I’ve talked a lot on here about my relationship with the River Thames growing up in Gravesend and how it ‘flows’ through a lot of my art. https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/03/20/drawing-inspiration-from-the-thames/
Greenwich-based artist, Nicola White, who I first met through the Two Rivers art project in 2016, goes further. Her work arises from the Thames, literally. Her Tideline Art is created using the objects she finds washed up on the foreshore when she is mudlarking.
I’ve done a fair bit of mudlarking myself. As a teenager I used to pick up Romano British pottery from the Thames mud. I remember, my dad used it as drainage in his plant pots! But what Nicola does with her finds is stunning.
Her trademark Thames glass fish are made up from the glass that she picks up on the foreshore. ‘I use a lot of Victorian poison bottle glass,’ Nicola explains. ‘It’s like history you can touch. I love the idea that each fish is made up, like a jigsaw, of so many parts of London history.’
She also makes sculptures and collages using driftwood, metal, pottery and plastic.
While out walking on the banks of the Thames or the Thames Estuary, Nicola collects the plastic that she finds. Sometimes she uses it to make 3-D sculptures but, more often, she lays it out to make a picture by the side of the river, before photographing it and taking the plastic away. Her Lighter Fish was made with over 150 disposable lighters that she collected along the Thames Estuary in less than 2 hours. She believes it is a good way of raising awareness of plastic pollution.
‘It’s quite visually compelling to see something and to think, wow, you collected all that along the river in one afternoon,’ she says.
Nicola collects the items she uses in her art while mudlarking on the River Thames. Originally, the term ‘mudlark’ was used to describe very poor people, often children or the elderly who, in pre-Victorian times, scrabbled around in the mud of the River Thames at low tide looking for anything of value that they could sell. Some mudlarks managed to scrape a subsistence living in this way. But it was a dangerous occupation. The river was filthy, full of raw sewage and decaying animal corpses. Mudlarks were at risk of infection from cuts they got from broken glass left on the shore.
Modern day mudlarking, Nicola explains, is a lot less hazardous and mudlarkers have a different motivation. ‘We go down to the river to see what history we can uncover. What I find most inspiring is that the objects we find have had a past life. They’ve come to rest on the shore and they have a story to tell.’
Nicola finds all manner of objects on the foreshore – pieces of pottery and glass, clay pipes, coins, buttons, bullets, animal bones and teeth and even, rarely, very old human remains. She once found an unexploded hand grenade which then had to be detonated by bomb disposal. http://www.tidelineart.com/thames-mudlarking-finds.html
Nicola was bought up in Cornwall and spent a lot of time, as a child, beachcombing. In 1998, she moved to Greenwich, in London. ‘At that time, I didn’t know that mudlarking was a thing,’ she remembers. ‘I found myself down on the foreshore and I started finding bits of glass and pottery. I realised then that there were these little treasures down on the banks of the Thames. I was so excited I was when I found my first coin. And it just went on from there.’
But it took years for Nicola to realise her dream of a creative life. ‘I ended up spending over 20 years working in an office: something I said I would never do,’ she says. ‘I don’t regret it. It helped me get where I am today. But I have always had this passion to be creative and about five or six years ago everything changed.’
At that time, Nicola had came across a poem The Summer Day by US poet Mary Oliver, about a day in the life of a mayfly. https://emilyspoetryblog.com/mary-oliver/poems/the-summer-day/ ‘The last line is Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ she recalls. ‘And I just thought, gosh, life is short. I really don’t want to be working in a bank like this for the rest of my life. I want to wake up in the morning and feel excited about what I’m going to do with my day. So I started to make plans to leave and to make a living from my art.’
As well as creating and selling her Tideline Art, Nicola also enjoys sharing a weekly mudlarking video on YouTube, where she has over 70,000 followers https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2K7yEwPIcPaQT5FM78dpyw
In the videos she takes her audience mudlarking with her. She explores her finds back in her studio and shares what she has discovered about the history of the objects she has found and the stories of those whose lives are washed up on the banks of the river.
And it is fascinating.
On one occasion, Nicola found a little brass tag from the suitcase of a WWI soldier. From his address on the tag, she was able to find out more about his life – he went to Australia and joined the Australian Imperial force, survived the trenches and returned to the UK to marry his landlady. ‘And then I found his grave,’ Nicola remembers. ‘He didn’t have any children so just finding that little piece of metal brought him back to life for a while and I was able to tell his story.’
