Those of you who know my work well will be very aware of my interest in the River Severn.
This autumn I am crossing over to the other side, to carry on conversations already begun with like-minded river lovers. First to open is at The Old Passage in Arlingham. Recently taken on by new people, it is continuing a tradition begun by the previous owner – to show and sell work by artists, curated by artist/curator/walker Kel Portman. Kel has been overseeing these shows for many years and always ensures there is support not only for the artists, but for local charities too. 10% of every sale is shared between St Rose’s Special School in Stroud and the Severn Area Rescue Association, so any sale can make a positive difference to the lives of others.
Curated by Patricia Brien, expect work there to have something to say about COP26. My work will include a premier showing in a gallery of Bev ‘D’ – a poetic study or routine dredging, last done twenty years ago. A provocation the unavoidably makes us consider how much the area may be flooded next time the dredgers are brought in. Just in case you think this may be scaremongering, checkout the projected heights for 2040 – you may be as alarmed as I am. And it may help you to understand it more when you can see what it will be like near where you live.
We’re planning a Sunday Brunch conversation about environmental challenges – date to be confirmed soon. As will names of all the artists participating.
and I must mention here that at Cosmo Sheldrake is playing at the Goods Shed in Stroud on 29th October. Now I have safely secured MY tickets, you may want to get your own!
Whilst sorting out my films yesterday I played “A Star on the Horizon” (below, you may like to watch it first before reading the rest), and considered what it was saying September 2020, and what it means now. It is beyond comprehension that almost a year ago today I had hoped that Covid would stop spreading. One year later, whilst no longer in lockdown, there are still so many unknowns.
Most of the films I made during lockdown were melancholic, and it could be said they continue to be so. This particular one raises my awareness of my inclination to be an optimist. I still am, despite what we have gone through. It is what gets me through these slippery times.
When I made the film I had hope about the pandemic ending soon. Yesterday, when I wiped my storage drive with most of my films on, I was conscious that, though I did actually stop breathing for a split second, I also felt pragmatic. Maybe Covid has taught me that – or maybe it is simply age and maturity? Many years ago, in 2000, a lot of my studio equipment was stolen, including my computer, back up drive and video camera. At the time I was doing my MA in Fine Art and I used philosophical thinking to drag me out from the pit of despair at the loss. You can read Virtual Lobotomy here. Digital media does not exist, in physical terms, it is merely data, so nothing was lost.
That was in 2000, 6 years before my marriage broke up irretrievably . A bit like my hard drive. The words in the essay now have a different resonance, they could apply to the moment I left our family home;
I will get a new extension, but will have to learn all over again how to use it, to make it comfortable to be with. But I will never regain those feelings I experienced with the last one, the nerve endings have been cauterised. New nerves will grow, maybe even stronger than the first. I hope so.
Now things are different. I certainly did develop new extensions, grew new nerves, became stronger, and survived to tell the tale. And maybe this film of hope is part of the process of coming to terms with one’s responsibility in the world?
However, there’s a twist in the tale, because since Covid first hit, we have become a world obsessed with data. Statistics of infections, deaths and vaccinations have taken over our lives. We are increasingly aware of our mortality, of the fact we, in our minds, believe people are more than a statistic. So, whilst data is important, in actual fact, our existence has taken centre stage. And onto that stage climate change and environmental fragility feels more painful, more urgent, even more urgent than us. Well to some people it does. Sadly not to all politicians. More statistics flood in – rising sea levels, temperatures, extinctions.
Like the pandemic, this is a major issue that requires collaboration, working together, socialism. Yet capitalism still holds the reins, pulls the strings of all the important decisions. Neither the planet, nor us, have little value when it comes to economics.
So now I am focusing on a new body of work – one that reflects on where the human race is now and our prospects of a future. It may be even more important that I switch on the hope button, because accepting that the damage we have done to the planet is not reversible is challenging. But we must persevere.
I seem to have built up a relationship with a blackbird. I didn’t consciously set out to do so. But maybe subconsciously I did.
A few years ago I had a cat, Theo, who was from a rehoming place. He was semi-wild and mostly wanted feeding regularly, slept most of the day and hunted at night. He did come for cuddles and the nights he didn’t venture out I would wake up to find him asleep on my back. He was with me for less than a year before being hit by a car. I vowed not to get another cat while in this house. In all fairness to Theo, he had to go to the road side of my house because the neighbours’ big ginger tom cat ruled the back garden.
About two years ago I succumbed to the fact that really, I’d like a dog. I have always had dogs living with me. Born into a house with one, throughout my child-rearing days I had two cats, two dogs and two kids. I have always joked that my mother, when calling my sister, brother and I used to shout “Stephen, Susan, Sarah (dog), Whisky (cat) and (finally), Carolyn – come here!”
I don’t think I did that to my kids, they always came first, both of them. But the animals were never far behind.
Come the pandemic I have been unable to find a dog companion. The fence I was having put up just before March 2020 was delayed for a year. Now that is done, dog prices have gone sky high. They are being stolen from gardens, imported from far and wide and bred unscrupulously. I look patiently and hopefully at the dog homes, Facebook pages and other sources. I am morally confused by the worry that I may be taking a stolen dog, one from a puppy farm or imported for profit. And my house is small, very small, I need a suitably small dog, but not so small it has bladder control problems.
Enter Blackbird. I have not fed garden birds much before, mostly due to not wishing to serve them up to the ginger tom cat. Or my ex-cat, who was big on birding and ratting. Feeders tended to be unvisited and subsequently emptied of mouldy food, washed, and put away. But this year is different, partly because I travel far less, so I can top up feeders regularly. And that includes throwing handfuls of mealworms out for the ground feeders.
