in conversation with Janette Kerr

Can you describe where you are and what you can see from your window? 

From my studio windows in North Mendips, where I am currently locked-down, I can see green woods and fields, sometimes deer, people walking dogs with and without children – more so now there is lock-down. On the other side of my studio I overlook the church and graveyard, where I can watch the increasing large numbers of Jackdaws hanging out (rich picking in the ground!) and more recently I’ve spotted a Mistle thrush hopping around the gravestones, which is exciting. However none of this is what I draw or paint.  My studio in Shetland, where I should be right now, overlooks the voe and far hills under a constantly changing sky blown by the winds that come in regularly, moving the colours and shapes of the land and sea. I can always hear the sea. Depending on which way the wind is coming from I know where the big waves will be. This is what I paint and currently what I am really missing the sea.

Sea State 1, Shetland oil on canvas

What is your chosen medium for recording your Landlinks work?

I use oil paint on canvas and I draw using mixed media. I draw en plein air. This is not what I have used for this project. For the Landlinks, given where I found myself for this project - two days after having just returned from 6 weeks in NW Iceland in a very different landscape - wild and white, snowstorms and high winds, mountainous and sea. My head being full of this, there was no way I could start to draw and paint here in a very green and sunny rural Somerset, so I decided to use photography, sound recordings, and writings. Therefore I hope that you will excuse the simplicity of the results, these are not my normal media, although I do write but mainly for my Blog posts.

What and who is the 'driving' force or major influence for your work? 

The weather and northern landscapes are the driving forces/major influence on my work; in particular ‘bad’ weather – although for me this is perfect weather – gale-force wind and big seas.  Wild places on the edge of the land - the simultaneous beauty and terror of the north, which has inspired centuries of thought - both in its transcendent otherness and “destructive force of nature” -  bleak, inhospitable terrains of ice, rock, and ocean. The sea has been a constant in my life  - despite the fact I’ve lived in the north Mendip hills for some time, having a partner who works in Bristol – but for the last 10 years I’ve return to Shetland where I have a house and studio as often as possible. If you are asking about other artists who have influenced me, there are many – Turner, Constable, Eardley, De Kooning, Lanyon, Opdahl, O’Donoghue

Shetland sea 2 oil on board

Landscape is important area of creative exploration to you. Can you describe your favourite landscape and why?

I think I’ve already started to answer this question; I’m always checking where the wind is coming from and which way the clouds are moving. I need to know where to go to find the big waves – bit like surfers do, only the waves I want aren’t the same – they like those big waves that roll in evenly, while I like crazy seas that are unpredictable.  I don’t mind rain or hail or snow. Mist is good, although there are limits! On Shetland the weather changes so fast that I need to know what’s coming in. And if it’s a nice sunny still day – well I can go in the studio and work. I listen to weather forecasts (although for Shetland they’re not always right), I watch the sky and I start to know what’s coming. You can see the dark clouds bringing rain travelling across the sea, the fog rolling across the surface of the water.

Can you talk a bit about walking and the importance of walking in/to your work? 

Working outside is essential. Living on Shetland my paintings emerge from working en-plein-air - walking along shorelines, perching on cliffs above the sea, and, when opportunities arise, taking to the sea. Walking and gathering images in this way is a kind of slow filming, time imbedded in drawings and paintings, ideas emerging through fieldwork, research, reflection, sometimes play/experimentation with materials. Walking/making drawings and paintings in the landscape is a way of having a kind of conversation; a way of fixing the moment and experience of ‘being there’. Crouching with my sketchbook and painting on rocks by the sea, or in snow painting with freezing fingers, being blown across hills by gusts of wind, drenched by spray and sleet, and going home with salt-encrusted hair and skin - it’s all part of how I work.

There’s a physical immersion in landscape when you’re out walking, a resonance between an internalised world and an external one. It all gets inside your head and spills out onto the page when I draw – they are intuitive responses - active engagements with landscape. This is integral to my working process – immersive experiences of observing and experiencing changing land/seas, extremes, physical and meteorological shifts.

