Thursday, 17 December 2009

TRACEY ROWLEDGE: Arctic Drawings

Tracey Rowledge trained as a fine artist, but during her career she has become recognized as an accomplished practitioner of traditional bookbinding, imaginatively pushing both the technical possibilities of the form and the context in which it is employed. She is accustomed to working with found marks, texts and stories. She says: 'It’s a preoccupation – how and why we make marks, and what they mean to me and to other people. A mark always evokes an emotional response. And with bookbinding, through gold tooling on leather, I can use a non-gestural process to create something that evokes movement and spontaneity – and yet it’s completely embedded in the tradition and processes of gold tooling. I love that extreme play.'

The feel of Rowledge’s work falls somewhere between two Victorian trades that are now almost obsolete: the public letter-writer who copies the thoughts of illiterate passers-by onto paper for the purposes of business or romance, and the psychic, channelling more profound messages from beyond. Rowledge is an interpreter; her work is an emotional response to traces of other people’s existence. For example, she will rescue notes on scraps of paper discarded in London’s gutters, which she gold tools on leather in her studio, the gilt marks true to each original scribble and smudge. In her work as a designer binder she responds to more self-consciously literary texts. A wider political context isn’t part of this creative framework: ‘when I’m working to commission I’m responding to a text, so it won’t necessarily have a reference to anything else – other than my constant preoccupation with painting.’

Rowledge was invited to participate in the Cape Farewell expedition to Disko Bay in 2008, a venture in which 24 creative practitioners travelled up the West Coast of Greenland, observing climate change and making work in response to the experience. I’ve admired Rowledge’s work since seeing her ‘vernacular’ gold tooling at the Crafts Council over a decade ago, and so I was eager to hear her reaction as an artist to the environment I was about to encounter. A little star-struck, I arranged to visit her in her studio in West London to hear how, as a celebrant of human ephemera, she responded to the marks made by man on the Arctic wilderness. We started out by talking about the landscape.

NC: What did you think of the ice?

TR: I was really amazed at how noisy it was. It was annoying that my only points of reference were really banal things, like the blue stripe in toothpaste, when you’re looking at icebergs… it looks like stripy toothpaste and you think 'This is so beautiful, but I don’t know quite how else to look at it.' Or when we were ashore you can hear this noise, and it sounded like a farmer’s boom to scare away birds, but it was the icebergs calving. Really strange. Then I could hear what sounded like a far-away motorway, but it was really just the ice.

NC: All these are quite domestic metaphors …

TR: But it was so alien to me – the landscape, the seascape – that I didn’t quite know how to understand it. At one point I just sat down and did a drawing because I couldn’t take it in. Drawing was quite useful, because it really made me look long and hard at what it was.

NC: What did you draw?

TR: I was drawing the icebergs. Because you’re looking at one and thinking – 'I suppose it’s quite big really' – and when they turn upside down, you can tell, because they have a completely different character to them. And then when they calve, of course, they shift, so it’s really getting to know the nature of what you’re looking at.

Rowledge created three series of ‘Arctic Drawings’. To some extent the works are scientific documents: ‘created’ by the movement of the ship with Rowledge as intercessor, they chart weather and water at a particular instant of time, noted on each drawing alongside the geographical co-ordinates. The scale of the marks and movement is intimate, at times infinitesimal on the large white sheet, and yet one cannot imagine a more direct creative interaction with the vast Arctic environment. Rowledge explains:

'I wanted to use the Arctic water as a way of making images that would become resource material that I could use back in the studio. I took paper with me that I’d researched as being the right kind of paper to apply felt tip to so that the ink would bleed and the image would move. I had the paper cut so it fitted my suitcase and the cabin became my studio. I became very conscious of the movement of the boat and wondered what it would be like if I just leaned over the piece of paper with a pen and used my arm as a pendulum to create a drawing.

'It developed from there. I created the system – but within that there was room for randomness. All I did was decide where I would put the felt tip down and what colour to use. When the felt tip left the paper I would pick up another colour. I collected Arctic water in a cooking pot, and wet the sheet of paper in a baking tray, then left it to air dry in the cabin. They really became like emotional landscapes for me. I just made the work intuitively and I didn’t think too consciously about it. I didn’t think, “Is this finished work? Is it unfinished work? Is it resource material?” I just made it.

