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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, an article by Wendy Feldberg on artists using rust in their work has been published in Fibre Art Now and is available here.
I’ve just posted off my entry to this year’s Sketchbook Project. My book is called Contemplating the Badger and is made up of drawings of a dead badger that I met last September. Encounters with wildlife in this way provide a closeness that we are never afforded when they are alive. It may seem morbid to want to study an animal that has met with an end like this but I see it as an opportunity to understand more about them. It was particularly moving to find this young badger freshly killed (by a car) within days of the badger cull being re-started in the area of the country I was visiting, something I strongly disagree with. Very sad. One of my all time favourite books is a collection of drawings from wildlife by Keith Brockie. Many of his studies are made from dead animals: the model stays still! I have had his books since childhood and I go back to them again and again.
In order to fit my badger into the small format of the standard Sketchbook Project book I took the book apart and laid the pages out together so that I could work on a larger scale. I drew from a series of photos I had taken. The pages were then re-constructed back into their book form. The drawings are therefore broken up and somewhat abstracted. I have also included on my pages words from a poem of the same title as my book by Nigel Morgan:
I stopped the car I was alone,
I snapped it three times
with my phone and now
it lies here on his desk,
three shots of this dead thing,
its dark blue pool of blood
that spills half on the road
half on the grass, from deep
inside its side it’s dead,
and really still,
it has a such beauty,
This weekend there was a magpie dead on the road near my house. My daughter told me it was there so we went to look. It was laid out in the middle of the road. I removed it from its undignified position and spent a couple of hours drawing it.
Contemplating the Badger will eventually be able to view either as part of the Sketchbook Project tour or via the digital library, once it has arrived and been processed. Previous contributions to the project can be seen here and here.
I’m busy writing, trying to get my book finished for the deadline I have in a few weeks time. I am making the most of a day or two to myself while the kids are off splashing in the sea (she says jealously) and I’m plugging away at it.
In between summer holiday parent duties I snatch the odd moment to put something on paper in a sketchbook, recording things I’m seeing or things I’ve found. It doesn’t matter what it is – the act of drawing is the important thing and the discipline of being present in the moment for it to really work. I am reading John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook and am reminded of the pleasure and relevance of the practice of drawing – something I often tell myself I should do more of. The problem is fitting it all in to the routine . . .
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was preparing drawings for a publication. The publication is now live and is available as an e-book. This collaboration brings together poetry by Nigel Morgan (if you have my book Tide Marks you will have come across his beautiful poems already) with my illustrations taken from various sketchbooks. Many of these drawings were done en plain air, attempting to capture something of the experience of these places, although they weren’t done in the knowledge that they would later be publicly viewed – this kind of sketchbook is a very personal record of place.
These images and words blend together as evidence of such visits in each other’s company, and occasionally alone. Some of what you see or read has come into being in situ, others as dream memories. Together they form a record of time spent unconfined, in the opened air and the pressing wind, sighting distance, or observing the close confusion of what lies at the feet, or near at hand.
Having had the very rewarding experience of publishing a small number of books so far, initially with help and then as my own publisher, the concept of the e-book is one I am very interested in. It has to be the ultimate in sustainable publications – no actual materials being used etc. But, being a hands-on craft-orientated artist, the fact that I can’t hold this thing in my hands, turn the pages and feel the surface of the paper is something I have to put aside and accept: this is a different experience. Collaboration pushes you in directions that you might not have taken on your own, provides new possibilities and opportunities to learn as a result.
I’ve been sorting through drawings for a forthcoming collaborative publication. It has been lovely to re-visit sketchbooks from the last few years and to pick out drawings that are right for the context. Here are a few contenders:
I took the opportunity to have some time by the sea, both at Bridlington and a little further up the coast at Filey. Despite the persistent cold weather we’re having there was some beautiful sunshine and it was quite a wrench to tear myself away from the beach. There were all sorts of intriguing marks in the bright white stones, some almost like stitches.