Nora Cannaday is an artist and a fencer from sunny Southern California. She works primarily in watercolours and in illumination, though we cover a lot more in this episode, including calligraphy, translations, making a living from your art and whether simply putting in the hours of practice is enough to get good. You can see an example of her work here with the logo she produced for the Spada Press:
In this episode we talk about how exacting and unforgiving some art forms can be, and the differences between different media in painting. Nora talks about the artist Lori Lamont who works exclusively in watercolour, and you can see her work here.
When we talk about fencing in the SCA scene in Southern California, we mention Nora’s painted fencing masks. Here are some examples:
This is the link to the Our Fake History podcast, which Nora mentions when talking about her thoughts on the Book of the Five Rings: www.ourfakehistory.com
Here is the fanciest fuckoff piece that Nora produced using all the gold (listen at around 1hr 9min in). Credit for the calligraphy goes to Master Thomas Brownwell. Nora did all the gilding and painting:
Nora’s website is www.noracannaday.com and you can find her on the usual social media too.
GW: Hello sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And before we go a moment further, this is going out on 1st January 2021. Happy New Year! Let’s hope it’s a damn sight better than the last year, which was a gigantic clusterfuck for most people. One thing that you can do to make 2021 perhaps healthier and better than 2020 is to pay attention to your breathing, your mind and your joints. To help you do that I have put together a set of free courses on joint care, breathing exercises, meditation and of course there’s a basic longsword class and a basic rapier class, because, let’s face it, we are sword people. To find these free courses go to go.guywindsor.net. I hope you will join us there. Now, on with the show.
I'm here today with Nora Cannaday, who is an extraordinary artist. I got her to do the manuscript illumination version of the logo for my Spada Press. I'll put a picture of that in the show notes. It’s a glorious thing done on vellum and you must see it to believe it. She's also a rapier fencer, which is sort of how we first interacted when we were talking about Fabris. We'll get into that in a bit. You can find her online at www.noracannaday.com. So without further ado, Nora, welcome to the show.
NC: Hi there, glad to be there – glad to be here. Wow.
GW: Well, it’s early in the morning for you, right?
NC: It is very early in the morning for me. It's 9:00 a.m. on a weekend. It used to be really normal for me to be up two hours ago in the before time, before Covid, because we would be driving to tournaments all over Southern California. The nice thing about being in So Cal is everything is so close. So if you wanted to go to two hundred events a year, you could do that. And I've come pretty close some years, I think. I think you know my bestie, Julian; even when I was like, “Oh, man, I've done this three weekends in a row and maybe I'll sleep,” Julian would show up and knock on my door at seven thirty in the morning and tell me to get into a car.
GW: That's what friends are for, right?
NC: That's what friends are for. So it's a little different now in the after times. There is less incentive to get up at seven o'clock in the morning on a weekend. It's nine. You didn’t make me wake up at seven. I actually probably would have spoken to you now.
GW: You're in Southern California, correct?
NC: I am in Southern California, home of high cost of living and beautiful everything. I get really spoilt because everybody here loves going on vacation. And you forget until you go away how lucky you are to live where you are. You end up ten days into your vacation and you're like, “I'm really OK to go home.” I think one day I'll probably be able to spend a month in Italy just because I believe in myself. But in general, I'm pretty lucky to live here in my three hundred square foot apartment, which is where I am now.
GW: That's not a lot of space to be locked down in.
NC: It is not very much space to be locked down in with my husband and cat. But we're pretty well practised at it at this point. If anything, we've done all sorts of home improvement during the quarantine. So our box is slightly more tenable than normal. But I like it here and if we were on video, you would get my cat right now, it seems fascinated that we are not asleep.
GW: Cats, dogs and children are always welcome on the podcast. And if you have a pet snake, you could bring that on too, that would be fine. OK, now, we first met, online at least, a long time ago when you were working on a translation of Fabris and you were using the photographs that I took of my copy of Fabris. And I never really circled back with you about that particular project. So dare I ask how it's going?
NC: I expect that it is one of those things that will circle back around. It is no longer intimately connected with the sort of fighting that I am learning. My fencing teacher, at the third time I stopped completely and said, “Well, no, I want to know what the original said,” said we have to learn something else while you're translating Fabris, or you're never going to learn how to sword fight because you'll be translating this for the next ten years. So I would still like to translate Fabris, but in the meantime I'm learning Giganti for the sanity of my teacher. I happen to have two good translations of Giganti that were done by people I know and trust. Gary Chelak, (I have two names for everybody because I know them through the SCA) and Jeff Jacobson. Gary had done a translation from Italian, and then Jeff actually translated from a French copy that was produced in period. So between the two of them I have faith, whereas I just find every time I pick up Fabris, I just want to really dig into it and it was really interesting when I started diving into it. Baroque Italian is like a hammer of a language. I guess baroque English is also a hammer of a language. But man, , Italian was very like, “This is the thing. In case you don't understand, this is what I mean by the thing. Just to be clear, what I'm saying is X.” So it's very repetitive, but I guess that's kind of helpful when you're talking about something so old, right? If you weren't sure that you understood what he was saying the first time, maybe by the third slightly different phrasing, you have a better idea what's going on.
GW: But the trouble comes when those don’t all agree.
NC: Yeah, I mean, we had an arrangement, and I guess we probably still have an arrangement when I work my way back around that direction, I’m in the middle of working towards an artistic competition that I cannot enter translation in, which is part of why it has been sidebarred. But I was planning to enter translation in it and apparently somebody did once upon a time, and now it's functionally been excluded because they've nobody to have anybody check it. Which seems legit in fairness to them. But I figure when I circle back that way, I'll probably still have the same arrangement, which is I do the Italian and anywhere there are too many translations of a single word I take copious side notes and then I go sit down with many of the more educated sword people I know, which is almost everybody other than me. And we go through my translation to make sure that my English translation of the Italian also reads like sword. So I think the biggest one was when I did the second chapter, I had translated something as “close”. And I was thinking it was talking about distance and what they were actually saying was to lock, like to lock out, which changed everything, but once we went through it, it was absolutely what was supposed to be. So I don't know, I will get back around to that project when I finish with the competition I'm working on right now.
GW: OK, what is the competition you're working on right now?
