Back in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey today drawing this fallen beech:
It's unusual for me to have the opportunity to get close to the upper parts of a tree as big as this, since I'm not any kind of climber. It came down in the January storms of 2012 and the photo below was taken shortly after, while the torn trunk was still very fresh and smelling of sap.
I've been collecting as much visual information as I can while it's still in situ - it's possible that next time I visit it could be removed for safety reasons, though I'm hopeful that it will be left to sustain life as it rots.
Here's the very beginnings of a drawing made from photos taken of the tree when it was still standing, it's almost ready to leave the board now but I'm not quite ready to say "finished" yet.
Newbattle Abbey College has a long and interesting history and some of my very favourite trees.
It’s been a regular haunt for me since I moved to Scotland in 1994 and I returned today in search of some tree graffiti to get the ideas flowing around ‘Tree Stories’, a project in the pipeline which I hope to be involved in later this year. It’s being developed by Professor Ian D Rotherham at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to get the public engaged in a national hunt for marked and worked trees, recording them in photographs and trying to find out a bit more about their history.
This idea was immediately appealing to me, as I’ve been collecting images of carved and marked trees and incorporating these into my recent work.
Newbattle graffiti beech, charcoal on paper (plus detail)
It raises some interesting questions for me about where the line is drawn between vandalism and culture, damage and heritage. I’d like to find out more about how carving a living tree affects it – does it lead to stress, disease or weakness, or is the tree able to repair or isolate the damage? How much of the bark’s surface can be carved before it starts to cause serious problems for the tree?
This particular beech seems to have taken on a local significance as the place to ‘make your mark’. The oldest carving I could identify was dated 1955, but most were from the 1970s and 80s, with some much more recent.
It’s both shocking and impressive to see the whole surface of the tree marked like this – as if a large crowd had gathered by the river and started yelling their names.
I've never noticed this on my previous visits, but there are coins pressed into wounds in the bark like some sort of spontaneous offering. I've read about 'money trees' before but never seen one up close.
There are more 'Tree Stories' to come from this one I think!Tags:
I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to draw trees and the honest answer is that I really don’t know, I just found myself doing it and now I can’t stop.
It’s a subject that has so many layers of historic, cultural and symbolic meaning and such visual variety that I know I’ll never get bored. In a way, having that constraint on my choice of subject has made me feel more free to experiment with materials and forms of expression.
However, it’s also true to say that there are many things that have influenced my artistic journey to this point and, since it’s Father’s Day, I’ll give the credit to my dad.
Introducing Tony Lee – Woodturner, who died in 2007 but still keeps an eye on me in my studio. He’s pictured here in his own workshop, surrounded by the tools of his trade and looking justifiably pleased with himself, having created his own business in the dark times of the mid eighties. His first workshop was the garden shed where he taught me to turn on the lathe, cut a mortise and sand to a silky finish. I also learned about the quirks and qualities of wood as a material – how it continues to move long after it’s been cut.
I have some of his calipers in my studio now (you can see them to the left of him in the picture).
So you could say that trees have been a theme in family life as I grew up and going back a further generation this was also the case.
My grandparents lived in Worksop Nottinghamshire, close to Sherwood Forest and the Welbeck, Rufford and Clumber estates, otherwise known as ‘The Dukeries’. We spent many a happy Sunday travelling the countryside in their Hillman Imp and the highlight of a trip would be a visit to this monster:
Here’s a picture of us in authentic 1970s garb to give you a sense of scale – I’m quite glad that this old picture is grainy, so you can’t see my haircut!
The Major Oak is the most famous tree in Sherwood and possibly one of the most famous in the UK. When I was a child you could clamber all over it and my sister and I used to hide right inside its belly. These are much more recent photos I took when visiting early this year:
Of course it’s now surrounded by a fence and is extensively supported by large props. It brings to mind a zoo animal, somewhat constrained but conserved and protected at least.
How could you fail to be impressed by this ancient tree?
I don't really know where my inspiration comes from, I just hope it never stops.
My workspace is divided up into zones - this isn't as organised as it sounds, it's just evolved that way over the years, though I may have been unwittingly influenced by kitchen design here. I've also spent many a happy and productive hour in various sheds and workshops and probably developed an appreciation of things being in their place as a result.
