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!
Waking (too) early this morning I reflected on the past few months. Remembered the hush of the initial lockdown and how wonderful it was in many ways. It gave us a taster of a world with less pollution, less traffic on roads and in the air. We heard the birdsong amplified in the mornings, the river rushing by.
This heightened attention enabled me to make films that now, it seems, touch people in a particular way. Something I am trying to understand. At the time of making, they were, in so many ways, my coping mechanism. Walking outside, close to the river, needing to escape the confines of my house, the endless news reporting statistics and warnings.
As I lay in bed earlier today I listened to the traffic passing by and wondered how long it might be before that stops again. In the winter I know when it has snowed overnight, because of the uncanny quietness of the acoustics landscape. During lockdown I have become raw, over-sensitised, sounds are louder, scents stronger, touch yearned for.
So I wrote down some words and made another film. I added the recording I made of the dawn chorus in April 2020 and look forward to hearing it in 2021 – with traffic flowing past.
In 2005 the artist Phil Collins spoke at a conference at Bristol Zoo, run by Claire Doherty of Situations. He said that historically some believed a camera could take the steal of a person, but he, personally, felt the act of taking a photograph is an act of love.
That comment is core to this enquiry about my practice.
Reel back in time to October 1997 when I began my MA in Fine Art at Cardiff UWIC. My mother died on 1st September that year. The first works I did were using photography and slide-dissolve images of my naked body, photographed from behind, with shed snake skins pressed between glass projector-slides that transferred their amazing charcoal-like patterns onto my body. I cast my head in red jelly and filmed it, slowly melting then reverse played, it in a loop. Forming and dissolving. I cast it in plaster too. Fixed and solid.
It was one year after Dolly The Sheep had been cloned. I now understand that I was exploring my identity, as a clone of my mother. The possibility of becoming another. No longer a daughter, but a matriarch. One particular work was inscribed by hand with the phrase “I shed my skin, I regenerate”.
Reflecting now, maybe, because I had a difficult relationship with my mother, I needed to do this, to value myself. Deaths of people close to us can have very profound affects that are not always obvious at the time. My mother would have been horrified, she always wished I would paint pictures of puppies and kittens, things people could understand and buy. Just as she said my sister would be better off writing bodice-busters instead of science fiction.
I have always disliked being photographed, and it shows in photos of me. No surprise then, that the images were mostly of my back. It was a refusal to be seen by my own gaze. My final MA work was about close examination of the body, in particular looking into the flesh body, the corporeal, compared to the virtual, digital body. It was the early days of the internet and a whole new world opened up to me. That world was text-based, so the physical body was not required to be visible, it was an anonymous space.
In 2002 I spend two months in Java, Indonesia, on a UNESCO funded residence at Selasar Sunaryo Gallery near Bandung. While there I confronted myself and my past, my father having been posted there in 1949. I made objects and films about identity, the fragility of both the digital and place.
When I returned home to the UK I did another one-week residency in Birmingham, as part of LabCulture run by PVA Labs. There I presented a number of video works called ‘Letting Go’. I made each film by animating an object – a coin, a cup rocking on a hook, a rotary washing line – then filming it until it stopped. All domestic objects. Sadly, my marriage was failing by then – each tiny film reflected that, moment by moment, frame by frame, slowing down then finally drawing to a halt. Another film was made with opaque mist from a steam room focussing in and out of net curtains. I was nowhere to be seen in any of these works. I guess I temporarily left my body and was deeply inside my head and my heart. A point of change.
By 2005 my practice was subsumed by the need to earn a living, so I did more and more producing and curating and my practice gradually slipped away.
In 2006, I moved to the Forest of Dean. A big change after twenty-five years of living near the east bank of the Severn. I relocated, not only to a new home, but to a new landscape, on the west bank of the river. I walked regularly locating myself into a new place, taking photos of trees leaning to stay upright, rooted on the side of the hills, adapting to counter the sloping ground below them. I was aware at the time that that was how I felt too and empathised with their stoic behaviour.
