PAINTING . SANDY BROWN
The geological research that can lead to exciting new paints.
In the course of my work as an artist and also as Artistic Director of the Appledore Visual Arts Festival the re is often the opportunity to help emerging artists along the way. When that happens, when one is able to provide the right opportunity at the right time, it is immensely rewarding. One of the most rewarding encounters I have had with a developing artist is with Peter Ward.
He is now old enough to be the father of grown-up daughters, but as a young man, after doing his college degree in illustration, he went to live in a caravan in Ireland for many years, in a sense withdrawing, whilst making a living doing graphic design. He would do his own paintings alongside his commercial work, and they always had a strong connection to the Earth: to mud, to be precise. He would go and look for pigments in the ground.
A few years ago he came back to Barnstaple in North Devon to look after his ageing grandmother. This allowed him time to concentrate on his own work, and he used all his free time to paint. He was, however, working more or less in isolation, which he found hard.
Peter was inspired to begin to make contact with the world when he saw that in 2008 the theme of the Appledore Visual Arts Festival was Earth. He sent in a strong proposal, including images of his simple earth paintings. His application was beautifully laid out in his minimalist graphic style, and all this made us want to meet him to find out more.
We found that he is an engaging character and an excellent communicator, with an effusive enthusiasm for his work and the earth that he uses. We appointed him initially to run a workshop in the North Devon Museum to teach people about the pigments in the earth around the area, and in which participants could use some local earths to create paintings. The museum has a good geological collection because almost every known mineral and pigment has at some time been found in the ground around here and on Exmoor. Since that initial workshop, interest in this work has grown: the museum is now covered in drawings in warm earth reds, and children sit painting in the foyer.
The support that the involvement with Appledore Arts gave Peter was important in building his confidence, strengthening his passion for his work. He roamed all over the area in which he lives, looking at maps and exploring likely places for interesting coloured earths. He went to old quarries, disused clay pits, undeveloped sites and beaches. In his meanderings he made some interesting discoveries.
He found, for example, that near Fremington Quay there is a geological anomaly which has created six usable colours of earth. Around North Molton Peter found an amazing green earth, which looked drab when he found it, but it was definitely green, and it is a real challenge for him to find ways of working with it so that its greenness will show in the painting. When I asked him about it, this is what he said: “The rock I use comes from Heasley Mill, near North Molton, the site of one of the largest copper and iron mines in Europe in the late 18th century, with shafts running 900 feet below ground level. I have picked up and ground small quantities of malachite (a copper carbonate) which is that green you see running out of bronze statues, but it is very hard to use.”
He later discovered by looking at the map that there is a river Umber near Combe Martin. On doing more research he found that it is called the Umber because over 100 years ago the area around it was mined for its umber for use as artists’ pigments. I have lived in this area for over thirty years and did not know that! It was an incredibly exciting discovery, like finding gold.
Within living memory there has been mined in North Devon a good artists’ black called Bideford Black. It is found in a seam that runs from Abbotsham Cliffs several miles inland to Umberleigh, and was prized for its intense blackness. Several paintings in the Burton Art Gallery collection are done by artists using it, and yet few people now know where to find it.
PETER WARD IS now like a man rejuvenated, possessed, with a fresh purpose and determination, as people respond enthusiastically both to the quality and energy in his paintings and to the way in which he creates his materials. His paintings are intuitive, primitive, with an energy, language and colour palette similar to the very first artworks ever made by artists more than 50,000 years ago drawing on cave walls with ochre and clay.
The work is also evidence of Peter’s spiritual journey, as the images move from being tightly controlled to being looser and figurative, to being softly abstract. His latest work is the most mature and for me the most compelling. The paintings are now almost all abstract, with an organic living simplicity showing what could be the very beginning of life, the spiritual heart. To me they look like the building blocks of the universe.
Now there are layers of earth being built up in thick textures, so that Peter is working not only with the colour of the earth but with its granular nature, showing lumps and bumps and grains and stones. He spends time creating thin washes of ochre, enjoying the drab dullness of the clay, and likes allowing the brush marks to show. As layers of fine smearings build up, there is a gentle watery depth to the paint, which glistens slightly with the linseed oil medium. Over this the strong dollops of contrasting colour resonate; the North Molton green becomes strong, forceful – masterful, even. It is all breathing: a living organism that looks familiar. There are interweaving patterns, textures and symbols, responding to incidents experienced and imagined: tales of when the Earth sings deeply with its inherent beauty and vitality.
It has been said that artists remind us of what we have lost, and this is certainly true of Peter Ward. He connects us to the very beginning: to the beginning of the Earth, to the beginning of art and to the beginning of life.
Never again will it be possible to consider the earth as dull brown mud. Peter Ward shows us that the Earth is a rainbow.
Sandy Brown is a ceramicist and a Trustee of the Resurgence Trust.
This article was published in the March/April 2009 (no.253) issue of Resurgence Magazine. The magazine has been published in Hartland, Devon, for the last 40 years and is circulated internationally covering topics relating to earth, art and spirit. Copies of the magazine are available from www.resurgence.org.