The attempt to put down what is ‘out there’ - a vast fluid dynamic environment - shifting with every turn of my head and passing cloud, on a small intimate piece of paper, seems pretty mad – doomed to failure. My drawings are never accurate topographical depictions, but more about reflecting movement through time - what is sensed - I can’t say necessarily understood.

This is the stuff that fuels my paintings. I try to take all this back to the studio and recreate these experiences when I’m working on large canvases. When I look at some of the small drawings made outside I can remember where I was and what was happening, even what I was thinking.

Your recent residency in Nes Studios in Skagastrond NW Iceland was sadly cut short by the Covid 19 outbreak. Can you say a bit about that residency and the impact of that landscape to your work? Will you be returning?

The residency in Skagaströnd, NW Iceland, was supposed to be February and March - 2 months but 6 weeks in we all had to leave and get back to our respective countries because of by the Covid 19 outbreak. My plan during my residency was to respond to the landscape and sea around Skagaströnd, making studies that would form the basis of a new body of work reflecting the temporal and transient nature of the landscape impacted on by the weather and in relation to the fluid nature of drawing and painting. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about what might emerge since place, weather, circumstances encountered would all be factors in development; this is how it should be during such a residency - a degree of chance-taking - I wanted to see what Skagaströnd did to me. Conversations with other artists provided opportunities to share and incubate ideas; such interactions always feed the mind and nourish the work. Breadth of engagement with different disciplines experientially allows my work to develop in cross-disciplinary directions. I made work while I was there that was sometimes ephemeral - experimenting with freezing watercolour, pinhole solagraphs. I don’t yet know what or if anything will come from this. I spent a lot of time out walking and drawing in crazy weather. This is all still there in my head and in the work I brought back and will form the basis of a new body of work at some point. The experience of working in a landscape of mountains and snow and drifting mist both here in Iceland and when I was in Svalbard, left me with a strong desire to continue to work more intensively with such extreme landscapes. I will go back.

Spakonufell Mountain watercolour on paper

You are part of the Landlinks project and the synchronised walk that took place on 22nd March. We would love to hear your feedback on this networking initiative 

Two days before the synchronized walk project began I was in Iceland in a snowstorm, so I didn’t have time to really think about what I was going to do before I found myself out walking. My head was still there, so I don’t think that what I have made is particularly good, but it has been an interesting and challenging thing to do. I like the idea of other artists all simultaneously being out walking and responding in their own ways. And if there is an exhibition that emerges from it then this is great. I did another walk project while I was in Iceland –Terminalia - ‘Walking the Invisible - A short walk of any distance from 5 paces to 50 kilometres that takes place along an invisible boundary’, celebrated on February 23rd, the last day of the Roman year. The results were put up on our own Blogs with links on this site: Terminalia was a less prescriptive walk project and worked better for me, mainly because I was in Skagaströnd in a landscape and weather that I had elected to be in and which I found stimulating; I am afraid that the Mendips, however lovely they are, don’t

Your paintings and drawings have a power and stimulate an emotive response from the viewer. How did the Landlinks walk influence you and did it introduce changes to the work you plan to exhibit in the Landlinks exhibition when it happens? 

I feel that I have had to make the work for this far too quickly in a place that I didn’t really want to be, so what I’ve made is not what I usually do. I do like writing about places so I have done this – sorry, I feel that I’m making excuses for the work I’ve made. I had never been to this location before, chose it fairly randomly on the map, and had no idea what I would find or what to take with me – I stuffed drawing materials into my rucksack but in the end didn’t use them as there didn’t really feel like there was enough time. Once there I tried to think myself into the place; I used my macro lens and spent quite a lot of the time lying on the ground, crawling about looking at and photographing things that are often unnoticed and hidden in the undergrowth, and recording sound. Negotiating the terrain - climbing over and under fallen trees, losing the path, scrambling up slippery banks, and getting tangled in bracken and brambles. And just sitting listening and writing notes about what I could see/feel/smell/hear and I did try to use the words we’d been given, which I pulled randomly out of a bag not knowing which would emerge.

