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A Wander is not a slog

26 Nov

During the last month, I took part in two walking exchanges with Blake Morris, post-doctorate researcher and one of the founders of The Walk Exchange, who is nearing the end of his A Wander is not a slog project.  This involves completing all 54 of the walks in Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind’s “Ways to Wander” book, itself a collaborative effort collating walking scores from around 50 different walking artists.

The walks we did were:

43 – created by Vanessa Grasse , dance and multidisciplinary artist

45 – the city as a site of performative possibilities, Kris Darby, pedestrian performer/researcher

Our responses, authored jointly, are published on Blake’s blog here and here.

In this meta-post, I am reflecting on the experience of the walk exchange and adding a little more detail to my responses to the walks.

Blake lives in London, and I live in Shrewsbury, and for various reasons of cost, available time and convenience, we did the walk remotely in our home locations, but used a combination of phone calls, SMS text and email to share the experience in real time and retrospectively.  Our responses were gathered together quickly within a day or so.

The walk itself did indeed feel like a shared experience, and the self-imposed time restrictions added a sense of urgency and intensity.  The need to share and reflect on the experience heightened my attentiveness during the walk.  There were many possibilities for making the exchange using digital technologies, and we could have opened out the event to more people.  Indeed, Blake has done this with some of the walks in the project.

22nd October 2018 – Walk 43 by Vanessa Grasse

A walk in four sections in which we explored the town as an urban performance space in which movement and relationships are considered to be choreographed.  I observed the human, non-human/inanimate participants .  It was as if, each has a multitude of tiny filaments which continuously latch onto other agents and unlatch as connections form and dissolve.

In the first part, we were encouraged to identify discrete “performances” and to determine their conclusion – so considering the scope and duration of performance.  In doing so, one quickly notices the overwhelming stream of details, movement and interconnections that are going on at any one time.

One of the performances:

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Sunlight streams directly along the bridge towards me

A dog down by the river bank scrabbles in fallen leaves

Leaving a deposit for its two owners to find

A cyclist in black sweeps smoothly along the wide pathway from my right

Intermittently appearing/disappearing behind trees

Then passing by the end of the footbridge a few paces before I reach it

Further up the hill opposite, the buzz of a leaf blower starts up

Like an aggravating gnat, increasing tension in the moment

On both sides of me, ripples shimmer

A silent crescendo of colour

A swan flaps, wings slapping against the water surface

It surges towards another swan which swivels and moves away aloof

The dog walkers pass in front of me, a man and woman

In a hasty almost surreptitious movement, they lift the lid of the dog bin

And clang, the bag is gone

In the second part, we focused on one interconnection, which we decided would be between “an inconsequential thing and a tree of consequence”.  Of course, under the gaze all things, however ephemeral and inconsequential, gain gravitas.  I walked between a water hydrant, connected to Conduit Head, a historic water supply to Shrewsbury since Tudor times and a horse chestnut tree in St Alkmund’s graveyard.  Although this is in the busy centre of town, the route between follows narrow shutts or passages in which one is forced to experience the town more by hearing and smell than visual observation.

I reflected on my two things tied, gripping into the earth linked by dog-legged pathway, a  connecting path burnt into memory, the space holding an invisible thread in perpetuity that only I can sense.

The third part was about following and participating in the performance.  Keen to avoid following people, fraught with questionable ethics, I went to Doctor’s Field on the edge of Shrewsbury where cattle and horses are often kept on grazing land.  Ironically, however, I almost immediately needed to hurry past a woman to avoid an awkward moment.

My following formed a linked sequence:

Long tailed tits gathered in a crab apple tree

Their sharp ticks prickling the air with conversation

A jay flew overhead then dipped low

A burst of speed for me to head towards the large ash tree

Zig zagging diagonally across the meadow, I sped after a great tit,

Its looping, dipping flight finishing in another apple tree

A magpie emerged to pull me further on into the field

High above, an aircraft took me at steady pace

Until buzzards appeared

Three of them, piercing shrieks from a clear blue sky

They circled, soaring on late Autumn thermals, for five minutes or more

I allowed myself to drift, handing over control to the birds

Driving me steadily to the hedge at the edge of the field

Briefly I let myself be nudged by a soft breeze

Feeling ever lighter as I tried to catch up with insects caught in the sunlight

My attention was interrupted by sounds of hammering and chainsaws on a distant building site

