island adventure

alice-fox-sandaig-sketch

So we’re back in the old routine now term has started again and the kids are back at school. Our holiday seems a long way off but my head is still full of the sights, sounds and smells of the Outer Hebrides and my sketchbook is full of moments captured in one way or another. Those empty white shell-sand beaches that turn the sea the most wonderful turquoise greens and stretch for miles are just fantastic – the stuff of dreams (mine anyway!). I have been to the outer isles before but not the Uists and this trip took me to places I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. It takes quite an effort to get to these remote parts and I love a good ferry journey, which is necessary (made even more special by the dolphins and porpoise we saw from the boat). This is the very edge or Europe, and apart from the tantalising St Kilda, which we saw on a particularly clear day, when you look out across the sea the next land is Canada. Highly recommended: this fascinating exhibition, which is based on St Kilda but also deals with amnesia, was on in Lochmaddy. It will be moving to London soon here.

alice-fox-north-uist-beach-sketch alice-fox-stone-circle-sketchalice-fox-eriskay-seascapealice-fox-south-uist-beach-sketch

owl encounter

Alice Fox owl sketch

Sunny, bright blue sky. Light wind. We walk across the beck and up the steep road, following the Cleveland Way. Fenced-off cliff-tops and a road that disappears into the void beyond the cliff edge. We follow ‘a line made by walking’ through a field of winter wheat, then on up the hill, climbing all the time, past cottages precariously positioned near the cliff edge. Last year’s bracken is bright, singing in the sunshine, contrasting against sparkling blue sea and sky. Up a steep bank with wind-sculpted hawthorn and a robin. Round the back of a dis-used quarry and up to a trig point, then on past noisy, shaggy cows and a communications mast. Turning down a steep lane with a pond to the side, an owl appears silently, flying low over the pond. We stand absolutely still, breath held. It turns and flies towards us, then suddenly off across fields to the right, and it’s gone. A flock of lapwings swirl around then disappear too. On we go, enlivened by our encounter, down the steep lane, past interesting farm houses and out-buildings. Back onto the footpath and we join the muddy line through the field. An owl pellet lies on a rock by the path: A perfect waste disposal package of hair and bones with jaws and pairs of teeth protruding from the tightly packed mass, not unlike the fossils embedded in stone down under the nearby cliffs. The shape and darkness of the pellet is similar to some of the pebbles I collected on the beach earlier in the week. We are almost back at the village and the owl re-appears and I see clearly now that it is a barn owl. A bonus second sight, this time prolonged as it flies low over a patch of rough cliff-top grassland. It cruises up and down, around, back and forth, hunting for quite some time. Suddenly it turns and comes too close, our eyes meeting for a split second, then it thinks better of it and flies off towards the sun setting behind the smoking potash works. Light fading. It occurs to me that the pellet I found was probably from this very same bird and the whole encounter feels very special indeed.

Alice Fox barn owl pellet drawing

A long time ago I was taught how to dissect pellets and identify all the different small mammals, amphibians etc. that the owl had eaten. I haven’t decided yet whether to do that with this one. It is tempting to investigate all those tiny little jaw bones and skulls but there is something rather wonderful about this tightly bound bundle as it is.

walking the lanes

Alice Fox end of harvest

Suddenly the seasons have shifted. Although today is the start of the meteorological autumn it doesn’t always feel autumnal on the first of September. The last week has felt very autumnal with changes in the feel of the air and subtle shifts in foliage colours. There are fruits and seeds ripening and all sorts of interesting fungi appearing. Last week I was teaching down in Hertfordshire and staying in a village surrounded by arable fields. The harvest over, machinery was busy turning the earth ready for the next lot of crops. One day a golden blanket of stubble covered the gently rolling landscape and the next it had been turned in on itself, revealing rich chocolate brown earth.

Alice Fox walking the lanes fungus

Walking the lanes near where I was staying my hands became full of treasures, so much so that I used my umbrella to hold them! I don’t now very much about fungi and I wouldn’t normally do more than admire. But I do know a puff ball when I see one and I was delighted to find one that was fresh and firm: ideal for my tea.

Alice Fox walking the lanes collection

Back in Yorkshire a day later and we walk in local woods. Again there are beautiful perfect fungi, ripe berries to pop straight into the mouth as we walk and under one tree we find a scattering of oak galls, which I gathered for use in dyeing.

Alice Fox woods walk fungus

At home I drew the berries I’d found on the lanes and used their juice to add colour to my pages. The colours won’t stay true for very long but there is something ‘true’ about using the object you’ve drawn to make marks itself. A leaf that also caught my eye because of its purple hues sits alongside and seems to sum up the shift in the year.

Alice Fox berries and leaf sketchbook page

edgelands

Alice Fox train tracks

I’ve really enjoyed reading Edgelands by Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts: a wonderfully playful mix of observations and poetic writing about those in between places that are not quite city, not quite countryside, not quite classifiable as one thing or another.

in their words:

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists, places where ruderals familiar here since the last ice sheets retreated have found a way to live with each successive wave of new arrivals, places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare, and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard, if we could only put aside our nostalgia for places we’ve never really known and see them afresh.  (p 10)

Edgelands are constantly shifting and being re-developed.  That’s part of what makes them dynamic, hard to pin down.  Some crop up in pockets close to city centres, where waste ground and industrial decline has offered space for the edgelands to self-seed. (p 213)

When I walk to my studio I go along part of the Leeds Liverpool canal, along the back of industrial buildings, offices, under roads, beside railway.  This is a classic example of an edgeland, an un-cared for piece of land that is pretty much left to its own devices, complete with rubbish, graffiti, weeds, ducks, magpies, blackbirds…  And this is the magic, the wildlife that just gets on with things.  The resilience and sheer bravery of some of the plants you find in these scruffy places, pushing up through cracks and flowering away no matter what, brings an enchantment to these walks and the sudden flit of a long-tailed tit can make my day.

