Confinement & cul-de-sacs…

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”A time of gifts’ © Mari French 2020

I’ve never left my blog unwritten for such a long time before. It’s good to be back. In the past few months of the Covid crisis, I just haven’t been able to summon up the will or the words to write about my art. As for the art itself, like many artists in these strange times, I’ve been floundering around a little lost for a while. With 3 exhibitions cancelled/moved online, Open Studios also cancelled, galleries closed etc, it’s hardly surprising I suppose. It’s not that I haven’t been painting, and I’ve made myself go to the studio to do something a few times a week at least, it’s just that each spurt of creative activity – sketching, collage, painting – has seemed to fizzle out after a short time. Cul-de-sacs I’ve started to call them.

However, each little cul-de-sac has produced some interesting results, so perhaps they hold some promise for a future way forward; like one of those narrow hidden footpaths you can often use for access to the area beyond the cul-de-sac, the one cars can’t take.

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Ploughed fields & tree belt, near Anmer. Sketchbook. © Mari French 2020

With anything more than a long walk forbidden here in the UK, in the last few months, coastal visits weren’t an option (I live 20 minutes drive from the beautiful North Norfolk coastline, where the reedbeds and saltmarshes are a great source of inspiration), I’ve been out sketching the local fields and farmland – something I haven’t really done since moving to Norfolk 10 years ago.

I loved the way the early spring sunshine caught the ploughed fields, exaggerating the russet and ochres of the sand and chalk soil. And the hares were out in force chasing each other in large groups. I haven’t taken these any further though, hopefully at some future point…

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Ploughed field, Anmer Road, with flint. © Mari French 2020

Meanwhile, at the airbase, outside my studio, is a large cherry tree which was covered in deep pink blossom back in March. It was only when a glorious deep pink started to appear in a series of small experimental works on paper, that I realised how the blossom had entered my subconscious. These works look great on some lovely small white cradled wooden panels I’ve bought. I really enjoyed these but as I said, it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I keep going back to them, so they’re going to get picked up again at some point.

Later in spring, mostly confined to my garden (I know, I’m lucky compared to many) and with almost a month of warm sunshine, my glorious tulips, ‘La belle époque’, just had to be sketched. Then in the studio, I set about abstracting them, in both mixed media and collage, which I enjoyed, before (yes you guessed it) I once again hit a cul-de-sac. Still, I’m excited by the potential of these small works so who knows.

Below is the mixed media collage I produced as part of this abstract tulip work  (all the papers using in it were created by myself, including the calligraphy). Which reminds me I haven’t posted the experimental collage I was developing back in February before the virus hit, so I’ll add them to the next post (it won’t take as long as this one post did I promise!).

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‘Palimpsest’, mixed media collage © Mari French 2020

Lost in space…and back to earth

Cropped detail of mixed media Dungeness artwork

I’m steadily getting used to the new studio. Since my previous post, back in early October, I’ve made myself spend a lot of time in my new big white space, even on the rainy depressing days when I didn’t want to. And I’m steadily developing a new series of mixed media works on paper, inspired by that Dungeness visit a few months ago. So the painting is going pretty well, considering, and that’s helped with my apprehension and sense of being ‘lost’ in the space.

Cropped detail of mixed media Dungeness painting

I also rediscovered a book full of images of artists’ studios and spaces which reminded me that, being a bit of a magpie at home (it’s full of vintage/collectibles), I could spill my collecting over into this place and I’d feel more comfortable and hopefully inspired by being surrounded by stuff I love, whilst at the same time reducing that expanse of white!

There’ve been teething problems naturally – the building, like a lot of the airbase, has been basically neglected since the 1980s when the MOD left. Fortunately I have a very practical, patient and helpful other half, so rainwater leaking in from the glass ‘lantern’ in the roof, draughts, problems with getting the log burner going, are sorted or in hand, thankfully. It’s not easy to heat either, so the padded overalls I bought several years ago are still an essential.

Cropped detail from mixed media Dungeness painting

Meanwhile, I’m loving working on the latest paintings – gouache, ink, acrylic etc on paper and newsprint. As with much of my work there’s an element of serendipity involved in the process, of seeing what happens to that ink when I wet it further, of obscuring and revealing, planned and accidental, layering, veiling with gesso, scribbling and scoring, and so on.

Cropped detail from Dungeness mixed media painting

Several works from this series need to be kept under wraps until early next year, but you can see a few cropped details in this post.

