Category Archives: paying attention

Making connections

I have a small plinth that has been sitting in a corner of my studio for nearly a year now. It has on it a collection of objects which I have been changing around and adding to regularly over the year. It started with a collection of objects that I gathered on a trip to Iceland, and at the time I felt sure that a piece of work would come from it but although I love the collection, a separate piece has simply not happened.

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I realise now that of course the collection is the work. An array of objects that document my way of interacting with, responding to, and documenting my experience of the natural environment: walking, gathering, keeping, noticing, drawing, making. The plinth is a like sketchbook of objects: a gathering that consists of words, drawings, materials and things. I have found myself adding to and taking away from it over the year in a continuous process of relating one thing to another and I now recognise that the work is not only about linking one object to another but is also concerned with connecting new landscapes to familiar ones.

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Handmade sketchbook dipped in bitumen with ink and graphite drawings of the Norfolk coast, a small linen bag coated with bitumen and paint to keep the sketchbook in.

I have written before that I believe an encounter with a new environment cannot, in this age of browsing the internet, be completely fresh, but that it is affected by expectations and presumptions. A new place, in this case Iceland, is touched by similarities and associations to known places (the Norfolk coast) in a never-ending, and possibly unconscious, triangulation of place, experience and memory.

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Top: Wood from a Norfolk beach painted with bitumen, rope from a Norfolk beach, knotted and painted with bitumen. Bottom: String from an Icelandic beach dipped in bitumen and coiled, string from an Icelandic beach made into a knot and dipped in bitumen, a linen and bitumen bag to hold them.

I’m trying not to analyse too deeply what I choose to keep, but amongst things relating to both the Icelandic and the North Norfolk coasts I have: collected objects, both in their original form and altered; drawings, in a handmade sketchbook and on scraps of paper; made objects that have been painted with bitumen.

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View from my studio, silverpoint drawing on gesso.

The unifying factor for all of these objects has evolved and is now their blackness or whiteness: either the scoured purity of bird keel bones, soft eider down and oily sheep’s wool or the dark, stickiness of bitumen that preserves all objects from the effects of the weather and the damp, salty air.

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Keel bones of birds found on both Icelandic and North Norfolk beaches.

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From the left: Eider down, white sheep’s wool, black sheep’s wool collected in Iceland, held in waxed linen containers with found threads.

What are the influences? Perhaps Icelandic black beaches of volcanic stones or dark bituminous preservative? Maybe beaches of white Norfolk flint or chalk cliffs that give themselves up to be made into fine gesso to draw onto? I think all are there in my memory, connecting backwards and forwards and backwards again to tell a story of places, experiences and materials.

This work isn’t finished and I expect it to keep evolving and to get larger as I continue to have new ideas and to make new things.

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Walking – Holkham

Slightly overcast but with a rapidly clearing sky

Wind from the South-west

Warm (short sleeves warm)

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As always (I’m a creature of habit) my Holkham walk starts by turning left at the carpark and walking on the path behind the pines. This is mainly because with the prevailing south-westerlies, the wind blows from behind when exposed on the walk back along the beach.  Reed wind-rustle and bird-song dominate. I stop to inspect the leaves of a holm oak (Quercus ilex) at the side of the path. There are a lot of these short, round trees growing here on the coast and recently I have noticed that instead of looking fresh and green their leaves are brown and slightly curled. This one is no exception and each leaf is spotted with small brown spots. The RHS website tells me that this blight is caused by the leaf-mining moth. Luckily the trees tolerate the caterpillars that munch their leaves and continue to grow. Later in the year when the old leaves have dropped the trees should begin to look fresher.

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I always stop at this gate and have a look over – there are nearly always cormorants flying overhead on their way to or from their tree-nesting colony on the flat lands behind the beach. If I’m really lucky I might see a spoonbill as for the past couple of years they have been nesting there as well. Today I see neither but there is always the thrill of expectation.

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Through the pines, over the dunes and marram grass, and onto the beach.

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At this time of year I have to extend my walk a little further to avoid the line and posts that Holkham Estates put up to protect nesting birds: mostly terns and oystercatchers. The barrier runs right along the back of the beach and means that walkers can’t cross from beach to pines – it’s only a few hundred yards longer to walk and no hardship.

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This heavy old piece of wood is where I often sit to take in the view, and today two old palettes have appeared next to it. I sit on the palettes,

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and photograph a scrap of old rope that lies in the sand next to them – their colours are almost identical.

