Seeing everything but knowing nothing

ROTFLOLEB, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During an A-level Art trip to London to view the main art galleries back in the early 1980’s, I learnt two fundamental things. Firstly that art is just as much about mental as much as visual stimulation. The second, and to my mind, more profound thing I learnt, was that I was allowed to appreciate a work of art without having the first clue as to whose work it was or why I liked it so much. At the gift shop of the Tate Gallery, London, I found a single postcard of an abstract work that immediately caught my eye. The work was absolutely mesmerising and uplifting, however the logical and reasoning side of my brain was cast adrift, shrugging its shoulders, practically at a loss to contribute anything to this moment of pure enlightenment.

Now, in 2022, the book ‘The unknown craftsman’ by Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, is providing me with an endorsement of this experience some forty years earlier. Soetsu is famous for his involvement with Potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in raising the profile of the ancient craft of eastern ceramics back in the 1920’s. Soetsu argues:

‘In understanding beauty, intuition is more of the essence than intellectual perception. The reverse of these two faculties stultifies vision. To ‘see’ is to go directly to the core; to know the facts about an object of beauty is to go around the periphery. Intellectual discrimination is less essential to an understanding of beauty than the power of intuition that precedes it’

Armed with my experience of that one postcard, Soetsu’s argument definitely strikes a chord. Whereas knowledge through research of course rewards us by explaining a lot about the work including the techniques used to create it, and the thoughts and beliefs inspiring the maker at the time, no amount of knowledge can alter an honest personal visual liking of the work in question. In today’s world where monetary value and a makers celebrity status tells us that we really should like the work of artist X or Y, in order to be artistically enlightened or because it could be ‘worth a bit’, I think these are wise words indeed.

What I did at big (art) school – a year in review

It’s spring 1982, and I’d just expressed a desire to enrol onto an Arts foundation course to my parents. My father, a scientist at a local hospital Pathology lab was visibly horrified and quickly rattled off a long list of reasons why I should put such a whimsical suggestion to bed, and quickly! My mother, a strong artistic mentor throughout my childhood (as was her father), gave the sympathetic glance across the dinner table that only a mother could give. The subject matter abruptly changed and that was that.

Fast-forward to 2020 and with a stroke of a pen my 36 year long career in the ‘proper job’ (my father’s words, not mine) world of Information Technology came to a close. Although this was a very different logic-laden world from that of the arts, I did have some creative satisfaction as my reams of pages of computer code magically transformed into working IT systems on the green-screen mainframe terminals of a well-known aerospace company across the UK and beyond.

As I walked out of the office for the last time, I was at last free to properly re-engage with the semi-dormant artistic right-hemisphere of my brain, and give the poor burnt-out logical left hemisphere a much needed rest. Since, 2008 I had been exploring various printmaking techniques including letterpress, linocut and etching in my free time with the help of courses delivered by the SpikePrint printmaking studio at the Bristol Harbourside.

My master-plan was now all laid out in front of me. With a new year-long course in etching already booked at SpikePrint, I was going to apply a laser-sharp focus to that subject and that alone on my route to unbounded printmaking success and greatness.

However, as the famous saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and printmakers don’t always go quite as expected. The only way I can explain what happened next is to draw an analogy to a popular classroom chromatography experiment, where a drop of fountain pen ink hits a sheet of damp blotting paper sheet and then reveals its constituent colours. In this case, the drop of fountain pen ink represented my artistic aspirations and the damp blotting paper, the world of art in front of me. As I entered my new post-IT world, the drop of ink hit the paper and a world of new additional creative opportunity and choice was clear to see in glorious technicolour.

Since my A Level art days, my work has often been inspired by botanical themes and it was therefore no surprise that I was firstly drawn toward getting out into the richly botanical surroundings of the Bristol University Botanic Garden to study and sketch under the expert guidance of local Bristol artist Sheena Vallely. A course in botanical painting followed which provided a very valuable refresher in the use of watercolours, although I was not entirely drawn to the strong need for scientific pinpoint accuracy demanded by this discipline.

Watercolour study of blossom and leaves of Bramley apple tree

All of this was going on whilst my etching course at SpikePrint with the hugely experienced printmaker Martyn Grimmer was in full-swing (despite the best efforts of Covid-19 to disrupt things). This course, alongside the others was starting to push against my self-imposed limited scope of work and was encouraging me instead to gain the confidence to just play and experiment and not fear failure or unexpected outcomes, but instead to embrace the gift of happy-accidents.

A happy accident – etching of dryopteris fern leaf onto aluminium

During study at the above courses plus my own experiments with an old 1920’s Box Brownie camera and the photographic cyanotype process, it soon dawned on me that I had managed to sleepwalk into my own personal foundation year. For me, the best part of this activity was the opportunity to take these artistic ingredients, add them to the big Kenwood Chef bowl of Art and hit the blend button and see what comes out. What if I add watercolour washes to that etching of a Fatsia japonica plant (as the famous botanical illustrators of the Victorian era did)? What if I took that linocut of a wading bird I used in a book project and pressed it into a slab of clay instead? What if I created a cyanotype print onto a clay surface instead of a paper one? What if I engraved illustrations of magnified plant pollen grains onto glass and projected it onto a wall using a lit candle in a darkened room?

