Biographical details, notes, observations & working practices.
At the very core of my art endeavours, irrespective of the location of their practice, is a natal relationship with a coastal area in West Wales. It is located between the Dyfi estuary in the north and through the village of Borth southwards to the Clarach estuary in Cardigan Bay. This encompasses the hinterland made up of fenland, farmland and wooded high ground, including the Leri stream. It is approximately 20 square miles that has been established folklorically and historically as a region, or Bro in Welsh, for at least 15 centuries.
Formative years spent in this ancient fishing village nurtured the development of a strong bond with the seminal site. This included its land and marine fauna and also the people with their myths and legends. Historically Borth's sustenance was for centuries provided by the sea's piscatorial bounty. This atavistic dependence permeated its way into my consciousness and was made manifest in my later artworks which embraced and promoted these older truths concerning humankinds’ relationship with the natural world. One of my recurring themes, the drawn fish on a plate, literally is just that, referring to nature supplying food for human survival for eons. This is one of the most potent aspects absorbed during my childhood.
As a Welsh speaking indigenous person in this setting, I constantly interacted with the natural world as I traversed the ground in a hunter/fisher/gatherer role. This cemented a relationship with the home region that included an acceptance of its seasonal patterns and the limitations of its natural bounty, forging a duty of care toward the habitat and wildlife so as to maintain ecological balance and fecundity. All this was underpinned by a deep love of place, “brogarwch” in Welsh. The feel of a place and the memories it evokes, are important. In my mind’s eye, when a region’s people and creatures are seemingly in their rightful habitat, it is inspiring and makes it more powerful and significant. These environmental sensibilities, already in place at the natal cultural anchorage, leavened later art outcomes.
In my case the primacy of homeplace was self-constructed through the directives of my cultural makeup, which placed fruitful value on the relationship between the natural world and culture, broadened by ecological principals. A lesson learnt is that art can be used in part as a remedial restorative antidote combating environmental malpractices, affecting places and their inhabitants. The Welsh site, being the most ingrained and understood, therefore the more pervasive, created a sure and ideal template that would be reconfigured to accommodate new geographic, cultural and experiential frameworks.
By 1980 I had translocated these paradigms and my modus operandii to Australia, where their implementation was aided by a kind of osmosis with the new location. In the Antipodes, abstractions of marine imagery from the Welsh site and their Australian counterparts melded to form a personal vision of the new littoral. My area-specific art can be translocated to any similar locale. I have achieved this at coastal areas of Australia, also in North America and the U.K. where I have undertaken workshops, long term residencies and commissions. I am intrigued by the notion of researching and producing a body of work from an inland base to test the adaptability of my work practices, which hitherto have been coastal bound.
The benefits of residencies are that they allow me to research and produce different types of work. A series of large once fired pots, up to 5 feet tall, were the outcome of a Tasmanian residency. Wood fired ceramics resulted from sojourns at Sitka and Astoria in the U.S.A.; and another at Owen Rye’s Gippsland anagama in Victoria. Further residencies at U.T.A.S. Tasmania produced figurative works.
At various locations, whilst exploring the terrain, there is a continuous filmic process occurring where the snapshot stored images, mentally recorded during traverses, can later be developed into art. This mimics earlier hunting forays which are now undertaken to access an art bounty. Here I also elicit peoples’ stories that are connected to place. The marine denizens are unceasingly fascinating, and I constantly draw their myriad forms. Thus, I develop art scenarios which employ a cast of characters drawn from local people and marine life.
When I encountered the writings of Thomas Berry and Kirkpatrick Sale, I realised that my involvement with “place” was a prime tenet of Bioregional Philosophy. Fundamental to this philosophy is the development of a strong association with the genius loci through a total immersion and acceptance of an appropriate ecological balance. Art from such a base is a way of consolidating and expressing one’s relationship with a specific region. This mutually complimentary interaction provides a continuum of descriptive knowledge that underpins art interpretations that are area specific as they are created from the glue bonding one to place. Quintessentially I create artefacts reflecting the locations that I draw inspiration from.
The message is consistently about celebrating and reminding one of natures’ fecundity. I extol the environmental positive as opposed to protesting the environmentally destructive. Swirling marine life forms crowd the ceramic surfaces of large containers or appear in figural works, affirming the appropriateness of man and nature interacting harmoniously, as the centuries long history and tradition of my native home verify. My optimism focuses on how it should and can still be. This also encompasses the affinity and empathy I have with minority and marginalised native peoples worldwide. The as yet unresolved reconciliation with the Aboriginals is a matter of concern and was one of the pillars of my PhD. thesis.
My ceramics, whether functional, decorative, figural or architectonic, are vehicles to expand these themes. From the beginning, I have not perceived ceramics to be manacled to utilitarianism; nor do I conceive clay as being a material to be solely confined culturally to the crafts. I oscillate from pot making to sculpture seamlessly as I approach both from the same viewpoint; that of being vehicles for ideas. I work on varying scales according to whim or the dictates of process. This also applies when working with other materials such as wood, plaster or papier mâché.