'I worked all the time that we were on the boat, and I set up a pendulum under the chair in my cabin, so that when I went ashore the drawings would be recorded in my absence. I recorded the date and time of each so I could get the ship’s coordinates – they are very site specific – a record of our journey.'

'When I returned to London I spent time with the drawings and decided what the orientation was, because of course they could have been any way up and any way round. Some were eliminated; others were kept. As soon as I could see something that was easily readable, something that looked a bit like an animal or a bit like a flower, it was out: they had to be beyond having that type of reference.

'Along the mountboard of each frame it tells the story: ‘2008 – Disko Bay – Cape Farewell Expedition’. In Series 3, for which I used the Arctic water and felt tip, you can see that sometimes the sea was very, very rough. I got up at 5 o’ clock in the morning and captured this very intense movement. Whereas others look rather like algae, they are calmer and more contemplative. In each drawing you got a very different feel.'

'Series No. 1 is made with black felt tip on paper, using the pendulum underneath the chair. It’s so small on such a big piece of white paper. You’re immediately drawn in to the detail. When I first came back and looked at them I didn’t really quite know what to think about them. I wondered if the paper should be cropped. Normally I work in creating systems for mark-making and I would work with the given dimensions of the piece of scrap paper that I had found. So I had to go about processing this new piece of work that I had made. And the more time I spent with it the more it became apparent that the reason it worked was that actually, they were such little locked pieces of movement within a big piece of paper. And they’re not a study. They would become quite ephemeral if they were very small.'

'In Series 2 there were some that were quite big and blobby, but the remaining ones I have are just blocks of colour – this is where the sea was quite calm. What’s really interesting to me about these images, for which I used Letraset pens, is how the colour has maintained its own area. The Letraset pens don’t really bleed into each other so they’ve created really interesting images. I just chose those colours because they were colours that I liked and so I took them with me. And they work well together. That’s really the beauty of chance sometimes.'

NC: I wanted to ask about your ideas on permanence. I know you’ve done a lot of conservation work, and although bookbinding needn’t always be about preservation, it’s a consideration in the field, isn’t it? I’m wondering about these marks – the desire to anchor a moment’s experience in space and time – and how that relates to the world changing – climate changing…

TR: As soon as you feel the weight of what’s happening with climate change you think 'Well, why bother making another object? What’s the point really?' But then you get driven to make something because that’s what it is in your make up to do, to make your ideas physical. They have to exist. You just get focussed on the idea and lose the bigger picture – perhaps that’s survival.

Cambridge 100 Questions Desk

NC: Were there any other projects that came out of the expedition?

TR: There was another idea, which was quite interesting, because I was quite determined that I would not make a book! That would not be my response to climate change. But one evening I was having dinner with Marcus Brigstock and David Nobel, and Marcus asked what was involved in binding a book.

So I explained, and David said, 'Do you know, I think it would be really interesting if you made a book of covenants. You could make a book which would go to "the elders" and it would become a symbol for change, to solve the world’s problems.' So we thought 'Yes, that would be a good idea!' And I laughed inwardly, and thought, 'Are we really discussing making a book?!' But I decided, 'It’s quite interesting. I’m just using myself as a tool. I’ve got the knowledge of how to make a book; why don’t I just use that as a vehicle to promote this message?'

We thought we’d meet every day to discuss the idea, but of course we didn’t because there was so much going on. We did speak about it once or twice. I thought it could be a good idea, but I didn’t really want to be driving it – I wanted a partner, someone who would commission me to make it. Then Joe Smith who was on the trip, and works for the Open University specialising in environmental issues, happened to know that there was a project called The 100 Questions Project run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. He put Mike Peirce and me together and we worked on a project in which all the Nobel Prize laureates were asked to write questions to push the thinking on climate change and climate justice.

It started off as a book… and it then turned into a desk! Because there was no end to how many questions would be written. It started off with the Nobel Prize laureates and then it filtered down to the public. It could be that 10,000 questions might be generated, and I couldn’t keep adding pages – the book would be so unwieldy, it would end up the size of a room! I’d have to endlessly build more cases. It just wasn’t practical.

