A Tidal Life documented using graphite putty

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Friday 26th March 2021

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 live a tidal life.

copyright Carolyn Black 2021

“Crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go” organoids and art

Thursday 18th March

I’m on the mailing list for The Conversation, an online journal that has “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. One headline on today’s update is We grew human tear glands in the lab, and now we’re making them cry by Marie Bannier-Hélaouët, Utrecht University.

It wasn’t the headline alone that caught my eye, it was the image on the newsletter and website. Together, they sparked off a line of thinking. I can’t reproduce the image here, as it has copyright limits, so you will need to go and see it yourself. But I can describe it very easily, because it is uncannily like this image of mine, done recently. It looks like a bubble burst on paper, like this:

(C) Carolyn Black Bubble Drawing 2021

My image was not created by tears, but it made me want to cry when I read “The organoids were secreting their tears on the inside: crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go.”

I headed for Wiki, not wishing to over-quote from the The Conversation, in case I breach copyright laws. And I want you to read it too, because it is fascinating.

“An organoid is a miniaturized and simplified version of an organ produced in vitro in three dimensions that shows realistic micro-anatomy. They are derived from one or a few cells from a tissue, embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells, which can self-organize in three-dimensional culture owing to their self-renewal and differentiation capacities.”

In the article, Bannier-Hélaouët describes this more poetically “the stem cells form tiny replicants of the organs from which they were extracted, which we call “organoids”.

To me, without the scientific knowledge of what organoids are, the word sounds like something from Star Trek. Maybe the term replicant feeds that thinking. The fact the organoids are grown in vitro, like humans can be too, also tugs on the emotions of human association.

Back to my drawing, shown above, that evolved from participating in a Drawing Meditation workshop recently. We talked a lot about breath and of course breath has risen high into everyone’s consciousness since Covid19. Partly because it attacks the respiratory system, and partly because there’s a high level of anxiety about, resulting in meditative practices becoming almost as essential as breathing itself.

I think it is fair to say that all of the artists on the weekend course found the bubble drawing process exciting, exhilarating and sometimes disappointing. The disappointment was usually down to the scientific issues, the type of detergent used, the dilution level with water.

But now, having read this article, I can’t help but wonder whether we were collectively moved and touched by the process because they were created from our precious breath and, like the tears, trapped in the bubble. The breath had nowhere to go. And I know I held my breath while I waited for the pop to happen, in anticipation of what it would leave behind.

And the joy of seeing a perfect trace, a record of my existence, on the paper, made me want to cry.

When I reframe the poignant sentence above – “The organoids artists were secreting their tears on the inside: crying, but with nowhere for their tears to go”  I feel deeply sad.  I immediately allow more serious thoughts into my head, about the impact of the pandemic on artists. I am not going to launch into politics here, now, because I want to leave you with a floating feeling, like a bubble in the air, floating off into a future.

Because imagination can take us there.

(C) Carolyn Black bubble process video 2021

*STOP PRESS*

GALLERIES HAVE REALLY HAD THEIR BUBBLES BURST – PLEASE HELP GET THEM CAMPAIGN TO RE-OPEN. If, like me, you think that art galleries are as safe and as important as horse racing, shops, gyms and nail bars, PLEASE sign this petition to support galleries to reopen after 12 April: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/577489 #CheltenhamFestival

Walking The Land First Friday March 2021

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The inspirational prompt from WTL team:

Our walk will again have as a focus ideas around ‘Place’ – this time, how we know, recognise and respond to it.  It’s highly likely our concept of ‘place’ can be seen to be both fluid and deeply rooted. Below are quotes that go some way individuals try to explain that awareness:

“We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape … into ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, recline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographics, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.”

Robert Macfarlane

“Place is always the first thing I connect with – rather than the music or the imagery – when I travel; I am always trying to understand what a place is, and what does it mean to the people that live here? What are its layers of history? How has it changed? How might it change?”

Julian Hoffman

We invite you to search your own thoughts on what goes to make a place special for you. Try to explain exactly what it may be about the place that influenced your response. This could be through any visual media, through sound or words…wherever it takes you.


Destination – Garden Cliff, Westbury on Severn Gloucestershire. Duration 2 hours

Circle Walking

changing my approach to Garden Cliff

led me to arrive from a different direction

to surprise myself

I passed a circle of trees I’d never noticed before

because when walking the other way I didn’t look left

I habitually turned right to see the huge oak tree

in the grounds of Westbury Gardens

further along I passed tree I knew well, in it’s hey day

I did my first circular walk around it

but it has fallen, rotting on the ground

pre-pandemic I rarely saw anyone at Garden Cliff

sometimes at sunset young couples in pairs may be spotted,

wrapped closely in each others arms, gazing

or elderly pairs in cars, staring,

parted by a gear stick and forty years

jackdaws mate for life

every morning I watch two pigeons

bobbing along the fence-top together 

on my way I saw several families

I hoped to find quiet solitude at the beach under the cliff

to gaze, stare, draw, film and walk in circles

Pleased to find myself alone

I unpacked materials and equipment

taking care not to let things fall into the mud

I set up my camera but, just as I was about to shoot

two children clambered over the rocks shouting 

they too had arrived to have an adventure

I carried on, hoping that my strange behaviour might scare them away

send them running home to their parents

and tell them there was a mad woman walking in circles

their parents would think they were making it up

So I carried on, recording the sounds of loud splashes

when they hurled rocks into the river

I took photos and prepared to take mud prints

when a familiar creature came bounding onto the beach

Django, a friend’s dog, followed by her, her Dad and two kids

operations were abandoned 

The place transformed from one of solitude 

to a social space, it was good to see them

two more people came into view

waving – to me, to Sarah? Her Dad?

