Tidying up my studio, listening to one of William Kentridge’s lecture as part of the Norton series, on YouTube. As I tidy up my studio, I listen and watch, though listening is priority as I need to look at what I am keeping, and what I am throwing away.
His lecture, In Praise of Shadows, is framed by the thinking behind Plato’s cave – raising thinking around what is real, what is not. How important drawing is. His voice and thinking is so fascinating, this is not the first time I have heard this. I find a pile of old notebooks and flip through them, one opens on the page of the notes I made about the lecture last year. I will probably read more old notes this evening.
I find images of my very early films, in the 1990’s, made during my MA in Fine Art.
As I take photos of these old works, I hear Kentridge make a reference to the Bunuel film “Un Chien Andalou”. I remember it was that film that influenced the work “A Case of Vanity”. I was fascinated by the gaze at the time, and the corporeal and digital body. It showed the reveal of an image of an eye, that I had printed on a sheet of animal gelatine. It had shock value like Bunuel, but humour too. All of those works contained a sense of humour, which I have largely lost in my art over the years.
I was intrigued by the then news about Dolly the Sheep and made work about that. I used Liquid Light to transfer patterns of various skins onto a sheep’s skull, it still sits on my shelf. While I am typing this, Kentridge is referring to skulls in his talk. It is a very odd synchronicity.
He is talking about how important the studio is to an artist. I have stopped tidying mine up, to write this, as I listen to him.
He has influenced my work hugely. He inspired me to teach myself how to do drawn animation. I love the fact that he merges text with image, music, film, sound. And his scale is huge!
I am not sure where I will go at the end of this day, but it is intriguing to keep finding links between old work and new. I have prints made during my post-graduate printmaking course, and drawings made in school. I am hoping to move house soon, so I can have more studio space. I just can’t wait.
Firstly, blackbirds. Last year I wrote a blogpost about my relationship with a female blackbird that grew over summer 2021. By the end of the year I rarely saw her, but a young male with a slash of white on the edge of his left wing began to visit the garden looking for food.
Last week, he returned! I had stopped feeding the birds for sometime due to a rat popping in (thankfully my neighbour dispatched with that). But when I called tut tut to the male blackbird, and he came down to look for food, I couldn’t resist. Out came the mealworms.
The last couple of days he has been here regularly and is now accompanied by a very large, dominant hen. She screams at him to feed her, with her beak wide open. I confess that, last year, I privileged the females over the males, because the females packed their beaks with mealworms to feed their young. The males just fed themselves. I suspect I was wrong, as it seems both males and females feed the fledglings. Maybe today she needed feeding by him because she has to build up her strength for incubating the eggs?
Anyway, I am pleased they are back.
Update Sunday 24th April: this morning the birds called with their tut tut tut as soon as I opened the back door. I responded, we did this for some time. They occasionally altered length or tone of calls and I mimicked them. Like audio pingpong. As soon as I came in and shut the door, they swooped down and peered around curiously, looking for me, then ate the mealworms.
And Blackboards? The two words have been in my mind a lot and it makes sense to put them together. I have been depicting future flooding areas of the Severn by creating reduction lino-prints. The action of erasing the land where the water covers it was rich for me. So I decided to use a similar technique using chalk and blackboard. I need to experiment, play a while, before committing to a large intense drawing. So I bought a blackboard instead of paper and set to.
I have started tentatively, I want to do my best to get the most out of the materials. Then rub it off and start again. It takes me back to a course I went on last year, Drawing Breath, with Tania Kovats and Chloe Briggs. We drew, then erased, and redrew the same thing again, and again, repeatedly. Looking, really looking, is addictive and meditative too.
I am loathe to show you the drawing until it is finished. But here is how I started it. It began to get dark so I had to stop, it is impossible to see the nuances in artificial light.
Blackbirds, blackboards, both keep my attention, settle me, engage me. They make me smile.
Very rarely have I been involved in two exhibitions on both sides of the Severn on the same dates! Both end on Sunday 27th March – the Old Passage exhibition in Arlingham and, across the river further along the estuary, the Severn Sisters show at 7Q in Chepstow.