NC: So in Caid, which is the Southern California branch of the SCA… SCA gets kind of a bad rap for being, people hitting each other with our own swords because the heavies hit each other with foam, duct tape things, but really the society has a number of rather serious sides, the arts community in particular tends to be rather serious and scholarly, and there are more and more historically minded censors.
GW: A lot of the people whose work I have come to depend on, well Gary Chelak, you mentioned earlier and others from the SCA. I've had them over to Finland to teach in my school. They produce interesting work. Just because the organisation has some things in it which are clearly, not to my mind, really historical martial arts doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it or that it doesn't also include stuff that is absolutely relevant to Western Martial Arts.
NC: The arts community in particular tends to be rather scholarly. Both Jeff and Gary, who I mentioned earlier with the translation are what we call Laurels. A Laurel is the highest arts award you can get in the society. It's also a job. So you are given peerages. That is the level that it is within the society. You are offered to them because it's taking on a ton of work. But they have both contributed their translations as their art to society and much in the same way that I do illumination and calligraphy and now half a dozen other things. Pentathlon is an art competition that requires five entries in four categories. Basically, you can double up on something you're good at, but only one. The categories are exceptionally broad, like food. All of food is a category, you know, oil painting, calligraphy, illumination, watercolour, pen and ink, printmaking. All of those are all in the same category. That visual art category is all encompassing. So in order to enter, you really have to get outside your comfort zone and since somebody told me that I just illuminate I feel like I should put that in there because this seemed like the right way to drop a hammer on that conception, and so I've been working at it pretty steadily since before quarantine, and I'm actually working on replicating a piece of embroidery from the British Library, which I am now going to find when it is done. It is from 1620. It has been an experience. I think I have ripped off every stitch on the back cover and put it back down again. Hopefully the front cover goes off with slightly less delay.
GW: So what categories are you entering in, the visual arts, food? What are the others?
NC: Food is my backup because I can whip up an almond cake. But I theoretically would like to enter music. I've been working on learning octave mandolin since the beginning of quarantine. I think technically two weeks before quarantine and I met my teacher once before lockdown. So I've got embroidery, music, functional object where I'm doing chemistry, and then calligraphy and illumination and making flowers into paint. I have a personal love of botanical pigments because they are one of the things that leads to watercolour as a concept. They are that crossover point between illumination and watercolour because you have these botanical illustrations all throughout the illumination tradition for hundreds of years. But when they go from being illuminations on vellum to being watercolour on paper, one of the things that happens is the types of paint we have changed. And a huge part of that is this influx of botanical pigments that are more truly water soluble than ultramarine. You can have watercolours that are made out of rocks but they don't have the same quality as the botanical pigments that we get in the 17th and 18th centuries.
GW: OK, so oil painting is not illumination is not water colour. Most of the listeners, I guess, probably won't know the technical differences between them.
NC: OK, that's fair. Oil painting is pigments suspended in oil, and it's usually done on canvas, but it's sometimes done on panel. It has a different quality of light than watercolour does, and a huge portion of that is that you can paint white in oil paint, which you cannot do in watercolour. Any time you want white in watercolour it is the result of meticulous planning to leave exactly what you would like to leave in that painting. Illumination is a historical style more than a type of painting. The paint that we use in illumination is called gouache. Whether you make it from pigment or you buy it in the store, it is still gouache. Some people will tell you that the stuff like working with certain period pigments is different. And it kind of is, but really it's still gouache. Gouache is an opaque watercolour, so it's just a water soluble, opaque pigment.
GW: Opaque, as opposed to a translucent pigment?
NC: As opposed to translucent. Watercolour is translucent. I love watercolour, it has become a source of anxiety because I haven't done enough of it recently because I keep getting manuscript commissions and so I keep doing that. But the fun thing about watercolour is that it is exacting.
GW: You said the fun thing is that is exacting. I'm not sure an awful lot of people would understand why being exacting is also fun. I do. I know what you mean from things like smallsword, which is exacting but great fun, but by all means, expand a little on that.
NC: So there's an artist who I just look up to like crazy. Her name is Lori Lamont. She did a 40 foot long watercolour that she put up in the Long Beach Museum of Art. This is giant, like basically painted the whole thing, ran it all the way down the wall. And I’ve seen a lot of big watercolours. And I'm generally not impressed because, frankly, a lot of watercolours are sloppy and basically say this is the nature of the medium and it's not. Watercolour can be incredibly tidy and meticulous. And I will tell you, she put up 40 feet of technically perfect watercolour. I don't know if you've ever seen something that just made you cry from the mechanics of it; I ended up crying because I'm in the museum walking up and down and going, it can't possibly be as good as I think it is. And it was indeed that good. There are just no mistakes and it was just mind boggling. And I actually ended up meeting her. She's artist in residence. And we geeked out about brushes and how to do four feet of flat wash. And she's like, “You don't need to ask me these things. Your work is fine.” I'm like, “No, you’re a goddess, you don't understand.”
GW: Hang on, that goddess told you your work is fine. That's actually a significant compliment. I have an email that I've got printed out in a file somewhere, for when I get really depressed about a book I'm working on, that's not going right or whatever. And it was an offhand comment by Neal Stephenson in an email to me saying you can actually write. That’s Neal fucking Stephenson sending me an email, which just happens to include the offhand phrase “you can actually write”. Fucking hell, Neal says I can write, I can fucking write.
NC: She's wonderful. We’re Facebook friends and I continue to stalk her work, but she'd given an interview, for the Long Beach paper, or wherever it was, that basically said, why is it that you love watercolour? And she said, because it's unforgiving. Which I think is the best answer ever. It's one of those things where if you line up all of your pens and dot all your i’s and get everything in correctly, it will do exactly what you want. And if you don't, it will make you know that you did not do everything, and I think I appreciate that there is nowhere to hide in watercolour. I think that certainly there are people who don't know good watercolour from bad watercolour, and that's ultimately how watercolourists just sell their work to an unsuspecting public. But in general, you know exactly where someone's chops lie in watercolour, because if you make a mistake, it's there. That's it. It's going to be there. I put down a glass of water on a 30 inch watercolour at one point and ended up with this little five inch grey ring. And I'm going it's not going to matter because that area is going to be like 80 percent navy. So I laid down a wash, a really dark wash, and that little ring was still there. No problem. Laid down another wash. That little ring was still there three washes later, at which point the paint looked like garbage anyway because it had lost all its simplicity. I'm realising that that little ring is going to be there forever. So that's in scrap somewhere. But there's something really satisfying about when it's finally done right, because then you have this thing and you're like, “I have done this start to finish and not fucked it up.” I'm sorry. Am I allowed to swear on this?
