Here I consider three images completed this month, in light of a recent trip to Seil on the west coast of Scotland, and how some of the most long-standing themes of my practice continue to develop and reveal themselves - namely, the inherent healing potential of the land. Previously I had written about my experience of the recent Geopoetics conference held on Seil, and how themes of water, and the interconnectedness of seemingly separate areas of land had become apparent to me - or, perhaps more fittingly, they began to emerge.
The Dark Lake
Ink and pastel
It seems surprising to say that I have never before set out to intentionally create a particular body of work, where limits are prescribed to focus on either distinct areas of thematic enquiry, or formally in terms of palette and proportions. Certainly there are strands of thought which weave all of my work together, and one could group my drawings into say darker imagery tending towards the monochromatic, or brightly coloured works which emphasise some different qualities. As very few of my drawings are in any way attempts to depict or refer to a specified location, I see it more as using landscape by way of a visual language to convey what I perceive certain types of landforms are a reflection of, particularly the mountainous. I often think of my art making in terms of an attempt to "distill a tangible essence of the 'skull beneath the skin' of landscape." During the time I spent on Seil, Easdale, Luing (some of the Slate Islands) I began to have some clear ideas for images which would bring together my experiences of those places, the various elements which stood out for me within the content of the conference, and then bring these to ongoing considerations fuelling my work. Sketches have been made, and I was planning on formally marking the start of work on what would constitute a set of drawings for Seil, just as soon as I finished a few more pieces that I already had in mind.
I had already begun 'The Dark Lake' prior to making the foray to Argyll, and I was considering it as a response to a section of Martin Shaw's exploration of the Grail legend in Snowy Tower. Namely where the wounded King is fishing, the land around him ailing in resonance with his wound. But now this feels to me very much like an image that has something to do with Seil as well, and that whole area in several ways. Certainly the land ails. Much of it could be described as an industrial wasteland, in honest yet unflattering terms, and the lands decline led with some immediacy to the decline of its inhabitants. This image now reminds me of standing next to the flooded quarries, looking West across the sea to Mull, longing perhaps for proximity to those mountains, but also captivated by that distance. I wonder now if this has something to do with a yearning for the pristine, the wild, rather than to be standing on intensely wounded ground. And is that not the tendency often on a personal level, to look away from what ails, without paying close attention to it? To maintain, for a time, a gaze towards the (seemingly) un-touched is however vital, a potent medicine, when that can be the catalyst for attention to what seeks to be healed.
I later overheard a story about the reality of tourist overcrowding hell on Mull, so perhaps trashing the place does have certain benefits sometimes.
Let It Come Down
Ink and pastel
Perhaps a digression, but I always find it remarkable how contact with 'nature' of varying kinds, is now studied, measured, and fed back to society with revelatory zeal. I get where this is coming from, that in order to promote the safeguarding of landscapes, and encourage holders of purse strings to fund ways for those who may not usually be able to access nature to have the opportunity to do so for their benefit - I'm all for it. But I can't help but feel a pang of bewilderment each time I hear of research that links landscape to well being - whatever that really constitutes. I think it's important to hold in mind that the very need for this is something of a high water mark for the insanity that the dominant culture is gripped by, how far removed so many people are from any sense of feeling in relation to the land. It is this acute absence which has brought about the destruction in the first place, and I always get the impression that these studies and their conclusions are really only symptomatic of the madness itself, and somehow implicit in the further distancing of our species from the healing properties inherent in the land, all seen through a lens of commodification.
Present in these three drawings is what could be described as a slate grey, or maybe even slate blue. This was not something I intentionally linked to Seil, because I planned to get to work on those images only after completing these. But clearly, whether I knew it or not there was something that sought a more immediate expression. I really got a sense of sea, sky, ground, the pools in the quarry, all merging into one colour on Easdale. But I don't mean to to give the impression of a dirge, instead it almost glows with light refracting, like the quartz strands through the rocks. Again a mergence of water, land, and light runs through my mind.
My love of the landscape (and I really must find better words for it) is longstanding, but it was not until about halfway through my Art degree in Wales that quite spontaneously I began to draw it. I say draw 'it', as though the land was something other, but really that is precisely why it suddenly arose in me, and with a little encouragement from excellent tutors I was able to begin drawing as a necessity. By that point after years of making video, photography, soundscape, experimenting and exploring artistically, as well as roaming (or stravaiging) the paths of the South Downs, and hills around where I lived in Wales, these forms had been internalised. They were no longer perceived as only existing 'out there.' These images are from a performance piece titled Slag Drag (2007). In the top image you can just about make out a human form, knelt down at the edge of the icy pool. This was filmed in an area of spoil heaps near Blaenavon, in the valleys of south Wales.
What initially drew my attention to these areas of land was how they had begun to regenerate. Grass was growing, water was pooling, animals had moved in. I strongly felt that despite their categorisation as 'waste' these piles would in time be fully alive again. Extraction of dark material really did seem like a disruption to a process that should not be disturbed. Although my thinking around this has moved on somewhat, it does say something of why in my drawings the mountain tends to be black. Seeing these areas as wounds, and noticing that there was this inherent capacity for healing, a tendency toward new life, led me to see this process in terms of alchemical psychology. That the prima materia is a substance in need of transformation. It is not to be gotten rid of, or discarded but instead tended to. It is the crown in the muck, the latent potential of the gold within the led. The first stage in this process - Nigredo - constitutes a blackening, without which the other stages cannot occur. This is essentially working with ones 'difficult stuff', the primal wound. It does not go away, but is more like a scar, which is just how I viewed these areas of land. This can be a very dense topic, and really I only seek here to outlay a connection, a longstanding narrative, as I continue to follow it and be surprised by its twists and turns myself. Certainly turning up in a landscape such as Seil eleven years after making this piece, with the intention of running a group workshop along the lines of the Creen Craft group work I have been developing more recently, seems like a noteworthy re-connecting with this type of land.
The Ravenous Tide
Ink, pastel, and charcoal
At this point I feel I have used enough words, so I will only make a brief mention of the themes of this piece. As we can probably all attest there is a very real and tangible sense of threat in the world at present, taking many shapes and forms. It seems to permeate everything, from the threat to the environment that sustains life, to real and perceived levels of danger from others/all sides, into the economy and those kinds of systems. That was something I wanted to communicate here, thinking "I'll get to my Seil pictures in a minute, right after I've finished this one." I already had the title in mind, but the link I had not made was with Seil/Easdale and how the industry which blighted the island, yet gave sustenance to its human inhabitants, was obliterated by breach and flooding. One tide beckoning another, a radical example of the Earth tending to its healing?
Robin Artisson describes the Ravenous Tide as a "power which infected mankind with a terrible hunger, a subtle mix of anxiety and ravenous hunger for things they had never before focussed upon with the same ardor or intensity."
So I will continue just to work, and perhaps at some point a body of work about Seil can be curated from the pieces made over several months, rather than intentionally made for that purpose.