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.

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

moving water

When I was down at the Contemporary Craft Fair in Devon a couple of weeks ago I spent a morning escaping from the intense experience of the show in the relative tranquility of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen‘s gallery, over the road in Bovey Tracey.

I needed a little space away from the thinking and talking that we were so busy with all weekend (I was on a research trip with others from the Saltaire Arts Trail).  The gallery featured an interesting exhibition about engagement with the senses.  I found the work by Marcia Smilack particularly interesting and spent a long time sitting in the booth separated off from the main gallery watching her projected images.

Marcia describes herself as a ‘reflectionist’ and photographs reflections on moving water.  Her images look like they’ve been manipulated but they haven’t.  She experiences synesthesia and I found her descriptions of each image really intriguing as the senses she described were all jumbled up: sound = colour; sight = texture. For someone who doesn’t experience colour in this mulit-sensory way it seems incomprehensible that a sight can trigger a sound and vice versa so I sat for a long time trying to imagine what it must be like.  I find that smells trigger very vivid memories… we all experience things in subtly different ways.

Marcia says she “collaborates with nature” and creates “paintings by camera”.

I found all this particularly interested as just a week before I’d been filming little clips of moving water at Spurn.  I’m not trying to capture the same things that Marcia is but there was enough of a link to make me really spend some time with this work.

This is the image that I enjoyed the most: Cello Music.