Roxy Shaw writes about Sidney Nolan

Roxy Shaw 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.

In July, I was lucky enough to be invited to two of Arts Alive’s Portfolio days, both centering around the work of Sidney Nolan, an Australian artist who spent many years in Presteigne, Powys. On the first day, we went to the IKON gallery in Birmingham, where we saw an exhibition of Nolan’s work from the 1980s.

The first part of the exhibition was a series of portraits, or “heads” (as Nolan referred to them), produced in 1982. The images are based on individuals who were significant to Nolan, such as Francis Bacon, Brett Whitely and Arthur Rimbaud. I thought the immense canvases were breathtaking. All the works in the room were created with spray paints, and the effect of the bold, expressive strokes on such a large scale was awe-inspiring. We were told to try a technique called ‘slow looking’—we had to stand and look at a painting for one minute. I found it fascinating how my interpretation of the image changed over the minute, as it made me focus on details I would not otherwise have noticed, like the way the paint was textured and layered, or how the dots of spray paint in a particular portrait looked like stars and galaxies in outer space. It was also interesting how the image changed depending on how far away I stood from it: from a distance, it appeared clearly as a face, the lines and features blurred but impressively detailed. However, as I got closer, the overall picture got harder to see, and I saw instead the texture of the spray paint, how it had been applied in great dramatic sweeps across the canvas. I saw more of the small details, but the bigger picture was lost.

Further through the gallery was a selection of paintings focused around Aboriginal subjects. The meanings of these paintings were not so clear, and much more open to interpretation. Many of them seemed to have darker themes, relating to the treatment of Aborigines in Australia. Another thing they had in common was the use of faces staring out of the image, giving the sense that they could see you, which, combined with the blurred, expressive style, gave the paintings a ghostly, spectral presence. The exception to this was a self portrait from 1986, where the eyes had been blotted out entirely by a dark, solid slash of paint. The whole image had been painted with thick smears of paint in dark colours, blues, greys and reds, the central figure having a light blue aura against the black background. The band of spray paint across the eyes dripped down on either side, showing that the can had been held lose to the canvas, and had an impulsive, violent feel.  Once we had looked round the paintings, we discussed our thoughts on them. We discovered that we had all seen the paintings in a different light and it was intriguing to hear everyone's views, as the images were very open to interpretation. Many of them were untitled, adding even more diversity to the range of views we all held, as we discussed the reasons he could have had for leaving them untitled.

We then moved on to a second exhibition, this one by Sheela Gowda. Gowda had made several installations in the gallery’s already impressive space, filling the enormous, churchlike rooms. 

The second day I attended was a visit to Sidney Nolan’s house and studio, now run by the Sidney Nolan Trust, in Presteigne. We were given a tour of the area, including the organic farm and woodland areas, and shown the view that influenced much of Nolan’s later work. Nolan actually bought the property because of this view—there is a deep valley surrounded by jutting hills, and from the bottom of this valley you can look along to where strange hills rise suddenly, places where the rock is harder and so hasn’t eroded away. We also heard how the farm’s organic methods make it much better for wildlife, as well as improving the soil.  Once we had toured the farmland, we had a look around the gallery at several of Nolan’s paintings. One in particular caught my eye; it showed some drops of blood at the very moment they were about to hit the ground, with shadows just beneath them. I was intrigued by this image, showing a moment you could never actually see except with a (perfectly timed, very difficult to capture) photograph.

Another place we visited was Nolan’s studio, still left in its crowded, working state, with cans of paint stacked in shelves along the wall, a table covered in splashes of colour, a canvas against a wall and a crumpled rag that’s original colour couldn’t be seen beneath the paint. Here, Anthony told us more about Nolan’s painting methods. He painted very fast, but collected his inspiration and ideas over years, throughout his life constantly noticing views or moments that contributed to his artwork. He had his beginnings in sign making, and so when he became an artist he found it difficult to use oil paints, as he could not replicate the effects he was used to. Instead, he began using more unconventional materials. He was a particular fan of Riplon gloss paints, often favoured by artists due to their range of colours, as gloss paints don’t mix well. He also used spray paints, stencils, and rags to achieve the effects he wanted.

The day was focused around a project called ‘Stories from Above’/ Air Lab, which uses the concept of looking at the world from above to get a new perspective, especially using technology. We were introduced to the project with a presentation featuring artists and animators such as Marielle Neudecker, Jen Southern, Tacita Dean and Paul Granjon. The project also looks at how technology has changed our perceptions—birds-eye views seem normal to us, but once upon a time they would have been a thing of the imagination alone. Leading on from this, we split into groups and I went to learn about drones. Drones are fantastic. And flying a drone is very fun (though slightly nerve-racking when you know how much they cost!). One of the programmes on the drone enabled it to track someone: you stood, feet together, arms in the air, until it locked on to you, then you could walk around and it would follow you. Considering how many functions needed to be controlled—the height of the drone, direction, angle and direction of the camera—I was surprised by how easy it was to fly.

 After having a go with the drone, we had lunch while discussing our ideas. The final activity was to create a piece of artwork based on Stories from Above, using the drone if we wanted. Me and my friend Amelie were interested by the idea of ripples—how the drone sends out ripples of movement in the air around it or the grass beneath it, and also by the way a view from high up makes the world seem like a model. We decided to combine these ideas by recreating the shape of the ripples in the ground, showing how technology influences the world, as well as incorporating Nolan’s technique of showing what can’t be seen. So we dug some holes. They were, of course, suitably artistic holes, but we did get a bit muddy.  We filmed the work from above with the drone, before heading inside to warm up and see what everyone else had come up with.

The artworks varied a lot, some people opting to use the drone entirely, filming the view from above the trees and then rushing along the ground, all in one long, dramatic sweep, or making patterns that could only be seen clearly with the drone’s high viewpoint.  Others decided to not use the drone at all, instead constructing smaller images on the ground in stones, that again could only be properly seen from above.  One of my favourites was a chalk drawing on a sheet of wood, depicting flying dandelion seeds.  The image just seemed so balanced and elegant, it needed nothing more than the white chalk on the pale wood to make the swirling seeds come alive, frozen in an instant.

Overall, the two days gave me a lot to think about and a great deal of inspiration for my own work.  I really enjoyed looking at and discussing the artwork with the group, and I hope to perhaps make it to all five days next year.  It is certainly safe to say I have gained a new perspective on the world!

Click here to see images of Arts Alive Wales Drone flying day at The Rodd.  

All photograph credits to Sion Marshall-Waters, Arts Alive Wales. 

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