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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Billy King

Number 175: December 2009  

[Go back to the related issue of Nonviolence News]

Billy King shares his monthly thoughts –

So why is phonetics not spelt foneticaly? I got to pondering this weighty matter during the month. Ah, the inconsistencies of the English language, any language almost (perhaps not Esperanto). But I will swiftly move on to things artistic –

A portrait of the artist as a middle-aged activist

Middle aged, yes, I am. Political activist? For a long time. Artist? More than half a dozen years ago I would have said ‘no’, I’m not an artist, that I did have some artistic pursuits they were insufficiently developed for me to call myself an artist. And then I took up bog oak/wood carving as a hobby through an evening class or workshop [ah, I was wondering how long it would be before the wood carving got another outing – Ed], and over the period since then my perception has changed. This piece explores that change, and also the way in which I believe everyone is an ‘artist’, or has artistic capabilities which they can utilise in a meaningful way – sometimes we are not aware of these capabilities but we all have them. My thoughts have been set off by Nonviolent News’ coverage of art and peace over the last months in Readings in Nonviolence.

On a weekend visit there, I went to a gallery in London not long after I took up bog wood carving to see an exhibition of Aztec art (which was wonderful). Browsing in the bookshop afterwards, searching for a photo of an eagle done in relief in wood, I got talking to an English man who, it turned out, had been at a top fine art college there, Slade. When he asked me, “And do you work in any medium yourself?”, I was able to proudly proclaim I was a bog oak carver. That was possibly the first time I had publicly ‘come out’ as an artist.

How do I define ‘art’? I suppose something like the innovative use of culture in creating, ordering (as in arranging) or understanding, the production of artefacts (and I deliberately haven’t looked up a dictionary definition).

When I left school I would have said I was profoundly in- or un-artistic; not musical, not able to draw for nuts, or even draw nuts. I had stopped doing art in school by 13 but was left in no doubt at a much younger age that I was not of an artistic bent. Maybe it was the lack of imagination of my teachers, the way I experienced my art education, or lack of it, or maybe I was a slow starter. I was not artistic – that was it. Yes, there was some capability within the family, including a grandmother who was a dab hand with a fine paint brush, but, no, I had not inherited these skills.

Over the years I developed some skills which might be thought of as artistically-related but which did not persuade me I was an artist. Photography was something which I utilised both for recording purposes and to a lesser extent creatively – a shape that appealed to me, a bare tree, the colour on its bark in the rain. I took care in composing photos, trying to get an uncentred balance. My involvement in small magazines and the like, and more general peace work, had me often laying out pages for printing, the old way for offset litho using typed columns and graphics which were pasted down on a page. I enjoyed creativity, when I could use it, in balancing a printed page with type, headings, cartoons and other graphics.

I also started doing cards, and sometimes pictures, with pressed flowers. As a birthday present from my partner I received a weekend course on making pressed flower pictures; the most important part of this for me was learning to do marbling of paper with ink which added immeasurably to the effect, building a depth and richness which complemented the beauty of the shapes and colours of natural leaves and flowers. I was still not an ‘artist’ however. My musical appreciation also grew in relation to the fields of music which I most enjoyed.

I’m not sure what it was that finally persuaded me, yes, I am an artist. That incident at the Aztec art exhibition was retold widely but largely humorously (the craft worker standing up to the fine artist kind of thing) and I still did not think of myself in the generic title of ‘artist’. I think it was just a matter of reaching a tipping point, of thinking, how can I say I have developed these artistic skills but not see myself or call myself, generically, an ‘artist’? Was this because of the rarefied portrayal of art and of artists? That it took a very special person to be an ‘artist’? That I did not want to boast of what I was not, or what I was only in part or poorly?

But while it took me a long time to decide, yes, I am indeed an artist, afterwards I also reassessed my concept of who is an artist and who has artistic capabilities. Everyone. If I could move from considering myself profoundly non-artistic to artist-ry, so could anyone. And labelling people as not being artistic is a form of control, a way in which elites are created and defined in our society, related to the class nature of society but not wholly defined by that. Of course there are different kinds of artistry, and people who are good or indifferent at what they do (Michelangelo I am not) but that is life. However telling people they cannot be creative and artistic – that is negative control of the worst sort. And yet all people can be creative and produce beautiful materials – sometimes in the worst possible situations – as recent discussion of the production of arpilleras in the pages of Nonviolent News shows. Arpilleras are an excellent example of how art has been used in the human struggle for dignity. I would also argue that Anne Frank was not just writing a diary but being artistic and creative in how she did it.

In bog wood carving, as in sculpture more generally but especially in working with raw materials where there is already a ‘shape’, the task can be to ‘release’ what is already there. That animal, that boat, that head, that significant shape, is already there in the raw material, and the artist’s task is to use their skill in releasing it, gently, purposefully, so it can be seen and admired by all. This is analogous to the task of us all becoming artists. Our artistic talents may be hidden below other layers but the shape of the artist is there; we just need to work on ourselves to release it.

