Water in the landscape

All the water features we can see in the landscape - springs, streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, bogs and fens - are joined together. Even if there’s no physical overground connection between one and another they’re all part of the seamless web of water that pervades the soil and the permeable rocks below. Open water is no more than the visible part of a hidden whole that is much bigger. Water features are accents of extreme wetness in a landscape which is nowhere totally dry.
— Patrick Whitefield "The Living Landscape"

Heavy rain this weekend.  On Sunday morning, early, I extended my walk to take a look at the stream and the pond.  The stream, which is usually no more than a trickle, was turbulent and milky-coloured.  The pond was also opaque, which made the reflections of the trees look even more like a drawing on the surface of the water.  I enjoyed the visual trickery - I could see the real branches hanging low over the water, the reflection of the branches above and stray leaves and twigs just below the surface.  Above, below and beneath.  And then to complete this game of perceptions, a duck would glide across the reflection, which would shatter and then re-form as the water became still again. 

It can be hard to tell an artificial pond from a purely natural one but natural ponds are probably quite rare. Ponds and lakes can’t be formed by water erosion because water doesn’t make hollows. It cuts down ever deeper along its course. In fact a stream flowing out of a pond will eventually drain it, though this will take a long time if the rock is hard.
— Patrick Whitefield "The Living Landscape"

This pond is on ex-farmland, on heavy clay soil and may therefore be man-made.  A solution to the need to water livestock in the days before mains-fed drinking troughs.  It's deep.  The stream runs in one end and out the other.  The pond is actually two connected ponds - one packed with bulrushes and lined with willows, the other larger one more open.  It's one of the more interesting features in an otherwise rather featureless country park.  

Many of the landscapes I'm drawn to are those where the land and water meet.  Marshes, estuaries, coast.  And the interaction between the land and the water at the edges is what interests me. The way one shapes and influences the other.  There's this constant dialogue between the two elements.  In tidal areas, this occurs before your eyes over the course of just a few hours.  According to Chinese thinking, these are very yin - female - landscapes.  Soft, watery, dark, life-giving, flowing, shape-shifting.  But of course the point of that thinking is that it is the continuous interaction of yin and yang that drives the shaping of these landscapes, even if it seems that water dominates. 

Some landscapes are dominated by water. Many of these are highland landscapes which are wet because it rains so much, covered with blanket bogs and drained by rivers which roar in spate after every heavy rainfall. Others are in low-lying, flat places where it may not rain very much but drainage is slow. Most of the latter kind have been drained for agriculture and are now far removed from their natural state. But the water is still there. Though it may be confined in artificial waterways and straightened rivers, it’s ever ready to burst these bonds and flood the land like it used to. In these places you could almost say the landscape is not so much formed by the interaction between people and the land as between people and water.”
— Patrick Whitefield "The Living Landscape"


After my last post someone mentioned threshold theory to me.  This has its roots in anthropological studies of rites of passage, but in educational theory a "threshold concept" is one that, once understood, changes the learner's view of the subject: 

... there are certain concepts or learning experiences, which resemble passing through a portal, from which a new perspective opens up, allowing things formerly not perceived to come into view. This permits a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something.
— Ray Land, JHF Meyer, Caroline Baillie, preface to "Threshold concepts and transformational learning" (2010)

These are the difficult bits - the things that are hard to grasp and challenge the learner's existing ideas or understanding.  But they are also the parts that make the difference between a working understanding of a subject or true mastery.  

Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of “liminality”, a suspended state of partial understanding, or “stuck place”, in which understanding approximates to a kind of “mimicry” or lack of authenticity.
— Meyer, Land & Baillie - as before

This totally makes sense to me in terms of where I find myself.  I have these individual pieces of inspiration, skills and knowledge and a sense of reaching for an understanding that will bring them all together .... that is tantalisingly just out of my reach.  And to reach it, I may have to let go of some of my existing approach ... which is discomforting.   In the meantime, there's that sense of dissatisfaction - that nothing is quite in its place.  