- Think space
- Make space
- Materials storage space
- Work in progress space
- Finished work storage space
- Admin and reference space
The space I would love to have but can't fit in would be a 'sit in a comfy chair and relax' space - I have to go down to the 3rd floor of Art's Complex for that, but that's too far away from my drawing board!
My drawing board could be considered a family heirloom now, having been made by my dad as a 16th birthday present. It's on its second mdf top and the metal frame has had a few coats of paint. The chair was a Barnardo's bargain. You'll see my mind-map on the wall where I've collected some of the images and ideas that guide my work - I'll write more on this in a future post as I'm a big fan of mind-maps, if you're curious have a look at Tony Buzan's site.
There's usually a laptop here too and some oatcake crumbs.
This view shows my main workspace, complete with dusty hand towel.
My talented husband made this shelf and fitted it to the hopelessly soft plasterboard walls - this enables me to have three boards alongside each other, plus I have my giant plywood board for large drawings which I can slide along the floor. I use foam pipe lagging to cushion the top edge of the boards.
Materials storage space
Most of my drawing materials are stored in these metal drawers which help to keep the charcoal dust off.
They are stuffed full of things which I use all the time, things which I thought would be useful one day, but turned out not to be, and things which I couldn't help but buy when in the art shop but didn't really need at all - I can easily walk past a shoe shop but am powerless to resist the pull of an art store. I buy a lot online these days mainly from Great Art and Jacksons Art.
A peek inside artist's studios facebook page has all the studio pictures you could possibly wish for. It's really interesting to see the variety of workspaces artists carve out for themselves and how different they all are, a bit like different species of birds building their own individual style of nest. I love my nest.
My studio isn't particularly tidy but I do like my space to be organised - I think it's the 3D designer in me still trying to make things functional and pleasing too. So here's a peek at my storage solutions...
I can honestly say I have never fallen asleep in my studio, not even a little nap (though I know other artists who have!) but I do have a bed there. 'Upcycling' is such a happy word - this is what I did with an unwanted ex-bunkbed that was hanging about the loft. It was one of the first things built for my studio and had to be carried in pieces up eight floors by some handy helpers as the lifts didn't work then. The 12mm ply on top gives me a big sturdy worksurface and there's loads of storage space for things that need to be kept flat. The under the bed space is great for bunging the awkward stuff that won't go anywhere else.
Work in progress
Super strong magnets + adhesive ferrous strip = storage solution number two.
This is where I put things for review and rumination, it's where ideas and sketches gradually evolve into finished works.
These Neodymium magnets are amazing and a little big dangerous too - they actually come with a warning leaflet. No small children or pacemakers and under no circumstances put them in your mouth! Unless you enjoy A&E of course. The best thing about them is that they don't mark the paper at all and one little magnet can hold a surprising weight of paper.
I like to work on a large scale and the charcoal drawings I make are quite fragile until framed so I have a system of wires running along the studio wall where I can hang work safely when finished.
They're from Ikea again and intended for curtains I think, find them here.
These are the clips supplied with the wires which are perfect for hanging works on paper. I also use them to attach weights to the bottom edge of paper if it's still curled.
Built around the doorway is shelving designed to accomodate my framed work, made from Ikea's Gorm range and some odds and ends of timber, hardboard, brackets and the like to make it stable. I planned this carefully to make it fit the sizes of frame I usually have and to make best use of my space. It looks a bit empty just now as I have work out in other places, but it will hold quite a lot and keeps it safe.
See my next post on 'An artist's workspace' for more designer ideas!
There's just a month to go before my next exhibition, a joint one with three other artists who share my fascination with natural form. It's at Art's Complex and opens with a preview on Friday 12th July, then runs for just over a week. The gallery is open to the public between 10am and 6pm.
Find out more at the exhibition blog»
Unusually, this is the only tree I photographed, though not really a tree at all.
The weirdest flowers I've ever encountered - an orchid with a vine-like habit but I didn't note the name.
I can't take credit for these photos - most are my daughter's! I think she has a good eye already.
I've come to realise that creativity for me is a never ending process of filling myself up to the point where it overflows - if I don't keep filling up with new stuff, the flow slows to a trickle and eventually stops. So I've learned to make time to seek out new things to inspire me, to devote energy into research as well as production.
A bit like this, though now I've drawn it I think perhaps there should be a hole in the side of the bucket for the 'work' to flow from, rather than it coming over the top...
