water, air and earth
sticks and stones
and, somewhere, fire
as the year unfolds
to a new life
and you grow
and hold us rapt
in your emphatic personality
we deliberate upon Nature
and deafening response
there is red and black and grey and green
dirt to some
riches to others
what is left
we play together
The year began with family and friends in a rainswept County Clare, Ireland, my home for 10 years. Many of the places I wanted to revisit and share were beneath meters of water. Things, of course, had changed for better and worse but the spirit of the land still shone through.
Then more mountains and lakes, family and friends, as my brother’s path shifts to the Welsh borders, an area I have not visited before but will visit again. This time snow, ice, fog and sunshine accompanied my journey. Lake Vyrnwy reservoir submerged a Welsh village to supply England with water.
And at ‘home’ the winter lashes the coastline, reshaping and reforming. Ilfracombe was originally named after King Alfred and was gifted to two of his sons as a sheltered harbour on the western approaches to his kingdom. Before then an iron-age hill fort overlooked the natural harbour from, what is now, Hillsborough nature reserve. This part of the North Devon coast is formed predominantly from Devonian slates, sandstones and shales and boasts some of the highest sea cliffs in England. We have a new studio here that we hope will provide a base for our creative endeavours and space for others to enjoy.
In May, as part of the CCANW Soil Culture project, I led a walk and talk with the White Moose Gallery and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to celebrate North Devon’s relationship with its earth resources. “Let’s Walk and Talk Dirt!” involved local potters, Harry Juniper and Roger Cockram, geologists Chris Cornford and Andrew Green, and soil scientist David Hogan to present some different perspectives about our local resources. Participants really enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the events but were frustrated by the lack of time to explore the subject matter in more depth. We are now working towards a ‘summer school’ to further explore North Devon’s potteries, pigments, rocks and soils.
The Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton, East Devon invited me in May, to run painting with earth workshops to accompany their ongoing Soil Culture exhibitions. The first workshop introduced the ideas to a small group of partially sighted children from the WESC Foundation, providing a space for us to enjoy the more than visual experience of the process and materials. I was also excited to be exploring a new area of the country, encouraging me to find new pigments and learn about their geology and history. The second workshop, for artists, included an invigorating morning field trip to Jacob’s Ladder beach in Sidmouth to gather small quantities of the iron-rich red and green mudstones, and whatever else took our fancy, followed by an afternoon of furious experimentation grinding and binding a selection of pigments with a variety of mediums. It was great to meet some new faces in such a lively and friendly gallery.
Something that did surprise me was the presence of chalk in the landscape of East Devon. Having been raised in Portsmouth I am familiar with the chalk and flint of the South Downs and Isle of Wight but wasn’t aware of it so far west along the coast. The sedimentary Cretaceous beds at Beer, that I saw from Branscombe beach during a day of research, lie above Upper Greensand that then rests on the more familiar Mercian Triassic red mudstones of South Devon. Apparently there is an ‘unconformity’ here in that the interceding Jurassic layer is missing, the area being land during that era. The nodules of flint and chert present in the Chalk and Upper Greensand that make up the beaches are also apparent in the local architecture creating further similarities to the South Downs and other Chalk areas across Europe.
One such region, that I also feel an affinity with through my ancestry and boyhood cycling adventures, is the Wessex Downs. The ancient country of Wessex encompassed Hampshire, west to the Cornish borders, and Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Somerset. In more recent times its character and characters have formed the backdrop for the literary works of Thomas Hardy. I was recently contacted by a research fellow from Exeter University to collaborate in a project to explore the value to health and well being of arts-based environmental workshops. His previous research looked at the work of Thomas Hardy in relation to the Wessex landscape. We are now waiting to see if our initial funding application has been successful before embarking on a major AHRC project around a similar theme. It has been fascinating working with a complete stranger towards a shared goal.
Meanwhile, closer to home again we have been working with the local community towards re-landscaping an unsightly patch of ground behind the bus shelter in our village. It was good to be invited, to meet some more of our neighbours, to learn about the history of the village and to think how to we might alter such a space to celebrate the area. It was recently discovered that the area is owned (rather than it being public space) which has put the project back somewhat!?