I felt that there needed to be closure for it. Well, I like the idea that a particular kind of leather-topped desk feels like the place where key thinkers sit and produce their thoughts… My original idea had been to create a leather panel which I had assumed would go on the wall as a backdrop for the book – or as its cover. This became the traditional leather inset for the desk. The image on it symbolised in an abstract way climate change, movement, the intensity of shifts.

I worked with Carl Clerkin who created the most fantastic desk with a very long, extended drawer, and in the drawer were ten compartments for ten questions that could be changed, as and when. The desk was recently on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum and then we hope that it will tour and be available for a lot more people to see.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

ATELIER JACKSON: Glacier Project

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one wit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

John Ruskin (quoted in The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton, 2002)

(Studio) Colour Research: Glacial Ice [2008–9]

The Glacier Project is a personal response to the elemental characteristics of glaciers, snow and ice by British artist Liz Jackson. The project presents an emotive, poetic and sculptural reading of landscape through book objects and prints.

Now working in France, at the foot of the Argentière glacier, Jackson says that living in the Alps has helped her to appreciate the glacier and the mountain landscape surrounding it. Her familiarity with the environment means that 'observations, thoughts and impressions can accumulate over time. Living by the glacier provides a constant reminder of its beauty, scale and light – I thought perhaps it would become familiar by its habitual presence, but for me its complexity grows, I am constantly re-energized and re-awed by its blue mass resting above the valley.'

Jackson's project proposes a visual study of glaciers as opposed to a scientific study – not as attempt to re-work or reject a scientific approach, but simply to offer an alternative interpretation. Jackson aspires to provide poetry – 'poetry that science sometimes filters out in the pursuit of objective discourse.'

Jackson became interested in glaciers while studying at the Royal College of Art, during which time she researched natural phenomena, such as the aurora borealis and the colour of the sky, and their visual and scientific descriptions. She engaged enthusiastically with the scientific mode of explaining, with its concise, diagrammatic language.

'Whilst considering the focus of the second year of my MA I was seeking an area of earth science that still retained an element of wonder (there is still a sense of the unknown within glacial dynamics and behaviour) yet was small enough to be part of, and open enough to confer with. Glaciology seemed like an approachable area of science: glaciologists work in the field, make observations, take measurements – simple tasks I could easily relate to. I liked the idea that a glaciologist was simply defined as "someone who studies glaciers" – exactly what I wanted to do.'

In Glacial Vocabulary Jackson offered a number of eminent glaciologists, explorers and geographers the opportunity to express their personal ideas about glaciers. She visited Professor Michael Hambrey and his students in the glaciology department at the University of Aberystwyth, where she found that 'the common factor was that earth scientist and landscape artist share a deep appreciation and fascination with the natural landscape.'

Initially Jackson investigated the inherent visual characteristics of glaciers (formation, colour and features) and tried to forge new means to communicate them. This developed into an in-depth colour study of Glacial Blue: a series of intricately layered screenprints exploring colour density and form. The prints have become an archive of printed colours and colour research work – recording shifting and transient colours in nature and analysing colour depth and mass inspired by daily observations of the Argentière Glacier.

Jackson uses the screenprinting process to create sculptural forms on a surface. Ink becomes strata, suspending colour within its layers, and colour is three-dimensional, building depth, intensity and mass.

Volume Study 3: Crevasse [2007]

Jackson writes of her practice: 'The work is inspired by my experience of the natural landscape – observing subtle colour shifts and noticing how light transforms and animates every surface of the natural environment. The extracting and the abstraction of something small (yet significant to me) of a detail I’ve experienced. Then, in the studio my working process is an exploration of how to visually communicate this observation. Colour, light and form (and the relationship between these three elements) provide the central preoccupations of my work.

'Transient moments, colours and illuminations, held onto in the mind’s eye – a human capacity to be somewhere, to experience something and communicate the essence of that sight. The work becomes a personal record – a document that captures something of the lived experience of being in and observing the natural landscape. I enjoy details, nuances, the impossibility of colour and the transient quality of these moments experienced in nature. Nature is forever transforming itself or being transformed through the light that falls upon it – never static, never fixed, never flat – totally alive and in permanent flux – pure inspiration.

