Woodland Portrait Project (field notes)

Fiona MacDonald

Woodland Portrait Project

Peacock Visual Arts 11 April – 23 May 2015

Field Notes for visitors, by the artist

This exhibition is the first public showing of new work made as the result of my persistent engagement with one smallish, ordinary-extraordinary wood near the M25 in Kent. This wood (actually two interconnected woods and some scrub and steep pasture) is on the hills between my house and the motorway and is on the North Downs. I plan to spend several more years exploring with/in, and learning, this particular place.

The exhibition Woodland Portrait Project at Peacock Visual Arts is conceived as one large, multidisciplinary installation. It aims to mirror the discovery and detail in woodland. I place one thing alongside, against or even inside another, to evoke how disparate large and small things nest and entangle to produce a unique ‘ecology’ in wooded space. It does not attempt to be a scientific or objective or realist study, rather it is very personal exploration of learning a place and becoming-with a place, by making art with and in and through it.

The large sculptural hanging drawings are tree portraits, but portraits more ‘with’ than ‘of’ the tree. Each one is made by encasing a section of tree in my chosen paper, and then making a rubbing of the bark with graphite. This is making that requires touch, literally rubbing up against a place – thus a meeting of bodies, a co-production. There is an indexical relationship between the drawing and the tree, which I think is stronger than that of a photograph. These rubbed marks are made by the tree in physical contact with the paper, my body, and the graphite. The tree and me meet here on this paper. What is produced by that meeting is the artwork, but also a transformation of our relationship. The tree becomes individuated, personified. As my project carries on into the future, my aim is to rub each species of tree in the wood (I have counted twenty-three so far) but the trees are approached as individuals, and acknowledged as co-creators of the piece.

IMG_4472 IMG_4521

Tucked in and around the ‘trees’ in this show are responses to lots of other aspects and beings that populate these particular woods. There is a ring of sculptures that look something like dancing figures. The shapes of these sculptures are derived from woodland flower petals, one from the Common Spotted Orchid, and the other from one petule of the conical Bugle, both of which species are relatively common in the chalk-hills of the Kent Downs. Each shape is made from four colours, because they are cast in the four soils types I have dug up from the woods (Kent has a notoriously complex geology, having intricate layers of sedimentary rocks and soils laid down by successive river basins and shallow seas). Each of my soils was dug out and made visible by an animal – the yellowish sand and the ashy grey were both from rabbit burrows, the white chalk from a badger sett and the brown mud from a molehill. I am not sure where the ash came from, but I do know that during World War Two, these woods were heavily used by the army, and I find metalwork (billy cans and the like) that date from this time lying about, and even one shattered shell casing still sits grimly among the bluebells. There are lots of craters as well.

IMG_4523  IMG_4528

The hinged painting Vixen Fight elaborates an event that happened last summer, when foxy screeching made me investigate up the hill, to see two foxes starting at me somewhat guiltily, luminous in the torchlight, eyes ghostlike and shining. I had been reading a book about foxes, which described a fight between two vixens in the mating season. In my imagination, these two instances coalesced.

The two metal wall brackets hang works made in a similar way (using a process of exchange and accretion) but with different creatures. The larger brackets hang Foxhole Polygon. The muddy painting you can see is one of two shaped canvases I sewed in the Autumn of 2013. The other one was made out of linen, and sized with rabbit skin glue, a traditional painter’s medium used to protect material against the damaging effects of oil paint. I left these either side of a foxhole. The linen one got mightily scuffed up straight away, and within a week it had disappeared. The one you see stayed out all winter and I retrieved it in the Spring.

Foxhole Polygon  Snaketrap Drawings

The smaller brackets hang Snaketrap Drawings. The paper had graphite and King Alfred’s Cake, a dry blackish kind of bracket fungus, which produces good pigment when it spores, grated onto it before I hid them under snaketraps (squares of metal or carpet that wildlife enthusiasts use to entice snakes to warm up under so they can count, not catch, them) on the nature reserve. I can’t promise that the snakes made the marks you see, but slowworms definitely enjoy using these places, I’ve seen them several times. And I’ve seen grass snakes, but never yet the adders for which the nature reserve is famed. I fear slugs may be responsible for the holes though. Enormous, orange slugs.

The photos and videos bring a little bit of the ‘real’ into the exhibition (and are used sparingly as the real is a tricky business). I am interested in the marks made and the traces left by all the living beings that use this wood, humans included. I think of myself as acting alongside these other creatures: making, building and drawing in the landscape. There is quite a lot of human rubbish too, bottles, cans, packets and the like. I couldn’t bring myself to include photographs of that here, as it’s just too depressing, and you know all too well what it looks like, it’s everywhere.

  08-Touching-Roe West-Hill-Flint

I have learned quite a bit by looking at poo. Badgers have a very varied diet. But often they have a LOT of one thing at one meal. They like to pile up different poos on top of one another in small holes called latrines, so you really get to see the contrast in what they had for their dinner that day. Foxes, on the other hand, like to poo in prominent and decorative places… to adorn the top of a hump, or log. Once I saw a fox poo on top of a mound of horse poo, which seemed rather – rude?

The video called Animat is rather different. It came about because I placed a painting I had made on the floor of the woods over a small bush to dry, so I could roll it up and take it back to the studio. But then I got fascinated at the way the wind animated the painting. It got under and into it and made it appear to breathe, to become animal. I hope it brings something of that in-the-moment experience to the gallery – brings a little of the wind in to get under and into the exhibition.

video available at: https://vimeo.com/86404090
My aim for this research is to interpret and promote a world view that is less anthropocentric, and which highlights “the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (Jane Bennett Vibrant Matter, 2010 p.11) such that we can see beyond the end of our noses to the vitality and significance of the nonhuman world that surrounds us. It isn’t there for our benefit. It follows a different agenda, has its own frames of reference, its own purposeful and playful activities.

All the smaller paintings on paper were made in the woods, and sometimes with the woods, in the sense that they are drawn with berries directly onto the paper.

One paints the shadows as they passed across the paper on my knees. One paints birds flitting about in the bushes. One the light and shade across the fields from the top of the hill. None of them are really representational, but they are evocative. As an artist, I think that it is a fine thing to be captivated by a good view, but it can become a problem if one is interested in the view without any real imagination of or care for what it actually contains – with who actually lives there (by which I mean creatures and plants of all sorts). Romantic Sublime painting of the 19th Century helped persuade people to love and value the wild and beautiful places of Britain, where before they had found them frightening. Most people lived much more rural lives then, and understood what a cowslip was (they look like tiny ladies’ bloomers with yellow frills, but what is a ‘bloomer’ anyway, you may well ask?). Concentration on the glory of big views can obscure so much, including the very problems that created the views, like deforestation and overgrazing by sheep. In woodland, the big view is rare (especially in summer months). Instead you get thousands upon thousands of small views that change every time you step a different way around a particular tree. It is a kind of infinity.

That’s why I wanted to get down into the mulch and squelch of the bluebell and to put my fingers in the badger’s footprint. I want to touch this place, hunker down into it as much as I can, and practice being very thoughtfully a body among other bodies, more similar than different.

Fiona MacDonald lives and works in Kent. She was Abbey Fellow in Painting at the British School at Rome in 2011. Previous solo shows include Works from the Mirrored Series at 10 Gresham Street 2011, Morphology at Maddox Arts in 2009, Anthropoflora at Long and Ryle 2007 and Habitat at Phoenix Arts, Brighton in 2006. She trained at Chelsea College of Art and Leeds Metropolitan University.


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