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On the beach the wind feels stronger and it blows dry sand diagonally across the beach. It stings my ankles as I walk barefoot. Razor shells stick up out of the sand and I have to look where I’m going in case I cut my feet. A few years ago I trod on one and my foot had a gentle reminder for the rest of the summer from the resulting cut – they are well named.

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A beach river sparkles in the sunlight as the water trickles towards the sea.

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I paddle along the edge of the water where clouds are reflected in the shallows. The bottoms of my trousers get wet. A bit further along several sandpipers join me in the breaking waves and their little legs dash backwards and forwards as they scurry in and out of the water looking for food.

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I spend several minutes trying to photograph the way the wind catches the tops of the waves just before they break, flinging droplets up and back in contrary motion…. it’s really difficult.

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Then back along the beach and back to the car. I can’t count the number of times I’ve done this exact walk but each time there is something new to see. The tides and the weather change the shape and texture of the beach and bring a different set of noticings and experiences to add to my understanding and memory.

Meaning in material

I have been away on holiday to a place that I have never visited before – Spain. We stayed at a Cortijo in the hills in Andalucia about 80 kms inland from the coast. It was hot – (hotter than I had expected) although a cooling breeze generally appeared in the late afternoon. The sky was a uniform blue the whole time we were there and it was very, very dry.

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We spent our time visiting towns to see the sights: Granada and Cordoba, and spending time in the hills near to where we were staying. I took my sketchbook, but for the first few days I couldn’t write or draw in it – I needed time to absorb and think about this new landscape.

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However, an encounter with a new environment is not a blind happenstance and the experience is affected by expectations and presumptions. Of course I had seen photos of the landscape on the internet and I had a good idea about what to expect.  As E.H. Gombrich writes in Art and Illusion, ‘The innocent eye is a myth…… All perceiving relates to expectations and therefore to comparisons’. In this instance, the comparisons I made were to two long, hot summers spent in the countryside in Provence when I was in my late teens. The heat and the dryness were remembered from that time and also the smell. The landscape smelt dry – of dust, cooking and garlic, mimosa, olive trees and heat – can heat smell?

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The landscape, although new to me, had a familiarity, but nevertheless it took a bit of time to settle in and to begin to really pay attention. I drew where my eyes were drawn. I was always looking up: to the tops of the hills where jagged rocky tops were pale grey in the sun but much darker in the shadows, and to ranks of olive groves that dotted the chalky slopes; serried ranks of rounded globes that merged into a solid greeness with the contours of the hills: chalk, terracotta and green – dry, dusty, colour bleached out by the sun.

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I took my normal, minimalist drawing kit with me: a sketchbook, a black pen, a pencil, a graphite stick, a tiny box of watercolours and a couple of those brushes with a water reservoir. But these materials were wrong. They were too fluid and the colours swirled and ran into each other. This is a dry land. I needed dry materials: pastel or chalk. I wish I had picked up some of the terracotta earth to smear across the page with my finger like the cave dwellers in the Cueva de la Pileta who had drawn on the cave walls in terracotta, ochre and charcoal thousands of years ago. 

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Watercolour is for Norfolk –  a place of water and of flux and change, not for the arid dustiness of Andalucia. The materiality of even a drawing is important as it can evoke ideas of time, place and geography beyond those of the purely visual elements of shape, form and colour. Materials have meaning and consequently I’m not really happy with these watercolour drawings. Wrong materials for the place. It is certainly something to think about the next time I go away and I will have to consider my drawing kit more carefully.

 

Light, texture, sound, movement

9am

Blue sky with a gossamer layer of misty cloud

Warm sunshine

Light movements in the air

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I’m sitting outside the studio in the sunshine. For the first time, in what seems to be weeks, the biting Easterly wind has blown itself out and it feels warm. The water is glassy with only the faintest sign of the slowly ebbing tide. The blue sky is reflected in the shallow water and combined with the sand/mud just visible below the surface, it is a dappled green/sludge/blue colour. Above me the sky is blue, but over on the horizon the colour washes away to be almost white. The pines on the East Hills are a hazy green and looking East, almost into the sun, the landscape becomes monochrome as the mud banks and marsh are silhouetted by the brightness behind.

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There is no noise coming from the working fisherman’s huts (at low tide there is less activity), but just on the pontoon to my right a couple of men are painting a boat and I can hear their companionable chatter. Most of the sounds I can hear are of birds, but looking out there is no movement – the birds are hunkering down on the marsh. Calling but not seen.

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I sit and look and wait. Immediately opposite 2 black-headed gulls start squabbling with a third gull who flies in, taunting them with food. They rise up and try to wrest it away before flying away down the channel still squawking. A tiny money spider falls onto my sketchbook and I trace its path down the page until it falls off. Two black cormorants fly fast and low over the marsh –  determined dark arrows that know where they are going.