'The work is a response to nature not a replication of it. In highlighting a single aspect (colour) you remove distractions – getting away from the object you get closer to its essence.'

Friday, 30 October 2009

Arctic Book Club: Artists Respond to An African in Greenland

This autumn, Flux Factory and EFA Project Space presented Arctic Book Club in Manhattan. Curated by Jean Barberis and Michelle Levy, the exhibition was the result of an epic several-month long journey by a group of artists responding to Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book, An African in Greenland.

An African in Greenland recounts the author’s pilgrimage from his native Togo to Greenland. Fascinated with the distant Arctic, Kpomassie embarked on a ten-year journey across Africa and Europe, working as a translator along the way, and eventually saving enough money to complete his odyssey.

In the Spring of 2009, Flux Factory and EFA assembled a cross-disciplinary group of artists to respond to Kpomassie’s book. Those selected were Amber Cortes, Jenelle Covino, The Green and Bold Cooperative, Katerina Lanfranco, Fabienne Lasserre, Valerie Piraino, Greg Pond, Annie Reichert, Julian Rogers, Ranbir Sidhu and Christopher Ulivo. They met regularly as a book club, and upon completion of the book, they all created new work inspired by Kpomassie’s narrative.

Some artists responded very closely to the text. Members of The Green & Bold Coöperative (McDavid Moore, Matthew Gribbon, Steven Thompson) produced a hand-written transcription of the original French text L’Africain Du Groenland. The work was conducted live within a complex installation comprising four work benches protruding from what appeared to be a large stack of boulders. In Nomadic Work Desk w/ Approximate Lodestone (Exhibition Format) the artists took their cue from the Inuit hospitality demonstrated in the book, and broke off from their calligraphic labour to engage gallery visitors in conversation and offer coffee in a service modelled on the “Kaffenik” of the Greenlanders.

Other artists used the opportunity to explore the Arctic landscape. Katerina Lanfranco’s work reflects the extreme scales adopted by the elements, from the microscopic and elusive snow flake to the massive iceberg. Glacial Specimens (flame worked glass with clay and acrylic paint) consists of several small mixed media glass sculptures which capture the ephemeral nature of snow and ice crystals.

Midnight Sun, (hand-cut paper, 80 inches high) is a large paper-cut sculpture of an isolated iceberg seen in silhouette. A complex web of positive and negative spaces and shapes imply the angular ice forms and the contrast of dark and light are symbolic of the region’s Polar Night (total darkness) and Midnight Sun (total light). The form, like Greenland itself, drifts alone in the ocean and exists partially above and below water.

Christopher Ulivo designed a theatrical tribute to the story through a shadow puppet theatre. Rather than attempting to imitate Kpomassie’s style as storyteller, or engage in critical commentary, Ulivo chose to pay homage to the text by reworking it as a script for a shadow puppet show. As Ulivo developed his project, he realised that the puppet show was dramatically effective, not only because it conveyed the story directly, but also because its absolute dependence on the contrast between light and the absence of light is in direct correlation to Greenland’s black winters and endless summers. The naïve, playful characteristic of the medium was also important to the artist: “There are repeated references in the book to ways in which the Inuit entertain each other in so barren a place. Tété’s vivid descriptions of dances, birthday parties and Christmas festivities all have the feeling of homespun craftiness and companionship. I hope our show can channel some of the spirit of Inuit mirth.”

Fabienne Lasserre created an installation made of human hair and plaster (Untitled). Long, dark hair hung down the gallery wall, overflowing onto the floor. The hair was covered in a thin layer of white poured plaster. Through the fluid texture of the plaster the disorderly and fibrous texture of the hair was visible; there were stark contrasts between the dark hair and the white plaster, between the shagginess of the hair and the smoothness of the plaster. Formalism and process, idealism and goofiness, purity and corruption exist in mutual agitation. The work drew inspiration from a similar tension in Kpomassie’s account of Greenland, which displays a contrast between the whiteness, the stillness and the beauty of the landscape and the dirty, visceral lifestyle of its inhabitants. Kpomassie constantly shifts from descriptions of faeces, guts, and blubber, to quasi-spiritual encounters with the environment.

