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  • Writer's pictureRosemary Lawrey

49 - Figures in a landscape

Some are numismatists, others philatelists. Myself, I’m a greedy gatherer of street pictogram people.  This is such a passion, I realised, scrolling through my albums the other day, that I’ve amassed what could be quite a valuable collection.  Not only have I photographed examples of pavement people from all over Europe, they have worked their way into a curious number of sketches.

Pictogram people stand guard at toilet doors, they glow comfortingly through the fog at pelican crossings, letting me know that I’m nearing the end of the street and warning me not to step out onto traffic.  They are efficient, generally calm and unperturbed, concerned for my safety, and offering a note of calm in the townscape.  Just once I have seen one raise their hand in a gesture of panic and an ‘o’ of alarm appear on the generally impassive physiognomy.  “Don’t come down here without a hard hat!”  What is it about them I love so much?  Perhaps they represent to me a simple life with easy choices – cycle along here in this direction, walk here, don’t walk there.  Walk now, stop walking.  They are tidy and reliable and constant – or are they?

Actually, some of my favourites are the imperfect ones.  There’s one on the pier for instance – attempts have been made during path diversions to blot out their form, resulting only in a vibrating outline, making them look to me like they are carrying a bunch of paintings under their arm – an art collector, or perhaps an art thief, scurrying off to the ferry with their haul.  And then there are those that have been walked and cycled over for years on end – worn out by constant tyres and shoe treads.  Their painted forms are greying and speckled, some missing limbs or a head. 

Sometimes their meaning can be ambiguous.  But even that lends them appeal and a touch of mystery in the urban landscape, and sometimes in the natural landscape too.  Last spring, I was lucky enough to be travelling through the Alps by train, and I remember being captivated by the optical illusions caused by thick carriage windows, setting a reflected wheelchair and heavily expectant mother - pictograms marking specially designated areas of the compartment - into the mountainous landscape,  and turning them into characters in a deliciously anarchic story which played out in my mind as their figures rolled gleefully down the slopes and zoomed exhilarated over high viaducts as my train sped by far below.

About ten years ago, I remember having an idea for a mixed media artwork featuring pavement pictograms, describing them to a friend as ‘"concrete people". “They aren’t concrete they are painted-on”, my friend told me. She was right. They are indeed painted-on.  Maybe that’s why I like them so much.  Some seem to have been stencilled on with a roller and little imaginative flair. But in others you can see the confident brushstrokes of the person who painted them, giving a jaunty tilt to a shoulder or an upkicking flourish to a toe.  In an early post in this blog  (No. 7) when I mentioned this same artwork in which a pavement pictogram takes a walk around town, dragging around with them a clump of concrete still attached to each heel as they go, I wrote:  “As I walk along the pier at my new home town, I’m always cheered by the line of painted people on the pathway, showing us pedestrians where it’s safe to walk. They look purposeful, in a hurry, and happy just to be moving.   

Since then, although my collection of photos and sketches has grown, all these years I’ve never done much more with them, continuing to collect them quite obsessively in sketchbook and phone camera, without knowing why.   But the other day I was given a nudge while reading* about contemporary German artist Franz Ackermann, and looking at images of his big, bright paintings featuring airlines and cityscapes.  Ackermann thinks that exoticism and adventure no longer exist in a world of mass travel. The article spoke of a “quick psychedelic flow of architectural elements” in his work, and I related very strongly to this, having my own constant stream of moving impressions rapidly drawn from public transport or while walking, though my own travels tend to be on a less ambitious scale to Ackermann’s.  

The urban jungle encroaches even on my Island home.  I do still sense the exotic and the adventurous, though in a different way. The urban adventurer is on high alert each time she leaves her front door.  There are always hazards to navigate, roadworks, rail strikes or floods.  We are nervy like cats, wide-eyed and wary, while assuming an air of nonchalant boredom with all that impacts our senses.  The world is an exciting and richly exotic place of adventure, both because of what we have made in it and because of what was already there in it.    What if I were to misinterpret that warning pictogram and walk through the hoarded-off tunnel instead of around it, finding myself among the construction workers for a moment or two?  They would be astonished, annoyed, perhaps amused.  I would be at risk, with no hard hat, just a woolly bobble on my head, and unprepared.  My little character with the concrete heels is similarly naked and unprepared for his adventures.  A flat alien – in a 3D world. 

Seeing the Ackermann paintings probably gave me a final push to give vent to something that has been simmering under the surface for a while.  So I started this week to try and put some of these walking and bus-travelling impressions of mine into an oil painting.  My first Ackermann-inspired painting at the top of this post is 70 x 70 cm and draws on one of my many moving sketches. The pictogram people are there, of course, as are the changing shapes that merge into one another as I look at my own landscape, in this case mapped from the top deck of a bus. It’s a very personal psychogeography.  I wanted to keep it in soft colours, because the Island urban landscape, though by no means an idyll, on the whole, is a soft place to live.  This is a very new painting.  It may be finished and it may not, but it represents a continuing journey for me, always down a new pedestrian pavement, and who knows what’s around the corner. 

*The book I was reading was Art now Vol 3, Ed. Hans Werner Holzwarth (Taschen), a gift from a kind friend.



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