I moved towards them until my route intersected a desire path

Meandering back across the field, through long grass to the river bank

The wind rippled the river surface as I slowed my pace even further to match the river’s flow

Sensing the pull

Feeling impetus

Recognising the changes in pace, in rhythm, in direction

Tethering

Being with

Connected

Just for the moment

I re-emerge into the street as a cyclist passes

I accelerate but cannot keep pace

And there is a cat, young ginger

We circle each other

Wary, tentative

Growing comfortable in each other’s company

The cat settles, stretches on the tarmac

It curls up in the sun

And drowses off to sleep

Finally, returning to the place I finished my walk (i) in the morning, I stayed still to explore my visual frame.  Over time, the visual gives way to other senses, but I also gain a greater sense of the overall pattern of movement within the frame.  A frame which at its extremities includes deep blue sky, structural cabling high above the concrete pedestrian footbridge before me, and footpaths stretching away to my right and left.  My feet are planted on stone paving, obstructing my contact with the earth.

I begin to map the rhythms, character, scale, speed, direction, proximity of the different types of movement, noticing that in the urban terrain, these are dominated by human structures and routines.  These repeated movements are choreographed.  But below this fundamental human pattern of movement, there are more subtle, less predictable traces of movement by non-human participants: birds, insects, cats and at other times of the day, there may be foxes, rodents, squirrels and other creatures.  Then there are the trajectories of wind blown leaves and litter, shadows from lampposts moving with the sun.

The performance space is illuminated by the afternoon sun, but I look for the streetlights and reflect on how the feel of this constructed space will change dramatically under lighting.

 

 

10th November 2018, Walk 45 by Kris Darby

With Armistice Day the following day, we walked to our “tree of consequence” via war memorials.  Like the previous walk 43, this score had a number of options for groups, pairs or individuals.  We opted just for the shadow and light score in which I stuck to the shadows and Blake headed for the light.  This became quite challenging as, in our respective places, the weather alternated between sun and rain showers.  So we needed to be more creative about what were light and shade.

I walked in the shadows of:

  • The black cat
  • trees
  • war
  • bridges
  • confusion
  • narrow passages
  • greatness
  • memory
  • myself
  • life
  • death

Keeping to the shadows altered my spatial awareness on the walk a lot more than I expected just from reading the score.  I was constantly aware of the sun and the weather conditions, the orientation of streets, the heights and positioning of the objects/buildings en route, whilst attempting to navigate towards a destination.  The location of light/shadows caused me to divert on a more circuitous route quite often.  The nature of keeping to the shadows meant that I sought out narrow, confined and quieter spaces, so in fact, I did in a way complete two other parts of the walk 45 score i.e I became more agoraphobic shying away from open, well lit spaces, and my destination is actually positioned in the quietest part of the town.  Also I was forced into walking differently, crouching, slinking along walls etc – it certainly felt like a performance.

As for future performative possibilities, I began to think about how the route of my walk could change at different times of the day and even at different times of the year.  A midday walk in Summer might offer very little shadow, whilst the sunny late afternoons of Autumn and Winter offer greater freedoms.

So thinking of a destination, keeping to the shadows and noticing how the route and way of walking changes at different times of the day or year could be one possibility.

I also began to think about how being in the shadows felt colder.  Certain areas of the town can “feel” warm (perhaps because they are more sociable spaces or near places like pubs, libraries, theatres, bakeries, cafes) or cold (because they are more austere like churchyards, banks, characterless offices and bus stations) so perhaps another score might be to walk noticing the temperature gradients, perhaps keeping to the warm or cold zones, or starting from a cold place attempt to navigate along a gradient of increasing temperature.

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Witnesses

25 Sep

As I wrote in an earlier post, for just over 12 months now,  I’ve been exploring ideas and working with many different people in and around Dawley, Telford, to begin running events to commemorate and raise awareness of the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821.  We’ve come a long way, generated a lot of interest and support, and begun to attract funding to support initial activities.

