Chalk

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 forms some of its most beautiful and spectacular landscapes.

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Hunstanton chalk samples

Although chalk is not as apparent in Norfolk as in other areas of Britain such as the South Downs, at Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, it embraces the North Norfolk coast with chalk cliffs to the West at Hunstanton and to the East at West Runton. There are chalk pits and quarries all over the county, including just up the road from here in Wells, and sub-terranean Norwich is riddled with tunnels where chalk was formerly mined.

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West Runton chalk samples

I am using chalk in my next piece of work and decided to collect the material from two different sites that mark the outer boundaries of my ‘place’: Hunstanton, where there are red and white cliffs, and the beach at West Runton where a vein of chalk emerges on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs. The chalk I find at both sites has broken off from the cliffs, probably from wave action and the force of the tides, and lies scattered across the beach. Huge great lumps, too big to pick up and take home, lie at the top of both beaches under the cliffs, but smaller pieces have been distributed across the sand by the sea. I collect lumps about the size of my fist and smaller pebbles from both places. My intention is to grind them down to a powder and combine the resulting white pigment with a binder to stiffen and colour cloth.

Immediately I can see that the chalk collected from each site is different. The pieces of Hunstanton chalk are rounded and they don’t mark my skin or clothes as I pick them up. They are hard, dry and cold.

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The West Runton chalk, on the other hand, is soft and buttery and the greasy surface of each piece has attracted a light covering of sand. It is damp and soft and marks everything it touches. By the time I get home my hands, clothes, bags and the car are covered with a film of white dust.

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Before I even try to break it up I know that the properties of each sample is very different; the West Runton chalk will definitely be easier to process than the fragments from Hunstanton. I don goggles and a dust mask and whack a small piece of Hunstanton chalk with a hammer. Nothing happens. I try again, and again it doesn’t break. I get a bigger, heavier hammer. This time it cracks in two, but I can sense that using this material will be a battle. I try the West Runton chalk. One firm tap with a hammer and it breaks into four or five small pieces. It is so soft and breaks very easily. I continue tapping and soon I have a coarse powder.

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I take a hard Hunstanton lump and start to grind the softer particles with it. It works well as a pestle and the powder gradually becomes finer. I take more of the softer lumps and continue crushing and grinding until I have quite a large heap. Fine powder rises up with the grinding action and I can feel it drying the skin on my hands and face – I’m glad of the dust mask.

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The ground West Runton chalk is the colour of double cream. I suppose it has been yellowed by sand and I wonder whether covering it with water would purify it. I place it in a large bowl of water and wait. Bubbles rise to the surface as air is expelled from between each grain and after a few minutes the chalk has fallen to the bottom and the water has cleared.

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I put my hands into the chalky soup and can feel hard lumps. I can squish them between my fingers and they disintegrate. I keep squishing, but there are too many to get a fine powder this way.

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I pour off the clear water and realise that, of course, all the large sand and chalk particles  are still combined. I place the creamy, chalk mixture on a tray and leave to dry. Soon I’ll be able to mix it with a binder and make a form of coarse gesso to form the foundation of my next piece of work.

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Painting and drawing

Everyone is back where they should be after the Easter holidays and suddenly I find myself on on my own for a couple of days. Although I have things I should be getting on with, I decide to take a break and do some painting and drawing.

So, this is how a near perfect day on my own goes:

  1. Go to the art shop and buy a couple of sheets of lovely 300gsm watercolour paper.
  2. Stop off on the way home at Morston quay and buy a cup of coffee from the National Trust shop.
  3. Drink coffee and take in the view and general hustle and bustle (boats being put in the water for the first time this year, dog walkers, seal boats loading up to take people out to Blakeney Point). Enjoy the sunshine.
  4. Follow the path along the creek and across the marsh with sketchbook and pencil in hand.
  5. Stop every now and again and draw what catches the eye.

