In the first of a series of interviews exploring PhD students’ creative projects, John Edwards visited Lydia Halcrow at her studio at 44AD in Bath to discuss her influences, techniques and approach to her art practice and her research.
My thesis title is ‘Mark making, layers and erasure: an investigation into abandoned places through contemporary painting’
My main question is how do I capture and convey a sense of place in a painting.
I don’t necessarily see my work as landscape painting. I’m somewhere in the midpoint of a Venn diagram between landscape and mapping, with an element of human geography as well, emotional geography.
I’m studying a group of contemporary artists who are making place-based work
I’m looking at their techniques and how effective they are at conveying a sense of place. Then in my own work experimenting with those techniques to find out what works and what doesn’t, then go back into the written component.
One is Julie Mehretu, who made a series of work called Grey Area, which is based on her time spent in Berlin. She does very fine architectural drawings of buildings that were never built, showing a possible future for the city that never happened.
Another is John Virtue, who did a series of paintings on the Exe estuary. He used to do the same walk each week at the same time, making a huge number of drawings, taking them back to the studio and layering them.
I’m also interested in Ingrid Calame. She traces spills and marks that people leave behind in a place, like graffiti and other things.
These artists often use thin, transparent ‘ghost’ layers for their drawings. Each layer is buried back with gesso (the white primer you put on a canvas) so things are being buried and excavated, mirroring natural processes. In my recent paintings the base layer is a ground rubbing and then over that I layer many, many drawings and snapshots of views. In traditional landscape art you see a horizontal landscape view, but a huge part of being in a place is the texture of the ground and seeing aerial imagery before you even arrive at a place.
I’m particularly interested in places that are abandoned or are going through the process of being abandoned
Instow (in north Devon) is on an estuary that’s silting up and there are all these remnants of abandoned industries, like an old closed-down power station, huge jetties that go out to nowhere and huge container ships further up the estuary, just abandoned and rusting away into the sand.
My grandma lives there and she’s a hundred this year, so I feel like the walks I’m doing there are revisiting places I used to go to a lot as a child and recording the place before it changes for me because it’s clear she won’t be there for much longer. Also she’s got dementia, so the stories she tells about that place have gone back in time and become quite unreliable, but almost more interesting. I heard recently that there used to be a chapel on the other side of the estuary that’s now buried in the sand. I could find no conclusive evidence, but there might be. So in my work it’s how can you capture some of that wealth of experience within a painting.
I’m also particularly interested in Porlock Bay (on the edge of Exmoor, in Somerset) because it’s one of the first places in Britain that’s been abandoned to the sea. I’ve gone back after five years and it’s already changed quite rapidly. The sea defences have been breached so farmland is now becoming a salt marsh and the trees have all died. It’s got this kind of apocalyptic feel.
I’m trying to get this sense of multiple viewpoints, experiences and histories
If you walk in a place and then go away and research its history and geology, the next time you go back it feels very different. It’s reframed by new knowledge, as though you’ve excavated to a deeper level. You can walk the same place every day for a week, every week for the rest of your life and each walk would be different, not just because of the seasons and the weather, but because you’d always be taking a different experience with you.
When I’m in a place I’m looking for visual cues that are very specific
So if you put them in a painting they become symbolic of that place.
In Imber (an abandoned village on Salisbury plain) everywhere there are these triangular signs saying ‘Danger: unexploded debris’, so they became part of the work. All the buildings are numbered for military exercises and in the church there’s this amazing mural which has numbers of the bell ringing formation. So Imber is a very numbered place, and the numbers became quite significant in the work, which formed part of paintings made in the early stages of my PhD.
I also want to use my body to record my sense of being in a place
I’m using GPS to track my walks and the patterns I make are overlaid on my paintings. I’m also playing around with aluminium plates on my walking boots which become an etching I can then use to print from. When I walk the ground is grinding and scratching into the aluminium, so there’s an element of chance. I’m less able to control what it looks like and how it develops.
There’s a fetish about maps
I used to make large scale canvases, but I became frustrated because I couldn’t take the canvas on the walk with me, so there was this disconnect between spending time there, collecting things and making drawings and tracings, then bringing them back to the studio and making work about it. I wanted to find a way of making work while I was walking so the obvious thing was to work on the Ordnance Survey map I was using to navigate. I make small drawings on different panels of the map, showing multiple viewpoints, to give this sense that there is no single experience of one place, but many different elements at one time. Maps are fragile – if I keep pushing them they get to the point where they can’t take any more.
I think Richard Long said, getting out a map is like unlocking an adventure you’re going to have, planning and poring over it. There’s something about getting out an old map that’s been on walks – it’s got holes and tears, a sense of the record of the weather on that walk, it might’ve been rained on, often the bit you walk a lot has been rubbed away completely.
Being with other artists allows you to open up to other ways of working
Another part of my research is walking with two other artists in Porlock Bay, a printmaker and someone who makes sculpture/installations, so we each notice completely different things. One makes a lot of work about the night sky and the other makes work about found objects during walks. We all walk together and share the experience and each make our own response. Then we bring our work back into a dialogue.
What creative practice brings is the chance to make random connections and chance happenstance
You need to follow those because if you don’t you can come out of the PhD having broken the intuition which is the very thing that enables you to make work, which is quite fragile. It doesn’t have to be a linear route. I’m using a walk as a way to get under the skin of a place, but the route isn’t always planned so there’s still an open aspect to it. There are so many approaches you can take and philosophies you might learn from and you have to account for your choices. My supervisor, Robin Marriner, talks about leaving a breadcrumb trail behind you to show how you got from here to here to here.
Studying part-time has some good things going for it. You can do more, and take a while to find your feet. It doesn’t always have to go at the same pace. You can feel your way into it.
Lydia’s upcoming events
Arts in The Alps Doctoral Spring School, practice based research into ‘Gestures of here & there: la fabric sensible des lieux’ Site specific response to disused industrial site in Grenoble. June 2017
‘Embodied Cartographies’, Fringe Arts Bath, Walcot Chapel Gallery, Walcot Street, Bath, 26th May – 11th June 2017
‘Foundlings’, Fringe Arts Bath, 8 New Bond Street, Bath, 26th May – 11th June 2017
‘Library of Pilgrimages’, Space Place Practice, Trowbridge Arts Centre, 6th September – 4th November 2017
‘A Sense of Place’, National Brain Appeal, The Oxo Gallery, London, 29th September – Oct 1st 2017
‘The Porlock Project: A managed Retreat’, Pound Arts, Corsham, March – April 2018.