I was invited recently to make a presentation for a conference on “Eco-Creativity” organised by the Open University.
I offered an invitation to pay attention to the water around and within you in all its familiarity and strangeness, to become enchanted by water, your water. You can view the recorded 15 minute presentation by clicking below, or if you prefer, read the transcript below.
I’m a visual artist, writer and creative coach and mentor, and I’m based in Orkney, an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland, at 59 degrees North. I’m going to speak today about ‘drawing water’.
But first, I invite you, for a moment, to pause and just notice where your nearest water might be. It’s such a necessity of life that we can never be far from it. Where is your nearest water? It might be a glass of bottle of drinking water beside you. Or is it in the toilet cistern or the kitchen? Consider how these are supplied, the pipes that come into your home or workplace, and how these are part of an intricate web of pipes treading through the ground in your locality, joining the main water pipe that comes from your local water treatment plant. Do you know where that is?
And consider also the reservoir that supplies this system. Do you know where your local reservoir is? And how is that reservoir replenished? What are its current levels? Is it fed by a network of rivers and streams running from distant mountains? By rain? Where does your rain come from? Is it part of a complex monsoon system? If you’re in the UK, like me, our rain comes across the Atlantic in a huge atmospheric river that flows from the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t take long for water to dissolve our sense of boundaries.
And of course, that watershed doesn’t stop flowing once it gets to our homes, it continues into and through our bodies. Our eyes are 95% water, our brains 85%. We see water through water, we think about water with water.
My recent work has been slow contemplation of water. Not water in the abstract, but water in the particular, my local waters, the water I see and hear whenever I step outside my front door. I feel it in the rain that so often soaks me. I taste it in the salt that often coats my lips when the wind blows in from the sea. I draw it, write about it, photograph and film it, read about it, canoe across it, swim in it, and of course drink, cook, and wash in it and use it to flush away my waste.
It’s true, as Wallace Nichols, Catherine Kelly and others argue, that being near water makes us feel better. This contemplation is not all tranquillity and wellbeing. There’s a deep unease too. For coastal communities, the sea has always been a taker as well as a giver. Myths of monsters that lurk on beaches and under the waves are commonplace.
Because water is becoming increasingly unruly. Drought affects so many parts of the world. Elsewhere, devastating floods, coastlines slipping into a rising sea. The climate emergency brings our relationship with and reliance upon water into sharp focus, revealing stark inequalities of access and deep environmental injustices. As Jamie Linton has argued very eloquently in ‘What is Water?’ the reduction of water to the scientific abstraction of H2O has given us license to treat it as an inert commodity to be dammed, piped, extracted, polluted, bought and sold to the highest bidder.
THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF WATER
I’ve been trying to work out what my own ‘way in’ to such a vast subject might be when so much has been said and done and made and written already. My own contemplations of water are personal, partial, located, small, and slow. But I can begin to see this as part of a necessary rebalancing, relocalising and re-enchantment of water. Because for me the root of water’s fascination is more philosophical and perhaps even, dare I say it, spiritual.
Water is a real, tangible phenomenon in our familiar, shared, everyday world, but something about its inherent nature helps us to reach towards parts of our lived experience that are mysterious, puzzling, humbling, elusive, or just too big, complex and paradoxical to hold steady in the mind; the way a simple glass of water in our hand reaches back through taps, pipes, reservoirs, and rivers to clouds, atmospheric ‘rivers’ like the Gulf Stream and the oceans. The way the reflected sky sparks out of a puddle showing us a gleaming otherworld, down there where we bury our dead, just here but somehow unreachable. The way it’s constantly undergoing processes of change, as if embodying the passage of time.
“Sea Churn” 2021, Gesso, Gouache, pigment ink and silver ink on paper, 33 cm x 52 cm: private collection
And so, I draw water. The drawings I’ve been making are built up, mark by mark, layer by layer, over an extended period of time. Every day we experience the steady passage of moments, days, weeks, years. How we spend our minutes is how we spend our lives. I just want to be here while it’s happening, to notice and record it somehow. This is behind the slow and repetitive way of drawing water that I’m using. Something accumulates. It’s not so much about representing what water looks like, but how it makes me think and feel.
I’m aware there’s a paradox, working so slowly to record something so mutable, but art and writing both let us slow time down, slow our thoughts down, so we can take a proper look at things. Not to stop anything, but to introduce a meander, an eddy. This slowing of experience, I think, is a key function of art.
“Sky Shimmer” 2021, Gesso, Gouache, pigment ink, silver ink on paper, 59 cm x 95 cm : private collection
SLOW ART, SLOW WATER
Since COVID, more and more of us are living, working and even socialising online. This digitally connected environment pulls our attention laterally in multiple directions, our screens enmeshed in an endless web of information. Even when we do manage to focus on something we are still aware of everything else that’s just one click away, stacked in another open tab, or behind those click-through links you have skimmed past, all the while wondering if you’re missing something better, something that holds the answer.
This experience of data-glut creates a dull anxiety that there’s just not quite enough of our attention to go round. We feel like we’re always missing something, so we skim-read to get to the next thing more quickly. After a while, dealing with all this information coming in from outside feels like it starts to drown out our own imagination, creativity and inwardness. It’s an experience of breadth at the expense of depth.