And back in the studio I have been enjoying putting together some new work (see previous post) using old offcuts of wood, old pots of paint and some new pigments. After 9 months I finally feel like I am settling in, enjoying the space and making something new, as well as finding time for my other interests and beautiful family. With a new arrival imminent we’ll be working hard to keep it up…
© P Ward 2016
My latest work combines using leftover bits of wood, a love of simple woodworking and an interest in the more everyday applications of paint. While, as artists, it is easy to focus on painting as an intellectually aesthetic discipline or as a means to test and enjoy our powers of observation, manipulation of materials and hand-eye coordination the majority of paints and pigments have been, and still are, used for decorating and protecting surfaces around the house and industrially.
For example, Bideford Black, a North Devon pigment that I have spent time researching[i], was used primarily in the shipbuilding industry as an anti-foul, as a household paint (Zats Black), to paint tank camouflage in WWII, for dyeing rubber and cement and even for making mascara, but I am yet to find evidence of it being commercially processed as an artist’s pigment. Despite recent local and national artistic interest it is, in my experience, a rather gritty, difficult and dull black material that is prone to sapping the life out of all the other colours it comes close to. So while Reeves of London may have considered another North Devon pigment, Berrynarbour Umber, ‘essential for any paint box’ I cannot see Leonardo sending for some Bideford Black (as he may have for yellow from Naples or green from Verona)! But then it has its very own nature and one that as artists and/or paint makers we can choose to embrace or at least take into account if using it.
Every pigment I have used has its own quality and spirit, and recognizing and working with this understanding is one of the primary and most exciting lessons I have learnt from gathering and processing pigments. They are all an expression of a place, of a geological process and may carry with them a provenance rooted in nature and social history, as well as qualities that lend themselves to one purpose or another. Similarly, while the colours I often use for display and educational purposes are quite bold (to impress and surprise people with the richness of colour under our feet) the subtlety and range of colours of soils, clays and rocks associated with any site is utterly sublime. This may often be seen when studying the colours of materials and paints used in architecture from region to region and the sense of place this inspires.
Another area of interest to me, through my alter ego as a painter and decorator, has been the fashion (albeit necessary) for ‘environmentally friendly’ household paint. While industry searches for new products to replace traditionally oil-based paints we are happy to accept (inferior) low-odour acrylic substitutes. I am not sure exactly how household paints are manufactured or what they are made from but do know that acrylics have an equally dubious environmental impact.
From my experience, traditional oil based paints work – they stay on the surface for a good while whereas contemporary substitutes tend to scratch off easily and attract dirt more readily, sometimes removing more of the paint when wiped! To my knowledge oil based paints have been made using plant resins and oils and cleaned and thinned with turpentine – another plant based product. The issue of pollution often occurs in production, cleaning brushes, in disposal and from fumes given off when applying. Whereas modern ‘plastic’ paints, while addressing many of the H&S issues of traditional paints, may stop plaster and stone from ‘breathing’ causing problems with damp and water retention[ii]. This is not to say that there is nothing wrong with good old traditional paint – that we should just ‘get a grip’ over a bit of casual solvent abuse and some dead fish – but that there is obviously still a lot of work to be done to reach a satisfactory conclusion both in terms of environmental impact, health and safety, and durability.
Maybe it is more our attitudes towards and understanding of such matters that need addressing!? Whatever, every circumstance and application is individual as are the solutions…
Rants and ramblings aside, it has been fascinating cobbling together old bits and pieces of wood to make new surfaces to paint on and seeing how the hand made paint works with the different surfaces. The pieces have taken on a more sculptural feel, playing the illusional 3D qualities achieved by painting off against the shallow relief of the structured surface. Thankfully some of the pieces have already been sold, the buyer commenting on the ‘Wabi Sabi’ quality of the work – a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection[iii], the principle of repair, making new from old, celebrating the beauty of decay and repurpose. While this was not necessarily my intention, I do like the association.
