Category Archives: thinking

Kingfisher

Marshscape Collage – the view from the studio window at high tide

Yesterday I saw a kingfisher. I was sitting outside the studio, looking at the ebbing tide with a cup of coffee. Taking a moment just to be.

Suddenly, driving fast and low above the surface of the draining water, a flash of iridescent blue. My eyes lock onto the speeding blur it as it passes directly in front of me and, as if they are joined to it by strings, they follow the wink of coloured light as it races fast and away to the right until out of sight. 

5 seconds of wonder and excitement. 

I strain to see it again. Hoping it will turn and come back. But the miraculous bird has gone, and I am left with a feeling that something special has happened.

How, I ask myself, can I capture that brief sense of movement, absorption and marvel in a piece of work?

The protective coast – 2

Last time I spoke about some of the research I have been doing around tidal surges and rising sea levels, and the ability of salt marshes to protect the coast by buffering wave actions from the force of the sea.

P1050764Ordnance Survey Norfolk Sheet 111 SE, 1907, 2nd edition.

This is a concern that is very real here in Wells. During the last tidal surge, in 2013, hard defences protected the west of the town – the floodgate was deployed and a glass flood wall held back the huge sea – however to the east of the flood defences the water built up flooding local businesses and houses along the quay. The solution for future surges could be to allow the eastern marsh, Slade Marsh, to flood. Lowering the height of the sea wall (or possibly removing it altogether) would relieve the pressure created by the ‘hard’ defences during exceptional tides by releasing the high water over the marsh and farm land and therefore protecting the buildings along the quay. This of course sounds counter-intuitive but this area used to be a place where the tide regularly flowed before the land was reclaimed for farming in around 1719.

P1050753Sample 1 – taken directly from map

My studio sits to the east end of the town and during the 2013 surge the water rose up flooding the building to about 1 metre (a former occupant has marked the level). This issue is of importance me.

P1050754Sample 2 – taken directly from map

So where to start with a project that addresses some of these concerns? Well I decided to start with a map of Wells and in particular the area to the east of the town. The map is an Edward Stanford Ordnance Map of Wells, dated 1907. It was very kindly given to me by a friend (thank you Helen Terry) and shows the creeks, the marsh and the town very clearly and in great detail.

P1050755Sample 3 – taken directly from map

When you don’t know what to do, or which direction to take, I think it is often best to start simply, and in this case I began by just copying parts of the map. I like that these first efforts depict the creeks as they were over 100 years ago as it gives me scope to research the changes that have actually occurred since then.

P1050757Sample 4 – Using shapes from my observation of the landscape and ‘colouring in’

The samples are 50 x 50 cm, sewing cotton on painted linen. The white on blue hints at blueprint maps. I have to say I really like these first three samples and learnt quite a lot stitching them, but they are much too literal…. too map-like.  So my next move was to come away from the obvious map shapes and to use shapes that come from my own observations of the landscape.

P1050756Sample 5 – Making marks with white paint and then stitching

Again, I feel they are sterile – there is nothing for the imagination to work with. So, I tried making my own marks with paint rather than just ‘colouring in’ and there is much here that I like, especially where in sample 5 the paint looks like a stain that is almost accidental.

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Sample 6 – Making marks with white paint and then stitching. 

I thought I might be ready to make a larger version – to make a ‘finished’ piece – but I put everything away for a week and now I look at them again I know I’m not ready to go bigger or finished. I like the fluid, wavering lines that suggest shifting boundaries. I like some of the painted marks. I like the distressed cloth background and the eyelets. But the imagined shapes in the later samples have no meaning for me.

P1050760Sample 7 – Making marks with white paint and then stitching. Couched wire.

My next move? Well I think to do more research. I need to walk the creek at low tide. Draw what I see and notice the effects of the water on the mud and the sand. And then I need to move inland and walk the sea wall and the fields behind – to look and to listen in order to really understand what is at stake here and to give meaning to the marks I paint and stitch.