The Creative Bucket (patent pending Tansy Lee Moir)
So I've been out and about, minus walking boots this time, a bit more smartly dressed for visiting galleries and all that.
I met up with a friend and first of all we visited the Peploe exhibition at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery, properly known as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two. It was quite busy and I was not able to take any pictures of course, so you'll have to take my word for it that the paintings were masterful, striking, elegant and colourful. I loved the way the show documented the development of his work - moving through the rooms I was struck by how different the phases of his paintings were.
Across the road at the Gallery of Modern Art One, we saw 'From death to death and other small tales', a show of contemporary works which were in turns mysterious, thought provoking, puzzling, hilarious, irritating and wonderful - Ernesto Neto's work falls into the last category, with his sculpture evoking the internal structures of the body, 'It happens when the body is anatomy of time', 2000. I sneaked a photo of this one though it sadly fails to capture the fragrance of all those spices at the base of each tube-like form.
The following beautiful sunny day, eager for more, I headed over to the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh with the family.
I love the John Hope building, with its confident, innovative, sustainable design and its welcoming, comfortable spaces. It's big and busy but it makes me feel at home straight away - I'm not sure what the architectural term would be but it seems to guide you round all its interesting nooks and crannies without ever making you feel like you're lost.
'Jalan Jati (Teak Road)' is showing in the main exhibition space downstairs and I loved the idea behind this project. It's an exploration of the journey of a single piece of furniture - a teak bed found in Singapore, and traces it back to where the original tree may have grown. This is a wonderful partnership between scientists and artists with some gorgeous large scale collages made from direct prints from the bed itself.
Upstairs, through the restaurant (where we may or may not have indulged in afternoon tea) is 'Leafing through Scotland', described as "A celebration of the Year of Natural Scotland with a selection of books and objects from publishers across the country." In the display cases my daughters spotted both books and whisky which we have in our house too!
Finally, though it made no sense at all on the hottest day of the year so far, we toured the famous glasshouses... I don't need to say anything more other than see these for yourself (with a few photos in my next post to persuade you) - fantastic!
Inspiration comes from many sources and in many forms - these three have influenced the way I see and think about art and how we relate to our environment...
‘Beechcombings’ by Richard Mabey
This is a beautifully written exploration of the author’s and society’s relationship to trees, the beech in particular. Every time I read it (I’m on my fifth time) I’m struck by a new idea, a fascinating fact or a thought provoking quote. It covers our relationship to trees through a variety of historical periods, touching on politics, ecology, aesthetics, art and literature, and includes some honest little snippets of self reflection too. There are lots of scribbles in my copy which I’ve developed into ideas and themes in my sketchbook and have filtered into all my work.
Here’s my favourite quote, which I’ve used in my show ‘Damaged woods’:
“which bits of our aesthetic, or emotional, consciousness do rot-holes and calluses touch?”
You can find the book here.
‘Cave of forgotten dreams’ directed by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s hypnotic film about the cave art discovered in Chauvet, France, some of it found to be over 30,000 years old! Yes that’s the right amount of zeros! Mindblowing. The paintings on the cave walls are so vibrant, directly conveying the movement and nature of the individual animals, yet we know virtually nothing about the people who painted them, nor their reasons for doing so. The simplicity and incredible skill of the images are a great reminder to me that I have so much to learn.
Herzog’s film explores the scientists and researchers studying the cave as well as the actual cave paintings themselves. The restrictions imposed on the filming seem to enhance the other-worldliness of the cave and its contents, and his deadpan commentary contrasts wonderfully with the weirdly comical characters he interviews. It’s on DVD, but see it in the cinema if you can – there’s a 3D version which I wasn’t able to view in the little arthouse cinema I went to.
‘Wildwood’ by Roger Deakin
I think of this as a ‘core text’ for the development of my artwork. In the book, Deakin muses on woods and trees in the UK, Australia, Kirgizstan and Poland, recounting his travels and meetings with many others who shared his passion. He had such a rich, intimate relationship to the natural environment and creatures surrounding him, and a beautiful way of putting this across in his writing. It’s deeply poetic, personal, knowledgeable and subversive. There’s also a melancholy to it, perhaps because you read it knowing that he died before it was published. One day I’d like to escape for a while to a wee shepherd’s hut like his (see Caught by the river blog), with some sketchbooks, maybe some whisky and my tatty copy of his last book.