A threshold has always demarcated that which belongs within, the place of familiarity and relative security, from what lies beyond that, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the potentially dangerous. ... all journeys begin with leaving that familiar space and crossing over into the riskier space beyond the threshold.
— Meyer, Land & Baillie, as before

But while it was fascinating to me to come across this thinking and to see how it relates to what I'm doing, the real lightbulb moment related to a different aspect.  I realised just how strongly I'm attracted to things that encapsulate that liminal edge - the space "in between" where one thing becomes another.  

Tide turning.  Snettisham (June 2014)

In the landscape, it's where the tide alternately reveals and conceals the land; 

all the edges disappearing ... Holkham Bay at sunset with the tide turning (July 2014)

... where the sky merges into the sea so that you can hardly see the horizon;

Blakeney Channel (March 2014)

... where dry land merges into mud and then water on the marshes.  

It's also those other transitions - where one season begins to turn into the next, changing light at dawn or dusk, marks of ageing or decay ... I could go on but you get the idea.  I like the fact that the edges between these things are not clear or distinct.  There is an ambiguity, in which you know that something is changing but it is a pattern of one thing flowing into another - not a clear stop / start.  

And these are just the visible manifestations.  I can also see links to ideas that are important to me about the boundary between knowing / not knowing; processes of change and transition; and the nature of our relationship with the wider natural world.  

Salts Hole at Holkham.  (September 2014) 

Salts Hole (above) used to be connected to the sea via a network of saltmarsh creeks.  It is now cut off by a ridge of sand dunes and pine woods that has taken many years to form.  The water is salty enough to support saltwater creatures such as sea-anemones, even though it is now almost a mile from the sea.  The brackish water both reflects the sky and conceals what lies within the pool.  It is both transparent and opaque.  It is the essence of a liminal space.  In many cultures, pools have been seen as gateways (thresholds) to another place - the underworld, underwater lands - and as a symbol of the unconscious.  So many layers of liminality.

I want to develop this.  It's already there in my work, but I think I can do more with it.  Which suggests a way forward.  

More about threshold concepts (pdf)

More about the anthropological origins of ideas about liminality 

Looking back and thinking ahead

Several pieces of my work can currently be seen in a mixed exhibition at Bircham Gallery in North Norfolk until 2 April.  

Then I realise (detail) - currently at Bircham Gallery

Then I realise (detail) - currently at Bircham Gallery

Below is the artist's statement I wrote for them: 

Helen Terry creates abstract textile works using dye, mark-making and hand-stitch.

She grew up on farms in Hertfordshire and has spent most of her life in East Anglia, dividing her time between the Essex estuaries and Norfolk coast and marshland.

Helen works with cloth because of the way it can be manipulated and changed and hold the traces of what is done to it. Generally beginning with white cloth, she scrapes and paints layers of dye onto it and experiments with shibori processes to add layers of colours and marks. Helen then tears, folds, layers and stitches pieces of dyed cloth into a larger whole that conveys a sense of a story or journey.

Helen is inspired by found marks - whether natural or man-made - particularly the kind that reflect the wear and tear inflicted by time and the environment and suggest something about the history of the object. A recurring theme in her work is the way we interpret fragments and traces to create our own stories and meaning.

Trying to sum up what I do in those two paragraphs forced me to think hard about my work, my process and my intentions.  And now with the finished work hanging in the gallery, I'm pausing to reflect before moving on.  Although, having said that, the next pieces are already in progress; the ideas for the pieces after that are already developing.  This isn't a neat, finish-one-thing-then-start-the-next kind of process - the work overlaps and grows out of what went before.  But it's important to me not to automatically do more of the same and to have a sense of where I'm going with this.    

I'm wrestling with ideas at the moment.  I'm not sure whether I have something I want to take further - or how I might translate my thoughts about it into cloth, dye, stitch.  