The regular feeding brought regular visitors, including adult birds with families. Blackbird was amongst them. She has mild albinism, which apparently can result in the others victimising them. She is smaller than the other females, less fluffy, and always looks a bit scratty. But I soon became aware she is very cheeky. Frequently I would hear one ‘peep’ and would look down to find her nearby. Not at all scared by me, unless I moved suddenly. I made sure she got a fair grab of food and gradually began to protect her from the aggression from other birds. They flew off as soon as I moved, but she took no notice of me. Apart from, I am sure, a little nod of her head and eye contact as she showed her appreciation.
It wasn’t long before she began to appear on the wall every morning when I got up, announcing her arrival with a loud fluttering of wings followed by her loud peep and a perky cocked head. When I leave the garden door open she nonchalantly hops up the step and comes looking for me. If I tell her to get out, she poos on the floor. I am not impressed by this. She is, I think, expressing her contempt at being ignored. Like a bolchy teenager. Note – no, my children didn’t do that, in case you were wondering.
So, finally, I shall tell you why this story is relevant to my art practice.
Wind back about three years, when I acquired a 360 degree camera. I explored ways of working with it and one output was a series of walks made circular using special software. A selection came together as a film: 12 Circular Walks.
I could have used the 360 to make immersive environments, but soon realised that wasn’t for me. Whilst I enjoy that experience, I much prefer the real world and being in it.
As Blackbird now trusts me, it wasn’t difficult to bribe her to do a circular walk for me, by placing the camera in the centre of a ring of food. The challenge was keeping the others away and preventing territorial fighting, in case they knocked over the camera. At one point, as I watched, the feeding birds all froze and looked up to see a huge dove about to launch off the wall. Whilst it momentarily occurred to me it would make great footage, it occurred to me simultaneously that if that dove flew down it could break my camera with one beat of a wing. So I intervened to save the day. And my camera.
Blackbird and I are rehearsing regularly now. I joked about me training her to walk in circles, but the truth is, I suspect she is training me to feed her. And she has done it very well.
It is so easy to slip into the humans-are-all-seeing-all-knowing perspective, proposing that non-humans, by their definition, are lacking what we have. But maybe it is us that is lacking? Maybe humans should be described as non-animal? But that wouldn’t work, as being ‘animal-like’ is used as a derogatory term. We need to rethink this, I’m not convinced we are worthy of holding dominance over other creatures, or, indeed, material objects. Look at the mess we have made so far.
A plump fledgling sometimes joins Blackbird and is equally unphased by me. I wonder if this is a risk, that her young might become dangerously fearless of humans? As they need to be. We are a perpetual danger to ourselves and others.
I have looked up how to hand train wild birds. I don’t feel that is wise. Being wild is important. Whilst researching blackbirds I discovered that in America keeping wild american birds in captivity is illegal. But they can keep european birds, including blackbirds as caged pets.
I feel privileged to have this trust from her, but don’t want to damage her by making her dependent on me. But she is very hard to ignore now!
Getting a balance between the human relationship with the non-human is a tricky thing.
I’ve been thinking about the scale of things. We talk about scale in relation to the importance of things, some things don’t matter very much, whilst others matter SO much they are ‘off the scale’. We use a scale to measure how good something is, or how bad. We also talk about scale in terms of size, whether something is small or large.
Scale is of course relational. Something is only small in comparison to something larger. We see this ambiguity in art quite often. When we view small images on the screen, or in a book, of a painting, we have no idea of scale. When we see it in real life it can be shockingly huge, or disappointingly small. Does size matter? If it does, why? One might think it matters because bigger things are often more expensive, when it comes to art. But a diamond can be tiny yet phenomenally expensive. It must be fair to say that scale is not always indicative of value.
If this is the case with art, does that mean that a small stone in my pocket is as valuable, if not more valuable than the boulder which it came from, the cliff or mountain?
When my kids were little, I used to read them the book by Janet and John Aberg about a skeleton family. I loved reading it. I loved the fact that it began in a small, dark cupboard under the stairs, in a small house, in a small village, next to a small town, part of a big country and the universe.
Sometimes we humans live in a small cupboard. We lose sense of the beyond, the other side of the door. Sometimes we feel safer that way and other times we feel constrained by the small space we are in. The pandemic has been like that.
I originally titled this text ‘stone in pocket paper in hand’. I came to my studio to draw the stone on the paper. The stone was small – it fitted neatly in my pocket. The paper in my hand could be small, or big, because paper can be folded. Stone cannot be folded by my hand.
But as I prepared to do the drawing, I absent-mindedly picked up another stone from my worktable. I held one in each hand.
Which meant I had two stones – one in my left hand, the other in my right. The paper was discarded, unmarked, on the table. As I felt the stones, turned them in my hands freely, they shared their history with me.
Some of the feelings I had were purely physical. They are different – one is rounded and the other has quite sharp fractures and edges. One has several faces of similar proportion and will sit flat on most of those faces, while the other has lots of small details, many protrusions, and broken parts. It only settles happily on three, maybe four sides, yet the smooth one settled easily on almost any plane.
On top of the sensory experience of holding these stones is the knowledge I have of the stone’s past. They have a recent history, in the time that they had been with me, and another, long before then. Like items in a museum, they have provenance. The one in my left hand came to me from Sweden, posted by Eva, a singer with an amazing voice, who allowed me to use her song in a film that I made. The film was about the River Severn, a place that is very important to me. This stone travelled across the world to my house, in a small village, in a small county. Eva found it in a stream near where she lives. That stream connects to Sigrid’s well. Sigrid was a well-known Swedish queen, mentioned in the Norse Sagas. I sent her a stone from the Severn.
Eva’s stone is clearly from a river. It’s very rounded and smooth, having travelled on its course and been buffeted and bounced along the riverbed. It has tiny cracks and crevices that my nail catches on occasionally. There are stains of different stone colours, red and black. It has, what we humans might refer to as freckles. When I rolled it in my hand it comforted me, it nestled neatly into my palm. I rotated it gently, continuously, just as the river did before me. It has a constant sense of imminence yet possesses an ease of settling into any number of positions. Where it can be still. For a while.
