Paul Harfleet – The Power of Pansies, Birds and Art

October 3, 2020

Birds feature in the story of Pansy Boy, but they get their own star feature at the end of the book in your hand drawn Field Guide to Birds. Why was it important to include those pages?

When the book felt almost complete and was filled with the birds I loved as a child, I wanted to reveal the names of the birds to share the knowledge with the reader; whatever their age. I also love little facts and stories about birds, as I think this cements knowledge in hungry minds. I knew this would increase the pagination, but it felt like an essential component of the book and I’m really happy we were able to make that work.

‘He loved to draw and he loved to write, he marvelled at all things in flight.’ Do you remember instances from your childhood of that marvel of birds?

Apparently from being very young, I loved birds. My mother used to joke that ‘fly’ was my first word. I have strong memories of being driven to my maternal grandparents in Devon and seeing flocks of lapwings float over freshly ploughed fields. I have a very comforting early memory of seeing the growing number of parakeets zooming around my paternal grandmother’s house near Richmond in the seventies. I adored the exotic sight and sound of them, as they swooped and screeched through balmy summer evenings.

In the opening spread, we get a brilliantly colourful Scarlet Macaw with its wings spread wide over Pansy Boy, sitting with his sketch pad, who is drawn without colour. Later, Pansy Boy is still colourless, sitting in a garden radiant with flowers and a green parakeet. Why is this boy without colour?

The entire book originated in one dream. In that dream the characters were shades of grey and the natural world was full of colour. This was a way of emphasising the comfort and solace found in nature; as colour to me, suggests hope.

This was at odds with the way the characters reacted to Pansy Boy. They seemed unenlightened and perplexed by his early  performance of gender. Their lack of understanding made them seem less natural and therefore not ‘whole’. These characters didn’t deserve to exist in the full richness of Techincolor. The bullies also oppressed the main protagonist’s ability to exist fully, which is why he too remains monochrome, though his green eyes suggest a future where he will exist in ‘full colour’.

I also wanted to make a visual connection with cinema that uses black and white and colour cinematography as a narrative device, most famously in the The Wizard of Oz – though I use it in a completely different way.

Beyond that, I wanted to highlight the isolation of the character by removing the comfort of an understanding parent or teacher. There are gentle nods to the mother as the moon when Pansy Boy sleeps and when the school as a structure punishes the bullies. In showing no adults I’m purposefully referencing E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, where Steven Spielberg only shows the face of the mother for the majority of the film; no other adult face is shown until the end. Pansy Boy does not have an adult in it, highlighting his isolation and lack of support and emphasises his ability to solve his own problems by using pansies to challenge the system.

How much is it fair to see Pansy Boy as you?

It would be very fair. It’s completely me. The only fictional element is my early use of pansies. This did not develop until I became an artist.

In your new work, you’re pairing your full-colour drawings of birds with photos of yourself modelling each bird’s colour and posture. That seems a real evolution from the wilfully grey drawings of the boy in Pansy Boy. Could you say something about that?

Birds Can Fly is a new body of work. As it developed it became clear to me, that seeing the work through the lens of Pansy Boy does make it feel like a sequel of sorts, especially as Birds Can Fly is evolving into a book. This new work is a celebration of my own queer identity. My love of birds is obvious and my ‘gentle referencing’ of the drawings I’ve done is a very queer device. I’m using my styling and make-up skills to pay homage to the birds I love. There’s also a fair amount of silliness and humour in the act, which is very ‘me’ and is reflected in the absurdity of The Pansy Project and the homophobia I mark.

Your bird drawings are proving very popular. Are you finding comfort in the human company of bird lovers?

The drawings have been popular. The ‘gentle referencing’ is what increased the amount of attention I was getting on-line. There’s definitely something special about the combination of drawing and ‘fashion’ spread that captures the imagination. Over-all there is something light about Birds Can Fly, that seems entirely appropriate for these strange times. There’s a need for some distraction from the darkness.

It’s been really interesting to be embraced by so many bird lovers. It’s awakened something in me too I’m becoming increasingly interested in the plight of birds and the danger our natural world is in. Perhaps as I begin to explore more about birds and the natural world in the work I make, I am ‘paying it back’ for the solace I’ve found in birds my entire life. I think ornithologists see this and appreciate the sentiment.

In what ways do birds mirror queerness for you? Is it about being their uninhibited selves?

The quick answer is ‘yes’ – birds are free of the cultural limitations of humanity. Nature does not judge race, gender or sexuality; this is partly why so many more people are finding comfort in the natural world. Since the release of Pansy Boy and the development of Birds Can Fly, I’ve been researching the taxonomy of birds and the links between colonialism and the natural world. I’m interested in the ideas of masculinity and ornithology, from the ‘flamboyance of flamingos’ to JJ Audubon’s ‘performance’ of the intrepid explorer. So many cultural assumptions are entwined within ornithology, colonialism, queerness and gender, both historically and in a contemporary context. It’s all fascinating to me. My current research is beginning to unpick some of these ideas. I’m looking forward to writing about it and answering the above in more detail.

You started your new bird project in lockdown. With the quietening of our streets and skies man seems to have found birds and birdsong afresh. What’s your sense of birds from your London flat?

Like so many I was very aware of the dawn chorus just as lockdown happened. The discussion of this in the media and online is what led me to ask my followers if they’d like me to draw them a bird. Even in the bustle of Bethnal Green the birds were (and are) quite present. I’m lucky enough to live on the 6th and 7th floor where I can gaze over the skyline and spy on the birds. I see the pretty standard pigeon, herring gull and magpie, but also the goldfinch, pied wagtail, kestrel, parakeet and the occasional flock of Canada geese flying by in formation. Binoculars help me identify them from afar.

If you had to pick a bird as your soul-mate, which would you choose?

This is almost impossible to answer, though I did just return from Wales, where I went to The British Bird of Prey Centre where I saw the amazing Gyrfalcon. It was ethereal and beautiful, I could look at that all day.

It looks like we’re headed for a winter of more lockdown. What guidance can you offer from your own artistic practice to help others get through?

I’ve been incredibly lucky in lockdown. I’ve been able to live alone, which for me is a blessing. I was able to isolate and work. Drawing gave me a focus in the absence of my usual work with The Pansy Project; routine and purpose is what I need as an artist. I’ve completed 50 bird drawings and ‘gentle references’. 50 felt like a nice round number to at least pause at. I’m beginning to bring the work together into a publication. The research and reading is also helping me retain that focus. As the pressure of more lockdown mounts, I am feeling the pull of doing more drawings, which I might. It’s been amazing that my own form of comfort has been enjoyed by others. This has been reflected in the many messages I’ve received. This attention on the need of others has also helped.

I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice. In the turmoil of the global pandemic, creativity calmed my mind and helped me better my drawing. For me it’s like exercise has been for some, a regular daily task that I can see daily improvement in. I’ve also learned to listen less to the news and more to music. We have all learned that the arts in general is more than a taste or preference; it is an essential part of our mental well-being. The natural world around us and our artistic response to it, in whatever form, is fundamental to our survival as a species. The sooner our governments realise this, the better.