GW: I've already said fuck many times. On my podcast you can say whatever the fuck you like.
NC: Whereas when I do illumination I always tell people illumination for me is less skill and more patience, because it's not like I don't mess up. You can paint over your fuckups so nobody sees them.
GW: Yeah. I mean, oil paintings are often full of paint-overs and re-dos and you can see them with this x-ray photography thing. And when they look at old master paintings, you must have millions of books like this, where they actually have analysed the process of the painting and you can see that arm was going that way, but you moved it to go down here for this.
NC: You can't even draw on watercolour paper. I mean, you can but you shouldn't. It'll ruin the size. Size is the thing that makes paper absorbent. So if you erase on it at all, you ruin the size and you can't have any superfluous lines. They show up into the painting. So what you do is you do the cartoon separately and then you trace it on the paper so you have no superfluous lines at all and you haven't damaged the chemical makeup of your paper.
GW: Wow, it really is an art form for the ultra meticulous,
NC: It is an art form for control freaks. It suits me.
GW: I do a lot of woodwork and it's differently unforgiving where there are a lot of mistakes you can make that you can fix. But there are some mistakes you can't. You can't make a piece of wood bigger than it is. So once you've taken a piece off, like many, many times, a project has come out slightly smaller than I originally intended because I've made mistakes. And the only thing to do is to narrow things down a little bit to accommodate for it. But in a woodcarving one slip of the chisel and a week's work can literally lie in ruins. It has its own particular attraction.
NC: Yeah, I feel that. I've never been particularly good at sculpture. I took a couple of years of it and I understand that if I had put the hours in, I probably could have gotten somewhere. I did some metal casting and a little bit of construction type work, not like whittling or carving or lathe turning or anything. It's OK. You know, it's not great. I put my hours somewhere else.
GW: It’s all about the hours. And at some point in the future, you might get bitten by the wood carving bug and put in the thousands of hours required and be just as good as anybody else.
NC: It's one of those things where I would have to put in tens of thousands of hours on woodcarving. There is a certain point at which skills transfer between media, but the skills involved in three dimensional art are so much different than the skills involved in two dimensional art that I would really be starting at zero. Really, I would be starting at nothing. And that's fine. I started from nothing on fencing.
GW: But it is funny because I can't draw for toffee, but I can carve wood just fine. If I want to make a little mouse in wood, I can carve a little mouse much, much better than I could draw a little mouse.
NC: But you probably put I don't even know how much time into woodworking.
GW: Right, and it was my full time job for five years, many years ago. 40 hours a week for five years, that really does stack up.
NC: Yes, it really does.
GW: You mentioned getting into swords. So what did your sort of zero point of swords look like? And how did you get started?
NC: OK, so. When I got my first, I won't say real paying job, I was still making not enough to live on, but when I got my first raise at a job, I decided I was going to do something responsible for myself. And I got a gym membership, which I hated and still hate and no longer own. And I was on the elliptical torturing myself one of three times a week and a friend of mine called me on my cell phone and said, “Hey. You should come fencing with me next Tuesday. It's free.” And I went, what am I really doing with my life that's more interesting than free fencing on Tuesday? So the next week I headed out to the local practice. The friend who invited me did not show up and nobody showed up except for the person who was running it because it was right after a big camping event and everybody was unpacking and sleeping. But we talked swords and SCA and stayed for three and a half hours in a parking lot, which has become a theme of my life – all of my boys talking at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in a parking lot after sword events or after dinner after sword events of some combination of the two. But I came back the next week and they got a bunch of loner gear on me and gave me the little lowdown of how to not hurt your friend and then threw me out on a field to get hit a lot. Which continued for some time. It is still continuing. Let's be real, I'm still getting hit a lot, but it is great because they would just shower information on you. And I have since learnt in the process of teaching that this really doesn't work for a lot of people, the whole showering of information thing does not work for a lot of people. Worked great for me because they would just like pour information on you. And if you didn't pick up something that they said, they would just say it again later. OK, I mentioned distance and leverage in that. And you got the distance. You missed the leverage. So I guess I'll just keep repeating leverage and I'll show it to you again and again and again. And eventually, you know, you'll have some idea of what you're doing. It got a lot more serious, kind of out of nowhere. I was fangirling all of the really good people at our practise, it was really evident that there were people at our practise who were just remarkably better than everybody else. And one day we had this guy named Ronan show up. Ronan was great, we painted fencing masks together.
GW: Oh, I've seen some of your fencing masks and I don't really go for painting fencing masks at all, but I've seen yours and I actually want one, so I will put a photograph in the show notes so people can go and see what a properly painted fencing mask looks like.
NC: Oh, thanks. But Ronan showed up and he was all in modern clothes and it was pretty obvious he didn't know what the SCA was. And my attitude was kind of like, how did you find your way here exactly? And he is like, “Well, I go to fencing school on Thursday with Ryan Shapiro.” I'm like, “You go to school with Ryan? He's like the best fencer in our practice.” “And you know Jeff? Jeff runs it.” He says Ryan and Jeff are going to the same school. Well, then he ticks down the list, like the four people who were attending are the four best people at our practice. Funny that. OK, hold up, how much is this school? And I'm doing the maths and I'm like, OK, I'm just going to cancel the gym membership. OK, that's it, I'll go fencing. So I ditched the gym membership permanently and I just switched to fencing.
GW: A wise choice, always.
NC: It’s a lot more fun. So the first class I took at Tattershall was Gary teaching body mechanics, which was the best class I could have possibly come into. I feel so, so sad for my husband who came into Fabris and that was the wrong lesson. He needed to come into body mechanics. Also, he's six four, Fabris is really not for him. It is not kind to his hips. But I came into body mechanics and German rapier. I still like German rapier, it's so aggressive. It hasn't ended up being the thing that I have pursued. I feel like now that we're getting into Giganti I've become a little bit of a lazy fencer. I'm much more willing to just kind of like wait for something to come to me.