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I’ve helped set up a website for the community organisation Cinderloo1821, which will bring together historical information, contemporary responses, writings and artwork about the 1821 Uprising.  We await news of an initial application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant that will support plans for a range of different activities including intergenerational workshops, educational work with schools, walks, heritage skills workshops, local history and family history research.

Meanwhile, I’ve been walking and discovering the immense network of tracks, woodland and history which binds together the various communities across Telford; sometimes with new found friends interested in the project, and sometimes alone.  These walks have helped develop various ideas for art projects associated with Cinderloo.

The first of these, the Witnesses project, was inspired by a poem I wrote and read out at the inaugural public meeting of Cinderloo1821, back in February:

Do we have a witness?

Heavy boots pounded along woodland paths

From Dawley, Donnington and Horsehay

Long drawn faces grim and determined

Sharp voices called and with spirits rising

The miners found strength in their ranks

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

The coppiced and saplings

Saw all that passed by

Some still stand there now

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

Who were the leaders?

Who planned and plotted and schemed?

Or did long months of starving

And back breaking toil

Facing death from rock fall and coal damp

Light a fuse to inspire all into action

On those cinder hills

Where the trees were cut down

To fuel iron furnace and wealth

Only those that fought saw how it unfolded

When yeomanry executed arduous duties

And as men, women and children dispersed

With Tom Palin wounded among them

Was it fear and sorrow or pride and defiance

That continued to burn in their hearts?

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

© Andrew Howe 2018

Much of the history bound up in the old towns was swept away or obscured with the development of the new town of Telford (currently celebrating its 50th year).  Yet there is much remaining, and the history of the town is much more than that presented in the Ironbridge Gorge and Coalbrookdale.  But perhaps, some of the most interesting, enigmatic features which connect the landscape of today with the historical landscape of 1821 are trees.  I was drawn to the notion that some of those, that are now over 200 years old, may have witnessed the events of Cinderloo, for which we now only have newspaper reports to rely on.

I have been in conversation with Shropshire Wildlife Trust, the Small Woods Association and members of Severn Gorge Countryside Trust to trace and map trees which are thought to be over 200 years old.  A group of us are also tracing the old miners tracks, many of which still exist and which may have been used by protesters on that day in February 1821.

It would be great if other people wanted to walk these routes for themselves and find their own trees to add to the map.  We would also welcome any photographs or other artworks inspired by these trees.  Contact me directly or Cinderloo1821.

I have begun making drawings of some of the trees that I have found so far.  I am using materials that relate to this landscape and the historical events.  So I made my own oak gall ink, using the tannin from acorn galls and ferric sulphate from rusty nails.  This ink was used for centuries in historic documents, and has beautiful purply, brown hues, which darken as the ink oxidises.

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Beech, The Wrekin, ink on paper, 39cm x 57cm

Iron oxide pigment has a deep rich red colour, evocative of the blood shed and, along with charcoal, symbolic of the iron and coal industries which were at the root of the miners’ protest.

I have also made a couple of drawings using silver ink on dark grey paper.  Again suggestive of iron and coal.  I’m not so sure about these yet.  I liked how the drawing emerges as light reflects from the ink marks, but light conditions need to be considered very carefully since the drawing is near invisible in most situations.

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Oak bark, silver ink on paper

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Detail of oak bark

I’m also experimenting with mark-making using brushes hand made with sticks, birch twigs and plant fibres.  Look out for more drawings as we find more 200 year old trees.

 

Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography

14 Sep

The Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography reconvened at the University of Huddersfield for a third time last week.  Having previously only attended the Friday talks, this year I was able to attend both days and enjoyed some great walks.

 

 

On behalf of the self-titled politburo of 4WCOP organisers, Phil Wood introduced the event, referring to a derogatory tweet from an anonymous but high profile psychogeographer, who would not be attending.  Whilst the “politburo” is entirely comprised of white males, the event itself played host to fresh perspectives from a diverse range of participants, some of whom came from Istanbul, Slovenia, Italy, United States and Germany.  Difficult to say if there was equal representation of men and women, but it seemed to be fairly well balanced.

