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  • Writer's pictureSarah McCartney

locating a visual practice.... my MA presentation November 2019

I'm thinking about my art practice and reaching back to where I got to on my MA journey before the pandemic changed things. I return to my studies at the end of January and will be writing an extended critical publication. When I intermitted April 2020 I thought I knew what this would be. Two years on things have changed, I have changed. I have to go back to go forward.

I started this blog 2nd August 2020 to keep the threads of my practice together whist I intermitted and to have a way of sharing, post pandemic, with tutors and fellow students on my return. So I am placing the presentation within this dialogue as it is a link between where I was, where I am and where I might be going.

At the end of November 2019 we had to do a presentation. Standing up to talk in front of a group of people is a nightmare situation for me, or was, and the last time I did anything remotely like it was probably in the 80's as part of my degree. It was horrific. Giving a talk to a group of people is still a challenge but I'm more comfortable in my skin these days.

I put it together the way I put these posts together, weaving images and my thoughts into a story and it was OK and shaky as I inevitably was, I enjoyed it.

It followed on from my critical publication recording, reordering, responding: drawing from the language of scientific classification in which I looked at the role visual arts have played historically within the development of science, specifically natural history and taxonomic classification, then looked at some contemporary artists whose work appropriates the language of scientific classification or who collaborates with scientists within this field and through examining historical and contemporary artists who work within this area I explored the role natural science imagery and processes play within my own practice.

I concluded that although natural science feeds my practice and my understanding of the world I am not a science artist. My practice is more prayer, poetry and portrait than research. The presentation followed on from this realisation and went on to explore poetry and process.


I share with you two books and through this lens shine light on thoughts and processes behind my art practice.

The books are ‘Bindle’, a collection of works by poet Elizabeth Frost and visual artist Dianne Kornburg and ‘On Presence’, essays and drawings by writer Peter Reason and artist Sarah Gillespie.

My practice has become rooted in recording, collecting and making observational drawings of the natural objects I find. I've been an amateur naturalist and worked within a conservation environment for much of my life. This quote by Mark Cocker in his book Crow Country expresses beautifully why studying nature is my focus.

At its fullest, studying the life of another living creature is a way of engaging all of your faculties. In short, it’s a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so. At the same time it is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that everything is connected to everything else.

Mark Cocker, Crow Country

So for my critical publication I looked into the role of science in art and how artists use science within their work, particularly art that appropriates the language of scientific

classification, natural history and ecology.

Observational drawing is central to my practice so I looked at the work of Gemma Anderson and Cornellia Hesse-Honegger. As a wildlife illustrator I am attracted to the detail and scientific thoroughness of Anderson and Hesse-Honegger who, in different

ways, use drawing as a research tool. Through this study I found that scientific research is not the main focus of my work, but I am more concerned with the process of collecting and studying nature to create my own visual language.

The connection between the things I collect is that they were once living or are part of a once living thing. The objects, the bones and shadows left when a creature dies, becoming a relic, to study, to photograph, to display and eventually use as material for my sculpture. Sometimes simply to keep for its intriguing beauty and as a reminder of a place and, as Mark Cocker wrote in Crow Country, of my connection to everything.

So the other artists I looked at for my critical publication were collectors. Alice Fox and Sophie Morrish are both concerned with journey, place and time. Both collect natural objects from their journeys to create their art, creating their own scientific-ish language, giving weight and honour to the individuality of each thing found.

Through looking at these and other artists I have begun to see that my work is process led. I’ve always struggled to know what my work is about. I worry I don't have ideas, that I don't have a story. But, as anthropologist Tim Ingolds argues when he talks about

process and creativity in his book ‘Making’, ‘materials have ideas’

I want to think of making... as a process of growth. This is to place the maker from the outset as a participant in amongst a world of active materials. These materials are what he has to work with, and in the process of making he ‘joins forces’ with them, bringing them together or splitting them apart, synthesising and distilling, in anticipation of what might emerge

...the most he can do is to intervene in worldly processes that are already going on, and which give rise to the forms of the living world that we see all around us ... adding his own

impetus to the forces and energies in play.

So maybe the process of finding, preserving, identifying, recording, drawing, photographing, ordering and displaying, maybe that process itself, is the story.

And then there are words. Text comes into everything I do so I've been looking at the use of text combined with image and how the book becomes a tool to contain a work or be the work. Which leads me to the first book I want to share with you. In my practice I have been drawing dead birds from my collections. I was looking at other artists who work with dead birds and I found this picture. It’s the title image of a book called ‘Bindle’ by poet Elizabeth Frost and artist Dianne Kornburg. The two worked together from 2009 until 2017 and Bindle is a collection of some of these works. In the artist statement at the back of Bindle Elizebeth Frost writes

A paper enclosure, the physical artifact of a bindle suggests containment - something that might house a specimen. As metaphor, it suggests a meeting point between scientific and artistic practice - a terrain that has preoccupied Dianne since

her earliest work. Its reference to paper evokes the intersection of text and image, language and matter. In Bindle, we work with bodily traces and handwritten marks, with the stubborn matter of mortal remains, and with our culture’s gendered metaphors of creation and destruction.