So whichever side of the Severn you live, you have an opportunity to see my work. So much better than Instagram!
Both are group shows and offer a diverse range of works for sale, at various prices. From unframed prints to large canvases and everything inbetween.
The Old Passage has the works hung on the walls of their lovely restaurant, which serves up fabulous cakes and wonderful River Severn views. Whilst over in Chepstow, 7Q is only a few steps away from the bank of the Wye, and not far from where both rivers merge into the Severn Estuary.
I am stewarding on Sunday 20th March, at 7Q, 1.30-4pm, and the weather is going to be fab! The perfect day to visit Chepstow, such a historic town on the border of Wales and England. Steeped in history, there is a railway station there too, so popping over from Bristol, Cardiff and Gloucester is fairly simple. Parking is easy.
If you are on the other side of the Severn, a trip to The Old Passage is a different day out. You need to drive there, plenty of parking. Walk along the river banks, eat cakes, or maybe enjoy lunch and sit in the sun reading a copy of my book (also on sale at both venues). What a perfect way to enjoy the day. I live on the opposite bank so do wave!
I shall be over at The Old Passage on the 27th to collect works, so let me know if you will be around.
I hope this finds you well and life is returning to a semblance of ‘normal’ since my last newsletter over a year ago. Lots has gone on over that time both outside and in my studio. Here’s a general update split into Flow, studio practice & exhibitions coming up VERY soon.
My studio practice:
I have also been making new works using video, drawing, print and writing. I plan to write a new book too. My studio practice is exploring future flooding of the Severn near the Arlingham Peninsula. If you visit there do pop into the Old Passage Cafe for coffee, cake and see some art – including prints by me. (Embarrassing note – apparently my newsletter said poop not pop!)
I plan to run some drawing workshops in the future – just waiting to complete a house move first!
Join Cine Sisters SW for an evening of artists moving image by womxn artists from across the SW. Hear all about our plans for 2022 and how you can get involved.
My film: Earth Crumbles – a film about the fragility of this earth. Soundtrack by Eva Rune.
10-27 March 2022 The 7Q gallery, situated along The Back, Chepstow, is open from 11-4pm, Thursday to Sunday.
A group of local artists have come together in an exciting collaborative exhibition to be held at the ‘7Q’ Gallery in Chepstow. The ‘Severn Sisters’ are a new collective of artists all inspired or living by the River Severn and surrounding landscape.
“We are a mixed group of contemporary art practitioners working in drawing, print, pottery, jewellery, furniture restoration and textiles. Living alongside the mighty Severn we are all influenced by its beauty.”
As the Stroud Film Festival comes around this year, what a treat to be able to see and share stories on the big screen once more . Stories from all over the world, eclectic and original, mainstream and off the beaten track, and in venues that are as diverse as the programme itself: Stroud Brewery, a Mill (the Long Table’s new home), the Trinity Rooms and Minchinhampton Market Hall become temporary cinemas.
THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID – launch event Friday, March 11, 2022 7:30 PM 10:00 PM SVA John Street
An evening of short films completed in the last two years by female directors working across the South West. Curated with the intention of celebrating female talent, this collection of shorts offers fresh perspectives and unique, creative visions articulated amid these unparalleled times. From cosmic voyages to genre bending documentary interrogating our reality, our hidden worlds and identity. Prepare to have your senses stimulated.
My film: Together Apart – a film made from a Walking the Land First Friday Walk. Parallel landscapes from May Hill, Gloucestershire and Sweden. Soundtrack by Eva Rune.
Also online of Stroud Film Festival website, When You Call, I Shall Come – Severn Bore during lockdown. Shown as part of Earthphoto2020 & Wells Contemporary 2021
I have been delivering as Flow Contemporary Arts on:
Weymouth Sculpture Trail I was involved with is now in place, you can view images here. (Funded by Weymouth Council). I was a consultant for b-side at the beginning and it is great to see this finally completed. I’ve also been supporting Denman & Gould with their commission to create new work responding to Lydney Harbour Development (coastal Communities Funding). And commissioned films from Steve Geliot for FEP Biosphere Reserve Project (ACE Funded).