So I’ve made a piece incorporating words with images from each location with a kind of narrative running through it. I have also attempted to make a kind of film using still photographs with the sound recorded on site. I’ve struggled with putting it all together in iMovie because of my lack of knowledge and experience (been on a steep learning curve). Again the piece I’ve made has a kind of narrative with a beginning and ending - a sense of progressing. I just hope it’s okay.

You state you like to ‘stay’ with a place and imbed yourself in the landscape, so how did you find this change in approach and have you returned to the chosen Landlinks place. 

Knowing the history of a place is important to my understanding of a landscape and I‘m interested in embedding in my work references to the material culture that forms part of the history and narratives of a place. Such an approach was not possible for the Landlinks project; I had to select somewhere quickly and somewhere I hadn’t been before. Afterwards I did look it up on an old map and learnt something of old mining work that went on there, but I just haven’t felt that I can incorporate any of this into the work I’ve made - it takes a lot more time to do this. ). I don’t think I will go back there though. (I’ve just re-read the last response I made about what I did while out on the walk –on reflection I think I was quite ‘embedded’ – in a physical sense!)

Do you collaborate with other artists or groups? If so who and why? 

I don’t often collaborate with other artists, but for the last three years I’ve been working with film and sound artist Jo Millett on a project we developed on Shetland in 2017, which was a new venture for me. With funding from Creative Scotland, we developed a kind of immersive piece about an old fishing station, working with local residents, archives and museums, investigating the traces of a once thriving industry.  Interested in the journey from the fishing station beach to the far haaf, we used video, film and sound to re-imagine events and activities on shore and sea.  The three screen video and sound installation was shown in Shetland Museum and Archives in July and August 2017 and was supposed to be on tour this year in Shetland and Scotland, but is now been postponed to 2021. More details:  This was good for me as it was working with new media (although the technical editing stuff I left to Jo). It’s a different way of thinking and something that I would like to do again, so our collaboration may continue.
Having put the images of the walk together and added a sound track I'd recorded I realised that the piece needed something more - something that would take the way the images are seen/considered to another place.  So I contacted artist Michael Fairfax who makes strange and wonderful instruments and sounds works and asked if he would be willing to collaborate. And I’m so pleased that he said yes. The result is pretty good. ( It’s made me think of other possible future projects that might involve such a collaboration.

The Covid 19 is having a massive impact on so many lives. Are you able to say what effect it is having on your working/creative life and what you have planned once Covid 19 retreats? 

As an artist I spend most of my time alone in my studio working so not that much has changed. But all my deadlines for this year are currently on hold; I have solo show that was scheduled for May 2020 but that might now be in October, the installation tour is now going to be in 2021, as is my solo show at the Pittenweem Art Festival. What will happen to all the shows I was already scheduled to do in 2021 I really can’t say… it’s chaotic and I can’t think about it at the moment. For now I continue to work in my Somerset studio – working on paintings that I thought I’d finished and now think otherwise. I also have all the work I made in Iceland that needs my attention. My plan is to get back to Shetland as fast and as soon as possible, to get out into that landscape and breath and make work. Lots.

Just thought I’d add this as I think it relates to my thoughts about walking and traveling and making artwork:

19th century Romantic writers saw walking and traveling as essential to experiencing nature: ‘there is hardly anything that shows the shortsightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than traveling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feeling’ writes William Hazlitt. For Hazlitt moving one’s body also moves one’s thinking, and both end up in new and unknown destinations: ‘We measure the universe by ourselves, and even comprehend the texture of our being only piece-meal. In this way, however, we remember an infinity of things and places’. Walking holds out possibilities for convergence of head, heart, and limbs, making for an awakened instant  - ‘spots of time’ as Wordsworth referred to such moments where we glimpse, and perhaps participate in a communion with ‘something other’. For both Hazlett and Henry David Thoreau walking brings us to the edge where mind and nature meet, allowing transcending of boundaries. Out there, Hazlett suggests, ‘we can experience the new, even if such knowing means only to touch at nature's vast strangeness’. Walking is a way of transcending personal limits - walking into wildness.