The sea links my current home to my birthplace of Belfast, and my journeys in the final stages of clearing my father’s house have been via the ferry from Birkenhead. It’s been increasingly strange and sad living two lives, knowing that one of them would shortly be ending.
I booked a cabin for each of the eight recent trips and recorded the colours and shapes of the sea and sky during the sailings. At sea, you are between worlds floating along on reflections and tricks of light, which change with the wind and weather. It becomes its own place, a space where identity and history don’t matter and there are no landmarks to pin the experience to a named location. And so it becomes my place only, for that brief time.
I’ve added a selection of the sea sketches to the Northern Ireland Diary page along with other watercolours connected to land, including the ones above. Three are from early August facing east from Sydenham by Belfast City airport. The sky towards Cultra was peachy; and the fourth painting is lightly titled ‘waiting for my washing to finish in the Park Centre’.
I’m back from my final trip to clear the house with a car full of things of dad’s that are useful — a drill, cleaning paraphernalia, socks, first aid, stamps, batteries and a folding table from the 1950s as well as my own accumulated clothing and toiletries left there to save on packing. Lots of bedding cushioned breakables in transit and everything smelled of kerosene. For a long time I’ve dreaded that last closing of the door, the key placed in the key lock box for the new owner and the drive out of the street. But things are not always as expected and that last morning I woke up to a sense of my father being excited about coming to New Brighton with me. Which sort of makes sense as there’s nothing left to keep him in Belfast. So we had a bit of a sing song in the queue for the ferry, a pleasant sail and a warm homecoming.
Artist-run ‘The Lake Gallery’ opened last month in West Kirby, providing much welcomed space for contemporary artists and makers to show new work. The gallery has been smartly renovated to showcase exhibitions in a clean, uncluttered environment extending back into the building from a modest frontage. I’m honoured to have been invited to show in the second exhibition organised by the gallery’s team (glass artist Helen Smith, photographer-artist Marianthi Lainas and painter-printmaker Clare Flinn).
be | longing: three artists explore landscape and reconnection through photography, oil paint and watercolour. We had a discussion about our roots – two of us are from Northern Ireland and one from Wales so we reflected how this displacement from our countries of birth has influenced our artwork. Here is my artist statement for the show:
I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland but moved to study Fine Art at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1977 and later made Wirral my home. Since 2011 I’ve painted almost exclusively in watercolour, enjoying its natural texture and elemental processes. The coast, from saltmarsh to sandy, tidal plains, is a constant subject and link to my birthplace — the call of ‘home’ remains strong. I favour atmosphere and emotion over subject and detail, being moved by light and subtle colour, and undefined points of interest in the distance which I realise is an echo of that need for connection, of reclaiming my roots, language and familiar ways. Recently I’ve been painting a new series based on extended visits to care for my late father, though the main body of work on show focuses on the north and west Wirral coastline.
My New Brighton studio is open by appointment for viewings and watercolour lessons.
I’m back in Belfast sorting out my father’s house, which has now been sold. Looking through my photos, I realise the diary goes back a couple of years to when he first began having hospital admissions, and not just since his death in February.
I suppose a death, for a time after, seems like a junction at which things both end and begin, and in this case the beginning of a series painted on road trips across the province as a panacea for grief. But with hindsight the shock of the moment creates this sense of a break from the past.
I got used to flying from Liverpool to Belfast to look after dad for periods since 2018 but especially the past two years. It was hard to resist photographing the aerial views and this has become an ongoing theme that I’m still developing. Above are examples added to the diary page in the Gallery section.
Having left Belfast in 1977, I found myself forced to reevaluate my feelings about a place I’d felt unhappy in due to troubles both personal and political.
Perhaps I’ll write more about this in due course, but for now I’m back on the road with the gift of dad’s car, experiencing my country of birth at ground level.
Feeling very excited about this book test print, the seed of an idea at the moment. I have lots of work under various themes in sketch books which I thought would be interesting to put together, and several print options to explore.