I'm conscious of the risk of making work that is dominated by the process - the pure, undeniable fun of just playing and experimenting with cloth and dye.  And there is a place for that.  But the risk is of ending up with work that lacks depth.  Personally, I need to have some sense of what I want the work to be about, what I'm trying to convey, so that I can make the right choices and decisions and refine those accidental, organic effects into a strong piece of work.  

But at the other extreme, I know there is a risk of labouring the underlying idea at the expense of the work itself - which ends up seeming stilted or unconvincing because it comes second to the idea.  There needs to be a balance.  I think the most successful work makes expressive use of materials and process but conveys something more.  And that "something more" is drawn from an underlying body of ideas, concerns or interest.  

So alongside all the practical studio work, I'm constantly looking, reading and thinking.  I'm interested in many things - natural patterns and processes; ideas about connectedness; the way the mind works; communication.  I don't always know how all this will translate into my work but I do it anyway.  I know that it all influences my choices and the decisions I make, even when I'm not consciously thinking about this when I'm absorbed in the process.  

Clearing out my studio, I came across a file of preparatory work for a piece I made nearly ten years ago.  It was salutary to recognise some of the same interests but think how differently I would approach the same source now.   But there's a lot I still like about the piece that came out of it.  

Rebecca Crowell has interesting things to say about this and other aspects of the creative process.  


Standing at the edge of understanding

The feelings you get, that thinning out that comes from going into limbo, out to the edge of your understanding and stand there reaching, reaching into a thin layer of unknowns, stuff to swim through without body or substance, without breath, without substantiation or reassurance, never knowing where it leads or what it’s made of, or what it’ll be like, and you float and struggle and gasp, it brings nausea and fear, strange body functions and doubt - much doubt - it’s like falling but never arriving anywhere, never hitting anything unless it’s a new concept, just the fear of falling - but from this leap comes real creation, for when it finally arrives, when it lands, when it is grasped, gasped, inhaled, coaxed into existence, it’s the craziest, most wonderful thing in the world. It’s better than anything else. It’s like falling in love not gradually but in a single moment. It is that moment of the realisation of love, not where it leads or how long it’ll last or what it means, just the heart-beating, stomach sinking, painfully-grabbing moment of Yes! This is it - then it’s gone and one lives with the taste of it having been. You always have some end result, but it always needs to be renewed, refreshed, never having the same original freshness of the first moment, the first kiss of creating.
— Agnes Denes

More about Agnes Denes here

The plan of what might be

Sometimes he feels as though the plan he is holding in his head is so fragile that the slightest jolt might make it come apart. In the five months that have passed since he stood before it at St Gall, the fabric has become eroded as though some earthly edifice had been left out in the rain. Even on the journey back he felt that he was losing it. … With every breath the memory becomes fainter. …
— Charles Ferneyhough "Pieces of Light" Ch. 7

The Plan of St Gall is a manuscript, "five sheets of parchment sewn together with green thread", depicting an entire Benedictine monastic complex.  It was never built and scholars argue about the original design, purpose and nature of the plan.  Ferneyhough is interested in it as a possible example of a mnemonic device, using the Method of Loci , which uses visualisation to create a framework to organise and recall information.   In this method, which was known to the Greeks and Romans, the individual memorises the layout of some building or place, linking the items he wishes to recall to distinctive features of that place.  When he wishes to remember, meditate or reflect upon the material, he literally walks through the place in his imagination, allowing the features and layout of the imaginary building to awaken memories and associations.  He "sees" his thoughts.  

Ferneyhough's point is that this is a view of memory as something more than simply memorising facts - it is a creative, constructive process in which the meditator (quoting the 12th century Hugh of St Victor) "delights to run freely through open space … touching on now these, now those connections among subjects" in order to generate new thoughts as much as remember existing ones.   

More on this idea - Mary Carruthers "The Book of Memory"

His thought is a multicoloured pageant, of ideas behind words behind images, combining and recombining like clouds on a windy day.
— Charles Ferneyhough "Pieces of Light", page 140