GW: That’s good.
NC: I was a very aggressive fencer when I started and I ran off adrenaline all the time. And now I struggle to get enough adrenaline. So a totally different set of problems. But I started going to school and then at some point Jeff says something to me like you're not going to get good doing two practises a week. And what he meant is you should go home and do drills, and what I heard is I should find four practises. So for a while I was driving up to Burbank on Monday, doing Huntington Beach on Tuesdays, doing like West L.A. every other week, doing Tattershall on Thursdays and during tournaments every weekend.
GW: That’s a good fencing education. You don't really need to do drills at home.
NC: It was really bad for my life at the time. I was living off French fries and protein shakes because I was never at my house because that means hours and hours of commuting every week. It was absolutely the crash course I needed and it was also completely unsustainable.
GW: Right. Yeah. That does require like a personal chef and a chauffeur and not needing to have a proper job.
NC: The other problem with it is, back then again, because I ran on adrenaline all the time, I could not eat as a concept. Before or during the fencing. Because just the smell of food was nauseating to me. So practise starts at 8:00. You don't eat at 8:00 either. You either stay out with friends until one o'clock in the morning at a diner somewhere, which I've done a lot of. Or you drink a protein shake and go home and sleep at 3:00am and wake up again at seven o'clock tomorrow.
GW: That's not a lifestyle that's good for anyone.
NC: Well, you know, I've done it. It was absolutely a good crash course. I think that it is not unlikely that in the after time (I'm assuming there’s going to be an after time, although I'm in the US, so who knows at this point,) I will probably end up hitting at least one other practise when the after time comes because I will be starting from nothing. Again, I haven't fenced another person since February. So it was a good crash course and a weird moment for me because I just had terrible body awareness, because I'd never done sports before. It would be like if you started visual arts and you were blind before, I had no concept of what I was looking at or what I should feel or where I was going with it. I was working at an office building that was mirrored. So as you would walk by it, your self was walking next to you and I jumped out of my skin one day when I stepped into stride with myself with a mirror beside me one time because my posture had changed so much, it felt like a stranger had come into stride with me. And I don't know if you know that feeling where someone you don't know is suddenly walking with you, it's very alarming. I realised I was walking next to myself and I'm like, the world has gotten weird. That doesn't look like me, it doesn't move like me. But it was worth it, and I've had wonderful friends who are incredibly understanding of the level that I came into this at. I think Jeff personally rotated my shoulder one hundred times over two weeks. I now know where that weird little muscle that you use in fourth position is, I did not know where it was. You can talk about it all you want, but that muscle was invisible to me when I started. We actually have been talking about this a lot and about the way in which martial arts is hard to teach compared to visual art.
NC: Oh, yeah. Jesus, I can teach them the calligraphy in an afternoon as well.
GW: Let's see if this is actually true. One of these days we're going to end up in the same geographical location and we'll take an afternoon. And you can teach me calligraphy because my handwriting is shocking.
NC: I'll tell you what, a lot of people with bad handwriting have excellent calligraphy, and that's because calligraphy isn't writing, it's construction. You're not writing anything free form, you're constructing it one stroke at a time. Don't get me wrong, I can't teach you how to be good at calligraphy in an afternoon.
GW: You mean there’s no magic button you can just push?
NC: No, the problem is that hours are also not the solution. And I think that we end up in the spot where there are two types of people: there are people who believe that all things are God given talent and those people don't really get very far because either they think too much of their own abilities and they never push themselves far enough, or they give up because they think that they don't have the ability. Or there is Camp B, which says put in all of the hours and you will be good at a thing. And both camps are bullshit, frankly.
GW: Well, OK, I'm closer to Camp B, but just hours alone don't do it. You have to do the right things during those hours, like really specific deliberate practice.
NC: I actually think you can do the wrong thing so long as you're aware, so long as you're able to identify what you're doing is wrong.
GW: You need to be doing the sort of practises where basically you can see failure as it happens and you know what to do differently so you can deliberately change what you're doing towards the model that you're going for.
NC: Correct. It's not perfect practise makes perfect and it's not practise makes perfect. Its intentional practise makes perfect. The reason I always tell people that I can teach them calligraphy quickly is because calligraphy is still typography. It exists on a grid. I can teach somebody what to look for fast enough that they can go home and put the hours in. The hard part is teaching people something where there are less concrete things for them to look at. Anything that you can map out is easy to teach because you can literally put it on a grid and say if you are doing well at this, this is going to hit this line, this is going to hit this line, this is going to line up vertically with this line. And it is not where you want to come back and see me, basically. Whereas teaching something like drawing is much more abstract. Then you are talking to people about line quality, which is not an easy thing to teach somebody in an hour or so. Maybe you get line quality, but you're not going to get shading or you're not going to get pattern shading. And there's just too many things that go into it for it to be easy to teach. But with visual arts, everybody has eyes. You can teach people to see what they need to see. And the challenge is never teaching people how to do something. I think that's where we really fail, is we go at teaching like we're teaching somebody to do something, but we should be teaching people to understand something so that they can correct their own work. Because if you teach somebody how to do a lunge, but they don't understand what makes it good, they're never going to be able to correct it on their own. And it's never going to be better than when you left them. So my goal is always to teach people what they need to do to be able to make progress on their own. If they get ten minutes of artistic instruction from me, but they get half an hour that lets them know what they're supposed to do when they go home, well then they go put in the hundreds of hours, you know. Hopefully with the ability to make that kind of conscious practise and to be able to fix their mistakes going forward. But, you know, fencing is hard because there's not a good way to establish early on what something is supposed to be when it's correct because you can't see yourself. You have to feel yourself and in order to feel it, you have to do it right to feel it being right, whereas you can see somebody else's art being right and conceptualise that as being able to look at your heart and know whether or not it's right. You can't feel someone else’s fencing.
