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SILTings: Shrimpers and Mudlarks; Fish and Ships

Duncan Grant: Bawley boat in Bawley Bay
Duncan Grant: Bawley boat in Bawley Bay

This is the third of my blogs about the SILTings creative programme, which runs next weekend (Friday 4th – 6th June 2021) online, aboard LV21  and the surrounding quayside, and at various locations around Gravesend town centre.

If you missed the last two blogs you can catch up here and here.

I do apologise to those of you who got an unexpected preview of this blog, yesterday afternoon. I pressed the wrong button. This is the final version!

Shrimpers and Mudlarks
For the main part of this blog, we’re back with the Shrimpers on Bawley Bay in Gravesend, but this time virtually and through the medium of dance, captured on film by by dancer/choreographer Daisy Farris and artist Nicola Flower.

During the 19th Century, shrimpers would catch and cook brown shrimps aboard Bawley boats and bring in their hauls to sell at Gravesend market, or at the various family run shrimp merchants around Gravesend at that time.

Duncan Grant: Warners Shrimp Merchant, Gravesend
Duncan Grant: Warners Shrimp Merchant, Gravesend

My Great Aunt Hilda used to work in Warners Shrimp Merchant on Cross Street, near the river in Gravesend, preparing shrimps to sell to tourists in Rosherville Pleasure Gardens.

More than ten years ago, visual artist Nicola Flower, heard about the Bawley Bay Shrimpers and the story stuck with her.

In 2014, Nicola met contemporary dancer, Daisy Farris. The two women had  applied, separately, to produce work for IN-SITE, a regeneration project taking place along the Rochester riverside. Both artists were successful and the commissioners paired them up.

 

The rest is history.

Duncan Grant: Shrimpers
Duncan Grant: Shrimpers

‘We made our first piece together,’ remembers Nicola. ‘And then we just kept coming up with ideas of other things that we might do together.’

Although the women have very different backgrounds, they also have a lot in common.

‘We’re from different artistic disciplines but we’ve both got an interest in each other’s work,’ Nicola continues. ‘So Daisy’s definitely a visual creative artist as well as a dancer and I’m interested in the things that I make as a visual artist coming alive. And we both really like is storytelling.  We’re very interested in narrative, but neither of us is overly attached to that narrative being true.’

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: She's Like A Forest Fire...Unstoppable
She’s Like A Forest Fire…Unstoppable

 

Although Nicola and Daisy both continue with their own artistic endeavours, they enjoy the support and challenge that comes from their collaboration.

‘Collaboration is so stimulating,’ Nicola says. ‘I’m very excited with my own ideas but I love it when there’s something to butt up against. It takes me out of myself and it makes me think and respond in a different way.’

 

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: She is Like a Forest Fire...Unstoppable
Blue dresses hanging from Chatham’s Anchorage House

Their first collaborative work for IN-SITE was a dance performance and installation, She’s Like A Forest Fire…Unstoppable. It championed interesting characters from the Medway area and, in particular, featured a woman known locally as ‘Bluebell’.

Bluebell was an eccentric who, in the 90s, was often seen walking between the Medway towns, dressed entirely in blue.

The production drew on people’s memories of Bluebell and featured oversized blue dresses to capture her essence.

In homage to Bluebell the blue dresses were hung as an installation at Anchorage House, Chatham.

‘Artists can challenge the hierarchy in history and give a voice to people who are not usually thought of as heroes,’ says Daisy.  ‘Bluebell was flamboyant, ritualistic and joyous, but she experienced exclusion from society. Through our work, we wanted to celebrate a compelling and universal character and elevate her status.’

Since then, Nicola and Daisy have continued to collaborate on site-specific works, often linked to rivers.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: 'The Great Thames Disaster' performed on LV21 ©Gigi Giannella
‘The Great Thames Disaster’ performed on LV21 ©Gigi Giannella

In 2018, they toured their production The Great Thames Disaster performing it in venues on the route that ill-fated passenger paddle steamer, the SS Princess Alice would have taken along the river.

The SS Princess Alice sunk in 1878, following a collision with a collier ship, The Bywell Castle, near North Woolwich Pier, on the River Thames . It was carrying 700 passengers returning to London after a day at the seaside.

650 men, women and children died in the incident – the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster.  The tragedy led to the collapse of the Sheppey tourism industry at that time.

Nicola Flower: Flotsam
Nicola installing ‘Flotsam’ on LV21

 

 

 

 

Following the accident, it is reported that a flotsam of male and female apparel covered the surface of the Thames.

As part of her research for the project, Nicola created a large-scale drawing of this on the deck of the generator room, aboard LV21.

You can see a trailer here for The Great Thames Disaster dance performance, which Daisy choreographed and which involved members of her company, Daisy Farris Dance Collective.

Collaborating in a crisis

Mudlarks at Bawley Bay, Gravesend
Mudlarks at Bawley Bay, Gravesend

It wasn’t until 2018, that Nicola’s idea for a dance performance based around the shrimpers of Bawley Bay and the mudlarks, who scavenged in the Thames for items to sell, started to become a reality.