Themes include: Burton Marshes, Northern Ireland Diary and a ‘warts-and-all’ sketch book with notes.
Let me know in the comments if it’s something you’d be interested in.
On 15th February I held my father for the last time in a Belfast hospital. For weeks afterwards, I lived in his home while arranging the funeral and sale of the house.
Between tasks, and to help manage the emotional fallout, I set out on journeys along the coast to swim alone and revisit places from childhood. I love the geology there — mountains, headlands, rocky coves, loughs, islands and green hills.
Before February, and the fall that led to dad’s passing at age 96, I spent periods of time in Belfast over the past two years, caring for him during bouts of illness. I’d bought art materials to keep there but it was only in the aftermath of his death that I began to paint regularly. It became a solid foundation in the midst of change and loss, a reminder of who I’d grown into whilst being surrounded by so much of the long ago past.
3 April: Co Antrim, starting at Ballygally for a swim then north to Glenarm before the homeward stretch through the achingly beautiful Antrim Glens. I could have stopped dozens of times to look at field patterns, colours and the scale and grandeur of the landscape. Antrim has a different geology to Down, though both are food for the soul. My dad was a commercial traveller for Jacob’s Biscuits (as well as being a jazz pianist) when I was a child. It meant he was away much of the time — this was before the motorways were developed — but also meant I got to hear lists of place names, look at maps and watch him sorting out his order forms into stacks by county. I helped him service the car and could drive once I was out of nappies. Of all the books in the house, the old atlas, pages falling out, is the one I most want to keep.
There is little contrast in the sky at this time of year. Clouds are often heavy with vapour, reflecting cool and warm tones depending on how they layer, or thin and let some sunshine through. Rarely the sunshine reaches us but nevertheless I find the skies’ soft pastels fascinating in November through to February. I like the challenge of remembering and creating the feeling those skies give me, of gradually, peacefully settling into the darker time of year.
There are technical issues to manage – allowing the colours to blend evenly means that the paper has to remain equally damp, but not too wet. It has to dry evenly too so preparation is essential and also I have to say somewhat satisfying. Brushwork is vigorous and the balance of pigment to water carefully judged. Too much water and the result will be patchy; too little pigment and will lose depth and tonal range.
The title came from sitting with the finished piece and reflecting on the elements in it. Often I try to express something of the deeper stories that emerge by describing the elements in relation to one another. But on this occasion, one word came to me: settlement. Settlement describes the sense of winding down, of compacting and layering like a soft blanket, but also the suggestion of humans inhabiting the landscape, of making a home there. In this space they are actively engaging in their surroundings, altering them and perhaps, one hopes, respecting the place they’ve come to inhabit. It raises the question as to how we settle on our land and what our responsibility is towards the existing, other living organisms with whom we share our space.
In this painting there’s the suggestion of the settlements along the North Wales coast on Deeside from Flint to where the coast turns sharply west at the Point of Ayr and vanishes from our sight here in Burton Marshes, Wirral. It’s not clear what they are, but in daylight there are many — industrial, farmland, open common, residential and protected natural areas. The scene reminds me of returning at dusk to my starting point after a long walk in the hills, gradually descending to meet the brightening lights of the settlement where I’ve begun. There’s nostalgia in remembering, and yet questions in the present.
If you missed us in September’s Wirral Open Studio Tour, Marcus Leon Drummond and I are opening again on Saturday 20 November 10am-4pm and look forward to seeing you. As Yule approaches, I’ll be offering plenty of watercolours at studio clearance prices and Marcus will have his finely made furniture and smaller wood items for sale too. Accessible entrance available, washroom and kitchen bar providing drinks hot and cold.
Wirral Festival of Firsts 2018 includes a theme of Open Spaces – there are over 240 across the peninsula! On Sunday 13th May I’m leading a Poetry Picnic at Royden Park, which will include walking and writing using aspects of mapmaking for inspiration. Book via this link. Continue reading →