Before it came through my letterbox it had been on many other journeys. Its history will likely go back millions of years, which is unimaginable to me. I know that Eva held it in her hand when she chose it, but who else may have held it? When it was larger, did some creature stand on it? Sleep on it? Nibble lichen from it, pluck moss from it? How many other stones has it rattled against on its journey to Sigrid’s well? Which continent was it originally a part of? Where are it’s connected parts that it broke away from? Is there a fossil at the heart of the stone?
Might it have been connected in some way to the stone in my other hand?
The one in my right hand is not as hard, it looks and feels dusty, though not as loose as chalk. It is mudstone, its fragility restrained by its compression. It does possess a level of hardness but is clearly less resilient to being battered than the Nordic stone is. Examine it closely and it looks like a mountain range, a micro-system of a huge swathe of landscape is held in its form. The edges are jagged and sharp. This is a broken, fractured stone, split by impact, as opposed to being rolled along a riverbed. It has come from deep strata, over 25 million years of accumulation, layered in the cliff below which I found it, on the ground. It’s very pale grey, like the river silt of the Severn. It, too, moves in my hand, but not so freely. I need to open and close my fingers around its form to change its position, due to the ragged edges.
When I put the grey stone down on the desk to type this document, a piece broke off. I attempted to carefully reconstruct it but it will now go forward as two pieces. It is more likely to be ground to dust than the hard stone. They have different histories and different fates.
It’s all about balance between the past and the present, the soft and the hard, and our resilience.
The scale of things doesn’t really matter. We all get ground down, eventually.
My latest film, Bev ‘D’ at Lydney Harbour, has been a slow burner, having done part of the filming before Christmas 2020 and the other in the new year of 2021. It catches a very particular moment in time, dictated by hight tides.
Like most of my films, it features the River Severn, but looks at one of the industrial activities that happen on her banks. I was drawn in by the elegance of this huge heavy dredging machine, the slow nature of her movement, accompanied by the clicks and clacks of her actions. Her name is Bev ‘D’ – I can’t help wondering who she was named after, and whether she is still alive. If Anyone can enlighten me on who Bev is, I’d love to speak to them.
The harbour hadn’t been dredged for over twenty years and the accumulation of silt had badly affected the lock gates, sometimes preventing them from opening at all.
Before work could begin, environmental surveys were conducted by the Environment Agency, to check for living creatures. Only the casts of a few lugworm were found.
Their working hours, and mine for filming, were dictated by tide times. Only a two-hour window is available twice a day, at dawn and dusk. During the winter of 2020/2021, the tides peaked late evening and early morning. The deep mud is agitated then released into the harbour area so that the tidal rush will wash it into the Severn when the tide turns.
The first sequence was shot at dusk and was unanticipated or planned. I had gone to the harbour to film the sunset over the old Severn bridge. While I patiently filmed this scenic view, I kept looking over my shoulder at what has happening behind me in the dock. The dredger boat was sinking lower and lower as the water level dropped, before it slowly began to move out, towards the mouth of the harbour.
Having filmed the tide coming in as well as the sunset, I rushed straight down to the boat to film there as soon as the sun disappeared on the horizon. It was one of those moments that you meant to do one thing, but found a distraction even more amazing to witness. I was caught, hook line and sinker.
I went back a few days later and chatted to the guys doing the work and asked questions about the process. Other people topped up my knowledge and the Environment Agency kindly kept me informed of the date the dredger would return in 2021.
Weather was constantly against me, my sound recordings of conversations were wind-blown, the heavy rain stopped the guys from working, even the weight of the water coming off the land jammed the gates shut. The second sequence was shot before ,and during, dawn in January. Despite being wrapped up in many layers of clothes and waterproofs, the sleet, rain and wind chilled or soaked more or less every part of my body.
I used my iPhone to film, as it was more agile than camera and tripod, and standing still for half an hour wasn’t an option in such vile weather.
I edited the base footage into a rough version. The next step was to speak to composer Andrew Heath about the soundtrack. Andrew makes beautiful ambient music, what many may describe as ‘slow music’. He had provided the soundtrack for the “As Above So Below” film I made, which was selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. We had several discussions on the phone, and I sent him my rough, windy-weather, source tracks as a starting point. What Andrew has done in response to the film is nothing short of magic. The heartbeat pulse that mirrors the boats slowness, the sweeps and waves of the music responding to every movement. Surprisingly soft and romantic, it doesn’t let us forget that there is an industrial clanking and power to the dredger. Bev ’D’ is a force to be reckoned with!
We both felt the dreamlike quality was perfect for a film shot at liminal times of day, where light shifted softly, without us noticing. The final footage reveals nuances that the eye didn’t see.
My biggest challenge was how to tell the story without damaging the flow of the film and music. I tried narration, then information texts at the end. But I think I made the right decision in the end – I removed it all and let the film and music tell the story, without weighing it down with textual clutter.
The more I edited the more aware I became of the next twenty years. The threat of climate change, or irresponsible building of a barrage, could have a devastating impact on the character of the River Severn. Hopefully people who view the film will think of those things, raise questions such as “what might it be like at Lydney Harbour in twenty-year’s time?”. This amazing environment is at risk of being damaged irreparably if it isn’t looked after and respected. The landscape could be flooded by rising tides caused by climate change, waterflow disrupted by a barrage.
I picked up my order for graphite putty from Jackson’s warehouse in Gloucester on Friday and waited until low tide, late afternoon, before trying it out. It was cold and windy at Garden Cliff at Westbury on Severn, where I did battle with sheets of A1 cartridge paper. The paper was pinned down, one sheet at a time, using heavy rocks and branches found on the ‘beach’. I say beach because it is a cliff comprising of Triassic rock formations, but isn’t a beach that one would paddle or swim from – the River Severn is far too dangerous for that.
