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

Surfacing…

Blakey Ridge, North York Moors, sketchbook, 2019. © Mari French

I recently spent a week in Rosedale, a beautiful valley in the North York Moors National Park. Although it was intended mainly as a relaxing break (and it was) I also wanted to revisit and spend time sketching the high moorland plateau that inspired me so much back in August last year (see my earlier post ).

 

On the last visit I’d been attracted to the dramatic ruins of the old ironstone mine workings above Rosedale, resulting in several abstract interpretations that were accepted for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 2019 at the Mall Galleries, London, four of which are now on show at Bils and Rye, a contemporary gallery in Kirkbymoorside, near Pickering, North Yorkshire.

Abstract landscape sketch of moorland under rain, in ink and charcoal.

Rain over Farndale Moor, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

However, this time I was drawn to the variety of surface texture, linear marks, colour and play of light on the upland plateau itself. Whereas the flowering heather covered the moors in a glorious purple last august, this time the colours were quieter, with striking rectangular patches of burnt heather suggesting possibilities for abstraction. With the stone outcrops, yellow lichen, patches of sienna-coloured soil and the dry vegetation, lit by sun or deep in shadow, I was confronted with an extensive patchwork of textures. Now I need to think how I want to treat these surface impressions back in the studio and where I’m taking them.

Moorland surfaces, Castlerigg, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

They’ve given me inspiration and a theme for a batch of new canvases that I need to produce for several exhibitions this year, in particular ‘Surface’ exhibition at Gallery East, Woodbridge, Suffolk, in September which will feature contemporary female artists from East Anglia and beyond.

Art at the edge: Dungeness

Photo of old fishing boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Old boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

What draws so many artists to challenging landscapes; those that would be considered by many as bleak, abandoned, unwelcoming, even ugly? For myself, as a painter of abstract landscapes, this kind of subject matter can puncture the complacency that can occur with more familiar types of scenery, making us notice things with a fresh eye. And, of course, they often present unusual motifs, colours and shapes. On a week’s stay in Rye at the end of October I spent a day at Dungeness, the U.K’s only ‘desert’, a remote headland of wind-blown undulating shingle, poking out into the Channel on the southeast coast of England.

Small experimental mixedmedia artwork on paper, inspired by Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Small experimental mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2018

Black fishermen’s huts, some abandoned and pulled apart by the weather, punctuate the scene. Decaying wooden fishing boats with their distinctive shelving sterns to cope with the haul over shingle banks, not one but two impressive lighthouses, and of course, the hulk of the nuclear power station squatting at the edge of the sea, all under a lowering and suitably ominous sky.

Remnants & power station under a stormy sky, Dungeness. Photograph © Mari French 2018

Fishing industry remnants & power station, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

I’d become aware of Dungeness some time ago mainly through ‘Modern Nature‘, the book by artist, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman, who made this his home with his partner in ‘Prospect Cottage’, a traditional black wooden house with bright yellow window frames. The driftwood garden he coaxed from shingle became famous and is still visited year round.

 

The weather had turned earlier that week and the bitter strong easterly, intermittent rain and massive ink-dark weather fronts sweeping the sky made for a challenging sketching spot. I crunched over the shingle, dodging the wind behind the bulks of abandoned fishing boats and settled in the lee of a working fisherman’s hut to attempt some impressions of this place.

 

Back in my studio I considered what intrigued me about this ‘edgeland’ and how to respond to it:
thinking about the technology, old and new; the telegraph poles and pylons threading the space; the lighthouses – fingers stabbing into the sky; the nuclear power plant with its slab-sided buildings and slatted towers; the light, the shingle, the scribble of dying vegetation, the black wooden huts standing and fallen, the rusting discarded machinery – old tracks, winches and chains – for hauling boats and catch in the past.

The beauty, the desolation, the blank canvas waiting.

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018