Tag Archives: Edgelands

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

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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.

 

Whixall to Bettisfield Moss Walk

29 Nov

Now we’ve had a few frosts and even some flurries of snow, its good to look back on the Summer.  On what was probably the hottest and most humid day of the year, I joined a small band of artists from Participate Contemporary Artspace for a walk starting from the car park by the Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal.

We had been permitted access to the Furber’s Breaker’s Yard, which I had seen from a distance on previous visits.  It was a forbidding place and I was always curious how such a monstrous eyesore could ever have developed next to one of Britain’s largest peat bogs and a site of major natural significance.

 

After 50 years of operation, the breaker’s yard has recently been taken into the ownership of Shropshire Wildlife Trust so that it may be restored to nature as part of the Marches Mosses or, more specifically, Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses.  Shropshire Wildlife Trust is working very closely with Natural England and Natural Resources Wales to develop and deliver restoration plans.

There is some information on Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve here and from Natural England here.  The Mosses straddle the Welsh and English border, and there is a feeling of being at the edge of the land.  The landscape has many rare flora and fauna, and it has a particular haunting atmosphere that I am attracted to.  It is worth visiting in all seasons.

The scrapyard site has been cleared of most of the cars, but there were some 100,000 tyres remaining in huge piles. And on close inspection, much of the 6 hectares was covered with a scattering of pulverised fragments of metal, plastic and other vehicular materials.

 

We had a good wander around, taking in the atmosphere.

 

Black rubber cascades

Engulf this delicate land

Slender stems rising

 

 

 

Smashed fragments glisten

Tokens of dreams subsiding

Old codes turn to rust

 

We left the scrapyard, and followed the canal to the junction with the Prees Branch of the Ellesmere Canal. We then zigzagged south and west via Moss Farm and Moss Lane into Bettisfield Moss.  At first, we passed along beautiful grassy pathways through woodland.

And then we reached the open wetland of the Moss.  The land is quite flat, and in some places it becomes difficult to get bearings and sense of direction.  We were unable to make a circular route and had to return to the original path into the Moss.

It doesn’t take long to notice the biodiversity though.

 

Heat hangs heavily

Over quivering parched grass

Dragonflies darting

 

At the time, I resolved to create some artworks to document the walk in some way, but time has flown with busy activities, and it is only now that I am reviewing these photographs, and thinking about what to make.  I’m starting with some drawings which could lead into some paintings and a small book.  Watch out for that sometime soon.

 

 

Cabin Fever

1 Aug

Over the early months of this year and on into Spring, I went on walks in Shropshire with some friends of mine, and I recorded my observations of cabins, caravans and sheds of various kinds.  (Also see earlier Homely post).  Each place was evidently a place of previous or ongoing habitation, mostly by persons unknown.  The circumstances of their abandonment are also unknown or ambiguous, but provoking curiosity.  Certain of the places were so ramshackle or spartan as to be unlikely places of long term living in any sort of comfort, and were perhaps only used as temporary shelter, or even merely as storage.  In their woodland surroundings, these places could be viewed as idyllic retreat or desperate refuge.

The drawings have formed a series entitled “Inhabited”, which I hope to exhibit as a body of work at some stage.  As I made drawings, initially in charcoal and later trying out various studies using collage/mixed media, pastels and finally using an ipad, I pondered this precarious living and what it might feel like to exist in these places. My musings have spun off in many directions.  We could be looking at post-apocalyptic refuges, or take away the signs of modern technology and detritus, and we could be looking at some form of Mesolithic shelter or the transition to a Neolithic hut.

 

These first three studies were made from photographs taken in woodland on hills close to the Welsh border (see earlier Motor Plantation post).  This first drawing has been selected for the “Eden” exhibition at Participate Contemporary Artspace by curator, Katie Hodson.  The exhibition runs from 5th August to 26th August 2017 (11am to 5pm Tues – Sat)

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“When Adam Delved”, charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat in Winter” charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“And Eve Span” pastel on paper, 420mm x 594mm

Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” was brought to mind as I reflected on my reveries.  It seems to be a bit of a cliché at the moment to be referring to that work – since making the connection with my drawings, I have read about three different current art projects also inspired by the book.  Nonetheless, it is a book that, as I have found, rewards re-reading and there are clear resonances with Bachlard’s writing as I begin to daydream about all my own experiences of house and home.

