I spent the first week in May on a residency at The Old Lock Up Gallery in my native Derbyshire. I moved to Scotland almost 30 years ago but still feel a pull to the trees and rocks of my childhood landscapes. It was good to be back.
Oak trees in charcoal
Before I travelled to Cromford, I gave myself a particular focus for the work and some practical constraints. I’ve learned that I’m most productive and creative when I have some limitations on the decisions I need to make.
I decided to use only charcoal and conté on paper and work from the sketches and photo references I made on an earlier trip to the Chatsworth oaks. I also wanted to allow the space and history of the building and surrounding village guide my approach, in the hope that something novel might emerge. I was looking forward to connecting with some of the people who’ve supported me over the years and to share the new work with them too.
Settling into the space
On the evening I arrived I got stuck in to arranging things ready to work in the morning. I like arranging spaces – many years working in community projects has taught me that the way a room is set up can have a profound outcome on the mood and activity of the people using it, so I set up my temporary studio space with areas for different activities. A focused desk drawing zone, a roomy wall drawing space, a table for preparing materials, eating lunch and meeting people, plus the luxury of two comfy contemplating chairs. One by the fire for reading or just staring at flames.
The creative work
On the advice of fellow charcoal artist Kate Boucher I’d brought along a half finished concertina sketchbook so I had a thread connecting me to past work. I continued it working from video of the same tree – it quickly linked me back to that meeting, the weather, the mood and I’d definitely do that again.
I then began exploring the characters of the individual trees I’d found at Chatsworth, making a whole series of drawings and discovering just how much variation there is in ancient trees of the same species. All oaks are not the same, they are hugely influenced by the climate and conditions and by their changing environment over time.
Being in this quiet contemplative space, I found it much easier to tune in to the internal nudges towards making. I would normally draw with my paper attached to a flat drawing board but I decided to make a triptych (three views of one tree) on paper taped directly to the rough stone walls, to see how this changed my marks. I added more unpredictability by using a newly made hogweed drawing tool, resulting in loose, slightly shaky lines.
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I worked on a couple of larger experimental pieces at the same time, but quickly realised that they were pulling me into a familiar way of working, so I left one and tried crumpling the other to give me a textured surface to try.
I also made 20 studies from one tree in particular which I thought had very watery qualities. Fascinatingly complex, I realised I needed many, many studies to really get to know it. Seeing them all displayed on the chimney breast, it was easy to spot the ones which might warrant further work.
Reflections on the residency
I was surprisingly productive, not something I’d set out to be but it felt easy and energising to work there. The amount of empty wall I could fill was perhaps a factor, so maybe I can take this into my own studio and clear some of the wall clutter to make room for new.
I had a little open house afternoon on the Saturday and invited some friends, family, collectors and online pals to come and see what I’d been doing. It was lovely to meet people in real life, to talk about my work and their own tree connections. Fresh eyes on your work are always enlightening and a bit of socialising was welcome after all those studio hours.
Seeing all the work at once was fantastic – it’s so instructive to be able to view all the strands at once, to see the connections and relationships between them. It’s difficult to do in a small studio space and only partly possible in a solo exhibition, so being able to contemplate works at various stages of finish was very useful. We can all wish for bigger studios but the next best thing might be temporary spaces such as residencies. If this was the only thing I did all week it would still have been well worth it.
Gallerist Rachael Pinks was an excellent host and supportive friend during my week there – a big thanks to her for the opportunity to work in her gallery space. I hope I can return one day for another amazing creative retreat.
View the full series of Chatsworth Characters here.