Art canít change the world. But it can help us navigate lifeís deeper waters.
Question: How has it been ‘Making Art in Lockdown’ ?
In this year’s heartbreakingly beautiful spring, my walks to Shotover Hill became a lifeline. So many threads that hold our lives together were frayed or broken.
As a self-employed artist, normally making my living from teaching art and sales of paintings, I was in shock at how much my working life would have to adapt.
But, completely hidden away in the woods, well-off the beaten track and with only the birds for company, I kept working. Some days, I couldn’t fully evade the dread at the edge of my mind. And of course I wasn’t alone in that. But other days, I become totally involved in painting.
Becoming absorbed in both deliberate and subliminal decisions in painting can be a way of stilling my mind from the uncertainties of the wider situation.
Perpetual field - Birdsong 7
Painting has something in common with mindfulness practice. And my lockdown work brought this to the fore with moment-by-moment attentiveness to sound.
For several years now, I’ve been working in ancient forests, making abstract paintings not so much of the trees but of the whole sensory experience of being deep in the woods.
This includes letting sounds in the forest influence how the brush moves, particularly in both the The Sound of Trees and Daphne / Retellings series of paintings (2019). Leaves rustling, branches creaking, a red kite exploding from a tree, and a stag crashing through undergrowth are not illustrated literally, but they have all been marked in brush rhythms on the paper.
My lockdown work developed into the Birdsong Perceptual Field project, a series of smaller works transcribing the rhythms and undulations of birds singing in the woods. The simplicity of the colour palette and the use of white space echoes the clarity of birdsong hanging in the clear air.
These paintings may include trees, branches, or tangled undergrowth. But I’m primarily making notations of what I’m hearing. So the lines and shapes mimic, as closely as I can and in real time, the visual shape or pattern of the birdsong. I can’t identify many different birds this way. But I hear their call and response to each other across the woods. The bludgeon cries of alarm. The thin, falling keen of a red kite. A blurred murmuring. A sharp, clear staccato. The two-note chiffchaff. And the baroque ornamentations of a blackbird in full song.
The artist Maggi Hambling once said that if we make can friends with our work — that is, the practice of painting — it becomes something we can be with, even when we’re not feeling up to much. A place where we don’t need pretence or performance, just to be honest and real. In lockdown, I’m testing this idea to destruction, and finding the ways it both is and isn’t true. It’s no substitute for live human contact. But has given moments of respite from the sometimes overwhelming stresses of the current time.
Art can’t change the world. But it can help us navigate life’s deeper waters.
Ella studied art at Oxford Brookes and Winchester School of Art. With a cross-disciplinary background in literature and therapy, she has been a self-employed artist and freelance art tutor for over twenty years.