PLEASE NOTE: I am still delivering projects as Flow but have merged the two websites together (Flow and Carolynblackart.com). This is to make my life easier! I am available for consultancy work, curating, project managing and mentoring. Just get in touch. Flowcontemparts@gmail.com will no longer work soon, so please use firstname.lastname@example.org
The warming climate is strongly linked to changes in ecology and ecosystems. Different flora and fauna may have different ways to adapt to climate change, and those that are unable to adapt may become extinct or migrate to different areas. Increased freshwater runoff in recent years from melting ice and increasing rainfall alters the salinity of the ocean, making it less salty. In the Severn Estuary, the seagrass species Zostera noltii prefers a low salinity environment for germination. As such, Welsh seagrass beds have seen increased productivity in recent years. (Severn Estuary Partnership website )
Until today, I have been looking into how the area near my home will flood within the next 20 or 30 years. The landscape will change completely and hills will become islands. I have been looking into this from the human perspective, how it will affect daily lives of people living here. Reflecting on the body of the water, not the banks.
Today I have turned my attention to the marginal plants that will be affected by what is termed ‘coastal squeeze’. The Environment Agency conducted a two year research project that explored the impacts and provided this definition of what coastal squeeze is:
Coastal squeeze is now defined as ‘the loss of natural habitats or deterioration of their quality arising from anthropogenic structures or actions, preventing the landward transgression of those habitats that would otherwise naturally occur in response to sea level rise in conjunction with other coastal processes. Coastal squeeze affects habitat on the seaward side of existing structures.
According to SEP:
The sea level is rising at a current rate of 3.2 mm per year4, up from 1.7mm per year for 1901-20105. This means that as time goes on, more of the coastline will become inundated with water. This can cause increased coastal erosion rates, as well as flooding areas which were previously land. This increase in sea level is due to a number of factors, including melting of terrestrial (land-based) ice caps and thermal expansion of the ocean. Thermal expansion is estimated to contribute up to 40% of the increase in sea level. Upon excess heating, the ocean gains energy and expands (see Figure 2).
The image shows what causes the sea level to swell in response to rising temperatures.
When I first began to explore the Severn, I recall asking a botanist how I can find out where the river is freshwater and where it is saline. The Severn Bore forms here, seawater mingles with freshwater and carries on upriver, before returning to the estuary. He told me that the only way to do that is to look at the plants on the riverbanks. Some plants grow fine in saline water, others don’t. As I read about coastal squeeze I began to wonder about which plants will be affected. This is a whole new learning curve for me, I am just beginning to explore it.
The first thing I did was go down to the riverbank and look for plants that survive just on, or above, the tideline. At this time of the year, there aren’t many.
I gently dug out a few with a kitchen fork, handling their roots carefully and washed the river silt off them when I got home. Then made some monoprints with them.
I haven’t identified them yet – one is chickweed and another looks like it belongs to the dandelion family. The prints are beautiful, but they come with a barb. They may be the equivalent of death masks, of final traces of a species under threat. I am pretty sure these ones are very common. And of course I can’t seek out the rarer species and dig them up. So these can only be metaphorical. They can tell the story, but only so far.
They have made me think too about other non-human victims of sea levels rising, and temperatures getting higher too. The Bewick swans that frequent Slimbridge Wildfowl Centre downriver may not come any more, needing to seek colder waters in northern climes.
I have a lot to learn. I find through making images I can begin to understand the complexity. There is a long way to go. But just flagging up the risks is not enough, there need to be solutions. We can’t wear blinkers and hope it goes away.
I learned that in Australia they use the term ‘banker’ when a river overflows its sides/banks.
That made me think of other similar terms, such as banking on something happening; banking as in trade. Both have a level of negotiation and gambling. You bank a motorbike/plane to tilt on corners and retain balance. Tilt too far and you will roll over. We bank on something happening – when we do we usually take a risk, because the trust is not based on facts but on habit. We bet on it.