GW: You know, I disagree. I have spent my whole life teaching people fencing and that there are ways of creating an environment with a natural feedback system that gives people the feeling of what it feels like when it's right and then what I normally do, (it is much easier in a private lesson in a class,) is I basically fiddle about with things and cheat until they get a feeling of what it's supposed to feel like. And that can take five minutes or half an hour. And then once they've got that feeling I tell them to name the feeling and they give it a name and then whatever else they're doing, they're always looking for that feeling and then every other action they do should have that feeling. Sort of like supported, deliberate, controlled, powerful motion. If it's a tactical question is it's even easier, really, because all you have to do is make sure that the student gets hit every time they do the wrong thing and hits you every time they do the right thing and they pick it up really quickly. But the problem with that is it took me well, I guess 10 years of teaching full time for a living before I learnt the trick of that. And then it took me another five years of doing it full time for a living before I actually got good at it. So, yeah, it's a solved problem, but it's not a simple one.
NC: Yeah, it is not something that I feel like I have been able to understand as I go along. I can tell you I know factually I have done things correctly because I have been told by people who know better that I have occasionally done things correctly. But I couldn't replicate them or tell you whether or not what that felt like or what that was like in the moment to save myself. I absolutely get hit when I do the right thing. And that's also the nature of fencing. So figuring out what's good is hard and correcting on it is harder. It is hard to get out of a match and be able to dissect everything that happened well enough to then analyse something that's already gone, which in fairness is something they focus on a lot at Tattershall, which is really helpful to me. They train people to be able to walk off and look back at what just happened. It’s still just nightmarishly hard. It's like, OK, well, what happened and then what happened? I know something did.
GW: That's why serious fencers have coaches who are watching when they fence and who will do that job for them if they missed something. Even the best fencers in the world don't normally do that entirely on their own. They have a team for it, because it’s hard.
NC: That sounds great. My teacher and I, our relationship is more academic. We spend more time on Giganti than we spend doing technicalities. And he's also kind of my sponsor into that group of people. And it's good to have other people who care about historical sword fighting and are willing to really to do extreme geekery with you.
GW: I am going to offer you a deal. You teach me calligraphy in an afternoon and I will teach you to know when it's right in the same time frame. I think that would be fun. We just need to get out of this pandemic and get into the same to the same location.
NC: I really want to get to London anyway. They offered to let me come to see the book that I'm embroidering in person and they made the offer to me right after I finished my honeymoon, when we were dead broke. And Josh and I were running crazy maths and jumping through hoops and I didn't have any time off. We were trying to figure out if I could take one more unpaid day off and do a four day turnaround where I did a massive rush to London and just lived in the British Library for two days. And we ended up deciding we couldn't afford it. But hopefully when the pandemic is over, I can come meet you and I can come see my book in the British Library and maybe even bring the finished book and show the curator. That would be kind of neat. I have been showing the book over and over again to somebody who knows what they're doing to make sure that it has not become a catastrophe when I wasn't looking. It looks OK to me. But what do I know? It's not my primary art form and I haven't spent long enough in it, you know? So you have to have somebody else to tell you what you want to see. Somebody has to teach you how to feel in fencing. I am going to hold you to that because I have a very good track record teaching calligraphy. The best calligrapher in California is down in San Diego. He's like Lori Lamont scale, but calligraphy. The guy has thirty hands just memorised. It's mind boggling. And he can just spit out fourteen hundred characters of calligraphy without making a mistake, he's just that guy. But he participates in Scriptorium which is basically a scriber arts practise meet up and they have no calligrapher go down there. Whereas I've got three people showing up regularly for my scriptorium and three people doing calligraphy. And it's like, well, how do you get them to do calligraphy instead of painting? Well, I set them up with it and they found out it was easy and they kept doing it. We make it too hard - it's construction. You remember when you were a kid and you had to do printing on the gridded lined paper? There's no reason that you should teach calligraphy differently. OK, well a little bit more different than that. But you get the idea. Everything lines up. I’ll bring you a pen. One of my contributions to society is I run around giving away calligraphy pens.
GW: That’s a great contribution to society.
NC: Well, the thing is, if you go buy a calligraphy set at a store, they're expensive. But if you go up to John Neal Booksellers, you can buy a gross of pen nibs. I've done this, and you go buy a gross of reservoirs and you go buy scratch nib handles, which are a quarter of the price of pen handles, even though they’re the same damn thing. And you can put together one hundred pens for seventy five dollars and walk around teaching people how to temper nibs and stuff. You'll probably get a kick out of it. With a really good calligraphy pen you light them on fire. For whatever reason, maybe they'll hear this and, what the hell, the Mitchell nib, which are made in England, are the best. They're made of spring steel. They're great. I've come to appreciate Brause because with Brause I can just spend and go because Brauses are done when you get them. They're German, but the English pens are not done. Amongst other things, there's one reservoir for eight nib sizes. They don't fit. You have to put them on with pliers. I don't know why they don't have multiple reservoirs for multiple pen nibs, it’s just like they just don't care that much. I'm convinced that they've been using that same stamp for 100 years. And it's not tempered so you have to burn the varnish off it. And heat the pen nib and dunk it in water and it'll turn blue so you know you did it correctly, but it's like this whole thing. I really wish that I could get a Mitchell nib that was as ready to go as the Brauses because it would be better quality, although Brause doesn't have a broad nib, which is like a chisel tip. Their stuff is more for pointed pens. But again, the fact that Mitchell doesn't bother with all this stuff makes their products really cheap. So this means I have mixed feelings. I won't be able to give out as many pens if they bring their stuff up to the price of Brause. My student loves lighting things on fire. It's great. I can hand him nibs. And because he does blacksmithing, too, not that I teach him that, he was super excited. So now when I prep them, we sit together and he lights things on fire for an hour and makes a mess.
GW: Now in Japanese sword arts there's a strong association with the brush. So the sword and the pen, the sword and the brush. I sort of have a similar sort of feeling for it, where I write books and I do swords, do you feel a kind of artistic connection between your swordplay and your painting?