The first rubbing drawings were very energetic. I bent down towards the paper on the ground, donned my surgical gloves and grabbed the ball of black putty. I sensed with my right hand, feeling the surface under the paper, then followed with the graphite in my left hand. I worked fast and furiously, partly because the wind was making me feel quite tense, but also because I was crouching in an uncomfortable position and it wasn’t great for my back. I felt my way into the forms with one hand, then pressed and stroked the pigment onto the paper with the other. When the graphite ball hit ridges it deposited copious amounts of shiny metallic pigment onto the ridges, and dropped small clumps of precious graphite loose onto the paper. It was a bit like learning Taiko drumming, making the hands perform opposing actions and behaviours, but somehow (sometimes), falling into a rhythm that works. The material itself feels like handling very buttery pastry.
The rhythm in these ancient rocks was provided by the patterns formed nearly 3 million years ago. Clusters of round balls of deep red clay, like bubbles, fractured by deep straight lines where geological strata slipped and slid around. Soft and crumbly, as opposed to being hard and flinty, the stone formations are variously a pale to mid grey and a ferrous red, like an ochre. They are prone to fall apart in one’s hand, not unlike the ball of graphite putty. As I rubbed it was like seeing the Alps or the Rockies emerging from the clouds when gazing out of a plane window. The marks also remind me of the patterns seen in the mud of the Severn, from the river bed, when the tide has gone out and the sun has temporarily solidified the silt in the heat.
Anyway, I made three rubbings then retreated to my warm un-windy house and spread them out in my studio. I loved them. They were all different and the best, in my mind, was the one that was most crumpled and battered by the elements on the surface and the sharp stones trapped below the paper, jutting up into the fibrous surface, but not tearing it. That is where the peaks shone the brightest.
I had taken time selecting the areas to rub, seeking out level areas and stony part, as well as straight line fractures. I took photos of the sites and more of the different stages of rubbing. This stage of using new mediums has to be like a lab, everything noted, recorded, and considered. The weather, the dampness of the air, the wind levels, the moisture on the ground and the selected paper used. I had gone for A1 because I love drawing large and also doubted this squidgy mark-making substance wouldn’t perform at its best in a small sketchbook. I was right.
Back in the studio I left them to relax overnight and returned in the morning to study them in daylight. Then I began to rely on my memory of examining these rocks in recent weeks – looking carefully at meeting places and junctions, where smooth flat areas met crumbly steps, or bubbly round forms were fractured by gashes in the stone, like crevasses. I drew into and onto the framework that the rubbing provided and soon I was immersed in pulling this drawing out of the paper, into something that spoke of that place.
This is where I got to, and I think I’m going to be doing more in the future. (I already have but that’s another blogpost). My life is now doubly reliant on tides – the high tides that bring the Severn Bore and enable the dredger in my film ‘Bed “D’’ to operate, and the bore surfers to surf. And the low tides that reveal the most wonderful patterns formed so long ago, only for them to return to their role as riverbed when the ocean washes in.
I’m writing this post as an arts professional who has an opinion, with experience of supporting and delivering arts events in empty buildings. Artist-led groups thrived in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when artists began to initiate their own gallery opportunities, due to the huge number graduating from an overstretched university system. The YBA (young British artists) or the Britpack, was one of the first. That was in the days when artists needed spaces, and councils had empty ones that needed filling. The rest is history.
Below, I make the case for revisiting creative occupation of empty shops and rethinking the High Street.
Listening to the news today and hearing economists saying (yet again) that we must ‘save our high street stores’, and more or less blaming the pandemic and online businesses for the closure of shops, is depressing. For a start, our high streets have been declining for years. Yes, online shopping has taken the trade by supplying products more cheaply and delivers them to your door. Why is that a problem, isn’t it something that makes people’s lives easier?
The only reason we must keep some retail shops is so we can buy local, good products, to reduce the need for importing so many things. That way we keep the carbon footprint down. Shops run by independents, keeping the economy local. The government could invest in farming and creative companies that work in an environmental way. Ones that support recycling, plastic free and fossil few industries. The recent government report, by Dasgupta, flags all this up. So the government can no longer pretend it’s not an issue – they commissioned the report.
We need to reconsider a new economy that isn’t just about financial profit.
The biggest problem with the success of home deliveries is not that high street stores are closing, but that all those extra fossil-fuel vehicles delivering are damaging the environment. That could be addressed using electric vehicles, which the government could make a legal requirement. Where jobs are lost in the retail industry they could, surely, be employed in the environmental recovery industry, which must be our priority
For centuries new innovations have changed the way society operates and products are distributed. The printing press saw off town cryers; washing machines replaced dolly stirrers; tumble dryers mangles; tractors horses. The list is endless. Big chainstore shops are no longer needed because they make more profit selling online. Arcadia has collapsed, Debenhams and many others are closing. So what could replace them?
Years ago I read a book written by Louis Gerstner who turned IBM around. In a nutshell, IBM was the world leader in mainframe computers but desktops were arriving which could be used in homes. The closed-shop management team and Board would not acknowledge that they too should take on desktops or would cease to be needed. Part of the problem was appalling internal communications, but the biggest failure was not seeing that however hard you dig your heels in for the sake of the good old days, when a better, more useful and universal product comes along, it will inevitably, eventually, replace the old system.
I appreciate not everyone has technology, or the internet, even now. That is another outcome of social inequality. But if we stop trying to keep fixing broken things, like shops, (especially chain stores that don’t even contribute to local economies) open, and focus on enabling people to shop safely and well online, wouldn’t that be wiser? Don’t forget that libraries were opened to give access to books for all, even those that couldn’t afford them. Or pay for education. We still want, and need libraries now, but maybe for different things? It is interesting too that funding of libraries is no longer a government responsibility, but an Arts Council England one. Clearly our government no longer values our literacy and perceives it as a creative pursuit, not a necessity. Is there a case to argue here that creativity IS a necessity to our wellbeing as well as something that meets the human inclination to be social animals?
