Yesterday (19/11/18) I had a conversation with David Smith on BBC Radio Glos
It’s been an interesting couple of years. Since I first put charcoal to paper in January 2017 I have been on two journeys – one, the route of returning to practice, the other, driving and walking around in circles, in circles. Realising what has happened makes me feel a little bit dizzy!
From posting the first drawing on Facebook and asking friends what they thought, and getting an amazing response, I have gradually gone full circle myself, to that of being able to say ‘I am an artist’ again. I’ve gone from 180 degrees to 360 degrees, then back to the book which is 180 degrees. Like a breath – breath in, expand, and breath out again.
The 360 degree camera has given me a whole new way of seeing the world, and it’s challenging. I set off to learn about VR but disliked the need for headsets or panning on screen. I did, however, enjoy the making of images that have been distorted by the marble lens.
The book is the peak point of the Severn series of works, the texts flowed along next to them as they evolved. I only had 100 printed, they are all signed and numbered and make great present form those who love rivers, and/or the bore. There’s information about how to order books here.
You will also find some digital prints and an original charcoal drawing on display in the library. Check their Facebook page for opening hours.
Next up is the the Newnham Arts & crafts Fair over 3 days – 7th, 8th & 9th December, various hours, please check their Facebook page too.
And then it’s off to the Wye! I’m showing some works in Brockweir and Hewelsfield Shop/Cafe from the same weekend!! Different work, several new ones about Brockweir and the Wye, and a lovely shop which is a good model for our hopes for The George development (ReNewnham).
Another week begins – I love Monday mornings because I get to plan what comes next!
Earlier this year Andy Vivian very kindly took me up into the bell tower of St. Peter’s Church in Newnham. We were armed with my 360-degree camera which I controlled remotely. Those who know me well are aware that if I stand on a chair I get dizzy and wobbly, so going up into the tower was a feat and looking out of the window almost impossible for me. With support from Andy, I managed to position the camera precariously on a tripod to capture some stunning views.
I was fine on the level of the Carolan bells and took several photos of the view through the windows. But the real bell tower, where the enormous church bells are, is yet another storey up. My knees turned to jelly. No way could I do that. Climbing up the tight spiral staircase to the entry point was one thing, but climbing up through a hole in the floor, and balancing on beams, was unimaginable for me.
Andy kindly did that bit and positioned the camera in various locations with instructions from below, as I directed from my iPhone screen – “left a bit, turn it a bit, yes, perfect, now hide!”.
Viewing on the tiny phone screen, the image was not very clear, but when I uploaded them onto my computer – wow – I was stunned! The views through the windows have a medieval timelessness to them. The river framed by wonderful architectural arches and the lichen and stonework revealed. The images of the big bells were something entirely unexpected.
The surprise was the playschool colour of the steel beams in the upper bell chamber. I was expecting bronze-y, dirty colours but BOOM! Bright red, yellow and green powder coated steel rang out loud and clear!
I’ve been working with the images the last few days, preparing some to put up in the Newnham Community Library. Seeing them together as a set makes me realise what a privilege it was, both to go up there and to have a 360 camera I can experiment with.
Library hours are limited, but if you are in the Armoury Hall for other reasons, do nip in and have a look at them on the wall. They are presented in 18cm square frames, black or white. I’ve a feeling they may be popular, and the exhibition will be up right through to Christmas, so I can take orders. Deadline for orders will be 1st December 2018 and dependant on availability of the frames.
There will be other works in the library, original, large, panoramic drawings and a few smaller prints.
And a show coming up in Brockweir Community Shop.
And my book Severnside: An Artist’s View Of The River Severn will be launched very soon.
Here’s a little preview of the church photographs, not great due to reflections but I never complain about sunshine!
During the past year I have drawn around fifteen large (approx. 1 metre wide), landscapes of the River Severn. All done using charcoal on paper, most recently, using locally sourced charcoal made from coppiced wood by Resilient Woodlands.
Only the last drawing I did in the set featured a human figure in it, gazing at the river. It was a decision that has affected the way I have approached a new body of works, using a 360 degree camera (still and video) to continue exploring the Severn. I’m now intrigued to see where it might take me, because it is a huge turning point that has sent me back to consider early paintings of figures in landscapes. Constable, Friedrich, Gainsborough – they all investigated human presence in sublime vistas. Until it went out of fashion.
Landscape has always fascinated me and featured in many artworks over several years. For the last eighteen years I have been commissioning artists to work in ‘unusual places’, which has included woodlands, headlands, beaches and barns, so it is no surprise to find that I immediately immersed myself in landscapes again when I returned to practice last year.
All those years of reading, thinking and understanding how artists respond to landscape have come together and are, finally, very useful. Good to know that all that energy has not been wasted.
