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SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

At 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021, blue porcupines will start to appear at various secret locations around the streets of Gravesend. The porcupines will hide in plain sight for a week.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021

Together they form a two-mile trail around the town. But to discover the porcupines and complete the trail, porcupine hunters must decipher a series of clues.

The trail starts at LV21 and to take part you will need your smartphone, so that you can communicate directly with the Blue Porcupine HQ.

Each blue porcupine that you discover will reveal a password which, when keyed into your smartphone, unlocks a video clue. If you solve that, it will lead you to the next porcupine.

You can complete the trail in one outing or you can tackle it in stages, over the week.

And if you are not up for a walk or you’re not in the area, well there’s no excuse. You can also follow the trail remotely, from the comfort of your own armchair, via Google Streetview. The online resources will also go live on June 5th.

All you have to do is find and photograph all the hidden blue porcupines, to win a chance to become one of three, first ever porcupine hunters to be inducted into ‘The Order of the Blue Porcupine’. Inductees will be presented with a rosette at a special ceremony aboard LV21 on Saturday 12th June.

The mysterious blue porcupine

Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975
Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975

The blue porcupines marking the Trail are inspired by the mysterious blue porcupine that has featured on Gravesham’s Coat of Arms  since medieval times.

On the current Coat of Arms, originating from 1975, it appears as a ‘sea porcupine’ – a heraldic mythical creature, part porcupine, part fish – and stands opposite and facing ‘Invicta’, the white horse of Kent.

On Gravesend’s first Coat of Arms (circa 1568) the porcupine appears as a land creature , with legs rather than a fish tail and a chain around its neck, at the helm of a boat.

 

Image from 1568 Coat of Arms, reproduced on the gate of Milton Church, Gravesend

This earlier Coat of Arms has been described as:

…..a boat with one mast….a sail furled, proper, rowed by five rowers hooded and cloaked, with oars and anchor, steered by a porcupine, azure, chained and quilled…

As far as I know, there are only a few places around Gravesend where you can find the original Coat of Arms. It is reproduced on the gate of Milton Church; there is a magnificent mosaic in Gravesend Market; and it can be seen embroidered on banners in St Andrew’s Church.

It has been said that the imagery on this Coat of Arms inspired Edward Lear to write his nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussy-cat.

Mosaic in Gravesend market

Edward Lear’s father, Jeremiah Lear, lived in Gravesend for many years, so Edward was a frequent visitor. Lear senior was buried in Milton churchyard in 1833, although the plot is not marked.

When I was a schoolboy, the emblem moved around the town, emblazoned on the chests of scruffy youths, including my own, on the blazer badge of Springhead School. I didn’t realise the creature steering the boat was a porcupine, though. I thought it was a bear!

Duncan Grant: Springhead School
Me as a Springhead yoof
Springhead School blazer badge
Springhead School blazer badge

 

The porcupine is native to the Americas and Africa, and is also found in Italy, so how on earth did it come to be on Gravesend’s Coat of Arms?

Well, one explanation might be that there was a link to the Sydney family of Penshurst Place in Kent, who added the porcupine to their family crest in the 16th century, as a result of a connection with King Louis XII of France.  In France the porcupine was a symbol of invincibility and Louis XII adopted a porcupine as his personal emblem.

Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey
Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey

In particular, it’s use on the Gravesend Coat of Arms could be a tribute to Sir Henry Sydney and may refer to his authority in governing and regulating barges and boats on the Thames at that time.

The River Thames has always been a leading character in the history of Gravesend, so the portrayal of a boat on the Coat of Arms is not unexpected. A bit of searching on the British History Online website provides a possible explanation for the rowers.

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

 

 

In 1377, Richard II commanded the sheriffs of Kent and Essex to erect beacons on either side of the Thames, at Gravesend and Farnedon. These were to be lit to provide early warning of enemy attackers coming up the river.

Unfortunately, the beacons proved useless. Soon after they were in place, the French sailed up the Thames and plundered and burnt Gravesend.

