Flood warning

Yesterday evening I received a flood alert from the Environment Agency warning that flooding was possible in Wells due to a big tide and other environmental conditions. So, this morning I’ve come down to the studio early to check that everything is ok. I didn’t bother to put up the flood gates last night, even though the flood alert was upgraded to a flood warning, because the Environment Agency advice was for a peak of 3.91m. I don’t normally worry unless is reaches over 4.1m.

Today there’s a northerly wind and in certain circumstances a strong north wind can push the tide further in than normal (hence the flood warning), so it is worth just coming out to make sure everything is alright. At the moment, the north wind is calm, about 10 knots, there are a few clouds in the sky and sun, and it’s quite chilly. Autumn has definitely arrived.

It’s about 40 minutes before high tide and the water is rushing in (the sea moves in or out the most an hour before and after high or low tide). The surface of the water is disturbed rather than wavy. Small eddies ripple at the back end of boats and buoys as the flow of water is broken. Just in front of me small whirlpools erupt as the water passes a jutting brick wall and a piece of bladderwrack gets caught in a current and whirls round. Foam on the surface of the water marks the pace of the incoming tide, and it’s moving fast.

20 minutes before high tide and the water hasn’t reached the top of the quay wall just outside the studio. It may just top it – but I doubt it. Luckily the studio is raised about 1m above the lip of the wall so it would have to be a huge surge to inundate it. The last time that happened was in 2013 and there is a mark on the wall to show where the tide reached on that day. It is about 1.75m above where the water is today. 

Further along the quay the flood gate has been rolled across the road as a precaution, and water has topped the quay covering the carpark with a slow seep rather than a rush.

Here, there is a continuous splashing, slapping, and gurgling as water hits the wall. It is a benign sound and if I close my eyes, it is soothing rather than threatening. 

There is no worry here today and as it is now past the peak of the tide, I make my way home for a cup of tea. 

Saltbags

Recently I put up an Instagram post of this piece of work, and somebody asked, ‘What do you do with these Saltbags?’. I thought it was a very good question and I answered, ‘I suppose that like any artwork they will sit there posing questions and making one think.’

 I thought I would try to explain my thoughts behind these two little works more fully.

Two Saltbags,  Linen, wire, chalk, yellow ochre, salt, 14 x 9 x 4.5 cm 

First, I am not trying to realistically represent the landscape that inspires me, but instead try to find ways of evoking it using other forms, shapes or materials. The form I have used here comes from the traditional shape of the sandbag weight at the end of a heaving line – a lightweight rope that can be easily thrown between boats, or from boat to quay, onto which a heavier rope can be attached. It is small enough to fit into the hand to throw but heavy enough to have some heft behind it so that the lightweight rope attached to it will travel the distance required.

Usually, the weight would have been filled with sand, but I have changed the filling and used chalk and salt in one bag, and an ochreous clay and salt in the other. I collected the chalk and clay locally and the materials form a direct connection to the environment. The salt comes from the supermarket, but of course there is a direct corelation between salt, the sea, and this landscape.

Salt is a material I have used in my work quite a bit and is a material I use to explore changes in the environment and the passing of time. I use salt mainly by soaking stitched works in a salt solution that I have made up myself (actual seawater is only 3½% salt and not salty enough for the processes I use), and as the water evaporates both the stitched work and the salt changes character.

This process is cyclical, and it takes time. When salt is mixed with water it dissolves. As the water slowly evaporates in the air the salt’s crystalline structure is revealed. If the salt crystals get wet or are left in a damp environment, they return to their original form. It can take up to 2 months for the saltwater to evaporate depending on the outside temperature and the amount of water in the salt bath.

The other quality I exploit is salt’s corrosiveness. If you’ve ever been to the coast, you will know how the salt air and water gets into everything and then the rot sets in. I often sew iron rings into my work and within days they start to rust as the saltwater attacks the metal; the first signs of change in the piece. 

As the work dries out completely the salt crystals become stable and remarkably solid and strong, but with the faintest hint of moisture the salt crystals start to degenerate, and with this breaking down the metal and cloth also start to disintegrate. In a damp environment the work starts to fragment and break up and after a period of time, falls apart.

It is the common state for all things to tend from order to disorder – to break down and collapse. Another word, used in physics, for disorder or decay is entropy. Entropy explains why, left to the mercy of the elements, ice melts, glass shatters and salt dissolves.

Professor Brian Cox explains in the television programme Wonders of the Universe that in the wind a sandcastle will always be blown from order into disorder (low entropy to high entropy) and never the other way round (a pile of sand is never blown into the order of a sandcastle). He also explains that this is why time passes from the past to the future. Watch it here – it is a complicated subject and he explains it much better than me!

