It has been very cold in Corris and I have long forgotten what the tips of my fingers and toes feel like. I have spent much of my time over the past two weeks improving my fire making skills and it turns out turpentine drenched paint rags make for wonderful firelights.
I found myself in Corris this November as an artist in residence at Stiwdio Maelor, a modest is-what-it-is residency run by, artist and printmaker, Veronica Calarco. Corris itself is a small village in North Wales, postcard picaresque and seemingly ninety-five percent made from slate, a local resource. For coffee, wifi, and homemade seafood chowder, Adam & Andy’s cafe is thirty steps from Maelor’s front door and the Slaters Arms is a dozen steps in the other direction for beers. And splendidly, that’s about it.
At Maelor I was joined by writer Earl Livings from Melbourne Australia and visual artist Patrick Manning from Albuquerque New Mexico. Ma friend Yuki Aruga and I shared the attic space together. Yuki and I have known each other since we met as students at Camberwell Art College, and more recently we began sharing a studio together back in London. In the second year of college, when we were also living together, we would spend our time eating ketchup and watching Back to the Future on repeat, and working alongside each other once again, we have found nothing much has changed.
Corris is surrounded by the hills and mountains of Snowdonia. Yuki and I, plus new friend Rowboat, spent the first Sunday a short drive away, walking part way up Cadair Idris. As the weather was grey, we didn’t reach the top and stopped at Llyn Cau, where we watched the wind drag hundreds of tiny waves from one side to the other. While we stood imagining how deep the water might be, the clouds continued to follow us up the mountain and collect, hanging above the lake like steam above a big pot of stew. Standing there in the wind, we regretted that on the way up, when we had become too hot, we had decided to leave all of our extra layers tied to a fence post, to collect on the way back down. The weather was dull that day but the colours of autumn were dramatic and loud.
After a long while of working in a studio by myself, it has been refreshing to have another body of work developing alongside my own, as well as nice to have someone to say stuff out loud to. This year, I have watched Yuki paint taxidermy birds and snakes amidst flowers and foliage, suspended midair they delicately comment on the passing of time, nostalgia… death and other topics related to experiencing existential crises. My own work is rooted more so in the formalities of painting, although the content is undeniably based on landscape, I am more interested in how I can take it apart.
While sharing the attic space, Yuki and I also wanted to do something vaguely collaborative, so we chose to keep a joint sketchbook diary, a sort of drawing conversation. One drawing per day, responding somehow to what the other drew previously. I found it constructive to have some form of combined and consistent thread running through our time on the residency. The drawings mostly reflected on our day to day observations, the clouds that followed us on our trek up Cadair Idris, the crystal clear reflection of the trees at Llyn Cynwch, the glowing and slightly charred window of the stove, and the views we enjoyed through the van window driving between Corris and Dolgellau.
On our last evening, we did a show and tell, where we shared the picture conversation with Veronica, Earl and Patrick, and last minute special guest and previous Maelor resident, Jess Raby. In all sharing our thoughts on the diary, it seemed the loose visual exchange seemed to compliment the string of short conversations we all seemed to have had at Maelor. The words we exchanged when we were coming and going, while taking our muddy shoes off in the hallway or at breakfast waiting for the kettle to boil. Along with a few lengthier and roaming conversations at the Slaters Arms.
It was in these moments that we would hear from Patrick about his evening excursions. Almost every dark wintery evening, Patrick went out walking to take long exposure photographs in the woods. Bit by bit, we would hear from him about where he had headed, how cold it had been, how he had danced to keep warm!, how peaceful it was in the dark and the trouble he had been having with the windy conditions making some of the exposures blurry. All the time, constructing in my imagination my own nighttime photography.
At the show and tell we had the pleasure of seeing some of the images for real. The dark is delicately infiltrated by the streetlights and the traffic in the distance. If it were not for the long exposure there would have been very little light visible at all. Given the time, though, in the photographs, the light gently interrupts and takes on new qualities. In my favourite, the light appears through the trees like a molten gold lake.
