Julian Marshall: Drawn to the Arctic

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

Larks sing on the Isle of Foula and over Fair Isle; St Kilda’s desolation is echoed by the haunting call of oyster-catchers and even a cuckoo calls on North Rona. These islands ‘at the edge of the world’, off Scotland’s north-west coast, are remote indeed and hard to reach but they speak a familiar language. To return – as I did last week (28 May 2008) from a voyage among those islands, some now deserted but which once were key sites in Iron Age kingdoms or early Christian times, calls up rusty knowledge to link known places with the newly-visited. And in some peculiar way this process diminishes my artistic response.

In contrast, the impact of my first contact with the Arctic was truly powerful. Totally inhospitable it mocks modern life’s expectations. There is a compelling fierceness in the combination of sea, mountain, ice and snow and the immensity of it all – stretching away to infinity – which is overwhelming. Our little ship felt as insignificant as Leif Ericsson’s longboat. First morning, first voyage, at 6.30 a.m. a judder ran through the ship; it could only mean one thing – ice! From the deck we marvelled at the surrounding brash ice carpeting the sea with here and there vast bergs towering above it. Colours within the ice are startling. There are vivid ultramarine stripes, undercut slabs of deep, soft turquoise, areas with blue ‘combed’ markings and an underwater ‘skirt’ may be dark green or cerulean depending on sky colour and the state of the sea. Pure white snowfields cover the gentler slopes. As the ship passed, the viewpoint changed very fast: a problem I had to solve by outline-only drawings of the bergs, with quick notes of shadow and colour – one has the caption ‘Sydney Opera House’.

‘Whale!’ a humpback was spotted and the Zodiacs (inflatable boats) were launched and manned. The distant coastline of grim mountains was backdrop to our drama; the whale sported, then dived showing his tail flukes – we were within 20 feet of him, so could even see the knobs on his head as well as his huge white flippers. Yet I did not feel real fear, despite our flimsy craft; was this confidence in our driver’s experience and skill or trust that the whale was only curious about us, as we were about him? The drawings I made that day are full of excitement and immediacy.

Fast-changing weather requires constant sketchbook work in the comfort of the Bridge (relative, if the ship is pitching!) or perilously perched on the rubbery flank of a Zodiac, where I can just manage a pencil or pastel from my coat pocket, A5 notebook in the other. A major problem is smudging; any drawing has to be tucked quickly away from spray or wind. Occasionally there comes an opportunity to use my mini water-colour box. Painting on the quayside in Qagortok brought the local children round in swarms! And swarms of flies gathered round the seal flensing at the market-place – how do you draw those? These drawings – some 10 books full – provide me with a vivid recall of the special moment and place when, some months later, I begin a series of screenprints. It seems necessary to leave space between the experience and the expression of it; as if a ruminative or ‘digestive’ process must be completed.

After the open sea, narrow fjords can have a brooding, oppressive presence. Their deeply-scarred rock walls, divided by glaciers – striped like pillow-ticking – knife down into dark water which perfectly reflects them, if there is no funnelling wind raking the surface. Scarves of thin mist often swathe the flanks of the mountains and their summits disappear behind more threatening clouds. Some of Svalbard’s northern inlets are more akin to Scottish sea-lochs, with low rolling hills which may still be piebald with snow. Scree and beaches of shingle make them greyer perhaps, but ashore the tiny polar willow, saxifrages or arctic buttercup give welcome colour. These landings are when a ‘recce’ must be made by the Expedition Leader: no landings if polar bears are sighted – they are not to be disturbed. One landing at Jacobsenbukta was foiled by two large male bears on the shore, so we spent an hour watching them from the Zodiacs. Our next animal encounter was a lot closer! A big herd of walrus (80 – 100) was basking on a sunny shingle ridge. Approaching gently we could soon SMELL the great sleeping, snoring, belching beasts! They are huge with formidable tusks; some took to the water where their clumsiness became agility and, ever curious, one or two came to within arm’s reach of us humans. Amazing! What a privilege to enjoy such a special hour so close to wild creatures. My pencil was busy!

 

 

It is almost impossible to imagine 18th-century Russian Pomor hunters surviving here in Svalbard; killing seals, whales and doubtless walrus too. But then at least the contest between men and animals was fairer than when the better-equipped Norwegian whalers staked out their killing-grounds in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their depredations decimated stocks, which are only now recovering with protection. There are hunters’ shacks at many of the prime whaling sites; some are unbelievably frail, seeming neither weather- nor bear-proof – a few are still in use. At Gashamna, in Bell Sund, whale skulls lie in the sand like ancient, bleached tree stumps; these are venerable objects, whose pitted and patinated forms attract rather than repel. Very different are the prodigal heaps of Beluga bones along the shore at Kap Toscana – horribly reminiscent of Belsen or Dachau. These white whales were caught by nets in the shallow bays and brought close to extinction in the 1920s. Under drawings done here is noted ‘sleety, grey, cold, flat light, low cloud’; indeed, the air temperature was only 3° C, so I am impressed by my determination to stand and sketch.

