just another day in the life of an earth pigment artist…
I was recently invited by the popular television property show ‘Escape to the Country’ (Freemantle Media) to help with a local interest article about Bideford Black. Despite very inclement weather for August we spent an enjoyable morning on the beach and cliff top near the outcrop of pigment, accompanied of course by a chorus of local ravens, oystercatchers, gulls and a single peregrine falcon. The presenter, Alistair Appleton, was completely surprised by the ‘blackness’ and quality of the pigment and became quickly absorbed in his brief painting experience. It was fascinating to see behind the scenes, work alongside the team for a while and also get an opportunity to share my work with a new audience – the show reaches about 16 million people! It will be broadcast on BBC2 sometime during the next few months.
on location at greencliff and paintings by the team © p ward and courtesy n wilkinson (www.nickwilkinsontv.co.uk) 2015
© P Ward 2015
To accompany our[i] recent exhibition, painting together, at the White Moose Gallery[ii] in Barnstaple, we offered three workshops to explore the possibilities of creative collaboration through painting with local earth pigments. The first two workshops consisted of morning visits to prominent pigment sites followed by afternoons making paint and painting together on a shared canvas in the gallery. The third workshop was spent entirely in the gallery and looked closer at paint making techniques before using rocks and soils gathered in the previous outings to work with.
North Devon has an extremely rich geology – a combination of Devonian, Carboniferous, Perma-Triassic and more recent glacial deposits – that has shaped the way we have and still relate to the environment. Glacial clays have provided excellent material for local potteries. Copper, iron, sliver and tin were mined on Exmoor. Culm grasslands have offered fertile grazing for beef, dairy and other livestock. And different earth pigments have been extracted for both industrial and artistic applications. Bideford Black (and anthracite) was mined across the region until 1969, while raw umber was extracted from locations around Combe Martin[iii]. But wherever we go there is always an incredibly varied spectrum of earth colours to be used, representing and celebrating sense of place however we choose to express ourselves.
Sharing a surface to work on – in this case a previously prepared canvas – was found to be a fun, if sometimes frustrating, but rewarding and liberating experience. Sharing the whole experience – gathering pigments, making paint, sharing lunch and conversation, working on a communal surface and finally reflecting on the day – offered new ways of working beyond the more often isolated practice we enjoy. It’s not for all but can help shift our practice as artists into new areas, seeing how others work, observing our own methods, habits and expectations from a different perspective and raising interesting questions of ownership, value and public perception towards communal ways of working.
fremington quay eARTh walk 27615
A first impression of Fremington Quay may be that of a fairly non-descript quay on the bend of a muddy estuary. However, when we look a bit deeper a rich history is evident. It was once one of the largest ports in the southwest, exporting iron, wool and clay, amongst other local products, around the world and importing coal and lime from South Wales. Until recently the Quay was a major railway siding, replaced now by the Tarka Trail cycle path extending from Barnstaple to the Ball Clay quarries at Meeth and Peters Marland south of Torrington. Its history is excellently displayed in the newly refurbished museum at the equally excellent café in the old station building.
The Quay sits broadly on the meeting of the Devonian (450 million years ago) and Carboniferous (350 million years ago) geological eras, a weakness in strata marked by the River Taw’s meandering intersection. The underlying carboniferous shales, slates and mudstones of the Crackington Beds, extend west to Hartland Point, and are capped on the southern banks of the estuary by glacial deposits from the Flandrian Ice Age 40,000 years ago. All this creates ideal conditions for the amazing array of pigments to be found along the low cliffs beyond the large disused stone limekiln west of the quay. A few miles inland Fremington clay pits provided fine red clay until 2013, helping establish and maintain the local potteries in Barnstaple and Bideford. The clays were laid down as sediments in glacial lakes and riverbeds. The folds, cracks and twists in the sedimentary carboniferous rocks allow for oxidization of minerals, offering an exquisite range of colours and textures. Some have said that in other countries the site would be considered a national heritage site. For now however it is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
I first came across the site when walking my dog many years ago, noticing the fantastic colours and rocks. However, it wasn’t until I started seriously researching earth pigments that I actually touched the rocks and found the colour. I have since visited with eminent geologists form the Ussher Society and Devonshire Association to learn more about it – although to be honest I wonder if I have not become just more confused, each ‘expert’ offering a different theory of the areas formation, age and make-up.
