A few paragraphs of text from Thomas A Clark’s ‘In Praise of Walking’:
‘A rock outcrop, a hedge, a fallen tree, anything that turns us out of our way, is an excellent thing on a walk. Wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions, all contribute to the dislocation of a persistent self-interest. Everything we meet is equally important or unimportant. The line of a walk is articulate in itself, a kind of statement. We can walk between two places, and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact, like introducing two friends. Pools, walls, solitary trees, are natural halting places. That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.’
I have a history of going on walks with numerous cameras and bits of equipment. I bought a 360 degree camera about 2 years ago and the first artwork I made with it was 12 Circular Walks. I used it again last summer when creating As Above So Below. The invitation to consider doubling back and digressions on the first day of 2021 was too tempting – especially if I was allowed do exercise my persistent self-interest relating to my love of the Severn.
I devised a system as I planned to use Map My Walk for the first time in years and I have a wrist tracker too. It was the 1st day of the 1st month of 2021. I decided I would wander (or should I say mud-wade along?) along until I hit 2021 steps. At that point I would stop and do some circular walking. On the way I began to wonder whether the action would be sufficient to draw a spiral on the Mapping App – so I walked in circles around some benches and a bin as I wandered, to test it out.
The first stop was at the end of a VERY muddy river-path. I stopped along the way, allowed myself to be distracted by the mud. Thought about The Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, made a bit of video, did a voice recording about Rosen and sploshed on through.
When I arrived at my point at 2021 steps, I set up my video camera to point at the river, and placed the 360 one the ground. I walked around it. I then rotated the video camera to point towards my 360 and filmed myself walking around it with that too. The action of creating works about the seen and the unseen is embedded in my brain. I like to record the bits I can’t see while I am busy working on the seen! By that I mean filming the river while I walked behind the camera on the tripod. Then filming myself using the 360. Then the mobile camera.
I continued on the higher path towards Broadoak and did a bit of circular 360 there too. Little videos, photos. Then turned my back to the Severn and crossed the A48 towards the Silver Fox Café. I couldn’t go back the way I came, it would not be a circular walk if I did. And I remembered this song.
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
My return trip involved sheep dodging and crossing a small stream. I stopped and played again with my 360 camera on the little bridge. Walking homewards, I mosied behind the building site where some 90 new homes are being built, some with river views. I felt sad that I couldn’t afford to buy one – I dream of seeing the river every day when I awake, without having to leap out of bed and hang out of the window, as I currently do.
I took a few photos of the landscape through the security fencing – snapped some islands of cultivated foliage left behind and mountains of red soil. A landscape within a landscape.
During lockdown I, like many others, have been doing more thinking than usual. I’ve read new books, experimented with different cooking, making art, trying out new apps and podcasts, basically allowing myself to explore things I was not looking at before. That includes ways to distract myself from feeling anxious.
Today, before I got out of bed, I dipped into a meditation app to find something new to start the day. I found ‘Connecting To The Soul Within’ by Saqib Rizvi. I gave it a go and the introduction resonated with me greatly, not in relation to my soul, but about ownership of ideas and places, due to my thoughts on going to sleep last night following reading a book. More about that later. What I took away from this, the thing that lodged in my mind, was the introduction. Rizvi described the stages of transgression that are needed to connect with one’s soul:
My mind momentarily wandered off on a tangent, thinking about the journey from the individual to the universal in landscape ownership terms. I did manage to bring it back in line and listen to the rest of the session. Am afraid I failed to locate my soul and must try harder next time. But I did feed my brain. I went downstairs with that fluttering around in my head.
Can land rightfully belong to anyone? I’m also reading ‘The Story of Trespass’ by Nick Hayes. The National Trust is stuck between two banks/walls/places, but surely their role is to tell the true story of history, not the white-washed, economy-engineered version? Land has always been contested and actions of enclosure, trespass, racism and trade have shaped and framed the landscape, creating territories, borders and countries. All in the name of power.
I spotted another dialogue on FB between creative practitioners, which revolved around finding soothing things to do/read/listen to, during lockdown. In that conversation, someone recommended a podcast I haven’t heard of before – ‘Aphids Listens’– which hosts discussions between Lara Thoms and artists. As someone who is interested in art in public spaces, I went straight to episode 7, with Amy Spiers. The podcast begins with a statement:
Aphids acknowledges the wurundjeri and boon wurrung peoples on whose lands we live and work. Sovereignty was never ceded and we pay our respect to past, present, and future aboriginal elders and community, and to their long and rich history of artmaking on this country.
Obviously, there’s a connection between the NT document, Nick Hayes’ book, and this podcast. The first specific artwork that was discussed was ‘Dancing In Peckham’ by Gillian Wearing – an old favourite of mine. I wrote about it many years ago, when I was awarded a Creative Writing Bursary from Arts Council England, around the time that the work was new, in the 1990’s. Wearing dances wildly in a shopping centre, no headphones, just dancing to a song in her head in a public place, with abandon. When they spoke of Wearing’s work, they referred to her “losing it, losing oneself, losing inhibition”. And how some may have thought this was a little worrying, a bit weird.