In the bog wood carving class, it was good to see all the different approaches people took to carving. And it was good to see people developing their skills, in the class and elsewhere, so that some described themselves, or were described in the media, as an ‘artist’. But initially, no, I wasn’t there.

Questions about art and politics can be thorny ones. Being political is important to me, as are my ethical and religious beliefs. I try not to separate out the different parts of my existence; my religious or ethical part is not separate from my political part. I see life as one, all of life as political, even what kind of bread or food I buy is ‘political’ (and becoming increasingly so with global warming). So it is natural that some of my art is overtly political, or indeed religious, and some is about life, or beauty in the wood and its shape, but not about a particular issue or concern. Overtly political pieces of carving which I have done have included a variety of themes; racism, global warming, human rights. The piece on racism was a retake on Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, a common story which features in the Hebrew bible (Old Testament) at Genesis 11:1-9; the division into different languages, while preventing easy communication, also created different cultures which are represented in my bog wood piece by groups of bright coloured objects on the back of the tower (thus emphasising the plus side of the Tower of Babel experience).

A piece of bog oak carving I produced on global warming showed, on one side, a personification of the globe or at least a woman holding the globe while on the other she is, grotesquely, melting; no ambiguity there, I hope. If I see something overtly political in a piece of wood then it is ‘political’, it depends what my mind sees. If I see something I tend to go with it; doing two pieces in a row on a death theme did make me wonder where I was at, but I haven’t done another since. My ideas are not always matched by my skills in executing them but I try; being an artist is not always easy.

It is not that I am being a political activist in making a ‘political’ piece. It is being an artist who refuses to deny his political soul (sic), who sees in and through the wood a political theme. To deny what I see would be to deny myself. But I do not always see a political theme; life, beauty, abstract shapes, flames, strange animals (humorous or fantastical), all these feature in my work. There is interaction between my cultural mind and the shape of the raw material and what I see depends on the shape of the wood and the deep recesses of my mind and visual perception. The whole process is creative and therapeutic – except when I become too busy and it can slide, as it can, into ‘another thing I have to do’.

There are many different levels of artistry. I still couldn’t draw for nuts, and doing a human face in three dimensions, or even two-and-a-half (in relief) is a big challenge. I would call myself artist in natural materials; wood, usually bog wood (oak and pine), pressed flowers and leaves, I have also utilised driftwood, and very occasionally worked with stone where there is a shape or pattern (e.g. a face) that I can utilise – one small piece of stone, with the addition of a little paint for helmet, eyes, and mouth, became the head of a Formorian warrior, a terrible figure to be afraid of. Developing a sight for such patterns and shapes is, for me as an artist in natural materials, perhaps the most important skill; seeing is believing what can be done with a piece.

There are many ways to be an artist, and art is not just in visual artistry but also verbal and aural, and indeed tactile or even olfactory. A listing of ‘how you can be an artist’ would be a really long one but here are some examples which I hope will persuade you, if such persuasion is necessary, that everyone has artistic skills;

Interior design and decoration (including choosing colours, materials, placing them in a room), furnishings included

Architecture, urban planning and built design

Garden design and planting

Document display and layout, graphic design

Crafts of all kinds, traditional and modern

‘Fine’ arts

Art appreciation – those who learn to understand may not be practising artists but they are artists of the head

Clothing and fashion


Cookery – creativity in taste, smell, colour and presentation

Music making and music appreciation – every kind of music, in every kind of way

Performance art of all kinds including theatre and street theatre

Writing – fiction and non-fiction including poetry

During the writing of this piece another little incident came to mind about an aspect of my work which can also be labelled art which I had not thought about. This is due to the comments of a woman I knew very slightly to see who I met going to the President Bush demo at Hillsborough at the end of the first phase (seeming US victory) of the recent Iraq war. I had been involved with street theatre and attempts to communicate creatively in public space through drama of one kind of another about the impending war. As this woman recognised me she said, “Aren’t you the performance artist?” I must say that I have rarely felt so complimented.

I have enjoyed the journey to being an artist though, yes, I am aware that the wider definition in our culture has not changed of what art is, and what it is not. Sometimes much-publicised art is about money as much as skill or artistry, or, it is the artistry of money. Art can be about the bizarre or the ordinary which is everyday or really really extraordinary. Art can imitate life, and in the modern era life increasingly also imitates art. If I had more time to be an artist I would enjoy that; maybe, like a colleague in my bog wood carving class, I too will eventually get a workshop at home to do it all in, and the retirement time for it. But then fitting it in is part of the challenge. Each piece of wood is still a challenge in a wide sense; be true to the wood, be true to myself and what I believe, be true to life. If I can achieve that at all then I claim the title of artist.