For the painting together workshop the participants were bowled over by both the area’s history and geology and the amazing array of colours available. The painting we made is, I think evidence, of the lively experience and the richness of the site. It was subsequently hung in the Create Centre in Bristol as part of the Soil Culture exhibition.
Greencliff eARTh walk 15715
Bideford Black has become popular among artists recently, after numerous projects focusing on its local significance and artistic potential. This workshop was therefore, not surprisingly, well attended with 10 participants and thankfully the weather was glorious. While the Bideford Black deposits exposed at Greencliff were the main attraction, there is a good range of other usable pigments easily accessible from the attendant sandstones and clays – white, grey, orange and pink rocks and clays were gathered, along with other beach detritus, and taken back to be enjoyed in the afternoon painting session.
There being more people made for a quite chaotic and crowded painting together experience, with two smaller canvasses being provided to take a specific place in the White Moose show. Limitations and parameters are an important aspect of any creative process and these were discussed at length within the context of the day’s workshop. Participants ranged from experienced artists and students to designers and other interested parties. Again the results and insights gained were an exciting reflection on the site, its history ad geology, the materials and the day’s events.
painting together, White Moose 25715
After a brief overview of previous workshops and introduction to the materials, the final workshop experimented with various methods of paint making including using egg tempera, gum Arabic and PVA glue as binders. As a theme we focused on water and the sea. The rocks, clays and soils we were using were predominantly sedimentary, being laid down thousands and hundreds of millions of years ago under the ocean, by rivers, in lakes or by ice in glacial times. This is an idea that Francesca and myself are both interested to investigate and participants were happy to indulge us.
The group shared their own experiences and relationships with water, and more specifically the sea, and continued to use this as a focus for mark making, imagery and discussion throughout the process. We thought of immersion, of healing, of play, of floating and sinking, of mysterious and murky depths and of a power wild and untamable. We painted creatures and waves. We blew bubbles. We wallowed in mud. One of the challenges was to paint the sea without the colour blue! The paintings success for me lay in its obscurity, its vagueness and shifting focus. Were we beneath the sea or floating in primordial swamp, part of it or separate? Its hard to tell, but we had a great day making it.
Many thanks to Karen and Stella and to all those who took part in the workshops, to all who visited and enjoyed the exhibition, to all who contributed to the work and especially to the White Moose for hosting the exhibition. Unfortunately, we didn’t sell any work and had to cancel the ‘in conversation’ event through lack of interest but maybe that is a sign of the times or of a prevailing attitude in North Devon towards more contemporary/conceptual art forms but also an interesting reflection on people’s response to communal work. But whatever each time we entered the space we felt extremely proud and pleased with the show, with the work we had done together and the experience we had offered all who took part. We have thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to take the show further afield in due course.
But for now, all good things must come to an end…
© P Ward 2015
[iii] According to local sources “no paint box was complete without Berrynarbour umber.” The pigment was mined until the 1790s and ground with ochre from East Down before being sent to London to be included in Reeves paint boxes. I have taken umber from the River Umber that runs through Combe Martin but as yet I have not located the quarries where it was mined.
Many thanks to those who joined us for a splendid morning in the company of ex-Bideford Black miner Ron Pither, as we slowly walked the length of Mines Road in East-the-Water recalling days-gone-by, and for an expressive afternoon painting together with Bideford Black and white Peters Marland Ball clay onto a shared canvas at the old Bideford Art School on the Quay, as part of the first Tales of the Riverbank event organized by Bideford Bay Creatives. The events – workshops, walks and talks – spread throughout the summer, explore the natural and social history surrounding the River Torridge in North Devon.
As we walked, Ron’s vivid and joyful recollections of his time as a miner and young man growing up in East-the-Water the 1950’s, laced with other historical details by myself, brought greater depth and colour to a seemingly non-descript lane on the outskirts of town. Mines Road, as the name suggests, used to lead to the Chapel Park pigment mines that finally closed in 1969 – there is little physical evidence left today to reveal its not too distant past. I had met Ron as part of the Story of Bideford Black project for the Burton Art Gallery in 2013 and he jumped at the opportunity to share more of his memories today.