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I hear an oystercatcher and look up, but scanning the muddy bank opposite I fail to see it. A few minutes later it appears and starts to preen itself at the waters edge – it’s reflection clear in the water. It restarts its monotonous peeping and others, feeding on the mud, take up its call. It’s a hectic conversation that sounds like a warning – keep away from my patch!

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I can also hear the contented chattering of Brent geese feeding on the marsh. Most of the visiting winter geese have left by now but there are still a few left that seem happy to over summer here. A small group of them lifts off with a burble and a flap of wing. They fly west to join the main flock, their white bottoms shining out in the sun. More geese rise up, chattering as they go, and split into groups as they hurry off to different feeding grounds.

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I get a watercolour pad and paint and start to draw. As always I start literally but after a time I loosen up and focus on two areas: the patch of mud just opposite and a flash of light that is an area of sand away on the marsh. As time goes on the light and the colours intensify. I use more dark and start to splash paint around, not trying to  represent what I see and hear exactly, but to use my imagination to capture light, texture, sound and movement.

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Notes from my sketchbook

Burnham Overy Staithe

Blue sky – sunshine

NE wind – strong. It makes the otherwise warm temperature feel rather cold, especially walking out to the beach into the wind.

Oystercatchers – windroar – cold ears.

Sitting on the south side of the dune overlooking the marsh surrounded by intermittent wind/grass susurration. Facing the sun and sheltered by the dune from the wind it almost feels hot.

Small twittering birds.

Haze on the far horizon.

By my side, nestling in the marram grass are minute white shells.

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Cley/Clay

Cley Beach, February 27: Unseasonably warm weather – the car thermometer tells me it is 16 degrees C.

Clear blue sky, clear blue sea.

A pale blue sea haar obscures the horizon so that sea and sky become one.

Gentle NW wind with a slight nip.

Lazy waves

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It is only about an hour after high tide, so I have to walk along the top of the shingle ridge. Just below, recent big tides have dragged the stones down the beach in huge arching wave patterns to reveal the sand beneath. The incoming waves fill the pebble curves as they break, and it is obvious how their dragging action has shifted the stones to draw sweeping arcs right along the beach. In places, higher, dark shadowed ridges run parallel to the pebbles. Here, the sea has worn away the loose top surface to reveal the clay bed underneath.

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The name, Cley-next-the-Sea is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word Claeg or Clay, and today the clay is truly next to the sea. I am surprised to see thick veins of white clay running through the usual red and looking closer I see that the red clay is also tipped with grey.

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I have no camera or sketchbook with me to record this but sitting on the shingle ridge with the sun on my back I imagine a cloth, rubbed with a slick wet mixture of soft clay: a deep dark terracotta red merging into softer yellow/white – textured, red and luscious. Walking back to the car across the dyke I decide to drive back to the beach and collect some of the clay with which to colour a piece of work. I pick up just enough red clay and white clay to colour one cloth. I don’t take any of the grey clay and now that I’m at home I’m beginning to regret it.

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This morning in the studio I draw some lightening quick sketches, ideas for a possible clay-ed cloth. I wonder what it will be…..?

Early morning

8.15 am

Cold: -3 degrees

Misty

The early morning news tells me that last night was the coldest night of the winter so far and that other parts of the country have been disrupted by snow. As yet we haven’t seen snow but looking out all is grey and white . A thick frost blankets the fields over towards Holkham and a light haar is hanging in the air.

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Down on the quay a grey mist hangs just above the marsh and the water is completely still. There isn’t a breath of wind but it is bitingly cold. Behind the granary there is a slight golden glow as the sun begins to appear above the town.

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I walk down the beach bank towards the sea. Coming in from the North East are skeins and skeins of geese and I can’t miss their woodwind chatter as they call to each other high up in the sky. The low sunlight catches the underside of their wings as they fly right overhead – a fluttering sparkle in the clear blue sky.

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In the water a cormorant dives and I follow its underwater path by the stream of small, meandering bubbles that rise to the surface. It stays down for so long that I almost look away and walk off, but suddenly it reappears, a black shadow reflected back by the water.

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Yet more geese fly over and their calls fill the air. The sun has now risen fully above the town and other bird sounds join in: gulls, oystercatchers and a curlew. It almost seems as if they have waited for the sun to begin their day.

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I walk back along the quay and the sun has begun to burn off the light mist and the contours of the marsh are highlighted by a golden yellow glow.

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It promises to be a beautiful day.