‘Initially our idea was that this would be a performance with multiple costumes and dancers from Daisy Farris Dance Collective,’ explains Daisy. ‘We were having a very exciting conversation with Päivi Seppälä, co-owner and director of LV21, about producing it for what was going to be SILTings Festival 2020, and then within a month it all stopped because of the pandemic.’

 

‘Then, later, when the second wave of the pandemic arrived, Päivi told us that although the festival would go ahead in 2021, realistically, we weren’t going to be able to have a number of dancers and we weren’t going to be able to perform in front of an audience,’ Nicola continues. ‘So we started to think about an online alternative, something that has a legacy. We had made a film previously,  in 2015, so we decided on that, with the hope that, perhaps, we might revisit the performance as a live event in the future, when we’re allowed to.’

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: Shrimpers and Mudlarks. Research
Exploring ideas: Using props

COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing rules made life difficult for all artists. But for Nicola and Daisy, who were collaborating on a project, the effect could have been devastating. Lockdown restrictions made life more difficult – they spent a lot of time on Zoom, which was a lifeline – but there were also liberating factors that in the end, they feel, made their work stronger.

‘Pre-COVID, the outcome of this project would have been very different,’ says Nicola. ‘For me, the creativity we’ve tapped into has been exceptional because of the pandemic.’

Daisy agrees.

‘Although it didn’t feel like it at the start, I think the pandemic was a bit of a blessing in disguise,’ she says. ‘We really honed in on what we as artists wanted out of the project. Sometimes that can end up being pushed to the back because you are committed to having to produce certain outcomes. But because nothing was happening, all expectations went out of the window and we were given more free rein than we’ve ever had before.’

During 2020, Gravesham Borough Council created a series of small grants Make It in Gravesham to support artists to continue to work during lockdown and to stimulate public engagement when public performance and face-to-face, participatory events were not possible.

Nicola Flower and Dasy Farris: Shrimpers and Mudlarks -illustrated postcards
Illustrated postcards captured memories of Bawley Bay

Nicola and Daisy were successful in receiving some funding through the scheme.

‘That was a real challenge because we suddenly realised that we didn’t know how to do that!’ Daisy laughs. ‘Nicola and I spent hours and hours Zoom together thinking about how to make work. And in the end it was great because we engaged people in ways that we never thought we would and we worked in ways that we never imagined.’

The pair made videos for nursery and primary school children, for LV21’s Think Up cultural education programme, focused on the sensations and movements associated with shrimping and mudlarking on the Thames.

Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks. Research
Nicola Flower: Capturing movement in drawing

‘In the primary school video, Daisy would do some movements that shrimpers and mudlarks might have done on Bawley Bay – manual work, the playful wrestling actions of the mudlarks – and I would do a drawing showing the children how to draw the shapes that Daisy made,’ Nicola says. ‘Our nursery video tried to  recreate the sensations that you might experience on Bawley Bay – so, the sound of pebbles, the movement of heavy objects – using plastic bottles or dropping stones in water. And we also sent illustrated postcards to the elderly communities in care homes and sheltered accommodation, which they returned with written memories of Bawley Bay.’

The artists combined elements of their research into Bawley Bay, with children’s drawings, and the stories and memories of elderly care home residents to inspire and inform their final creative piece.

‘It was a way in to the performance itself,’ explains Nicola. ‘Our projects often start with heritage, but it’s not in-depth heritage. We like a suggestion of heritage, so we draw on snippets of information that could be urban myth, or a memory, or even something half-remembered.’

Building the performance

Woman on Bawley Bay, Gravesend
Woman on Bawley Bay

The Shrimpers and Mudlarks performance was inspired by a photograph from Fishermen from the Kentish Shore by Derek Coombe. It shows a woman standing alone on Bawley Bay looking out to the river from the bank of the Thames. It is the only picture of a woman in the Gravesend section of the book.

‘We are two women making work and we often tend to lean towards the femininity of work,’ Daisy explains. ‘We think the shrimper women were responsible for selling the cooked shrimps when they arrived in the Bay. We thought this kind of job would be messy and tiring and probably a bit smelly, but we wanted to capture a little bit of the vulnerability of the woman alone on a beach through the dance performance.’

Shrimper
Shrimper

Nicola is a textile artist and created the costume for Daisy to wear in the dance performance. It was the first time that she had created a costume specifically for her to perform in.

‘We had a conversation fairly early on about whether we wanted the costume to be a very realistic costume of a late Victorian era, or a modern take on that – and that’s what we’ve gone with,’ Daisy explains.

‘I started to construct a garment very intuitively, from ideas to do with worn and torn, patchwork fabric with layers that you can move in to do a manual job,’ explains Nicola. ‘And then I had an idea that I’d like to make a big cape that was encrusted with pearly shrimps – much more beautiful than she would have had – but a nod to the fact that her whole livelihood was the shrimps.’

Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks costume

[Nicola’s costumes for ‘Shrimpers and Mudlarks]

Nicola drew on the skills of the Gravesham community to embroider the shrimps, and also made an enormous fabric ‘net’ from recycled sari fabrics and scarves donated by members of the Rethink Gravesham Sangam group.