Throughout our stay, we had all taken numerous walks through this landscape. Often in quiet contemplation, though the tall creaky trees, over the broken slate, damp peat, and springy moss footing. Yuki definitely thrives on the outdoors and would often go out wandering twice in one day. I, on the other hand, require dragging out of the house, then, once we’re off, I can’t think of anything better. I have always been this way given the option between going for walks and exploring or staying inside and making stuff. I need reminding sometimes that the two go hand in hand. Cue Yuki avec cattle prod.
A lot of my recent sketches are full of vertical scribbly marks and look as though they were drawn using a seismograph, recording an earthquake of magnitude massive. Connections like this alone have an effect on the way that I choose to hold and move my pencil, pen or brush, and in turn, also direct me in terms of what it is that I’m looking to paint from. Lately, I have been on the lookout for mess. In Corris, Yuki and I could walk out the front door and be surrounded by the woods in minutes, and the woods were messy. Lots of the leaves had already fallen, so the trees were naked and spindly, and the branches and forest floor below, littered with the debris. Across the valley, the terrain was mossy green, brown, ochre and burnt mauve, unevenly knitted together. Reminding me again, of how much I like Andreas Eriksson’s rugged hand-woven yarn canvas’. Another kind of mark entirely, I have had an urge to try this myself and I would like to work with these knotty and folded hills.
My work usually hops between sketchbook and canvas but lately, I have been relying more on sketchbooks. Partly because I have done a lot of travelling and logistically they are easier to take out with me but also because, somewhat inexplicably, it is what I most feel like drawing in at the moment. Possibly, it is the scribbly nature of my drawings which dictates this preference, scribbling is fast and on some level feels throwaway.
he underlying awareness, for a piece potentially being got rid of, destroyed or simply becoming unimportant on its completion has underpinned a few developments in my work over the past couple of years. I painted a huge piece of canvas for Iavor Lubomirov, knowing that, ultimately, it would be cut up to become part of a series of collaborative painting-sculptures. Then, on an earlier residency in Peru, I knew that, given the humidity of the Amazon Rainforest, a few of the paintings I did on sheets of acrylic would never dry in time to bring home. I found a freedom in making this kind of work. With the piece for Iavor, knowing that the final outcome was out of my control, I felt at ease taking more risks. And with the short-lived paintings I made in Peru, the act became about putting down marks purely to encourage me to look harder, a kind of focus I am striving for constantly in all of my work, paradoxically even with the work I intend to keep.
This might seem to infer that my work is indeed primarily about its subject matter. Yet, as much as I am interested in looking, looking is also the means by which I arrive at any given composition and collection of marks. Allowing observation to fully guide visual description, while remaining poetically detached from reality. Plainly put, the harder I look, the more interesting my drawings and paintings are.
I joke that I make better, more interesting marks when I’m not looking at the page at all. Yet, so often I find it to be true and for that reason I have been paying attention to it, looking for other ways to achieve a similar effect. Drawing very quickly, unconsciously scrawling or drawing on top of textured surfaces, interrupting any hope of a straight line. With these intentions in mind, the rules change again when considering working on canvas and on a larger scale. At Maelor, I instead worked with the practicalities involved with using the smaller drawings to work from, attempting to reiterate as well as enlarge them onto canvas; finding that, re-articulating in paint, marks made with a biro, has its own set of complications.
On our last weekend, John and Julie Box (me mum and dad) drove over from York with Rufus (dog) to walk with us one afternoon. We had been recommended the Precipice Walk near Dolgellau. Rufus went wild the whole time, which terrified me, as for most of the way round, on one side there is a drop, very steep and a long way down. And Rufus did not seem concerned. The nutter. As we set off late afternoon, the sun was low in the sky, spilling a silver light across Cardigan Bay and all the way up the Afon Mawddach. Fairly breathtaking.
Pulling into King’s Cross Station, I’m missing the views already. Hwyl fawr!
-Abi Box, AiR November 2016