There was a time when people worried that cinemas would close down, when TV, video and DVD brought film into our homes. But they didn’t, they came back bigger and better with multiplexes. And to counter-balance that, small film clubs opened up in villages and towns. The film industry is still thriving and also includes small producers and creatives. Cheap access to digital cameras and phone cameras has opened up even more creative opportunities. All of these developments have contributed to social activities. People love to share experiences together, which is one of the greatest sadnesses for many during lockdown.
Mass production of cheap clothes, imported and sold at low prices end up in landfill, which has resulted in a genuine desire to buy quality, natural, handmade artisan products. And to mend them not bin them. The fashion industry are now looking at their own responsibilities in this system too. Fast fashion contributes to pollution, fast food no longer satisfies people.
No longer supporting chain stores means cutting out the middle men/women. Which risks removing power from those who only care about profits and have little respect for social need or environmental duty of care.
Surely this is a good thing?
So now, to my point, how does this relate to the arts? After all that is my specialism, it is why you read my blog posts. Here is why:
When things progress and there is a sense of loss of things left behind, it is artists that often find ways to find new audiences or the lost social aspects – e.g. film – the big Hollywood films are still happening BUT artists and those who love 35mm are also thriving and keeping things accessible and social.
There became a concern that ebooks would destroy book shops – but many people went back to buying books, missing the tactile quality of paper books. And people like to share paper books. People still love going to book launches, the personal touch. Book Clubs thrive online and off. Artist books are very popular, as is bookbinding by hand.
There are many more examples, but essentially, what I am saying is that ART and ARTISTS enliven places and spaces. They are social and accessible. Anyone can join in.
Since the pandemic began there have been losses and gains for the arts. It is horrendous for those whose practice depends on having large audiences, such as theatres and festivals. But for some audiences, this resulted in a gain. Suddenly, the big city-based event providers started providing access to audiences who had previously been able to see their performances. Those who live beyond the cities in rural areas. Those who can’t afford expensive tickets to attend the London theatres.
Art and craft materials are selling like hotcakes.Online art classes well attended. Artists who walk are thriving too – indeed many nature activities have been accessed by people confined to local areas. It is nigh on impossible to buy a dog these days, unless you have thousands of £’s.
Everyone is appreciating the countryside more, David Attenorough is the new god, rural areas are packed with more visitors with shiny new camper vans with their puppies.
So chain stores come and go, high streets have gone temporarily quiet. Those who have just discovered online shopping may well not return. What to do with all those empty shops?
How about artisan shops? Artist studios? Small event spaces? Local makers who run workshops too? Shoe repairers who also teach you how to do it (but they will always do it better!)? Book exchanges, with comfy sofas and serving good coffee and homemade cakes? Community spaces? Convert the big chain stores into a hive of artisan makers, where they make and sell too? Wool and fabric shops? Blacksmiths? Potteries? Artist supplies? Florists?
The list could go on.
But in the meantime, until we are able to do this, let’s make sure that local authorities and central government stop pushing for reopening high street chains.
A few paragraphs of text from Thomas A Clark’s ‘In Praise of Walking’:
‘A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk. Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest. Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant. The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement. We can walk between two places, and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends. Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places. That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.’
I have a history of going on walks with numerous cameras and bits of equipment. I bought a 360 degree camera about 2 years ago and the first artwork I made with it was 12 Circular Walks. I used it again last summer when creating As Above So Below. The invitation to consider doubling back and digressions on the first day of 2021 was too tempting – especially if I was allowed do exercise my persistent self-interest relating to my love of the Severn.
I devised a system as I planned to use Map My Walk for the first time in years and I have a wrist tracker too. It was the 1st day of the 1st month of 2021. I decided I would wander (or should I say mud-wade along?) along until I hit 2021 steps. At that point I would stop and do some circular walking. On the way I began to wonder whether the action would be sufficient to draw a spiral on the Mapping App – so I walked in circles around some benches and a bin as I wandered, to test it out.
The first stop was at the end of a VERY muddy river-path. I stopped along the way, allowed myself to be distracted by the mud. Thought about The Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, made a bit of video, did a voice recording about Rosen and sploshed on through.
When I arrived at my point at 2021 steps, I set up my video camera to point at the river, and placed the 360 one the ground. I walked around it. I then rotated the video camera to point towards my 360 and filmed myself walking around it with that too. The action of creating works about the seen and the unseen is embedded in my brain. I like to record the bits I can’t see while I am busy working on the seen! By that I mean filming the river while I walked behind the camera on the tripod. Then filming myself using the 360. Then the mobile camera.
I continued on the higher path towards Broadoak and did a bit of circular 360 there too. Little videos, photos. Then turned my back to the Severn and crossed the A48 towards the Silver Fox Café. I couldn’t go back the way I came, it would not be a circular walk if I did. And I remembered this song.
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
My return trip involved sheep dodging and crossing a small stream. I stopped and played again with my 360 camera on the little bridge. Walking homewards, I mosied behind the building site where some 90 new homes are being built, some with river views. I felt sad that I couldn’t afford to buy one – I dream of seeing the river every day when I awake, without having to leap out of bed and hang out of the window, as I currently do.
I took a few photos of the landscape through the security fencing – snapped some islands of cultivated foliage left behind and mountains of red soil. A landscape within a landscape.
During lockdown I, like many others, have been doing more thinking than usual. I’ve read new books, experimented with different cooking, making art, trying out new apps and podcasts, basically allowing myself to explore things I was not looking at before. That includes ways to distract myself from feeling anxious.
