Amelie Williams visit to Ikon and The Rodd
Amelie Williams from Caban Sgriblio at Gwernyfed High School, has been working on Arts Alive Wales's Creative Writing project. In July 2017, she was invited to attend two of the Arts Alive Wales Portfolio project plus project workshops as writer in residence. In the course of one week she went to Ikon Gallery and to The Rodd, Sidney Nolan's last studio and home. Here she writes about her visits.
With Arts Alive, I was invited to an Ikon exhibition in Birmingham featuring the some of the work of Sidney Nolan and other artists such as Sheela Gowda and John Stezaker.
The paintings by Nolan were all on large canvases and made using spray paints primarily. From what I have seen of the work in the gallery, the canvases allowed for greater freedom of movement with the materials, showing the expressive side of Nolan’s work. He was originally from Australia who spent the last decade of his life on the Welsh-Midland’s border. One of the main themes of his paintings was the Aboriginals and the outback, created to provoke emotion in the observer. Often, in looking at the paintings, it wasn’t apparent as to what was being conveyed, but after considering the background and listening to other opinions, I managed to gather an idea of the struggles and hardships faced by Aboriginals, and despite knowing little on the subject, was able to grasp a fair idea of the emotions. The colours and images were very vivid, looking to be sprayed on quickly. You could also get different impressions from varying distances between the canvas and spray can, the closer the can is, the bolder the line and the more likely the paint is to drip.
The majority of the exhibition work was what would typically be classed as portraits, but Nolan chose to call them “heads” instead. There were many reasons for this I could think of. A lot of the work seemed to be focussed around impressions and how something would look, though not necessarily like a specific person. There were a number of paintings called “Untitled” which emphasises the aim of having someone using imagination to interpret the work.
One piece of work which stood out for me personally was a piece called “Self-Portrait”. This one was an abstract painting of Nolan himself. He was depicted with dark looking scars and looking very expressionless and pale (this was helped by the fact he looked to be a shade of blue). Around him were blue smudges and black paint. The thing that stood out about his work however, was the streak of black spray paint covering the eyes. There were drip marks running down from it, a sign that the action had been made at a close proximity to the canvas. It was also on top of the other paint, showing that it had been a final, almost violent action. An idea brought up about the reason for doing this to the portrait was the theory that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and people only see his outer shell, and his soul is hidden from view, as illustrated by his eyes being painted out. This metaphor is very thought-provoking.
Next, we were shown some of his equipment, like old spray cans and a paint-covered rag. The cloth was used to cover up parts of the canvas so Nolan could spray paint and create defined shapes. It was so completely covered in different colours of paint it looked almost like a piece of art itself. Overall, looking at Sidney Nolan’s work made me very interested in seeing the inspiration for his paintings at Sidney Nolan Trust in his home in Presteigne, Powys.
Upon arriving at the Sidney Nolan Trust, the first impression I got of the area was its rural setting, placed in the middle of a very hilly landscape with lots of forest, and barns. First, we went to the field behind the buildings and were told by SNT Director Anthony Plant, why Nolan chose this area of Wales as his inspiration. From what we were told, Nolan found the idea of not knowing what was behind every hill, the element of the unknown, very appealing. Around the area we were shown the crop fields, where were saw that all plants underneath the crop could grow rather than being killed. This allowed for thistles and other interesting looking plants to flower. The Trust is a place where artists can experiment with new ideas, we were told. We heard about one artist who, when hearing about mice using the trees as ways across the road, made a little ladder attached to the tree about the right size for a mouse and over a metre long. We returned to the Trust buildings where we looked at more of Nolan’s work, this time with varying canvas sizes and styles- It wasn’t just “heads”. There were landscapes this time. One particularly interesting painting depicted a man pulling the head of a hen and the blood droplets falling, but captured just before they hit the ground, so you could see little shadows underneath them. This was something I hadn’t seen before.
Air lab was a new digital project we would be trying out with Arts Alive Wales at SNT, using drone technology to create artworks based on the idea of the drone and the effects it can achieve. We also tried to incorporate themes of Nolan’s work and the grounds as part of our work. We had one session with the drone learning how it worked and what could be achieved with it. Then we had another session planning and brainstorming our drone projects. Learning about the drone was fascinating, and it gave a completely unique perspective of the landscape. Everyone that wanted to, was given the chance to fly it. I tried, but was terrified of dropping the drone (which was worth over £1000) from a great height and completely obliterating it in the process. Seeing the heights it could reach, this would have happened should it have fallen. There was a drone professional on hand to pilot the drone, and he showed us about how it can be programmed by visual recognition. For instance, it could be made to follow a person by them standing in front of it and making a “Y” shape with their arms. To any onlooker it would have looked like an impromptu dance, but it worked! The drone could hover at angles a normal camera couldn’t reach, and meant we could see the thistles in the crop field from above, and the shape they made, when it flew down close and the blades were creating ripples in the plants, it looked like a forest.
When we were creating the artwork, it was the ripples my friend and I based our project on. There were many different ideas from the group, from air born seeds to throwing plates. We had one hour to complete our projects. Afterwards, we had a presentation of all our work. There was an aerial view of the Trust buildings, then the trees and finally a fast rush over the fields with the drone for one project, focussing on the use of the drone in perspectives. Another was a person throwing a paint splattered plate in the view of the drone and capturing an image of the plate in between the horizon of the hills and the sky, but turned upside down to create an interesting effect. There was another of a rock on a string with paint dripping down it, captured by the drone. My project consisted of two small circles dug into the ground and the drone hovering over it to create the effect of ripples. One was of two crop circles, which couldn’t have been achieved without the drone.
Overall, I think that working with Air lab was a great experience. It was interesting to see how everyone worked in different ways, combining the drone technology with inspiration from Nolan’s work and the stunning landscape surrounding. There is a lot of diversity in the ideas that the area can provoke - including the drone gave it a whole new perspective. I think this insight into new technology gives artists new ways to present the world around them and I am very pleased to have had a part in that. To see images of the drone in action click here.
All photograph credits to Sion Marshall-Waters, Arts Alive Wales.