Category Archives: looking

Night walking

Dark. Clear. Crisp.

A trip out to the bin late in the evening and the sea roar is so loud that it lures me out, into the dark, and down to the quay to hear more clearly and to look at the stars.

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It’s very dark with no moon. Catch at the back of your nose cold and very, very clear. Looking north, away from the sodium glare of the town, more and more stars are revealed as my eyes become accustomed to the dark. I start walking out along the unlit bank towards the sea. Only a few hundred yards away from the town the sky is even darker – this part of the coast is designated a black sky area – and the  number of stars I begin to see is astonishing.

To the west, an indistinct smudge of light above is the Milky Way and down towards the horizon in the south-west a large, bright, reddish star – Mars I think. And then in front of me a star falls, and another, and again, out of the corner of my eye in my peripheral vision, another falling star and another. Four shooting stars in a row are a rare treat.

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All the well known constellations are clearly visible, more stars in their make-up than usual are showing. Orion’s spear is clear and bright beneath his three-starred belt and W-shaped Cassiopeia. To the north the Plough.

But there are so many stars and I don’t know their names. Night walking and looking at the night sky is something that I have had relatively little experience of over my lifetime. I have lived in the centre of brightly lit towns for the majority of my life and encounters with stars have, for the most part, been through the orange glow of street lights. Brief forays to the dark skies of the coast and country were few as a child and going out in the winter darkness just wasn’t done. Even now there is the temptation, as we approach the shortest day and the longest night, to huddle inside in front of light emitting boxes. But this darkness, with tiny pinpricks of light is magnificent and so beautiful …. so, so beautiful.

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Out on the beach bank, enclosed as I am, and wrapped in darkness with sprinkled light above, my hearing sense is heightened. A loud  Cr-aaaaaa-ck makes me look down and out into the darkness where a large but indistinct form has landed on the edge of the water. A heron. More bird sounds emanate from the marsh. A curlew calls and then calls mournfully again, and then a redshank. Geese, Brent geese I suspect, keep up a woodwind mumble. Do you think they chatter all night? And in the distance, but seemingly close, the continuous sea roar – a never-ending ssssssh, as waves break over the sand bar.

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My eyes look up again. Across the sky a winking light moves from east to west. It is a plane, full of people. Are they looking down?  This part of the earth must look like a reflection of the night sky, the reverse of my view, as pockets of habitation light up the darkened land.

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With natural light levels low at this time of year, it is surprising how lifted I am by this encounter with the darkness. This morning as I write, I have that bubbling feeling in my chest – a son of excitedness. A creative bubble waiting to rise. The conditions last night may not occur again soon. I’m just thankful I noticed them and was able to experience.

The black drawings were done a while ago.

 

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Out of the window

I seem to have had a lot of waiting around recently – waiting for paint to dry, waiting for plaster to dry and waiting for clay to harden. With time to spare I’ve taken a cup of coffee, my sketchbook and paintbox and have been recording what I see out of the studio window. The ‘bones’ of the view rarely changes: look left, right or straight ahead, but the light, the weather and what my eyes alight on at any one time is different each time.

Here are the last six sketchbook drawings.

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Skylark

The sun is out, and I am walking behind the dunes at Holkham with no coat on. After all the recent rain spring seems to have finally arrived and there is no better reminder than hearing the skylarks sing high in the sky above the marsh.

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The skylark, Alauda arvensis, is a small, non-descript brown bird, but its song is a complete joy. Rising from the ground it flaps its wings faster and faster to gain height, and as it flies upwards it sings. Its song goes on and on and on without a pause. If you stop and listen, it is more likely that you will give up listening before it stops singing. What is more astounding is that it doesn’t seem to stop for a breath.

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Being a flautist, I’m interested in breathing and I wondered if, like didgeridoo players, oboeists, and other wind players they could do circular breathing. Circular breathing allows for continuous sound. It is a technique where you breath in and fill your cheeks with air and then with the next breath, simultaneously squeeze out air from your mouth and breath in through your nose. It’s horrendously difficult and I never mastered the procedure.

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However, skylarks and indeed all birds can do it. Their respiration system is different to ours and their circular breaths allow for their song to continue almost endlessly.