“Memory – what a strange thing it is! – does not record concrete duration, in the Bergsonian sense of the word.  We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed.  We can only think of it, in the line of an abstract tie that is deprived of all thickness… Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”

“And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us…”

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly.  Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special colour”.

Bachelard is convinced of the importance of the house where we were born in informing our ongoing experience of houses/spaces.

“In short, the house we were born in has engraved with us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting”

“…our attachment for the house we were born in, dream is more powerful than thought”

My family moved to a new bungalow when I was only a few months old so I have almost no recollection at all of the first house that I lived in.  So if Bachelard is correct, then this must be deep-seated in my unconscious.  I prefer to believe that all of the houses we live in create an accumulated experience of inhabiting, shaped most strongly by those formative experiences.

Bachelard goes on to discuss the primitive elements in our notions of inhabiting huts,

“… the  “hut dream” which is well-known to everyone who cherishes the legendary images of primitive houses.  But in most hut dreams we hope to live elsewhere, far from the over-crowded house, far from city cares.”

“When we look at images of this kind … we start musing on primitiveness.  And because of this very primitiveness, restored, desired and experienced through simple images, an album of pictures of huts would constitute a textbook of simple exercises for the phenomenology of the imagination.”

On a walk alongside the River Severn from Arley to Bewdley, I passed by a large number of plotland dwellings.  I’m not sure when these were originally built, but plotland houses began in the UK around 1870 when marginal agricultural land was developed by self-builders largely outside the planning system.  Some developments remain, the most well known appear to be in Canvey Island, Basildon, Herne Bay, Shepperton, Dungeness and Jaywick. See here for an account of plotlands on the River Dee near Chester.

More obviously than other places I encountered, these cabins have been cherished and developed beyond their original construction.  In many ways, they appeared to be the ideal cosy cabin in the woods – yet on the damp, misty day of our walk there was more than an element of sinister, malevolence hanging in the air also.

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“Plotlander I”, charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Plotlander II”, 420mm x 594mm

Bachelard continues to explore the idea of the hermit’s hut:

“Its truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb “to inhabit”.

This place on the outskirts of Shrewsbury inspired several studies – which I am continuing to explore.

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“Retreat I” collage/mixed media study, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat II” charcoal on paper, 420mm x 594mm

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“Retreat study”, graphite on paper, 297mm x 420mm

The last place, barely discernible as a cabin, so overgrown with ivy, is in a “secret” woodland in Shrewsbury.  I’m beginning a series of works about this one, quite magical, place – further news on that to follow.  For now here’s a preview of an ipad drawing, now beautifully printed as a giclée print at A2 size, mounted and framed.  Looks great, if I say so myself.

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“Who was then the gentleman” ipad drawing available as giclee print, 420mm x 594mm

The title of the latter drawing and two of the earlier studies originate from the speech made by radical preacher, John Ball, in which he insisted on social equality, and which led to the ultimately futile Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  In reflecting on the drawings and on the long span of human history, I began to wonder if there was ever a time, or ever could be a time, when, even in primitive living conditions such as those depicted, one human did not, or will not, exert power over another.  Perhaps its a bit of a stretch to get from a drawing of a run down hut to the Peasants Revolt, but it was on my mind nonetheless.

Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” focuses on the phenomenology of the individual experience in houses, nests and other nooks and crannies.  The house assumes a life and identity of itself, inextricably linked with its sole inhabitant.

“…that faraway house with its light becomes for me, before me, a house that is looking out – its turn now! – through the keyhole.  yes, there is someone in that house who is keeping watch, a man is working there while I dream away.  He leads a dogged existence, whereas I am pursuing futile dreams.  Through its light alone, the house becomes human.  It sees like a man.  It is an eye open to night”

But what happens when two or more people begin living together.  Clearly, the dynamic changes dramatically.  It seems there must inevitably be a tension, a contest between the individual connections with house, the relationship between the group and their house, and the identity of the house itself.  In that contest, is a source of power struggle.  Perhaps the desire for the “hermit’s hut” is stronger than we like to think.