When, Nicola found a button with Millbank Prison – a notorious penitentiary back in the 19th Century – written on it, she wondered how it came to be in the Thames. Her research led to her find out about the transfer of prisoners from Millbank to prison ships (Hulks) at Woolwich, where they served their sentences.
And there are many similar stories emerging from the river.
Clay pipes are a common find. Nicola explains why here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjsHQ4s87dc
Essentially, clay pipes are the equivalent of modern day cigarette butts, the result of centuries of smoking, but they hold a particular fascination for Nicola. ‘I just love finding them!’ she enthuses. ‘There are so many different designs and they can tell us so much.’
One of the very many clay pipes that Nicola has found bore the name of Catherine Shipwell, one of the very few women pipemakers, whose largely unknown story she uncovered and shared.
‘Mudlarking is so interesting because you never know what you are going to find or where it will lead you,’ Nicola says. ‘For me, the most interesting finds are those that offer a glimpse into the lives of those from a London of the past.’
Although giving up her corporate job required some lifestyle changes, Nicola has never regretted it. She has taken Martin Luther King Jr’s advice and is following her passion.
Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it. (Martin Luther King Jr)
‘My life now is like dream for me because it’s a mixture of all the things I love,’ she reflects. ‘It occurred to me recently now I’ve got my studio, I thought, wow, this is exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!’
Art from death row
And it is Nicola’s work with prisoners on death row that offers us a glimpse into other lives – lives that, in this case, are intentionally hidden from view. ‘With Tideline Art I use objects that have essentially been thrown away,’ Nicola explains. ‘And it is a bit like that with the men on death row. They have, for the most part, been forgotten about and are considered to be of no further use to society.’
It all started about 10 years ago. Following a chance meeting with a woman from LifeLines http://www.lifelines-uk.org.uk/ – a charity that finds pen friends for prisoners incarcerated in the USA on death row – Nicola started corresponding with a prisoner on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California.
There are currently 760 men on death row at San Quentin, many of whom have been been there for decades. There they live lives in limbo under the shadow of imminent execution.
In 2015, Nicola travelled to the prison to meet her pen friend ‘He frequently sent me beautiful hand-made cards created by his fellow prisoners,’ Nicola explains. ‘During my visit he told me about inmates who spend hours alone in their cells each day painting and drawing pictures, most of which are then packed up and stored. I thought this was a tragedy.’
‘Expression through art can take prisoners’ minds and imaginations on a liberating journey as they create a painting or drawing, or write stories or poems,’ Nicola continues. ‘I know how important it is to be able to express yourself creatively and to be able to share your work with others. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that and I wondered if I could find a way to give these men a voice, to help them to reach out with their art and connect with the outside world.’
Nicola asked her pen friend if he thought the artists on death row would like to do an exhibition. She sent him some flyers which he distributed to other inmates and, after a while, Nicola began to receive some artwork. And so ArtReach, a travelling exhibition featuring art and poems from San Quentin’s death row, was born.
The purpose of ArtReach is to provide a platform for artists on San Quentin’s death row to exhibit their art and creativity, both online and in a variety of exhibition venues. It also aims to give a human face to the prisoners, using art and writing as a vehicle to raise awareness, and to generate debate and discussion about capital punishment.
Over the last few years, Nicola has taken the exhibition to galleries around London and the South East and it is soon to be packed up and sent to the University of Columbia, where it will be shown as part of a death penalty summit.
There are no exhibitions planned in the UK in the near future but you can see (and buy) the prisoners’ work via the ArtReach website https://www.artofsanquentin.com/ Ten per cent of proceeds from sales are donated to charity and the rest goes to the artist to fund art materials, stamps or food etc.
‘Each artist has got such different skills and styles,’ Nicola remarks. ‘And when you look at the artwork or read the poetry, expressions of emotion are evident – inspiration, regrets, happiness, sadness, yearnings, longings. For a place known for death and despair beautiful art with hope for life can emanate.’
You can hear some of the prisoners reading their own poems on the ArtReach You Tube site. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7GaPevHO0XxZiQuYJ-ZiTA/featured
Nicola is currently focusing on her Tideline Art and restocking her Esty site https://www.esty.com/uk/shop/Tidelineart.
You can find out more and follow Nicola on the following social media platforms:
Twitter and Instagram: @tidelineart
YouTube: Nicola White Mudlark