This last couple of weeks have been incredibly busy, and I am way behind with my blog posts. There is so much to digest and get down before I forget it all. The undoubted highlight though has been a workshop I’ve just returned from with Paul Kenny and Doug Chinnery. Getting onto one of these workshops is an achievement in itself – they sell out within an hour of being advertised, so I was cockahoop when I was accepted for this one in Sheffield.
It was a two day event, and I suppose I’d been expecting a sort of double act. In reality, Doug Chinnery’s role was very much one of facilitator, and we had the opportunity to spend most of the time listening to Paul Kenny taking about his work, discussing his processes and showing us some of his prints. In addition, as I arrived the night before, I was able to have dinner with Paul and to ask him many of my own questions about his processes.
For those that don’t know his work, Paul lives in Northumbria, very close to the Holy Isle, and has spent the last 25 years walking the beaches there, picking up bits of detritus and making beautiful, highly contemplative work which lies somewhere between photography, collage and mixed media. He dries seawater on slides from the places he visits and adds bit of rope, feathers and other debris before scanning the results. (He began by photographing them with a medium format camera, but has moved wholeheartedly to scanning as he says the colours are better.) These are then made into incredibly detailed prints which are breathtakingly beautiful, and have something of the microscope slide or petri dish about them. As an example, here is one of his actual slides (they are about 5×4″) alongside a screenshot of the print which he made from it.
Original for Along the strandline 3, sitting on my notebook
Paul Kenny’s ‘Along the strandline, no. 3, 2013.
There is some sort of alchemy that goes on during this process that makes the prints ethereal and otherworldly, while incorporating vid colours and incredible detail.
It is clear when talking to Paul how wholeheartedly he has committed himself to his project Seaworks over the years. From its early roots in annual trips to Applecross where he obsessively re-photographed the same dry stone sheep fold to see how it changed, he has concentrated on the tiny details of the natural world and in particular, the strandline, iteratively adding new processes over time in a very considered, thoughtful way. He says that he knows from the beginning how he wants the finished print to look, and the tricky bit is working out how to do it. He explained the various ideas he explored over time, but for the sake of length here, I will concentrate on his recent work only – Seaworks and O Hanami.
We discussed the motifs which appear again and again in his work – circles, rectangles, subjects which are different in the top and bottom of the print, and his keen interest in making objects from more and more insignificant and ephemeral materials, such as seawater, old plastic bottles and cans which he finds on his walks. It is a pinpoint view of the world, and how he sees it, which has nothing of the ‘big picture’ in it.
In the last few years, he has begun to move away from the strandline as a subject and more towards the ‘celebration of transient beauty’ in his garden, hence O Hanami, the Japanese translation. This has led to an equally astounding set of work using leaves, flower petals and pieces of bark, precision cut and put together in squares which often have subsidiary grids within them. (He uses a standard die cutter to make his shapes precise, which was a surprise). O Hanami is a year-long project looking at the changing seasons through the foliage around his garden. These make a virtue of their imperfections and made me want to rush home and start cutting up dead plants. A slide from one on tulips is shown below and the print version can be seen here: http://jacklowestudio.co.uk/blog/tag/paul-kenny/. The image Tulip Nights is near the bottom of the page.
Paul also talked about what influences him, which included landscape examples of the grid motif, such as the farmland around the Salton Sea in California, circular shapes on Google Earth (he’s a great fan of Google Earth), copper wire, pollution and humanity’s relationship with the natural world. He also went through an extensive list of artists and photographers whose work has influenced his own, and what was particularly interesting about this was that I could clearly see the links between their work and his. It ball made complete sense. He finished up by showing some of his current work, for which he has designed his own lightbox system. This is because he feels his images look better on his iPad than on a print, and he wants to begin to show them as backlit. However, galleries have not been keen to take up this new technology as yet, and I had the impression he is becoming a little frustrated with both Seaworks and O Hanami and is looking for a totally new project, perhaps because he believes they are finished and it is time to move on.
Paul Kenny is a fascinating person to talk to. His views about his art are so laser sharp and precise, and his method of working so considered, with layers of historical influences and iterative experiment. By using insignificant materials, he somehow manages to say something very profound about the beauty of the natural world and how humanity fits into it. However, I ended up thinking that, although it clearly works for him, it would drive me slowly insane to do the same thing. He is a perfect example of the old adage that he who climbs one peak to the top has a much finer view than the many who climb loads of foothills instead (also known as the Helsinki Bus Station Theory) . The same effort is involved, but the outcome is entirely different.
Finally, over the course of the weekend, he showed us some of his fabulous prints and I was able to buy one at a very reduced price. It will take pride of place on my wall once it is framed.
Things for me to take away from talking with him:
- tiny subjects can be just as interesting as big ones, and can make big points despite their size
- repetition is a good thing and eventually leads to new ideas
- try out his scanning process
- don’t listen to the photography police. Do what inspires you – if anyone else likes it, that is a bonus.
- Paul keeps only a tiny proportion of the work he does. He says it is better to get rid of the mediocre and to concentrate on the best. (We had a discussion about the effects of time on one’s opinion of what is best in our own work. It does change.
- don’t be afraid to experiment, and the more whacky the experiments are, the better. What can really go wrong, after all.
- try to think about whose work influences my own and to keep a list of particular images. It’s good to look at them from time to time for inspiration.
I have come away with a host of ideas and processes to try out, and a desire to get working on them right away.