Northey Island

This time last week I was on an island surrounded by water, mud, birds, boats and a clear blue sky… Northey Island is in the Blackwater Estuary, Essex and has only two houses on it. One of these was ours for the weekend for a workshop through which we explored the island and recorded our experience of it.

The approach to the island is via a causeway that is covered for a few hours at high tide. It only takes half an hour or so to walk right round the island. Salt marsh and mud continue beyond the land you can safely walk on, creating tantalising patterns that extend toward the watery edges and change with the ebb and flow of the tide.

After a period of bad weather we were blessed with a dry weekend of sunshine and blue skies, a keen wind and stars at night. Spending much of the time outside, we undertook a series of mark making, drawing, printing and recording activities, with students exploring different aspects of the place. We also shared our marks in a collaborative exercise one evening.

Then we made a series of books with our marked papers, which became our personal records of the place to take away.

flax

I spent most of last week on a workshop in Devon at the studio of Susie Gillespie. I do quite a lot of teaching now and I feel it is really important to be on the other side of that sometimes too. The workshop was all about growing, processing and spinning flax into yarn and then weaving with it. It was a really stimulating workshop in a lovely location and I felt very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to be there.

There is a lovely vocabulary that goes with this activity: retting, rippling, combing, breaking, scutching…

It is quite an involved business to get this small hand full of fibres ready to spin. I quickly developed a huge respect for peoples of the past whose only way to have cloth was through this series of processes.

I’ve not done any spinning before, although I do have my Granny’s spinning wheel in the cellar. I’m hoping to use it now I’ve had an introduction. The linen yarn I spun was very hairy and more like rough string than beautiful linen thread, but it is a start and I am looking forward to improving my spinning skills.

It was also good to see a little of the surrounding landscape with walks along part of the River Dart and a windy bit of the coast at Man Sands.

We did some natural dyeing, ending up with a lovely colour palette of linen threads to play with and incorporate into our weaving. I was asked to lead a stitching session on one of the days: we used the dyed threads and a host of items we collected on our walks.

I will be teaching with Susie in April and August this year and I’m really looking forward to returning to this lovely pocket of Devon.

mud cloth

Alice Fox weave strip

At Easter I collected some mud from a tributary of the Severn Estuary, whilst down in Somerset. The tubs of this lovely mud have been sitting patiently in my studio, waiting for me to open them up and play with their wonderful smooth contents. I’ve been weaving away at a long strip for quite some time and this came off the loom last week. Although it was woven on a table loom, once off the loom I manipulated it so that most of it became densely packed, covering the warp in a tapestry weave structure.

Alice Fox Mud Cloth

This morning the strip was coated in the silky estuarine mud. Freshly muddied and still wet it has taken on a ceramic quality. It will dry slowly now and its surface quality will change as it does so. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to the surface as it changes.

away

Alice Fox Eastbourne beachcombing

Time flies: I realise I post much less frequently here than I used to and than I would like to. I have been away for much of the last three weeks and seem to have spanned a great deal of the country in the process. I had a wonderful few days teaching in Eastbourne (on the South coast) before Easter. As a group we explored the beach, collecting in different ways and then used what we had collected in a variety of techniques – great fun and a chance to explore an area I didn’t know.

Alice Fox River Axe North Somerset

Easter saw me in North Somerset (in the South West) with my family in the beautiful Mendip Hills. I snatched an opportunity for a bit of mud lurking – more on that another time.

Alice Fox boats in mud sketch

Then we had a few days in the depths of Snowdonia, off grid and off everything else apart from a tent and whatever we could carry. We were blessed with the most amazing weather and managed to get the whole party (youngest 6) up to the top of Snowdon (the highest mountain in England and Wales) in glorious spring sunshine with a dramatic helicopter rescue (not one of us!) to add a bit of drama.