This is a long term project and I have no idea how it will end. Maybe some of these ‘samples’ will turn out to be actual work (it often happens), but I intend to document each move here, so next up some drawing.

The protective coast

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About 6 months ago a friend popped an article through my letterbox and it has been percolating around in my mind ever since. From an issue of Horizons, the University of Cambridge’s research magazine, the piece focuses on the East of England and considers climate change and flooding. It questions whether manmade barriers are the best coastal defence and with predicted rises in sea level of up to 1.5m by 2100, in the future these hard defences would only have to be built bigger and higher and become more conspicuous.

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The East coast is a low lying ‘soft’ coast. The energy of tides and waves brings silt and clay that accumulates near the shore. As the water shallows, the particles are trapped by salt tolerant plants and salt marsh begins to form.  Salt marshes are a valuable environmental resource as they can absorb and bury carbon from the atmosphere and offer habitats to unique plants and animals

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Although salt marsh changes daily with each tide, and is particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion, tidal surges and flooding, the article, written by Sarah Collins, suggests that it could actually provide a more sustainable option to hard, concrete defences and act as a protective barrier, buffering wave actions, reducing their height and therefore their potential for damage. It has been shown that a narrow strip of salt marsh 40m wide reduces wave height by 20% and strip 80m wide can reduce waves to zero – the saltmarsh is able quite literally to swallow the waves.

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Here in Wells, low-lying reclaimed farmland is protected by man-made sea defences – high sea walls that were built to protect the land in the aftermath of the flooding of the 1953 tidal surge. These walls do protect the land, but they also create a barrier, stopping the shore from moving inland and squeezing the saltmarsh between the sea and our coastal defences.

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To act efficiently as natural flood defences the sea and salt marsh needs to be able to move landwise naturally and freely and with the projected rise in sea levels it is unlikely that the coastline will stay as it is at the moment.

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The issue of the changing coastline has occupied my mind for some time now and I have been considering how I could make a piece of work that considers these issues. The drawings here are some of my first ideas and explore ideas around the destructive tide, inundation and shifting boundaries. Next time I’ll show you my next steps in this project.

To Coil

Hello! I hope you are all well. With all the time I have on my hands I’ve made another piece of work. As I was sewing, I was thinking about how the work came about and also about the manner of creation in general.

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When I begin a new piece work, I usually only have a vague idea of what it will be. Normally I have in mind a work that I have previously made, or an observation of something that has happened, or maybe an idea that I have read about. There is always some sort of starting point, but there is very rarely a definitive end point. So, when and how does the thinking and deciding what the work will be, take place?

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Very, very occasionally I think a piece into existence. I have an idea; I spend time drawing it up in my sketchbook; I make the piece and the final form is as it appeared in my sketchbook. The work is the materialisation of a thought.

But this rarely happens. Even if I think I have an end point, as soon as I start making, a dialogue starts up between my hands and my materials; they start telling me things and I begin to respond. Ideas change and so does the work as my engagement with the properties of the materials and observation of what is happening generates new knowledge.  This is a knowledge that can only be understood by actually engaging and asking questions. What did I notice? Why did that happen? How can I use that?

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By using your hands, listening to the movement and transformation of your materials, and then reacting to them, you can literally feel your way forward using your imagination and improvising as you go.  This is the method of making that I prefer to employ and the anthropologist, Tim Ingold, calls this creativity in action ‘participant observation’.

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This piece of work originated from two thoughts. First the idea of enclosure that came from the two works I showed you last time and secondly from a work I made sometime ago that was coiled. My starting point was a 5 m x 15 cm strip of fabric – all I knew was that I would coil it up and place it in a container with walls of about the same height. Other than that each move in the making process was dictated by my observations of what had gone before. The turquoise paint was too bright, so as I painted along the strip I dulled and darkened it. The eyelets were too close, so I moved them apart. The seam was too bulky, so I changed the manner of sewing it. The piece looked flat and unexciting, so instead of waxing it I salted it to give texture. One exchange after another pushed the piece forward to how it is now.