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris 'Shrimpers and Mudlarks' Embroidered shrimps

[Embroidered shrimps]

Finally after months of working together virtually, at Easter this year, Nicola and Daisy had the chance to spend a week together in St Andrew’s Church in Gravesend, to try out their ideas in practice. It gave them an opportunity to review  the project and decide what worked and what did not.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks rehearsal
Rehearsing in St Andrew’s Church

‘You can immerse yourself in the creative process, but there’s a tipping point where you have to have a bit of an honest conversation to see if it is really going the way you want it to,’ Nicola explains. ‘And definitely there was a moment that Daisy and I recognised that less is more and we knew we’d found  the “sweet spot”.’

‘That’s where collaboration is really helpful,’ Daisy adds. ‘We started off with a lot of props – we had this big megaphone, we had big shoes, builders’ bags and rope, all of which was trying to get me to move in a way that was evocative of manual labour. But it just takes one of you to be brave enough to say, “I don’t think we need that” and then you begin to see things differently.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks
Rehearsing in St Andrew’s Church

‘It’s a lot harder to make those judgements when you are working on your own because you’re too involved in what you’re doing to know what enough is. So we had a conversation towards the end of that week where we agreed to just put the props to one side, to do less, to let the art speak for itself and trust that what we’d brought to it already was enough.’

The final performance, which was filmed on Bawley Bay over a weekend, depicts scenes spanning a day. Daisy dances alone to a specially commissioned score, composed by musician Aleph Aguiar.

In her cape encrusted with pearly shrimps she moves to reveal glimpses of her patchwork dress underneath.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: 'Shrimpers and Mudlarks'. Filming on Bawley Bay
Filming on Bawley Bay

As the day, progresses her demeanour changes from vulnerability to strength, until finally the dancer discards the cape to reveal a giant skirt of patched fabric, which she uses like a heavy shrimping net, laying it out on the shore and then pulling it in.

As the end of the day approaches, lights in her cape and nets evoke the golden glow of shrimps and mudlarking treasure.

The costumes Nicola created for the performance will be on public display at Gravesend Library window throughout Estuary 2021.

The film premiers online on Friday 4th June 2021, and will be screened in various public places over the coming months. But you can see it here!

Fish and Ships

Duncan Grant: Boats and Buoys
Duncan Grant: Boats and Buoys

Between 4th and the 12th June, I’ll be gigging alongside the Gravesham Urban Knitters in Fish and Ships as part of the Gravesham Estuary Fringe Festival.

Inspired by the river, the Gravesham Urban Knitters have made over 50 small knitted fish and 50 miniature knitted boats. These will be exhibited, alongside some of my boat pictures on board LV21 during SILTings (4th to 6th June) and along the quayside on the 12th June.

 

Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish and Ships
Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish…

 

You might know the Gravesham Urban Knitters from their other projects around Gravesham. These include a knitted 4-foot high model of the Gravesend Clock Tower, and a whole pod of knitted Benny the Whales, when Benny was in Gravesend. They’ve  even knitted bikinis for trees!

The group meets at Gravesend market on Thursdays from 10am – noon. If you’d like to join them just turn up or contact them via their Facebook group. Meetings are COVID safe and you’ll be welcome, whether knitting or crocheting is your thing.

At the moment, the group are making flowers to decorate part of the town centre for Blooming Lovely Festival in July.

Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish and Ships
Gravesham Urban Knitters: …..and Ships

If you want to give it a try before you commit, or if you just want to have a go, why not go down to the quayside between 11am and 4pm on 12th June, pick up a free craft pack and join Gravesham Urban Knitters in Worldwide Knit in Public Day.

If knitting isn’t your thing, why not join me instead and create your own souvenir postcard using cyanotype printing techniques.

Further information

Shrimpers and Mudlarks
Aleph Aguiar
Website: alephaguiar.com

Daisy Farris
Website: dfdcollective.co.uk

 

Nicola Flower
Website: nicolaflower.co.uk

 

Fish and Ships

Gravesham Urban Knitters
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/graveshamknitters

Duncan Grant
Website:
http://www.duncangrantartist.com
Gallery:  http://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop

See also my other SILTings blogs SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine and SILTings: Filaments Art Collective on LV21

Festivals

SILTingshttps://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/

The Estuary Festivalhttps://www.estuaryfestival.com/

Creative Estuary https://www.creativeestuary.com/

 

 

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Nicola White Mudlark: Discarded objects and lives in limbo

Visit my gallery

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/

Tideline Art
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.

Nicola White: Thames glass fish

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.’

Nicola White: Thames plastic cormorant

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.

Nicola White: Lighter fish

‘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.’

Thames finds

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.’

Thames torpedo bottle

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.’

Roman Samian Ware find

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.

Thames clay pipes

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.’

Roman pot find

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.

Daniel Landry: Many faces of me

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.’

Keith Loker: Butterfly

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.

Michael Combes: Aurora Borealis

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
Website: http://www.tidelineart.com/