Drawing is an important and enjoyable ingredient in all the work as well as qualities of form. I occasionally make woodblock and lino prints to maintain drawing and compositional skills. During the art making procedures I reacquaint myself, via zoomorphic imagery, with a familiar, meaningful reality whilst recapturing a magical kingdom enjoyed since childhood. I interpret the visual messages in a joyful making ceremony where past and present ideas forgather from hidden and known sources to charge with emotion a set of beloved themes.
Into this mix is added a personal sense of guardianship of the specific environment I am working in which is part of bioregional philosophy and “brogarwch”. This is strengthened in the art context by the notion of Custodial Aesthetics expounded by Welsh painter Iwan Bala. He discerns custodial sensibilities in contemporary Welsh art as having a need to salvage a degree of authenticity to preserve a sense of identity which will remain intact and undisguised…in his case having specificity to Wales. He was originally influenced by the custodial concept adumbrated by Australian Aboriginal artist Fiona Foley, when she spoke of her artwork carrying with it the responsibility of custodianship as it sprang from her peoples’ long art tradition.
Phenomenology has come into play as childhood recollections, overlaid by subsequent memories, have amalgamated self and place. Progressively, over time, the accretions of memory have become embellished, resulting in personal myth making. One of phenomenology’s proponents, philosopher Gaston Bachelard, is of interest as he moved from the world of science and reason to that of the imagination and poetry. He has given voice to my personal feelings about the past containing a power and beauty because it is of childhood and the imagination. In my youth the visual arts were limited to biblical prints, a panoply of Methodist “hero” portraits and natural history illustrations by the likes of Thorburn and Lydon showcasing some of the creatures from the locality. Memorably in the front room of one particular house was a series of Birds of Paradise images.
The highlights for me were childhood visits to homes full of brass nautical instruments, ships in bottles, scrimshaw and exotic bric-a-brac from faraway places. Here one listened to stories of fabled fish catches, triumphs and tragedies, shipwrecks and lost lives, presided over by sailing ship paintings and photographs of the family's mariners; past and present. The human condition was made manifest in those long-ago spaces, which indelibly affected my adult aesthetic sensibilities. These factors are still fertile as they illuminate the present and fire future creativity. The “shape shifted” world of my art imaginings that I “will” into existence, is, as artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins says of his painted scenarios, “more real than the corporeal one". This fictive romanticised and optimistic element I also construe as Pastoral…in my case Coastal Pastoral.
Personal intuitions have been encouraged and expanded by absorbing the theories and ideas of many commentators such as Ellen Dissanyaki, Suzi Gablik, Anna Voigt, Jacques Barzun, Herbert Benoit and Jay Appleton. In particular I respond to Dissenyaki’s haunting arguments that expand the raison d’etre of art beyond elitist notions, when she argues that arts existence owes more to bio-behavioral practices to do with love and connectedness, than any cultural imposts.
Many artists, with a similar attachment to place have been influential…the consistent underlying themes of Scottish painter John Bellany’s oeuvre from his formative years in Port Seton, also too, the paintings springing from Joan Eardley’s association with the Scottish fishing village Cattaline. In Wales, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has painted a series of evocative coastal images, centred at Aberporth; whilst James Campbell’s affinity with the Pembrokeshire coast near Manorbir provides the subject matter of both his ceramics and paintings. In Australia, painter Arthur Boyd’s deep engagement with the Antipodean landscape fired his work. Sculptor John Davies had a deep connection with the Australian bush, manifesting in intriguing structures made from found materials. Vincent McGrath, who in my estimation has created the most painterly ceramics in Australia, has in his works revisited significant historical events in the Northern Territory, redundant mining sites in Tasmania and the terrain around Broken Hill. American Frank Boyden’s zoomorphic ceramic renditions illuminate his love of his Oregon home.
I believe that pro-environmental perspectives in the visual arts are increasingly needed to help break the inertia of current self-imposed eco cultural malaise. There has been a certain hostility to the natural world, especially to its nurturing aspect. This has all been exacerbated by the hyper inventive and pervasive promotion of increasingly frivolous and inappropriate technologies. Perhaps we must forgo the constraints of centralist narratives of identity, which concoct chimeras of heterogeneity.
I completed an M.A. in 1996 and a PhD. in 2002. I have also had published two maritime histories I wrote of my natal village Borth, in Wales, and recently constructed a Borth maritime website, www.borthmaritimehistory.com . My modus operandi in the art creating process is outlined in my PhD. thesis which took the form of a mythopoetic narrative that encompassed bioregionalism, area specific art, custodial aesthetics, phenomenology and the pastoral. I intend my work to be viewed as celebratory and panaceaic, and as visual conclusions that amalgamate the terrain, fauna and people. Perhaps some consider this esoteric, archaic or even the Luddite outlook of a neo primitive…so be it. I wish to express a belief originally espoused by Roger Caldwell, that in this age of science and technology, it is imperative to tell stories about what it is to be human. My creations attempt to do that.