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On Holkham beach, with the dunes and the sea beyond to my left and the skylarks singing above I am reminded of one of my favourite poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, The Sea and the Skylark. In the first two verses he compares the sound of the sea, both low and high tides, and the musical sound of the skylark. Here they are:

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

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I’m sorry not to have been able to take a sound recording for you, but have a listen to the skylark’s music pelting down from the sky here.

Leading lights

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Recently two red and white triangles have appeared in the trees on the dune behind the last beach hut on Wells beach. The Wells Harbour website (I keep my eye on this for news when in Surrey) tells me that they are refurbished and reinstated channel transits. The triangles, which are visible offshore, are placed one above the other and when they appear in line, they indicate a safe course for boats in through the harbour entrance. At night they would originally have been lit by paraffin lamps, but now they appear to have up-to-date solar powered lights. These particular transits were in use from the 1700s to the mid 1900s. I have always known this type of signal as leading lights.

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As a child (and I must confess, still today) I was an avid reader of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books and anyone who has read them will remember the Swallows finding their way into the secret harbour on Wildcat Island at night with the use of leading lights.

Titty saw them, flickering among the trees and then disappearing again as they were hidden by big rocks south of the island.

John paddled on slowly.

‘There they are again,’ said Susan.

‘Close together,’ said Titty.

John turned round from his rowing and had a good look at two small stars twinkling over the water.

‘Right,’ he said, I’m going to do nothing but row if you’ll keep your eyes on the lights.’

‘Are they still close together?’ asked John.

‘Fairly close,’ said Susan.

‘Where is the top light?’ asked captain John.

‘A bit to the left of the low one,’ said Susan.

John pulled a stroke or two, pulling a little harder with his right. ‘Sing out as soon as it is just above it.’

‘It’s above it now. Now it’s a bit to the right of it.’

John pulled his left.

‘Above it.’

Tell me the moment it is one side or the other.’

‘The lights are exactly one above the other,’ said Susan.

John had shipped the oars and was now sculling over the stern.

‘The lights are quite close to us, ‘ said Roger, and as he said it there was a gentle scrunch as Swallow’s nose touched the soft, pebbly beach of the little harbour.

Captain John had used his leading lights for the first time, and had made his harbour in pitch dark.

 How exciting!

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The idea of a boat, or indeed a body in the landscape, having to move from left to right or up and down to get the correct view of something – to line it up – reminds me of research that I did during my MA about ideas of experiencing the environment. Anthropologist, Christopher Tilley writes in his book, The Materiality of Stone, ‘The body is continually improvising its relationship with things … constantly opening itself out to the world as it moves in it. The manner in which we sense the world remains forever incomplete and ambiguous because we always experience things from a particular point of view or relationship. The body is open to the world but things are always hidden from it.’

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The idea that I could make a piece of work that moves in and out of focus or that only appears as it should from one particular viewpoint is a powerful one. Different elements could line up, as with the leading lights, to make a whole. Or one part of the work could hide another, only to be revealed  as you move or peer around it. To actively walk around in order to experience a work would relate to the way we experience objects outside in the environment, where their size and shape appear to alter as we change our relationship to them. From different directions and with a different order of seeing, things do not have the appearance of sameness.

Seeing the Wells leading lights has got me thinking, but I’m not sure where this one is going yet …..

Sea shells

After a mad three months of almost constant teaching, making and exhibiting I made it up to Wells last night for a bit of a breather. The first thing I did this morning was to do my favourite walk at Burnham Overy Staithe.

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The clocks have jumped forward for spring and the sun has welcomed the time change. Walking north, out to the beach, the sun was on my back and for the first time this year I could feel its warmth. It’s hard to believe that this time last week I was battling in wind, snow and freezing temperatures.

P1020552Painted Top Shell Calliostoma zizyphinum

P1020556Common Whelk Buccinum Undatum

Coming out onto the beach at the end of Gun Hill (almost opposite Scolt Head) the first thing I noticed was that the contours of the beach had changed since the last time I was here. A few weeks ago the sand and shingle lay in deep grooves and channels, the result of strong tides and winds, but today it was totally flat. Last weekend a stormy north wind must have driven the waves up the beach, levelling the sand down to a uniformly even surface.

