Made in Hull
It was January 2017 – the start of the City of Culture celebrations – and my head was a shed. I had returned to Uni after a directionless four-year gap year to do a part-time top-up degree in Fine Art, at the Hull School of Art and Design (HSAD). I had spent the four months since the start of term wildly experimenting, but my enthusiastic mind felt cluttered with what felt like a hundred ideas, all pulling me down different avenues. It was almost like I was trying to think creatively whilst also trying to master every discipline and process at once. Mindboggling. The direction of my work was blurred and unclear, which combined with the pressure of needing to focus, led me to experience choice paralysis.
I had ‘checked in’ with my work just before Christmas 2016, reflecting on the predominately Surrealist work I had made so far. I worked out that what I actually seemed to be interested in were ideas around perception and experience, so I made the decision to start afresh with that as my prompt. Additionally, I decided to temporarily restrict myself to what I felt was the most ‘stripped back’ and basic of art forms; drawing. But I didn’t intend on staying there for long, it was literally just to improve my skills until I found something a bit more captivating.
As a HSAD student I was invited by Heritage Learning to engage in a workshop which was programmed as part of the ‘Lines of Thought’ exhibition at the University of Hull. For those who didn’t catch it, ‘Lines of Thought’ was a touring exhibition coordinated by the Bridget Riley Foundation, showcasing some of the drawings from the Prints and Drawings Collection at the British Museum. Shown at the Brynmor Jones Library Gallery between 3rd January and 28th February 2017, the exhibition showed a selection of 70 works spanning a 500 year period, including work ‘from Dürer to Degas, Michaelangelo to Matisse, Rembrandt to Riley’, celebrating both traditional and contemporary drawing practice [Seligman, I. Lines of Thought; Drawing from Michelangelo to No, Salamanca Arts Centre, Thames and Hudson, London, 2016]. The works were thematically grouped into categories based on their purpose as a thinking medium: ‘The Likeness of a Thought’, ‘Brainstorming, Enquiry and Experiment’, ‘Insight and Association’, and ‘Development and Decisions’. It was a significant and ambitious exhibition that opened the celebrations in the first weeks of 2017 and was shown in Hull as a result of the City of Culture status. Considering I was intending to improve on my drawing, it was good timing!
Roots and Routes
I’d be lying if I said I remembered exactly what we did in that workshop (except that it involved carbon paper, a collaborative wall collage and that I really enjoyed it). But what I do remember is walking around the exhibition and feeling incredibly taken aback, inspired and totally engrossed. I was in and out of that exhibition space for about five hours that day, and felt like I’d only properly encountered about half of the work. I wandered around absorbing the works, learning from the greats by practically pressing my nose up to the frames to breathe in their lines, working out the what’s, why’s and how’s of their gestures. I had never seen a collection of marks like it. I leant into the quiet confidence and laser sharp focus of drawing and felt that this was exactly what I needed at this moment in time. When I walked in, drawing was the stop-gap, but by the time I left, I didn’t want to do anything else BUT draw. In the space of an afternoon, this City of Culture exhibition lifted me out of a state of creative anxiety and inspired me to walk down a brand new path that I didn’t realise was there.
As a long-time avid reader of philosophy, I easily drew connections between the concepts of perception, epistemology, and the ‘thinking’ qualities of drawing: ’its immediacy allows artists to act almost at the speed of thought, their choices legible in every line’ [The British Museum, available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/tours_and_loans/uk_loans_and_tours/archive_tours/lines_of_thought.aspx]. Drawing is thinking. Drawing is observation, is experience, is knowing. Is drawing the closest we can get to the nature of reality? Intellectually, the dots joined up. I just needed something relevant to base it on.
I turned to my personal and professional knowledge regarding the experiential practice of meditation. There is a well-known contemporary mindfulness practice involving the mindful consumption of a single raisin; noticing how it looks, feels and smells before discovering how it really tastes, before mindfully swallowing it. Supported by my extensive reading list, I soon began by drawing raisins from observation. However, although I find value in traditional drawing processes, I found myself rejecting traditional, representational drawing as I became increasingly convinced that it doesn’t accurately represent anything, especially the nature of reality. I experimented with more interpretative contemporary drawing methods onto a variety of surfaces before deconstructing and rearranging the lines to better reflect the distorted and subjective nature of reality. I pushed the use of line into more experimental realms of drawing (such as projection, sculpture, audio and film) right up until my end of year show, seventeen months later in June 2018. I discovered that my natural approach to drawing – heavily experimental and ‘of thought’, whilst rooted firmly within the act of drawing – sits within a little-known realm called the ‘Expanded Field of Drawing’. This term is loosely based on the work of art theorist Rosalind Krauss [Krauss, R., ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ in October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), p.30]. It will be three years in January 2020 since the ‘Lines of Thought’ exhibition, and I still draw in the expanded field, and my work is still based in ‘thinking’, more specifically philosophical thought. If I were a wind-up toy, ‘Lines of Thought’ turned the key and set me down on the pencil-and-charcoal drawn path towards a rich contemporary drawing practice.