Annie Reichert’s contribution to the Arctic Book Club was Souvenir Desk, an installation comprising a wooden desk in which the drawers were filled with mementos of Kpomassie's journey. The desk was a found object that had been painted over several times by its previous owner. The artist sanded down the negative space around succeeding layers of grey, blue and white in order to reveal a topographic map of Greenland. The compact piece of furniture, comparable to one found in the cabin of a ship, was evocative of the physical space where an explorer would record his travel log. The desk also functioned as a metaphor for the writer’s mental space as he reconstructs his journey through memory and reflection.

Friday, 23 October 2009


Clare Carter was born in Yorkshire in 1980. Her work as an artist ranges across disciplines, with a focus on painting and composing music.

Since studying fine art, she has continued her painting practice with residencies across Europe, most recently working in a studio in Leeds. She also composes and performs music in The Horn The Hunt, a 2-piece electronic band. Carter is interested in different kinds of environment; her newest musical experiments are sound-scapes (or soundtracks for which the film waits to be written) exploring imaginary landscapes ‘that have an absence of people, places where the emotions are in the trees and plants and rocks.’

Introduction No.2 (Woman from the Old Upernavik), 2006, oil on board, 24 x 31cm

This sensitivity to landscape encompasses not just the pastoral idylls of the English Romantics but ‘inner and outer, physical and psychological, inhabited and uninhabited, rural and urban/domestic’. She is intrigued by ‘the pathways and entry points between these worlds, and how humans cope and adapt to different environments.’ She examines contemporary responses to Nature, and finds links between modern society and our primordial instincts. She is also fascinated by beliefs and practices that are less common now than in the past, particularly anthropomorphism.

It’s becoming clear why Carter might be interested in Inuit culture, but I asked how her three-month residency at Upernavik Museum in Greenland affected her work. She responded with a wonderful evocation of the landscape and the darkness.

Following Travels, 2009, oil & acrylic on canvas (diptych), 76 x 76cm each

‘I arrived in Upernavik completely shell-shocked by this unique and frightening environment. I couldn’t contemplate the vastness of the landscape and how I was supposed to communicate my feelings through painting. So I spent most of my time in Upernavik looking through photography books about north-west Greenland and the people of Upernavik, from the last century. Mainly black & white photos, some very old. These photographs of people and the landscape made a visual link between myself as a westerner and the brutal nature of Greenland. So I painted them, along with photographs I took of the museum exhibits at the ethnographical museum. This is where I began to understand my interest in taxidermy and illusion, the exhibit, the performance.

‘I think it’s the colonial mind – if we cannot understand what is new and different about other cultures we have to make small reconstructions or dioramas … as if by taking the exotic and putting it through our own fabricating process we can somehow begin to contemplate it’s reality – or the reality that we engaged with. It’s as if looking alone is not enough, we need these eyeglasses that help us digest the unknown and make it seem more familiar.

‘The Cave’ and 'Following Travels' explore the notion of putting things – experiences, landscapes – in a situation where they can be viewed as performance. ‘The Cave’ was made in Norway; it’s a modern cave painting. My husband sits at a desk in a flat making music. The unfamiliar and unexplored landscape fills the room and penetrates through so much that he is absorbed into it. The room and the landscape toy with each other for control of the stage.

‘For me, Greenland was the key to unlocking all these ideas that had been with me since my childhood days of building miniature landscapes on shelves in my bedroom. The darkness (we spent 6 weeks of our 3 month stay in perpetual night) and the extreme landscape we experienced were a life-changing and questioning process that will forever stay with us.

‘The hardest and most unusual experience about living in the darkness is that you have no view, no way of projecting emotions outwards. There is no landscape to absorb or give perspective on existence, except that of the domestic space. So everything becomes internal. It’s like being in a cell – you know there’s space and life outside but you have no visual access to it. The only visuals are man-made: the electric light illuminating a path; lamps glowing inside a living room; the television projecting scenes from places with daylight. In a sense, everything becomes imaginary, an illusion – or if not an illusion, a human fabrication of ‘day’ in a nocturnal world.’