P1020549Common Mussel Mytilus edulis

P1020564Common Periwinkle Littorina littorea

As always my eyes drift down to the ground just in front of my feet and I pick up and discard shells and pebbles: a mussel, a razor clam and a cockle, shells that are always found on the beaches around here. Some I put into my pocket. And then I find a very familiar shell – a slipper shell. These shells were a constant in my childhood where I found them in great quantities on the the beaches of the south coast. They look like little shoes, hence their name, and are just the right shape to slip your thumb into. They are quite unusual up here on the North Norfolk coast, but I find another, and another – how odd! Walking along the tideline other strangers turn up: a periwinkle and a small pointed shell that I recognise but can’t name. I slip them in my pocket and head for the dunes to sit in the sun and drink a cup of coffee. Lining the shells up on the sand in front of me I do some very quick line drawings in my sketchbook.

P1020560Slipper Limpet Crepidula fornicata

When I get home I look up the names of the shells I don’t know and I also find out a bit more about where different types of shells are commonly found. Bivalve molluscs have two hinged shells and are generally found on sandy beaches. The wide, open sandy seabed offers no protection from predators so they burrow into the sand to hide. We have hundreds of razor shells, cockles and mussels here and this is obviously the right habitat for them. On the other hand gastropods, which have a single, often spiral shell are more often found on rocky shores where they can hide amongst the seaweed which grows there. My ‘stranger’ shells would normally be found in this habitat and I wonder if the storm last weekend has stirred up the seabed and deposited these strangers here, away from their normal setting?

P1020563Common Razor Shell Ensis Ensis

I love it when I notice something unusual – these unexpected occurrences are what bring me back here again and again.

 

Brisons Veor – first thoughts

Wow! I’ve been back from Cornwall for a couple of days now and my mind is still buzzing with the many impressions and experiences of the past week.

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Of course, I went with expectations and pre-conceived ideas. Before I left, decisions had to be made about the materials to take and these were based on what I thought I would like to do and what I would like to investigate. Naturally, all expectations were confounded, but little glimmers of something new have been planted in my mind as a result.

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The sun came out on the last day but its was still cold and windy

The process of exploring a new place, I’ve discovered, can never be pre-judged. There can certainly be tried and tested methods of working, but you never know what the environment, the weather or your own physical and metal state will be at any fixed time. You can only deal with what is happening now.

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Out of the studio window

I went to Brisons Veor hoping to work with the sounds of that place. I wanted to listen actively and deeply so that I could understand it aurally. But that didn’t happen quite as I thought it would. Brisons Veor is at Cape Cornwall, a small headland that juts out into the Atlantic. The cottage is the most westerly residence in England. It perches on the edge of a granite cliff and at high tide it is only metres away from a boiling sea. We had ‘winter’ weather. The noise of the wind and the waves was constant. The howling, whistling and roaring virtually blocked out all other sounds. Only occasionally did a faint bird call penetrate the all-encompassing cacophony. I went hoping for a multi-coloured palette of sound but, if this existed, it was drowned out by the natural conditions at that particular time.

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There can be no sound without movement and sitting high on the cliff by the coastguard station or down on the beach in the cove there was wild movement everywhere. The wind, eddied and gusted. Heavier gusts buffeted me so that I was physically moved. It whistled through the gap between my head and my hat, it flapped at my my coat and froze my fingers. The act of hearing the wind became confused with being touched by the wind.

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Porth Ledden on the other side of the Cape

High on a cliff is, for me, an unfamiliar way of seeing the sea. In Norfolk I look at it from ground level and from that angle there is less sea and more sky. But at Cape Cornwall, from such an elevated position, the sea and sky are almost equal. Below me, the force of the waves is broken by the cliffs and the tall rocks that lie scattered all along the coast. Their crash and roar is a continuous white noise as they break and ebb. All around me is movement and noise, but far out across the waves on the horizon, is stillness and silence. The further the distance the calmer and quieter it gets.

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The weather conditions continued for the whole seven days. Each time I stepped out of the cottage I was confronted by the same symphony of wind and waves. Whilst I was there I was disappointed. I felt that this ‘noise’ blocked out the sound detail. But I was wrong. This wildness and movement and sheer, overwhelming sensation was the most important thing about the place at that point in time. The sound was uncontrollable and immense and the movement that produced it was ever-moving, ever-changing and multi-layered.