NC: I really don't. One is so meticulous and controlled and rather stationary and the other is so active. But I also just really don't connect with Japanese swords as a concept. I got a signed Book of the Five Rings, which I read eventually. It's ridiculous. I had an easier time reading Machiavelli than I did reading the Book of the Five Rings. It is a nothing book. It's, I don't know, 50 pages or something. But I kept falling asleep during the Zen-like bullshit meditative parts. Like the only silence is sound or whatever the fuck it is. It sounds like a bad yoga intro, you know. I have now been sent back to Book of the Five Rings by my teacher three times, I'm getting mad at him. He's like, “How is this relevant?” I'm like, “It's not, because many of the things in this book may be relevant to war, but they're not relevant to what we do in that I would never, ever want to use some of those tactics in a polite situation. I like my opponents. I'm not going to comment on whether or not it's valid to put the sun in their eyes. It's just not how I want to win.” Also, do you listen to Our Fake History?
GW: No, I don't.
NC: First of all, you should. Sebastian Major is brilliant. He does these podcasts where he looks into popular myths and legends and tracks back to their historical sources and figures out what's fact and what's fiction and where it all came from and how it boiled down to where we think how we think of it today.
GW: That’s “Our Fake History”? I’ll put a link in the show notes.
NC: He did an episode on Musashi. I had the misfortune of listening to it before I read the Book of the Five Rings, which made it impossible to take it seriously. It matters a lot to a lot of people around me. I know that, you know, it seems like my fencing teacher got a lot from it. I know Jeff must've because he put it on the school curriculum, but I just don't relate to it at all. I'm really looking forward to The Courtier, which I think is going to be a better match, which I think is four hundred pages compared to the 50 pages of Book of the Five Rings. But I will say, though, in Book of Five Rings, he has that intro where he talks about essentially, the various crafts people involved in making a house, remember that?
GW: Honestly, I read the book about 15 years ago and it didn't really resonate with me either.
NC: Oh, thank God I'm not the only one. That's wonderful to hear. I feel so bad about it, because people are like, it’s this great philosophy and I'm like, I don't see it guys.
GW: I’ll tell you why. It's is one of those books, particularly because it's been filtered through translations from a very different culture. It has spaces in it where you can basically read whatever you want. So much of it can be really whatever you want it to be. And that's not a bad thing in a book necessarily, because the function of a book is to change the reader. And if it does that by leaving space for the reader to put things, that's fine. So I'm not criticising on that score. But yeah, to me I never really got anything useful out of it that I hadn't already got out of Fiore or insert pretty much any other philosopher here.
NC: Yeah, it doesn't do anything for me, and I think maybe the problem is that I was looking for something. I wasn't willing to just fill in the blanks. I was looking for something that wasn't there ultimately. The part of it that's very philosophical is kind of mind numbing to me, I am certain that it is better in Japanese, just like I promise you Fabris is better in Italian. Maybe I need to pick up another translation. I keep hearing the translation I have is very good. It was passed on to me by friends who read the same translation. And it seems to have done wonderful things for them. It just doesn't work for me. For me, art and writing are very different. They're very different senses and they're very different processes in a completely different headspace. Maybe it shouldn't be a different headspace. Maybe that's part of what I'm screwing up. But it is for me, ultimately a very different headspace because I can plan everything. You’ve got to remember, I’m a water colourist. Right at the beginning of something, I know exactly what everything is going to do and the order in which I'm going to do it. I can't control what my opponent is going to do, not in entirety. So there's no way to completely plan that process, which makes the headspace very different. If only I could plan a fight all the way through!
GW: To my mind, the main connection is the state of mind in which you deliberately practise. I use the term intentional practise. So the skill of intentional practise through which you learn skill X. Once you have developed that ability to practise in that way, you can transfer that understanding of practise to whatever other art you want. That's my read on it.
NC: I think that you can transfer your understanding, but that it's different because the sense you're using to analyse it changes really. For me, at least, I found it very different. It's kind of like if you were teaching somebody music, training in theory is much different than training somebody’s eye. I am approaching music much the same way that I approach art, which is intentional practise with an understanding of what it is I'm supposed to be fixing. I get so mad when I first started mandolin because all the musicians I knew were like, “It's fine, just put in a lot of hours” and I'm like, “No, I know this is a lie.”
GW: You can't just put in a lot of hours. You have to put in a lot of hours doing the right thing.
NC: Like muscle memory. Because I've already made this mistake with fencing, which was getting really enthusiastic and building up a lot of bad muscle memory, which I then had to break down later, painfully. I've hurt myself so much, fencing, it's not even funny. But it's still different, because you are having to teach a different sense so it doesn't transfer over as I would like, but it's definitely relevant, the idea that you move forward by intentionally correcting something that you have an understanding of. We should teach people how to see before we teach people how to make things or do things. I don't know how many people start in historical martial arts at my level, I want to say probably a bunch of them.
GW: What do you mean by your level?
NC: Not very much body awareness, not in very good shape.
GW: I can say that I have had over a thousand students over the last 20 years and I would say 80 percent of them, it was their first significant practise of anything, the fact that they could actually walk was something of a miracle. In fact, most of them had to have their walk fixed because they were in the process of destroying their knees simply by walking. So, yeah, for a lot of us, swords are the only thing that involves physical activity that's actually interesting enough to make us get over the irritation and pain of having to exercise to get good at it.
NC: Yes, that sounds about right. Jeff has often called it ‘outdoors sports for indoor kids’, which rings very true to me. But man, I think it's extra important to let people know that it's just going to be hard and you can't have this expectation of instant success. You shouldn't have that with anything. You shouldn't have it with music and you shouldn't have it with visual arts, or cooking, and you definitely should not have it with fencing. I have dropped shoulder blades and dislocated ribs and I don't do longsword because my chiropractor said I'm not allowed to anymore because he won't fix me anymore. I do do rapier, because I seem to not break myself on that one. I'm too stubborn to give it up. I was really bad at art for more than a decade. I went to Arts Conservatory High School in college. And I can tell you, I have a decade of really bad work where I was behind everybody else in my class. And I am not behind everybody else in my class now. So I know that if I'm just stubborn enough for long enough, eventually something will click and I will get there. And in the meantime, I spent my first major tournament with a broken finger on my offhand.
GW: The idea of an artist having a broken finger is horrible. For me, having a broken finger isn't such a bad thing, but someone who can actually paint like that, having a broken finger is really quite frightening.
