discovering colour in west cornwall
moving home is always an exciting (if not somewhat stressful) time for discovery, for exploration, for new knowledge and for refreshment of life paths. I have recently moved with my family from North Devon to West Cornwall, as far south and west as one can go in the British Isles (apart from the Isles of Scilly, of course). The move was made to connect with the flourishing and historic arts scene in the area – Newlyn and St Ives on the Penwith peninsula being significant places in British art history over the last few centuries. The area is also remarkable for the globally significant tin and copper mining industries that flourished during the nineteenth century providing a wealth of metal ores and new technologies that contributed to mining knowledge around the world. The industry has now all but died out, due to cheaper sources elsewhere, but has left its mark ecologically and architecturally to this rugged, wet and windy section of Atlantic coast.
having spent the last ten years intensively researching the geology, history and uses of earth pigments found in North Devon, and establishing an international reputation through it, it is quite nerve wracking to up sticks and start again. Added to this sense of newness, is that of the unfamiliar. North Devon is my mother’s family home and a region I have known all my life. While the wild and austere beauty of West Penwith is visually and culturally inspiring it will be a while before I feel it as my home, despite feeling very comfortable here, nestled in a cosy old granite cottage close to the north coast. However, the process of taking root has begun and exploration to reveal the individual peculiarities of my new home, and especially those qualities that appeal to my own nature, have gripped my thoughts and actions.
within six weeks we have found four excellent and bold earth colours locally, associated with historic mining activities. We have revealed a dolmen in our living room as well as starting to visit the plethora of ancient megalithic sites in the area. The sea, the mist, the rocks and wind are ever present on this extreme peninsula, the most exposed place I have ever lived. Having studied for my MA in Falmouth and consequently visited the county on numerous occasions, I am vaguely familiar with the area and some of the sites of interest, but was unaware of the incredible natural and cultural richness it provides. The county of Cornwall is one of the few Celtic strongholds on the British Isles, with its own language and a pride in its unique history, both ancient and modern. This is evident in so many ways – its folklore, place names, wildlife, art and its connection to the sea and land. I am very excited to see how this feeds my own creative output.
the pigments we have gathered so far include red and purple ‘clays’, residues from the slag heaps at Levant Tin Mine, apparently deposited alongside, and hence coloured by oxides within, the seams of black tin (casserite) found in cracks in the 340 million year old granite mass that forms the majority of landmass here. The huge forces, pressures and temperatures experienced as the molten granite forced its way through weaknesses in the overlying Devonian sediment created a wealth of opportunities for metallic minerals ores to form alongside metamorphic rocks. According to one source the area has some of the most varied and mineral rich geologies in the world! We have collected a yellow ochre-like residue from mine waste heaps further northeast at Tywarnhayle Mine, Porthtowan. The yellow deposit also contains fragments of ‘green’ rock that will be interesting to separate and hopefully use. The oldest China Clay pits, formed in lakes as eroded granite deposits, can also be found near St Just in Penwith with a wealth of local history and national significance. We have been given access to this beautiful smooth white clay by the present landowner, whose father spent some time working in the drying kilns on site during his youth. We are experimenting with different approaches to processing the raw pigments, relying on water extraction, sieving and drying, similar to historic methods of extracting ore, rather than the more physical drying and grinding that we employed with the very different pigments in North Devon. This is partly due to the different nature of the raw pigments but also as a safeguard against inhaling potentially dangerous bi-products of the mining residues, such as arsenic! We are presently seeking geologists to aid in our research.
As you can see, it’s all really exciting stuff. However, as yet, we are still to find a suitable workspace, tubs of pigment being stored and worked on convenient window ledges and in the cramped garden shed. But time will work its magic and the right space will reveal itself. We have already been made aware of a possible arts space development in old buildings at the entrance to the mining museum at Geevor mine in our village, as well as studio spaces associated with the established art schools of St Ives and Newlyn. Work still continues elsewhere too with talks and workshops coming up in North Devon and further afield in East Sussex, so all is good with the world. And all this while juggling childcare priorities and other homemaking eventualities. So, thank you to family and friends for your support during our transition and also to the warm welcome and help we have received from the local community. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how everything unfolds…
© P Ward 2018
it is not that I do not
wish the world well
or see a future without fear
it is not that I am not big enough and ugly enough
to be brave enough to speak out
in the face of adversity
nor that I cannot live without
a sense of my own
beauty and love and diversity
I have simply become impatient
with this lack of sense of commonality
with this lack of obvious simplicity
with too much waste and indulgence
with too much frivolous denial
and too much cynical self reproach
for power and integrity
for love and humour and joy
for all that is not negative
P Ward 2013
(a problematic statement of transmutable intent)
A close friend and fellow artist was recently asked about her feelings towards the current eco-art movement which among other things aims to engage audiences with the current ecological crisis we are experiencing and attempt to resolve such issues through creative activism and artful intervention…
“In answer to your question I do not see myself as an eco-artist, I am simply me, creating work as I am part of the environment. I collaborate with it as a source of inspiration, sometimes to connect with and sometimes to aid a deeper appreciation of it. But my work is much broader and most of my working hours at the moment are spent as a Learning Facilitator for adults with Autism. This is part of my art too. It’s a different form and I use this time to help them to enjoy and see that they are part of the environment. So I am not an eco-artist, I just work with many aspects of the environment because it inspires me, reconnects me and is important to me. I do not want to save the world for I do not know if it is broken, nor if such a massive responsibility should be placed upon my shoulders. I do what I can and I enjoy what I do out of love for creativity.” Francesca Owen[i]
Since completing and during our MA in Art & Environment at University College Falmouth in 2012 we have continually questioned how such political motivations forwarded by the course and the excessive focus on crisis may have undermined any spontaneous creative expression we previously benefitted from and enjoyed. We both chose the course because of our love for Nature as the source of our inspiration, hoping to further cultivate this creative link, rather than through any interest in the abuses which are presently being acted out upon the world. For many the relationship between art, in its many forms, and the environment is one integral to human creativity rather than a contemporary response to crisis. It may similarly be argued that such ministrations of putting the world to rights are beyond the realm of human influence and indeed unhealthy to any sense of wellbeing necessary for such aims, and further that focusing attention on such issues merely serves to exasperate and aggravate them rather than resolving them in any way.