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  1. Lunch
  2. Get out painting equipment, put on music (Bach, Brandenburg Concerto’s) and spend the rest of the afternoon painting (keep half an eye on the morning’s drawings but paint mainly from memory).

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Burnt Cloth

Some of you may be wondering whether I did decide to burn the last of the ‘Flags’ in my Signalman body of work. I was undecided when I last wrote about it.

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Well, after much hum-ing and haa-ing I took the plunge and did it. This wasn’t a scientific, controlled process but more of a ‘go into the garden with a box of matches, some stout boots and a garden hose, type  of procedure’.

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It was surprisingly difficult to make the cloth catch fire and even more difficult to make it catch fire in an artistic way! Anyhow I’m pleased with the result and even more pleased with the patch that I had to put on it where it burnt through too much.

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You can see this flag and the other two in the series at The Archive Project@The Cello Factory from 4-12 May 2017.

My Place

After several weeks of intense teaching, making work and travelling I am back in Wells for a couple of weeks before putting up The Archive Project exhibition in London at the beginning of May. I went down to the beach this afternoon for a walk and it is really good to be back here.

I have just returned from Switzerland where I was teaching an ‘Exploring Place’ workshop and it was wonderful to explore and discover a new environment. The weather was as good as it could have been with sunshine and clear blue skies and the long reaching views of mountains weaving together into the far distance were beautiful …. but it’s not home. It’s not the place that calls and that feels right.

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This afternoon it was a bit grey, although blue patches (enough to make a sailor’s trousers) gave the promise of clearer skies. There was a cold westerly wind and the tide was out. First impressions were that it was rather bleak and there wouldn’t be much to see. But, as always, as I walked a story emerged.

At low tide the contours of the beach are revealed. These change frequently, often from tide to tide. Water is trapped in hollows and small channels, that I call ‘sea rivers’.

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Oystercatchers were stepping around and about the shallow water and as I approached they took off, flying further down the beach with their ‘peep, peep’ call.

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Footprints left in the sand show their frenetic activity.

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The gusting wind freckled the water on the sea rivers …..

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and blew dry sand across the wet beach.

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Wind and water combine to produce an ever-changing picture.

It’s lovely to go away and have new experiences but it’s even better to come back.

Simple starting points

I’ve started making a new piece of work. I’m at the beginning of the process and although I’m beyond the first sampling and trying out stage, I’m still in, ‘not quite sure exactly how this will turn out’ mode. I thought I’d write a little about some of its origins and a few ideas I am pondering at the moment.

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The form of this work comes from Minimalist music that originated in America in the mid-sixties. This type of music broke away from the classical tradition to be more chaotic and you could say, less musical.

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Some of the features of Minimalist music are:

  • Layers of repeated rhythmic, melodic or harmonic patterns that are repeated many times (the proper word is ostinato).
  • Repeated patterns that gradually change over time.
  • Layered textures

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Composers included Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

I remember taking part in a performance of Terry Riley’s In C, when I was at music college and being completely amazed by the way a seemingly simple score could create such complex sounds.

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In C consists of 53 separate bars of music in the key of C, each with a different melodic and rhythmic pattern.  Players repeat each bar as many times as they wish before moving onto the next. The result is an ever-changing web of sound where complicated patterns and unpredictable combinations of the set bars occur.

The idea that one simple form, when repeated over and over again, can produce complex and multifarious patterns is very beguiling and is also very relevant to visual art. The work I am making at the moment is made up of a simple, repeated form. When assembled these forms will create an altogether new and more complex work. I think that this work is the simplest interpretation of the idea…..

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….but already my mind is moving on to how I could make an even more complex work from the simplest of ideas: very, very, simple repeated, rhythmic layers that slip in and out of sync with each other to make a complex work.

However, for now, it’s on with the sewing – there’s a lot to do.  More on this project later as I progress!

