A whistle-stop tour of artists at work

Paint a piece of the sky
Translucent temporary sculpture
The Tempest Lord and The Fish King
The Old Brickworks, West Runton
Offering to the good swell

On Tuesday 26 October and Wednesday 27 October Patrick Yarker drove out to the coast to visit several of the artists involved in the Festival who have connections with the ‘Culture of the Countryside’ Project.


Tuesday was wild, wet, windy and overcast.  At the West Runton Beach Shelter artists Doo Gurney and Alison Atkins were inspiring visitors to paint a piece of the sky.  They had decked the Shelter with bunting made from the results, so that small squares of cloth coloured in blues and greys snapped and flapped in the gale.  I became the seventy-first person in the two days of this endeavour to be given a certificate of guardianship for that patch of sky I had painted.  Despite the rain and strong wind, Ali and Doo were in high spirits, their enthusiasm and commitment ensuring that all participants had a good time.  I spoke with several members of a family at the Shelter.  They had come to find the activity after reading about it in the Festival leaflet.  Painting in the open here was really cool.  One of the younger children had learned how to paint with a piece of sponge rather than the more traditional brush, a technique I tried myself.  One of the adults said that the artists had been absolutely brilliant.  The Shelter was a special place.  It was well-chosen as a site for this activity, being atmospheric.  The fantastically-enthusiastic ladies had helped motivate the young people to get out of the car and engage with the possibilities of painting in the teeth of the weather.


This activity is not only aimed at young people.  The artists had prompted adults to paint as well.  Many of these had said they had not painted since their school-days.  Ali and Doo offered a variety of different ways in, asking them what they could see of the sky, encouraging an experimental approach and trying to get participants to think beyond the paint-pot.  As well as a wide variety of traditional paintbrushes, there were sponges and toothbrushes to use.  It has helped that the subject, namely the big Norfolk sky, has been directly on hand, unremoved.  Participants are able to focus on how to render their patch of sky in paint.  They are encouraged to look more closely than usual at the colours in the patch of sky the frame they are given encloses, and at the way clouds are given volume and shape.  Some find a freedom in taking part this way.



Wednesday was an altogether calmer day.  I walked along Sheringham’s promenade in search of artist Gaia Shaw’s beach-hut, passing ‘Hello’ written in rocks on the sand, and a cormorant with outstretched wings resting on top of one of the tall metal masts marking the end of a breakwater.  I failed to find Gaia at this time, but spoke with the artist later.  She told me that the activity had been amazingly fertile.  People were unexpectedly enthusiastic to talk about the weather.  As well as facilitating people’s weather memories, Gaia has been working with light to see how in the changing weather-conditions it might imprint textiles with marks.  She was exploring the possibility of a further beach-hut residency, since being by the sea seemed to encourage artistic practice.  Perhaps this was because of the setting’s light and space.  Perhaps too such a setting helped evoke something primal: ultraviolet light and sea-water being important for early organic processes.  Gaia found the setting very conducive to her own attempts to escape from the image, and to use natural cause-and-effect as key elements in her own art.


A brisk walk along Cromer’s Prom took me to professional photographer Gavin Mount’s pinhole-camera workshop.  Hut 54 also doubled as a ‘weather memories’ museum, and its inner walls were covered with writings and drawings recording memories of weather back to the bitter winter of 1947, when snow was waist height.  I recorded one story inspired by snow and written by a child called David:


It is a snowy day.  It’s cold.  It’s a cold day.  The pond frozen.  You need to put your gloves on.  I have got my sleigh.  The snow drops are sparkling.  Let’s go   sledging.  “Let’s go sledging!” said the children.  It’s starting to snow.  Let’s build a snowman. Let’s go snow-boarding.


The Perspex cabinet by the door, a postbox for weather memories, contained thin strata of folded papers. 


Gavin told me that today had been hectic.  The beach-hut location had meant that passers-by looked in to see what was going on, and some had stayed to participate.  A number of people had travelled from as far away as the Peterborough area to take part.  Gavin showed everyone how to construct a viable pinhole camera out of a cardboard washing-powder box, a specially-fashioned metal pinhole assembly, and some duct-tape.  Primed with a sheet of photographic paper held in place with Blu-tak, the photographer finds the shot she wants, weights the camera with a stone to hold it steady, and opens the pinhole for perhaps two minutes.  The camera is returned to the specially-constructed darkroom back at the beach-hut, and the shot developed, fixed and washed.  Gavin had blacked out an inner room in the hut and arranged the necessary trays of developing-fluid and fixer on a table beside a red lantern and a chess-clock.  Several very successful negatives were available to view.  According to Gavin it had been a real achievement to get the darkroom set up.


