Lockdown, time out, curtailed adventures…
The recent restrictions have affected us all so differently, some have embraced the enforced furlough time, found time to just be, turning to paint and pencil to while away the quiet hours. While others have been overwhelmed with full, noisy households with little or no time to one’s self. Via social media I witnessed creative friends whose inspiration was severely quelled by the wider implications of Covid, while immediately having to focus on maintaining a new equilibrium, of simply ensuring all at home were fed and happy.
Artist Paul Newman's work is very much informed by walking, and yet overnight we were permitted just one prescriptive local walk a day - no more than an hour, no loitering, no picnics, no gazing at vistas for prolonged contemplation. How would this sudden curtailing of liberties impact an artist whose very output is enlightened by roaming the South West's extensive network of ancient tracks and holloways.
Here is Paul's antidote...
I began writing this in early spring, as a unique period of change and reflection began to unfold.
The memory of excessive winter flooding dimmed as the woods surrounding our house on the north Dorset border began to flourish under a much-needed spell of drier weather. The early morning warbling of recently-arrived chiff chaffs and blackcaps, competed with the resident blackbirds and dunnocks for the loudest alarm call. Deer moved freely between the private and public woods of the estate, their trails cutting through the newly-emerged brightness of garlic and bluebells. Great spotted woodpeckers were busy establishing nests, their intermittent hammering reverberating off the many trees around us. Other activity continued throughout the day with nuthatches, long tailed tits and goldfinches making the most of feeding opportunities. Ravens, as ever, tracked along the ridge behind us, with buzzards wheeling overhead. Jays were occasionally heard squabbling in Goathill Wood and glimpsed even less. A solo song thrush serenaded the end of the day and not long after, the calls of tawny owls began to flicker through the twilight. They still continue, intermittently, throughout the night. It feels like magic, and a privilege, to be stirred from slumber by their activity and to lie there guessing their movements and intentions before the dawn. The woodland has shimmered into a new phase with the dry weather, also becoming more inviting than ever for others seeking exercise and refuge.
Normal perceptions of time have altered, the days merging, with less reliance on the clock. The sun’s movement has, by stealth, become the reference for tracking time over the past few weeks. Several sunrises later, the hirundines have arrived, another mark on the calendar. I am always reminded of Gilbert Whites’ fascination with them in The Natural History of Selborne. Occasional visitors include treecreepers, a passing egret and a red kite, as well as goldfinches, coal tits and green woodpeckers, with jackdaws and rooks also nearby. One evening, a sparrowhawk clattered into the garden hedge, overshooting its target, becoming momentarily entangled before freeing itself and fleeing, embarrassed. There is other wildlife to be observed, such as the hares in the lower field, but the birds have become true and constant companions, hour by hour, an extended family which we’ve seen build, feed, fledge and thrive. Their stories have furnished our solitary existence.
These have been my lockdown observations and birds were bound to weave their way into my work at some point, but this has happened in an unexpected, serendipitous way.
We live at a quiet fork in the road at the bottom of a holloway, the meeting point of Goathill and Hanover Woods, a passing place defined by the local topography. Some wonderful examples of trees surround us - aged parkland oaks, unmanaged hazel coppice and isolated yew groves deep in the woods, all interspersed with willow, beech and ash. Observations of these trees are made on daily walks even if they are not always recorded. I have become increasingly interested in the process of recording and noticing and the differences between what happens with drawing, staying still and making work in situ compared with photography, walking and then making work in the studio.
Since March, I have been working on a synchronised walking project, Landlinks, a strand of the Ground Works project which would have been featured in the SIT Select Trail. Artists in various locations were given the brief to complete a 3 hour walk which commenced on 23 March at 2pm, with a series of prompts to respond to. On the walk, I recorded a moment experienced in a yew grove where I could hear the clatter of jays overriding the nearby traffic of the A30. Jays have that joyous yet unnerving cawing that sounds almost primeval, always with a sense of dinosaur ancestry in their screeching as well as their movements. Written notes of that moment were made on the spot, as well as some photos and short film.
After the walk I began a series of rapid sketches using cross hatching to try and capture movement, character and a sense of the bird, rather than trying to focus as much on their features. The energy of the mark making was exciting and also the way the ‘presence’ of the birds revealed themselves. This has quickly led onto further studies of the thirty or so species in the nearby woodland. The drawings have revealed many things about the birds as well as helping extend my drawing vocabulary, loosening up and playing more. Familiarising myself with the characteristics of the birds has been comforting and meditative, immersed in each study for an hour or so before moving on to the next picture once a sense of ‘time spent’ with each piece has been achieved. Whatever an act of walking might reveal has always been at the heart of my practice and using the birds as further subject matter for drawing has felt like an intuitive yet unplanned continuation of my interest in nature. Whereas I would normally travel further afield to explore, a walk from my front door has provided all the inspiration necessary at this point in time.
Some of the birds have been particularly engrossing- the jays were a good starting point as I had no preconceptions as to how this work would play out. Focussing on the movement of woodpeckers and nuthatches has also been rewarding and a challenge but it is the rooks that have demanded further study. The powerful beak holds so much of the bird’s character, sharp, pale and animated, contrasting with the concealment provided by its dark cloak. Reading Crow Country by Mark Cocker has informed some of this work; I try to recall the information I’ve gleaned from this as we walk to the nearby rookery at dusk.
I’ve been fortunate in lockdown listening to nature come and go, seeing it emboldened in our temporary retreat. Maybe for those who want to listen, the clarity of calmness over noise will remain and prevail. Rewilding by Isabella Tree has been a favourite lockdown read; given the opportunity, space and conditions, nature can heal and recover surprisingly quickly. Other lockdown reads have included The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara MacAnulty. The Living Mountain is the perfect ramble, celebrating immersion in nature, surrendering to ‘place’ and letting go to connect with a landscape rather than focussing on the objectives normally associated with walking which can often override the joy of being in the moment. Dara’s voice is full of hope and wonder, and of healing in nature. I see my younger self reflected in his words. I too have hope for the future, that we have learnt something from the last few months. As the constant noise of our way of life has been put on hold, nature has been given space to regroup; I’m encouraged that we might find means for repairing through noticing, re-evaluating and changing our path.
Raven £50.00 sold
23 x 15cm approx
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‘Dara’s is an extraordinary voice and vision: brave, poetic, ethical, lyrical, strong enough to have made him heard and admired from a young age.’ Robert Macfarlane