In recent years I have become increasingly aware of attention. During the pandemic my inability to focus has become even worse. For some time now, I have found reading a book very challenging. Part of the difficulty is that my curiosity is distracted by something I read – such as the name of a place, or a particular word I don’t know – and off I go.
In the pre-screen, pre-computer days, one might first search in the glossary of terms for the answer, or open a thesaurus or encyclopaedia. But now we pop onto the computer to learn what we lack. But I have found that, increasingly, once I leave the page, I have left the book. Rarely do I return.
The pandemic is relevant here because so much time alone has opened the door to far more contemplation-time. I have always worked at my best when there is time to reflect, whether that be in terms of writing, making artworks or simply going more deeply into things. The life of a freelancer doesn’t leave much space for that, having no financial security unless one is constantly multi-tasking. Portfolio working. Only now do I see the irony of that term for an artist. Because a strong artist portfolio will evidence focussed thinking, sequential learning, development, and connected thinking.
Looking back on my own creative portfolio (stepping away from the anxiety of the gig economy), I recall that when I was studying for my degree, and for some time afterwards, I divided my images up into irregular grids of works that were depictions of one thing, but from different ways of looking and understanding. Close-ups of leaves and seeds next to huge trees or complex roots structures. They were an anatomical representation of my life. Married with two young children, my life was more manageable if I broke it down into little pieces. When I made collagraphs (collaged plates of treated card worked into then reassembled on the bed of the press for intaglio printing) I was literally doing my best to hold my life together.
Jump forward a few years to when I did my MA in Fine Art at Cardiff UWIC, I left the printmaking process behind and slipped into first experimental darkroom photography, then slide dissolve, then video. Another transition about self-identity. The imagery was self-portraiture, inspired partly by the fact that my mother died just before the course began. It led me gently from static printed images into time-based activities. By the time I completed my MA I was writing about the body and technology, creating spatially disrupted video installations that were immersive. They drew the viewer into them through portals such as peepholes and mirror tunnels. I had somehow warped time and space using these media. Only now do I see that this was also about giving attention to the subject by zoning in the viewers gaze.
That was all in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s.
In 2017 I began to make art again, after having been producing and curating non-gallery exhibitions since 2002. All my adult life I have had a strong pull towards the River Severn, walking there for 25 years on the east bank and the last 13 years on the west. After a move to the west bank in 2006, I spent much time gazing not just at the river, but also to the other bank. I love taking panoramic photos of the river, because it enables me to create something more than a photograph and less than a video. The attention of my eye whilst taking them was on how to ensure each end framed the centre, and that the horizon line was as straight as possible. I gathered all these photos together, digitally. Because they were are not good enough to print very large, I decided I would draw them. Returning to the messiness of charcoal and chalk after many years of technology and screen, I loved the tactility of the medium. And at one metre wide they allowed my eye to track the drawing, just as it had tracked the river.
I decided to revisit the places I used to go to with my family and friends, pairing them with the places I had come to know on this bank. Soon I had a big map of the Severn on my wall. With the pairings in mind I set off to photograph, then draw, each one, and also write about them in parallel. I loved the idea of drawing opposite banks and writing in parallel to drawing, it held a poetic resonance.
The drawings and texts were completed as a looped journey and a book produced – Severnside: An Artist’s View of the Severn. There followed a period of experimentation, having got my hands on a 360 degree camera, I dabbled and considered whether or not to learn more and return to my interest in immersive video, but in the round.
The idea of only being able to make work for screen or headset consumption didn’t appeal to me enough. I wanted to create something that could speak about the immersive landscape, but not be an immersive artwork. I have always struggled with being in front of a camera, due to self-consciousness and a dislike of being photographed or filmed. During my MA I made glass slides with shed snake skins, acquired from Bristol Zoo, and projected them onto my naked body. Initially, they acted as a mask to my identity. On reflection, they related to my psychological desire to reinvent myself, as this was the period when I realised I needed to leave home and begin a new life. But I wasn’t quite there yet.
Back to the Severn, the exploration of 360 space resulted in my creating works that responded to my dislike of being filmed. The 360 gaze is all-embracing with nowhere to hide. I turned to art history to find a way to inform my work, settling on Caspar David Friedrichs work by turning my back to the lens and standing on the river bank gazing across, at my past, with my walking stick in hand. A feminist response to landscape, not about controlling it, but becoming at one with it.
I eventually returned to making videos of the Severn – I used to create video installations in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. I found myself during editing re-creating the charcoal-ness of the drawings, black and white, sharpened contrast, long shots and intimate details. Just like my MA work had been, but that was about my body, this is about a body of water. We both know the process of having a smooth surface and a rippling one now!
My love of the Severn permeates my life now. I have tried to move away, but I doubt that is possible.
So recent works during the pandemic have involved my paying attention to the nuances. The changes brought about by the external impact things have on the river. The disruption of human social behaviour and how their absence during the Spring Bore allowed the river to breather more freely, to expand and relax undisturbed. It was a bit like seeing your lover naked for the first (and maybe, only) time. It was an encounter during which the river was given a voice.
The last one explores the relationship between the artist and the muse. The context and the activities. A meta-narrative woven from three threads, three cameras.
- Video filming the subject – the view
- 360 camera filming underneath and around
- iPad filming the drawing in progress and the shadow play as animation
I share my process because it is integral to the work – and the editing is revealed through the spoken narrative.
Thinking practice is all about how I work through ideas, and mediums, to complete a work. A window into my seemingly scattered mind that reveals a coherence one can only see through reflection and retrospection.
This thinking informed a new body of work – When You Call I Shall Come and As Above So Below video films were made around this time. Both have been selected for shows.