Today, before I got out of bed, I dipped into a meditation app to find something new to start the day. I found ‘Connecting To The Soul Within’ by Saqib Rizvi. I gave it a go and the introduction resonated with me greatly, not in relation to my soul, but about ownership of ideas and places, due to my thoughts on going to sleep last night following reading a book. More about that later. What I took away from this, the thing that lodged in my mind, was the introduction. Rizvi described the stages of transgression that are needed to connect with one’s soul:
My mind momentarily wandered off on a tangent, thinking about the journey from the individual to the universal in landscape ownership terms. I did manage to bring it back in line and listen to the rest of the session. Am afraid I failed to locate my soul and must try harder next time. But I did feed my brain. I went downstairs with that fluttering around in my head.
Can land rightfully belong to anyone? I’m also reading ‘The Story of Trespass’ by Nick Hayes. The National Trust is stuck between two banks/walls/places, but surely their role is to tell the true story of history, not the white-washed, economy-engineered version? Land has always been contested and actions of enclosure, trespass, racism and trade have shaped and framed the landscape, creating territories, borders and countries. All in the name of power.
I spotted another dialogue on FB between creative practitioners, which revolved around finding soothing things to do/read/listen to, during lockdown. In that conversation, someone recommended a podcast I haven’t heard of before – ‘Aphids Listens’– which hosts discussions between Lara Thoms and artists. As someone who is interested in art in public spaces, I went straight to episode 7, with Amy Spiers. The podcast begins with a statement:
Aphids acknowledges the wurundjeri and boon wurrung peoples on whose lands we live and work. Sovereignty was never ceded and we pay our respect to past, present, and future aboriginal elders and community, and to their long and rich history of artmaking on this country.
Obviously, there’s a connection between the NT document, Nick Hayes’ book, and this podcast. The first specific artwork that was discussed was ‘Dancing In Peckham’ by Gillian Wearing – an old favourite of mine. I wrote about it many years ago, when I was awarded a Creative Writing Bursary from Arts Council England, around the time that the work was new, in the 1990’s. Wearing dances wildly in a shopping centre, no headphones, just dancing to a song in her head in a public place, with abandon. When they spoke of Wearing’s work, they referred to her “losing it, losing oneself, losing inhibition”. And how some may have thought this was a little worrying, a bit weird.
Wearing danced in public, that was a transgression, a private act seen by strangers.
And here we all are, during a pandemic, trying not to lose it, but making every effort to lose ourselves. Dancing in our kitchens, rolling around on the living room floor for zoom yoga, or doing life drawing from the sofa while watching TV.
As the saying goes – everything is connected.
So on to how this connects with my current studio practice and thinking about land ownership, or even possession, and/or losing it. Many people know I commission art for public places, so understanding differences between space and place is embedded in my thinking, as is land ownership.
When it comes to my own art practice, I have mostly made work relating to landscape, though sometimes that landscape was of the body, as in my MA video work. I have recently returned to lens-based practice, and the power of the gaze has arisen again, especially when working in 360 degrees.
What unites all my recent work is the River Severn. The title of my book “Severnside – An Artist’s View Of The Severn” sums it up really. It has been about my particular take on the Severn, the book is autobiographical in many ways. Not any-river, or any-person, but me, writing about it. But in recent works, that has started to shift.
I am reconsidering my relationship with the river as a place, its history and the other living things that inhabit it. That includes other artists working with it, of which there are, and always have been, many. In terms of possession, maybe I have become possessed by the Severn, rather than me thinking I possess it. Maybe I am losing my ‘self’?
The Severn belongs to no-one, no-where, no-time.
In my recent works, I have sought to relinquish my gaze, to consider others’ relationships with this river. That is why these new works are called ‘the seen and the unseen’ series. It first happened in April, when I made ‘When You Call I Shall Come’. This was made possible because the bore surfers stood down, no-one else was competing for ownership, or rights-of-use, of the river, only me, and it. And I knew, as soon as I began to edit it, that this moment was as special for the river as it was for me. I filmed as an observer, then, during editing, the river became the storyteller. It wasn’t about my relationship with it, but the opposite. The river is the narrator.
In the ‘seen and unseen’ series, I’m playing with ideas about locating myself, losing my inhibitions, finding my place in the world through vision and sound. In film no.3 I speak of what is in front of the camera (not me), whilst showing the viewer what is behind. I talk about myself as an actor in the scene, in the 3rd person. I am seeking to separate myself from owning the gaze by employing a form of audio-describing. I narrate the action as if it were a play. Most of my work these days is a meta-narrative, a story about itself.
Then there is the thinking about ownership of land, in terms of creative interpretations. Locating the self, whilst not claiming ownership of land. I want to relinquish my one-to-one relationship with the Severn, to reflect that the land itself has a form of agency, has cycles, behaviours. It’s not easy, it feels slightly like a divorce. I know it is good for both of us, but it is hard to let go.
I have collaborated with two other artists in recent years, on works about the banks of the river. Suze Adams and I took photos of each other across the river for our Walking The Land project. More recently, Carol Laidler and I worked together on a Liquidscapes project and presented it as a performance lecture at a Dartington conference. Both were about me – here, the others – over there. We called out to each other across the void, by doing so we connected both sides.
Maybe the next project needs to involve meeting others in the middle, or swapping sides, putting our feet in each other’s shoes? Dichotomies are destined to divide people further. Hayes suggests that words create walls, I think he is right.
Covid19 transgresses all of those things. It is affecting everyone, everywhere in every time zone.
There is a lot of evidence that blue therapy is a powerful thing during tumultuous times. I’m no sailor, but thinking about the USA at the moment, the waves look choppy indeed. In parallel, here on this small island, the comparative still of lockdown has washed over us. It is a time for much reflection but hard to move to the next step, future planning.
As always, I am immersing myself in making art. It is my way of finding a level. Most of the footage I’m using has been gathered in recent weeks. We have been in the pandemic so long now I remember very little about the optimism of pre-pandemic. The projects planned were almost tangible, only to be knocked out of the picture completely. Those that don’t involve audiences (for now) can keep moving forward.
