Each month one of our Directors chooses an art.earth member to become ‘Artist of the Month’. What follows is a conversation with that artist, together with some examples of his or her work.
Is there a project you are currently working on that you’d like to discuss (perhaps in relation to process, or materials, or subject matter, or showing context)?
Over the past two to three years I have been working on a project entitled Shaped by Stone. The project was devised, and continues to be, a collaborative work with Manchester based photographer, Mario Popham. The project began as a meditation on the relationship between Macclesfield Town Centre and a local hillside quarry – Tegg’s Nose – (now a country park). Originally commissioned in 2015 by The Barnaby Festival in Macclesfield, the project responded to the theme of that year: ‘Space’.
spaces created by the extraction of stone – quarry
spaces created from the extracted stone – town.
The project grew out of thoughts around local distinctiveness and musings on a sense of the provenance of place, and was fueled also by questions around the importance of connecting to one’s home-place and how that may develop a greater sense of connection to the wider planet.
From a deep focus on a local level we are now, and have been for the past year, looking at the slate quarries of North Wales and their relationship to the post-industrial North of England. This new leg of the project is entitled ‘Shaped by Stone: Flesh and Stone’.
From the windows of my terrace house I see slate roofs in all directions – where did this stone come from?
Facing westerly on the edge of Tegg’s Nose, I look out over the Cheshire Plains. In the far distance the land rises again; the mountains of North Wales sit in hazy silhouette.
The project has research at its core (it is important to us that the work is contextualized by the history of the place / sites / culture and isn’t simply a response to it). This research takes a number of forms: reading local documents, (novels and archeological texts, in relation to Flesh and Stone), talking with local people, and of great importance, being out ‘in the field’.
Mario and I work in two distinctive ways: he with photography and me with drawing, and continue to do so. For Shaped by Stone, Mario took large format black and white photographs, hand processing them in the darkroom. For Flesh and Stone, he has diversified and is working with digital medium format. I have been making rubbings of the stone using graphite and a dense black earth pigment on heavy weight paper. With Shaped by Stone the slowness of the large format film camera sat well alongside the slowness of my drawing process. This slow approach felt very in-keeping with the nature of our thoughts regarding quarry-work and thoughts around the fashioning of the stone and the laying of it in walls, roads and paths; it also felt in-keeping with the nature of our wandering around the town and the hill top.
However, for Flesh and Stone Mario has felt a pull towards digital photography, feeling the options available using this technology to be of greater benefit to the subject matter and his approach to it, and also somehow apt, sitting within an echo, if you like, of the Victorian ethos of technological development; the notion of using the most advanced machinery the age allows. Countering this, I continue to make rubbings from the stone. I am entrenched in the process of the rubbings and at the mercy of the time it takes to capture the surface of a given stone; it is this relationship that I am after – the slow and considered touch of stone, time given to the uniqueness of each individual stone.
Reflecting on these approaches we could say, perhaps, that they in some way echo the polarity of processes within the slate industry?
Shaped by Stone was brought to fruition for The Barnaby Festival in June 2016 where the work was exhibited between two spaces: one in Macclesfield Town Centre, the other in the Visitor Centre on Tegg’s Nose. To accompany and further contextualise the art outcomes we arranged two informally guided walks: one around the town centre, the other around Tegg’s Nose. The walks weren’t designed to be heavily factual, or to be platforms for Mario and I to discuss our findings in great depth, they were really thought of as periods of reflection on the relationship between the town and the hill, catalysts, if you like, for people to develop (and further develop) their relationships with these places.
Toward the east, the waste tips of the quarry are clearly visible, creating a clear and striking skyline from various points in the town centre; likewise, looking west, the town is clearly visible from the quarry tips, a legacy of the hill’s dissection and dissemination.
In addition to the exhibitions, we have designed and printed (with kind support from HOME in Manchester) a small publication. The design and layout of the book – Shaped by Stone – were taken directly from the presentation of the work in the Barnaby Festival exhibitions. Our intention was to further pursue various juxtapositions of the photographs and drawings to express and explore the narrative of the project in greater depth.
The project has been exhibited at GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn as part of ‘On the Stoney Path’ with herman de vries and Sybille Eimermacher. We have also presented the project at the Land2 conference’s ‘Traffic’ at Plymouth University and College of Art and ‘CMIT’ at Sheffield Hallam, and also at ‘Language, Landscape and the Sublime’, Dartington, and ‘Northern Lights’ at Sheffield Hallam.
Mario and I spent a number of weeks throughout the summer of 2017 researching and working on Flesh and Stone in and around the slate quarries of North Wales: most notably The National Slate Museum of Wales and Dinorwig Quarry in Llanberis, Llechwedd in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the town of Bethesda. We are currently in the planning stage of an exhibition of this work to be exhibited at HOME in Manchester in March 2018. This leg of the project has been kindly supported by HOME, Arts Council England, and Fuji Film, and will come to a point of completion in October 2018. We will be working with a similar approach to presentation as was explored in Shaped by Stone but on a larger scale and with a greater variety of visual vocabulary. Beyond the exhibition we will be working toward a publication later in the year and also be looking to exhibit the work in North Wales.