A bank can be a building, where we deposit money, and take it out in a tidal way. Cashflow.
Are we banking on climate change? Or gambling with climate change? Think of fossil fuels – we have constantly taken out from the earth, but are we putting enough back fast enough? Fishing and bad agricultural practises that operate only for profit, but not for the environment.
What if the tide changes?
If sea levels rise, tides will be affected.
We can’t bank on finding a solution, but we should at least tilt and try and see things differently. It is the least we can do.
The above image is based on projections for future flooding provided by this organisation. They describe themselves as “An independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public.”
The Environment Agency also provides flood forecasting, where you check the long term flood risk for any area in England. Check your area on both – have a look at the difference, to try and get some sense of what might happen near you.
I based the level of flooding around the Arlingham Peninsula, but it may not be accurate. Finding the science is challenging as at present we are in constant flux weather-wise allover the world. I am looking locally, trying to understand one small area, to raise awareness and encourage others to do the same. Because if we can envisage what it MIGHT be like, near our homes, we will maybe start putting in place preventative measures.
On Friday 4th February I went on a Walking the Land First Friday walk in the local woodlands. It reminded me of this piece of writing which took a bit of digging to find. I didn’t know the word Komorebi until last week. As I edited my film I thought about Escher’s tessellated shapes, which took me back to this text. I may write a new piece about the woodland experience, but meanwhile do have a look at the new film.
I’m on the banks of the Severn, just before sunrise. I know it’s coming very soon, as above the Cotswold skyline there is a small row of eight or nine clouds just above the horizon. They look like fragments of torn paper, maybe from a to-do list, all of similar width and height, separated by tiny bits of sky. They are up-lit by the sun below and as it rises it frames them with a subtle, red, glowing edge. Each piece becomes more vividly defined before the power of the sun overcomes my retina’s and the tiny clouds fade away in the glare.
I’m standing precisely opposite this imminent sunrise and the wildlife around the river is responding to its arrival too. Crows and gulls spiral above my head, calling, whilst on the watery stage characters enter from both left and right. On my left, a sole duck floats silently towards the centre of the stage, anticipating the arrival of it’s spotlight. It is a little early really, but that’s fine, it will learn.
On my right three ducks slip out from behind the cliff, chattering together.
Above my head, the world of business is approaching another Monday morning. Transatlantic planes fly toward the sun, European ones too, but lower in the sky. None of them are much more than tiny white arrows high above, leaving chalky tails in the pale blue sky. I wonder, when we have gone through Brexit, will this lessen? Will the sky become hauntingly quiet, as it did in 2010 when the volcanic Icelandic dust forced the closure of the UK airspace?
I think about M.C. Escher’s patterns of black and white birds. Today the sky is like that, the white ‘birds’ are planes, the black one’s are crows and gulls. The scale changes, as it does in his drawings, those flying lowest are closer, more vivid, those in the distance more abstract and vague. I recall Norman Ackroyd and Robert McFarlane discussing the white birds in Ackroyd’s paintings, on Radio 4 last week. How the little egret is now the whitest bird we see on our rivers. There are none here today, sadly. They will have flown off with the herons earlier, before the tide rolled in.
As I absorb all these activities, a circle of ripples appears in the water. A number of other concentric rings roll up out of the water, then disappear. They are moving closer to centre stage, they know that, very soon, the sun will rise in full glory. The lone duck is now joined by two other pairs, all moving determinedly towards the golden rippled area that is appearing on the surface of the water. The fish underwater do the same.
The shimmering lines of light come closer to me, creeping over the lapping tidal waves as the sea flows upriver, as it always does, on the Severn.
We reach the crescendo, the great ball of fire rises up and the ducks are silhouetted by its brightness, bobbing about on the highlights of the folds in the water. I stare in wonder at this red mass and take a deep breath – the day has begun. I turn away to walk home and see vibrant acid green sunspots peppering the ground. I watch them as I move back up to the path. As I walk up the street I notice they are now red blurs.