For many years my own art practice has been strongly motivated by environmentalism (having been brought up with a deep respect for the natural world it is an obvious response to try to protect what is essential to my being through my work). However, continued participation and involvement with other similarly engaged artists and groups has brought to light an underlying frustration and discontent with such forms of creative activism and propaganda, coming as it frequently does from an ill-informed position, from political antagonism and a fearfully romantic perception of the human condition. The work produced is often and typically intellectually and conceptually distanced from any emotional or spiritual communication that I believe is the essence of ‘good’ art, as well as energetically divorced from the community in which it is employed. Thankfully my own practice is animated more by integrity to personal experience and reflection than a need for identification with any peer group and so has gradually allowed evolution towards one inspired by our intrinsic creativity as sentient beings within the cosmos. The following statements attempt to redefine my evolving practice, albeit within the limitations of this contemporary linguistic form (rather than through the preferred potency offered by poetic license to express such matters).
As an artist in an age of ecological understanding I see my respons-ability[ii] to explore and express my own nature in relation with Nature. It is not my place to judge this relationship or manipulate any response to it but to simply present what I am privileged enough to observe. Seeing Nature as an energetic interdependent evolving totality within which a plethora of transient entities act with and upon one another implies an inclusivity of intention and becoming. Such inclusivity may often be undermined by a pervading human predilection for arrogance and domination, exhibited and employed by capitalist corporations and didactic fundamentalism alike – whether in the name of profit and technological progress or environmental rescue. Such inclusivity may be similarly undermined through the desire to make definitive an academic movement or concept, rather than allowing that movement to do just that – move and flow and evolve in response to a constantly changing world. To believe that our actions as artists may ‘save the world’ (from our own and others’ actions) or change it for the ‘better’ (or at least in our own favour) is merely another way of ‘playing God’ – an attitude that arguably has led to the seemingly complex condition we presently face.
As an individual I do not always necessarily respond solely or consciously to any apparent ecological crisis but tend more to make tentative and aesthetic investigations of the world in which I live, a world that inspires every waking and dreaming moment of my life, through decisions based on intuition and personal need rather than rational thought and duty to some abstract ideal. Hopefully such intimate expression may communicate the sensory depth of my relationship within Nature, striking a resonant chord of recognition with others, human or otherwise. To celebrate and honour the wonder and beauty of Nature through investigations of our own nature maybe has more power and integrity than any political response that an individual or group may wish to pursue. The principle of Ecology, by its own nature and embodied within the process of art, includes both and all as valid expressions of Nature but most importantly expresses a sense of how actions may affect (individuals within) the dynamic of any immanent environment.
When I seek to understand my own nature as a human being, to find peace within myself, to find balance and health and happiness and harmony, I often do not like or am unable to easily accept what I see. Evidently humans are, among other things, warmongers, abusers and murderers; we can be violent, cruel, impatient, insecure and greedy as well as peace-bringers, menders, carers and nurturers, able to be brave and selfless and to appreciate beauty and to create culture with humour and joy. There is life and death, sickness and health and every subtle hue, tone and colour in between. We make mistakes. Without a comprehensive acceptance and assimilation of such diversity into my conscious being I may not be able to function effectively within the dynamic and constantly changing world. This is not to say that we should adopt or enact all and every behaviour but that we might evaluate and accept our potential and susceptibility to do so.
“It is never too late to give up your prejudices” Henry David Thoreau
Traditional shamans and healers often do not share the new age romantic vision of an ideal world sometime in the past, of a garden from which our kind has been cast and upon which the ministrations of many contemporary psychologists are based, but upon a world where all entities, animate and inanimate, artificial and natural, ethereal and corporeal, act according to their own (evolving and transient) nature. They are not looking for something or someone to blame for our suffering, but more a way to accept and assimilate change into the flow of life. If art may do anything within society it could maybe encourage fluidity of perception and being, to question any pervading, persistent and stultifying status quo and to celebrate and encourage a deep and residing respect for the world of which we are an integral but essentially transient part.[iii]
Yet within a world of cynicism, of over-analysis and lack of faith, and despite the prevalence of such ageless wisdom, where is the simple voice of love upon which all healing and sound human behaviour rests – where is acceptance and understanding? Where is joy and compassion? Where is the sharing and celebration of our sublime and miraculous existence? If art, in whatever form, does not exult and uphold the spirit of life at its very core then what place does it have in this world? What use does it have to society other than to subdue and undermine the sanctity of experience? It is so often easier to point the finger – to blame and despise whatever or whoever for our dis-ease, for our inner and outer dissatisfaction and frustration with existence – than to embrace its wholeness – its dirt and grime and lack of symmetry, its sadness, disparity and dirge, its resonant beauty and power – and our humble place within it and to speak with a voice of love for all…
P Ward 2013
[ii] “If the aesthetic is seen in contrast to the anaesthetic – or numbness, it can be understood more correctly as ‘enlivened being’. Reclaiming the aesthetic in this way enables us to understand the link between the aesthetic and responsibility: response-ability not as a moral imperative, but as the ability to respond.” (Shelley Sacks, UN Summit on Culture and Development, Stockholm 1998) from http://www.universityofthetrees.org