NC: Oh, God. You know, the offhand wasn't that bad, but actually I tripped in a parking lot last year and broke a finger on my right. And that was horrifying and scary. The good news is I broke my pinky. I have since come to learn that the muscles that control your strength are your pinky and your ring finger and that the other fingers are where your fine motor control skills are. So if I can keep my index, middle and thumb not broken while I fence, it should theoretically still be OK. I did an Aikido roll when I fell, thank God to my stage combat teacher in high school, I owe him. I don't remember doing a roll, but the fact that my entire body was not broken from tripping over cement is probably a good sign that Jeff is not full of shit. And I did, in fact, roll out of that hole. I did break my finger though. I'm like, I could chatter forever.
GW: On a podcast, that's actually a good thing. But we are running short of time. I'm sure you want to get back to bed. So I have a couple of questions I tend to finish up with. The first is, what is the best idea that you have not acted on?
NC: Submitting the Pageant of the Masters. I haven't gotten my shit together, and honestly, I may not get to at this point because we can't afford to live in Orange County and have to live in Orange County to submit to the Pageant. And if we move to L.A. County, then I've missed my shot at it. The Pageant of the Masters is a big arts festival in Laguna Beach. If you would like to make money as a fine artist this is the route. It makes 30 or 40 thousand dollars in the summer over the course of seven or eight weeks. All of the really big art collectors go there. People sell their paintings for real money. You would probably crack up. There's a little cluster of art fairs down there and there's the festival of the arts, which is the one that I want to submit to. And then there's Sawdust, which was created to be the craft equivalent of the festival of the arts, where all of these things went that they were like, that's not art, that's craft. We could get into a whole thing about why that's bullshit and why the terms of “art” and “craft” diminish people who do traditional functional arts. So we have Sawdust, which is the craft festival, and you have Festival of the Arts, which is the “fine art festival”. And then you have Art Affair, which is kind of the fair that popped up for people who were not good enough to go into either of the two other places. And if you go through them, you'll see a watercolour for fifty dollars at Art Affair and you'll go across the street and you'll see another watercolour for seven hundred dollars, at Festival of the Art. And the quality is like, you know why the Festival of the Arts paintings are there. And I've had people over the years who are like, “Oh, you can get into Art Affair, you can get into there.” And I'm like, “But once you're there, you're stuck there, you've made yourself that person.” So for a long time, I didn't feel like I was good enough get into the Festival of the Arts and now I am good enough, I'm positive. I know because I went to the competition last year, went to the Festival of the Arts and went and tracked down every other watercolour so I could figure out where I was in the jury pool. But then I'm always busy doing work for other people and it’s gotten hard because I'm making thousands of dollars on illuminations now.
NC: I don't know how we worked this through in here, Guy, but we got to figure it out because this is a valuable lesson. Once upon a time, I had done a whole bunch of illuminations for free and I was basically just doing it for my friends because they were my friends, and I was tired. I just finished a five foot tall roll of arms and a friend of mine got his invite to be a Master of Defence, which is the peerage equivalent for fencers. It's like the highest fencing award you can get. He was like, “How is your backlog?” And I'm like, “Bad and I'm tired, basically.” And he said you're the only one I want to do it - puppy dog eyes – he’s super dangerous like that. And I'm like, “Oh, I'll think about it.” And he's like, “I'll pay you.” And I'm like, in my head, I'm going, you can't possibly pay me enough, I'm tired. And I'm bitching at my extreme capitalist friend who I'm no longer in contact with, but he used to be the demon on my shoulder, he served a definite purpose in my life for a while. And I'm like, “I don't want to do this stupid thing.” He's like, “Well give him a fuck off price then. Then you won't have to tell him now and you won’t have to do it.” And I'm like, “That’s an excellent idea.” So I go back, do all the maths, because the guy wanted this crazy thing. It's like all black and gold, just a massive pain in the arse. And I didn't own any of the stuff I needed to do gold work. I wrote it all up, calculated out all the golden shit and a little bit of other things and gave it to him. And he paid me by PayPal me within the hour and I called up my friend super angry at him. And I'm like, “It didn't work.” And he says, “Congratulations. I thought this would happen.” I'm like, “You set me up, what is wrong with you?” But he was like, “Well, your fuck off price is too low.” And I'm like, “Well, shit, now I have to do this stupid thing.” So my friend has what he has dubbed the fanciest fuck off in history and it’s just this massive black and gold, it's got like twenty seven sheets of gold leaf on it. Twenty sheets of white gold. Another seven sheets of yellow gold. But the point is, I end up doing that after I figured out my fuck off price was too low and frankly, I couldn't have possibly dreamed that anybody was ever going to pay my fuck off price, which is now well below my base price, by the way. It's hard because I should really put together a show for the Pageant of the Masters, but somebody wants to pay me two thousand dollars to do an illumination. Living in So Cal, it's expensive. I think that eventually I will manage to see my way clear of enough things that I will enter Festival of the Arts if for no other reason than my husband has started playing guard dog and telling people I won't do things for them. He has an excellent purpose in my life. And part of it is wrangling people that I would otherwise put on my commission list. He’s gotten very good at saying she'll be available in 2022. My husband is here so he's hearing me talk nicely about him. So I guess that's the best thing I haven't acted on yet is submitting to FOA. You know, it would change my life. Like if I do, one of two things is going to happen. Either I'm going to do well enough that I can quit my day job, not that I dislike my day job, I love my day job, I'm a technical illustrator, but either I'm going to do well enough that I can quit my day job. Or I'm going to make enough that my career is going to permanently change to fine art. I need to know either way, if I find out that I am not good enough to jury in it’s relevant, being able to acknowledge that this is going to be a day job is OK, but I don't think that's what's going to happen. So if I can get my shit together, I can put together 20 pieces and get a couple of 30” x 40” watercolours done, which, as a glutton for punishment, I'm not going to do a bunch of 10” x 10”. I'm not going to be a Lori Lamont, with 40 feet of watercolour paper, but I should be able to get 40 inches without a fuck up. If I can get my shit together. I like to think that that is going to be a turning point.
GW: You know, the hard thing is when you have to say no to things you actually want for something that you really, really want. And it's tough. But it's true for pretty much anyone who ever really gets somewhere they've normally got to do something like that.