Eyes are amazing, complimentary colours vying for attention, just as the skyborn objects were, the fish in the water, the ducks on the waves.
I have just put 4 reduction linocut prints up for sale on Instagram, from an edition of 6 under #artistsupportpledge. I had a work selected for the Hastings Contemporary #asp show.
My research into the future flooding of the Severn, close to where I live, has resulted in me using a wide range of materials to try and capture, visually, how the change will take place. I don’t have scientific facts, but there are several data outputs and guesstimates.
When it comes to depicting slow, subtle but significant landscape change, moving images are useful. I have made several film shorts exploring different viewpoints and perspectives depending on camera sightline and distance. Last night there was a programme on TV using time lapse film to capture melting glaciers which was fascinating.
These reduction linocuts were preceded with diagrams, sketches, contours and even some rough model making. I looked at mud patterns and archipelagos. I found the cutting process gave a lovely flow, my cuts move through just as the river water would. It is a map, but not a map. The flow follows contours that also describe rising land.
Doing a reduction cut requires planning, concentration and calmness, yet it is also quite nerve wracking because it could be ruined at any of the steps. I assure you this was not my first attempt.
Visit my instagram profile @severnsideartist to buy. And if you do, a big THANK YOU – it will pay for a course for me.
Here’s how Blackbird and I developed our relationship and how she passed on that knowledge to her fledglings. I can only imagine, through human eyes, how the conversations went. I sometimes listen to the chattering of birds, the clicking, the tweeting and whistling noises they make, and I mimic them.
Unlike starlings, blackbirds are very tuneful. They have an elegant presence in the garden, and even in open spaces they don’t seem to be too nervous around humans. They are similar to robins in this respect. Both birds soon learn that gardeners digging the earth means worms for tea.
Things to ponder, thoughts to incubate and consider, while I tell the story of getting to know Blackbird.
This summer I believe the birds and I have learned from each other. How rude we humans are about our feathered friends sometimes, in our flippant use of language. We use the term ‘bird brain’ as a derogatory remark, yet on observation they are hugely intelligent and learn very quickly. To have ‘gone cuckoo’ refers to someone who has lost their mind, a cuckoo human is a drug dealer nesting in other people’s homes. Someone who is ‘flighty’ is inconsistent and unreliable. Yet the owl is imbued with being ‘wise.’
Blackbird built her nest in a large, deep bush safely hidden from cats, in a huge garden, at the top of a hill that leads down to a big river. No dogs or cats spend time in the garden and in all the time she has been nesting, there she will rarely have seen a human. Neither in the garden nor the house. The house is up for sale.
Very occasionally, she will have seen humans wander around inside and step into the garden. Then they go and all is quiet again. It provides a very safe space for her, but there has been very little gardening done, so not a lot of grubs or worms to feed on. Last year the owner used to put out bird food, but she is rarely there these days.
On her search for nourishment for her brood in the spring, she began to visit the gardens of the houses across the road where I live. The long Victorian terrace of tiny houses was constructed tightly in a line, swooping down to the Severn. Newnham was once a bustling port.
She flew up from her garden, over the high wall and perched on rooftops, watching what was happening below. She rarely saw anyone in the garden of no.1, though she knew people live there as she occasionally heard a young woman singing. The people in No.2 very rarely go into their garden. But the woman in no.3 (me) has been busy outside this year. For a while, there was someone here removing the wooden floor and gravelly surface, then turning the soil. Blackbird kept her eye on that and popped in for the odd worm when he had gone.
Eventually the work was finished and I started to plant things in the ground. Blackbird learned the sound of the back door opening and quickly flew down and crept up behind me, close to my feet. She tried to keep out of sight, hopping about like a shadow, because she needed to take every opportunity to grab worms for her fast growing fledglings in her nest. Sometimes I alarmed her.
“Ooo! You made me jump, hello little bird!”