The event format, and many of its principal protagonists and attendees, have become familiar to me, and there is a danger this could just become a cosy get-together.  So I tried to take a more critical view of the proceedings with a few questions in mind:

  • Is psychogeography practice evolving and including new perspectives?
  • To what extent is detournement used?
  • How was the terrain vague addressed? (This being the theme suggested to those proposing talks/walks for this year’s congress)

There was a packed programme of talks and walks which had been oversubscribed (and indeed the joint proposal that Gareth Jones and I had submitted didn’t quite make the cut, much to our frustration!)  This meant that there was a choice of two events to attend throughout the 2 day programme.  Inevitably then I missed some events that I would have liked to have taken part in, such as the talk on retail environments by Andrew Taylor/Katrina Whitehead/Kasia Breska, or the walks/events by Sonia Overall and Elspeth Penfold, Sohal Khan, John RooneyVictoria Karlsson and Ewan Davidson/Michelle Woodall, and Irena Pivka.  The discussion led by Tim Waters  on What is Psychogeography in 2018? would have been good to be part of. I heard very good reports about “The Zone” walk led by Sohal Khan around the Paddock derelict mill area in which he used Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” film to frame the walk.

The first session of talks focused on Identities.

It was refreshing to hear about her work on feminist theory and social justice in the landscape being carried out by Anna Davidson.  Davidson admitted to be in the midst of  research and the short film she presented which combined the rivers/water/steam, mills/women’s role, and sugar/colonialism felt insubstantial.  It will be interesting to see how this work develops as it certainly prompted a more critical view of the landscape.

Lesley Wood is an artist who walked from Leeds to Newcastle retracing maternal connections over three generations.  The art work she produced incorporated these personal experiences and interaction with the environment (such as kinetic traces made by pastels carried in paper tubes whilst walking).  This is an area of my own practice that interests me, and which I find challenging because it is difficult to express the depth and complexity of walking experience in these relatively simple combinations of materials.

Alex Bridger discussed a series of walks in Huddersfield, Holmfirth, Manchester and Batley with participants from the LGBT community to draw in fresh insight into the landscape.  Again, this was interesting but the output seemed only part formed and may develop further as research continues.  Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the landscape is not viewed so differently by other communities, yet there are nuanced differences which merit acknowledgement and sharing.

At lunchtime we drifted into and around Huddersfield’s fabulous Queensgate Market. and learnt about its pioneering hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure.  Over lunch in a cafe, a group of us observed several empty stall spaces, which were like stages awaiting a performance.  Most people skirted reverentially around one them, until someone started a “desire line” straight across, soon to be followed by others.

 

 

 

 

Tony Wade was a highly engaging speaker, and I can see how he could generate a lot of interaction in his community-based projects.  His talk described the 60 mile walk he did around the Wakefield Metropolitan Boundary and the undertaking to paint 20 (triptych) acrylic paintings of views outwards from the boundary from suitable points within each of 20 x 3 mile sections.

Other talks considered the post-industrial landscape.  Martin Eccles described projects in former lead mining sites at Small Clough and walking the river underground to create soundscapes.  Perhaps, harder to see where the detournement is in this, but his work creates fascinating immersive experiences of environments that are otherwise difficult to access.

It was disappointing that David Sable and Kerry Hadley-Pryce were not able to attend due to sickness and as this was notified at short notice, 4WCOP were not able to bring in any reserve talks.  They were able to present David’s film about a mining community near Doncaster.  This powerful film was based on Sables’ own experience of the mine closures of the 1980s and those of communities involved.  As this is an area I had researched in regard to making a film for the Cinderloo project, I felt the film could have gone further, and at times it veered towards sentimentality.  There followed a good discussion about how we can acknowledge mining heritage without taking a rose-tinted nostalgic approach.  Ursula Troche had visited closed mines in Germany and Belgium where as much of the original infrastructure was left intact and or put to new use, unlike the UK where, very often industrial land is swept clean, taking all sense of history away from the communities that identified with the place.  In his notes, David referred to how the now rural land had reverted to agriculture and private ownership, inaccessible to local community, and how all that children could learn in schools about former employment was to visit the nearby (restored) stately home and learn about working in service.