Cropped detail from mixed media Dungeness painting

Dungeness: sun, angels & black tar

 

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Been slipping behind with posting this year, it’s been so busy, what with moving into a new studio which has been more time-consuming and tiring than I could have imagined (more of which in the next post), preparing for a solo exhibition and several other shows I’m taking part in. However, I’ve been wanting to tell you about my sketching trip to Dungeness back in August, so here goes.

I’ve been determined to return to this otherworldly stretch of shingle, old black fishing huts and strange structures ever since I spent a brief few hours there last October. So I arranged to spend 4 nights in nearby Littlestone and travelled the few miles into Dungeness each day to get as much sketching done as possible, with the intention of prompting a new series of work.

Dungeness boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, old boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, for those unfamiliar with it (the UK version by the way), is a wedge of coast sticking out into the English Channel between Dover and Eastbourne on the South East coast of England. ‘Denge’ meaning ‘dangerous’ and ‘Ness’ nose or promontory. Over a long time longshore drift has piled up acres of shingle into a landscape of dunes and levels. It’s always been a fishing area but now many of the old black-tarred huts with their rusting iron winches are decaying or gone. There’s enough of them left though, along with evidence of old MOD structures, set up between the wars, and the more recent bulk of the Nuclear power station, plus the two distinctive lighthouses, to make this a fascinating place for artists and photographers. Wooden hulks of derelict and still operative fishing boats also litter this stretch of coastline.

Bright sunshine and a strong coastal wind made for tricky sketching conditions, but I pushed myself to fill as much of my sketchbook as possible, also playing around with collaging and sketching in it back at my selfcatering place in the evenings. I went through the usual (for me) dilemma of having a fairly short time in an inspiring place, yet trying to cram in as much work as I could. I was exhausted after several fraught and tiring weeks of moving studio etc, yet I resisted taking it easy. I had to remind myself that all the time I’m there I’m taking in colours, texture, shape, sounds etc, subconsciously, even if I’m not completing as much of the sketchbook as I wanted to. I know from previous experience it will come out in the work I eventually produce, if I allow it. But it seems I have to go through this palaver each time!

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Dungeness impressions, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Anyway, as you can see from this post, I did get a fair bit done, and am pretty pleased and excited by most of the results. I tried to avoid painting my usual loose, but obvious watercolour  ‘scenes’ this time. I think I succeeded a bit. I’d taken pre-stained tissue and other collage materials to help the process and to get quickly away from ‘white page’ syndrome. This was great fun when sat on shingle in the teeth of a blustery wind – hanging onto my hat with one hand and my collage bits with the other! It’s a nature reserve, and many wildflowers were growing among the shingle, the last thing I wanted to do was litter it with bits of paper!

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Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

A few notes from my sketchbook:

So much light here. Sun is hot and wind has backed off…

Today I can see why this stretch of coast is said to have the most sunlight in the UK. The sky is a huge dome, the heat shimmers from the shingle and the tall wooden ‘angel’ structure ripples in the distance.* …

I lost the plot a bit with the wind today, it didnt work as intended, but it’ll remind me of the day! And I may be able to adapt it …

Just wandered round Derek Jarman’s garden** at Prospect Cottage. It feels like a church, very touching and, with the wind whistling in the overhead wires, beautiful but sad. ‘Busy olde foole, unruly sun’…

Dungeness Open Studios: series of small huts selling the art and linocuts of artist Paddy Hamilton. Bought one of the ‘Beach Angel’ linoprints, which shows what looks like an angel on the shingle with a trumpet, but on closer inspection turns out to be a shrimp fisherman hoisting his shovel and his great long shrimp net behind him …

If I had a few more days I’d probably get the balance of exploration, input and response about right. Wish I could stay longer …

*This very tall wooden cross structure was erected when the power station was built and was found to be blocking the view of the church which vessels used to line up their sights and navigate safely on this stretch of coast. Reminds me of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. A overseeing guardian.

**Derek Jarman, film-maker, artist, writer, gardener made his home here when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. He filled his shingle garden with indigenous wild plants and made sculptures from old found wooden and rusting salvaged items. The first and last verses of John Dunne’s poem ‘The sun rising’ is picked out in wooden letters covering the whole of one wall of his black-tarred traditional cottage with its yellow framed windows. The cottage and garden are now a very popular attraction in Dungeness. Jarman died in 1994 and is buried in nearby Old Romney.

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