Research June - July 2006
I proposed to explore the ancient process of fresco painting for my residency at St Nicholas Church, wanting to see how this would expand my interest in surface texture in painting, and following a trip to Florence and Tuscany last year, to see how fresco could be used for my own painting methods.
As part of my research I went to a 5 day fresco course in the beautiful Mells in Somerset, studying Fresco with Fleur Kelly, a professional fresco artist who was one of two artists on the tv programme re-enacting Michelangelos Sistine Chapel. This course was learning the basic techniques.
I am now getting more confident in using the method and am beginning to explore how fresco can work within my current practice. The church residency will be a chance to explore this in greater depth and in response to being in such a beautiful setting. Gathering materials has taken a lot of time, also deciding on the type of bases. I have made some to fit along the wall around the churchyard (the old sea wall) though they could be adapted depending on what I decide.
Other research has involved drawing the river Mersey at different tide times, particularly looking at the contrasting conditions and moods. These I hope will inform some of the work, contemplating water as a poetic image, and interpreting the church's role as the 'Sailors Church', with its Maritime Chapel commemorating those lost at sea.
The residency - Monday 14th August
Drove along the dock road in the rain, and the river seems empty, lots of the river bed visible.10am arrived at the church. The peace and stillness seemed overwhelming, even more than my previous visits. A few men were drinking in the garden. I was shown my basement studio, discussing again with the organisers that the emphasis is on having time to develop work. After unloading all my materials, I made some observational drawings around the church, particularly looking at windows and light patterns falling on the floor. This kind of drawing helps me think in new ways and helps me absorb the mood. I think because my work is two-dimensional, it will be harder to make it so site-specific and not look like a painting hung on the wall. I keep thinking of the river drawing I becaume almost obsessive about, and about Tacita Deans work I was reading about last night, the idea of searching for something lost. Very beautiful drawings and film pieces, however I want to make work that also expresses the healing nature of water, not only melancholy. People come here to pray or think about lost loved ones. Some who have been lost at Sea and are listed in the book in the Maritme Chapel.
I made some exterior drawing, thinking about how swamped the church is by huge contemporary archtecture still being completed. I felt that in a way there were many avenues I could explore, yet I only have two weeks not a year...In my basement, made some ink studies of low tides. Textures of the river bed like the wet sand of fresco plaster. Made the first amount of arriccio, this process quite absorbing to watch but - no-one can see me down here. However this is a relief in the end as the mixture seems too liquid and the base hasnt been made right so it all falls through the base. The wooden laths too far apart. Realised I've spent a long time from trying to get the bases right today and in the research phase, but not not as much time actually painting them yet - which is frustrating and I'm eager to explore colour.
In the afternoon I couldn't get into the church! One key is missing from my set and it had needed to be locked. However this is only for today, and I am very priviledged to have the keys as can move around this special building as I work. So I work on two small frescos in my basement. Coming out of the basement side door later, hordes of smartly dressed men and women leaving work. I go down to the river to draw, looking at flowing rythums and the directional flow.
Tuesday 15th August
Turns out the Cactus Appreciation Group had been in the basement room last night! My stuff all carefully moved though. Started making more bases. Exploring ideas about light, light on water, memory of water, and flow. Talked a bit more to the security man about the churches recent activities ie the meals in the refrectory which have now stopped after 12 years due to everyone getting older and wanting to go out instead. Also I have met the curate who is quite new here. I made some drawings from the upstairs refrectory during the service while the left chapel is illuminated. The windows and light reminding me of some little drawings I made in Ireland of Yeats Tower of the Winding Stair. Though I dont know if the drawings are that useful. In the afternoon I made two small frescos on the MDF/hessian method. I like this because its not so heavy but the edges look wierd and theres a way of framing them using lime mortar but I havent tried it yet. This will need to be done in a few weeks when they are dry. The frescos link and look as if split down the middle, with the aim being one side has a movement away to the distant top left and the other circling inwards below. I have this idea of water resembling something far away and hard to reach but on the other hand comforting and protective.
Wednesday 16th August
Morning: Severine my friend who is doing a short video about my fresco project came to film. It was fun though I get so self conscious. Plastering the intonaco led to problems of the coarse sand coming up to mix in with it. So this may be in the film. Had telephone advice from Fleur to resolve this - leave the base layer longer. But this all takes patience and planning - two things I am not usually good at! Sev and I were able to sample the lovely cakes from the stall outside. The odd homeless person comes in to the church to ask for cups of tea etc. In the afternoon I painted on this base and found the paint covered the grains anyway, and am happy to try new things with the texture of the plaster. Painting on the wet plaster it feels much more alive than canvas. I spoke to the warden and organiser to check its OK to work up in the Narthex (foyer) occasionally as this basement room feels so cut off and also not that church-like.