She has never been scared by me, maybe because I sometimes passed a worm her way. I learned to recognise her as she has a thin line of white feathers around her neck. I’ve seen other birds bully her for this difference, so she is cautious about keeping a low profile. But she’s definitely not hiding from me.
Blackbird visited regularly as I replanted the garden. I brought in some well rotted horse manure, a perfect worm factory as all birds know. She enjoyed digging them out, alongside small plants, scratching out the soil with her feet, and kicking it, and the seedlings, out onto the slabs.
Her sleuthing skills developed well too. Every morning she listened at my window, and when she heard me visit the bathroom she dropped down onto the wall outside the window and called – ‘tut tut tut’. I replied from the window, looking down at her, “tut tut tut, good morning little bird, I won’t be long”.
Then one day I went into the shed near her back door, to fetch something. She hopped across the corrugated roof, making a loud pitter patter sound, and peered down at the entrance, waiting for me to emerge. I looked up at her and said ‘tut tut tut’. She cocked her head in wonder and responded ‘tut tut tut’. After we had repeated this exchange several times I scattered a handful of mealworms on the ground and went back into the house, closing the door behind me.
My first job of the day was always to go down and throw some mealworms out for her. She crunched and munched making a loud tip-tap noise with her beak on the concrete ground. She could hear my routine too – the loud clicking noise of the kettle, the clank of me washing up, water running, music and singing.
Once Blackbird was full herself, she gathered rows of mealworms, holding them across her beak and clamping them firmly in place. She then hopped up the twelve concrete steps one by one until she got to the top, where there was a clear flight path to her nest.
Up into the air, over the other gardens, high over a rooftop, then back down into the garden across the road. She did this round trip about four or five times a day, until either the mealworms ran out, or she was too exhausted to return. Her well fed fledglings got bigger and bigger until one day, the strongest was ready to learn to fly. After a few trips in the nest garden, she brought them to the feeding ground on a hunting trip. It’s easy pickings and the young need to learn not to depend on humans, but it is a safe place to start. They also need to navigate the predators and bullies.
Blackbird knows she is safe here, because I have been a reliable source of food for weeks. There have been a few days without, when I have been away, but rarely long until they are delivered again. She trusts me.
We have worked together to develop a safe space for her to eat. Throughout the summer the backdoor is left open. If there is no food outside, Blackbird hops into the house to remind me. I sense her arrival. When I look up from my book or computer I smile and talk to her in a sing-song way. She pauses and listens, then I stand up and go to fetch the mealworms. I usually feed her immediately, but sometimes if I was busy on a phone call I chased her out. Once she began to go upstairs, felt nervous when I caught her, pooed on the carpet, and nonchalantly went down again and casually hopped outside.
Things were going along fine, apart from Blackbird being occasionally attacked by other female blackbirds trying to get a look in, or males playing power games with her. I came up with a plan to help. When I put the food out we chatted a while before she ate. I leant against the doorway and watched her eating and occasionally the predators would hop into the area. I would call ’tut tut tut’ and talk to Blackbird in a reassuring way. The other birds were terrified by me and flew off rapidly. I watched over me until she had finished.
We must retain some boundaries.
The starling family presented more of a problem to her mealworm munching routine. They are raucous annoying birds that are pretty neurotic too. They act as one, a cloud of noise and aggression flying in all at once, scattering the mealworms with their crazy flapping wings. The wind they produce sends the food to the edges of the feeding area, underneath plant pots, trays and buckets. Stupid birds. They land and look baffled by the disappearance of the food. And the noise! Clicking, screeching and scrapping!
They are scared of me, I just have to clap my hands, or look out of the window and whoosh, off they go, bumping into each other, panicking. Blackbird stays put and eats calmly, knowing that I will keep the starlings at bay.
This sounds like a one-way deal, but it isn’t. She makes me happy. She chatters to me and tut tut tut’s. I always respond. Sometimes I sit down on the ground close to the mealworms and take photos, make films. Occasionally, when she enters the feeding area there is what must look like a one-eyed thing in the middle of the feed. It is my 360 camera. It makes no noise, doesn’t move at all, just sits there. There is a tiny light on its side that flashes, but it doesn’t worry her. Because I am nearby. And it is never there for long. Blackbird does look a bit baffled when she hears the videos on playback, relistening to our conversation.
