We are missing so many anticipated exhibitions – and online content cannot replace the shows we didn’t manage to see before lockdown, which may never re-open to visitors. The minor grieving we experience for these, recalls how we feel about the many exhibitions we failed to make time or effort to see in the past.
A card for Sitting & Looking, produced by IC: Innovative Craft for the Dovecot Studios, with support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2010, was perched on a ledge in my office until we had to hurriedly vacate ten years later. This was an exhibition curated by furniture makers Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley which I imagined invited the viewer to engage more deeply with work by simply slowing down and looking. The premise spoke to me of a shared belief in taking time to look in order to understand, but ironically, and to my continuing frustration, I missed the exhibition. Its title however remains a mantra.
During lockdown I have, through necessity and opportunity, been applying the principle of taking time and looking to nature rather than art. Less sitting and more walking in a rich coastal environment. As with art I privilege my intuitive and visceral responses allied to my knowledge and experience. While I’m prompted to refer to basic guides and question friends, I feel that concentrated observation provides most satisfaction and lasting understanding. I’ve avoided carrying anything that I can take photographs with on most walks, as that framing of the landscape brings a particular frame of mind which lessens a sense of openness to what is to be encountered. The photographs here document elements examined and remembered from a previous expedition in May.
I find myself however seeing aspects of nature through memories of artworks and artists that first made me take note and think about them. It does not reduce the experience but feels like bumping into a friend with welcome recognition.
Artists who primarily make their work within the landscape such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long explore the properties and forms of materials they find. A small column of stones on the beach demonstrates the compliment of imitation and the broad audiences their practice has reached. I’m then reminded of the earliest functional arrangements of stones into a fireplace.
Hamish Fulton is another recognised as a ‘walking artist’ who brings philosophy and poetry to the descriptions of his carefully circumscribed walks which he exhibits afterwards in galleries. His approach has a rare quality of rigour and thoughtfulness. Returning to the same paths close to my home I think of the project he undertook with students in Japan. He took them on a walk up a mountain and then repeated the route each day for a week. At first they were rather puzzled and annoyed at what they thought was a lack of variety until they understood that each day the conditions and their experience of place were subtly different.
With many more regular walks I can appreciate not only subtle variations due to light and weather but also more significant seasonal changes. I spot a heron’s nest precariously built in a small pine tree that seems out of scale to the bird, and then watch the young and then emptiness returns. Also on the landward side catkins turn into leaves and a field of grasses matures into barley with green becoming yellow.
The uniqueness and joy provided by small and taken for granted elements of flora is revealed by Laurie Clark through her 100 Buttercups and 100 Harebells books published by WAX366. These sensitive and patiently made portraits explore the individuality of each flower. Buttercups are out now and I notice that yellow is the colour providing accents across the landscape. A couple of primrose patches early on were delicate but now a more vivid gold dominates through gorse, and along the shoreline bird’s-foot trefoil and silverweed arrive before the elegant yellow flags. Ochre patches of lichen decorate the rocks. Yellow is in the air as well, with the goldfinch and yellowhammer attracting attention through song as well as plumage.
Near the village, yellow pops up in the caps and floats of swimmers in the usually abandoned sea pool. Further along the coastal path, human interaction with the landscape continues through the evidence not only of the walkers’ tracks and detritus but also the local livelihoods of farming and fishing. Bob Callender’s fascination with and intimate knowledge of the coastline accompanies me. In marvelling at the colours and patterns of layers of smoothed pebbles I think of his early paintings celebrating the sculptural forms close-up.
Then I remember his later sculpture examining what the tide has washed up, from elegiac boat wrecks to the increasing threat of what made up his Plastic Beach. The tide brings us fragments of social history and geography.
Sea-washed bricks may still reveal the name and distance of the brickworks in which they were made from local clay. They immediately remind me of my delight in discovering a shared interest with Judith Burbidge, in her work cataloguing her collection of found bricks from across Scotland.
Uncertainty surrounds what will be displayed in the future and how, when and where we can travel to fully experience exhibitions. Locally we have a changing display provided by young artists who have experimented with wildlife painted on stones, colourful windmills and encouraging smiles drawn on wooden spoons. The slowing down effect of lockdown is an aspect worthy of maintaining in order to deepen our personal engagement with art. For those of us fortunate enough to have been able to practice looking within the natural environment we also need to continue that practice and find some of the inspiration artists have shared with us.