This residency has been a realy good shake up for me. I feel reminded of so much work I want to make now and in the future. Years of being in the same studio can make me avoid having to assert myself, and also the distraction part time jobs which at the moment I don't have. Also last year I didnt make much finished pieces due to other commitments, so this has been a chance to really get going.
Thursday 17th August
Today I decided to continue working in the basement anyway to resolve what I want with the pigments in the fresco. At 11.55 am almost in despair! Feels like there's been a lot of physical work, sorting materials, layering plaster, finally painting, and as yet few results that match the exhaustion. Am still adding more to the fresco I did yesterday as what seemed delicate then now seems limited. The reason despair kicked in is probably that the larger bases I've made are wrong, firstly the slats are too big and plaster falls through. Secondly they are made to size for my idea of attaching them to the outer wall of the courtyard. But have now twice seen children climbing all over the wall - so the fresco would not last long there. Will need another wood work half - day on Sunday - just when I want to be doing more the creative thing and less manual stuff. I guess I find all art a struggle though, but just have a need to keep at it. When am immersed or it surprises me though I then enjoy it.
Did I read somewhere about spiritual connotations of some of these pigments. I can't locate where....but originally each had its own special use, wheras I am using them intuitively in my own way.
I was getting bogged down with 'seascape' when I also want to think about colour & mark and how to make rythums with these reflecting the changes within the sequences of drawings. Also though I like some of the space in each drawing within the blank page which I seem to lose a bit when combining them like in fresco 2. Though I suppose a new space is created, linking the drawings. I like the idea of marks or texture areas as indicitaive of links in time or memories.
Friday 18th August
Re-realising my need to absorb things about the church while I'm here, to work out what it means to me, and to connect with people here. I move a table and some work upstairs to the Nathex. The foyer area which is separated from the main church by huge etched glass doors. I am working looking towards the font - container of the holy water of life. Will I incorporate this into my work? I don't know yet.
I picked up some new Lime putty for the plastering and its amazing, much better texture and less watery. Wiley at 'Liver Grease' where I bought this is curious about the project and showed me his aerial prints of St Nicholas and the Mersey and docks.
By 1.05pm everything is transformed. I feel more engaged with the place, the people within it and its visitors. I made the intonaco layer here in the church, and am about to paint. Yesterday the storm helped and I got into painting at last but it generally wasn't a good day. The mood and atmosphere of working here is amazing, I feel quite privileged to be made so welcome here. Especially as I am a non church goer. Its quite amazing to be included simply because I'm an artist and for people to come and talk because I'm making artwork. Thought about Rothko's room at the Tate Modern, wishing I could make something huge and deep coloured using the pigments. Wondering if its OK to work while the midday service os on, or if someone comes in to pray. The curate says yes, there is the glass door and in Medieval churches there would be a hive of activity with craftsmen and markets. He is practicing this evening for his first Liverpool wedding.
I have now had several visitors. Also I have found the atmosphere is helping me to be relaxed and to paint. The pigments look so amazing in the jars I feel reluctant to mix them. This is odd as I always mix my own colours of oil, rarely using them straight from the tube. Many people looking round the church come and look at my work and talk. Spoke to one man about his questioning of the artists truth ie my interpretation of my painting or his as being true. And of religion and why we go to churches even if we are not practicing any religion. Many questions from others about the church, and a lady who talked to me about her love of collecting things made locally where ever she travels. Later a man talking about the new Unity building and how they have ruined Chapel St, the street he used to work in.
Saturday 19 August
Sneaked in just before a wedding. White bows on ends of rows. Heavy rain outside I spend an hour resolving a section in the basement. The fresco had been wrapped in polythene to keep it wet to work on the next day.
Sunday 20 August
Rearranged my wooden laths with the help of Roy in his workshop in Haskayne. Thank you Roy.
Monday 21st August
Echoes of the trowel in a silent church walls. Laying the Arriccio layer on the large base after buying more sand from the builders yard this time, though I had heard advice against this, and to buy sand from aquarium supliers the man there knew all about Lime and what can and can't mix with it. As well as the connotations of water and the constancy of the river, was thinking about the vast amount of symbolism and belief that goes with light, and also height as I found a book of essays relating to this in the small library. Late afternoon: a walk thinking about where in the church a fresco could be 'found'. Exhausted from two quite manual days and in the mood to paint.
