I have received three truly memorable Chistmas presents in my life. One was a watch. One was an Optimus Prime transformer toy (memorable because I snaped the heroic Autobot leaders arm off three miniutes after unwrapping him and spent the rest of the day in tears). And one was a lump of plasticine.
My Uncle Peter was a rare visitor when I was young. I think I saw him three times as a child, and never met him as an adult. When I was a boy he already seemed incredibly old. White hair. A white beard. And a peaked denim cap. The kind many painters of a certain era wear.
Uncle Peter was one of those rare people born with a talent. A natural draughtsman, who could draw almost anything by eye. That kind of talent gives people a rare freedom. From his thirties onwards Peter travelled the world, drawing potraits of tourists to make a living, and making other, maybe more important artworks as opportunities came up. He was, in my uncle Roy’s words, a ‘supreme hippy’, a follower of the swami. Which I guess means he was a seeker in the Buddhist / Taoist / Hindu traditions, all those Eastern wisdoms that came to the West from the 60’s onwards.
I think I was about six, give or take a year or two, when Uncle Peter arrived home for Christmas. Home at the time was a wobbly concept, I think my family had been through several years of moving from place to place and temporary accommodation, so I don’t remember where we were living. From the stories he told during his visit, Peter had been travelling in North America, living with native Americans, and working the tourist areas of Israel. I can understand now the powerful mix of emotions travellers feel when they return home, and find home is no longer as they remember.
Peter arrived carrying a plastic shopping bag. In the bag where not just one or two, or even a dozen, but at least twenty packets of plasticine. The basic cardboard envelopes, each with a dozen stripes of coloured clay. The kind of present a man might buy at the last minute, remembering he is arriving at a house with a young child at Christmas. But also the kind of present a creative imagination picks, the kind of present designed to ignite the latent spark of creativity in a younger mind.
Uncle Peter didn’t mind about making anything from the plasticine. He helped me unwrap all the packets of clay, and then together we kneaded them ALL together in to one MASSIVE SWIRLING MULTICOLORED BALL OF RAW POTENTIAL. Simply, if I have ever come close to understanding why an Eternal Creator might bother turning chaos in to an ordered universe, it was while playing with that plasticine.
(clay in this state quickly becomes a hardened mass of dull grey brown nothing…the lesson being that you have to create while your material is hot with primal power, whether it is plasticine, words or the fundamental building blocks of matter)
I don’t know if Peter helped me towards becoming an artist that holiday. I was, to be frank, almost certainly corrupted from birth in that regard. But he took the time to share his creative spark with me, wrapped up in a big lump of plasticine.
Peter passed away earlier this week, in Pune, India where he had lived for many years, among friends I am told. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, but choose not to return to the UK for treatment. He was a traveller all his life, and while I never got to meet him as an adult, I hope I get to meet him in some future, wherever all our travels continue.