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!

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Burnham Overy Staithe walk – drawing and collage

Last time I showed you photos taken on a walk to Burnham Overy Staithe and today I am showing you some drawings and the work that came from them.

As always, I document what I notice about the conditions on that particular day and on that day I wrote in my sketchbook:

The sky and sea reflect each other.

There is so much light.

The land is in relief against it – a dark, almost featureless mass.

Shape – light – dark.

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It was a grey day and the tide was out. Huge expanses of wet, shimmering mud were exposed and were reflecting the light from the sky so that a pale grey light almost totally filled my view. If I squinted, half closing my eyes, the overall impression was of dark land silhouetted against the pale sky and mud.

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My interest was not the detail but in the sinuous, muddy shapes formed by small channels and creeks that cut the marsh with ebbing and flowing tides.

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I looked at the light, the dark and the in-between tones.

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In the foreground a scribble describes the chaotic, abundance of late summer wild flowers and plants.

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These collages have been made in response to the drawings. They evoke the light of the mud and sky and the heavy, dark shape of the marsh on that day. The colour is subdued and there is just enough detail to suggest the natural rhythms of the aural and visual landscape. Each collage is 20 x 40cms, mounted on 18mm board and has a waxed linen ‘frame’.

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These collages will be exhibited at the Cranleigh Arts Centre, 1 High Street, Cranleigh, Surrey, GU6 8AS, from  5-16 September as part of The Makers’ Art 2017, The Society of Designer Craftsmen, North Surrey Group. The exhibition is open from 10am – 4.30pm and entry is free.

Burnham Overy Staithe walk

I often find myself setting rules for the way in which I work. I don’t necessarily mean to do this, but every now and again I find a new routine has crept into my practice.

P1010725Black seed pods on Alexanders

Recently I have been taking my sketchbook with me when I go out for a walk rather than taking my camera. The decision to take a sketchbook is a conscious one as the act of drawing makes me stop and take notice. I believe that to document what I see and hear with drawing increases my perception of the environment and enables me to pay more attention to what is going on around me. Drawing makes me select what I want to record  from my surroundings and gives me the choice about how to put it down on paper. I can select to record what is above, below or around me and I can make notes about the sounds I hear or what I can feel.

P1010711Purple sea-lavender covers the salt marsh

On the other hand, it is very easy to snap a picture with a camera without really looking. Often there is no memory of the experience: the wind on my face or a skylark singing, and there remains only a cropped image of a sensory environment that would have extended 360 degrees around me. Drawing and writing in my sketchbook is my preferred method of documentation.

P1010712Winding channels in the mud

Having said all that, I made a conscious decision the other day to take my camera with me and to try and think about the photos I was taking in order to document my favourite walk at Burnham Overy Staithe. I hope these photos give you an idea of how I see and experience this place.

P1010713Withies mark the channels. They stick up above the water at high tide so you don’t get stuck in the mud.

P1010723Narrow waterways run into the marsh.

P1010720A turnstone feeding on the mud.

P1010736Looking inland across the marsh.

P1010737I used to think this was a submerged boat, but now more of the structure has emerged and I wonder if it is actually part of an old jetty.

Next time I’ll show you drawings done on another walk to Burnham Overy Staithe and the new work that came from them.

More playing

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When I make things I often do so obsessively, repeating things over and again until I have what I want. I’m sure this is a throwback from doing hours of flute practice in order to be able to play notes and to get techniques perfect. I’ve been making more samples that have been coloured solely with materials that I have collected from the ground: sea-coal, clay and chalk. I’ve tried grinding the ‘pigments’ to different sizes, experimented with heavy, light, loosely woven and tight textured cloth and fiddled around with different percentages of linseed oil and beeswax to make the binder. I now have enough samples that I’m happy with to enable me to start on the fun bit ….. the construction and putting together to see what is possible.

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I started simply by folding one sample over another or placing eyelets on top of one another or wrapping a piece round an edge. Just to see what would happen. I tried many combinations.

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I love the blend of coarsely ground chalk and the creamy waxiness of the binder …….

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and here there was an especially thick layer of wax that cracked on a fold. It’s very fragile, but is food for thought.

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This was the last sample I made, and to use everything up I threw all the last bits of grindings into the wax pot. The result is surprisingly good.

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These eyelets have been rusted with sea water before having a coating of the wax mixture and a trace of sea-coal.

I’m finally happy with the arrangement of each piece so now I need to sew them together. But I’m wondering! These samples are small  ….. I wonder how they would look big?

Experimenting

As an artist who uses cloth I am very interested in how it is used in the landscape that I am trying to evoke. I take great inspiration from sails and tarpaulins that can be found everywhere here on the coast and recently I have been researching traditional ways of preserving and waterproofing them.

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Nowadays, sails are made from highly technical synthetic materials that won’t shrink, rot or stretch out of shape when battered by the wind and weather. But before these fabrics were in common use, sails were made of canvas and linen – fabrics that will degenerate quickly if they are not treated with a preservative. I often use canvas and linen in my work and so it is appropriate to look at traditional ways of preserving these types of cloth.

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There are several traditional ways that sailors and fishermen would preserve sails, ropes and nets. Tanning or barking is a process of boiling sailcloth in a solution of cutch, an extract of the plant Acacia Catechu that is very high in natural tannins. This process turns the sail a reddish/brown and gives protection from the elements, but the sail remains absorbent and becomes heavy in wet weather.