To help the town to recover from its losses, Richard II pronounced that the people of Gravesend should have the sole privilege of rowing passengers by water from Gravesend to London, a journey known as ‘the long ferry.’

It is probable that the rowers in the Coat of Arms represent the Long Ferry rowers, although why they are hooded is unclear – although, you’ll probably have noticed, the hoodie remains a very popular item of clothing in Gravesend even today!

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine
The Trail of the Blue Porcupine was devised collaboratively by Gravesham-based poet and spoken-word artist James M’Kay and London-based artist Sarah Sparkes. Sarah made the porcupines, while James worked out the trail and devised the clues that porcupine hunters will solve as they walk.

LV21
LV21

Although they have both been fascinated by the blue porcupine for some time, James and Sarah had never met or worked together until they were introduced by Päivi Seppälä of LV21. She commissioned them to produce the trail as part of SILTings  – a programme of new artwork and performances created in response to the forgotten stories and hidden histories of the Gravesham riverfront.

SILTings runs from the 4th-6th June 2021, and is one of four Creative Estuary commissioned creative cultural projects with Estuary-based producers and artists, to contribute to the Associated Programme for Estuary 2021.

Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston
Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston

Sarah Sparkes is a visual artist and curator, whose work is inspired and informed by myths, folklore and, particularly, ghost stories. Currently, she is painting 101 ghost stories in 101 weeks. She also runs the visual arts and creative research project GHost which explores guests, ghosts and hosts, through seminars, exhibitions, screenings and performances.

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 - 'and this is where I saw it' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 – ‘and this is where I saw it’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

‘Myths are histories that have become stories,’ she explains. ‘They travel lightly by word of mouth from generation to generation. The hierarchy will put things in writing and say, this is our history, this is what you have to believe. But folklore is a way that everyday people can own their histories and carry them forward.’

‘And quite often, they stand testament for things that have been suppressed or repressed,’ she continues. ‘Folklore is where that stuff is hiding. That is why these stories are so powerful and that’s why, I think, the blue porcupine is such a powerful character.’

Sarah first encountered the blue porcupine  back in 2013 when she visited Gravesend with a group of walkers and artists to plan the Inspiral London Walk which finishes in Gravesend. Inspiral London are now partners on the Trail of the Blue Porcupine and are also listing the Trail on their website.

Banner in St Andrew's Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes
Banner in St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes

‘I was walking around Gravesend and I saw in St Andrew’s Chapel, a banner with this extraordinary creature, like a big rat at the front of a boat, and I wondered what on earth it could be,’ Sarah remembers.

The mystery of the blue porcupine caught her imagination and she began to research the heraldic symbolism, its place in the history of Gravesend and how its story might be developed and made relevant through art.

‘I like the idea of art that is really centred in the community and captures people’s imagination,’ Sarah says. ‘Art that makes people see something about where they live, celebrate it, embrace that and then make work about it themselves. I really want to make this magical, wonderful creature, the blue porcupine, a significant part of Gravesend, for the people of Gravesend.’

The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020
The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020

In 2020, Sarah was invited by curator, Caroline Gregory to contribute to Hell or High Water a weekend of art on LV21, exploring transitions, adversity, survival and transformation.

The art that Sarah planned, Azure, Chained and Quilled, was a performance piece portraying the blue porcupine being released from its chains and navigating the lightship to safety. Sarah made a blue porcupine puppet and head dress for the performance, which moved from the Gravesham Arts Centre, along the Thames foreshore and on to the deck of LV21.

Because of Covid the event took place virtually. Sarah’s live performance did not go ahead but it was filmed and is still available to view.

 

James M'Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew's Church, Gravesend
James M’Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend

If you live around here, you may know poet James M’Kay from his live spoken word performances at venues in London and Gravesham, or through Reverb Chamber, the monthly neighbourhood poetry nights that he hosts at Cafe No.84.

James first encountered the blue porcupine when he moved south from Newcastle.

