Three days of field-work in the Scottish Borders let Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe and myself find ways to share investigations of particular places. Preferring to work collaboratively, we developed a method of shared drawing that let us weave our individual observations with each other’s expertise.
Accompanied by umbrellas, waterproofs, sketchbooks and numerous pencils, we went to three different places in the Scottish Borders. The first was Whitlaw Moss, a SSSI near Selkirk which is marvellously categorised as being a very wet mire likely to have an unstable ‘quaking’ surface. Access to the Moss is restricted – my view of it had up till then been from a car window on the road above. Getting close-up, a wonderful variety of plant and insect life came into view.
How could we possibly represent this? Grasses, sedges, orchids, ragged robin, moths, beetles…
Attempting to draw generated further unsteadiness – my A3 sketchbook pages flicked over with impatient speed.
I found this self-imposed flat rectangular format frustrating, and also the sedentary character of plein air drawing.
I considered swimming in a ‘well-eye’, and admired bogbean.
In truth, we left somewhat frustrated with our attempts, and wondered where to go with this. Pursuing the model of individual artist in landscape seemed to have led us to clamber into boxes of our own making.
How could we make more use of being in such places together? We began Day 2 with an exercise suggested by Claire Pençak: using three bamboo sticks to generate collaborative patterns of movement.
En route to St Abbs Head, we talked about two much-missed painters, John Busby and David Measures, who remain important influences for groups of artists committed to observational drawing of birds. Measures and Busby both found ways to express their unique voices – coaxing their students away from photographic styles of representation towards an exploration of movement and place. Few of us can hope to catch birds’ giz as Busby could, or look at their subjects with the commentary and dynamism that Measures achieved. What could we offer instead?
In different ways, we each work towards exploration of what can be termed ‘biocultural’, jargon for the goal of acknowledging people’s activities and concerns within more-than-human processes. Also, given contemporary complex and knotty environmental problems, we discussed how the process of making artwork must include the possibility that everything is not OK. A visit to St Abbs is imbued by a possibility that this year could be the last seabird summer – as Adam Nicholson investigated in a recent BBC programme.
The cliffs at St Abbs at St Abbs are hard to encapsulate, though Jethro found his efforts greatly freed up by the collaborative exercise:
Listening together offered an additional pathway for exchange. We drew soundscapes by passing our sketchbooks round every 5 minutes, yielding these images:
Above: Shared drawings at St Abbs, by Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe, Kate Foster
We found this way of working to be constructive. John’s poetic and expert eye for movement and Jethro’s structural intelligence, in combination with my restlessness, let us make something different than we could achieve individually.
As ‘drawings’, the early marks on paper staked out composition and focus: we worked progressively to adjust tone, flow, and colour. As ‘conversations’, these shared works allowed us to see different aspects of each place we were in. We puzzled on problems, such as how sounds have shape and colour. Above all, this process helped articulate emotional and subjective responses – in St Abbs where loss can be felt vertiginously, and marvellous and terrifying elements beyond our control can be glimpsed.
The third day saw us walking on the glorious Southern Upland Way, to practice our method, but in less sublime conditions.
Sheltering behind a wall, flattish wetness became a shared drawing that included lark, curlew and snipe call.
In these ways, we succeeded in opening up spaces of encounter – and helped hone specific questions and possibilities.
What now? Perhaps this may extend beyond an interdisciplinary conversation, to engage further kinds of knowledge of place – tacit, instrumental, more than human?