A remarkable visual diary currently adorns the north transept of Chichester Cathedral – 400 Days by the poet and painter Frieda Hughes (June 14-August 17, open daily with free entry).
In November 2015, Frieda decided to find out if she could create a painting every day for a year. Each day would be in effect an abstract diary reflecting that day. Was she happy, sad, optimistic, frustrated, overwhelmed, underwhelmed, excited, exhausted, full of energy or just plain tired, and what did that look like? She poured the answers into her daily painting which became an exploration, across 400 daily images, of how our days change in mood and tone. The resulting exhibition displays the days simultaneously so that the evolutionary changes are visible. Each image is ten inches by 14 inches, oil on canvas, covering the period between November 28 2015 and December 31 2016.
It’s the product of an astonishing self-discipline: “But I knew that if I put my mind to it, I could do it,” Frieda says. “Once I had started, I knew I had to keep going. The more I did, the more effort would have been wasted if I had stopped. December 31 2016 was my deadline, and I knew I just had to keep going. When I finished, I thought I would jump up and down at the end of it and really celebrate. But actually, I just thought ‘Oh, that’s really sad’ and thought ‘I could always do another day…’ But actually, the whole thing really ate my life.
“It was rather a feeling of emptiness at the end, but also a feeling of completeness with the emptiness and also a quiet joy. I thought ‘What am I going to do with all these free hours!’” The answer, infuriatingly, was to paint the edges. When she put all the images together, there was sufficient white showing between the panels to really annoy her – and so the next task, lasting weeks, was to fill in those edges: “Painting the paintings had been really interesting. Painting the edges was torture,” says Frieda, daughter of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But the result has been fascinating: “The colours got more wintery as the winter progressed. At the beginning of the year, it was very intense. But as the year progressed, it got a lot airier and a little bit freer.”
The pieces also reflect some volunteering she was doing, again freeing; but they also reflect when she was tied up in paperwork and bureaucracy and consequently felt caged. “And then the memory of one of my owls dying carried on through several paintings. I was haunted by the death. The paintings show how my perspective comes through. It was interesting how something quite significant would happen, and I would breeze through, and then something that involved my emotions would happen, and it would be reflected much more in the paintings.”
For 400 days, when others were going to bed after a hard day’s work, or a busy evening, Frieda would shut herself in her studio until the early hours until her painting of the day was finished. By the end of 2016, other work was being neglected, friendships were being tested, and sleep deprivation was beginning to take its toll. This too is reflected in the paintings.
Would she ever do it again? Well, Frieda certainly isn’t ruling it out: “I was looking at October 31 2016 and I was thinking ‘I wonder what October 31 2017 would look like’ and I was wondering what it would be like if you put them together, and then maybe if you had three or four October 31s, how the style would change. And so I thought I could carry on…. And then I thought therein lies madness!”
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