The introduction of ‘contemplative watchers’ was, and still is, an effective device for showing how aesthetic experience can be focused on the observing subject. My enquiry really began when I moved to the Forest of Dean, after leaving a very familiar landscape I’d known for twenty-five years, on the other bank of the Severn. I took many photographs of trees that were struggling to retain their vertical, growing on hillsides. They were very personal symbols of how hard it is, sometimes, to survive in a new landscape and find one’s roots. I was not in the images, but the trees represented me and my instability. I reframed them, making them stand up, whilst all around them looked squiffy, horizons tipped, pylon leaning. I survived and gradually learnt to live in this new place.
A photographic project done through a collaboration with Dr. Suze Adams in 2009 again involved framing the figure in the landscape, but this time it was done by photographing each other. So, I continued to be absent in my own photographs, yet appeared in her pictures. We time synchronised the images and compared them. This was the first work that looked at the river from the other side.
Seven years later, the new drawings have evolved. As a body of work, they show numerous pinch-points in the river, opposite each other. There’s a set of poems and narratives that work with them. All in progress.
Most recently, I’ve been learning how to use a 360 degree camera. Between the late 1990’s and around 2005 I was making large video installations – moving image was my favoured medium, as was digital media. Using this new camera for both stills and videos has re-nurtured my love of how technology can offer new ways of understanding. The last drawing, with the figure in it (not of me, but an old friend who was with me), has lingered in my mind and manifested itself in a recent set of images.
Memory of the other side of the river also plays a part in this. The friend that was in the drawing was someone I spent many hours walking our dogs on the riverbank at Shepperdine, when our children were small. Much of the drawing project has been about coming to terms with moving from the east bank to the west. It is all very autobiographical.
When using a 360 camera, the first thing one has to get ones head around is the fact that, when shooting, where you, the operator stands, is key. Because it will catch you and you will appear in every image, unless you hide. Consequently, I’ve bene hiding behind cars, bushes and huts. If I don’t I am clumsily in the ‘tiny planet’. So, one foggy morning, I decided to work with this. In a fundraising film I made, I found being filmed gazing at the river was more comfortable for me than talking directly to camera. I began to pose with my back to the camera, allowing me to control the camera remotely but hiding it from the lens. The fog helped, and took me back to some early films I made in Iceland at thermal pools, and another done in a steam room in a hotel in Birmingham. I immediately recalled the famous painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), by Caspar David Friedrich
This thinking process has made me reconsider Friedrich and wonder what this means now, in the 21st Century, when technology is said to be rapidly replacing humans in the workforce and the economic structure of capitalism is facing challenges to its viability. Those who wish to conserve landscape find themselves battling against technology, yet are also learning far more about it too, by using scanning processes that were unimaginable in the 19th Century. Both we, and our rapid technological developments, might be threatening the landscape we inhabit.
Is my gazing into the river my time-machine, allowing me to long for the past, which can never be revived? Or is it letting me reflect and meditate on the future of place, the river in particular? Is the very landscape that we have traditionally painted, now little more than a romantic notion? Are we too late?
Several of the images I have taken depict large Georgian Mansions – representing landownership. My daughter is currently making films about food sovereignty, the urgent need to care for the land, and what we produce on it. Maybe her work has leached into my thinking too?
I need to look back at theory, reconsider the sublime, and its place in today’s thinking. I shall continue to do this visually, using the tools I have to hand. It’s important we all remember that we are in the landscape at all times and it is integral to our existence. And we are to it, too.
This year has seen me return to art practice, albeit somewhat different to the complex video installations I used to be commissioned to do. After years of producing I’m really enjoying exploring the Severn with charcoal, chalks and paper. I have completed the set of works I planned for the publication I’m writing, so now it is time to say goodbye to the originals. The have to go, I don’t have the space to keep them, and they will feel neglected if I stuff them in a cupboard. Many of the orginals have sold, but there are a few left. And there are prints of most the sold ones too.
So why not come along to The George in Newnham on Severn tomorrow, Friday 8th December. The prices are the lowest they have ever been and I’m even open to offers. I need space to go onto the next body of work which I’m very excited about.
This is the latest work, it’s of New Ground near Slimbridge, opposite the Putcher Racks at Awre. It’s not sold yet, but someone is interested……
Lower George House, High St, Newnham GL14 1BS
10am-3pm Friday 8th December
Latest drawing of the Severn, just finished. Slimbridge, New Ground, near Purton, opposite Awre Putcher rack. Apparently in the 17th C the river changed it’s flow and washed a lot of the Awre shoreline up onto the opposite bank. Awre took Slimbridge to court to try and claim ownership of New Ground, but they lost. All my drawings hold a story, and many will be in the book, eventually!