Tuesday 22 August
As I soak the Arriccio layer with my water sprayer the lady helping arrange the church for tomorrow sprays the flowers. There are a team of helpers from the parish who I am gradually meeting and they're all being really positive and kind about me being there. Candles are being laid out in long low tables for a multi-faith service tomorrow, and chairs re-arranged. It's Slavery Rememberance day. Met a couple, the lady is a kind of retired cake-icer who gave me some tips about using tools to smooth the plaster! Her husband was talking about boards to use as bases but am not convinced. Later a man looking at my brochure who saw ships in my Vibration painting and liked it. A family with someone discussing the phrase 'when Donnelly docks' (meaning it'll never happen' in relation to the church's guilded weather vane. This afternoon I got into using Cobalt blue pigment and whtie, and am not sure if am using 'Caput Mortuum' a purple base colour in the right way but quite like it. I have been manipulating the soaked in pigment with a palette knife creating more movement. Severine came to film me paint and more of the church then we walked in the garden and talked about it all looking out at the river.
Wednesday 23 August
The church is completely illuminated and alive. Usually only one side chapel is lit up. Dignitories arrive such as the Lord Mayor, Leaders of all faith organisations and 200 people. Had the honour of painting on a large white fresco while listening to music, singing of all religions and speeches. Then everyone went to Otterspool to a river ceremony in rememberance of slavery. Everyone then heads off to Otterspool for the Libation ceremony by the river. I had some interesting conversations including a sculptor who told me he had a piece he'd bought made in plaster on canvas with hessian and imprints in the texture of it. An old lady possibly partially sighted was saying with such enthusiasm what a lovely thing to do painting is. I bump into a freind outside who works nearby and tells me the huge Unity building next to the church is based on the method 'Dazzle ships' used black and white shapes to dazzle the enemy in the war. I impress the people on the church cake stall with my new found information. Kevin another artist from the project came to visit, and got me thinking again about the pouncing - spolvero technique when he saw my photograph of this method. I had initially intended to play about with this technique, and find ways of using it to make marks as opposed to only mapping out the image, but havent tried this yet, and havent been using it for mapping out either. Spolvero is when the image is traced or scaled up (a cartoon) and then this drawing is punctured with a needle. Then the punctured drawing is placed onto the Intonaco surface of the fresco and pigment is either dusted through with a brush or a pounce bag is used. This is made from a square of muslin tied with string containing pigment. So instead of only using the Pozzuoli Red pigment in the bags, I filled each with a different colour, intending to use these on the next two surfaces I have prepared for tomorrow. I also considered the possibility of exhibiting the tracing paper dusted drawings as I love the way these look. But, there isn't one I'm happy with yet. I then continued painting on the large white fresco, finding that layers can be built up in a very subtle way if pigment is allowed to sink in a bit between applications. This fresco is becoming quite shimmering and its forms move in an odd way. It is quite pale and suggests the colours and textures of low tide on the river. Emptiness and reflection. Anticipation. I make tiny white lines and marks over the surface, also dusting a white pounce bag through a traced drawing, and scratch lines into the surface. It feels like I'm exploring the painted plaster surface. I hope for people to look closely at these surfaces. Two women pass and one points out that the mood of each fresco has become calmer, and says that they can tell I have been in the church for a while by this. Later a woman came up to me and just said ' I prayed for everyone, for all the world'. So I am making art alongside people praying. I have really enjoyed being able to talk to people about my work and to reach people I wouldnt otherwise have met. This evening I make the next plaster layers while a wedding rehearsal takes place in the church.