Give me a hand

29 Jul

After a flurry of exhibition and creative activity, what better way to enjoy the Summer weather than a relaxing stroll around Telford’s Stafford Park Industrial Estate?

It was a baking hot and humid day at the end of July and a storm was building to the west as I made a circuit through the estate…

…before going over and across the roar of the M54, ambling around Priorslee Lake and the quiet suburbs…

…some found paintings:

then back into the estate:

I find something enticingly eerie about the huge monolithic sheds, the boom, clank and hiss of machinery, the almost complete lack of people visible, and the incessant movement of vehicles.  I feel a part of a larger machine, where stuff is made, moved around and, sometimes, stuff is brought back in.

Around lunchtime, some people, mostly men, emerge to walk around the block, to stand smoking, staring at the traffic, or to dodge across the road to the uninviting cafe for a sandwich.

“…And there’s no thanks
From the loading bay ranks…”

Always in such places, I recall the Fall’s “Industrial Estate” and “Container Drivers”, Mark E Smith… so clinical and relentless.  So evocative of my youth, listening to the Kicker Conspiracy EP, “Wings” again and again.

Detritus lies scattered in the verges and under every bush.  Landscaping so carefully planned for a life of minimal maintenance.

I am curious about the large numbers of discarded, or perhaps just lost, gloves.  Poignant remnants of human contact.  Always just a single glove.  Were they dropped by accident?  Or were they jettisoned once the owner realised there was no longer a pair?  Or are they a secret sign… a code between drivers … of a place they can go to escape?  Or are they a call for help?

gloves

 

Exhibition at the Hive

20 Apr

Here’s another opportunity to see some of the paintings I exhibited in my In Parallel show at Participate Contemporary Artspace last year, plus new paintings and my In Parallel and Entwined book:

The Hive,
5 Belmont, Shrewsbury,
SY1 1TE

24th April to 27th May 2017
Tuesday – Friday from 9AM – 5PM

During the exhibition, I plan to run a Space Explorers workshop from the Hive involving walking and gathering inspiration for creative activity:

Tuesday 23rd May 2017

17:30 – 21:00h

£7 per person.  Places are limited so book early please.

Call the Hive on 01743 234970 or see website for further details.

Andrew Howe Space Explorers

Open to everyone with an interest in using walking to find inspiration and materials for creating art work.  No particular artistic ability is required.  The workshop will encourage different ways of looking and spontaneity in putting ideas together.

Meet in the Hive Gallery at 5.30pm before setting out on foot into the cosmos.

Some paper and art materials will be provided, but you are welcome to bring your own small sketchbooks, camera or drawing materials.

The walk will last 30-40 minutes, brisk paced over urban terrain, possibly including steps but no climbing.  There will be a short break for drinks and light refreshments after the walk and before the art making.  You are welcome to bring your own food.

 

The exhibition will feature some new works including my In Parallel and Entwined book, an oil painting triptych and a polyptych of 9 small mixed media panels.

The fire exit staircase appeared as a motif in the original exhibition.  I was struck by its sculptural form and yet its mundane functionality tends to make it “invisible” or easily overlooked.

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Rising, oil on canvas triptych, 3 x 300mm x 400mm

The other new work “Pieces” resulted from experiments with combining small scale panels mounted in grids.  I used different techniques of painting and collage, continuing the themes of the exhibition, to produce a large number of panels.  So far “Pieces” is the only finished work, but I expect to produce some more over time.  Putting individual paintings together in these arrays opens up more connections and narratives between paintings that would not work if I was to just combine images within one painting.  Next step may be to play around with the scale and formal/informal arrangement of the panels.

Andrew Howe, Pieces

Pieces, 150mm x 150mm x 9 mixed media panels

Pieces (detail)