It’s been a long summer and Blackbird successfully produced several fledglings. I didn’t see her for sometime, but the youngsters carried on visiting. From plump fluffballs to almost adult blackbirds, their feathers changed colour and became more glossy. Some have fine patterns in pale gold, others more orangey and bold. They all have just a few white feathers, some on their neck, like their mother, others just under one wing. One black male who has gained his deep black sheen quite early, has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing – very distinguished!
I wrote this in September, today is 24th December 2021. There has been a male blackbird visiting this week. I have restarted the mealworm ritual.
He isn’t scared of me and comes closer when I tut-tut-tut.
He has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing.
Credit to Martin Creed – his work made an empty room into a place to inhabit and be aware of one’s own presence in the world.
My thinking around lights on and lights off has not come from an indoor lightbulb moment, but rather a streetlight one. And its relationship with sunrise and sunset.
My short film Pecking Order is a sunrise moment, when the birds announce their arrival and territorial scraps breakout as they shout and posture. Their concerns with presence are not about individuals, they are tribal, about occupation and dominance. And the volume of voices.
The only singular presence is me, with my iphone in hand.
A few days ago I went out to stalk the birds at dusk. As I filmed a street light came on behind me, making me very aware that I was present in a liminal moment of time. Significant for human safety on the street and an indicator of nest-time for the birds.
For 15 winters I have delighted in the jackdaw gatherings. I don’t use an alarm clock, I just leave the window open a little. This year there are more than ever before and I am leaving this house soon. So I relish every early morning call. I even get out of my cosy bed to see them now.
Today I went out at 7am today into a lowlight and mist, I could feel it gently landing on my face as I went quietly down the street to the riverside. I stood watching huge rafts of branches and twigs being carried upriver, appearing from nowhere to my right and very slowly passing by and disappearing again into the fog. Mesmerising.
As I walked towards home my heart lifted as a cloud of jackdaws flew above me. I stood still to watch them and they began to gather in the tall trees next to the river. Behind me, a street light switched off.
I filmed the bird’s arrival, clusters settled onto branches, silhouetted against the sunrise, which wasn’t quite making it through the low fog. They chattered away happily, the noise like children at a busy school assembly. Then a loud “caw! caw!” penetrated the air. The jackdaws noise stopped immediately. The birds took off as one, the sound of their wings deafening as the trees emptied rapidly. Only seconds later, as I resumed my walk home, did the crows begin to come down and meet in the trees. Louder and bigger they reminded me of the importance of pecking orders. And how they so often seem unfair.
I read recently that jackdaws mate for life, and like most birds who follow this custom become engaged early in life, long before sexual maturity.
“First the young males of a new brood struggle among themselves to decide their individual status, and then pairing with females begins. The jackdaw female promptly upon pairing assumes the same social position of her male. His rights and restraints become her rights and restraints.
Should a female not secure a mate, then she remains the lowest ranked member of the flock in all social things. She is last to the food and last to the shelter. She is pecked by the lowliest, and snubbed by the least. Nor are there any lesser jackdaws on whom she can vent her frustration. As Lorenz related, it was one of these lowliest females that gave him much insight into jackdaw social behaviour. When a strong male returned to the flock, absent during the time of dominance struggles and male-female pairings, he quickly became the number one dominant male. He was forced to choose one of two unmated females for his mate. Instantly his new mate rocketed up the jackdaw social ladder and was able to peck others as much as she wanted, and she did. It took her a year to settle down. According to Lorenz the most significant factor of social behaviour was the immediate and intuitive grasp of the new hierarchy by each and every jackdaw. From the hour of her ascendancy, every jackdaw by oldest instinct knew his new place, and hers. She was “number one”.
In spring 2020 Carolyn tracked Eva down in Sweden and asked permission to use her kulning song on her film “When You Call I Shall Come“. Eva said yes, and their friendship grew from there.