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And as I write this, I have found another reason for actually doing rather than just thinking. The title of this post comes from Richard Serra’s verb list. He stated that: ‘drawing is a verb’ and compiled a list of verbs in response to this statement and used it as a guide for his art practice. The list consists of the infinitives of a series of verbs whose actions relate to ‘oneself, material, place and process’. I realise I should write my own verb list of actions related to what I do – I don’t know why I haven’t thought of this before!

Connections

I’ve been in the studio everyday recently making new work. I normally have several things on the go at a time and between all the stitching, painting and general making there are quiet times where I’m waiting for things to dry or when I just need to think.

Last week during one of these quiet periods I sat down at the window and with Radio 3 playing and a cup of coffee in my hand it was an opportunity just to look, to sit still and to be.

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The tide was almost at its lowest point and water was still draining slowly out towards the sea. At low tide the main waterway in the channel is on the side furthest away from the studio, towards the northern bank, and tidal action has recently moved mud and sand so that it slopes down towards the bank on which the studio sits.

The water was falling away from the channel in small rivulets that rippled around and about sculpted sand and mud. Twisting and turning they merged and parted before finally coming together again in a smaller secondary channel to continue their gentle journey out to sea.

I drew this movement.

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And then drew again.

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Trying to capture the gently flowing lines of water moving.

And then on the radio I heard the Dolorosa from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (you can listen to it here). This is the most beautiful of pieces and one I listen to often. Hearing its beautiful contrapuntal lines I couldn’t but connect the movement of the music to the movement of the water in front of me.

So often I perceive music to be a visual art and I see its rhythms and spaces and melodies in my mind’s eye. But it is rare to make such a direct connection between what I can hear and what I see in front of me. I wouldn’t have thought of Pergolesi unless it had come on to the radio at that time, nor would I have associated it with the diurnal ebb and flow of the tide. I very much enjoy these infrequent moments of understanding.

Blue is ….

I was at the beach on Saturday. These were my thoughts:

 

Warm

A south westerly breeze

brings

a slight chill to the air.

 

Sunny

Blue sky

Blue sea

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Thin wispy clouds

cirrus

blow in fragile strands

diagonally across the sky.

 

Fall streaks that foretell

a change in the weather.

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Far away

towards the horizon

the blue sky lightens.

 

Below

deep water

deep blue.

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Blue is

scattered light.

Short waves

at the end of the rainbow

that disperse

into the air

and into the water.

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You can’t touch

this blue

because it isn’t really there.

 

This will be a concertina book – watercolour on one side and words on the other. It will be bound with blue cloth. I’ll show it to you when it’s finished.

Black Beach

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

IMG_0315Detail 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’.

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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.

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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.

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Thinking/making

My Iceland collection has expanded and this is what my work table looks like at the moment. I have made some more plaster reliefs, but you will also see that other found objects have crept in.

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Flints and oyster shells with holes made from boring sponges collected on the the beach here in Wells have been included in the collection as I start to make connections between the objects found in Iceland and more familiar objects found here on the beach at home. The shape and texture of the Icelandic bone fragments bear more than a passing resemblance to the pieces of broken flint and likewise the small Icelandic volcanic pebbles relate directly to the holed shells.

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I make some more plaster reliefs, this time of flints, and as a direct representation they work very well. However, I want something that is more open to interpretation …. something that has been created out of my own imagination and that is able to blur the boundaries between the bone/flint and shell/pebble samples.

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In an attempt to better understand the shape and form of the flints and bones I draw them and in doing so I realise that the reliefs don’t do what I want them to do; their bases are too square and uniform, and the pressed forms are incomplete. I want a full 3-d form. So I try something else and enclose a flint protrusion in clay and fill the resulting indentation with plaster.

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This small fragment (it’s about 5cm high) could be either bone or stone.

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I make some more ambiguous fragments and feel as if they are closer to, but not exactly what I am aiming for. I think it was the producer John Read who said, ‘Art is the expression of the imagination not the imitation of real life’. I am not trying to imitate or to recreate but to make something new and to create new connections. My thinking and making continues!

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 …..

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 ……