We think of stones as the epitome of permanence. We use expressions such as "set in stone", "heart of stone", "solid as rock" when we want to convey that something is fixed, unyielding, impervious to influence. But this is not the reality. It simply reflects the difference between our human perception of time and the unimaginable amount of time involved in geological processes.
I've been reading about the work of Ilana Halperin, specifically her exhibition "The Library" for National Museums Scotland last year. Ilana trained as a stone-carver but became interested in this relationship between geological phenomena and human life-spans. "The Library" included agates that were formed during a volcanic eruption in the year the artist was born; minerals that record the impact of a meteorite on the Earth's crust millions of years ago; etchings on "books" of mica that are millions of years old and sculptures made by the artist using geological processes in caves and geothermal springs. What is so inspiring about this is the way these works overturn our perception of the relationship between geology, biology and time.
I went back to Robert Macfarlane's "Mountains of the Mind" and re-read one of my favourite chapters - "The Great Stone Book", and particularly this passage:
But the other aspect of Ilana Halperin's work that intrigued me was the specific history of the minerals she used. And I began to think about my own collection of stones. These are predominantly flint, picked up over the course of several years of walking along North Norfolk beaches. Each one was originally selected primarily for its marks, colour or other physical features but now I was curious what those marks might signify in geological terms.
I have learned that flint is a form of quartz (silicon dioxide) that occurs as nodules in sedimentary rocks such as chalk. It is derived from material in the bodies of marine organisms, the skeletons of which mix with chalk and organic matter in sediment on the ocean floor. It is thought that chemical changes within the sediment, perhaps related to the decay of organic matter, cause the silica to accumulate and form concretions within the chalk. In some of my flints there are mysterious veins or fragments which thus may be residual traces of minerals or organisms trapped inside the stone during this process of formation.
Inside the nodule, the stone is usually dark grey and glass-like, while the outside is often covered by a coarse, white layer, called a cortex. The cortex looks a little like chalk but is actually quartz. So, many of the patterns in my flints have been formed where the cortex has been worn away by the sea. Lots of them have a pale bluish tinge - maybe where the cortex has worn down to the thinnest "veil" over the darker interior of the stone? Many also contain other colours - black, yellow, rust - which are apparently traces of iron and other metal oxides, sulphides, hydroxides or organic material.
Knowing all this, the stone I picked up on the beach becomes a document. It holds the memory of organisms and processes stretching back millions of years and is itself part of the ongoing geological history of the Norfolk coast. The marks and traces - which remind me of maps, drawings or other symbols within my personal experience - have their own significance. And, from the point I picked it up, I arrested its ongoing transformation - if I had left it on the beach, the sea would have continued to wear it down. Now it sits on my desk in stillness, removed from its geological context, as an object of study.
I'm thinking about doing more with these - studying and drawing the marks more closely with a view to generating more ideas for imagery and marks on cloth. At the moment, though my studio is given over to making new work. I have had a fantastically productive week and my studio wall looked like this (when the sun was out earlier this week). It feels good.