Here’s my notes form a Zoom artist’s talk given as part of The Model’s In Focus series of responses to the exhibition The Sea Around Us. The audio of the talk is here
Since 2009 I have worked from life – first hand.
This doesn’t sound too radical , but it is certainly unusual. Most artists who use figurative language refer to photographs as their source materials. This way of working has been the dominant approach to any representational strategy. I became interested n the idea of working directly form personal experience. This empirical approach is not about nostalgia it is more about wishing to make the encounter with what I see the central part of the work.
In 2015 I made a work that dramatized the difficulty of this methodology by using a drawing board raft to make large scale drawings whilst floating on Lough Gill.
In 2018 I organised the exhibition ‘Raft’, at A.P.T Gallery in London, which took some of the themes from this project and continued my interest with our relationship the water. My initial plan was to reprise the floating drawing board idea but the Port Of London authority told me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn’t – I would, in their words be “a danger to shipping”.
The show focused instead on the work of Glenn Holman, Hidehiko Ishibashi and Sarah Carne. Each artists explore different aspects of our relationship with the sea, and the show has informed my thinking about the boatbuilding work.
There is a romantic thing there for sure: I grew up in an urban environment if the very centre of the UK as far from the sea as you can get in any direction. Also going back to the idea of making work about what you know and what you are near, so it is logical to make work about the sea when you live next to the sea. And then there is the challenge of painting or depicting something which is almost resistant to depiction literally, and metaphorically.
There is also the history of way we use the sea, trade, transport and also emigration.
Boats are now used for leisure – the boats made by the Metal Mariners have within them the prospect of time which is gloriously unproductive.
And I think there is something poetic in using a disused factory to make something that is for pure enjoyment rather than making products or commodities.
The boats themselves are supportive of the people who at them they take them places and protect them.
In addition to the work of my contemporaries there are other strong influences on the development of this body of work including:
Fernand Leger; Les Constructuers. The series embodies a postwar sense of optimism a body of work celebrating what can be achieved when people work together
Christopher Wood. Acute formal sophistication wrapped up in an ostensibly clumsy figurative style. A celebration of awkwardness. Lived in Brittany for a number of years where he made these remarkable paintings
Peter Lanyon. Seeing things from different angles, a staggering commitment to recording the world, he died in a gliding accident while flying over the cornish coast getting new ideas for paintings
Renato Guttuso. 1930’s fascist turned communist resistance fighter, committed to figurative painting as a political force.
Josef Herman, Polish Jewish refugee who went an lived on a small Welsh coal mining village for several years in the 1940s, recording every detail of the miner’s working lives. A very early Artist in Residence. What they all hare is commitment and a kind of truthfulness
Alice Neal, Joan Eardley also very strong influences on this body of work.
The catalyst for starting to work with the Metal Mariners project was Mary MacDonagh of Sligo Arts service. (I applied for a CoCo grant to work with a community group as an artist in residence.) I wanted to work with a group who were working collaboratively and working in a craft area. I was also very keen on exploring the idea of localness – rather than trying to find something somewhere else wanted to look close to home and embrace what is here. My work as an artist is focused on people and places, and on activities where people work together and help each other. I was fascinated to find out about the boatbuilding project happening in Finisklin because it combines all these elements.
The Metal Mariners boatbuilding project grew out of the interest of a small group of sailing enthusiasts and the desire to keep a local tradition going into the future, The Go-As-You-Please’ race from Rosses Point pier to Oyster Island, happens every summer. A runner sets off from the village, runs to the pier, gets in to boat and a rower rows across the channel to the shore of oyster island. The runner gets out and run to around the light house before getting back into the boat for the return leg. The race had a dwindling number of participants, partly because the kind of small boats that are perfect for it were in short supply.
Initially a group formed to restore some Mirror dinghies. The Mirror dinghy was a design from the 1960s using a technique of stitching and glueing thin sheets of plywood to create a boat. The idea was to democratize the sport of sailing and the design was specifically targeted at the D.I.Y enthusiast, and the boats when finished light enough to be carried on to p of a small family car. The egalitarian impulse that drove the Mirror boat design of the 1960s is echoed in the Metal Mariner’s work.
The group then decided to make some new boats using the design of the Selway Fisher Highlander, the Metal Mariners adapted the design by changing the flat front of the original bow to a pointed version: interestingly this was a quite an aesthetically driven decision from what I can gather.
The group devise a jig – a frame around which each boat could be formed and kept straight.Interestingly although all the boats use the same jig they are a bit different. The jig is used to form the panels of thin ply that have been cut with a jigsaw – to a layman like me the process is comparable with a tailor making a suit! The wood isn’t steamed, but stitched glued and clamped in place – utilizing the amazing properties of plywood as a material.
The Metal Mariners set up in an old meat packing factory which used to be called Dehy meats in the docks area of Sligo. The building has a very unusual claim to fame in that it was used as set for the 2017 film Halal Daddy . In fact the murals made for the film are still in place and that is whey there is a recurring image of Hokusai’s great wave in my paintings – it is a mural on one of the walls of the building .
I began doing drawings in the shed in November 2017. And from the first evening I realized the subject matter was what I had been searching for a ling time. The drawing I made had quite particular characteristics. John Berger once said, “Real drawing is a constant question, is a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality towards what is being drawn.” I wanted my drawing to capture the encounter with what I could see in front of me recording very particular moments in time. The drawings would function less as reportage, or as preparatory work, but as autonomous artworks in themselves.
