For some years now I have been re-skilling and re-wilding, as folks put it nowadays. In other words: learning lots of essential things via making, going on courses, reading, experimenting. Although I trained for many years in art, there was almost no mention of the craft of making art, let alone any instruction, except during a superb foundation course (two years spent in Mary Shelley’s son’s house on the Bournemouth cliff top). The last five years of concertedly studying bush craft, ‘primitive’ technologies, earth skills, early and pre-renaissance art techniques as well as returning at last to drawing, have seen all these come together and find some way to meld. It was at a Dark Mountain festival , Base Camp, in September 2016, where I brought my basket of materials along for the first time, that I could appreciate the warm reception these strange items provoked in others.
I had bought a copy of ‘The Wake’ in 2014, a while after reading the review of it in The Guardian one Saturday. I was immersed and greatly moved, so much so that I wrote to the author, and subsequently discovered Dark Mountain, rather belatedly, but that’s another story. The book stirred something in me and I began to research and make art and craft materials from before the Norman era, favouring materials that I could source locally and that were entirely natural. At first I wasn’t even aware I was following this thread of intent in my making, but over time it became clear.
Regarding Pre-Norman times: no woman would have painted then. Women’s crafts were fabric and fibre based: weaving, dying, stitching; and only sometimes would have outlived the woman herself. Most art of any kind was made within the monastic environment, for an ecclesiastical, royal or noble audience. In subverting this, and in creating my ‘shadow making basket’ I am finding a path through the woods of technique and research to be able to leave a trace on skin and paper. As I work my way through learning how to make everything I need, I find nothing is wasted, by-products become raw materials, mistakes become solutions.
Importantly, my new ancient materials are not polluting the earth. I always used to head to the art supply store when I needed more kit, for pens and paints which were often made of plastic. All the dried-up plastic pens that we use without thought are thrown away and make their way to landfill, to incinerators, or into the sea where they are ground to tiny specks that are eaten by creatures. We think of art as environmentally neutral at worst, but most art materials are made to be disposable. It has only been this way since coal and oil based chemicals brought a whole new era of colour to the world of paint, and subsequently brought plastic materials to the artist. Before then, materials came from the earth and when no longer needed, returned to it. Paintings and sculptures persisted because of the correct and skilful use of these materials, in ways that made sure the art lasted. Ironically, more recently created art made from modern plastics, found materials and screens, are a curatorial nightmare. The materials may never fully biodegrade, but the art they constitute breaks down very quickly. Handled well, wood, gesso, oils, eggs and simple pigments have lasted over 500 years. Ochres painted onto well chosen cave walls have already lasted 50,000 years.
I simmer local oak galls with rusty nails from the boatyard to make ink. To make paints I crack an egg, whip the whites and wait for the liquid to settle underneath: mixed with the ground earths it makes glair, a wonderful paint, famously used in illuminated manuscripts. I boiled up buckskin offcuts to make glue for distemper paint. Early Britons and people everywhere in the world had this in common- their art did not cost the earth. I won’t be using costly gold leaf or Afghan lapis lazuli just now, but green earths from the Lake District, yellow sinopia from Oxfordshire, red ochre from the Forest of Dean. Quills and brushes are made from feathers my neighbourhood waterfowl shed each Summer. This is not an elaborate re-enactment. I am somehow finding a way that I can make my marks with good heart in the wider context of a beleaguered earth, which I do not wish to harm further.