Springtime for Heanor – year 5
Back in 2006, after more than two years working on the project “Considering Silesia”, I thought that I might to go to Silesia – and cheap RyanAir flights from East Midlands Airport to Wroclaw (then bringing Polish migrants to the UK) meant that I could have gone the next day. But I thought “what would I do when I get there – how would I respond?” This wasn’t so much a conceptual problem, but a pragmatic one: I have always been a ‘studio-based’ artist, and largely figure based at that, with little to no experience of responding to, or on, site.
So I came to the, then not completely serious, decision that I should do a series of ‘field test studies’: find somewhere I’ve never been to before, go there and see what happens, to try and develop ways and ideas of ‘responding to site’. I chose to visit the small town of Heanor in Derbyshire because of its reputation as a politically nationalist stronghold: the nearest I’ve got to a place under ‘Nazi domination’, so pointing towards the Silesia of my mothers birth. A survey tells of Heanor being the second most English town in England, with nearby Ripley being the first. It has been known for years as a regional focus for parties such as the BNP.
A bus ride for nearly an hour (a cultural experience in itself) through Eastwood, birthplace of D.H. Lawrence, (I kept wanting to stop off and look around at the places in between) took me up the hill to Heanor church and marketplace, from where I began to explore, wandering gradually out of the town, past a giant Tesco supermarket, through housing estates to what had been the coal mine, now sculpted into a kind of parkland.
This, I realised with growing fascination, was the post-industrial equivalent to where I had grown up in the coalfields of West Yorkshire – where I had escaped from – and probably similar to parts of Silesia, also known for coal mining and its industrial collapse since communist days. And, though very ordinary, I found parts of Heanor that I really liked, especially around that park: I thought it would make an interesting subject as a landscape study, especially as it was not typical of the Derbyshire landscape favoured by artists, but it had its own aesthetic: lower hills and valleys, bits of woodland, fields and the slightly grey scrubby grasslands of regenerating slag heaps, a grey familiar to me from my childhood.
Much of my activity on this project has been from my regular commute to college, as the train passes the hill of Heanor, a view I have come to be intrigued by, first using a cheap mobile phone to take low resolution videos and photographs ‘documenting’ the landscape as I pass, some of which turned out rather well. I liked the painterly quality these blocky images held – they helped make me think of how I should paint. And for over a year I’ve used my iPod to quickly sketch Heanors hill and church from the moving train, amassing over a hundred sketches, each done in a few seconds.”]
But periodically I’ve taken a growing amount of specially bought kit to go and work on site, at locations varying from the Tesco’s supermarket to views across the parkland, drawing, painting watercolours, and taking photos – learning how to paint landscapes, initially quite traditionally. A couple of years ago I widened this study to include the village of Codnor, a little further up the road.
From the start – and increasingly as I played the part of “the landscape painter” complete with easel and floppy sun hat – I’ve attracted the attention of people there. Just by being there, very visibly “the artist”, my work generated comment and some very interesting conversations, telling me about the locality, the mining and other history, stories about events there.
One afternoon I sat on a bench overlooking both Shipley park and an open-cast coal mine with a series of three watercolours on the go. An old man, middle-aged daughter and American relative came along: I was sat on the bench dedicated to the old mans wife – she’d never been there, but would have loved the view. They moved off a little way, saying I should carry on painting “it must be nice to have a hobby” the woman said, and as they looked over the view the old man told the American about his working life and the mine.watercolour 2009″]
Once or twice I’ve thought “I should get ‘danger money’ for this!” Painting by a very busy road at the site of the BBC filming of the Anti Fascist march against the BNP Codnor “Summer Festival” (admittedly, the day after the festival) solicited masses of laughter, blaring horns and yells from the open windows of passing “chav-mobiles”, and a shirtless group of lads walking by made fun as they approached, ending with one of them commenting to the others “he’s not bad” when they saw the painting.
On the other hand, scouting Codnor for locations I had a very interesting chat over a pint with an ex mayor of Nottingham who suggested sites to look at and told me stories about the BNP weekend, telling me to pop by next time I visited.
A surprising conversation occurred as a large chap covered in tattoos approached, telling me about his photography. When painting Tesco’s, another shirtless group in track-suit trousers, cans of lager in hand, came back two or three times “to see how you’re getting on”, finally saying “it looks better from a distance”. “This is really bringing art to the people” I thought. Kids also told me which fish and chip shops to avoid as too expensive – living in the inner city, with all manner of fast food other than fish and chips, this is one of the delights of getting out of the city.
But there’s an element of subterfuge, of artifice and performance, in that I know that I’m not really the “landscape painter” I portray. I have other motives, other reasons for choosing Heanor, and I guess it’s the incongruity of my painting that particular landscape – not an obvious one to paint – that invites some of the reactions. I’ve been asked where I’m from, evidently not being a local, and when I said I grew up around Wakefield that seemed to make sense – in part reparation for being based in Nottingham – the big city.
The other week I entered the fifth year of this project-within-a-project, still learning how to deal with ‘site’, still learning how to draw and paint a landscape. The weather being good, almost spring-like, I took the iPad for the first time, to draw that hill from Langley Mill station below. Fine weather, but I arrived as a big dark cloud lumbered overhead, and within minutes I had to shelter from rain and hail. But I spent a couple of hours there sketching, and managed to get three sketches done and several photos. To be honest it was a struggle peering against a strong low sun, I could hardly see the iPad screen, never mind what colours I was using. And blimey, not being spring yet, it was colder than I anticipated!