After lunch the small, but select, party of artists and others interested in local history worked together to create a painting that somehow responded to the memories shared during the walk and to the specific local materials provided. Decisions were made as a group at critical stages of the process regarding the definition of parameters and as to how the painting should progress, revealing individual and collective ideas about the creative process in general and the specific nature of the materials involved. The painting produced will be exhibited as part of Soil Culture at create in Bristol from July 8th.
Many thanks also to Learn Devon for providing such a great space to conduct the workshop.
- For more information about further Tales of the Riverbank events please visit http://www.bbcdevon.org/2015/05/11/book-for-tales-of-the-riverbank/
- For more information about Bideford Black please visit http://bidefordblack.blogspot.co.uk/
- For more information about painting together workshops please visit http://www.whitemoose.co.uk/site/events-at-white-moose-gallery-north-devon/
- For more information about Soil Culture at create please visit http://www.ccanw.co.uk/create.htm
P Ward 2015
an investigation in creative collaboration through painting
(in support of my/our latest exhibition in north devon)
Pete Ward and Francesca Owen
White Moose Gallery, Trinity Street, Barnstaple, Devon, EX32 8HX
13th June – 1st August 2015
“Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible” Paul Klee
painting together is a project by North Devon based artists Pete Ward and Francesca Owen that brings together concepts of contemporary art (dialogical art, ecopsychology, environmental awareness and process-based interdisciplinary collaboration) with the more traditional practice of paint making and painting from locally occurring earth pigments. While Pete and Francesca continue to work on individual projects in their shared studio space and on more collaborative pieces together, they will also be inviting selected artists and members of the public to take part in group paintings/makings in various settings and locations, offering workshops and space for reflection and feedback about the project and process involved.
We have occasionally attempted to paint simultaneously, or in turns, on a surface with a fellow artist with varying results, the process often revealing the dynamic of egos and styles. In a similar way we are always responding to the relationship between ourselves as creative practitioners and the medium and environment with which we chose to work. Our experience of working with earth pigments has certainly led to a massive shift in practice both concerning our understanding and relationships with specific colours and the process involved. Earth pigments have also revealed a surprising freedom of expression and confidence seldom felt with more commercially available media – everyone just has a go! However, when working with other human beings a whole set of new questions and creative possibilities arise. For example, who owns the painting and to whom does credit for its creation lie? At what point do our egos let go and the collective subconscious come into play, if at all? How much are our individual actions influenced and dictated by the dynamic ecology of the group? Do guidelines and prescribed parameters help or hinder the process and then how and to what extent? Is the sense of satisfaction of making work together the same or different from working as an individual and how? The ‘art work’ of ancient history and indigenous cultures that we presently enjoy is rarely attributed to a sole artist, but more to a group, tribe or moment/phase in earth’s history. Do these works of cultural expression reach beyond the ego to a place of shared experience, of shared intention and mutual respect for the world we inhabit? painting together as a process will hopefully begin to reveal a sense of art more aligned to such sentiments than the overriding individuality of modern times.
Art may be seen as a space for creativity to take place, for time, ideas and materials to reveal thoughts and processes anew. Whether this is a painting, a poem, a film, a performance, activity or workshop is all the same. Art may be a catalyst for further creative action and thought rather than merely the product of such actions. It is not always for the artist to dictate any specific outcome but to provide and structure meaningful parameters within which we may engage, actively and imaginatively, with ourselves and the world. To make work with others, within a creatively conscious and reflective environment, is therefore an ideal situation to explore and reveal new and inspiring relationships, while also producing work beyond the ego of individual artists to represent a specific and relevant ecological dynamic.
‘These projects mark the emergence of a body of contemporary art practice concerned with collaborative, and potentially emancipatory, forms of dialogue and conversation. While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself.’
