John Moores Painting Prize 2020: Wishing Tree

A Year of Ghost Wishes (2020) by Lara Cobden, JMPP 2020

In a new series commissioned exclusively for us by the John Moores Painting Prize, playwright and Costa prize-shortlisted author Jeff Young presents a new text on one of this year’s selected artworks: Lara Cobden’s A Year of Ghost Wishes…

Into the woods I walk, wanting to touch tree bark, to pick up fallen leaves, to find out what sort of tree the children are decorating. I stand beneath the ribbon lengths of fabric, the cat’s cradle of wishes, entering into a folklore of remembering. I am in the painting now, I am in the pagan woods and dappled shadow of my childhood.

A wound in an oak tree, a rupture in its body. You can put your hand into its innards, the cobwebby gut. This is the mossy cavity where my Sister and I hide small talismans – trinkets from bubble-gum machines, a sheriff’s badge, a plastic signet ring. Each magical artefact is a wish. We immerse our tiny hands into the tree’s witchy body, into our own imaginations. In my sleep I am drawn into the womb of the oak, its uterine walls contain my dreams. In the wildwood of my memory I make wishes that we will survive war and nuclear winter. I am a dark-minded, troubled child and this wishing hollow is a place of desperate spells.

“I swear I have felt the presence of the pre-Christian Goddess Maddern, moving through the trees, over the leats and culverts that carry the healing water through the valley”

At Chyandour Brook, near Madron in Cornwall, there are trees festooned with totems, fetishes and memorial-symbols. Surrounding a sacred spring, rising in a ruined chapel, bent and gnarly trees are decorated with children’s toys, streamers, knotted handkerchiefs and photographs of dead or dying children. I swear I have felt the presence of the pre-Christian Goddess Maddern, moving through the trees, over the leats and culverts that carry the healing water through the valley. Years ago, when I lived near here, in a time when I was mad, I would come at dusk and taste the water. I never saw another soul at the doom-well, but once I came here in the dark, and in the granite altar stone there was a flickering candle and a doll made from plaited corn and yarn. Someone had been here, perhaps they were still here amongst the trees. I ripped an inky page from my notebook and folded it into the roots of a tree – a wish for pagan healing.

“When I walk through this resting place I am passing through a haunted copse of longing, where mourning meets hope, where despair meets time’s healing”

In Liverpool, I walk the Everton hills, pausing to read prayer cards for dead people tucked into patches of weeds; memorials for rough sleepers. In spring, wild flowers grow here, wild spirits of hope on the hillside, saints and goddesses, corn cockle and marigold. In trees broken by vandals and the weather, people hang mementoes, remembering departed souls who used to live in the terraced houses lost in the 1960s clearances – including once a Telly Tubby hanging from a branch and looking out to sea. I come here in wild weather, in rain and sleet and snow when the wind eats into these sad shrines and rain erases poems and prayers. What are they wishing for, the people who leave these spells? They are wishing that the dead will come back.

In the crematorium glade where my Sister’s ashes are buried, people decorate the trees with photographs, a pair of mittens, bouquet cellophane tangled in a silver birch. When I walk through this resting place I am passing through a haunted copse of longing, where mourning meets hope, where despair meets time’s healing. I am in this painting. These are the wishing trees. Look – there are children hanging banners of bright silk in branches, sending messages to ghosts.

Jeff Young is a dramatist for theatre, radio and TV. His memoir, Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay, was published in 2020 by Little Toller and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards.

Lara Cobden is a figurative painter living and working in Norfolk. Her oil on linen, A Year of Ghost Wishes, was selected for the John Moores Painting Prize 2020, and ‘is an attempt to convey a year in the life of such a tree during 2019, and the hopeful/hopeless act of leaving a wish.’

This new text has been commissioned by the John Moores Painting Prize and is part of a creative-critical series published exclusively by The Double Negative during April and May. Writers were given free rein to respond to any painting or paintings from the 2020 exhibition, and in any style, tone or format that they wished to use.

The John Moores Painting Prize provides a platform for artists to inspire, disrupt and challenge the British painting art scene. Established in 1957, it is the UK’s longest running painting competition. For over 60 years the John Moores has brought to Liverpool the best contemporary painting from across the UK and has over that time, developed a legacy of supporting artists at all stages in their careers – undiscovered, emerging and established. All entries are judged anonymously. The John Moores 2020 jurors were: Hurvin Anderson, Alison Goldfrapp, Jennifer Higgie, Gu Wenda and Michelle Williams Gamaker.  

See the exhibition yourself via their virtual tour!

Posted on 05/04/2021 by thedoublenegative