I worked as a producer and curator for the following ten years, not exhibiting work, not making much either. At one point, I explored the possibility of creating films by embedding cameras in the gorilla compound at Bristol Zoo, to film the visitors from the gorilla’s perspective. We didn’t get it off the ground, but the very thought of that is pertinent as I write this piece.
In 2017, in November, my brother died after a long slow illness. I had a cancer scare myself and, like the films of things in the letting go series, I ground to a halt.
In January 2018 I began to draw again, spurred on by the fact that my brother had often chastised me for no longer making art. I took my series of panoramic photos of the Severn, shot on my phone therefore not good enough for quality prints – and I modified them and drew them as large, one-metre wide panoramic works. I took more photos, creating pairs of opposite sides of the Severn, gathering memories, facts and fictions as I travelled from bank to bank. The book evolved in parallel to the drawings.
Once the drawing series was complete and the book published, I paused for a while. I regathered and gained momentum in Producer work, which involves supporting other artists to create work for landscapes in response to places.
Late 2018 I got my hands on a 360 camera and began to make films again. Exploring the moving image felt good, as I had previously made video installations. But it also brought with it the issue of the gaze, and my being present in the imagery. By their nature, the dual-lenses capture everything, including the operator. Me. I hid behind cars and bushes, trying to find a way out of the frame. As I understood the capacity of the camera and its ability to capture its surrounds, I found the optimum distance I could perform to it without obvious facial recognition. The film 12 circular walks came out of that and, just as I did with the trees, the riverbanks, I collected a number of works together – this time not for a book, but for a film. As I walked in circles I held a stick, in homage to Caspar David Friedrich and his depiction of a gentleman purveying a sublime view of nature. My circular meanderings we very different to that.
There followed a period of my returning to the river with video and 360, getting closer to it psychologically, understanding it better. And it was a relief to take me out of the equation, not to do battle with removing myself from the scene. I combined drawing with video, with animation, I played and played, in the day by the river, in the night in my studio, with charcoal, projectors and tripods.
Come the 2020 Covid19 pandemic all these elements of my practice were ripe for picking. Having time to walk daily to the river, I began to find new ways to revisit it, both literally, by walking a new route, and metaphorically, as in finding visual ways to present not a view of the river, but my experience of it. To develop a 1:1 relationship with it, on equal terms. In April, when the bore surfers stood down out of respect for Sabrina and each other, I filmed the high spring tide for three days and used the footage to make When You Call, I Will Come. The words relayed a message from the voice of the tide itself. A kulning song, performed by Eva Rune and others, pulled the film together, enabling viewers to be drawn into the yearning, for the need to find comfort somewhere, somehow. In a matter of two weeks it had 500+ views which was overwhelming for me. It appears to have a power that goes above being a documentary of the Severn Bore.
When You Call, I Will Come and was selected for EarthPhoto2020, a Royal Geographical Society project in collaboration with Forestry Commission. It has also resulted in an experimental collaboration with the singer/composer Eva Rune, who lives in Sweden.
The next film I made was like taking my winter studio out into the light. I dragged 3 cameras and tripods; 1 iPad and a myriad of drawing materials, to my favourite place, next to a swing on the riverbank. I did many films of the swing, empty, released and allowed to move until it stopped. Letting go. I sat under the huge oak tree that supported the swing and I filmed myself drawing there. I was back in the frame again. Albeit at a distance.
Both of the above films were selected for exhibitions and I had a period of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, call it what you like. Not having shown work beyond the Forest of Dean for many years, it felt huge. I have just listened to Charlie Mackesy speaking for the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Online, of course. I saw his drawings on Instagram when he first began, and ordered his book prior to publication, which was autumn 2019. He spoke eloquently about his work, about being vulnerable, about recognising that his art is a way to process deep anxieties. I guess that is what has happened for me with my films, they touch people. I didn’t set out to make them do that, they reflect my own inner state, my personal way of coping with the pandemic.
