are aware of what once was and what we can do now.
R - As artists?
C - Yes, of course.
H - Before I studied Western Esotericism, I would look at traditions from other parts of the world and be inspired by them . . . and they were very good, you know: Taoism, Buddhism, etc...the spiritual side of religion. We have this sense, here in the West, from these old myths of Europe, that there was once a Golden Age from which we have fallen -- as if somehow the ancients “knew” more than us. But actually we can start right here, now. We don’t have to look back to ancient times and say: what did they do? We can be inspired by traditions of the past, but we're human, just as the ancients were, and we have the same ability to create our own path. It’s just a path of the heart, after all, of rising consciousness.... 
Reflet de L'Autre Monde
C - The Golden Age is a myth, a story; it isn't necessarily real in a literal sense.
R – Exactly.
Y - It's important not to make a confusion between spirituality and the acts related to spirituality, like ritual. You can base your work on the ancient spirituality and philosophy, but to base your work on the ancient rituals created for different people in a different time, is meaningless.
H - In my own field, Commedia dell'Arte, what my theatre company tried to do was to base our work on the spirit of Commedia, not the historicity. Some people look back to the work of the Comédie-Française in the 19th century, or the earlier Commedia of Italy, and try to replicate it -- but those historical form of Commedia have no meaning to audiences today. Actually the meaning of Commedia passed through the Comédie-Française: it inspired their work and then passed on. If you try to go back,you create a museum piece, not living theatre. It no longer resonates. We have to take the spirit of the form and create Commedia that relates to the modern world.
Y - Bien sûr, bien sûr.
H - Can we just go back a little now? You said that the job of the artist is to raise consciousness, and you obviously believe that strongly....
Y - It is more than obvious. It is the basis of my personality and choices in life. I am not here to save the world. Politicians are here to make laws, and the religious are here to help people to reveal themselves. Artists are here to show very clearly the social contexts, and maybe to critique them. They walk alongside the change in paradigm.

Don't miss Part 2, next week....