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Nicola White Mudlark: Discarded objects and lives in limbo

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/

 

 

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Fluid Landscapes: Responses inspired by the river at Gravesend and the nearby marshes

Visit my gallery
Thank you to everyone who came to my exhibition My 20:20 vision last month at St Andrews Arts Centre in Gravesend. It was really well attended, despite the short notice. It was lovely to see everybody and I sold a bit, which is always nice.

Thanks also to the Iron Pier Brewery https://www.ironpier.beer/ who provided the beer. The Perry Street Pale went down really well.

The exhibition featured quite a bit of new artwork – I’ve started painting again – a lot of it inspired by my experiences growing up in Gravesend. You can see this new artwork, all in one place at the moment, on my website https://duncangrantartist.com/product-category/new-artwork/

Breezy Day: Duncan Grant

 

Among the pieces, there’s one of Rochester Road where I grew up and where my mum still lives. There are the bonfires that used to be built on the communal ground up at Barr Road in the run up to November 5th. And there are a few different treatments of the strange line poplars that I used to walk and cycle past and that still act as wind breaks in the fields between Higham and Cliffe, .

But the biggest influence on my art has always been the Thames. If you live in Gravesend you can’t avoid it: the river is just part of your life. Its cranes and chimneys, and now the wind turbines at Tilbury, are visible from the town centre and from loads of other vantage points. As I was growing up, I could see a ‘slice’ of river between the houses over the road, from our front bedroom.

As a kid I used to go walking on the marshes with my dad and sometimes we went over to Tilbury on the ferry to visit relatives.

Rochester Road: Duncan Grant

Later, as a teenager, I spent loads of time down on the Thames foreshore and in the backwaters, out on my bike, with my mates, fishing and just generally messing about.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that if you’re from Gravesend, you’ll have your own perceptions and memories of the river. After all, it is the reason the town is here and it was once a major source of employment for Gravesend folk.  It really is an ever present figure, flowing through our lives and shaping the history and geography of the place.

Salt Flats: Duncan Grant

 

I wrote a blog about the Thames in March last year. If you missed it, here is a link which includes some of my older pieces inspired by the river, as part of a soundscape https://www.duncangrantartist.com/2019/03/20/drawing-inspiration-from-the-thames/

Fluid Landscapes
Gravesham Arts’ Fluid Landscapes: Responses inspired by the river at Gravesend and the nearby marshes project is now extending an invitation to local creatives to express their particular relationship with the Thames through their art, writing and poetry.

This project is being led by Heather Haythornthwaite, who was one of the artists selected for the Gravesham Arts Sponsored Artist Programme for 2019-2020. Heather runs the The Hazelnut Press, a fine art printmaking studio in Rochester, Kent, and her own artwork often explores the histories embodied in the local landscape and people’s personal experience of them. She is particularly interested in depicting familiar and overlooked places.

Where the Marsh Meets the Sea: Heather Haythornthwaite


Fluid Landscapes
works like this. A series of concertina ‘sketchbooks’ are shared and circulated between participating artists. Each artist adds an original hand drawn picture, painting or collage, inspired by the Thames at Gravesend, to one of the pages in the sketchbook. Then, within 48 hours, the sketchbook is passed on to the next artist. That artist adds their contribution, and so the process continues until the sketchbook is full.

Although a wide range of different artistic contributions are welcome, there are some restrictions. Artists are asked not to use anything too fragile or thick, and the work must be completely dry before the sketchbook is passed on! There is more information, some guidance notes and some quotes and video to help inspire you, on Heather’s website https://www.hazelnut-press.com/fluid-landscapes

St. Andrew’s Arts Centre

The Fluid Landscapes project will culminate in an exhibition at the St Andrew’s Art Centre in Gravesend – the place where I had my recent exhibition – at the end of  May 2020. At the heart of the show will be the communally produced concertina ‘sketchbooks’, accompanied if there is room, by other freestanding art pieces, writing and poetry, all focused on and inspired by the theme of the Thames at Gravesend and its marshes. Heather hopes that the sketchbooks will find a more permanent home somewhere in Gravesend, after the exhibition is finished.

Heather is already working with the Gravesend Art Group http://www.gravesendartgroup.co.uk/on this project but if you would like to get involved and produce a piece of art that expressses your own particular relationship with the Thames, there is still time.

Fluid Landscapes is not an open access project, you have to have your ‘application’ accepted if you are to take part.  So, if you are interested in taking part, please contact Heather at info@hazelnutpress.com

And if you would like to find out more about The Hazelnut Press and its print-making courses, follow this link https://www.hazelnut-press.com/