As Brian Cox says,

‘as each moment passes, things change, and once these changes have happened, they are never undone. Permanent change is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. We all age as the years pass by — people are born, they live, and they die. I suppose it’s part of the joy and tragedy of our lives, but out there in the universe, those grand and epic cycles appear eternal and unchanging. But that’s an illusion. See, in the life of the universe, just as in our lives, everything is irreversibly changing.’

So, when you look at these two little salt filled bags, I am presenting you with ideas of life, change, decay, and the time that has passed for all of that to happen.

Sketchbook

After a frantic few months I now have a few weeks of holiday and relaxation!

This morning we went out on the boat and I was dropped off at the beach with my sketchbook for an hour or so of sitting, looking and drawing.

One of my activities when I can’t settle to anything is to make small, 16 page sketchbooks, so I grabbed one of these along with a fineliner and a soft pencil before going out.

I never know what will catch my eye, but this is what interested me today.

In page order:

Windy, N.W. – flag on the lifeboat station at full stretch

Sunny – 1/8 cloud cover

A chill in the air

Enough wind for it to be challenging in Pickle (the boat) – difficult launch off the East Hills against the wind.

Sea – petrol blue

Sky – cerulean

1 hour before high tide and the water is coming in slowly.

Marsh flies

Lazy ripples onshore

Points of Sail

Tacking out toward the bar

Reefed, but still moving fast

The wind frets the surface of the water

Larger ripples from waves

Smaller textures from wind

Clouds are building on the horizon

Cumulus

Hornwrack and hand

Shadow drawings

Onshore wind

Sail down

Motor on

After high tide the wind has dropped and now the sun feels hot.

Another thought

Here’s just another observation that I’ve had since my previous post ‘Don’t Think, just do’.

I was looking back to when I was a child. One Christmas I got my perfect presents. A whole tin of Caran d’Ache crayons and a sopranino recorder. Those presents would probably still hold true today as my likes and interests haven’t changed at all.

I would take my recorder up to my bedroom and play it for hours, always playing what was written as music notation. Playing music has for me has (nearly) always been a recreation of someone else’s creation. As a classically trained instrumentalist it is the interpretation of music that is key, not the composition of new music.

I would also take the crayons up to my bedroom and sit at my desk and draw, again for hours, but there was a difference, as in drawing I was creating something new. I would make an energetic scribble and turn it into something …. or perhaps even just colour it in. Or draw fantastic patterns of stars and moons, flowers and plants and people. 

In my work now, I am trying to tap into that creativity and imagination that I seemed to have in abundance as a child. The freedom to make something up, to invent and to be spontaneous. The thinking all goes on at some point in time, but it is that impulsive, innovative moment that is key.

These are details of drawings done in the moment. Letting the paint talk and my imagination run riot.

Don’t think, just do

I was looking through my old sketchbooks last week (something I don’t do enough of) as I was looking for one that I did sometime ago. 

This sketchbook is the result of a task I periodically set myself which is to fill a whole A4 book in an hour. In this one I was thinking about the changing lines of the landscape as the weather, tides and other phenomena act upon it.

At the front of the book I have written a quote by the artist Terry Frost that I found in an old Arnolfini Gallery Catalogue from 1965. He wrote:

‘When I am painting I am not concerned with theory however much thinking I have done before I started to paint. When I am really painting – no! I cannot describe that, for all I know is that as soon as I realise I have been painting I have stopped. I am only concerned with what I am to do next. Thought for me is before and after but not at the time ….

….When I make a painting it is with paint on flat surface and belongs to itself. It has nothing to do with imitation or representation, though my ideas may be, and usually are, started by an experience of nature or rather the experience of human wandering, observing, questioning, worrying, trying to see the truth, trying to penetrate the mystery of life’.

I had forgotten all about this quote and was struck by how much my own practice now follows these exact lines.

My work now is nearly all started by the memory of an experience or a happening. The thinking has already happened by the time I start working and I am guided by the marks I make on paper or cloth, one mark leading to another; one colour leading to another and so on. 

The drawings here are taken from an hour of drawing, about 48 drawings, one page following on from the other. This is an excellent exercise as with a time limit like this I can’t prevaricate, my mantra has to be don’t think, just do.

Night Walking

Moon Light, Linen, wire, 42 x 65 cm

Much of my work originates from thoughts and memories that are a consequence of experiencing place and paying attentionThese three works – Marsh Light, Moon Light and Bend in the Creek, were inspired by a walk along the quay and out towards the marshes in the dark. I love walking at night, and I’m always surprised how well my eyes adapt to the shadowy light. 

