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.
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.
I like the quiet pause that comes at the closing of one year and the opening of the next. There is a delicious stillness, particularly today, the first of January. This stillness is to be breathed in deeply and then exhaled slowly as the wheels of routine turn and normality resumes over the coming days.
Yesterday, at dusk, we walked in the woods and listened to the wind in the trees. The rooks that roost in the trees along the top of the wood were chattering and restless, scattered groups in other parts of the valley. We waited. Eventually they started to gather; more and more coming together and settling under the narrowest sliver of a new moon.
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.
When I was in Italy a few weeks ago we explored the nearby lanes and land, collecting plant material and objects that we could make use of in the studio through various printing, mark making and construction techniques. Most of what we used then went to the tip when we’d finished with it. There was a lot of rubbish on the lanes, so I feel that we did quite a good litter-picking job, making use of things before they went in the bin.
There was charred wooden debris amongst the olive trees, presumably as a result of tree pruning, the brash being burnt on site. I used a piece to draw with on my first walk around the fields. There was also the smell of bonfires in the air all week as neighbouring farms and small holdings cleared the land ready for the growing season ahead.
There were a few objects that I picked up in the olive grove around the Masseria and these came home with me to the studio. I have since been playing with them and forming new structures and surfaces in response. These will form part of Findings, which I will be showing later in the year. There were various nut shells: walnut, almond and acorn cups. The acorns from the majestic Macedonian Oak, which we saw in various places are huge in comparison to the ones I’m used to here in the UK.
I’ve been making small vessel structures from paper yarn and once the surface of these is rubbed with mud they take on a really interesting quality. These structures are made with a looping stitch, sewing with a needle but building up a three-dimensional form. I used the same looping stitch but with a pliable linen thread on the burnt olive wood, encasing and wrapping the forms, getting to know each line, crack or subtle change in the surface as I work my way round and round the wood. And as I handle the wood the aroma of smoke takes me back to the place that they were found.
I’ve been back to Spurn for the first time since my residency ended 3 1/2 years ago. It felt so good walking the whole peninsula again, some parts very familiar and some bits significantly changed by the elements since my last visit. Some great wildlife encounters made the day really special too: a dolphin (sadly dead, but fascinating to see), a short-eared owl, a lizard, curlew, deer, butterflies…
The lighthouse is now spick and span in its newly re-furbished state, with a new coat of paint inside and out. It is now open to the public regularly and there is some sensitive interpretation inside to help the visitor understand the history of this wonderful heritage building and the unique location it overlooks.
Luckily it was a beautiful day, although with a cold wind, so the views were long-ranging and at their very best. As ever there was all sorts of weird and wonderful (and not so wonderful) stuff washed up on the beach, including various balls of fishing line caught up into bundles with other debris attached, like un-natural tumble-weeds.
I took along some of the work I made during my residency and have donated a piece to The Wildlife Trust, who manage Spurn. This will go up either in the lighthouse or in one of the other visitor spaces. The other pieces I took with me are now on display in the Bluebell Cafe in Kilnsea. It’s lovely to have some of my work back there, where it came from and where it belongs.
Earlier this month I was fortunate to be in Southern Italy, teaching at the wonderful Masseria della Zingara. We had a great week exploring the land around the Masseria, walking the lanes, collecting things to use in the studio and using various techniques to record our experience. We collected, printed, stained, wrote, stitched, wove, folded . . . and ate!
Spring was in full swing (which it certainly isn’t yet here in the UK!) and we were surrounded by fruit trees in blossom, beautiful wild flowers and a green lushness that I’m sure will have gone once the temperatures rise later in the year. The wonderful red earth in that part of Italy provides a striking foil for the colours of growth. And of course my travel reading had to be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, which provides the story for one of my favourite films, a must-see at this time of year.
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.
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.
Last week was a working week away from home on the North Yorkshire coast: a week of walking, reading, thinking and developing work towards my Findings exhibition; a week of changing weather, windy cliff-tops, cold fingers on the beach, fossils and falling cliffs, stunning views…
upside-down limpets, marks on rocks left by limpets, pebbles and pellets…
mud underfoot (and half way up the trousers), mud on woven thread, mud trails left by periwinkles at low tide…
As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I spent my 40th birthday exploring the wonderful Hackfall woods in North Yorkshire. This special place is a historic landscape garden, which appears wild but has been manipulated by the hand of man for over 400 years. Now managed by The Woodland Trust and The Hackfall Trust, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
For two whole days, from sunrise to beyond moonrise, we drank every detail of the woodland in. Walking every path, treading each 18th century step, discovering all the carefully planned vistas and more. From our precariously perched hideaway we looked down onto the steeply sloping valley, lined with a tapestry of trees recently exposed as their winter selves. The luminous larch held the light and glowed from it’s soon-to-drop yellowing needles. Walking amongst the trees we came upon the recumbent trunk of a fallen tree that had become home to a whole community of plant species: a garden where fairies might have partied, littering the populated surface of the trunk with their tattered wings. The death of majestic birds was exposed before us on the path: blood spilled and feathers strewn. The naked pink of sycamore stems caught our attention. We marvelled at hazel branches holding droplets to sparkle in the last light as the moon rose behind silhouetted boughs. And through it all the rushing river wound its noisy way; energetic always. Water is a constant in this wood: dripping, rushing, hanging, pooling, reflecting.
Those tattered fairy wings I found were sycamore keys in various states of delicate decay. I collected a few, popping them into a little jar to study later. Back in my studio I emptied out the jar and laid out the keys. Counting them I found that I had collected exactly 40. I set out to draw each one, studying the detail of their veined surface and aiming to capture something of their fragility.
The drawings are made in walnut ink on watercolour postcards. The ink was made from walnut husks gathered in the Yorkshire garden of a friend. The first few of the series are now posted in my shop and a donation will be made to The Woodland Trust from the sale of each drawing. My drawings are ongoing, a few a week until all 40 are made. I’ll let you know how I get on.