Is there an artist you would like to be better or more widely known – because you feel they are important or influential for you, or because you think they have particular significance now?
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an early project of Mario’s. Enduring Growth was the first project I saw of Mario’s and the one that showed a parallel between our two practices. It fed the initial spark which eventually led to Shaped by Stone.
Enduring Growth looks at the resolve of nature – both other-than-human and human – finding its place within, as he puts it, the ‘imposing brutal dominance of the city’. The project explores the legacy of industrialisation and the to-ing and fro-ing inflicted on place through changes brought about by politics and time.
Shot in black and white in large format the photographs have an almost timeless quality, and for me this slow approach to capturing the world sits comfortably with the slow greening of place when left to its own devises.
Another artist I’d like to draw attention to is Lotte Scott. For the past few years Lotte has been working on a project about the Somerset Levels, which she brought to a point of completion for her MA at the Slade in June 2016. She explores an interest in prehistory and works with traditional techniques of the area, most notably charcoal making, and pays particular attention to the ancient practice of peat cutting. Lotte makes sensitive works out of charcoal and peat – drawings, sculptures and photographs – which draw our attention to the history and matter of place, and also our complex relationship to the land.
Is there a project or publication you would like to share or highlight because it has particular relevance or importance for you as a maker in a wider context of pressures on the environment, climate change, economic inequality, or other themes you feel are relevant to art.earth as a family of artists and thinkers?
Four writers and thinkers come to mind in response to this question (It is hard to pin point a single project or publication of particular importance); they are: Caradog Prichard, Kate Roberts, Alan Garner, and Arne Naess.
In the context of my current practice – the project Flesh and Stone most notably – literature has become of great importance. Starting with Prichard and Roberts, who are both Welsh writers of the early to mid 20th Century. Their stories ‘One Moonlit Night’ (Prichard), and ‘Tea in the Heather’ and ‘Feet in Chains’ (Roberts) have provided me with an insight into Welsh culture that I don’t feel I could have accessed any other way. The descriptions of village and town life, life in the quarries and the impact of the quarries on the life of families and the community has been invaluable for me in my journey to getting to know North Wales. These stories have fed my imagination, affecting my response to the places Mario and I have visited, twisted my thoughts no doubt, but also given me a key, a way into understanding the complex relationship the people of North Wales have with the land, and in particular, the slate and the industry that grew from it.
I bring Alan Garner into the mix as he is a great writer of place and of people, and the relationship between the two. It is the book ‘The Stone Book Quartet’ that has had the greatest influence on me to date. The four stories which make up this book speak of members of his family through four different time periods. The stories speak of the deep connection of the people, his people, to the place in which they inhabit and how that place also inhabits them. They are stories also about objects and the importance of objects in our lives. For a maker of things this also holds particular resonance. Furthering this, the book ‘The Beauty Things’, for which he collaborated with the archeologist Mark Edmonds, draws beautiful and sensitive context around a number of objects in Garner’s possession that resonate with great power for him, are ‘charged’ as he puts it, and have found their way into his stories and have great importance in his life. This connection to place and people through objects feels deeply important to me, and put in the context of these times of disconnection from the earth, seems vital to reinstalling our relationship with the living world.
The writing of Arne Naess, and thoughts of deep ecology, have been part of my thinking for some years. I feel it important to mention him here as the principle of the intrinsic value of all things (including stones!) and Naess’ fascination and awe of all life, has underpinned much of my activity as an artist, and human-being (human-becoming), for quite some time. I find that thoughts of the ecological self are often with me. I am aware of the growth of a spiritual dimension to my practice (and life…are they separate?) and Naess is there at the core.
I feel a common thread that runs through the work of these four writers and thinkers is a sense of connectivity and relationship, both for the places they inhabit and for the life that lives there – both human and other-than-human. Prichard, Roberts and Garner all talk about the lives of hard working people (in the stories I mention) and the complexity of the relationships between people, and between people and the land, but this is by no means all drudgery and toil. In all the stories the land – nature, the wild, whatever you’d like to call it – is tough but also redemptive and nourishing. I believe this is true for Naess also, as for him the wild nature of Hallingskarvet and his mountain home, Tvergastein (‘Crossing Stone’), was greatly nourishing and important to his thinking and sense of self.
Therefore the land may provide a living, but it could be said to provide a broader sense of self too, a sense of identity that goes beyond that of being simply human. This sense of connectivity and relationship seems to me to be vital to living thoughtfully and sensitively, both of which we need at this time in human history.