By Jethro Brice
My doctoral research explores the use of contemporary art practices to study the intersection of human and nonhuman animal cultures. One of my key methods is observational field drawing, and in recent months I’ve had the good fortune to work with three inspiring friends and colleagues to explore some of the rewards and frustrations of drawing ‘nature’ in the field.
We are brought together by a shared interest in how human-nonhuman relations shape particular landscapes, and how these relationships can be made available through artistic practice. Speaking for myself, I am compelled by a certain unease (but also a compelling sense of possibility) with the familiar triangular geometry of artist, field and notebook in ‘nature’ or ‘wildlife’ drawing, and by an uncertainty about the aesthetics of working with and/or representing nature. Working with this small group of friends is an opportunity to grapple productively with this question, drawing on shared understandings, dispositions, and experiences as well as our different expertise, perspectives and approaches to similar problems.
In particular, finding ways to experiment with working collaboratively helps to dissolve some of that geometrical hierarchy which for me can be a barrier in observational field drawing. The work becomes more playful and exploratory – a conversation and process of shared enquiry, rather than an act of representation. Dynamics that can be difficult to escape as a ‘solitary’ artist are more easily set aside, and this in turn elicits a more open, relational encounter with nonhuman dimensions of the landscape as a whole. I hope to develop in this space both new skills for working together with fellow human artists, and skills and sensibilities which I can carry with me into more ‘solitary’ encounters.
The blog entries below document our first sessions together, and are reposted from Kate Foster’s site inthepresenttense.net. Please visit the original blog for higher-resolution images.
Place drawing as a shared process
Kate Foster, 1 August 2016
Three days of field-drawing in the Scottish Borders let Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe and Kate Foster develop a method of shared drawing that helped weave individual observations with each other’s expertise.
Three days of field-work in the Scottish Borders let Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe and myself find ways to share investigations of particular places. Preferring to work collaboratively, we developed a method of shared drawing that let us weave our individual observations with each other’s expertise.
Accompanied by umbrellas, waterproofs, sketchbooks and numerous pencils, we went to three different places in the Scottish Borders. The first was Whitlaw Moss, a SSSI near Selkirk which is marvellously categorised as being a very wet mire likely to have an unstable ‘quaking’ surface. Access to the Moss is restricted – my view of it had up till then been from a car window on the road above. Getting close-up, a wonderful variety of plant and insect life came into view.
How could we possibly represent this? Grasses, sedges, orchids, ragged robin, moths, beetles …
Close-up of Whitlaw Moss (image Kate Foster)
Attempting to draw generated further unsteadiness – my A3 sketchbook pages flicked over with impatient speed.
A quaking oat stilled on the page (image Kate Foster)
I found this self-imposed flat rectangular format frustrating, and also the sedentary character of plein air drawing.
I considered swimming in a ‘well-eye’, and admired bogbean.
Photo: Kate Foster
Drawing: Bogbean and welleye, Kate Foster
In truth, we left somewhat frustrated with our attempts, and wondered where to go with this. Pursuing the model of individual artist in landscape seemed to have led us to clamber into boxes of our own making.
Drawing: Jethro Brice
How could we make more use of being in such places together? We began Day 2 with an exercise suggested by Claire Pençak: using three bamboo sticks to generate collaborative patterns of movement.
Photo: Michael van Beinum
En route to St Abbs Head, we talked about two much-missed painters, John Busby and David Measures, who remain important influences for groups of artists committed to observational drawing of birds. Measures and Busby both found ways to express their unique voices – coaxing their students away from photographic styles of representation towards an exploration of movement and place. Few of us can hope to catch birds’ giz as Busby could, or look at their subjects with the commentary and dynamism that Measures achieved. What could we offer instead?
In different ways, we each work towards exploration of what can be termed ‘biocultural’, jargon for the goal of acknowledging people’s activities and concerns within more-than-human processes. Also, given contemporary complex and knotty environmental problems, we discussed how the process of making artwork must include the possibility that everything is not OK. A visit to St Abbs is imbued by a possibility that this year could be the last seabird summer – as Adam Nicholson investigated in a recent BBC programme.
The cliffs at St Abbs are hard to encapsulate, though Jethro found his efforts greatly freed up by the collaborative exercise:
Drawing: Jethro Brice
Listening together offered an additional pathway for exchange. We drew soundscapes by passing our sketchbooks round every 5 minutes, yielding these images:
Above: Shared drawings at St Abbs, by Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe, Kate Foster
We found this way of working to be constructive. John’s poetic and expert eye for movement and Jethro’s structural intelligence, in combination with my restlessness, let us make something different than we could achieve individually.
As ‘drawings’, the early marks on paper staked out composition and focus: we worked progressively to adjust tone, flow, and colour. As ‘conversations’, these shared works allowed us to see different aspects of each place we were in. We puzzled on problems, such as how sounds have shape and colour. Above all, this process helped articulate emotional and subjective responses – in St Abbs where loss can be felt vertiginously, and marvellous and terrifying elements beyond our control can be glimpsed.
