I don’t know why, but I have struggled to write this post. Normally I sit down and write about my work fluently; straight off; without a second thought. But writing about this piece of work has been surprisingly difficult. On the face of it this piece of work has happened in the way that most of my work happens – by paying attention to my surroundings. Essentially it is about one of those unexpected happenings that I have noticed in my wanderings along the North Norfolk coastline, namely that after a storm at sea, marine creatures can occasionally, and extraordinarily, be found washed ashore, stranded high on the beach by the incoming tide before being washed away again by the next one.
A simple idea? But so many other thoughts have gone into this work: about materials; about processes, both within the natural environment and in the making of the work; about the history of place; and finally, about my own methods of perception, processing information and creativity. A simple idea that has taken a huge amount of consideration and that perhaps, in the end, contains more ideas than is obvious at first glance.
I start by writing down a list of principal words and ideas:
- A moment of being – something I have noticed and remembered:
- Storm at sea – weather – deposition/ wave action
- Material process – saltwater/evaporation – transformation and decay/degeneration
- Form – mussels/beach
- Wilhelmina Barns-Graham – perception and a way of thinking
But I can’t decide what my message is (my husband calls it my strategic statement); what is the most important thing here?
Starting at the top of the list …..
I walk. I notice. I experience. I remember. In this instance I recall hundreds of sponge balls washed up on Cley beach by the action of the waves after a storm at sea has dislodged them from the sea bed. The weather, the waves and the water play a significant part in this shifting, dynamic coastline so that nothing is ever quite the same from day to day. They change the appearance of surfaces and seek to destroy them. They move things around and wear things down. They make things appear and then disappear. This is not a stable environment but a place of transience and uncertainty. Observation of changing phenomena is at the foundation of this work.
Things appear and disappear. I wanted to comment on impermanence; a brief interlude of wonder, cast upon the beach by the sea only to be taken away again by the next tide and I have conjured up transient sea-creatures from my imagination. Each ‘creature’ was soaked in a shallow bath of salt water that was allowed to evaporate naturally – a process that took about 2 weeks. Although salt is intrinsic to my exploration of the processes of change and impermanence in the environment, in a dry state the residues of the evaporation process are surprisingly durable. However, a hint of water would quickly turn the crystals back into a salty liquid making it a highly ephemeral, unstable medium. Furthermore, salt is a corrosive material and I would expect the linen and wire in this work to degenerate very slowly over time.
I chose the form of the sea creatures to suggest the oval form of mussel shells. Mussels are harvested all along this coast and in the near past Wells harbour had mussel beds lining the far side of the quay that longshoremen (men who earned their living from the harbour, sea or shoreline) would tend and harvest. The remains of one of the mussel beds lies at the base of the bank opposite my studio, and every time I look out of the window I see the sharp edges of the shells sticking out of the mud. Indeed, my studio would have originally had an old copper where the shellfish would have been boiled before being packed up and sent off to be sold. Mussels are an appropriate form for this piece of work.
Detail of a map from 1908 of Wells Harbour. The little black crosses show the location of mussel beds.
I must also speak about Wihelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), a painter and printmaker and one of the St Ives School. Her ideas about how she understood her surroundings have been the mainstay of my thinking regarding how I experience what is going on around me. She wrote about her perception of nature as having ‘something to do with inner perception and outward observation’, and this inner seeing and outer sensing has become central to my work.
To go out, to walk, to notice, to remember and sometimes to document ‘noticings’ is essential but is only the very first stage of the creative process. I increasingly realise that most important are the abstract meanderings of my mind – my inner perception. Like a flow chart I used to draw in maths at school – data goes into one end and comes out at the other end processed and transformed as a finished artwork. What goes on in the middle is key.
Again, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s thoughts: ‘to develop one’s awareness to inner perception, collecting shapes that become my shapes. To see later what is useful, now with increased understanding of the importance to be in union with nature. To identify with its rhythm so that, again, later I can express myself in my own language’.
To express myself in my own language is so, so important. All the information for this work, has been gathered together in a continuous interaction of searching, connecting and making. What makes my work mine can only happen when subjective perception, understanding and selection come together with the creativity of my hands and the way I compose with materials and structure. The end form is only possible as an evocation of my first observations with the coming together of all of these functions. In effect, my senses: my eyes, ears and hands, only operate through the medium of my brain. To sense is to think and to think is to make personal work.
So, what is my message? What is the most important thing here? Well, for you the viewer, the work is about the observation: a transient happening that is fleeting and to be marvelled at. But for me, the most important thing that has come about through this particular work is the growing realisation that creativity comes from the processing of my emotional and intellectual experiences of the phenomenological world deep inside my mind. The resulting work is not an imitation of the world but a way of revealing my personal observations of its innumerable manifestations.
I am delighted that Black Beach has been selected for the 62 Group exhibition, CONSTRUCT and it will be at Sunny Bank Mills, 82-5 Town Street, Farsley, Pudsey, W. Yorkshire, LS28 5UJ from 20 July – 15 September 2019.