This image is from a piece called ‘The lore which nature brings’ In an essay for English Connect, Fordham University Janet Sassi writes

The images incorporate Frost’s research-based text derived from both Romantic poems and 19th-century manuals describing the popular ladies’ hobby of nest collecting (caliology). The text is largely found language - prunings from Romantic poems about birds, birdsong and birth’

The combined use of found text and specimens from the natural world, speak of where I'm going now. Prudence F. Roberts writes that

Frosts words often appear in these works as notations accompanying, perhaps, a fragment of a birds nest, or the text inside a black-bordered label. In looking at the way words appear in this context, one might ask whether a poem is itself a collection of words, assembled within the specimen case of a page or a book’

I really like the idea here of the book being a specimen case. A container to assemble discoveries, thoughts and meditations. A capsule reflecting a time spent. Which is a subject Peter Reason writes about in the second book I want to share with you.

I found ‘On Presence’ through Sarah Gallespie, an artist I have known about for years. I love not only her work but the philosophy behind her practice. Talking about the decline in species and her love of moths in an Instagram post recently she wrote

‘The work of the artist has always been to open our eyes, to show the unseen, to love the unloved...’

She writes about her creativity

At its deepest level, any poetic utterance grows out of a desire to overcome loneliness, to share experience. For a long time – really since I started making paintings as a conscious adult – I’ve been troubled by notions of ‘self’ and of art as ‘self expression’.

she compares drawing to meditation

Drawing is not so very different. When we sit down with charcoal and paper, thoughts, (from petty discomfort to grandiosity,) come and go, come and go, come and go, until

little by little we become absorbed in the magnificence of what is before us.

Sarah speaks about On Presence in her blog. It is a collaboration between Sarah and her uncle, the writer Peter Reason, a small pamphlet of essays and prints. She writes

On Presence draws together writing and drawing reflecting on the living presence of the world, a world experienced not as a collection of inanimate objects but as a community of life we can encounter and of which we are a part.

Both artists reflect on the practice of writing and drawing as a way of seeing or as Kathleen Jamie writes in her essay 'Lissen Every Thing Back' of

‘Paying heed to the natural world’

One of the essays in the collection is The Nest. Reason observes the activity of a pair of blue tits in early summer as they build their nest in a box presumably close to his home. Over time he notes the flurry of activity as the two birds fly back and forth with food for their chicks. Towards the end of the summer when all is quiet he looks in the box. Reason beautifully describes the nest as he finds it with eight tiny abandoned eggs. I know that feeling of sorrow and privilege he describes. I feel it when I find a dead bird. Sorrow at its death and the vulnerability of life but also feeling so privileged to be close and intimate with this wild creature. They talk of slowing down time and being outside with sketchbooks and notebooks. Then they talk about the transformation that occurs in the studio. Sarah says

‘I can't just put my sketchbooks out in the world and hope they will do the same for others as they did for me sitting there. Work in the studio is the skill of years and hours that I have mustered to speak about non-separateness’

Peter adds

‘Notes made outside, maybe written in the dark or on a notebook soaked in salt water,

must be crafted into a narrative that speaks to the reader’ What to do with all the seeing? I see my craft is to assemble my discoveries, reflect time spent and distill the essence of this being present and noticing sharing so my seeing can be reseen and rediscovered by another.

But the essay ‘Art in a Time of Catastrophe’ confirmed some deeper questions I have been asking myself. I've studied natural history all my life so the climate catastrophe and mass extinction event we are in is embedded in my art practice. I've been reading a lot about ecological grief in an attempt to work out how to be an artist, how to carry on living.

In the last paragraph of this essay Reason writes

So what place art in a time of catastrophe? For us both it is about making openings, like putting your fingers into a knot and teasing it apart, making enough space so that others might share with us this precious and tenuous truth that we sometimes glimpse:

that we are not separate.

These essays are a combination of observation and their thoughts on the act of seeing but they also look at being an artist in a changing time, a time of ending and grief.

I called my presentation ‘locating a visual practice through process, poetry and a way of living’ These books are a confirmation or affirmation of where I am searching and where

I’m going. I'm always hearing new voices. Last week artist Kate Walters gave a talk here about her work. I bought her book ‘Shetland notebooks’ and ‘The Art of the Animal and the Art of the Plant’, so I could spend time with her words and images. Then a little book arrived in the post this week. ‘Learning to die, wisdom in the age of climate crisis’ by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky. This book following on from the last essay in On

Presence. In my research I’ve been looking for practical and spiritual guidance because I see them as one thing. My practice is my way of living, of being awake, remembering that I am not separate, noticing, and finding ways to do something with all that noticing.


presentation research bibliography
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