Tag Archives: simon schama

on a small painting, out of the woods

Sunday 11 September 2011

this is a small abstract painting on watercolour paper, completed a couple of months back. it’s for the forthcoming ‘mini artworks prize draw’ in the artworks exhibition. the sombre, muted colours and vertical, layered striations in this small painting appear to be slightly influenced by my time sketching trees and bark in local woodlands.

small abstract painting, trees, bark, dark green, woods, woodland
[wildwood iv, 2011. 6″ x  6″, or 15cm x 15cm]

there is also a small copse (perhaps it is now a real, grown-up, maturing ‘wood’) bordering the far end of the garden. although i see this small piece of woodland everyday, i do not go into it to paint or draw as it is privately-owned land – perhaps just to rescue an errant roosting hen who once had a free two-night stay on the wilder side of the fence. on the third (could-be) night of freedom, a short time after dusk she was eventually located by taking a slow, spiralling inward path around the copse, sleepily plumped between the lower fork of branches of a tree. this twilight woodland escapade inevitably disturbed the dozing wildlife of pheasants, wood pigeons and so on – and i was reminded of these words:

‘we do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of going deeper and deeper into a limitless world.’

[gaston bachelard, the poetics of space]

this ‘limitless world’ seems to be a psychological or phenomenological one, a self-realised world mostly obscured by the modern day-to-day concerns of stability, security & safety. it is not often that we are allowed go there. it is in our human makeup to have fear & doubt (and respond to it) and the experience of being in the woods (or forests, mountains, seas or oceans) enables both a sense of place and the natural order of things in the world – and it is most deeply felt when one is alone. the naturalist david attenborough has often said that we should always be reminded that we are just one of many species co-habiting the earth.

bachelard made an interesting distinction between the perception of woods (or forests) and fields. in the landscape of fields we are a witness and perhaps an accomplice to the passage of time; we experience, share and create memories in the seasonal or manmade rhythms of it. in the dark depths of the forest bachelard perceives time as ‘before-me, before-us’, that is, it is behind us, in the past. the forest is ancient and the trees are the ancestral markers of time. in the woods, i sometimes sense that time has paused, it has ‘disconnected’ me from the brightly illuminated present, time idles in the shadows.

when i have studied the more philosophical or poetic appeal of woodland i have found it overgrown with many metaphors, myths, rituals, stories and legends, often wildly conflicting with the socio-economic changes of the times (fuel, timber, hunting, livestock and so forth). by the 11th century it has been estimated there was no more than 15 percent of natural woodland covering england and the remaining woods and forests developed into sites of rural industries. it was ‘not an imaginary utopia; it was a vigorous working society’, as the historian simon schama describes it, later saying that the ‘greenwood idyll was disappearing into house beams, dye vats, ship timbers’ – and with more bureaucratic management of woodland, a little corruption and misdemeanour along the way.

it seems, quite naturally so, for there to be an urgent need to re-establish or conserve our woodlands, with something of a reversion to the pre-industrial green wildwoods of folklore, but if the woods are not really a ‘greenwood idyll’ or the way into a more mysterious, esoteric other-world, then what, exactly…

and that deep softness of delicious hues
that overhead blends – softens – and subdues
the eye to extacy and fills the mind
with views and visions of enchanting kind

[wood pictures in summer, john clare]

i have been reading carus again, and he sums up the experience of the woods in a manner that i relate to:

tranquil reflection takes hold of us; we feel our unruly ambitions and aspirations held in check; we enter into the cycle of nature and transcend ourselves.

[carl gustav carus, 1824, from nine letters on landscape painting]

whether there is any direct relation between this german sentiment and previously referred-to eastern aesthetics i cannot be sure – perhaps it is a universal sentiment which is merely muted by the concerns of modernity.

trees (or nature, as it is perceived) will continue to be seen as a symbols of hope over adversity. however, i am conversely reminded of the idiom, we are not ‘out of the woods’ yet. for the artist, ever aware of the past, present and future, hopes that every picture paints its own story – and i have been drawn into the woods in a desire to escape routine – and, like the errant roosting hen, it is one of those times when one momentarily forgets to take the usual path home…

so many words to accompany such a small painting! over a thousand words and i should thank you for reading them.

however, i must conclude dear reader, by saying that someone somewhere will (soon) acquire the small ‘wildwood iv’ painting on paper shown above. tickets for the artworks prize draw are on sale at £2 each (and you can buy more than one, too). all the mini artworks are 6″ x 6″ and they are window-mounted for easy framing. the thirty mini artworks are currently on display in the artworks exhibition (which opened yesterday). i will also purchase a prize draw ticket to be in with a chance of winning one of the thirty original artworks illustrated below, but if i won my own painting then i should have to give it away again.