© P Ward 2016
(Note: Apologies for the slightly distorted imagery – the frames are actually square. I have temporarily lost use of my photo editing programme due to a systems upgrade. If anyone knows of a good free photo editing suite that allows you to rotate by degrees and adjust camera distortion, please let me know :-))
[ii] However, to the contrary, we have recently been experimenting with organic binders, such as rabbit skin glue and gum Arabic, and found that in certain environmental conditions, such as damp and cold, or through errors in preparation, they are prone to rapid disintegration – to mould and flaking. A factor not conducive to good business practice in the production and commercial distribution of fine objets d’art!
as an artist experiencing cessations in the creative flow
or an utter lack of enthusiasm for making from time to time
it is heartening to experience how the most simple actions
no matter how difficult they may sometimes be
like folding and tearing paper
grinding some local earth pigments
and painting basic patterns
(with the intention of creating a set of cards for sale)
can enliven my spirits
get the mind ticking again
and lead to a bounteous plethora of new ideas and directions
whether it is something particularly inspiring about the whole process
of collecting pigments in the landscape and making paint
or whether it is evident in all forms of simple creative actions
i’m not sure
but it feels good
and reminds me of how art has enriched and inspired my life for so many years
i like my work
i like what I make
and i am eternally grateful to the universe for offering me these gifts:
the ability to perceive beauty
the aptitude to make beautiful things
and the opportunity to inspire others to do the same…
© p ward 2016
with all the love
in the world
our future yet to unfurl
the clouds above
for Francesca 14216
© p ward 2016
5 small earth paintings
Beaten by both the need for storage space for my work and, hopefully, a more commercially viable product I have resorted, and returned, to making a number of small earth pigment paintings on paper.
Originally I wanted to explore the layering and removal of water-based paint, similar to my past use of watercolour, using earth pigments. This worked well for one piece but I soon strayed back to the more recent pattern approach that working with earth pigments has inspired.
My method, as in the past, allows the pigments, the colours, textures and forms, to suggest and reveal the form of the finished piece. It can often take a while for the painting to evolve, employing a variety of accumulated intuitive, mark making and aesthetic decisions and skills to move forward. Working in this way is always fascinating, offering outcomes beyond my present understandings.
Each painting measures 21x21cm and is on 300gsm watercolour paper. The pigments, a selection of six hand ground, locally gathered colours from North Devon, have been simply mixed with water and then fixed with pastel fixative. I am now looking forward to making more simple paintings on paper of different sizes to develop this approach.
The original paintings are available for sale online or later in the year at our new studio space at Hele Corn Mill, near Ilfracombe in North Devon.
For more information please contact me at email@example.com
© P Ward 2016
i really do not get Art
its place in my life
or the wider world around me
seemingly superfluous pedantic intellectual bickering
over aesthetic form and function
for some fashion or other
in the face of pressing global issues
not quite big enough
or loud enough
specific or far reaching enough
to make a difference
(although every whisper counts, I know)
without it (some will argue)
life would be just an incessant instinctive struggle and movement
towards food, shelter and a mate
for nurture within our own nature
to survive within this wildness
for everybody else
this is quite enough
our innate beauty
our diverse evolving nature
our ecologically defined behaviour
in such abundant splendour
and complex contradiction
humbly seeking our place
within the heave and flow
of ever shifting forces
I do not get art
but thank it once again
for bringing me to these conclusions
© p ward 2016
The Soil Culture project led by CCANW and RANE will be drawing to a close soon with its final exhibition at Peninsula Arts in Plymouth from 16th January to 19th March 2016[i]. The project as has been documented in a 120-page publication with essays by prominent soil scientists and soil artists, along with illustrated accounts of residencies and other activities enjoyed during the 3-years.
My involvement in the project began when I met CCANW director Clive Adams in 2009. I presented him with six small glass pots of ground earth pigments from North Devon. He suggested I meet soil artist Dr Daro Montag at Falmouth University who was just starting an MA Art & Environment Course, which I subsequently attended.
I was invited to join the Soil Culture project development team in 2011. My contribution has also involved workshops, exhibitions and some of the imagery used to promote and support it. I was recently asked to write a short essay for the publication and retake a series of photographs of ground and raw earth pigments to be used for the cover and chapter/section headings…
The publication is available from http://www.ccanw.co.uk/ at a price of £15 per copy.
© p ward 2016
[i] Peninsula Arts Gallery, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, PL4 8AA. Open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 11am-4pm