Alice Fox pansies in the cracks

In Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places, having visited some of the most remote parts of the UK, he comes to recognise the wild all around him in his local landscape.  This is certainly true for me too.  While the call of the coast is never far from my mind and the lure of remoteness is always tempting, it is the wild of my streets and pathways that keeps me engaged with my landscape on a day to day basis.

Further reading: Weeds, Weeds & Wildflowers

Alice Fox stone and growth

thinking time

I’ve taken to the woods… I’m in a period of mixed activity: planning, proposing, thinking, updating etc.   Most of this is based at home and I do find that a change of scene works wonders when I’ve had enough of the computer screen and the same walls.

My nearest woods are ten minutes walk away and they are glorious right now.  Even on a grey damp day like today there is a riot of colour and a plethora of detail to be noticed.  I might draw; I might stop to write notes on what I’m thinking about; I might take a few photos; I might pick up a pocket full of acorns or a handful of leaves to play with back at home.

marks in the landscape

I’ve had a couple of days of meetings, which have been really useful and stimulating.  One was about the development of a new collaborative project (more on that another time) and the others were about my main project this year.  As a result I have renewed hope about possible funding.  I know I keep being vague in these posts about projects I’m planning and that is because I don’t want to announce things until everything is in place... hopefully that won’t be long now.  

We’re in the middle of a cold spell here with snow coming and going.  Yesterday was particularly wintery, with ice, remnants of last weekends’ snow and then rain just to make things extra slippery.  I drove over to Hebden Bridge to see Angie Rogers, an artist who’s work I admire and who was kind enough to give me some time to talk through various aspects of her recent residency.

The drive over the water shed between the Calder and Aire valleys is one I love.  You climb up from Haworth, through Oxenhope and then on the the moors that separate the two river systems.  Whatever the weather is doing in the valley, suddenly on the moors it can be so different.  It gets me every time!  Yesterday it was shrouded in mist and rain with the residue of recent snow marking out the features in the landscape.  It was bleak, cold and wild – bracing and breathtaking.  The subtle colours of the grasses, rushes and exposed peat are interspersed with patches of snow, which make a clean backdrop for stark stems.
 

Persistent rain made getting out of the car to take photographs a fairly quick affair, but sketches in the warmth of the car were possible.

Coming down off the tops the fields were suddenly visible, but still through mist.  A different layby, a different view.  Snow drifted along the walls mark out a pattern, almost a negative of the land without the snow.  Snow transforms the set of marks that make up the landscape; accentuates different features.  It lingers in dips and hollows in fields, revealing something new about the surface of the land.

something pretty

do something pretty while you can
Belle and Sebastian

I am always open to opportunities for creating something and this is particularly important when I’m in the middle of a period that doesn’t feel very productive creatively. I love long journeys, especially on a train (as long as it all goes to plan, but even if it doesn’t there is something of an adventure about it when you have to be flexible suddenly as things change).  I love that flashing past of landscape and tiny snapshots of detail.  Sometimes I’ll just let it flow past me and other times I want to record it.

I traveled to London again this weekend to be in the gallery for a day and then take down the Mall exhibition, which, by the way, was a real pleasure to have been involved in.  Spending time alone is refreshing and being away from home somehow forces you to spend time thinking.  

I have a little sketch book in my bag at all times.  This one is a new one and has just words so far (wiggly ones as most were written on a moving train).  Here are some of the words from my journey:


It has been the most sparklingly beautiful of winter days
clear blue sky all day
bright but pale sunshine and a hard frost, which has remained in place all day wherever the sun hasn’t reached.


The almost-setting sun races along on my right
sometimes almost blinding
sometimes obscured from view
by a wall or partially by the filigree network of silhouetted trees.


The shapes of the trees cannot hide in this clear light
each one standing tall and naked and still
shadows cast by the low sun turn an otherwise featureless field into a striking series of ridges


A frozen pond
an abandoned playground
church steeples
church towers
an old windmill tower
all grey silhouettes 
cut out shapes against an only-just blue sky


A solitary small cloud
shaped like a child’s drawing of a horse
now a camel
then some kind of sea creature
is crossed by a small flock of birds.
Where do they go with such purpose on as cold a day as this?


The fiery orange ball slips into the horizon haze
swiftly changing the mood
bleached stubble in disarray over dark earth
Suddenly the clarity is gone
a mist adds to the gathering darkness.


On my return journey it was dark all the way so I couldn’t see out of the window.  Instead I read the whole of a book that I was given for my last birthday but hadn’t opened yet (see the list of books by my bed):  A Bigger Message – Conversations with David Hockney, by Martin Gayford.  I love the fact that you can read a whole book on one journey.  I would never sit and read a book like that at home, always too much else to do.  

David Hockney is someone for whom my admiration and respect grow all the time.  Before moving to Saltaire I knew very little about him and, for me, his work has taken time to ‘get’.  Having a major collection of his work a few minutes walk away from my home means that I’ve been able to get to know it slowly.  He is such an exciting artist who is constantly pushing things.  Inspiring stuff!