The flaws and inconsistencies that inevitably creep in to drawings made in a split second of people moving and objects shifting are an integral part of the work. The drawings aspire to a kind of perceptual frankness, and awkwardness is an inherent feature of the approach.
Many of the drawings have areas which are sharply in focus alongside elements which are rough or barely delineated at all. Our perception, our senses, do not present us with a photographic rectangular picture of the world around us. The drawings from this part of the project made me want to explore the idea of space and focus in a more systematic way, so I began to develop the idea of doing a very large work based on a composite of many of the drawings
The move from small drawings to a large scale was made party as a technical challenge but also as a away of elevating the subject. In art history very large scale paintings have always been about depicting great deeds or moments from history, I wanted to imbue the story of the boat builders with the same sense of monumentality.
The development of the large painting is an interesting study of the way a painting can change dramatically. The initial format I chose was 10 x12 foot wide, on paper coated with several thick layers of gesso. Paper doesn’t come that big!… so several sheets were collaged together with gum-strip.
The depiction of the space and the figures particularly challenging. The challenge is also to create a convincing depiction and in an interesting painting in terms of colour, handling etc. The two are not necessarily always compatible
I developed the painting over the course of a few months, adjusting the figures and repainting them several times. I reached a point where the picture was partially resolved. The question was, was it finished? After a while I decided that the answer was a NO, because the the figures weren’t convincing enough. Looking at hands and their ability to convey meaning in the work of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride convinced me to re-appraise the whole section of the painting. I posed the different hands using my son as a model and sometimes myself. Produced a set of drawings and worked from them to re-draft the area. Also at this point John from the Metal Mariners came into the studio and suggested the idea of clamps or tools on the front to of the boat . To accommodate the new detail I had to add a 4 foot panel on to the right of the picture to re-balance it – in order to create breathing space for the viewer around the now busier area.
Sculpture printmaking lithographs. I ended the year by developing a a series of lithograph images with a view to giving them a away to members of the group as a way of thanking them for their forebeafance in letting me draw them!
Produced the two images that were taken form sketchbook pages. I discussed with group which of the many images that they thought epitomized the D.I.Y. feel and collaborative ethos of the group. The image is of a compressor on wheels and a hoover, the other is a sketch of a group of worker gathered round a boat. The prints were produced in an edition of 40 each and given to everyone in the group.
In 2019 having completed the large scale work and the lithographs I decided to change course and try something new. The impulse was to do something as a challenge – but this time to ry and complete a small paintings in situ – rather than paint from drawings. The idea is similar to plein air painting – the idea of painting directly in front to of something tah twas pioneer by the Impressionists in The 19th Century. I prepared a large number of boards, identical in size 15×21 cm and 16mm thick and stretched primed canvas over them. The other discipline I set out for myself from the start with these works was to only add to them when I was there in the shed. This may seem like a small detail but is crucial to how the pictures look. The inconsistencies mistakes and misadventures that will befall a painting made in what is essentially a factory set up make it a different kind of object to one made in a studio environment where there is ample time, and a controlled and orderly environment o n which to work in. This approach is about maintaining a truth to the encounter that might other wide be lost in the desire to make a picture which is beautiful and balanced.
The paintings were rough but had something in them that I wanted to explore and so I carried on making them. Sometimes I finished one or two a week* and soon I was able to see them as a group as well as looking at them as individual pieces. I began to experiment with different materials and supports. There are some paintings with coloured grounds, some that include chalk and conte crayon and some that are done on unusual fabrics; one picture was done ion a scrap of khaki cotton form a pair of my sons old trousers. The aim here was to push the limits of what could be achieved formally while still strictly adhering to the same 15x21cm format. In the June of 2019 Louise Peck and Bob Saich of Advanced Graphics London visited Sligo and saw the first thirty of the paintings and invited me to show a group of them at the 2020 London Art Fair.
This event staged at the Design Centre in Islington in January this year was the first time any of the work has been exhibited publicly and the collision between the glitzy-ness of an Art fair and the gritty-ness of the works subject matter was fascinating. The gallery showed a group of 30 of the pictures in a cluster. The series is still a live project. Recent small painting have focused on small nooks and crannies within the cavernous building and the detritus and overlooked traces of human activity. The tools have become something of a fascination to o In one of my earliest drawings of a row of clamps holding together a new part of tone of the boat I had described a miscellany of old and new clamps. It transpired that he clamps are owned by everyone and that why they are all shapes and sizes, I became interested in the pooling of resources and the clamps a a symbol for the way the group works ad a whole. Without wishing to overstate the importance of symbolism, being table to use simple metaphors like make the series of small paintings an almost inexhaustible source of imagery. I have now completed close to 80 of these paintings and will continue when I can. In the future I would also like to stage and exhibition of the works along wth examples of the boast made in the Metal Mariners project as well as archival materials about boatbuilding in Sligo.
I am currently undertaking a year long Artist in Residency for The Model, Home of The Niland Collection at Sligo University Hospital. As part of this residency I am working on the wards with patients, as well as developing a body of drawings, paintings and sculptures which will be exhibited later in the year. The residency is supported by The Arts Council of Ireland. This project has many of the same features as the boat building work; I try to record what I see as directly as possible and talk to patients and staff about the work I am doing and the imagery they feel best evokes what the environment is like.