When I was doing large drawings of the river I left large areas of white in them. Those voids were to leave space for the viewer to dream in. Strange that now, only a few months later, a different void has been presented to everyone – a time:space gap. It leaves many of us lost and at sea. I hope my films offer gentle spaces that provide a constant sense of support to you, as much as they do to me.
As most readers know by now, my work often involves addressing you – the viewer or reader. I have a history of making films that do that, often very layered and complex in the background thinking, they present themselves gently as an enquiry, a reflection, a self-examination. They are, one might say, a little existential. This is not an accident.
When I film and immerse myself in what I view through the lens, I have to connect in that moment, at that place. I can’t believe this is a one-way process. All filming is preceded by planning, writing, and careful consideration of what the final film *might* relate to. It is also prey to my mood, the river’s behaviour and what else is going on in the world.
The river is unpredictable, but possesses specific traits that I have learned to notice. I am also self-aware enough to know that there are certain aspects I habitually zone in on, as my gaze flits from surface to shoreline, highly active waves to subtle revelations of line, or floating objects.
The action of filming is directed by prior thinking.
The next phase occurs in my studio, on my computer. I need to reconnect with what I was searching for when I filmed, understand what the river saying to me, and consider my role as the editor. It is at this point I begin to connect past with present and future. Filmed in the past, edited in the now, presented in the future.
And the now of 2020 is an unusual now. Unprecedented, as we keep being told. The first films I made during the pandemic were about being alone with the river. And the actions related to that experience – of writing, drawing, photographing, filming and editing. Essentially, it was about me, in this place, in this time. As Above So Below not only depicted me sitting under a tree drawing, it also had a voice overlaid which responded to the editing process – switch, description etc.
The work I have just uploaded to Vimeo continues that theme, the nowness of the editing process. And you, the future viewer/reader are also present, because I am explaining my thinking to you. I’m not physically visible, but a bit of me lingers in there. Because it refers to my sitting in a chair, watching a screen, whilst also being distracted by the sounds outdoors. As if sitting at the screen is anathema to me. I just want to go out. And I do. I could take the perspective of the meditation instructions – allow the distraction to float in and disappear again. But I chose to embrace them, and bring them into the work. Because they are evidence of how one’s mind travels from one thing to another.
Like the conflicting tides which push in and out, my mind has tides too. Like the Severn, I’m doing my best to make these opposing streams be reciprocal, to draw from each other and feed each other too.
It’s a bit like creating a digital Open Studio event!
Recently I have spotted swings being hung from trees around the local area, the Forest of Dean. They have signs near them encouraging users to enjoy themselves, it appears to be a guerrilla-style action with no name. I love it.
Prior to their arrival, I too had developed a relationship with a swing next to the Severn, a few miles walk from home. As an artist and film-maker, I did more than swing on it. It became a place for a daily retreat from Covid19 – a bolthole. I wrote about it as being my new ‘crying place’, having witnessed the removal of my old one. That was a huge tree stump at the top of a hill which looked down over the bend in the Severn near Newnham. But that is no more.
The riverbank swing doesn’t provide big sky views and open vistas, it is very close to the water and offers a wonderful view of Garden Cliff and to see the sunset there at the end of a Covid-day is an indescribable delight to witness.
Over several weeks I visited and made films of the swing swinging, and from the swing swinging. With me, without me. I leant against the trunk of the oak tree it hung from and drew in its shade, often distracted by the dancing shadows of the branches above, and the bugs that came to check on the progress of the marks on my paper. I filmed the silhouettes of the leaves, then filmed myself drawing.
One day I went on a major mission to capture this unusual experience. Gathering all my ideas together, alongside a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera; a video recorder; an iPad with an animation app; a phone camera and three tripods; sketch pad and charcoals with a putty rubber and a heap of determination, I made a film.
Several days of editing, collaging and shaping ensued until I had a finished film. “As Above So Below” was the result.
It was the second significant film I’d made since the pandemic began – the other one “When You Call, I Will Come” documented the spring-tide Severn bore without any surfers.
I submitted them, somewhat nervously, to share them more widely. With galleries and venues closed I had to find a way to get them seen because they are so pandemic-influenced they are a record of this strange time.
I am still thrilled by the way people responded to them. Before “When You Call” was accepted for the EarthPhoto2020 exhibition, from over 3,000 applicants, it was viewed by 500+ YouTube viewers. EarthPhoto2020 is run by Royal Geographic Society and Forestry Commission and will tour to various venues.
This boosted my confidence, so I submitted “As Above, So Below” to Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize – a fantastic annual event that had over 4,000 applicants – and it was selected.
“When You Call” can be viewed online on the EarthPhoto2020 website and the exhibition for the drawing prize opens at Drawing Projects UK in Trowbridge, Wiltshire: 2 to 31 October 2020, then tours to Cooper Gallery at the University of Dundee, Trinity Buoy Wharf in London and The Gallery at Arts University Bournemouth.
This weekend the wonderful b-side a festival is on all weekend. Loads of brilliant work to see in one of my favourite landscapes. Sadly I can’t go – but if you do – can you send me some pics of my film being screened please?
It is 12 Circular Walks, part of the Harvest selection showing in the cinema opposite b-side office on Portland.
I’ve been reworking the graphite shadow-drawings of stones, by polishing with cloth, erasing and redefining. I placed the first darker image above the 2nd, the solid rocks of the cliff perpendicular to the ground, where fragments fall. I used the first image to inform the process of drawing into the 2nd – giving it more presence – in an attempt to reconstruct the crumbled elements. Stippled pigment activated with a wet brush, to simulate the marks made on the first drawing.
A strange combination, but they have been on my mind. And not so strange if I explain that last week, the First Friday Walk with Walking the Land, was to a butterfly conservation area.
