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  • Writer's pictureSarah McCartney

Gifts - finishing my studies at Falmouth University

For the last four years I have been examining the nature of my art practice through studying on the Authorial Illustration MA at Falmouth University.

I’d been working as a graphic designer and wildlife illustrator for many years, giving little time to my own art practice but for decades have been quietly documenting my wanderings and collecting natural objects.

As I drew, photographed and wrote, a way of seeing and processing what I saw slowly grew into my art practice. By enrolling on the MA at Falmouth I chose to give time and attention to that practice, and the result has been a deeper understanding of what I do and why I do it.

I've photograph and drawn many birds over the years. There are posts about them; kingfisher, jay, skulls, magpie, identifying skulls, bird skulls from Sampson, drawing dead birds, whimbrel, robin, wren. But I didn't think birds would be the focus of my studies at Falmouth. However just before starting the MA, kayaking across Carrick Roads, I found a swift. Then other birds arrived; Bluetit, goldfinch, Manx shearwater, wren, jackdaw, gannet. I don't look for dead birds but when they come to me I feel compelled to make the most of the gift and honour the giver.

At the same time as studying the birds I was filling my sketchbooks with drawings of swimmers.

Then there is my resin work which, even though I initially wanted to focus on drawing and writing for the MA, naturally crept back.

What is the connection between these different ways of drawing and the sculpture? At the same time I was concerned with the crushing question of how and even why, be artist is in this time of mass extinction, climate emergency and humanitarian crisis. I followed this questioning for my extended critical publication and this study led me to a stronger understanding of what it is I do. The seemingly different studies are how I experience the world, are a continuous journey held together with writing.

Being an artist is my way of being in the world. My practice is that of a simple weaver, sharing the art of attention with others, telling small kin stories and being present. All I do is an expression of being alive and is a whole life enquiry of this ‘now’. Through acts of ‘paying attention’ I enjoy being human but hope in some small way ‘to make a difference’ and return the gift, for I see it as a great privilege to be able to experience life in this way.

Looking closely at what I do there is no conflict between the activity of drawing a physical object by looking at it and trying to ‘illustrate’ a feeling or memory, missing my daughter or swimming with a seal. I don’t draw to make an image I draw to see. The resins are fragments containing words and found objects and are no different to the notes and poems, drawings and paintings in my sketchbooks; oystercatcher skull, fulmar skull, mermaids purses, shells, bone. Paper, specimen and word. Sometimes it is enough to leave these fragments in sketchbooks and drawers. A drawing in a sketchbook may be full of energy and life, the little resin in my hand may be a beautiful object. But the whole story can be hard to see.

My task is to curate the fragments and make song with all the seeing. Everything is connected.

In my show is an old writing bureau.

The bureau is a container for books, sketchbooks and objects; a diary, journal, recording, store, beautiful object to display, celebrate, revere, exhibit. Paper, specimen and word. Full of objects with narrative possibility, stories of small times; finding, keeping, processing, preserving, stories of the time before i encountered the creature, stories I don't know and can only guess. When we meet there is a weaving of encounters... red shell next to red oystercatcher bill.

The bureau is a sketchbook, a place where my encounters with the world gather. I live with the things I find and make. I have them scattered about my house, on shelves, in bowls near the door, on the window sills, stacked in boxes, hanging on walls... The old writing bureau is a condensed form of this practice. It is a container to hold the material I am working on, so I can see it and keep it safe, before it transforms in some way. Like a sketchbook it is a moveable object that changes over time. The work comes out from it. , Prints, books and sculpture.

The reason I did the MA was to become a full time artist again, to be myself after many years of compromise and to find out what my art practice was all about. I wanted to be totally absorbed like I was when I was a student in the 80’s, for it be the first thing I think of when I wake and at the end the day be the last thing I think of. For my art to be important and take over. And that’s how it is now, only with the peace of knowing where home is and the good feeling you get with age, of being ‘settled in your skin’.

I achieved what I set out to do which was to deepen my understanding of and have the opportunity to develop, my practice. But I got way more out of it than that. I enjoyed everything, learnt and experienced much through the lectures, talks, crits and technical stuff, especially book making and printing. I have a huge love of printing now and a desire to learn more about book making. I've learnt how to question and be critical, to study, go down rabbit holes and not be afraid to write and I've grown more confident talking about what I do and most importantly I've been around loads of weird and wonderful creative people which has been a delight and inspiration.

Now? I’m in the middle of various works, prints and another book. Also I feel good about the resin piece. I've been working on for five years. The resin blocks – one thousand small things. I felt about it as I did with my final work at the Royal Academy, knew I had to do it but not sure why. Now I feel confident of its place, my place, and have a base of study and work behind me for it to sit. I’m just gonna do it.

I am here, it took me four years but I got here and now for the show. Please come and see.


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