I really value the days between Christmas and New Year as a time to reflect on the year just gone by and look forward to what lies ahead. This year has provided a number of clear, crisp days between Christmas and New Year. Short days – that intense yellow light of deep winter and the sharp, cold air which clears the head – can provide space and time to think. Reading about other peoples year’s brings a fresh source of inspiration – I particularly enjoy Caught by the River’s series Shadows and Reflections (great title) which invites its contributors to reflect on the year just passed. Newspapers full of lists spur me on to compile lists of my own: books I enjoyed in 2014, books I want to read in 2015, birds seen, exhibitions visited, inspiration found…
And so to the first half of my year –
January is my birthday month and I usually spend the day drawing with good friend and fellow artist Leo du Feu. The day is always a treasured event; this year we decided to take the train to Dunbar and explore from there. We headed due west to Belhaven bay along the cliff top walk with stunning views across to the Bass Rock. A diverse walk starting in the town and ending at the end of a dramatic pine plantation looking across Tyninghame estuary. We were lucky enough to see a kingfisher amongst many other birds that day. I loved these turnstones huddling along the concrete boulder in Belhaven bay.
February provided a brief stay on the shores of Loch Fyne with friends. After a late night of table tennis and beer, Paul and I were the first up in the morning and decided to walk along the loch shore in the early morning light. I’m so glad we did – we ended up spending about twenty minutes watching a young otter feeding and playing.
It was fascinating and thrilling to watch it rolling in the water, pink feet and nose facing the skies. There is something magical about seeing an animal at play, it is a powerful reminder that there is still much we do not understand about the fellow creatures we share our planet with. Here is nature writer Richard Mabey on play:
‘The ultimate expression of the comic way is play, an almost universal phenomenon among more complex animals (and which includes what humans call art), and one which, in its exuberant purposelessness, seems close to the heart of the whole business of life. Play is the opposite of Management by Objectives, the current creed which rigidly screens out spontaneity, imagination and surprise as parts of the creative process.’
from Nature Cure (2005, London:Chatto & Windus) pp 200-201.
I also made my first combined screen print and monotype in February. Being the two main print techniques I use in my work I had been thinking for some time about the possibilities of combining the two techniques – solid blocks of colour achieved in screen printing with the richer marks of monotype over the top (see the process in this previous post) . I was pleased with the results:
March saw my first stay in the place my parents would be calling home by the end of the year – in the county of Northumberland, four miles in from the northern seaside town of Seahouses. It is exciting for me to have a base for exploring this new landscape, hopefully gaining insight into the changing moods and seasons of it. I have started to find my feet a bit now and am planning on spending time there in 2015. I look forward to discovering the abundant wildlife and engaging with the fascinating history of the place, much of which involves creatures: St Cuthbert and the eider ducks, Bede and the sparrow flying through the banquetting hall, the interlocking cormorants in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chillingham cattle.
I also completed a commission in March for a blackbird in a palm tree for one of my lecturers at Edinburgh University – it was a real privilege to make a piece for her and I’m pleased to say she was delighted with my response to the brief.
With the increasing light and warmth in April I was able to get outside a bit and fitted in a trip to north Fife with a particularly enjoyable visit to the sweeping beach at Tentsmuir point to watch the seals and look out for sea eagles (none to be seen this time but it did motivate me to read the fantastic Eagle’s Way by Jim Crumley – worth spending some time with).
I also was reminded in April of how many fascinating things were to be found on my doorstep – living a stone’s throw away from Holyrood Park in Edinburgh I am always surprised how removed from the urban you can feel in such a central city location. I managed to get close enough to a chiff chaff to get this photo:
On the same day, as I was heading home, I noticed this fox, sunbathing amongst the gorse, it was so relaxed it wasn’t at all bothered by my presence:
I spent a warm April day at St Abb’s Head drawing with friends – it was interesting to be there at the very beginning of the seabird breeding season.
Here is an extract from notes made in my sketchbook from that day, noticing the difference between April and June when I normally go with the seabird drawing course:
‘rafts of birds sit on the water – kittiwakes, auks…the cliffs are quieter, a few pairs have settled…the others seem to be waiting on the waves…the noises are less, but familiar, kittiwakes squawk mostly…fulmars are nesting – flying threateningly past me if I get too close – I watch two mating – it goes on a while, the female underneath, wing flattened (injured looking) against the rock…gannets all fly north in groups at different heights – they look strong in flight…the shadows on the cliffs change constantly – the waves below crash and froth violently.’
And a page from the sketchbook, trying to capture the different levels and directions of movement at this awe-inspiring place:
With May came a penultimate visit to my childhood home in north east Cumbria before my parents hopped across the pennines to Northumberland. It was a weekend of beginning to let go of the familiar, but also of unexpected new discoveries. A walk through the small bit of land attached to the Mill produced my first ever redstarts! I saw the female first, initially mistaken for a robin, until a strange flick of bright orange tail made me look again. The male soon appeared and I was able to watch them fly in and out of their nest hole in a tree hollow.
Back in Edinburgh I was maker of the month at Concrete Wardrobe on Broughton Street. I enjoyed printing my own wallpaper to go in the window of this fantastic shop which celebrates the work of many quality Scottish makers. I was also pleased to exhibit a large scale screen print for the first time, Coots and Swans, seen here in the window.
And finally in June my family said goodbye to the Watermill at Little Salkeld. The place had been our family home and business for the last forty years so it was no mean feat to move everything and everyone out of it. We all gathered for the final weekend and amidst all the box packing and labelling I was able to take a few photos and enjoy some wonderful final experiences of the place.
The four young swallows at the top of this post fledged during the weekend we were down for the move. I watched them go from their nest in the shed, to sitting high up on the roof of the mill as their worried parents fed them, wheeling and diving nervously around them. By the time Monday came they were confidently sitting on the power lines looking like kings of the world.
The kitchen window was probably where it all started for me. Looking out onto Sunnygill beck it provided a perfect hide for watching an abundance of bird life go by throughout my childhood and beyond. Regular visitors included great spotted woodpeckers, such as this handsome juvenile, photographed on the weekend of the move.
In typical family tradition the move was not without a selection of stray creatures being shoved into the back of motor vehicles (don’t ask) – in this instance it was Mr Cockaloo and Betty the orphan lamb along with a hen and four newly hatched chicks in a rabbit hutch!