They have continued to work together remotely. One way that has happened is by Eva joining the Stroud based Walking the Land Group. Meeting online, the group expanded from local to international quite quickly.
We agreed that for the December 2021 walk we would both walk up hills near our homes. We exchanged ideas and content and found we have both been reflecting on a game ‘scissors, paper, stone’ or, as it is in Sweden, ‘scissors, stone, bag’ ( paper bag). Eva adapted a traditional children’s song for the sound track, mixing her voice in layers. Whilst Carolyn created layers of footage.
Working together has becoming increasingly interesting over time. We would both like to work in each others countries, develop films and songs and projects in the real world, physically. There have been many synchronicities in our lives since Covid began. It is as if our paths have crossed in films, not in fields. Online not in cafes. Through messages, emails and collaboration where conversations are open and honest.
We hope one day we will secure funding to visit each other, until we do, together apart is a good term to use.
Thanks go to Kel and Richard of Walking The Land for creating these monthly opportunities for us to gather, talk and grow.
We will submit this film for exhibitions and screenings so it may not be online for very long. If you are interested in including it in an event you are running do get in touch.
The film shows a video rendering of a birds eye view of the Arlingham peninsula, which is on the other bank of the Severn River to where I live. The Google logo is compulsory – and it also makes a comment on how we relate to landscape – we view it virtually, quite often via satellites, before we experience it. It keeps us at a distance from the reality of the lived experience of place.
By 2041, if predictions are correct, most of the Peninsula will be under water. Hills will be islands. I want to engage in conversations about the future, if we can imagine it we can maybe work together to prevent it, or reduce impact. I am writing and making work about this, prospecting for a future landscape, visualising what the view might look like then.
This is a sensitive issue to discuss and many feel it is scaremongering and unlikely. It is not possible to provide scientifically accurate facts, but there are many projections available online that have been programmed from statistics of rising sea levels, increased rainfall, raised temperatures that dry the land, followed by flash flooding that the can cannot absorb. We don’t need to be convinced about those things – we are seeing it regularly on the world news – huge fires devastating forests; floods bringing countries to a halt due to strain on the infrastructure of road and rail; temperatures rising steadily causing droughts and effecting food production. I could go on but surely I don’t need to, it is obvious.
I have just read an article by Ben Okri in the Guardian. He speaks eloquently of what is needed from creatives: “The ability to imagine what we dread most is an evolutionary tool that nature has given us to transcend what we fear. I do not believe that imagining the worst makes it happen. Imagining the worst might be one of the factors that makes us prevent it from happening. “
This drawing was made in response to the structure of tors in the Dartmoor landscape. Worked on acid-free, handmade white deckle edge Indian paper, using graphite powder. It is no.1 of a series of 3.
The rorschach technique was used as a starting point, using just one fold in this work. It echoes the similarity between the tors, the stacks, the granite. But once mirrored, the rocks were expanded into a landscape, captured by drawing the wider vista.
Size: 21.5 cm x 28 cm 200gsm paper (hand made so variable)
Signed by artist in pencil
IM me on Instagram @Severnsideartist to buy £120 + PP (£5 in UK, £15 International). Supplied unframed, mailed out in a card envelope. Or complete contact form here.
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.
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.
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!
One visit stands out as being different. It was 20 years ago today, on 21 March 2002, and was the swansong of landscape architect Paul Walshe, who was retiring as the agency’s head of special areas. The event, which he organised, was a celebration of the arts in the south west.
After a walk around the National Trust’s Sherborne estate in Gloucestershire on 20 March, we crossed the A40 to the trust’s Lodge Park. This is a fascinating doll’s house-like building, erected in the 1630s as a place of entertainment for John Dutton.
We had dinner here, noisily entertained by the Oxford Waits, with guests from the artworld. I was sitting next to Nancy Sinclair of Aunehead Arts, whom I had not met. Reading her label I immediately thought of that wilderness in central southern Dartmoor. Nancy was surprised that I knew she came from Dartmoor since…