The third day saw us walking on the glorious Southern Upland Way, to practice our method, but in less sublime conditions.
Photo: Kate Foster
Sheltering behind a wall, flattish wetness became a shared drawing that included lark, curlew and snipe call.
Shared drawing on the Minchmoor by Jethro Brice, John Fanshawe, Kate Foster
In these ways, we succeeded in opening up spaces of encounter – and helped hone specific questions and possibilities.
What now? Perhaps this may extend beyond an interdisciplinary conversation, to engage further kinds of knowledge of place – tacit, instrumental, more than human?
Reflections on place drawing and relational thinking
Kate Foster (written with Jethro Brice and John Fanshawe), 27 October 2016
Collaborative drawing at Purton Boat Graveyard led us to reflect on conventions of wildlife representation, and how relationships between species and place might be drawn out differently.
At Purton Boat Graveyard an assortment of disused river craft were buried over the years to protect the eroding shoreline of the River Severn. Jethro Brice suggested this site as somewhere to continue experiments in shared drawing of place.
Arriving at high tide, we watched the mass of the muddy estuary water drop astoundingly fast. The wind was blowing hard upstream, and patches of sun ripped across the estuary.
We talked about what we aspire to do, through drawing. John Fanshawe has proposed ‘biocultural drawing’ to describe bringing biological and cultural aspects together on the page, in order to mine a sense of place.
Image: John Fanshawe
John’s conservation work with BirdLife International includes reflection on the relationships between species loss and how that relates to the extinction of experience. Jethro’s PhD research aims to draw multispecies wetland narratives, and open spaces of encounter at different levels, between human and non-human cultures and between disciplines. Kate uses drawing to investigate relationships, focusing on particular vignettes of environmental change and drawing out questions of scale. She draws as a path to reflective observation, making links to what is happening over time and in different places. With Michael van Beinum, we reflected on how – individually and collectively – we might find structures to keep our exploration of places through drawing an open process.
Drawing by Jethro Brice, in situ
Layering suggested itself as an initial theme, and Jethro’s warm-up solo drawings combined mud, masking fluid, and pen to convey weathered boat hulls. Kate considered the circular growth of lichen on the hulks, the horizontal movement of the tide and wind, and the rapid vertical drop of the water surface measured against a boat’s rudder. John explored how the movement of the wind – through both the riverside vegetation – and the falling tide animates drawings.
Drawing by Kate Foster
We settled on a structure of shared drawing, with successive five minute attention to line, wash, colour and texture, before passing the drawings on. We all used the same media, preselected to suit the damp setting (wax pencils, water brush, ink and mud) and hoped that the rain might do some of the work.
Some shared drawings are shown below.
Time and weather put a dampener on further experiments.
With cups of tea and shelter, we considered why wildlife drawings (that can become bird portraits fixed in space and habitat) do not always satisfy our viewpoints from both conservation and the environmental humanities?
We reflected that our perspectives demand that any species is better understood in relation – as a constellation of complex relationships in time and space. It is possible to admire wildlife imagery when it is a triumph of technique combined with observation. However, when such drawing reaffirms a harmonious world, it could also serve to distract and obscure. If we find that through drawing, we distance ourselves from the nonhuman world and objectify it, this runs the risk of reinforcing the idea that nature and culture are separate. So our discussions focussed on avoiding this dualistic separation, and how we might try to make our drawing more relational and embedded.
Looking at nature or landscape in terms of relationships requires exploration of how what we are observing is shaped through human activity, both our own and that of others. The shorebird species, Bar-tailed Godwit is an example of how a relational approach helps. Research into its migration has had practical implications for joining up the links in a global conservation movement. Bar-tailed Godwits are migrating earlier because of changes in mowing regimes in the Netherlands, and arriving early in West Africa where they can damage young rice crops. As a result, women are forced to walk long distances and grow lower yields of rice in the rainforest. Just knowing the godwits as a species overlooks a complex constellation of shifting relationships, all of which are critical to understanding the needs of the birds and the people with which they interact along a flyway. But it remains the case that seeing a species as a discrete taxonomic unit is the prevalent way of learning about and representing most birds.
So, what can we do, in terms of drawing or strategies, to keep in mind the possibilities of shifting relationships, and make them more visible? A group, just as much as an individual, can get stuck. The drawing we aspire to in our shared sessions seems to be a strategy to force thought, to keep our affective responses lively, and to use the page as a tool to prompt reflection and conversation. Paper as a medium has strengths, being portable and cheap, but what other media and modes can we combine?
In our next session, we might return to images repeatedly, or work in rotation on different subjects. We may try different ways of using words – both as prompts and as responses.