I enjoyed the talk by Roger Boyle about taking various slices through his home town of Aberystwyth mapping, amongst other things, coal holes and Royal Mail postboxes.

The last talk of the day featured Nasli Tumerdem and Sevgi Turkkan, both recently completing or completed PhD degrees in Istanbul.  Their work involved walking in northern Istanbul with over 250 students.  This was an impressive logistical exercise in itself.  The talk was interesting in presenting how Istanbul is one of the most rapid developing cities in the world with the result that large areas of land are being subsumed into huge infrastructure projects (a third airport, highway and river channel parallel to the Bosphorus).  This top down development was disrupting communities – they referred to the type of development taking place as ad hoc urbanism.

In their architectural practice Tumerdem and Turkkan referred to an inherent vagueness in architecture that fits with using psychogeography to explore terrain:

  • absence of dominant discourse
  • discursive and contingent
  • process of “unlearning” to be encouraged
  • provoked vagueness
  • learning by doing

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So onto the walking, which, through the day, followed a progression out of Huddersfield up the Colne Valley to Marsden.

I started with Ursula Troche and Simon Bradley’s “Platform Seven” which began at the amazing brick tunnel ventilation shafts in Huddersfield, and ended underneath the railway viaduct where we found ourselves joining the pair singing and dancing to Underneath the Arches, an anti-austerity song.  The walk was a playful reinterpreting, subverting, deconstruction of what can be observed.  For example detourning “Trespassers will be prosecuted” to “Passers be cute”.  Some of the little scenarios performed by Ursula and Simon were madcap and obtuse, but always referring back to serious messages about peace, love and anti-war.

 

 

 

 

Phil Wood then lead a hauntology walk in Paddock Brow which was both informative, thought-provoking and highly atmospheric.  In the drizzle we explored 50 year old ivy-tangled woodlands where hundreds of mill workers used to live and learnt about a Jamaican club known for attracting famous reggae artists, world renowned Huddersfield-made sound systems and domino championships.  We reflected on the lost utopian dreams of a young Harold Wilson who went to school along the road we walked on many years ago.  And saw where some of the Luddites went on trial.

 

 

 

We reached the Milnsbridge Red and Green Socialist Club for lunch, for an excellent pint and sandwich, and we were treated to a talk by David Smith about the Huddersfield MP Victor Grayson who mysteriously disappeared in the 1930s.  We were invited to look for evidence of his living in the area in the 40s/50s.  I didn’t find any.

 

 

By the time we reached Slaithwaite Civic Hall by bus it was proper siling it down.  Vicky Ola and Anzir Boodoo invited everyone to make shadow installations using what we did/didn’t like about urban landscape.  I joined a walk led by photographer Kevin Linnane which included all kinds of activities to disrupt or enhance the normal experience of walking e.g frottage, water graffiti, blowing bubbles as way of sending words out into the air, divining, drawing etc.  I had a good discussion with Kevin afterwards, and he told me how is work is influenced by ritual and cycles.  He has a belief that”ritualistic, performative roles lie within spaces and materials, as an ethereal heartbeat sustaining the status quo”.

 

 

I loved the Colne Valley Sculpture Trail, which had entertainment value whilst seriously questioning the value of art objects/found objects. It was originally set up about 5 years ago and made national news.  It immediately caused all participants to look critically at encounters and their potential as artistic creations and possible meanings.  The walk was brilliantly led by Graeme Murrell who kept up a convincing commentary to go along with the labels for each work, and accompanying trail leaflet and AS Level exam questions.

 

 

 

The scenery was beautiful as we headed up into the hills and then back down to the canal for the approach into Marsden, where we finished in the Rivershead Brewery Tap.  I couldn’t stay long as I returned to Holmfirth, where I was staying with friends, and so I also missed the final walk of the day.

 

 

 

Psychogeography evolving? – certainly there was evidence of practices treading old ground, but there were also some new advances that are to be welcomed, such as the inclusion of feminist and queer perspectives.  There were several artists using sound, performance or film/theatre to augment or respond to walking practices.  Hopefully,  the international input will continue to grow.