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I find the process of ‘dressing’ sails with linseed oil, wax and ochre more intriguing. The mixture is spread on both sides of the sail and penetrates the cloth to create a barrier that protects it from the wet. Despite the fear that the linseed oil coated cloth would spontaneously combust (!), I have made some samples and hung them up in a well ventilated room to dry.

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Since using chalk that I had collected, hand ground and turned into distemper in a recent piece of work, I have been keen to use other natural materials collected from the environment. I thought that I could easily replace ochre in the dressing mixture with another material and for the past couple of weeks I have been looking for a substitute on my walks along the beach. Red clay from Cley beach and sea-coal from the East Hills in Wells have proved to be worthy alternatives.

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When I first made these samples I was disappointed. I thought they looked like dirty scraps of cloth with no aesthetic appeal. However, I looked at them again a couple of days ago and the drying process has greatly improved their appearance and touch and I think there could be some potential.

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Now the linseed oil is less sticky and smelly, the yellow/brown oil, wax, and coarsely ground red clay turns the cloth a wonderful, translucent terracotta and similarly coarse-ground sea-coal gives texture. I’ve also mixed some of my previously ground chalk with oil and wax and the mixture gives a dense, creamy coating that gently cracks when manipulated.

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These are my first experimental samples. They need a lot of refining and I should spend longer processing the clay and sea-coal and trying out different proportions of oil and wax.  But I have ideas …… I’ll keep you updated!

Chalk Ground installation

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Yesterday I spent the day at St Margaret’s church in Cley-next-the-Sea installing my work ‘Chalk Ground’ and I’m very happy with how it looks. I never know quite how things will be until the work is in situ and often something unexpected shows itself as it is put in place. In this case it was the light.

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It was a bright day and the sun was pouring through the beautiful window above. I knew that the fine wires hovering over the top of the ‘tubes’ would catch the light but I hadn’t realised how much the work would change as the sun moved westwards throughout the day.

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In the morning shafts of sunlight highlighted the lefthand side of the work and as the hours passed the light gradually moved along the 2 metre work, accenting or leaving in shadow different sections until finally by late afternoon the sun had moved away and the work was in the shade.

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I love to work with the specific conditions of a space and to be able to manipulate the work to fit the setting. In this instance I added more wires to increase the shimmering miasma above …… the beautiful light was a very welcome and serendipitous addition!

Chalk Ground at Cley 17

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Next weekend I will be installing my newest piece of work, Chalk Ground, at St Margaret’s Church, Cley-next-the-Sea and I am very pleased to be a part of this exhibition run by the North Norfolk Exhibition Project. Cley is just 10 minutes down the road from my house and so the work is being shown in the place of its inspiration – this doesn’t happen very often!

P1000780 The NNEP was set up in order to be able to show contemporary art in a place where there was no gallery that artists could show new work in. Each year there is a different curator who sets the brief and chooses the artists. This year the curator is Marion Stuart who is an artist, art lecturer and founder of StudioDo. The brief is ‘Connectivity’ and asks artists to use historical context and local connections to create links between site and art. She states that, ‘Connecting is inherently human and one way to connect to the world is through art.’

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This brief was a gift to me and plays directly into all the interests of my practice. Recently I have been using the materiality of the environment to articulate ideas about landscape and place, mostly in my use of salt. Chalk is another material that is associated with this area and I was very keen to introduce this new material into my practice in order to stimulate new ideas and processes.

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Chalk is the bedrock of the physical landscape of East Anglia and it forms a ‘chalk belt’ that runs from the Chilterns to the North Norfolk coast. It has shaped the economic and cultural development of this region and gives rise to some of its most beautiful and inspiring landscapes. Chalk is the basis of the new work, Chalk Ground, and the shape and material of the work draws attention to the world we inhabit by making a connection between the materiality of the artwork and the land beneath our feet.

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Ground:

  1. The solid surface of the earth
  2. A prepared surface to which paint is applied
  3. Reduced to fine particles by crushing

 I love the play on words that is contained within the title of the piece and I have tried to incorporate each strand of meaning into the work. The form and shape of the work reflects the curve of the land and I was thinking of a geographical cross-section when deciding what form the work should take. I have made my own ‘ground’ by ‘grinding’ chalk collected from the environment to make a paint, or distemper, to coat the linen cloth.

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I have used all forms of chalk in the work and its texture varies from fine to very coarse. Added to that, each vessel has a ballast of chalk pebbles to make it stable. The height of the vessels ranges from 55-23 cms in height and each vessel is 5 cm in diameter. The whole work measures approx. 2 metres wide and 20cm deep.  You can read more about the process of making this work here, here and here.

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Lastly, having finished the work I have now made other connections to my practice that I should, perhaps, have noted beforehand. I have used the pipe or tube shape before and it is a form that creates many associations for me. It is a vessel or container and so has the ability to ‘hold place’, but primarily it is the shape of a flute and therefore contains the promise of sound. Coincidentally, the work is to be placed on an stone shelf near to the organ….. I think you will agree that there is more than a passing resemblance to a set of organ pipes.

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If you are in Norfolk from 6 July to 6 August please come and see the exhibition. As Marion Stuart is a ceramicist I expect it will have a pottery slant which I am really looking forward to. There are also some excellent related workshops and events taking place. There is a copy of the leaflet here.

 

 

 

 

 

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