today time returns
and darkness drags us home, amidst swirling russet leaves,
to its familiar solstice resting place
as another year quietly slips away.
losing their resemblance to matter
and we descend into that underworld
of ancestors and past deities,
to industry and wonder,
to miraculous machines
and steam and noise –
hell for some, power for others –
weaving what was once made by hand
beneath clear open skies lit by a million stars,
connecting us to all that has been
and will ever be.
and the Sisters still sit
sharing their charms,
weaving mystery and fate
beyond our control or simple understanding.
Last weekend I visited Dunster, a charming Medieval village in West Somerset with my family. We ‘watched’ stars inside an inflatable dome as part of Exmoor National Park’s Dark Skies program celebrating the unpolluted ‘darkness’ of the area and stayed at my brother’s cottage amongst the massive oaks and rich red soils of the Brendon Hills. On our way home we stopped off at Coldharbour Mill Museum in Uffculme, Devon, for one of their regular ‘Steam Up Days’. This restored working woollen mill is powered by water and steam engines (and electricity) and gives a fascinating insight into the ingenuity and industry involved in the production of wool and woven cloth over the last few centuries when Devon and Exmoor were one of the main centres for the wool trade in Britain. And all this on the days the clocks are turned back to solar time again and the Celtic New year begins – quite a brew for the imagination…
© P Ward 2017
On a recent visit to the ‘long island’ of Dugi Otok on the Adriatic coast of Croatia I was taken by the unfamiliar marks of paint daubed on walls and buildings. Not graffiti as such or even nonsensical paintbrush cleansing ablutions but intentional spots and splashes of household paint. We thought they were maybe way markers or boundary signs. Whatever their purpose I enjoyed how they honed my vision both to the unfamiliar in such a rich but alien culture and also to another sense of painting in and of the environment.rocks and soil I + II, framed; dugi otok, croatia © p ward 2017
Wherever we travel it is the unfamiliar colours, patterns, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes and materials that inspire and refresh our imaginations and remind us of the richness, diversity and potential of this planet that we share while also refreshing the ‘familiar’ in our own backyards. It only leaves us, as creative people, to show our gratuitude through sharing our vision and inspiration with others, hopefully continuing the cycle.
With thanks to the people, animals, plants and places of Croatia for a most inspiring experience and to Francesca, Noah and Agnes for sharing it with me.
© P Ward 2017
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
MIDWINTER OPEN STUDIO
Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th November, 1100-1600
After an exciting first year, including a great exhibition at the White Moose Gallery, a number of successful workshops and OPEN STUDIOS and participation in other international projects, eARTh has relocated to a smaller, more rural space at Hele Corn Mill where we (myself and partner Francesca Owen) will be continuing our work with local earth pigments and plant dyes.
Hele Corn Mill dates from 1525 and is a unique working watermill in North Devon. Located just 300m from stunning Hele Bay beach just east of Ilfracombe, a visit to the mill makes a perfect family visit. Opposite the mill is the Miller’s Wife Tearoom, where you can relax and enjoy a traditional cream tea or a slice of one of many delicious cakes, which are homemade every day. For directions, parking and opening times please visit www.helecornmill.com.
You are warmly invited to a pre-Christmas opening – a chat, some nibbles, a glass of wine and some art. If you cannot make the opening please feel free to visit anytime. eARTh will be open on a regular basis along with workshops, exhibitions and events throughout the year and is looking forward to seeing you soon.
For more information please visit www.earthnorthdevon.wix.com/arts
© P Ward 2015
One week on the Isle of Man, 2015
It is nearly thirty years since I last visited Ellan Vannin – the Manx name for the Isle of Man. Situated in the middle of the emerald waters of the Irish Sea, within sight of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Heaven, so it is said, this self-governed commonwealth nation is probably best known for the yearly motorcycle TT race. For me, as an idealistic teenager surrounded by radical older students, it became a place of great significance in my own spiritual development. For the Celts it was the centre of the Faerie Empire, the royal thrones sitting atop the second highest mountain, South Barrule. Even today, respect for the other realms is still very much in evidence. Beyond this the island, once you have accepted the proliferation of lycra-clad outdoor pursuits, the squeals of cliff-leaping coasteerers and the constant stream of motorcyclists, is still a peaceful haven with stunning views and coastline, a place of folklore, local heritage and marine and avian wildlife.
Thank you to my family for treating us to this short holiday and this time to restore my connection to those things that inspire my living.
© P Ward 2015
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.