Miranda Creswell , Two lives floating
pastel, pencil on paper 2008
Rivers can be monsters, as many people who have been affected by flooding will testify. Certainly once the flooding has receded; it is hard to imagine what power, what strength, has caused so much destruction.
Since working alongside archaeologists of the research group EnglaID, I have had many interesting conversations with Tyler Franconi (researcher and Roman specialist) about how humans have tried to harness this power, and how it seems to have shaped them in turn.
My written thoughts for this blog on rivers, cannot be said to come directly from such a researched perspective or from a geomorphological or archeological point of view, unlike Tyler and the rest of the EnglaID team; but rather from the view point of someone who by observation, uses drawing as a way of thinking about rivers.
‘We can never neatly separate what we see from what we know’
E.H Ghombrich , The Story of Art 1950
When looking at a river, maybe one should say that one could never neatly separate what we see, from what we can only guess at? from we do not know?
The body of water which is rushing past you, has come from somewhere else, and been seen and ‘shaped’ by other humans and landscapes, so (unless we have direct information) we can only imagine, where this water has arrived from.
This is a different observation from looking at an oak tree for instance, which is very much rooted to the spot; it does not, unlike water, slip past you.
There is also the question as you look at moving water, of where the water that you have just seen goes afterwards? How long will it be until it eventually flows into the sea?
What we do know, if we stop to think about this, is that the river cannot be ‘neatly separated’ from its banks. It is held by the landscape, the earth around it.
Its depth can never be revealed unless there is a severe drought.
Drawing rivers many times, I have come to imagine a game in which the river becomes a multi faceted tool, (like a pen knife with many parts) with which to think about the surrounding land, for instance:
-The river as a spirit level showing the marked difference between the comparative flatness the water (although not rushing water) and the land it cuts through, a way of measuring ruggedness in the landscape.
-The river as a measuring rod, which can be used by comparing previous observations: using a particular stone or root on the bank indicating high or low water. An interesting refined example of this, as pointed out by Tyler Franconi are Nilometers, this is a picture of the measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo, dated circa AD 861.
– The river as a mirror to the sky, which can, in the turn of a head, be linked to the river becoming a lens with which one can look into the depths of the river: two mostly unattainable worlds for humans, seen in the clink of an eye.
– As a store, somewhere to throw things into, why is this so appealing?
-As a measure of movement: one can watch something float in the river and contrast this with a different rate of movement seen in the surrounding landscape, such as clouds or in swaying grass.
A sherd of Neolithic Mortlake ware found on the foreshore at Bermondsey , London.
Photo and description by Courtney Nimura .
Bermondsey flints: A collection of flint debitage found on the foreshore at Bermondsey , London. Photo and description by Courteney Nimura.
Another question that I have found interesting is where is the most powerful part of an image of a river? Where is the tension in the image? While walking along the water meadows near Eynsham lock, I noticed that the long riverside grasses where pointing vertically into the river, which was running horizontally.
At that moment, it seemed clear to me, that the most powerful part of this scene, was the meeting place of the horizontality of the bank and vegetation and the vertically rushing water.
In his book Water and Art, David Clarke writes about how the minimalist artist Mondrian early influences, might have been made while observing and painting riverine landscape. Mondrian’s use of the vertical and horizontal, in his most recognizable series, may have been directly linked to early observations of river landscape.
Piet Mondrian, Geinrust Farm with Truncated Tall trees and saplings 1905-7
Bleech works on the Gein 1902 , Watercolour,
present whereabouts unknown
These observed thoughts do not, in keeping with the slipperiness rivers, bring any firm conclusions, but rather an ongoing interest in the many different ways that humans co exist alongside rivers, and with the puzzle that is moving water, and how to respond to it.
One of the more practical methods that I have been using as an artist is to draw each day. Partly in order to immerse myself in landscape, this has always been the subject matter, whether observed or imagined. Some days the landscape drawings are made very fast, other times longer.
The daily rhythm has, however, enabled me to observe river landscape over several seasons and to begin to gain accumulated knowledge of stretches of river, mostly in the Oxfordshire region.
Partly due to this methodology, river ideas have been incorporated into two ongoing EnglaID collaborative projects. One of these is to look at the river Mersey and think about human identity from each side of its banks. The project is called ‘Across the Water’ and is in collaboration with the University of Liverpool, Williamson Art Gallery and Museum and Oxton St Saviour’s School in Birkenhead and St Christopher’s School, Speke, in Liverpool. An exhibition at Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in the summer of 2016 will mark the end of this exciting project, involving over 100 students, archaeologists, teachers, an author and some of the EnglaID team.
The second project ‘Looking Out’ is in collaboration with the charity Horatio’s Garden at the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment at Salisbury Hospital.
The project is, in part, looking at the archeology of the river Avon and the surrounding landscape, but also from the perspective of different disciplines and the hospital community. The end product will be an interactive web site and 5 composite pictures to be place in single rooms in the spinal unit at Salisbury Hospital.
More details these projects will follow on this blog, as they evolve!