Alice Fox Lliwedd from Snowdon

After a night at home I headed north to give a talk just over the Scottish border. I spent the morning on a windy walk overlooking Lindisfarne and its causeway in Northumberland. Serenaded by skylarks and calling waders the colours and creeks of the salt marsh were brought to life in the clear air.

Alice Fox causeway sketch

Meanwhile, an article by Wendy Feldberg on artists using rust in their work has been published in Fibre Art Now and is available here.

deep, enchanted silt

Alice Fox Severn Estuary mud

While I was down in Gloucestershire with Tide Marks I took the limited opportunities I had to get out of town and see a bit of the area. I was particularly keen to get to the Severn and see a bit of the estuary: the closest to being by the sea I might experience for a while. During the exhibition, which I was responsible for stewarding most of the time, I got to talk to a lot of people about the work on show. Most assume I live by the sea and it always seems a bit ridiculous when I explain that I live a good two hours drive from both the east and west coasts of northern England. Following these gallery conversations I have been reflecting on what it is that draws me to the coast, physically and creatively. I can justify the starting point of much of this recent work by explaining about the Spurn residency and that makes sense, but I am aware that it really goes deeper than that. I know that much of the ideas and images of coastal detail that I have been exploring and that continue to preoccupy me come from places visited all through my life, particularly on the west coast of Scotland. I think that we all have a relationship with the sea and its edge, which stems from childhood and holiday;, the feeling of escape to such places; the ‘clean slate’ and the new possibilities that are created twice a day by the tides; the fact that standing on a beach looking out to the seeming infinity of ‘the sea’ can be restorative and settling even if the weather and water are stormy. Despite living away from the coast the images and ideas from a visit to such a place can sustain me creatively or pre-cooupy me for months or longer. Each experience is added to the memory bank and re-enforces something I’m trying to explore.

My work isn’t all tied to the coast, it is really tied to whatever place I am in at any one time: it is about my experience of landscape, whether that landscape is my garden and the streets around my home or somewhere far-flung that I’ve travelled to. We present work in distinct ‘projects’ but it is really a continuum: everything leads on to the next thing. So when people ask if i’ve ‘finished with this coastal thing?’ I certainly haven’t finished with it: I don’t think I ever will, but on the other hand it doesn’t mean that things won’t move on. I am aware that the found object has become more and more important. The connection with beach-combing is obvious, but collecting small items of importance to me is also something I’ve done all my life: as a child it was dead insects, feathers, shells. Bird skulls were a particular prize from beach holidays and I still have some of these collections. These treasures have always been part of me understanding and studying the detail of the world around me. I see the objects that find their way into our pockets as tangible links to the places we visit. Of course this is a very common practice. This extract from Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places sums it up nicely:

For as long as I could remember, we had picked things up as we walked. Humdrum, everyday rites, practised by millions of people…. Now, though, collecting offered a way both to remember and to join up my wild places…. The objects seemed to hold my landscapes together, without binding them too tightly.

It was good to be by the Severn and I would like to get to know this estuary better. After my first degree I worked for a year on a conservation project tied to the River Severn and got to know little bits of its vast catchment, although almost exclusively further upstream than where I visited this time. All through my physical geography degree and my subsequent career in nature conservation my focus was on rivers and wetlands. Wet places excite me in all sorts of ways! It was good to re-connect just a little with this mighty river. The section that is tidal is fascinating because it sits between the worlds of the river and the sea. There is the constant change of the tidal range and this amazing mud that is exposed twice a day. As Elizabeth Bishop says in her poem The Riverman:

The river breathes in salt
and breathes it out again,
and all is sweetness there
in the deep, enchanted silt.

On returning home I picked up my current bedtime reading book Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and read this passage that was, by coincidence, about the part of the Severn Estuary not far from where I had been:

Here the otter forages in the slippery inter-tidal zone. It’s not ground and not water, shining with a slow seeping that is almost impossible for humans to negotiate.

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t scoop up a handful of the sticky stuff to have a proper play with.

Alice Fox Severn Estuary edge