The Cave, 2008, oil & acrylic on canvas, 250 x 130cm

Saturday, 10 October 2009


I visited Oxford to interview the performance artist Kirsten Norrie about The Wolf In The Winter performances at Katuaq Cultural Centre in Nuuk and in Sissimuit in 2003. Norrie is a Scottish artist who trained at Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford. Her work, which encompasses music, literature and performance, is gutteral and haunting.

The Wolf In The Winter is an international group of solo performance artists who come together as a pack to 'speak through physical action in a tough poetic about the world around us.' The Greenland performances were instigated by the Inuit artist Jessie Kleeman.

Before we discussed the Wolves' work in Greenland, Kirsten and I strolled into the gardens of Wolfson College and sat drinking coffee. It was still early morning and strands of spidersilk were drifting sideways in the sunlight. The dew was rising as mist down by the river: a warm day was promised. These moments of unexpected grace in the temperate zones contrast with the abrupt seasonal changes in the far north. In Oxford, time is mutable and contrary. The sunshine is not necessarily benevolent. Later, shortly after we had turned off the microphone, Kirsten noticed that the windows of the room were seething with ladybirds. They had interpreted the late autumn sunshine as a new spring, and were attempting to escape the safety of the flat to hurl themselves to certain death by frost outside.

You can listen to Kirsten Norrie on her performance with The Wolf In The Winter here

Friday, 15 May 2009


LONDON & NUUK was generated by my research into literature and visual arts in the Polar regions.

In 2010 I was invited to Upernavik, on the north-west coast of Greenland, to spend time as writer-in-residence at the town’s anthropological museum. Before I set off from London on a series of flights to the small settlement, I wanted to learn more about contemporary Inuit culture. How did Greenlanders respond to their landscape and heritage? How had interlopers, wearing their snow-shoes with as little grace as I would do, adapted to the Arctic?

In the British Library, I read through a musty copy of Inuit songs and folk tales, describing the lives of polar bears and humans, the shaman’s flights through air and beneath the sea. These stories had been gathered by the Norwegian explorer Knud Rasmussen while Europe was destroying itself in the First World War. I visited provincial Maritime Museums to see scrimshaw, pieces of ivory intricately carved by European whalers with images of their adventures. I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s account of his pilgrimage from Africa to Greenland.

Greenland has a fascinating history of nomads and explorers from many nations, and the documentation to prove it. But what is happening there now? Surely, with the recent introduction of home rule, Greenlandic culture must be flourishing? I was reminded of R.T. Gould’s ominous map delineating the last known steps of the Franklin expedition. The careful cartographer depicted the Arctic, marked not by towns and villages but by caches of letters, pemmican and skulls - clues to the disappearance of the Victorian explorer and his party. These points, linked by a red dotted line, eventually peter out in a question mark set in the middle of a white morass.

Thanks to Franklin and his fellow explorers, we now know that the North Pole is a shifting entity, rather than an absolute point that can be recorded on a map. Yet despite advances in knowledge of Arctic geography, information about culture in the region is elusive. My research was as slow progress as a walk through thigh-high snowdrifts. But there were tracks before me in the snow: Inuit poet and performer Jessie Kleeman and many British artists who had felt the lure of the Pole and whose work had been altered by their sojourns there.

Historically explorers set off to ultime thule without maps. They might have half-completed charts to rely on, or merely rumours of strange, icy land formations at the edge of the world told by the few who had returned. The purpose of exploration, after all, has always been to fill in the spaces. They never knew whether or not ice would stand in the way of their vessels, nor if their end lay in starvation, scurvy or sea monsters. All exploration, including artistic exploration, needs to be conducted with a sense of risk.

I am very grateful to the artists and writers featured in London & Nuuk for recounting their experiences so vividly. I hope that a greater awareness of contemporary arts in the Polar regions will add depth to global perceptions of a continent that is rapidly becoming a one-story land. On news features we see polar bears and icebergs, or, increasingly, no polar bears and no icebergs. While climate change threatens to abruptly alter the lives of Arctic inhabitants as well as the rest of the world's population, to see only this issue perpetuates the view of medieval writers such as Pytheas and Virgil who believed only horror and apocalypse could come from the ‘ends of the earth’. The artists and writers who have been to the far north have tales to tell about the ideas, the marks and the absences they found there. They say that the Arctic changed their understanding of the rest of the world. Many believe the experience changed their lives.