What is the artist, or the hidden artist, in you? If you don’t already, how can you get to say, yes, of course I am an artist, isn’t everyone? The question is not “Are you an artist?” but rather “In what way or ways are you artistic?” Let’s claim or reclaim that space called ‘art’.

Poppying out

We’re past the ‘season of remembrance’ for the World Wars – and other wars - that culminates, in this part of the world, on 11th November. This year there was some debate in the Republic on the merits and demerits of wearing red poppies which are produced by the Royal British Legion and help support ex-military personnel (‘service’men and women in the British military). Interestingly this debate extended to both the Irish Times (kicked off through an article by Fionnuala O Connor on poppy wearing in the North, 29/10/09, the correspondence including a letter from the coordinator of INNATE and editor of this publication) and Indymedia at

I certainly wouldn’t wear a red poppy, and would probably be unlikely to sport a white poppy either, despite being involved in promoting the latter. I think wearing both red and white is a possible compromise for some people; recognising the sacrifice made by many soldiers but clearly stating an opposition to war as a methodology through wearing the white. Me? I would usually wear neither. I would support the aims of the white poppy but be afraid of some people taking offence (this is in the Northern Ireland context) at what they might see as an attack on their identity and/or the sacrifice which their family members have made by serving in the British forces. I would find it much easier to wear a white poppy in the Republic. I have previously explored my own relationship to ‘the military’ (my Colm in NN 147) so I won’t go into that again. But I am vehemently opposed to the way in which the 11th November ‘Remembrance Day’, and the long lead up to it, is utilised to promote the British armed forces and the wars Britain is engaged in. I breathe a sigh of relief when what I feel is the divisiveness of the period coming up to 11th November in Northern Ireland is over.

But on to a short review of the debate in the two forums mentioned above. Both had quite a gamut of views, the Indymedia one being generally, as you would expect, including more on the left politically than that in the lofty portals of the Irish Times. Indymedia kicked off with a complaint about a red poppy being included on the Irish Google site – “Troops who carried out actions against the civilian population in Ireland - from the massacres of ordinary citizens around Smithfield in 1916 to the murder of Karen Reilly and Martin Peake by paratroopers in Belfast a few years ago- are honoured and supported by the British legion. The two soldiers who murdered Peter McBride and are still serving in the British army are honoured by the British legion through the sale and distribution of poppies.” The next comment put the main opposing view; “10,000s of irishmen fought in WW1(inc. also my grand.f), we (ireland) as part of the UK we were involved in the conflict, thus its only logical that we should commemorate, the symbol of the red poppy may be a british legion one but at this stage it is synonmous with the ww1 dead.” The following comment introduced the idea of the white peace poppy (and subsequently a reference to the PPU website in Britain selling them). Another comment said “Why not wear nothing except your heart on your sleeve for peace?” Another quoted a WW1 poet and gave a link to other poems, and then someone quoted Francis Ledwidge. And so the long thread went on, a mixture of the provocative, thoughtful, thoughtless, and sincere.

The Irish Times correspondence began after Fionnaula O’Connor’s comments, mentioned above, where her introductory paragraph included “Poppy season is the most muted of Northern Ireland’s divisive issues, the resentments it causes usually silent.” The letters began with a Canadian reflecting on wearing a poppy in the Republic, and the next letter writer took “the view that some of those who wear the poppy do so to antagonise the living more so than to honour the dead”, whereas a following letter took a different tack, that “Forgetting the Irish dead in the first World War is an act of moral cowardice.” Another letter had suggested a peace poppy of red and white, a letter recalled white poppies in the first half of the twentieth century, and this gave the opportunity for the INNATE coordinator to get a letter in the paper on the availability of white poppies today and the way red poppies, and Remembrance Day, are co-opted as support for “whatever wars Britain may be fighting at the time”. The correspondence trundled on for a few more letters of quite wide divergence. Poppy wearing is certainly not an issue of agreement in society, North or South, and in talking about poppy wearing that is one point which can be stated categorically.

Well, it’s coming up to Christmas and the end of the calendar year. I wish you, as always, a Peaceful Christmas and a Preposterous New Year. Have a good break [a break from your meanderings has to be good! – Ed] and enjoy your religious/solstice/new year celebrations, and, to edit slightly a saying by that old, and deceased, comedian Dave Allen, may your God, or lack of one, go with you. Here’s to 2010, I’ll be back pestering you at the start of February when I hope to present the annual, incredible, inedible, inaudible, indefensible Adolf Awards once again, Billy.

Who is Billy King?
A long, long time ago, in a more innocent age (just talking about myself you understand), there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train' and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor around with you).

Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little about horses even if someone with a similar name is found astride them on gable ends around certain parts of Norn Iron).

Copyright INNATE 2021