NC: Yeah, I know it's crazy to me, my life is all trying to pick between a million priorities and you meet people who are not passionate about anything and I don't know how. It's one of the things I love about the historical martial arts community and the historical arts community, frankly, as a whole, is everybody is passionate about something. Everybody gives a shit about something. Back when I was single a couple years back, I'd go on dates and it's like, “Well, what do you do?” It's like, “Well, I work a lot.” “Do you like your job?” “No.” “Well, what do you do for fun?” “Well, I watch a lot of TV play video games.” It's like, “Oh, my God, shoot me now. I'm going to be here for an hour.” It's just so bizarre to me, and I don't understand not wanting to do things well. So I end up putting a ton of hours into anything I care about. It's something that Jeff Jacobson and I really rock together about is he doesn't know how to do something without caring enough about it to do it obsessively well. I'm kind of the same way, even if I'm not good at something, I'm always working to be good at it. I don't understand the idea of doing something kind of OK and thinking that it's fun. There are those people who like to do something, they're kind of OK with it. They're satisfied by that.
GW: I think the American expression is “phoning it in”.
NC: There are people who are contented with that as their strategy. It’s really weird to me. Somebody basically said well, they're just hobbyists, I'm like, a lot of this stuff is my hobby, but I don't treat it like I'm phoning it in. If you care enough to dedicate hours to something in your life, then you care enough to do well or you should care enough to do it well. You do it well as an act of respect to something that you care about.
GW: That’s a good way to put it.
NC: Yeah, it's the best reason to keep trying to be good at sword fighting. I don't need to win.
GW: And you don’t need to be good at sword fighting. I mean, who cares?
NC: I want to be good at sword fighting because I like sword fighting and because I like sword fighting I want to do it well. I think you understand that.
GW: I do.
NC: Now I need to figure out how to get to London and teach you calligraphy.
GW: I've got a plan. What you do is you submit your work to this Pageant of the Masters and you make a shitload of money and you use that money to fly to London. Done. Easy peasy.
NC: Just like that! Unfortunately, the pageant was cancelled this year. All of the juried people rolled into next year. This is maybe good for me because with pentathlon going on, I was kind of sketchy on making jury anyway. So the soonest I will be able to sell at Pageant would be 2022.
GW: You need to get to London before that for sure.
NC: That is kind of my hope, although honestly, at the rate the US is going, who knows when the UK will ever let us in again. Or any country. You know, Josh and I were like kind of looking at what country could we go to. Nowhere.
GW: I do have one more question. My last question is, you've got a million dollars to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend it?
NC: Oh, God. Well. A base for here, at least, it's really hard to get real nice bases and competition-sized bases and we just have general problems arranging facilities. But I'd also like to just see more translation, and I'd love to essentially put out grants for people to do translations of the various martial arts, because the more translations we can compare, the better understanding we're going to have of what we're looking at. So much of this kind of translation is just stubborn research. When I was looking at Fabris, there was a word that is not Italian, or at least it is not Italian anymore. It was not in my period Italian dictionary and then it was not French and it was not Croatian. Oh, Fabris is in Padua, which is not that far from Venice. So translating Fabris is like you go through and every twentieth word or something is just something random. Like, huh? It's not Italian, is it French, is it Catalan, is it Croatian, is it Spanish? And ultimately, in order to figure out what this word was, I had to find it in a copy of Castiglioni and then look at a period English translation of Castiglioni that was not period, but closer to period than we are, and then look at the way that it is translated in Castiglioni to know what it was in Fabris. So the work that goes into doing these is just so mind numbingly intensive.
GW: I know. Yes.
NC: So we need as many people as we can on there. I'm fortunate, when I was working on it, and I promise you, I'll get back there eventually, Guy. I want to kick arse in competition. And mostly just because I hate being accused of being a one trick pony, it's so not me, I've done so many things with my life, every medium you can think of, stained glass and a bunch of other of things. But I would like to see little pods like I have. I have my friend Marco in Italy, who is my back up, he speaks English, I speak Italian. When I do my Italian translation, I send it to him and make sure it's not a walking catastrophe. And then it goes to my little group of sword people who check it for continuity and make sure it makes sense. If we could get a couple of groups like that that are really dedicated to doing additional translations, I bet we could end up with a better understanding of what we were looking at. Oh, and more of what you've been doing. Lots of treatises available to the public.
GW: Wiktenauer are doing a pretty good job of that.
NC: They are doing a really good job of that. I will say, though, when I downloaded your Fabris files, it was just mind boggling to me to be able to see the hands in that kind of detail. There's being able to see a picture and then being able to see the position of the pinky finger. Not that the Fabris illustrations necessarily make a ton of sense. The anatomy on some of them is a little screwy. It is actually kind of why I fell in love with it initially. I was charmed by these little awkward dudes. I'm kind of awkward and they're kind of awkward. Yeah, that's what I would do. More academic, and space if we can get it.
GW: Brilliant. Well, that's an excellent place to finish. Thank you very much for talking to me today Nora, it’s been great.
NC: It's really nice to talk to you. You have been super supportive and great. And I'm super happy to know you and I try to give you lots of word fame when I can. Let me know if you need anything else, OK?
GW: Will do.
Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation today with Nora. Remember to check out www.guywindsor.net/podcast where there are images of her work and they must be seen to be believed. It’s extraordinary stuff. While you’re there you can also pick up your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists, if you so choose. A shout out as always to my lovely patrons on www.patreon.com/theswordguy. You can join us there for extra audio, such as an Ask Me Anything for the patrons I did a couple of weeks ago, transcriptions for the episodes as they are produced, and a whole bunch of other benefits, features, etc. Primarily the purpose of the Patreon – try saying that three times quickly – is to keep this show going. So if you would like this show to continue, please go along to www.patreon.com/theswordguy. It doesn’t cost very much and it makes all the difference in the world.
Tune in next week when I’ll be talking to the extraordinary Rory Miller, author of one of the best books on martial arts ever written, Meditations on Violence, where we talk about all sorts of things, including sailing across the Atlantic. Yes, you heard that correctly. That’s not what he’s famous for, but it’s one of the things we talk about. So to make sure you don’t miss that show, subscribe wherever you get this podcast from. If you have time to leave a review or rate the show that would be awesome too. I’ll see you next week.