There has been no let up since the Knitting & Stitching shows at the end of last year! I’ve had to slam straight into gear and put my mind to the next (very busy) six months. Before the end of June I have two exhibitions to make substantial new work for (more on these later) and a workshop, Exploring Place, that is happening in an environment, about which, I haven’t previously made work.
It is very important, to me, that the materials and processes I use reflect the environment that I am working in. Previously, the Exploring Place workshop has taken place in a coastal environment and so my support material doesn’t apply in this instance as it is taking place inland, in the mountains and woods of southern Switzerland.
So, I’ve been out in the field. I’ve been exploring the beech woods of the Surrey hills, and the pinewoods that back the beach in Norfolk; collecting information, documenting it, collecting specimens and making work that evokes this type of environment.
The students and I will be looking, listening and touching outside in the woods, and these drawings and small works reflect some of the ideas and techniques we will be exploring.
Despite the fact that it has rained just about everyday for the last few weeks the paths along the edge of the marsh are dry. In winter they are permanently wet and muddy – too muddy to walk along without wellies. However the irregular intervals of warm sun and wind at this time of year, coupled with a week of small tides, means that the paths have dried out to a crazy paving of cracked mud and they are now negotiable.
I reach the hut (portacabin) where I was hoping to sit and draw but someone is there before me, perched on a convenient ledge, face up to the sun and quietly enjoying the heat. This is a favourite spot and I have sat here and drawn many times. I move on and find a dry, sand-pebbled spot at the end of the point overlooking the Scolt Head channel.
The tide is out and there are many birds poking about in the mud. A group of oystercatchers chirp continuously with their ‘peeping’ call. They run around on short, red legs and then suddenly rise up, black and white stripy wings flashing in the light, only to land a few yards away, to continue feeding, talking and bickering – a typical family.
A streak of white comes in from the left and lands. Elegant legs and a crooked neck. A little egret stands out brightly against the dark mud. These egrets are a common sight here now on the marshes. At this distance I can’t see its bright yellow feet.
Gulls wheel on the thermals and a skylark rises up from the dunes behind me. Its melodious song strengthens as it flaps its wings and climbs higher and higher. It is still singing half an hour later as I get up and walk on.
We do a walk high on the cliffs above the sea. The sun is bright and small U’s sparkle across the deep blue water.
I am amazed by the colour and sheer number of wildflowers that carpet almost every available bit of ground. They are burgeoning up through grass and clinging to crevices in the rocks. I note down what I see:
Thrift or Sea Pinks
Campion – red and white or bladder
A tiny blue starred flower (Sprig Squill)
A long, thin stalk with red grass-like flower (Sorrel)
Scabious – tiny blue version (Devilsbit Scabious)
Pendulous white bells with a triangular stalk (Three-cornered Leek)
Later in the week I add the names of the last four flower descriptions as the coastguard at Cape Cornwall tells me their names.
In the New Year I did a short project, A Week of Collecting, where I collected an object everyday for a week and drew and wrote about it. This prompted a series of small, salted works that I showed at an exhibition in January. I have just been to Cornwall for a week and as always I took a sketchbook and a pen with me to record my experiences. I thought I would do another Week of Collecting but things didn’t turn out that way. I have been going to Cornwall on and off all my life but I don’t know it in the way that I know the North Norfolk coast. I kept coming across things on my walks – flowers, geology and industrial processes, that I didn’t know anything about. These weren’t things to be collected and brought home, but instead they needed to be documented and researched later. I realised how much you need to know before you can really understand a place. There needs to be not only knowledge of the history of the place and its inhabitants but I also believe that your own personal history, built up over many years, is crucially important. Over the next seven days I’ll show you some of the notes and drawings from my sketchbook. These prove that I am only brushing the surface of this environment.
Day 1: Portreath
It has been a long drive to Cornwall from Thames Ditton. We stop for a breath of fresh air to stretch our legs and have a cup of tea at Portreath on the northern coast. The weather is grey and misty with a hint of drizzle in the air. A sharp SW breeze isn’t stopping the surfers from dressing and undressing in the car park by the beach. We watch them in the sea as we drink tea. There isn’t much action, just a lot of bobbing around …. the waves must be the wrong sort. According to the lifeguard’s board the sea temperature is 13.5 degrees so even with a full wetsuit they must be cold.
On the beach my eyes, as always, drop to see what is beneath my feet: sand, seaweed and stripy pebbles. It seems that the cliffs have seams of quartz running through them and the grey pebbles are striped with it. The grey part (I don’t know what it is) has worn faster than the white quartz stripes so that they stand proud of the smooth surface of the pebble. I pick up three – there is a precedent for collecting stones as a memento of place, and both Robert MacFarlane and Edmund de Waal have done so and written about it. I also often pick up pebbles, and I make a mental note to write about this only once this week – pebble drawings can become monotonous.
My family have filled the house for the holiday weekend and with bad weather forecast we were expecting to be stuck indoors, so what a delight it was to wake up this morning to find clear blue sky. There was a definite feeling that spring was round the corner and for the first time this year you could contemplate going out without a coat. I sneaked out of the house quite early to go and sniff the air and with the warming sun and water filling the channel my mind turned towards boating.
Most of the running moorings up the beach bank are empty at this time of the year. The slack ropes, which are caught at each end by a short metal post, are thick with marsh mud and tangled with sea-wrack that has accumulated through lack of use over the winter months.
The fat shackles that attach the rope to the posts shine out in the sun….
…. and plastic buoys that mark out the moorings are dotted, in and out of the water, along the shoreline.
One or two boats have been left out, exposed to the elements, over the winter. With their paintwork peeling and their metal fittings rusted they look rather a sorry sight.
Our small boat has been stored snugly in a barn since the autumn, but with the prospect of stormy rain tomorrow, the mooring will have to wait for a few more weeks before we risk taking her out. Today has given me a hint of the pleasures to come later in the year.
I haven’t got any textile work to show you at the moment – I’m plugging away at a (large) cloth that I hope I will have finished sewing before Christmas. It is slow going, but I enjoy sitting down with radio 4 and stitching myself into a reverie. When my fingers get too sore (actually the inside tip of my right index finger) I put down the cloth and get on with something else. A couple of days ago I decided to tear up a sheet of rather nice Hot Pressed watercolour paper and do some drawing. Here are the results. They are all done from memory.