Detournement?  All of these speakers discussed responses to psychogeographical walks which mostly resulted in art works that aimed to provoke, challenge established viewpoints or provide new insight into the landscape.  Their intentions were not necessarily to tackle the Spectacle head on, rather they offered alternative views and encouraged a multiplicity of response in our everyday experience.

There were a few references to terrain vague and by its nature, it is a term open to interpretation and application to many different contexts.  It was fascinating to hear the architects from Istanbul talk about how they encourage an indistinct vague approach in their architectural practice.  Otherwise I didn’t leave with the impression that the terrain vague had been addressed particularly.  Maybe it was in the talks I didn’t attend.

Apparently, there was no quorum to formally close the congress, so I expect it will reconvene for a fourth time… probably around September 2019 I’d guess.  Predictable?… maybe; entertaining?… definitely.

Rea Brook valley

5 Sep

How quickly the Summer slides into Autumn.  Whilst there is plenty of warmth in the sunshine, you know that as soon as you move into shadow, the air is thin and chilly.  This is a great time of the year, and I shall be planning some walks for the next few months as time allows.

Back during the midst of the heatwave, at the beginning of July, I did an early morning walk along the Rea Brook in Shrewsbury from Meole Brace into the centre.  I had been reading various books and writings of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, and so their detailed noticing of the landscape and nature were fresh in my mind as I made this meditative wander alongside the river.

Shropshire Council owns most of the land and manages the meadow, wetland and woodland habitats as a nature reserve.  This green sliver connects right into the heart of Shrewsbury, but it was hard to ignore the tightening encroachment of housing all the way out to the outskirts of town.  There are some 8,000 new dwellings to be built in the town by 2036, and the pressure is being felt on all the undeveloped green spaces.

There is plenty of edginess to this edgeland landscape with graffiti covered bridges, corrugated tunnels and patches of tangled woodland.

I was early enough so that I saw only a few dog walkers and a couple of runners.  I shared the walk mostly with the birds, and I stopped on the bend in the river by a rope swing and listened to their conversations, the buzzing of insects and the gentle rippling sounds of the water.

I have seen a kingfisher along the brook before, but not today.  Today, I noticed how many houses had been built on the bank from Sutton Farm – lacking distinctiveness, confidence or any sense of their place in Shropshire in the 21st Century.

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Back in the studio, I made a series of about 10 little paintings in just under 2 weeks.  Unlike my more recent large and expressive paintings, these were more finely detailed and representational.  I tried to capture the early morning light that I had enjoyed.  Four of the paintings were in acrylic on wood panels (23cm x 19cm):

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The other paintings were acrylic skins made by painting in reverse layers onto glass, then peeling off the skins once dry for mounting in frames.

Three of these paintings were selected by curator Mel Evans for the Lawn and Meadow exhibition at Participate Contemporary Artspace in Shrewsbury (24th July to 11th August 2018).

 

 

Whixall Moss Wandering

2 Apr

Following my previous posts about the walk to Bettisfield Moss, I revisited Whixall Moss on Friday 23rd March with a group of fellow artists/writers: Ted Eames, Ursula Troche, Ruth Gibson and Adele Mills.  We met up with Mike Crawshaw of Natural England who guided us on an excellent walk around both Whixall Moss and Fenn’s Moss taking in a section of the Llangollen Canal, Furber’s Scrapyard and Fenn’s Old Works.

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EU funded

It was interesting to hear about the BogLIFE work that the Natural England project team are managing to restore this special peatbog.  This includes tree removal and drainage/water management to ensure that only rainwater enters the area and is retained as much as possible in order to encourage growth of sphagnum moss in pools which will begin the long process to create peat.  We could see where the moss is thriving and natural peatbog is rejuvenating.  There is great biodiversity here, and the site invites the wanderer to look ever closer at the little details.

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Long grasses sing high

Beyond the reach of human ears

Silent ditches flow 

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Sounds disappear in

a breezy expanse of sky

Sun glistens in pools

One of the most fascinating aspects of this landscape for me, is the wealth of evidence of human impact.  It is easy to view the area as a wild and natural landscape and, at this time of year, it is quite a bleak, almost monochromatic place.  But it is also easy to see that it has been industrialised until very recent times.