Gales are difficult to portray. Braced upright in a corner of the Bridge as spray flings itself high over our bows and the windscreen wipers can barely cope with the onslaught, I feel hugely exhilarated by the white-crested waves tearing past, the wild skies and the need to ‘cling on for dear life’! One Force 8 gale, off Bear Island (74o 29’ N) reminded me of the utter concentration of mind and body required on climbing trips with the mountaineering club in British Columbia years ago. Perhaps my present passion for the world of rock, ice and snow is a revival of that earlier enchantment? But the storm drawings are mostly a mess.

 

On a late, calm evening, warm light transforms ice and sea with an opalescent satin finish: softer, subtler than the day’s brilliant white and blue. In Scoresby Sund stranded ice forms a vast ‘Berg City’, truly theatrical against the background of The Red Isle. These grounded giants are, I suppose, eroded not only by melt but by wind, full of gritty ice particles. Extraordinary arches – one as high as the clerestory in Chichester Cathedral – grottoes and slabs like Dover cliffs are there, static as our Zodiac glides quietly amongst them. Hunkered down among the photographers whose clicking capture of the scene was so much easier, I used blue and green pastel in my A5 Arboreta notebook – eyes on the berg, not on my page, in the urgency to savour and use a unique opportunity.

 

Starting to work on an ‘Arctic Series’ is both exciting and anxious. The waiting ream of pure white paper is inhibiting… the inks too hard to mix… the weather’s wrong… it is even tempting to weed the garden or clear out the fridge in this state of mind. It really is difficult to ‘catch the moment’. Forcing oneself to work often ends in disappointment. What does constitute the ‘right moment’? I think it must be a combination of mood, a surfacing of interior reflection and an energy (or impetus) triggered by my sketchbooks, which can return me in spirit to the original source of joy.

 

The Voyages
2000 Passage to Greenland: Reykjavik – Sondre Stromfjord
2003 Circumnavigation of Svalbard (Spitzbergen Archipelago)
2004 East Greenland: Keflavik – Scoresby Sunday
2007 Iceland – Jan Mayen – Bear Island – Spitzbergen
2008 Scotland: Islands on the Edge
2009 Possibly: NE Canada, Ellesmere and Baffin Islands

 

 

Julian Marshall

Following the award of my first class BA Hons degree in English and Art (University of Chichester 1990) and MPhil (University of Southampton 1994) I have been working as an artist for over a decade. I give workshops and lectures for a range of groups including West Sussex Art Societies, Dinton Summer School, Wiltshire and regular visits to ‘Conquest’ in Godalming (Art for the Disabled). I have provided book illustrations and undertaken commissions for the Tourist Board and Chichester Theatre.

Inspired by the Arctic, I am repeatedly drawn back by the strange ice forms, the energy in the light and its reflections and the vigour of the mountains, which have fired my printmaking. I hope the prints created in my studio and on presses at Northbrook College, Worthing, capture the atmosphere of the extraordinary places of the Far North. Places that challenge the comforts of everyday life; places most people will never have the privilege of experiencing.

In addition to printmaking, I enjoy the directness of working in charcoal, linocut, collograph and dry-point. I move frequently between these media, using that best suited to the feel of the subject matter.

 

Future Exhibitions
2008 July - Red Biddy Gallery, 7 King’s Road, Shalford, GU4 8JU
2008 August - Printmaker’s Cut, Oxmarket Galleries, Chichester, PO19 1YH
2008 October - Stride Open Competition, Chichester
2008 November - The National Open Art Competition, Chichester
2009 Possibly Sussex Barn Gallery, West Dean College, Chichester

 

Recent Exhibitions have included:
Solo shows: The Oates Museum, Selborne (2007) Annual Open Doors (2001 –2008), The John Palmer Centre, Bramley (2004)
Group shows: Wine Street Gallery, Devizes (2005), Red Biddy Gallery, Shalford (2004, 2005) and in Winchester, Dorking, Amersham, Farnham, Southampton and as far afield as Suffolk as well as in London.

 

 

 

© Julian Marshall 2008. Anyone wishing to discuss Julian’s work or to arrange a visit to her studio are invited to contact her at: Itchenor Gate House, Itchenor Green, Chichester, West Sussex PO20 7DA. Tel: 01243 512815 E-mail: Brianmarshall4@tiscali.co.uk

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