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CAN A LEOPARD CHANGE ITS SPOTS?

Since so many of us globally are confined to our homes and gardens because of Covid-19 pandemic. I thought it would be an opportune time for self-reflection, hence the title, 'Confessions of a Garden Hermit'.


I have no wish to diminish the awful impact the virus has had on our lives, but having had my life temporarily defined and curtailed by it, I wish to focus on the positive consequences and to share my insights and reflections. This is an opportunity to stop, take a deep breath, take stock and contemplate life. For me to reflect on the sum of all my parts and to look at WHO and WHAT inspires me today and has done so throughout my life. This blog is, in some way, also nudged into existence because of Martin, my husband, who has inspired me to pick up the digital pen, as he has done so recently with his blog 'Musings From North Norfolk'.


All prints by Clare Leighton


Research is fundamental to my process as an artist so I will apply the same rigour to these posts, without being academic, though it may appear to be a rather schizophrenic journey, with a good dose of contemplation and confession along the way. I will focus on my process as an artist, other creative people, nature and of course art.

For those of us lucky enough to have a garden, or are able to access nature beyond our home, this is also a forensic look at our environment to confirm that we really don't have to travel far to discover the wonder of nature on our doorstep that in turn can also reveal some aspect of our own nature.

Clare Leighton (1898 - 1989)


On a visit to the Jerwood Art Gallery in Hastings a few years ago, with Martin and my dear friend Julia, Martin had the good fortune of coming across a book by the artist Claire Leighton, titled Four Hedges – A Gardener’s Chronicle first published in 1935 but reprinted in 2010. It was a timely discovery. The book is a monthly, self illustrated chronicle / autobiography of her journey to create a garden from scratch; from land that was formally rough meadow land in the Chiltern Hills, much as Martin and I had been in the process of doing in North Norfolk. The lovely publication was insightful and I found myself looking at my garden through her eyes. Our hardships of toiling land that was dense with flint, brick and tarmac was echoed by her challenge of turning chalk land into a garden and of us both having to contend with the harsh prevailing winds. The seeds were sown. I knew that it was a matter of time before I took my pen up again; she inspired me to write.



"So through four years around the nucleus of clumps of cowslips we have tamed and enriched this half acre of grassland, bending it to our will, fighting its stubbornness. Winds of unimagined force have battled against us, bursting through the gaps between our hills, sweeping unhindered across the midland plain, beating upon us through the pass in the east..." Four Hedges - Clare Leighton

Claire Leighton was an English artist printmaker who immigrated to the United States in 1939 and was naturalised there in 1945. She was well known for her wood engravings, a skilled master of her art, distinct from lino cuts. Her prints are simply outstanding and were used to illustrate her own writings as well as the works of other authors. I also trained as a fine art printmaker but wood engraving was not a medium I explored at the time.


On another more recent foray into Norwich I came across a small independent Gallery, café and bookshop run by The Greenhouse Trust on Bethel Street. At the time they were hosting a temporary exhibition of Clare Leighton's illustrations for The Farmer's Year - A Calendar of English Husbandry, which was published in 1933. I think the prints were extracted from the first edition of her book. The wood engravings are powerful, dark and very evocative of an era that is sadly no more.


"In the early 1930s, Clare Leighton started work on a sequence of wood engravings depicting farming in England over the course of a calendar year. The country was then in the grips of the Great Depression. Unemployment had doubled. Hunger marches were beginning to spread through towns and cities. Machines were already replacing men and women on the land." Little Toller Books Dorset

Her works do not bring direct attention to the Great Depression, what she did was to capture a snapshot of history before technology changed a whole way of life. Her writings are poignant, reflective and sometimes romanticised, but it is in her powerful engravings that she manages to depict the rawness of life as it was in the pre-industrial era. I am drawn to her powerful graphics and dynamic compositions and recognise these as echoes in my more abstract works.