The Furber’s scrapyard is slowly being cleared.  Most of the cars are gone, and since my last visit, most of the huge mounds of tyres have gone too.  But there is still much to do, and the ground is thick with fragments of wrecked vehicles.

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Tanker carcass smashed

In birch and bramble thicket

Blackbird finds Spring voice

The skeletal remains of Fenn’s Old Works stand stark against the sky.  It was built after a fire in 1938, and holds the last 110 hp National diesel engine left in situ in Britain.  This powered milling and baling machinery which can still be seen.

Peat was dug from the Moss from early medieval times until 1992.  The large scale drainage caused the collapse of the raised bog, and from 1968 there was a peat cutting machine which increased extraction. Commercial extraction initially used the Llangollen Canal which was cut across the Mosses from 1801 to 1804.  There are signs of the old narrow gauge railway which took peat to the works for processing before being loaded onto trains on the Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway, part of the Cambrian Railway.  This line was closed in 1963 by the Beeching cuts.

The Mosses have also had links with the military, having had 10 rifle ranges in the area dating back before World War I.  During the Second World War there was a practice incendiary bombing range, and a strategic “starfish” decoy site intended to divert German bombers from Liverpool.  Here’s one of the shelters used by those manning the site.

The theme of boundaries and borders drew me to return to Whixall Moss as this is a theme that Ursula Troche and I have been thinking about.  The Anglo-Welsh border crosses the area in straight lines following ditch courses and running within a few metres of the Natural England Manor House base.

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How wide is a border?

There are many aspects of borders (which might be viewed as permeable zones) and boundaries (which might be viewed as limits or binary divisions) which can be considered beyond the physical markers, although there are plenty of interesting boundaries visible around the Moss.

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The woodlands surrounding the Mosses have a distinctly calm, peaceful atmosphere compared with the open heathland where wind ruffles through the grasses, and sound seems to be swept away up into the sky.  Many of the trees, especially silver birches, which are on the Moss itself will be removed due to their uptake of groundwater.

Since returning from the walk, I have had a little studio time to experiment with markmaking using small samples of peat and sphagnum moss, and handmade birch brush.

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We hope to do further art walks in the future.  Please get in touch if you are interested.

 

Ref: Daniels Dr JL,  “Fenn’s Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses Natural Nature Reserve.”, English Nature, 2002

Whixall to Bettisfield Moss book

1 Apr

In my post last November, I talked about the walk I did with artists from Participate from Whixall Moss to Bettisfield Moss during the Summer.  I had a large collection of photographs from the walk, and various materials gathered from Furber’s scrapyard.  Over Christmas, I began making a series of studies which gradually built up into a book of about 48 pages.  It was a kind of sketchbook journal, initially for generating ideas for larger paintings, but was in itself quite a satisfying artist book documenting my response to the walk.

 

 

The studies include collages, paintings, drawings, monoprints and mixed media pieces combining photographs, tracings, rubbings, transfers, maps, writings and haiku poems.  No one can accuse me of getting stuck in an artistic rut!

As the images illustrate, the Mosses National Nature Reserve is much more than a “natural wilderness”.  There is now a Natural England project to restore it as a raised bog, and to remediate some of the legacy of historical and ongoing human impact.  It is this relationship between human activity and the natural environment on the Moss which interests me.  The images show collisions between natural forms and human made objects and shapes.  The objects I found take on archaeological significance, albeit that they date from the 20th Century, not from some prehistoric time.  The images featuring rusted steel bearing plates, in particular, strike me as some kind of ancient ritualistic artefact.  At some point in the future, objects such as these may be found and analysed in much the same way as Iron Age bracelets, and recorded as dating from the Anthropocene epoch.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the book, and so I’d like to publish a version at some point in the near future.  Here is a selection of images from the book:

 

 

I revisited Whixall Moss last week for another walk with a different group of artists and I’ll write about that in my next post.

Poetic encounters #1 Kate Innes

20 Mar

In my post about collaborations, I mentioned that I have been working with three other writers/artists to make work for an exhibition called Encounters that opened this week at the VAN Street Gallery in Shoplatch, Shrewsbury.

