Two weeks before the first lockdown I was in my studio putting the finishing touches to my most ambitious body of paintings to date. The studio was packed with hundreds of works of art. For the past four years I had been working with the Syrian writer Professor Ali Souleman and the documentary filmmaker Mark Jones. Ali lost his sight in a bomb blast in Syria in 1997 and we had been attempting to translate his experiences of war and displacement into a collection of paintings – to make the unseen seen. Ali and Mark were coming the very next day for an unveiling. The studio was overstuffed, no pause or resting place for the eye anywhere. It was, in hindsight, a self-portrait of a restless mind.
I’ve always been driven by obsessive-compulsive tendencies: counting and control, endless tinkering, seeking a never-coming calm. A patch of work caught my eye. Could it be a bit more darkened and burnt? I felt an itch behind my eyelid, a twitching fidget. I should have waited until I could move the boxes. I couldn’t wait. I switched on the blowtorch and passed it over the surface. It would only take a moment. A moment was all it took.
The painting caught in an instant, a small flame flickering into life. Calm attempts to stem it soon turned to panic as the fire began to spread across the wall. Dread set in. Efforts to douse the flames became increasingly desperate. Within minutes the entire back wall was aflame, the studio thick with black, billowing smoke.
I stumbled through the dark, choking, to the door. I called the fire brigade, screaming to the neighbours. Smoke stuck in my throat, reaching deep inside my lungs. The double doors to the studio were a bright- orange rectangle, waves of black smoke roiling out and upwards. I was breathless, crying, my body dripping with sweat, my eyes full of fire. It took the fire brigade four hours to extinguish the studio. Everything inside was gone; a decade of my work destroyed.
The following weeks were consumed by the clear up. My wife was abroad, so my mother and stepfather came to look after me and help me work though the initial logistics, hiring a water pump, buying wellies and a torch, tackling the arduous bureaucracy of insurance. I was inundated with offers of help from family, friends, neighbours and strangers, in real life and on social media. But soon I realised I had to tackle this alone.
I confronted the scale of destruction piece by piece, a slow act of mourning. It was a personal taxonomy, a museum of loss as I identified and ordered the burnt remains. Wet ash gathered into bags. Fragments of stretcher bars arranged by size. Burnt canvases dragged out and organised. A slow documentation of what things might have been and what they now were. Inside a deep well of sadness was building, burned away by flushes of anger and resentment at my reckless, manic obsessiveness.
Ali and Mark came to visit the studio a week after the fire, to witness the loss. We worked our way through what remained, looking through touch and description as I guided Ali’s hand across surface after surface: wooden stretchers stripped of canvas, crumbling under Ali’s fingers. We began to feel an uncomfortable sense of recognition here. The entire studio, with its array of damage, shards of shattered glass and the skeleton substructures of paintings, was uncannily reminiscent of aerial views across a bombed-out city, like drone shots across Aleppo or city views from the street level of Damascus, rows of blown open buildings, their interior damage revealed.
In some cruel alchemy the fire had transformed, rather than destroyed, the paintings into the most literal and visceral recreation of the world Ali had fled a few years before. In a sense we had achieved what we set out to do. The safe space between the two worlds of painting and reality was blown apart by the fire. Later, Ali told me he felt the same unnerving sense of the strange and familiar, of worlds colliding.
We moved house, and I made the decision to keep all the burnt remains. Suddenly the remnants no longer read just as fragmentary memories of a lost past. I began to see their potential to hold new life, new possibilities. Some objects leant themselves to transformation: melted paint pots could be covered in resin, transforming into gleaming sculptures, as if dredged from a wreck. There were objects that could be photographed as research material for new work and materials that could be repurposed – ash and charcoal, burnt stretcher bars, book pages to be incorporated into paintings.
In the two years since the fire, these remains have become integral to my work. I’ve mixed ash into paint, collaged burnt stretcher bars and debris into sculptural paintings, embedded various materials into resin-soaked canvases. They’ve even formed the basis for the illustrations I did for the award-winning children’s story Julia and the Shark. The remnants of the fire were feeding and forming everything I was making. The new canvases are not remotely like the paintings that came before: there is no violence, less darkness. I’ve been attempting to make paintings which speak to connection, reaching towards empathy. The noise of previous work gave way to something quieter: to melancholy and perhaps even to beauty. To love.
More than anything the fire has forced change on me. It has made me approach painting and life in a new way – with more thought and appreciation. Instead of making a dozen large paintings in a month, I will fold a painted canvas and leave it in the garden for weeks, letting it build up layer by layer, removing paint with bleach, adding foot and hand prints into the surface, encrusted and considered with deep attention. Instead of burnt landscapes, I paint abstract galaxies populated by floating limbs. In place of screaming mouths, constellations of colour floating over one another. But it’s a slow accumulation. I am approaching everything with more care, clarity and calm. This has necessitated a rewiring of my brain, a concentration of the richness of the current moment, an antidote to relentless internal noise and anxiety. It is not that the obsessive-compulsive tendencies have gone. My brain is still dialled into a manic frequency, but a kind of harmony has been found with the chaos. A desire to see better.
Eighteen months after my studio burned, Ali and Mark came to see these new works. Mark filmed Ali and me working slowly through the paintings. I directed Ali’s hand across the surface, his fingers offered roots into a different kind of vision. Touch as sight. It was an exercise in joint exploration, a kind of meditation. It reminded me of the magic of painting, to slow time, to offer up an absolute concentration of the present, on the exchange between viewer and canvas. More than that, I realised these new paintings are the best I’ve ever made, works of technical complexity and a tenderness I never thought I was capable of before.
The fire was the product of a brain that refused to switch off, an inability to silence my obsessive-compulsive patterns of thinking and action. In the weeks and months afterwards, I was all guilt, bitterness and self-hatred. It was my fault, the loss of all that work, the destruction of a joint project. Everything felt so fragile, the slippery reality of mortality so present.
But now I look back and realise it is more complex. That same manic drive led to the work being made in the first place. It has driven all my projects, all my successes as well as my failures. It has allowed me to see the burnt remains not as an end, as pure destruction, but as an endless set of possibilities. Showing Ali the new work, considering the slow mode in which all these works had been made and were being viewed, caused a total shift. If the fire was the trigger for change, forcing me to seek therapy and transform the way I work, I am now reaping the rewards. The main joy has been learning how to occupy the present moment, no longer endlessly moving forward or circling pointlessly. In noticing and accepting how my brain works, I’m better able to manage and divert my energy into creativity. These strange neurological quirks, which for so long had felt like destructive traps, have started to feel like a gift.
Wreck: Géricault’s Raft and the Art of Being Lost at Sea by Tom de Freston (Granta, £16.99) is available from guardianbookshop.com for £14.78.
From Darkness, exhibition at No20Arts, Islington, London, is on until 23 April.
Insight, a feature-length documentary by Mark Jones, is forthcoming