I waved back to Eleanor and Russell, some friends from Dorset!

change allows for the unexpected to happen

the beach had transitioned

from uninhabited to occupied

had it had been a car park, the sign would flash FULL

My Walking the Land mission

was complete

the place I know so well, had become unrecognisable

an enjoyable interlude

from solitude

with people that share my love 

of the Severn


Post walk notes……

The morning of the Walking the Land event, I had given a talk for art.earth about my practice In which I had referred to transitioning from 180 degree drawings to 360 degree filming.

I remember my degree thesis was about circles

My final work for my MA included a mirror tunnel that transformed film footage into a big globe

I walk in circles quite often

When I drive places I like to go in one direction and return in another

The weekend after the walk, I participated in a Drawing Breath workshop

We blew bubbles with ink onto paper

I’ve recently been making circular monoprints

Meditation breathing is circular, as are the tides

We also drew from memory, then erased, and re-drew, repeatedly, without having the object in view

I’ve been blowing bubbles on printing blocks

And drawing a large circular work

Round and round we go

Body and mind, drawing and meditation equal balance

Reflections, reviewing, revising, reconsidering.

Following the weekend of the Drawing Breath workshops I felt physically exhausted, emotionally exhilarated, intellectually accelerated and calmly curious. I haven’t spent much time with drawing this year as I’ve been making films. So it felt like going home for the weekend. With a group of like-minded friends.

Now, two days later, I’m beginning to connect the work made over the weekend with some other recent research relating to river mud. I took some of my favourite work from the weekend and pinned it up on the studio wall. Yesterday I felt a little flat, so allowed myself time to develop a few things that were still lingering in my mind.

I really enjoyed the part where we were told to choose an object to draw and put it in a bag, so you couldn’t see it, and hold it in your non dominant hand. Then draw it with the dominant hand, from the sensation of holding it. I had taken a quantity of dry river mud from Garden Cliff – a beautiful rusty red colour, full of haematite. It took weeks to dry it out, in preparation to make pigment with it for printmaking. This bag of material felt quite sharp, brittle, grainy in my hand. I loved the weight of it, the way that it pressed into my palm. It reminded me a little of kinesiology. It literally gave me a sense of gravitas, held in one hand and drawn by the other. Balance. I drew with charcoal, my comfort zone material, and found myself working quite confidently, drawing almost to scale.  It is one of those I placed on the wall.

Two odd things with this red earth. One, the Mars landings and two, the possibility I may be anaemic. My body needs iron.

Yesterday morning, the day after the course ended, I was thinking a lot about how the bag of dry, crumbly earth felt in my hand and created a mono print with that memory. I laid white ink down on the block, drew into it loosely and took a print on black paper. It is fairly similar to the original charcoal drawing, but there was more of a curve underneath, showing the weight in my hand more than the original drawing did. Maybe memories really do hang heavy in our minds?

This print reminded me of another I did a week or two ago, when I pressed my  sketch pad pages onto the wet mud of the riverbank, revealed at low tide. That’s been on my wall since. It’s shaped like a brain and now, when I look at the first drawing of the soil in my hand, it think it looks like a cross between a brain and a heart.

So, going back to the soil for the drawing exercise. During the lunch break, I piled it into square glass vase then half filled it with water. It was mesmerising watching the material dissolve into the water, slowly sinking, settling. A small amount remained dry, like mountains, or icebergs, paler than the wet earth below, creating air pockets.  I made a tiny video.

It was only when I was looking intensely at it for twenty minutes that I noticed little bubbles were forming in the red liquid. Some organic matter was releasing gas from the soil into the water, compacted by the weight of the dry material above. Those little bubbles reminded me of the first exercise we did, of blowing bubbles onto paper. And of the time that a geologist explained to me that the smooth circular bumps and hollows in quarries were caused by air trapped during the rocks’ formation. When it came to drawing the vase and its earthy contents from memory, without looking, I wondered if I could include the bubbles, but using a chunky graphite pencil at a smallish scale defeated me.

Another thing I did for the first time during the drawing breath weekend was to draw my breath with my eyes closed, using dry watercolour crayons onto paper  fixed on the wall, then sprayed it with water. Like the water in the vase, the pigment was released, creating streams and drips which represented my breath flow.

We drew our lungs, our hands and, without intention, I drew a brain and a heart. Using earth loaded with iron.

body and mind

drawing and meditation

=

balance