Sensing Space

 
Birds in a row on the Salt Pans

Birds in a row on the Salt Pans

Space.  Isn’t that something we all crave?  The opportunity to move, stretch, expand, breathe, contemplate, sit or be still.  Space offers us the opportunity to be however we want to be.  It doesn’t restrict.  It doesn’t demand.  It doesn’t question.  It just is. 

Growing up, I sensed space often.  Sitting on a bucket in a huge, lofty barn, letting a calf suck my fingers.  Straw rustling.  The shrieking of swallows.  Going to the beach, the ocean beyond and the big sky above.  Space to run, fly kites, build sandcastles, play games, eat sandy sandwiches and get buffeted by weather.

Alaskan Beach for web.jpg

Standing on top of Helvellyn with what seemed like all of Britain spread out below. Visiting Westminster Abbey; feeling small and humble beneath its soaring roof. Entering the eternal green of the Canadian woodlands or silently paddling a canoe across a lake.  Seeing a young moose grazing the shallows, hearing the strange, ululating cry of the loons. Crossing the Channel in a sailboat, losing sight of land; scary and exhilarating.  Whilst the spaces contained within good buildings are lovely, it’s the space without - the landscape - that captivates me.  To be lost in landscape is an active choice and ‘holiday’ time is usually spent in nature, the wilder the better:

The majesty of the Scottish Highlands and Islands

The majesty of the Scottish Highlands and Islands

The deserts of Southern Morocco

The deserts of Southern Morocco

The magic of an Alaska Dawn

The magic of an Alaska Dawn

The white des

The white des

The High Mesa of New Mexico

The High Mesa of New Mexico

The raw earth of the Atacama Desert

The raw earth of the Atacama Desert

The ‘pancake’ rocks at Punakaiki, South Island, New Zealand

The ‘pancake’ rocks at Punakaiki, South Island, New Zealand

The layered coast of South East Harris

The layered coast of South East Harris

It’s holiday time, but it’s also work time as being lost in landscape feeds my practice.  But it never feels like work.  Wild is the key element.  Places of raw nature inhabited only by those who can survive there, which might include some humans but generally not many, and they’re not hard to leave behind.  The ‘leaving behind’ allows silence and stillness to enter, along with permission to do nothing except look.  With looking comes seeing.  What is, at first sight, apparently empty is far from it.

The texture of flowing grasslands. Mosses hanging from trees (Doubtful Sound, N.Z.)

The texture of flowing grasslands. Mosses hanging from trees (Doubtful Sound, N.Z.)

The carved edges of the glacier.. A skeletal tree. Birds in a row. Pebbles on the shore.

The carved edges of the glacier.. A skeletal tree. Birds in a row. Pebbles on the shore.

Shadows, rock formations, mountains and hills, ripples and pleats, foam. Colour, often uniform or monochromatic; sand, rock, grass, trees, sky, snow, ice, water, mud.

Alaskan Storm

Alaskan Storm

The relief of leaving behind the noise and intrusions of ‘modern’ living.  No phone.  No newspaper. No computer. No demands.  Only the command that compels you to look, see, sense and absorb.  I also like to write – not in the sense of a journal – more of a simple record of my thoughts and feelings.  No sketchbooks as such, just a few roughly drawn references to shape, line and texture. A few photographs.  Enough to serve as a reminder of colour and ‘assist’ any rough drawings I might have done.  Trusting that memory will serve when it comes to making the work.

 Beginning the work is always hard.  How to communicate a sense of space, the experience of stillness, silence and deep peace?  I can be intimidated by looking at (even only a few) photographs – the choices seem overwhelming.  Where to begin, where to start? 

And so my preference is to print (a very few) images and then chop them up, leaving only slivers of colour, texture, line or form.  Having done so, I’ll generally pin them up next to my drawings – often in the wrong orientation - as I don’t want to create a reproduction of what I’ve seen.  As such, they don’t hang for very long before being taken down and put in a pile, only to be referred to occasionally.

Two ‘Slivers’

Using raw earth pigments (and sometimes dirt from the places I’ve visited) is enabling me to have a direct connection to the land.  Choosing processes that are hard to completely control also offer scope for the imperfect and accidental, and provide a sensation of discovery.  Reducing and simplifying, trying to offer a sense of place and a sense of space – space for the viewer to expand, breathe, contemplate and be still. 

Over the next few months I’ll explore some of these different landscapes in more detail, and the work I’ve made as a result of being in them.  You can decide if I’ve been successful.

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Claire Benn