There were other experiences afforded me during the City of Culture year that I feel have influenced me and my practice. I saw many examples of great art (‘Lines of Thought’ aside), from COUM to Mueck to Bacon, the Turner Prize, and exciting uses of materials through exhibitions like ‘States of Play’, ‘Paper’ and ‘Fountain17’. I saw how community can be brought together by the likes of the Opening Event and ‘I Wish to Communicate with You’. I got to meet and work with Bob and Roberta Smith and Jessica Voorsanger and actively interact with other incredible artists such as through ‘One Day, Maybe’ and ‘2097’. There’s plenty of lessons learnt and ideas formulated during 2017 that I’ve stored in the bank for future use! I had never experienced that level of art and culture on my doorstep before (and that’s coming from a Londoner), that enabled me to stretch and push my own thoughts, ideas and preconceptions about art and communication in a really accessible way.
Tell the World
As my degree show began wrapping up, I started turning my attention away from raisins and towards the earth. I was already a big lover of nature and a supporter of environmental causes but something changed in early 2018 – I still don’t know why, but I felt great empathy and a sense of grief towards the planet. I sensed unease. I felt I needed to step up and actively do something. But before long it was clear that drastically reducing my plastic use and cycling more wasn’t cutting it. Little did I know, I wasn’t the only one feeling this sense of urgency – it was around this time that socio-political climate activism group Extinction Rebellion (XR) was established. Soon after in October 2018, the terrifying Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made clear that the world needs to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 to have a decent chance of limiting global warming to 1.5ᴼ C (compared to pre-industrial levels). The research shows that 1.5ᴼC isn’t great – it will still cause a huge loss of life and a negative change to the world as we know it – but it’s better than the 2ᴼC degree figure outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement (which would cause a more devastating loss of life and even higher sea levels) [Ipcc.ch. Global Warming of 1.5 ºC , Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/].
This sense of urgency has unsurprisingly found its way into my art practice. As I’ve already emphasised, drawing is synonymous with thinking in many ways. And I find myself thinking an awful lot about the climate emergency. Drawing is the way that I observe, record and make sense of the complex socio-political tapestry in which we exist. Through mark making, I track and reflect upon my thoughts about the planet itself, the current critical situation and our relationship with it. This inspiring branch of philosophy is known as environmental ethics, which has formed a core part of my contemporary drawing practice.
I find myself increasingly inspired by real-world objects found through outdoor activities such as beachcombing, foraging and bushcraft. I am also inspired by ideas such as Naess’ Deep Ecology, current environmental research and through my own contributions to XR [See: http://www.deepecology.org/deepecology.htm]. I use line to think through and understand these objects, processes and concepts and communicate the things I’m discovering.
This heightened understanding and respect for the world has increased the sense of responsibility I feel as an artist to practice sustainably. I challenge myself to use low impact and sustainable processes and biodegradable, natural and/or recycled materials where possible. I feel this ethically-rooted decision also makes intellectual sense considering the themes I’m exploring. I have recently developed a concept that I call ‘living line’, an experimental notion exploring how drawing can be used to support life or otherwise benefit nature.
However, the more I draw, the more I feel I have a grasp on what’s actually happening, and the more I am convinced that I have no choice but to take additional real life personal and organised action beyond the studio. Supported by ever increasing reams of scientific evidence, countless people across the world feel the same. Within the last year in particular, we are beginning to act on our consciences, pouring out into the streets to demand climate justice from governments and industry in search of a cleaner, better world.
This climate emergency may be the thing that motivates me to make work, but I consider the ‘Lines of Thought’ exhibition to be the initial catalyst in guiding me to where I am now, helping me to recognise and shape a big part of my identity as an artist who draws in the expanded field.
- This article was featured in Issue 2 (Brill) of The Critical Fish.