I set off with the intention of looking at the boundaries, how we separate one place from another. How we protect the area that is bounded, defend it, or, indeed as all wars prove, attack it. Any conservation area begins and ends somewhere, as does every garden, field, village, town, county or country. Planet. Let us not forget this planet.
Or who ‘owns’ it.
Not us, or landowners, or governments.
No-one owns it.
We are part of it, it is part of us.
The very nature of the place, (forgive the pun), meant I was also distracted by the beautiful butterflies and wildflowers. I have a butterfly mind – just like the insects. I flutter about – looking for ideas, landing then taking off again on another flight path.
It is so hard to write anything without considering the etymology of the words. But essentially they are spring-boards into new thinking, new worlds. I must not muddle up my metaphors (that is a deliberate statement – an action that demonstrates I have already done what I must not do.)
Stay with me, play with me, if you can.
This writing is a reflection of thinking practice. It needs some context. Walking the Land is a group of artists that connects art, landscape and community, with the landscape and walking providing the catalyst for their creative activities. I’ve been attending their monthly meetups online, this was my first in the flesh. Before meeting we congregated on zoom to discuss issues relating to landscape. I shared a quote from Tania Kovats ‘the river moves through us’. I took that thought with me to the butterfly enclosure.
I also took drawing materials, which were hardly used – there was so much buzzing around in my head. I used my camera to net some of those thoughts. I have spent the last year walking, mostly on the flatlands around the Severn. The open fields and rolling Cotswolds were strange to me. Allowing my eye to trace the soft rounded hillsides sweeping into the valley, with a backdrop of woodlands, I was reminded of a series of photos I took when I first came to live in the Forest of Dean. I called them my squiffy landscapes, as they adjusted the framing to help me feel stable in this strange place. So I did the same again, I tried to level up what I saw.
For the butterflies to take up residence the land is managed carefully. The meadows are beautiful, thick with diverse plant life. They are only grazed by small cattle – banded galloways – because they are agile enough to manage the steep slopes, and don’t poo as much as full size cows. Apparently too much poo encourages the limestone grassland to become suitably fertile for weeds to grow in. That would impact on the necessary species required to appeal to the butterflies. This is a complex ecology, a fine balance of maintenance.
On one side of the valley, the rolling meadow was animated by bees and butterflies. One the other side a steep bank of trees was seen, scarred by a massive band of ash trees, devastated by die-back. One hill is joyful, the other deeply sad to see. The view from ‘over there’ must be wonderful.
Other sides. Another thing that has occupied my thinking in recent years.
I crossed a boundary, the Severn, to get to the meadow. I entered the conservation area through a gate. Either side of the gate was a drystone wall, recently built. Once inside, that length of boundary has two wire fences. In the liminal space between them, I saw remnants of the old stone wall. We followed the path along this line, then down towards the edge of the hill to take in the view.
As I wandered around taking photos I acknowledged my physical boundaries were being penetrated. The heavy scent of the ripe elderflowers rushed into my body and I inhaled deeply. However, I ejected a horsefly, caught in action on my wrist, flicking it off, glad to have not been gashed by it. But these devious creatures always win, as I found out later. Two big hot red bumps on my shoulder, where they slashed my skin (through my clothes!) and drew my blood. Odd to think our blood has mingled. I can’t help wondering whether the two jabs will make me immune to further horsefly bites. The insect repellent I had doused myself certainly didn’t defend me.
This was evidence – the place had definitely gone through me, in a way.
As I wandered back to the car, having left early due to the copious number of biting things, I used my voice recorder to talk to myself. I love telling the story by voice, it helps me process what I have. I videoed and talked too, only pausing briefly when a man with a dog appeared. I try to keep my rambling thoughts private, if possible.
On reflection, it was a very enjoyable experience. Lovely to see friends again, in the world. To discuss these thoughts with, to share reading resources, knowledge. We were very lucky to have Deb, a butterfly specialist, in the group, which is how I learnt about the grazing and maintenance of the landscape. I asked her if the owners of the adjoining farmland were asked to not use insecticides, but she said not.
I drove home thinking about Nick Hayes’ book about trespassing. About land ownership, land management. I thought about the precarious relationships between humans and non-humans. As I mentioned in my blackbird post – we humans have a colonial attitude to non-humans. But we are not better than them – we are, indeed, worse – because we have done more damage to the planet.
If the conservation area was publicly visible it would be destroyed in no time by humans marching around on it. I felt reluctant to stray from the narrow path, loathe to sit in the grass, in case I crushed a flower. Everything is fragile, especially us. We need to be more humble and accept responsibility. Not just for a field of butterflies, but for all fields, all forests and things that grow in cracks of concrete.
There is always a gap of a few days before I assimilate things.
Once home, I waded through memories, thoughts, photos and videos. They are the residue of my visit. I trapped my butterfly mind in a film that reflects on whether there are straight lines in nature. I have just started to read Tim Ingold’s book about lines – not finding it easy to get into. However, as the film shows, it has reactivated my interest in following lines with dual lenses, my eyes and my camera. Editing digital video is a linear thing, clearly not a thing of nature. As I worked up the imagery I found myself not so much investigating whether there are lines in nature, but more as to whether there is such a thing as nature? Or is it a construct? Every inch of our landscape is managed, whether by enclosure, farming, industry or conservation.
The nature we experience daily is a long way from being natural. The creatures and plants we experience have all been impacted by our presence on earth, sometimes positively, sometimes (most times) negatively.
Look carefully at the film, some of it has been deliberately manipulated to create an illusion of straightness.
Whether man made or natural, our landscape, and the things that live in it, are wonderful. The only way to keep it that way is if every human respects it and shares it. We put everything out of balance, we now need to rectify things, make good again.
p.s. I disagree that there are no straight lines in nature – you just need to look at cliffs and strata to see that.