(Grant Kester, 2005)
painting together will include opportunities to participate in communal art through workshops, artist’s talks and walks in the local environment as well as the exhibition at the White Moose Gallery in Barnstaple, North Devon. For more information see http://www.whitemoose.co.uk/site/painting-together/
- Working Together http://www.laurahudson.co.uk/blog/2015/6/13/working-together
- for the love of art https://dancingwithdyes.wordpress.com/2015/02/18/for-the-love-of-art/
- eARTh gown https://dancingwithdyes.wordpress.com/2015/04/07/the-beginning-of-making-an-earth-garment/
- TH&TW https://intim8ecology.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/the-home-the-world-a-report/
- the value of trees https://peterwardearth.carbonmade.com/projects/3915674#1
- 500 Children! https://intim8ecology.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/500-children/
- Art Trail / Art Trek https://intim8ecology.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/painting-with-earth-again-a-new-start/
The exhibition at White Moose Gallery has been organized in conjunction with the Centre for Contemporary Arts & the Natural World Soil Culture Project in the International Year of Soils 2015
- White Moose Gallery http://www.whitemoose.co.uk/site/painting-together/
- The Centre for Contemporary Art & the Natural World http://www.ccanw.co.uk/
- International Year of Soils 2015 http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/
P Ward 2015
art trail ART TREK open studios 2015
Prompted and encouraged by our recent investigation at eARTh into natural paint binders with Clare Thomas and the opportunity to show some new work during two recent open studio events, I have been doing some painting…
The different natural binders (gum arabic, rabbit skin glue and damar varnish), new range of colours and larger scale, and inspiration of working closely with another painter, has provided more depth, transparency, fluidity and subtlety in mark-making within my painting and rejuvenated my desire for and understanding of its place within my life. Thank you Clare for your thorough investigation and generous sharing of your discoveries and materials. My own work has continued along its theme of resonance, energy and potential, hopefully offering space for healing and rejuvenation through personal observation and the local assimilation of process, materials and colour. The work is still intuitively aligned to a sense of landscape, connection and place, to nature’s processes and cycles, to magic and the power of intent, meditation and prayer.
The open studio events – Ilfracombe Art Trail 2015 and North Devon Art Trek 2015 – provided an opportunity for free community eARTh painting workshops, further contributions towards Francesca and I’s forthcoming painting together exhibition/project at White Moose Gallery in Barnstaple, and to meet a broad range of people – artists and non-artists alike. Ilfracombe Art Trail, a new and enthusiastically organized local community event including 40 artists in 25 venues throughout the town, brought nearly 150 people through eARTh’s doors in one weekend. While the more established Art Trek, spread across the whole of North Devon for 3 weeks, brought a far smaller number maybe indicating a natural trend towards the ‘local’ within the creative industries. Thank you to all who helped organize both events and to everyone who made time to visit us and contribute to the paintings. The Ilfracombe painting was initially shown at the Landmark Theatre in Ilfracombe before being hung along with a selection of other collaborative and communal works in Barnstaple – see next post.
P Ward 2015
“If you lack the materials to work with, go to the beach and draw with a stick in the sand, draw on the dry earth with a line of piss, make a drawing of the song of the birds in the emptiness of space, the noise of the water and of the wheel of a cart, and the song of the insects. All of this may be swept away by the wind and the water, but have the conviction that all these pure realizations of my spirit will influence, by magic and miracle, the spirit of other men.” Joan Miro, 1940
Sometimes, when one’s creativity seems a little stifled or this art becomes a little too serious and responsibilities just too onerous to bare, it is enough to take oneself to the local beach, or a place of personal power, some woods or favourite walk, or even somewhere completely new, and just set to playing – exploring some different materials in a different environment, away from the studio with no pressure of outcome, finance or foe. Francesca and I are presently working together towards a number of exhibitions and open studios but often struggling with the demands of parenthood to find time to apply ourselves fully to our artistic endeavours. It was time for a change – a change in our expectations of ourselves, of our working practice both individually, and with each other, and maybe even a change in the form of our expression. Working together may often help such a process of re-evaluation and movement but it may just as easily hinder it. Whatever, it is always worth trying to get the juices flowing again, to unblock, to break the dam, to release and revive the mojo, so to speak.