 

 

The Signalman (part 3)

I have finished the last flag in The Signalman series (you can read about the other two flags and a bit of background  to the work here and here). This last flag is made in response to events that took place during the 3rd night action of the Battle of Jutland and specifically the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron engagement.

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This action was devastating for the HMS Southampton as it was hit by twenty 4.1” and 5.1” shells. Three guns and two searchlights were knocked out and the ship’s radio was destroyed. Lieutenant Stephen King-Hall wrote: ‘75% of the upper deck men on Southampton had been killed or wounded. It had been a point blank engagement. Southampton was burning so badly that a friend of mine who was five miles away on one of the 5th Battle Squadron ships read a signal on the bridge by the light of our fires’.

My grandfather was very lucky to survive the action.

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Flag 3: Night action

Fires started. Flames engulfed the forebridge.

Signal method: Flags

Linen, cotton duck, cotton, brass

Written by Charlie Sewell in his memoire.

 ‘… at 10.20pm the roar of the claxon sounded and action stations were manned again. I took my place on the upper bridge and as soon as I could accustom myself to the darkness it was clear that a line of light cruisers was just before us on the starboard beam, steering, what appeared almost a parallel course, gradually closing upon us …. finally, both seemed to challenge at the same time and immediately there were exchanges of gunfire and torpedoes, an action which historians state lasted 15 minutes, but to me five minutes….’

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The ‘U’ flag – The Royal Navy Handbook of Signalling (1913)

I am having a bit of a dilemma. My original intention was to set fire the flag in order to blacken it (but obviously not to fully destroy it). Now it comes to it, I can’t decide ….. I wonder if it may seem trite rather than powerful …… what do you think?

The exhibition details are:

The Archive Project @The Cello Factory

33-34 Cornwall Rd., Waterloo, London. SE1 8TJ

Thursday 4th May – Friday 12th May 2017,

Open daily 11.00-17:30 (16:00 on last day)

MEET THE ARTISTS Saturday 6th May 11:00-17:30.

 

The Signalman (part 2)

I have finished the 2nd flag in a new body of work that I have titled The Signalman. The work is for a new group exhibition, The Archive Project@ The Cello factory . The exhibition is at The Cello Factory, 33-34 Cornwall Road, Waterloo London SE1 8TJ from Thursday 4 May 2017 – Friday 12 May 2017.

The starting point for my work is a personal archive – a journal that was written by my grandfather, Charles Thomas Sewell, who was a Leading Signalman on the Light Cruiser, HMS Southampton, during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He survived the battle and left a concise, but personal, account of the events of 31 May and 1 June. The main events of the battle are told using key words and phrases that have been taken either from my grandfather’s memoir or from the record of Naval signals that were sent during the battle. The Signalman takes the form of three ‘flags’ where the narrative of each is notated with a different method of signal communication. Each flag commemorates a different part of the battle. 1. The beginning, 2. The day action and 3. The night action.

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The semaphore code on Flag 2 spells out, ‘Urgent. Have sighted enemy battle fleet.’ It is part of  signal 497 that was sent from HMS Southampton to the Commander in Chief of the Battle cruiser fleet at 16.38 GMT on 31 May 1916. The original message was sent by wireless telegraphy and announced the first sighting of the enemy during the day action at the Battle of Jutland.

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Flag 2: Day action

Urgent. Have sighted enemy battle fleet.

Wed 31 May 1916, 16.38 GMT

Signal Method: Semaphore

Linen, felt, cotton, wire, brass

Written by Charlie Sewell in his memoir:

‘Incidents in the action were taking place very rapidly; we in HMS Southampton with our squadron ahead of HMS Lion had a close view of most events, some discouraging. At about 4.30pm we sighted the enemy battle fleet and reported the fact to Admiral Jellicoe in HMS Iron Duke…. In order to obtain the disposition and composition of the enemy battle fleet Commodore Goodenough led his Light Cruiser Squadron in between the lines and it was for all the staff on the upper bridge a very thrilling experience.

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