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The project was the idea of Ted Eames, and it brings together over 20 pairings of visual artists and writers, one artist making work in response to the other’s work.  There have been similar such collaborations in the past, but rarely in such numbers I suspect.  Having been involved in the installation of the exhibition, I had a chance for a brief preview.  I am fascinated by the diversity of work produced, and can’t wait to go back to spend more time absorbing it.

My own work comprises six paintings and collages with Kate Innes and Ursula Troche, and two poems with Paul Baines.  Perhaps on first viewing it appears quite diverse/eclectic, but there is a common theme which links everything, although this may not be immediately obvious.

In this first of three posts, I will discuss the work made with Kate Innes.

Of the three pairings, the work with Kate involved the most discussion and interaction in the development of each piece of work.  We found many common interests and a similar sensitivity to the landscape and the human history within it.

Kate is a published poet (Flock of Words) and novelist (The Errant Hours).  She writes beautifully about the rural landscape, with a knowledgeable eye for the detail of flora, fauna, and geology.  There is also a historical/mythical content to her work which clearly links with her background in archaeology and in museum education.

My drawings of abandoned dwellings/cabins were an initial starting point of interest, and in particular, the curious dilapidated structure which I had found whilst walking near Shelton on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

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Kate, too went on foot to visit the place, and like me was drawn to the atmosphere of this small patch of woodland high above the River Severn which can be glimpsed through the trees.  A group of people have been using the area as a gathering place and trees are marked with paint, bits of fabric and plastic, like totems.  It felt tribal or ceremonial, like an ancient sacred site.

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Ceremonial Trees / Bound with fluttering string / Tokens of faint hope (Andrew Howe 2017)

 

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High vantage over / River Severn’s lush meadows / Buzzard soars above (Andrew Howe 2017)

Kate’s poem “The Other Land”  captured some of the thoughts that come to my mind in these edgeland places:

…at the edge of places we don’t belong

even the twist of a rope that won’t tie
Or the path that unwinds in a wood
It gathers its strength on a threshold

…”

(Extract from “The Other Land”)

We discussed our responses to these enigmatic isolated and empty structures set in woodland, and explored some of the issues raised in my earlier post around Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”, the temptations of the “hermit’s hut”, refuge/retreat, and the negotiations that must take place when two people take up residence.  The titles of my trio of drawings “When Adam delved”, “And Eve Span” and “Who was then the Gentleman” struck a chord with Kate, referring to John Ball’s speeches that helped inspire the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.  These words relating to equality and social justice resonated.

I went on to develop studies for a painting of the shelter we had been to visit, which responded to “The Other Land” referencing certain features from the poem, like the coppiced trees.  These included ipad drawings, a charcoal study and two oil studies:

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“Shelter”charcoal study, 85cm x 115cm

I made two paintings, quite different in scale and in style.  The first was a small acrylic painting made in reverse on an acetate sheet, the second was a large oil painting on canvas:

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Shelter II, acrylic on acetate, 21cm x 21cm

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Detail from Shelter II

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Shelter, oil on canvas, 90cm x 120cm

I can see flaws that niggle, but in general I’m pleased with the brooding feel to the paintings.  There is just enough rawness, texture and painterliness in the markmaking.  The brief period for the collaboration (around 3 months) encouraged a disciplined approach and a need for some risk taking.

Kate crafted a poem entitled “Adam’s Return” which responds to Shelter, and also to the trio of drawings, referred to above.  To close this short narrative, she drafted a third poem specifically in response to “And Eve Span”.  The sparse, measured style and ambiguous timing or timelessness of the poems’ positioning is, for me, reminiscent of the novelist Jim Crace, or perhaps more distantly Cormac McCarthy.

“He found the gate unguarded – except by thorn –
the angel gone

The forgotten trees had dropped their fruit
and multiplied…” 

(the opening lines from “Adam’s Return”)

“And Eve Span”, pastel on paper

“...

Here they will live out their days
in a small and private place
intertwined as strands of wool
by twists of love and pain

…”

(Extract from “And Eve Span”)

It was a privilege to see how subtle changes in wording in the few iterative drafts enhanced the poems, shifting emphasis, refining rhythm, suggesting alternative perspectives, picking up on certain aspects of the paintings.  The three poems expand meaning and add greater depth to the paintings, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it.