Allow me to introduce you to visual artist Jen Frankwell. Jen is based in Forres, where she crafts deft multi-layered images from pencil drawings and postcards, vintage paper and pin badges, statistical data and textile remnants, and whatever else takes her fancy.
She makes beautiful bespoke sporrans too.
Wit. Edge. Colour. Politics. Faces. Layers. Typewriters. Machair. Textiles.
What’s not to love?
I think Jen is an absolute wonder herself. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a visual artist with quite the same capacity to get, visually, what it is that I’m trying to say through music and words.
Her specially commissioned image for my Scottish Songbook band cover of Deacon Blue’s Dignity holds a richness of detail, some obvious, and some buried, or cryptic.
With her permission, here are some of Jen’s email notes to me on the references embedded in the image, with a few follow through notes from me too.
Clenched Raised Fist:
J: faith, endurance, solidarity, defiance, politics, optimism, grit, joy, also a wee nod to Northern soul and gay activism in a roundabout way cos Tom Robinson uses a clenched fist on his albums (not that he’s actually Scottish).
K: The fist is from an existing image on Jen’s Instagram page that caught my eye, and convinced me (though it didn’t take long to decide) that she was the perfect artist for this collaboration. Dignity speaks directly to the social and economic upheaval of the time and place it was born: late 1980s industrial Scotland.
J: The fist is gripping a graph of male suicide stats from 1981–2016. The top line is for Scotland, the middle for Wales and the bottom for England. They sit on the graph like that. I didn’t separate them. The Scottish one is so much higher than the others.
K: this won’t be the last mention of suicide on these pages. Mental health, dignity, purpose, hope and community are intimately intertwined.
The Finnieston crane
J: It’s on Deacon Blue’s Raintown album cover and also represents Glasgow and industry, ‘home’ and ‘work’. I use the criss-cross patterns from the structure as part of a recurring theme.
K: The crane is known in the city as Big Bertha.
It’s worth adding that of Deacon Blue’s songs, it’s not only Dignity that got under the skin of the Thatcher-era. So too did songs like Wages Day (“this long narrow land is full of possibility”) and Town To Be Blamed (work, work, work, rain, rain, rain, home, home, home, again, again, again). The whole Raintown album captured the mood of the day.
The wee sailboat
J: A direct reference to the dinghy in the song lyrics, and to fishing and the sea.
J: the Clyde / Dignity/ George Wyllie/ ‘impossible’ daydreams. I’ve done the image of it in the style of an 80’s crappy public service leaflet (i.e. Protect and Survive) I’ve added lots of image noise so it looks like it was cut out of an 80’s monochrome leaflet.
K: In 1989, artist George Wyllie sailed a 78-foot boat, crafted from paper, Velcro and steel, up the River Clyde. It’s a fondly remembered event in Glasgow, and one that symbolised both the city’s shipping heritage and its decline. Wyllie’s other best known work was Straw Locomotive, which was constructed exactly as its name suggests, and was suspended from the aforementioned Finniestone Crane. Wyllie said of it at the time,
Today, in Springburn, industry is at a low ebb… What has happened?
The ‘Straw Locomotive’ can ask questions but cannot give answers.”
I have a song called Paper Boat, inspired by Wyllie, which only just failed to make it onto my 2018 album, with Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson, Laws of Motion.
The song goes:
a tiny man, a tiny boat / of tender paper hull and sails / they float up river ushered by the tide / and in that little boat, a light /is constant through the keening days and nights / with only heaven for a bride / grief is just love with no home / grief is just love with no home …
One last wee note. The final track Laws of Motion is called Cassiopeia. It’s based on the UK Government’s 1970’s public information leaflet Protect and Survive, which lays out how to “survive” a nuclear attack. Jen wasn’t aware of this when she mentioned the leaflet. So her note made the hairs on my arm stand up. It’s a pretty niche wee group of us that keeps pdfs of 1970s public information leaflets on our desktops (though I suspect recent COSTA poetry winner, J.O. Morgan from just down the road in The Scottish Borders is one of them).
PCBS and electronic circuitry:
J: industry and also I’m using it as a visual reference to rivers and the canal system.
K: I come from a family full of engineers. And my growing-up home village of Banknock, Stirlingshire, sits on the Forth and Clyde Canal.
J: brown papers — retail and postal — graph/squared/lined — academia/writing /journalism
K: If you ever want to buy me a notebook, plain or graph only, thanks very much. Lined paper does my head in.
J: References Ayrshire Lace, which was a massive industry in Glasgow and was choked to death by the invention of the Swiss embroidery machine (progress can be a right bastard) and also by the American civil war, which stopped the flow of cotton to Europe (geek textile reference).
K: the process of globalization and its impact on local skills and craft has been going on for a long time …
Coats thread label
J: textile and clothing industry, Singer sewing machines and JP Coats
K: … in March 1911, more than 90% of workers at the Singer Factory in Clydebank walked out, in a dispute sparked by piecework pay and punitive working conditions. The strike was a landmark in Scottish union history because it united workers of different occupations, and cut across divisions of gender and religion sectarianism. It’s widely regarded as the first industrial battle in Scotland between local labour and international capital.
Clocking on cards/wages packet
J: Maynard Keynes.
K: Imagine: Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross on a Cretan beach reading John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. A wee bit of light reading for the holidays … Keynes was one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century, and wrote extensively about the need to manage international capital and intervene in free markets. He opposed the UK Government’s policy of austerity during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thatcher didn’t care for his ideas. And, let’s just say, he’s not a popular economist amongst those who determine economic policy in our times.
J: Thatcher (I can’t even type her name without my internal voice going full blown Tourettes)
Green shield stamps
J: Hope, dreams and determination.
K: Green shield stamps were a way of encouraging shoppers to save up for stuff, originally through pre-internet-era catalogues. Everyone over 40 remembers the lure of the Littlewoods and Kays catalogues, no?
Flowers and background watercolour
J: I’ve done this as bursts of colour, I’ve done it in the colours of the machair flowers - they represent our wildernesses and our nature (urban as well) and our ability to bloom and thrive in the darkest and most difficult environments. I’ve done them as explosions of colour like at a Holi festival so they’re also a nod to our diversity and all the cultures that we are. They represent ‘home’ on a broad level.
K: Machair is the grassy coastal dune plains of the Hebrides and parts of Ireland. It’s the most vulnerable of all land in Scotland to erosion and climate change. The machair of Lewis gets a wee mention in my song I Burn But I Am Not Consumed (from Laws of Motion). You can watch it here, in performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
J: also from the lyrics though I’ve flipped it so that it becomes part of the background texture. I got my school packed lunch in Sunblest bags all the time.
J: the fonts are typewriter fonts because to me they’ll always be associated with guerrilla girls, zines, post punk and the DIY movement and the explosive energy within that.
I owe Jen massive thanks for investing herself in this project, in such a heartfelt way. There’s more to come from her. So watch this space.