Linocut of a wading bird pressed into clay with acrylic paint added and then lightly sanded
Magnified pollen grains etched onto glass

I have discovered that walking through the artistic house of fun and opening doors to new rooms whilst being obviously an exciting pastime, can also be easily overwhelming so still requires a degree of control and focus if artistic development and growth is not to be put at risk by the over-dilution of ideas and focus, and this is the new challenge that now faces me going forward.

So, despite not following-up on my wish to enrol on an arts foundation course way back in 1982, the past year has certainly indicated the value that such a course can deliver. While I’m sure my artistic late mother would now be jumping with joy at my latest endeavours, I’m not quite sure what my late father would be making of it, but I’m sure he will be happy that my printmaking activity has at least taught me how copper sulphate solution reacts with aluminium and what happens to copper in ferric chloride, and of course how to do it all safely!

Posted in Art

The beauty of the beast

It was during a recent regular stroll along the banks of the River Frome, just outside of Bristol, that I first encountered this very eye-catching plant. I couldn’t exactly miss it, as it had managed to completely colonise the banks between the road on which I was standing, and the river beyond. With its deep-reddish stems, leaves with heavily serrated edges and the most stunning orchid-like fuscia pink slipper-shaped flowers, I had to stop and give it a much closer look.

‘I think they call it Himalayan balsam’ came a voice from a walker with his wife standing behind me. We agreed that this species didn’t exactly look native, so out came the camera before leaving this colony to some very appreciative bees.

This plant otherwise known as Impatiens glandulifera or ‘kiss-me-on-the-mountain’ does indeed originate from the Himalayan mountains from where it was found and introduced into Great Britain in 1839 by one of many botanical explorers of the time. It was subsequently eagerly adopted by Victorian gardeners keen to own the latest exotic species.

However, just like other non-natives such as gardener’s enemy number one, Field Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis and the never-to-be-touched Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum introduced by well-meaning Victorian botanist explorers, this plant has proved less than welcome, after rapidly escaping from garden confines into the surrounding countryside.

Colonies of this plant once established along the wet habitats of river banks, rapidly out-compete native species before dying off in the autumn to reveal bare ground which is then more susceptible to erosion. Before this occurs however, Impatiens glandulifera uses its explosive seed pods to send hundreds of seeds several metres away from the parent plant. This party trick is especially effective where these seeds are then carried downstream where they then germinate and colonise a new area of river bank, and so the life-cycle repeats as its invasion continues.

So, despite recent trends to allow wild flower species to flourish, often at the expense of grassland to support native bee populations, this is one very attractive species that is actively targeted for removal in line with local council environmental policies.

So if you do get to find a colony of these plants on a riverside walk, enjoy the flowers while you can, as they may not be there for much longer.

Awe and wonderment at Cleveland Bridge

Ok ok… To anyone familiar with the crossing point taking the busy A36 over the River Avon in the centre of Bath, this may sound like some kind of sick joke! I myself have been stuck in traffic queues over this bridge on more occasions than I care to remember, with only the Georgian architecture of it’s four Greek temple-like lodges to distract my mind from the queue ahead of me.

However it was only recently that I found out about the creative activities of ceramic artist Peter Hayes at his studio within one of these four lodges.

Birmingham born Peter’s fascinating work draws-in cultural influences from all over the world as a result of his extensive travel and research onto styles of pottery from Africa, India, Japan and Nepal, and many other countries. Although his works are modern-day, they could quite easily pass for cultural artefacts, thousands of years old.

Peter also effectively exploits his physical surroundings to create his work, be it local clay sourced from the banks of a local canal or the River Avon itself in which some of his work is immersed over a period of time to give it a distinctive patina.

Here is a lovely short film by the Blackmore Gallery featuring Peter, his work and inspirations on YouTube.

The River Avon at Cleveland Bridge, Bath

So, next time I am stuck in traffic on Cleveland Bridge, I will be comforted by the fact that at least one person on the bridge is making good use of his time creating in his studio!

Posted in Art

Shakespeare sonnet project

In a cycle of 154 short, 14-line poems first published in 1609, William Shakespeare meditated on themes of love, death, and desire. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries asked for contributions from hand-press printers across the world to pick and print one of Shakespeare’s sonnets for selection to be exhibited and added to their collection.

I selected sonnet number 4, and designed a print incorporating arabesque borders based upon the Fell types collection of the Oxford university. The text is 18pt Caslon Roman with a 60pt illustrated capital. The sonnet was printed onto 210GSM French BFK Rives printmakers paper on the Albion handpress.

An unexpected bonus of my involvement in this exhibition, was an invitation to join other participating letterpress printers, at the Oxford University Bodleian Library to review other submitted works, and then work alongside New York type designer and printer Russell Maret at the Old Bodleian Library print workshop.