Here’s what happened when we went to one of our favourite spots in North Devon – Crow Point, at the mouth of the Taw and Torridge rivers, where the rich estuarine waters flow into Barnstaple/Bideford Bay (wherever your more clandestine loyalties may lie), at the southern end of Braunton Burrows, centre of the UNESCO North Devon Biosphere Reserve, a place I had spent many happy childhood holiday times and one I will be continuing to share with our son Noah now and in the future.
- Transect – collecting objects that appeal from a line down the beach, recognizing arbitrary zones, changes in surface and ecology, bringing those things together as a simple expression of that system, process and place.
- Noah’s Ark at arm’s length – sitting and sorting the stones and sand to find as many seashells as one can within arm’s reach; drawing a line to mark that reach; placing all the shells together on a piece of rock or driftwood within the space; observing, perhaps identifying and counting and enjoying the diversity of life therein.
- Driftwood boardwalk for lizards and beetles – arranging a selection of sticks from one place to another.
- Flotsam and jetsam beach bundle – collect interesting things and tie them together in a bundle; photograph arrangement from a weird/artistic angle to capture a sense of moment and place.
- Rubbish sculpture, an ode to Mr Duchamp – a carefully juxtaposed re-appropriation of discarded toilet seat and plastic, sticks, rope, sand and shadows.
- 4 subtle stick crosses on driftwood with sand – most transient darling!?
- Line in the sand – drag a stick in the sand as you walk along the beach, enjoying this simple expression of movement and mark making.
- Pick things up and take them home – gather some more objects that particularly appeal to one’s artistic sensibilities at the time, tie them all together and cart them back to the car and consequently the studio where they may be arranged in pleasing and/or meaningful ways in the name of art…
As utterly committed contemporary (environmental) artists we, of course, spent time recording and documenting our ‘play’ for who knows just when our lighthearted, seemingly trivial investigative dalliances may trigger a new burst in creative output or inspired artistic flare and productivity. We also had a great time and hope that Noah did too!? From his shoulder-top vantage point who knows what he thought or what affects we may be catalyzing in his innocent and vulnerable being but from his smiling cheeky face chirruping away throughout the windy, sun filled walk, and the way he is chewing away on the table edge as I write this blog, I’m sure he’ll be just fine.
Thank you to Francesca and Noah for such a lovely walk, to Crow Point and North Devon in general for providing such creative and spiritual inspiration in abundance and such a beautiful place to bring up a small child, to this blog post for mainfesting yet another excuse to use one of my favourite quotes and to Mr Miro for writing it. We are now cracking back on with work in the studio in preparation to entertain and inspire you all again throughout the coming months and years…
© P Ward 2015
* and many thanks to Clare Thomas for priming the canvas with rabbit skin glue and linseed oil, and indeed for her inspiring residency at eARTh – I, for one, will be using more natural ingredients in my paint making from now on :-)
early spring 2015
It is difficult to concisely express the accumulated experience of 9 days (216 hours) in such a different culture and environment with a year old baby and loving partner. I was quietly determined to take only a few photos, to try to keep the experience more ‘whole’ through sensory memory alone. Of course, the phone camera was hard to resist and some moments were captured digitally both as sound and image, albeit rather inadequately, along with a handwritten list of bird and animal species. Suffice to say I also enjoyed some fantastic bundles of sticks, carried by people and animals alike, and a wonderful array of earth colours in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. But to sum up, the lingering sensation is that of movement, of change, of noise and smell and taste, of clamour, of conversations, of frustration, deliberation and joy, of meetings and departures, hellos and goodbyes, of a small boy waving and waving with a mouth full of berber bread and happy adoring faces, of colour, of heat, of wind and mountains and sea, of arid brightness and intensity, and then of a return to the soft, patchwork of rolling subdued earthy tones and a familiar English winter landscape from on high.
Here is a selection of the images taken by Francesca and myself (depending on who was holding the camera/baby at the time)…
Many thanks to Francesca, Noah and all the people and creatures of Morocco who made our time so good.
© p ward 2015
1. http://karol-kochanowski.com/ – a lovely artist we met in marrakech
2. http://www.galeriedamgaard.com/ – a great gallery showing distinctive primitive local art in essaouira
3. http://francescaowen.wix.com/arts – the wonderful francesca owen no less…