From my sketchbook:

There is no movement without sound.

There is no sound without movement.

All around me, extending outwards

the duet of sea and wind.

But out on the horizon is stillness.

No sound reaches me from there.

I’m not sure what will come out of these first thoughts. All week I wrote and drew and printed and made. I have collected a lot of data and documented it. Next time I’ll show you some of the things I did and give my thoughts on them ……

Landscape Change, Material Change

Here on the coast nothing is ever the same.

I have many routes that I regularly walk. Some I do more frequently than others and my favourites may be done once or twice a week. At a glance the landscape doesn’t seem to alter, but as the months go by seasonal change brings different light, colour and weather. Year on year the birds that fly overhead come and go and the plants that bloom at the side of the paths grow and die back. Twice a day the tides ebb and flow and move the shifting sands up and down the beach.

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9 Hanging Salts Pots – 2 years ago

Yesterday I walked at Burnham Overy Staithe. This is one of my favourite walks (at least once a week) as it is always varied and interesting. On this occasion the tide was coming in. There was a brisk northerly wind and a few sailing boats were tacking against it up the creek to wider waters. The sun was warm on my back but high cumulus clouds were threatening rain inland.

DSC_19559 Hanging Salts Pots – 2 years ago

At the end of the raised dyke I turned left to walk along the side of the marsh round the spit of land called Gun Hill. Something had changed – the large, floating and rather ugly, grey shipping container that had, surprisingly, sat on the edge of the marsh, (I think it may have been an artist’s studio) had been taken away. This was a blow as the low, wooden slatted shelves built into its side have provided a place to sit, drink coffee and draw many times in the past. Last time I was there the wooden slats had been prised up; pulled violently away from the container I thought it had been the fault of vandals, but maybe it was time for this temporary shelter to move on.

P10108149 Hanging Salts Pots (detail) – today

Round on the beach a large flock of birds was flying low over the sea edge. Skimming the water, they curved round and landed on the shingle just in front of me. They were well camouflaged by the grey, white and black pebbles but through the binoculars I could see that they were a huge flock of little ringed plovers. I’ve never seen so many together – there were perhaps fifty or sixty birds hopping around. Suddenly another flock flew in and landed beside them. They were sanderling: another, slightly smaller flock of small grey/white birds. I stood and watched them until a passing dog ran towards them and up they rose to land, in safety, further along the beach.

P10108219 Hanging Salts Pots (detail) – today

With the large spring tides we have been having recently, a result of the autumn equinox, I noticed another change in the landscape. The force of the incoming water had pushed the sand up the beach into undulating, shelved ridges. I don’t suppose it will be long before the wind blows it all back down the beach and flattens its surface out again.

P10108089 Hanging Salts Pots (detail) – today

When I make work, I always have this mutable environment in my mind. I aim to evoke the shifting landscape and the consequential implied passing of time in the processes and materials that I use. Salt is one of the materials I use to suggest this as the cyclical transformation of the material from to solid to liquid back to solid is a transformative, time-based process.

P10108029 Hanging Salts Pots (detail) – today

A couple of weeks ago I had reason to look at one of my saltworks, 9 Hanging Salt Pots, that had been packed away for a couple of years. As I took it out of the packaging I was initially shocked to see how much the work had deteriorated. I am, of course, aware that salt is corrosive, but other works have not corroded and broken down in quite the same way as this work. The iron wire that I use to stiffen the rim of the works had completely rusted through – eaten away over time by the continuing action of the salt that surrounds it, so that the eyelets were broken in several places. The cloth was still intact, but the areas coloured by the rust were thinner and beginning to rot. I feel as if it is just a matter of time before the cloth also breaks down.

P10108139 Hanging Salts Pots (detail) – today

My first reaction was ‘on no!’. But on reflection this action has to be a good thing. I want my work to appear weather-worn and to look as if it has had a previous life. What better way is there to achieve this than for the materials I use to actually do their job and to break down the works over time? This is a lesson to be learned and I will definitely exploit it in the future. The only problem is that I might have to put it away in a box for two years!