More and more I am coming to think that art offers an antidote or counterpoint to the shallow and distracted quality of attention I can feel creeping up on me when I spend too long online.
To pick up a novel and read for several hours, or to become immersed in the visual world of a painting, to play a piece of music, to take up a notebook and pen to write or draw, these are experiences of our own inwardness and depth. I recognise that this will not be the same for everyone, and that neurodivergent minds will ride waves of focus differently. But I love Birkerts’ idea that art summons our attention, holds and guides it, and so deepens it.
“Summer Raincloud” 2021, Gesso, Gouache, pigment ink on paper, 31 x 47 cm: private collection
Welcome, then, the slow pace of a long book, or a poem full of line breaks and white space, where the printed letters do not scroll away as soon as you read them but remain on the page, curled in your lap like a cat, while you look up for a moment to mull over what you’ve read, perhaps scribble some notes in the margins, fold the corner of a page for later, try to work out a connection or take another’s perspective, or read again, more deeply, as a new idea forms within you in response.
Because that is when we begin to leave the author’s wisdom behind and discover our own, venturing beyond the comfort of silos and words that only confirm what we think we know already. It’s an experience of our own inwardness and depth, our sufficiency.
I love Sven Birkert’s characterisation of how we experience art as a deepening of attention:
“A sentence is a track along which attention is drawn. A painting is a visual path that looking follows. A musical composition does the same for listening.
“Art is a summoning of attention. To create it requires the highest directed focus, as does experiencing it.”
WATER AND TIME
The art critic Robert Hughes once said, in an address to the Royal Academy, What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water.
Water and time are deeply connected. The earliest clocks, measured time passing as water dripped from one clay vessel into another in a ‘clepsydra’ or ‘water thief’. I watch the water and then I try to draw it. I catch it in tiny circles or lines, each one a single drop, a moment gathered, stilled and set down.
“Immerse” 2022, Acrylic and silver leaf on aluminium panel, 90 cm x 110 cm : currently on show at Pier Arts Centre, Stromness
In the waves on the loch by my studio, the rushing water in the stream that runs nearby, the distant sound of the sea, you can hear the uninterrupted humming of time going on ceaselessly. Time as a sound, time as a dense substance which buoys us along as we swim hard, trying, uselessly, to resist its flow.
A drawing emerges within time, ongoingness made visible. How much time passes can come as a surprise. It’s always my body that starts to get restless. I stop not because I am bored but because my body needs to stop – eat, pee, stretch.
I think I’m drawing water, but it turns out I’m drawing time. Each drawing becomes a receptacle of time that I fill up drop by drop, turning time into texture so as to better see it. Sedimented here in these layers of little marks I see the drawing’s own duration gathered up and stilled, at least for as long as the drawing itself exists.
Each drawing is a net for catching time.
“Edgelessness” 2022, Gouache, pigment ink and chrome ink on aluminium panel, 90cm x 110 cm: available
THE SEA HORIZON
The motif of the sea horizon also recurs. Living as I do, on a small island, the sea horizon is ever present at the end of every footpath, peeping between houses and hills. I resisted the horizon in my work for a long time. Including it felt too representative, too obvious, too ‘seascapey’. But I kept noticing how something shifted in me whenever I looked out to the western horizon. I saw how the North Atlantic meets the sky so differently every day.
I kept wondering what it is that draws our eye to it? What it is we feel when we look out to the sea horizon? Why is it that in these anxious times, when calamities seem to bear down on us one after the other with no end in sight, that simply looking out to sea can feel so rebalancing?
“From Yesnaby” 2022, Acrylic, gouache and aluminium leaf on aluminium panel, 90 cm x 110 cm: Collection of Royal Scottish Academy
The sea horizon is a line that’s not really a line, an edge that’s not an edge but a continuation, where the seeable slips out of view, a width of air where liquid gives way to vapour. When we look at the sea horizon for a moment, our chattering mind is confounded and silenced. Instinctively, we pause, take a few deep breaths and just gaze. It feels…good. Calming. As if something is coming back into balance. As if we are reconnecting with something still and expansive in ourselves, that gets drowned out by our internal chatter and anxiety.
I think that when we look out to the sea horizon, or even just pause from our work and look out the window at the sky, it’s a momentary reconnection with what Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh called ‘our true mind’
‘When we release our ideas, thoughts and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions and is so much vaster than our mental constructs.’
That’s why looking out to the sea horizon feels rebalancing. It’s reminding us that we are so much more than the thoughts and worries that generally clutter our mind.
“Adrift” 2022, Acrylic,gouache and pigment ink on aluminium leaf on aluminium panel, 90 cm x 110 cm: available
So I come back to my earlier point, that water is a conduit, a solvent, a boundary and a connective tissue all at once. It is both ephemeral and ancient, constantly passing and constantly present. As such, water is an everyday presence we can all recognize that also points us towards those parts of our experience that are hard to grasp or easy to ignore.
I live in a place defined by water – an island. I see water, both salt and fresh, from every window of my house. I apprentice myself to my own local waters, knowing that all water is one, to try and discover what it might have to teach me.
I invite you to do the same for your waters.