Marsh Light, Linen, wire, 45 x 63 cm

This walk took place earlier in the year just before the spring equinox. There was a huge, bright, full moon that lit everything up as if it were daytime. The moon light was so strong that it obliterated all but the brightest stars in the sky and left shadows on the ground in front of me.

These are the words I wrote when I got home.

An evening walk, early spring.

Down at the water

quayside shops give out a bright fluorescent glow.

Along the beach bank I expect a darkening,

But instead, the full moon emits a light

so bright it could be day and not night.

Looking up to the cloudless sky the stars have faded in the moonlit brilliance.

Looking down there are shadows on the ground.

Bend in the Creek, Linen, wire, 42 x 66 cm

The three works are the outcome of an outer sensing and an inner seeing. They will be on show at NR23, an exhibition that celebrates the creativity of artists living in the NR23 postcode in and around my home town of Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk.

NR23 is on at The Handa Gallery, The Maltings, Staithe Street, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1AU.  Friday  24 June – Sunday 10 July 2022. 10am – 4pm daily. Free entry.

Being Curious

I have been doing a lot of teaching recently, catching up with the backlog of cancelled Covid workshops. One of the topics of conversation that often comes up as we are exploring our surroundings and making work in response to it, is the issue of how to see. The writer, Robert Macfarlane, points out that you don’t see what you can’t name, and I find this to be so true.

On the Exploring Place workshops, we take a walk every day to pay attention to and document our surroundings. Last week, as we walked in the burgeoning Hampshire lanes, we were lucky enough to have a student who was able to give a name, both formal and colloquial, to the plants and weeds growing in the hedgerows. I know the names of some plants, but when you have someone with knowledge at your side, the seeing and understanding becomes so much richer.

Sticky willy, Old man’s toenails, Eggs and bacon, Jack by the hedge are just a few of the plants we saw and named. It became a bit of a joke as the week went on as Jack by the hedge suddenly seemed to pop up everywhere.

When you can name it, you see it, and the natural extension to seeing something is to find out more. When we got back to the studio we looked up the plants, and for the record Jack by the hedge, or Alliaria petiolate, comes from the brassica family and is also known as Hedge garlic. The leaves smell of garlic when crushed and taste of mustard.

If knowing is to see, then curiosity is an imperative to seeing. To go and look up something you don’t understand gives greater insight, but also plants that awareness in your mind so that you will recognise, notice and comprehend in future.

In Scotland a couple of weeks ago I was greatly taken by the lichens hanging from the trees. The green spring landscape was made even more verdant by the pendulous growth on the branches of firs, birches and other deciduous trees.

I brought home a couple of samples to look up – I’m not an expert on lichens!

As far as I can tell the hairier of the two is Beard Lichen, Usnea subfloridana, and the one with wider fronds is Oak Moss, Evernia Prunastri. I probably won’t remember the Latin names, but I will remember their common name.

My Observer book of Lichens (do you have some of these on your bookshelves?) tells me that there are about 30 species of Beard Lichen in the UK and that Oak Moss is a very common lichen where the thallus (the plant body) is attached at the base.

So, the moral of this story is, be curious, look things up, and you will see more.

Hello again and a Cairngorms trip

Well some of you may be surprised to see a blog post pop up again! Like so many people I have been seduced by the quickness of Instagram recently, but I have missed writing about what I do and think. Stopping to think about what to write about, and to explain and structure the writing has always been an important part of my practise and I realise that I have missed doing it.

Across Loch Insh from the balcony

‘the swifts have arrived here, I hope I haven’t missed their coming at home’

Yesterday I got back from a short trip to the Cairngorms to see my son who works near Aviemore. It is relaxing to go to a place that has such a different landscape. There are mountains and valleys, and a perspective that either looks down on things, or up at them, rather than my usual flat, coastal Norfolk landscape where I look across at everything.

We love to walk, but for most of the week there was a strong wind blowing so we mainly stayed low and walked around some of the many Lochs. I took a small handmade sketchbook with me to record my experiences. Here are some of my ‘noticings’.

‘There is an Icelandic artist, I can’t remember his name at the moment, who talks about the valleys between mountains as voids. He describes how the void fills to become solid when it rains or snows. I am reminded of this sitting at the Green Lochan and seeing the steep-sided bowl fill with shining rain.’

The artist I was thinking of here is Georg Gudni

Lochan Uaine – The Green Lochan

I didn’t do any drawing at the Uath Lochans but wrote in my book when I got home.

‘Brisk wind, grey, drizzle

Walk around the lochans. Sky reflected grey/blue from a distance but near to the edges of the water are a dark, peaty brown. The clear water appears murky with the brown peat stain.

On the cliff, coffee and a sit down. I watch the effects of the wind.