Wearing danced in public, that was a transgression, a private act seen by strangers.
And here we all are, during a pandemic, trying not to lose it, but making every effort to lose ourselves. Dancing in our kitchens, rolling around on the living room floor for zoom yoga, or doing life drawing from the sofa while watching TV.
As the saying goes – everything is connected.
So on to how this connects with my current studio practice and thinking about land ownership, or even possession, and/or losing it. Many people know I commission art for public places, so understanding differences between space and place is embedded in my thinking, as is land ownership.
When it comes to my own art practice, I have mostly made work relating to landscape, though sometimes that landscape was of the body, as in my MA video work. I have recently returned to lens-based practice, and the power of the gaze has arisen again, especially when working in 360 degrees.
What unites all my recent work is the River Severn. The title of my book “Severnside – An Artist’s View Of The Severn” sums it up really. It has been about my particular take on the Severn, the book is autobiographical in many ways. Not any-river, or any-person, but me, writing about it. But in recent works, that has started to shift.
I am reconsidering my relationship with the river as a place, its history and the other living things that inhabit it. That includes other artists working with it, of which there are, and always have been, many. In terms of possession, maybe I have become possessed by the Severn, rather than me thinking I possess it. Maybe I am losing my ‘self’?
The Severn belongs to no-one, no-where, no-time.
In my recent works, I have sought to relinquish my gaze, to consider others’ relationships with this river. That is why these new works are called ‘the seen and the unseen’ series. It first happened in April, when I made ‘When You Call I Shall Come’. This was made possible because the bore surfers stood down, no-one else was competing for ownership, or rights-of-use, of the river, only me, and it. And I knew, as soon as I began to edit it, that this moment was as special for the river as it was for me. I filmed as an observer, then, during editing, the river became the storyteller. It wasn’t about my relationship with it, but the opposite. The river is the narrator.
In the ‘seen and unseen’ series, I’m playing with ideas about locating myself, losing my inhibitions, finding my place in the world through vision and sound. In film no.3 I speak of what is in front of the camera (not me), whilst showing the viewer what is behind. I talk about myself as an actor in the scene, in the 3rd person. I am seeking to separate myself from owning the gaze by employing a form of audio-describing. I narrate the action as if it were a play. Most of my work these days is a meta-narrative, a story about itself.
Then there is the thinking about ownership of land, in terms of creative interpretations. Locating the self, whilst not claiming ownership of land. I want to relinquish my one-to-one relationship with the Severn, to reflect that the land itself has a form of agency, has cycles, behaviours. It’s not easy, it feels slightly like a divorce. I know it is good for both of us, but it is hard to let go.
I have collaborated with two other artists in recent years, on works about the banks of the river. Suze Adams and I took photos of each other across the river for our Walking The Land project. More recently, Carol Laidler and I worked together on a Liquidscapes project and presented it as a performance lecture at a Dartington conference. Both were about me – here, the others – over there. We called out to each other across the void, by doing so we connected both sides.
Maybe the next project needs to involve meeting others in the middle, or swapping sides, putting our feet in each other’s shoes? Dichotomies are destined to divide people further. Hayes suggests that words create walls, I think he is right.
Covid19 transgresses all of those things. It is affecting everyone, everywhere in every time zone.
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.
I’m in the middle of doing a large charcoal and chalk drawing on black pastel paper. I’ve always had a penchant for working on black surfaces. During my MA I projected videos onto black perspex, lay thick printing inks onto black watercolour when I made monoprints.
I attended an Arvon writing residency about arts writing and we were invited to choose an image to write about in first person. I chose this:
and wrote this:
ELLSWORTH KELLY 1963
WHITE OVER BLACK
I am the shadow underneath
Hosted on black, barely visible
Where white drapes over me, I gain attention
You will notice white more too
When I lurk below it
Even the black cannot deny me
When white reveals me
Without my subtlety
Their boldness would go unnoticed
They would be flat dull and lifeless
I am the space between
I give the illusion of space
I am their breathe
My first ever website was called “Grey Matters” and had a drawing of a human brain as it’s main image. I’ve always enjoyed exploring liminal places, and spaces, and thoughts.
I married a man named Black
I wear black
I have always had black and white pets!
I just looked for some of my old work in my portfolio and found these old friends. After all these years I can see a connection in my artwork. Landscape. Virtuality. Space. Trees.
Worked in many mediums, woodcuts, lino cuts, etchings, ink washes, charcoal, photography, projected shed snake skins (yes, that’s my self portrait!)
So here they are, a blast from my past, and a work in progress now…..(click each for full size)
A1 image on watercolour paper, made in dark room, photographic gel brushed onto paper. The image is one of many I made by making glass projector slides with shed snake skins from Bristol Zoo, projected onto my face and body. It was the time of Dolly the sheep – wondering whether we could, in the future, change our bodies like this.
woodcut, A1 (detail)
etching, collograph, woodcut, drawing on German etch paper
combination of etching, woodcuts, ink washes, text
work in progress today:
charcoal and chalk pastel on black pastel paper 1 metre wide
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!
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 it’s 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.