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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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.

Disengaging the mind …

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

For months now I’ve been feeling stalled; lacking a new source of inspiration in my work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually one to hang around waiting for inspiration to strike, I like to get into the studio and work because who knows what might happen? Some of my most reluctant studio days have produced surprising and exciting work.

But usually I’m fired up about one subject or another – coastal reedbeds on the North Norfolk coast, Dungeness’ strange landscape, Cornwall’s dramatic coastline, Venice, North York Moors – and this informs and energises my work. These work series are usually a result of time spent in those landscapes, studying and exploring and I think this is where my problem stemmed from. For various reasons I’ve not been able to travel and explore as much as I’d like in the last 6 months.

So I’d slipped into an unhappy and relatively unproductive period of no particular direction, going through the angst that many artists experience: What am I doing? Where am I going? Am I producing anything worthwhile? This is despite the fact that I was still painting and experimenting, and that I’d had works accepted into well-respected exhibitions, but when did sense ever come into this?!

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

This week, still pondering subjects that might work in a series, I was in the studio, despite the sunshine tempting me to stay in the garden, and something made me look back at a bookmarked link to Canadian artist Cheryl Taves’ blog. I greatly admire Taves’ work and am grateful for the art advice posts that she publishes on her blog and her engaging honesty about her own experiences and problems.

“In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover…” Cheryl Taves

Reading Taves’ post again, it dawned on me that a subject is not actually necessary for the way I work, how had I forgotten this? For years I used to start a painting with no particular subject in mind, playing around with the materials in an intuitive manner until something started to present itself to me. And although I’ll probably always react to new experience of landscape with new work, I realised that situation is not actually necessary for me to work.

I’d got myself tied in knots trying to straightjacket myself into responding to new subjects (and trying to demonstrate that response in the results) when I have a wealth of subconscious experience and material to rely on intuitively. What I need to do is to relearn how to ‘stay open’ to ‘allow myself to play, experiment and discover’ as Taves wisely advises. It seems obvious to me now, I can allow myself to put the question of subject matter to one side if I want to. To paint for the joy of it. I’ve been here before in the past, but I needed to be reminded. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but how it rewards us when we do. As another author said ‘trust the process’.

The other interesting aspect of this is that, as I rediscovered again today in the studio, once I give up the demands of subject matter, not only is there a joyful freedom again for me in working, but the resulting work still offers glimpses of certain motifs and experiences that I recognise. I can allow them to come through instead of forcing them into existence. I’m trying not to pigeonhole the result into a particular recognisable subject, that would be a self-defeating. But it offers an interesting dimension to the process.

It feels akin to channelling or being a conduit for the artwork. But we are channelling what we have, through years of work and observation, already stored in our minds and in our body memory. I knew this, but I’d forgotten, I needed to be reminded. Now I’m fired up again.

The following excerpt from Cheryl Taves’ blog (link at the bottom of the page) is worth following and reading in full as she also gives a list of useful guidelines …

Following The Flow
… Making art, whether it be through painting, writing, dance….any form of creative expression, requires a certain freedom and willingness to stay open, to engage what comes and trust the process. Following the flow.

In the early stages of creating it is not a good time to engage our thinking minds…there will be plenty of time for that later. But, what we do want while we are creating is to be as limitless as possible…allowing ourselves to play, experiment and discover. The only real requirement is to show up and be willing to follow.

I know this and yet I continually need to reinstate this into my painting practice because I easily slip back into fearful, analytical thinking much too soon…

Cheryl Taves 2015
https://www.cheryltaves.com/blog/2018/11/5/following-the-flow

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019

Detail of new work. Mixed media on Duralar. © Mari French 2019