the ‘janette place’ artworks prize draw is named in recognition of one artworks artist, janette place, who initiated the first artworks prize draw (she died in 2005). the prize draw supports artworks ‘artists in schools’ programme, with a proportion of the money raised given to a local nominated charity. this year artworks have elected to support Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Bradfield Green Oak project, an education centre built from green oak harvested from SWT’s own nature reserves as part of their conservation management programme.

the artworks prize draw takes place at 4pm on saturday 1st october 2011. you can read more about the mini artworks prize draw on the artworks blog.

i have ten works currently on show in the artworks exhibition at blackthorpe barn, rougham, suffolk, which runs from 10 september to 2 october 2011 (10am – 5pm, open daily). there is also the ‘ artworks shop’ with a changing display of small artworks for sale: paintings, original prints (no reproduction giclees!) and drawings, 3D works and an extensive range of artist cards. i have some of my papier mache bowls in the shop.

Artworks is a professional art group of thirty contemporary East Anglian artists. Each September we have an annual exhibition at Blackthorpe Barn in the heart of rural Suffolk.

some new works also on show at Reunion Gallery’s ‘Refresh’ tenth anniversary exhibition on now and until 22 Oct 2011

taking the scenic route

Tuesday 4 August 2009

bird on a rooftop with clouds
[bird on a rooftop]

i know quite a few artists that make a humble living by making and selling their work through galleries and online; their work is very appealing, uplifting, well crafted, they have numerous private collectors, a loyal and appreciative audience for their work… i know other artists who
sell little if any personal work to the general buying public; rather, they work within the public realm, seeking and securing funding to engage in collaborative or public artworks, residencies, installations and performances… such work demands a lot of research and development (supported in the main by grants or public commissions), not just of the making or marketing of events, products or ideas, but reading philosophical texts, classical literature, social history documents, as each project has a specific means to an end… both types of art are necessarily self-indulgent (even if collaborative), as an artist cannot make unique works without some form of ego present, a sense of personal identity is embedded in the creation of the work, this is what i need to do, to work out, to find, to understand, to resolve, to share with others…

working in public art or collaborative installation art doesn’t appeal… i need to work on nurturing ideas quietly, an environment in which to think and create alone, and not feel that i have to work from research to concept to outcome in a step-by-step plan of intended artwork to gain the interest of the funders… having a part-time job has allowed me some freedom to pursue my own ideas at times without the pressure of selling each month just to get by; selling is always good but it is not what initially drives the need to create… making art just to sell seems shallow somehow, is it really art or just another commodity? i could make jam or knit dolls instead (except that i can’t knit)…
however, i know that the art industry is kept most buoyant by ordinary people loving and buying art that enriches their lives, and when you get that sense of connection, of communication with others through your work it beats any publicly funded art activity, where the ones to congratulate the artist will most likely be the critics and curators… so, i often wonder whose opinion is more valid to the artist, the buyer or the critic, and where do i fit in this?…

i have particular ideas and concepts that seem to continually evolve around my perception of landscape, from the transient and the ephemeral, the signs of casual neglect or decay that not only remind me that we are mortal beings, but that what we build is destroyed over time, that the environment is forever evolving according to environmental circumstance, and the resilience of nature confirms a deeper state of renewal, a sense of the ancestral or secret history in both the largest and smallest signs of nature amid the bustle of the manmade… but then this leads on to how to translate it, beyond a mere depiction or recording of it, it is not static… how to convey visual experiences when relying on the cloudy senses of memory and recall, conjuring up an abstract of a location, the socio-historical associations or physical juxtapositions, selecting the most important elements… the landscape cannot be made more real or understood in a straight 3:4 format, it is multi-layered, it resonates at many levels, the sharp contrasts with the soft, the ancient with the new, the brazen with the gentle, the lofty with the minutiae, movement and stillness, a slow intertwining of the metaphysical with the physical… these edges, boundaries and layers of perception always fascinate and inspire me… as simon schama said in his book landscape and memory:

Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory, as from layers or rock

science makes good use of the abstract to convey concrete actions, from the molecular to the macro, from cellular activity to the origin of species; we are used to maps, diagrams or charts to help make sense of complex events… but, within the realm of art there are still many who desire the clearest representation or most faithful reproduction in order to trust it; the artist who distorts or omits the facts of things is cheating us, it doesn’t make sense as we know or think it to be… critics and curators exert considerable influence on those who engage in contemporary art, their word in respected, it raises profiles, adds authenticity, offers explanations, a seal of approval…but, in art there can be no absolute truth, as once made it is untethered from its source, and gathered up in the momentum of new interpretations… all associated stories or sensations will therefore be unique, understood differently, even if the moment is visibly shared… to quote the infamous william blake, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite…’