I started writing this article yesterday, after planning it in my head. Today, hearing Mackesy talk, feels like synchronicity. I’m a pretty pragmatic person, few would think me romantic, but there is something about time and place that always matters. And sometimes amazing collisions and collusions begin.
I am now back in my body and planning new work. Uber-conscious that I have been reflecting on my own presence, and absence, in my work, I am now going to explore the presence of other living things in this landscape that we share. Try and see their perspective, like looking from the other riverbank. When I sat up in bed this morning I watched the dove that sits on a TV aerial outside my window, every morning, every day. And I thought “what does the bird think? Does it see me? What is going through its mind?”.
It is time to go beyond myself and walk in my collaborator’s shoes. My encounters in the world mean far more than I do, my work needs to reflect that. My daughter and I had a discussion about these things, her perspective informed by training to be a puppeteer and the role of the operator, along with her experience of making documentary films, about sustainable farming and food provenance. Ironically, I am now wishing we had taken a photo of us together that day, while we were talking. It was the launch of my film at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize Show.
My arts producer work is becoming increasingly concerned with climate change and environmental issues. The Severn is, of course, at risk, as is the wider natural world. Watch out for new work. It probably won’t be right first time, but I am trying.
Going full circle back to the start of this writing, if taking a photograph is an act of love, then that is what I need to do. I feel it is the only thing to do.
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.
Having gone to my studio notes document today, an ongoing, live working document, I realise I have not entered anything since 16th May. I am updating it but also enjoyed reading it and seeing how important that time was for my practice. A lot has happened since then, I’ll write about that next week, but here are my reflections from May:
In March Covid arrived and the world changed forever. I am not going to write about that here, but it has inevitably affected my life and my practice.
I have started walking a 5 mile stretch of river banks, regularly, filming, drawing and writing. I filmed the spring ride bore – the surfers stood down and I felt I must document the haunted-ness of the experience. It was both beautiful and ominous. When You Call I Shall Come is the outcome. [note – selected for EarthPhoto2020 since these notes were written]
Launched it 8am on Friday 15th and writing this the next morning, there have been 100 views. I am leaving it online for a while and hope to get some bookings for it to be shown in galleries or as part of festivals – online or off. [That increased to over 600 on Youtube but was moved to Vimeo]
This work is significant for me – having been drawing, then moving into 360 video, then video, I have slowly regained my confidence in my filmmaking skills. It feels comfortable. Around Christmas I was trying animation and it was a good learning curve, but not quite right for me. What it did do is take me into a place whereby I was drawing, making films, then merging through projection and refilming. I love process. I love the thinking, the planning, the testing – and the accidents that move the work onwards into something unexpected.
I came to this document to make notes about my next work. But maybe I need to write more about the thinking first and how I got to where I am now, at this moment in time.
While I’ve been playing with film, I have been actively finding ways to use mediums that can express my hypersensitivity to the natural world, and my love of the river. Conversations with my daughter helped – we talked about having a heightened awareness of the physical world, in every sensory way. It is like having one’s skin turned inside out. I sometimes feel raw, overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. Emotions are like tides, they gush in then dissipate, they swerve around daily events, bits of news, mundane jobs that need doing. Sometimes, they sink like a stone, leaving no trace of the person I know myself to be. Other times they sparkle on the surface and enjoy the ride, with glee and wonder.
I am now envisaging these emotions as being like damselflies – fluttering around carefree, skimming the skin of the water, but occasionally dragged down and saturated. It takes some effort to rise up and out again, to go up towards the sun and dry one’s wings.
This is the way of the world, my world in Covid time.
Does yours feel like that too?
So back to the studio work – last week I took an A2 pad to the river to draw. I didn’t take any cameras, bar my phone, because I wished to make myself draw. Drawing outside is always a pleasure, though I dislike doing so in public places. Along the riverbank, I could get well away from onlookers.
[my next blogpost will reveal more about what happened next….]