Thursday 24 August
Using the spolvero dots quite randomly on the surface, it is difficult to control the powder but kind of interesting. I have a few visitors to watch me plaster the intonaco. People seem to like to watch this. I let Chris have a go at troweling. Though am too distracted to paint while he is there. Later am overwhlemed in solitude and being there in hte church led me to thinking why people go to church and about the difference in 'Earthly Love' and 'Spiritual Love' in Metaphysical poets. Heard a big dispute outside the church between some of the people who spend time in the garden. Later I asked the curate do people go with problems to him and yes, not a week goes by without someone calling to speak to him about a range of life dilemmas or difficult times, not necessarily regular church goers. The two frescos where I have used spolvero dots have a speckled surface, partly as I ended up 'pouncing' directly onto the plaster. Realised at 8pm I still had to lay the Arriccio if I wanted to work on the other large fresco tomorrow, my last day here. But...am exhausted. So I did but it took much longer as energy is needed and depite an earlier trek for a cup of tea am very hungry. I didnt finish until 9.30pm, and am alone in the church as no groups meet tonight. (though I think there is a flat upstairs where the curate lives). I felt quite faint and wondered if I may end up falling asleep on top of the fresco in the church, which may be a bizarre experience. I've maybe done too much frescoing and less drawing than intended. Maybe on a future residency I wouldn't feel the need to 'make' so much and explore meanings more through drawing etc, building up to one end piece, rather than here I have been 'making' every day, wanting to really explore the process.
Friday 25th August
My last day here at St Nicks. There is dazzling morning sunlight streaming in. The church has only one stained glass window to prevent it being too dark apparently. Looking at my fresco panels - there are some more illuminous and full, some more empty and emphasise each mark. There are diptichs which work together and a find of high tide / low tide opposites. Do they evoke loss or the healing/ comforting power of water? Water of Life? I dont know. In fact some don't actually look like rivers. But they have a rhythum of flow and change, which is what I wanted. On the large fresco the Arricio plaster has cracked quite drastically. I don't think I made it thick enough or mixed it enough. But ... I decide to use it anyway. I make an area to look broken, and make underpainting (Sinopia) visible. But this just looks very staged and I later reject it. A homeless man is snoring, asleep in the choir stalls of the church. The daytime security man is retiring today, so he goes with his cards and presents after 7 years here. Two friends visit later and we have lunch in the garden. Then I hear the orchestra practicing for tonights concert at the Pier head for the beginning of the Matthew Street Festival. I realise I have not realistically discussed with the organisers when they visited how to store or transport all of these fragile objects, and have offered to take them home before the exhibition. The bells are doing a quarter peal - a lovely send off. I met a couple of bell ringers. My second larger fresco is very full and made up of many veridian green wavy shapes. Am building up layers and hope to add a few more before it dries tomorrow at home, though wish I could finish it to the sound of bells. At 6pm I remember that all rooms are booked for meetings tonight so have to empty the basement of my stuff. Then outside the streets are filling up with people on nights out and I realise its going to be hard loading the car as many are moving through the churchyard to get towards the Pier Head. For the first time getting quite stressed as I know the roads will be blocked tomorrow for the festival and need to sort this now. This is the part of making art I don''t like - moving the stuff around! Although it can occaisionally be fun. Luckily my friend Severine comes to the rescue with her car too and we get everything out. The evening security man seems to think it odd that an artist can afford to run a car. This is intended as a joke but also is the ongoing thing an artist faces, that they are often expected to be starving in their garret! Although I have to work part time alongside making my art, I dont see why an artist ideally shouldnt earn as much from their own work as any other professional. I have felt so privileged to be doing this project and to have been able to take time off from other work to research it and be based in this amazing building with such a unique location and part in Liverpool's history as well as its own history of survival and regeneration, being rebuilt many times after each disaster that has threatened it.
Exhibition opening 28th September 2006. Artists Discussion 6pm. Opening 7pm-9pm. at St Nicholas Parish Church. Water Street. Liverpool 1.
website of church...www.livpc.co.uk
website of Dying Frog...www.dyingfrog.co.uk
The fresco course in Mells: Fleur and another student on the course laying the arriccio layer - coarse sand and Lime putty.
A fresco made on the course using the tradition of joining 'spolvero' dots with pigment onto the Intonaco layer, made with finer sand.
interior of St Nicks
15/08/06. Fresco 1.
My studio base in St Nicks Basement. 15/08/06. An Arriccio Layer
In the basement - Me applying Intonaco to hessian on board. 15/08/06.
16/08/06. Fresco 2. On Lathe & Plaster base.
17/08/06. Detail of fresco 3 a series of four. Pure pigment on wet plaster.
18/08/06. Fresco 3. Flux. Using Buon Fresco on Autostaccante base.
18/08/06. My work table in the Narthex (Foyer area) of St Nicks.
18/08/06. Fresco 4.' High Tide / Low Tide'.
21/08/06 The large fresco base
22/08/06 work table and fresco 5
23/08/06 Fresco 06
23/08/06 Muslin pounce bag, pigment and tracing paper
detail of fresco 06