Cat’s paws across the Lochan. Fan shapes blown in fleeting movements disturb the already broken surface.

Looking down on the pines from our elevated position the tops of the trees sway left, right and around as the wind blows over them. The forest looks like a field of corn or reeds on the marsh.

And finally, all other sounds are deadened by the wind that blows onto me and fills my ears with the rushing of leaves and the trees splitting the air.

I look for red squirrels but I don’t see any.

‘The light and colour changes minute by minute. I can’t keep up.

‘Clouds hang in a grey line above the hills. Moving west to east they trail loose, ever-changing strands below that cover and uncover the hill tops.

Gradually the sky is clearing and more and more blue is appearing. The sun breaks through on a far hill and the bracken yellow colour is revealed. Rocks on top shine white. A bright peak amongst the other, dull colourless ones.

Moments later and the sun disappears and the shining peak blends with the rest of the range.

Another valley is revealed and then dulled.

All along the range the sun hits peaks and troughs, lightening them as the clouds hide and reveal.

For one moment I see snow. The last remains of winter hidden in deep corries’.

I will probably never make a piece of work from these drawings and writings, but I am struck that the particular circumstances of these experiences: the time, the place and coming together of objects, won’t occur again. I relish the act of stopping, paying conscious attention, and documenting these fleeting moments. It is a mindful exercise that makes me concentrate on the moment and leaves me feeling relaxed….. which is what a holiday is for!

PS I missed the swifts and swallows arrival – when I went down to the studio this morning they were flying about high in the sky.

Decorative surfaces for 3-D textiles

Over the past few months everything has been online – online workshops, online talks and online meetings. It has been fantastic and I’ve really enjoyed working with people from Australia, United States, Canada and Europe. I think this will continue into the future and I am planning a new workshop for next autumn/winter.

However, there is definitely a feeling in the air that we will soon be able to meet up again in person and I am really looking forward to doing this. It will be wonderful to be able to interact with everyone face to face again.

Wax, paint, hand-stitch

The first workshop I have in my diary that is going to happen in person is at Christine Chester’s Studio 11 in Eastbourne, and it is an experimental four-day workshop that explores the construction and decoration of 3-dimensional forms.

The aim of the workshop is to explore materials that are able to stiffen cloth so that is will hold its shape, and to simultaneously use the properties of the material to decorate the cloth’s surface.

Wax, paint, hand-stitch

The workshop will start with paper manipulation to explore form and to get you into a 3-D frame of mind ……

Paper manipulation
Student work from a previous workshop – pleated form stiffened and decorated with wax and shoe polish

and then after making your own sketchbook we’ll wander along the beach documenting shapes and forms, and collecting objects to inspire your work.

Wax and found objects

You’ll use materials such as paint, handmade gesso and wax to stiffen, support and decorate cloth – and there will be a couple of surprising materials as well!

Hand-made gesso, found object
Wax, paint and hand-stitch

At the end of the workshop we’ll take all the work back to the beach and photograph it ‘in situ’.

Student work from a previous workshop photographed on the beach – folded forms stiffened and decorated with wax and shoe polish

If you are interested in this workshop a couple of spaces have recently become available.

The workshop runs from the 1-4 July 2021. I will lead you through all the techniques and processes and it is an opportunity for you to experiment, to think and to make with cloth and interesting materials. There will even be time to wander along the beach and to get a breath of fresh air! You can book the workshop through the Studio 11 website here.

Christine’s studio is all set up for social distancing and has all the expected Covid safety measures.

Watercolours

I haven’t done any painting for ages, but today the weather outside the studio was so appalling that I felt moved to try and capture something of its bleakness. It is wet, windy and cold here and it’s hard to believe it’s May. There is a freezing, and very strong westerly wind and as I sit here in the studio this afternoon everything is clanking and banging. There is something knocking on the roof and I can’t make out what it is!

This morning the tide was rushing in fast, and the wind was pushing it on, whipping up the water to create choppy waves in the creek. A few hours later and the water is still high – I think the wind is preventing it from ebbing. As I write it is beginning to hail and it is terribly loud.

The swifts, which have just arrived back for the summer over the weekend, are being blown sideways as they swoop and dive over the water. It’s lovely to see them again and there seem to be quite a few around.

So here are a few paintings. They are on Bockingford watercolour paper – it is quite thick, probably more like card than paper, and they are about 16 cm squared.

I’ve used my favourite, sludgy palette of indigo, mars black, sap green and yellow ochre. Today I decided to get out some ink and I drew into them whilst they were still wet so that it spread out and made interesting, but uncontrollable patterns in the wet paint.

I’ve just put 6 of them up in my shop. You can have a look at them here.