in conversation with Paul Newman

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

I live in a clearing in a wood, at the bottom of a holloway, just outside Sherborne on the Dorset/Somerset border. It is a beautiful mixed woodland which follows the twisting contours of the surrounding hills, some of which converge on this house. I can look out into the wood on either side of the house, or north towards Milborne Port… but there are also the sounds. Stags bellowing in the autumn, tawny owls calling though the winter night and currently being woken by chiff chaffs and black caps.

What is your chosen medium for recording your work?

The project has given me the focus to try some ideas around what I record when I am out walking and observing. I’m intrigued by the idea of working en plein air, drawing in situ versus moving through the landscape to explore more, and recording quickly. So I’ve used the opportunity to try some very short films (more like animated photos) as well as use the time to re-acquaint myself with my SLR camera. I’m also interested in words, and keeping notes as prompts for further investigation so I’m trying to focus my research a bit more on my chosen area. I’m reading about local history, geology, folklore, place names. I like the fact that words can be a hook for a particular idea or piece, not only for the artist but also for the audience. I will make some drawings but whether these are just from the walk or are worked up afterwards I can’t say.

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

It has always been nature but in particular, certain locations, and exploring them. In what we simply label ‘nature’ I am trying to look beyond (or further into) that, but ultimately realising that ‘nature’ is not as wild as we might expect, so I have become increasingly interested in the politicised, managed or ‘owned’ landscape. It may not be immediately apparent but it is something that I am always thinking about. Some sort of ‘aesthetic’ always calls but often with melancholy or threat behind it.

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

The Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. It has an incredibly diverse geology squeezed into a relatively small area which has created a landscape with unique and curious landmark features, scarred and informed by human activity… but it is also a sanctuary, ecologically rich with pockets of wilderness and hope for the future. I explored the area as a child and it has always held an indefinable magic and mystery to it which demands to be explored. It is not a true island but it is surrounded on three sides by water, which gives it a distinct character- a self-contained territory, alien to the rest of Dorset.

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

Exploring landscape at a walking pace reveals things in a certain way. It is as if the rhythm of walking, through slowly-unfolding terrain is the perfect balance of ‘just enough stillness’ and movement which allows us to think. I guess it is also the excitement of what’s around the corner but I also feel different when I’m walking, it feels right, I think in a different way. Thoughts which have been latent come to the surface when I walk. So being able to walk and develop an idea is part of the process, there is no point just driving to a nice spot. The more challenging the walk, the better.

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 and your resulting work from that walk.

I am part way through developing the work. I have been thinking more about developing my process, to push it a bit more through research and within defined parameters, trying film and thinking about when and where I draw from life. I normally only show ‘finished’ work so Landlinks has encouraged me to be more public with my process, perhaps more importantly, getting to critically engage with that process and trying to move beyond the nervousness around showing ‘unfinished’ work. Collaborating provides new directions for what is essentially a private practice. Ideas around observation, recording and inquiry have been explored more through the project.

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

I am a member of The Arborealists, which was founded by the artist and curator Tim Craven in 2013. The group has a diverse range of practice and approach but unified by one subject. I approached Tim when I was programming and curating exhibitions at Black Swan Arts in Frome, with the idea of showing work by The Arborealists. Working at Black Swan was a big part of my development as an artist and curator as I got to meet and work with a lot of talented, enthusiastic and knowledgeable artists and curators over a few years. Tim was really approachable and we put together a big group show, even managing to secure the loan of a rarely seen Paul Nash piece. I knew I wanted to be part of the group but was nervous about asking and not being accepted so I thought I would work as a curator with Tim first before asking. It also seemed a bit unfair to just ‘ask’. I think there is a lot to be said for putting yourself out there and proving that you can put in the work to help make something happen. Curating enriches my work as you have to think about how different pieces work with each other when you’re pulling a show together and this helps you make new connections and understand more what you’re looking at. There is also the reward when you invigilate and talk about the work with the audience- especially when someone spots something, or asks a question that you hadn’t noticed or thought of. We all learn from each other.

What strikes me about collaborating and curating with artists and people who love art is the desire that we all have to share ideas, tell stories and hopefully inspire others in different ways. One of the things I enjoy about being part of the group is that the subject matter not only provides a rich and diverse subject but I think works really well in appealing to different audiences- it’s not just for those interested in art. I think it’s really important for art to address issues, to challenge, get us to think but to also be inclusive and get us all talking about important issues. Being part of the group allows me help champion what I think is a vital cause- we lose trees and biodiversity, we lose everything.

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?

I am finding Covid 19 a huge distraction and very hard to focus on my artwork. It has made my working life outside of my art practice harder as a lot of conversations and work time has been spent just re-organising work and finding different approaches to how you normally carry out tasks. Plus there is the doubt and uncertainty. I have plenty to keep me going but I need to clear my head before I can focus on current work. The invites to various webinars and online support sessions are useful but sometimes I find these a bit overwhelming and they just add to the ‘noise’.

Once we emerge from lockdown, I think the coast is calling. I’m missing exploring although I have been trying to open up things in other ways by reading more- Wilding by Isabella Tree and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd have been good lockdown companions. It will be good to go back to re-scheduling and re-planning the exhibitions which were lined up.

Photography Drawing the written word all play a part in your creative process. Can you share what each brings?

Because drawing constitutes my main finished work, I find that sketchbook work can be quite difficult as I have to work out when to stop, not overworking things. I think of sketchbooks more as notebooks, a place to record what I have learnt as well as recall what I have seen. So as a place for collecting word prompts, odd thoughts and rough doodles is fine. I’m learning to just be really rough and loose in my sketchbooks, to free up more and more and not judge the results.

Photography can be a great way of generating images rapidly but maybe there is too much reliance on this- we can take as many photos as we like and make them look half decent with editing tricks. So using the SLR again has been a revelation, thinking about composing more, using aperture priority feels far more creative. Having to think before you take a photo, rather than afterwards. It’s interesting looking at how the light registers on different subjects, how we capture detail, when is too much etc.

Words feature in many ways in my process- for some reason, either as research or noting ideas. I love discovering things this way- repeatedly returning to a place, over time and reading about it in-between. It could be somewhere that a poet wrote about, someone else’s account of that place, or scientific/historical/ecological information about a location. I feel that the more I learn about a place (or about nature in general) I’m better-equipped to approach the subject matter when I re-visit- and I always see it differently or anew.

Your work is very atmospheric and the lack of ‘colour’ adds to the ‘mood’ talk a bit about that

I decided a long time ago that I only really wanted to work with graphite. So rather than a decision about the end result, or creating ‘mood’ or atmosphere, it was more a practical consideration about using one material and trying to explore that further. Each time I make a finished piece, I look at what I think and feel I should do differently next time, I see everything that is wrong and want to change what I’ve done. There is so much to explore with just one material, plus the work takes a long time to make so it feels worthwhile pursuing that. I think it’s also a bit of a reaction to ‘being pulled about’ that you experience at college, trying different things which went against what I was feeling at the time. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, it just wasn’t for me. I knew deep down at a young age what I wanted to do, making work in a certain way, I felt very strongly about that. The act of walking, thinking and using relatively basic materials to try and record the world and communicate something feels grounded and something that I want to endlessly explore. Just working in tone allows some kind of distillation I think, not just for me but also the viewer.