We are living through unprecedented times during the Covid-19 pandemic, with economists comparing the downturn in the current economics of the world with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some people may depict the crisis as they see and experience it whilst others may choose to create other forms of distraction, to take up new skills or simply to catch up on all those things that our busy lives do not make time for. I choose to find pleasure in nature, to tend my garden, listen and observe wildlife antics! I place my hands in to the earth and know that all the stresses of life simply disappear. I take the time to hear the birds sing and to pay more attention to the blossoms on the fruit trees and hedges, whilst also greeting the first of the butterflies and the bees in April. It is such a joyous experience. Possibly for the first time ever, I am ahead of myself...I have planted all my seeds and wait expectantly to see them grow. Today marks the day that my first seedling emerged to kiss the sun in the greenhouse. I was also excited to observe some bats swooping in circles above the pond as dusk settled in for the night. Most likely common pipistrelles, I delighted in the fact that they emerged from our thatched eaves and we could see them sharply silhouetted against the setting sun.



"Spring now is surely here. Lambs leap in the sunlit meadows and birds call loudly through the day until nightfall. Bloom is upon the plum tree, and gardens and woods and fields sing with flowers. The lanes are studded with them in the enamelled brightness: spurge and violet, celandine and primrose. We tread the earth as though it were the flowering mead of an early Italian painting." Clare Leighton - The Farmer's Year / April

Four Hedges begins with the month of April; my circumstances therefore make this a good month to begin this foray into writing. As I sit here listening to the multitude of bird song, I am reminded of new life in the making, my first hen has gone broody and sits fiercely on her eggs, like the blue tits who are nesting, once again to my delight, against the studio wall. I love to hear the tat tap of their woodcarving efforts, whilst I work inside.


My first confession is after spending my adult life living in cities with no garden to call my own, I had some reservations about moving to rural Norfolk, though I was excited to take a step into the unknown. Would I be bored, isolated, lacking cultural stimulation? Would it last and did I have enough knowledge of nature and rural life to adjust to rural living. In other words was this leopard able to change her spots?


That is not to say that I grew up without a garden, I was born and brought up in Tehran, in Iran. My parents rented a house in the 1970s and our garden was one half of a former orchard but very much part of the city, though to the North. Now, in 2020, the city has multiplied seven fold since, and the house and orchard are no more. The capital city now has a population of 7,153,309 million people and there seems no end in sight to this burgeoning growth.

We were fortunate as children to have this garden, one half of which was full of grapes, cherry, plum, apricot, persimmon, fig, pomegranate, mulberry and hazel nut trees. Enough trees to carve up between us siblings so that summers were spent climbing trees and eating our own crop of fruit. That garden was the foundation stone of my life, though I did not realise this until now. I did not learn to garden but was simply a child who relished the experience of being in that idyll. It has taken half a century but now I find myself in Norfolk, recreating the memory of that garden. Martin and I have planted peach trees, apricots, fig, white and red mulberries, currents, apples, pears, almonds, sweet chestnut, walnut, hazel, sweet and sour cherries, plums, gages, grapes, quince and just in case you thought we couldn't fit anymore in, two pomegranate trees. Though the latter additions are proving more challenging. For those who know me well, I never back down from a challenge. But if you were to ask me which holds the most mystery I would say the mulberries; it epitomises my childhood more than any other fruit, more on this another time.



Whilst living in Portsmouth we had a small allotment in Eastney, Martin's birthday gift to me one year; it was my classroom. I learnt to nurture life. I didn't know what I was doing but little by little it gave me the confidence to grow lovely vegetables. Now that I live in Norfolk, I have, developed a thirst to connect with nature, to better understand my environment. I may be a late learner, but this leopard is definitely changing her spots! I feel such sense of achievement in being able to identify trees, not just by their leaves but by their winter buds and in remembering the names of wild flowers and even some cultivated ones (though that really will take some time to achieve). For someone who has spent most of her life ignorant of these facts, I am most definitely making up for lost time.


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© 2020 Copyright Dr Katayoun Dowlatshahi

Contact +44 (0)7944 731081 / info@silverwoodstudio.co.uk
Northrepps, Norfolk, NR27 9LF, UK
Professional artist website / www.katayoundowlatshahi.com