All things seem possible in May
Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney, 29 October 2011
I THINK we should let artists out more often.
They’re a solitary bunch, squirreling away in the studio or contemplating a cliff: but when they get together you can’t shut them up and the results can be very thought-provoking. The Pier was host to this animated – very animated – discussion between three practitioners.
They’d come together to discuss the results of an imaginative project developed by Orkney Arts Society and funded by Scotland’s Islands (whatever will we do when that particular cash cow disappears into the void?) The quote – All things seem possible – comes from American environmentalist Edwin May Teale. The brief was to produce 40 drawings in the 31 days of May, in A5 landscape. The results were to be printed in a limited edition.
The artists – Diana Leslie, Colin Johnstone and Robin Bownass – knew each other’s work, but had no contact with each other during the month, beyond, as Johnstone says, ‘meeting Diana in the street and thinking, God, I havenae started thinking yet.’
They’re very different people, and therein lies the fascination. Leslie began the event by describing how alien it seemed – and how wonderful – to be offered financial rewards for drawing. ‘Draw for a month and get paid? Hmm. That’s hard…’
But immediately, she said, the project began to articulate her practice. She’s not accustomed to A 5. ‘It takes more welly, somehow. I go through paper in a big way; with this I was persisting with small, almost forgotten causes, the rules of engagement were different.’
She chose to sketch from a stance on Brinkies Brae, the hill above Stromness famous as the home (as they say at Halloween) of the witch Bessie Millie, who sold winds to sailors. Her sketchbook is a visual record, from North to South, of the view, 360 degrees of it.
She incorporates writing, large generous cursive; she uses a very soft pencil, and works and works at detail. What you get is almost a peek at the learning curve. Some of the sketches just take off – the space and air and reflections balance. Some are too fussy. Some, clearly, will find themselves re-invented as paintings.
That’s the point, really – it’s a record of the business of success and failure. You’ll all have your own favourites from this book, but it’s most fun to ponder the ones you don’t find successful – and delightful that they’re all there, the good and the problematic ones. It’s honest work.
I love sketches – my favourite is the German artist Menzel, but any glimpse of an artist practising technique intrigues – Leonardo on muscles, Durer on rabbits, Breughel on children, all wadded up to escape the winter chill. I like domestic detail, rather than Constable’s careful colour notations – it’s the randomness of a moment that’s so human about sketching – you can almost hear the artist saying, I just have to get that down on paper, that dog scratching, that woman plucking a hen.
This project somehow doesn’t have that spontaneity, because none of the artists are engaged particularly by the human body, perhaps; or perhaps because, when you’re told your sketches will become a book, it’s a bit inhibiting.
Robin Bownass’ approach is a traditional one. The oldest of the artists, he explained that drawing for him is central to the understanding of structure. In the past, artists drew from what they looked at, and learnt from it. Now in Art Colleges, he says, this isn’t happening. His drawings are based on the many crumbling W W 11 builings scattered around Orkney. ‘A record needs to be made’ he said.
He’s involved in a big Ship of Fools project, and brought a painting in to illustrate how the sketches inform larger work. He mentioned Durer’s Knight Death and the Devil, and Daumier’s Don Quihote, as influences – but his work is blunter than theirs. He uses brush and wash, not pencil. There’s a sense again here that the A5 format is constraining – the sketches seem to burst out, full of vigour, as if they want to be allowed more space.
‘It’s not as simple as copying,’ he said. ‘People can be taught how to see. Preparatory studies are vital. I find these strange collapsing structures in such dramatic coastal settings exciting, and the sketches are preparatory and necessary. My sketchbook’s essential to me – and I enjoy it, I take delight in the medium, responding to the feel of the paint.’
Colin Johnstone’s approach is radically different. He hadn’t used a sketchbook since 1978, and ‘I’ll be chucking this one – it’s over to the viewer now.’ He described himself as ‘not a stand-and-look person; I’m more introspective, I look internally. This is full of personal things. I’m interested in veneers, in surfaces, layering. I used a 1970 Formica Architect’s Book as my inspiration, that and a facsimile of a 17 century artist’s notebook – just his business book, with blank pages, notes of sales, ink blots – I found it in a charity shop.’
This original approach yields an enigmatic and fascinating meditation. There’s a colour chart at the beginning so the viewer can imagine the formica colours. (The actual book, with its samples, and 70s lettering and style, takes you right back to the time when imitation wood on sticky back plastic adorned every kitchen).
There’s a page which tells ‘the book, cover to cover’ – a summing up, perhaps, of the month as it unfolded, – volcanic ash, a family tragedy, a riff on Icarus and windfarms, which he hates. The pages themselves are concrete poems, full of meaning for him – but capable of utterly different – and perfectly valid – interpretations by the viewer.
It’s a finished product, in a way that the other books are not; carefully meditated and organised. A couple of the images will become bigger pictures, he thinks; but I don’t see why; I think the works fit perfectly into the sketchbook space and there’s a progression there which feels right.
‘I don’t draw academically’ he said – and that did it! We were treated to a really feisty discussion about the nature and purpose of drawing; what’s mechanical and dead and what’s real. Johnstone used to draw from observation but no longer does;. ‘I don’t think I’m missing anything!’ he said.
‘I do’ said Bownass.
From there to a discussion about ego – Leslie said, ‘Durer’s image of Jesus was himself! He was saying, I am God! Ego’s a bad thing! If I make arrogant drawings, they’re bad!
‘Ego’s a drive,’ said Johnstone. Then – what’s conceptual art? What’s modern? What’s truth?
It was fascinating. They could have gone on all day. I loved it. I had to go home and look at lots of sketchbooks, and wonder why Durer was so conceited about his hair.
As I say – we should let our artists out more. We should give them money to publish more sketchbooks as well.
© Morag MacInnes, 2011