I spoke with a participant who had never done darkroom work before.  He had learned a great deal by taking part in the workshop and had ended the day with at least two prints of which he was justifiably proud.  He said his initial efforts weren’t successful, but he had persevered and improved hour by hour.  He’d enjoyed talking to people and exploring something new.  He would take his new skills away and continue to hone them. 


Gavin himself was really pleased with how the day had turned out.  He had found the Festival leaflet handy for passers-by to read and so understand just what was taking place in the beach-hut, especially during moments when he himself was intent on working with one of the participants.  At other times he’d been able to explain what was going on to visitors directly.  He told me the rationale behind using pinhole cameras for the day: 


It makes you stop, slow down and really observe.  Using the pinhole… goes against the modern trend of snap snap snap.  You have to make [the camera].  You have to load it with paper. You only have one shot and therefore you        have to make it right.  Also, it’s a great conversation-starter. The experience of developing the image, seeing the image emerge, is very special, especially for young people. The whole process is a good discipline.


Gavin also pointed out how this ‘old-fashioned’ practice echoed the work of pioneering nineteenth-century photographers such as John Murray and his niece Olive Ediss, who lived in Sheringham.  That local connection helped make this activity particularly meaningful to people living in the area. 


There had been some drawbacks.  The venue for the activity had been changed more than once, and some of the publicity had contained out-dated or erroneous information. It was felt that publicity and signage had been made public too late, and signage had been inadequate.  This had inconvenienced participants who did not know the local area well.  It was also felt that calling the location the ‘weather museum’ had been problematic since that designation had no currency with taxi-drivers!  However, the people present during my visit were uniformly positive about their experience.


I ended both Tuesday and Wednesday with visits to the Maori artists George Nuku and Rosanna Raymond.  They were constructing a ‘translucent temporary structure’ in and around the Old Brickworks in West Runton, which overlooks the sea.  They had made pictures of three gods, the Tempest-Lord, the Ocean Goddess and the Fish-King, and were beginning to extend the structure by using poles and a long and considered cat’s-cradle arrangement of string.  The structure would be furnished with heads of gods made from abandoned polystyrene containers washed up on the beach. 


George drilled out the top of the container (which smelled faintly of ammonia) to enable it to sport a top-knot of rope, and painted red leaf-shaped eyes and a mouth of teeth.  Mirrors decorated with red and white patterns stood in two corners, and the three gods had been painted on window-sized perspex using these same colours.  The Fish-King had scaly legs, and the Ocean Goddess a curly fish-tale.  Wood, feathers, orange and blue nylon rope, variously-sized crab-shells, a lobster-shell, flint, and conical amber fossils of prehistoric squid had been gathered to use in the construction.  Rosanna chalked a poem in on the grey breeze-block wall, and made a set of coloured streamers to mark the entrance to the site.  Close by, artist and surfer Mark Haywood had made a shrine out of a brick lean-to.  The interior, lit by candles and tea-lights, was surprisingly warm and quiet.  It held small cairns of stones and shells, and driftwood which cast shadows on the walls.  Over the low lintel had been chalked: “offerings to the good swell”. 


I spoke with some visitors.  It’s lovely to see people creating stuff, I was told, given all the doom and gloom [in the news], and breathing life into old bricks.  Certainly on the wild and windy Tuesday it would have been easy to regard the site as only desolate and devoid of interest, had the artists not been active.  Wednesday’s calmer day saw crows and gulls planing over the long ridge, and the occasional reminder (in the form of two dogged tractors ploughing) that the land around was a working farm.


This is fabulous, someone told me.  I saw the [Festival] leaflet and came especially to see artists at work.


George and Rosanna made necklaces of crab-shells and talked a little about the meaning of Maori tattoos.  They brought their coast and their mountain with them on their skin, held mirrors up to our shore and stretched string over the ground so that, seen aright, it threw a net of stars and fish against the sky.