Over the last year, during his lockdown walks around Gravesham, James has occupied himself by inventing a parallel, fantasy landscape, imagining fantastical  stories about the areas he walks though.

He is excited by the lack of ‘facts’ surrounding the story of the blue porcupine because, he explains, it leaves space for people to imagine their own stories.

‘The blue porcupine is a Rorschach Blot,’ he says. ‘It’s a tool for telling stories, which can be whatever people want, to express however they feel about the place. I have my own ideas. I think I know why the porcupine is in that boat, who it is that are rowing, and why they are going away, but I don’t think I’m prepared to say just yet.

‘Everything I’m planning to do with Blue Porcupine is encouraging people to make up stories because I think a little playfulness is what we need after all we’ve been through recently.’

Before they collaborated, Sarah and James had each imagined different stories about the porcupine in the boat. To Sarah, the porcupine is female. James sees it as male, so they have agreed to use ‘they’ as a pronoun when talking about the porcupine .

Sarah is troubled by the porcupine being, apparently, tethered to the boat.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021

‘The porcupine seems to be both a slave and a heroic figure,’ she say. ‘It has got a chain around its neck, like a collar, which I think is really sad. But yet it’s a kind of figurehead. It’s the navigator. It’s the seer. It’s finding the way. The oarsmen aren’t looking where they are going but the porcupine is.’

James disagrees. ‘Yes, the blue porcupine has a chain around its neck,’ he counters. ‘But I think it is a mayoral chain. I think the blue porcupine is in charge. He is steering the boat.’

James and Sarah are hoping that through the Trail of the Blue Porcupine, they will perhaps uncover new information about the story behind the porcupine, or that people will report new sightings of the image around the borough. They certainly hope that the event will stimulate many new imaginings of the porcupine’s story.

If you have any information or wish to share your stories, factual or imagined, please either comment on this blog or contact James and Sarah directly, through the links given below.

A Blue Porcupine Festival

Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020
Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020

For the future, James and Sarah are hoping to organise a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend.

‘Ever since I saw the blue porcupine in St Andrew’s Chapel, I’ve had been harbouring this ambition to do a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend,’ Sarah reveals. ‘I imagine it to be like Jack in the Green in Hastings with costumes, parading and everyone getting involved. When Päivi talked to me about doing this project, I sketched a costume based on the mosaic that is in the old marketplace and I imagined that at some time in the future, this could become part of a blue porcupine festival.’

 

James believes that the blue porcupine movement is going to have a momentum of its own.

‘I think we’re going to have trouble catching it!’ he says.

As the blue porcupine is part of the Coat of Arms, there are no copyright restrictions in relation to the use of its image.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020

‘One of the things that I absolutely love about the blue porcupine is that it doesn’t belong to anybody – not to any particular community, organisation or group,’ James says. ‘If you’ve got anything to do with the Borough of Gravesham, you’re entitled to use the blue porcupine to tell whatever stories you want with it, which I think is great. I’m looking forward to Blue Porcupine Bitter, Blue Porcupine cocktails, Blue Porcupine tattoos. I think the people of Gravesham need to start running with it. It’s our porcupine!’

James has started the ball rolling. His blog is called Blue Porcupine Poems and Things.  And he has one more idea, inspired by his own experience of the success of The Angel of the North in bringing the community together in Gateshead.

‘The week before they put it up, everyone in Gateshead was saying, what a load of rubbish, but a week later they were calling it, “our Angel,”” James recalls. ‘So I think, at the very end of the promenade, that little bit that juts out, would be the perfect place for a massive 30-foot, major, iconic piece of porcupine art – illuminated at night obviously so that all the ships coming up the Thames would see it.’

‘That’s where I think we should be going with this!’ he laughs.

More Information

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

The trail launches at 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021 on the quayside outside LV21 and is available throughout the following week. It is also available online. Clues for the Trail of the Blue Porcupine will go live on YouTube on Saturday 5th June 2021 

Join the Blue Porcupine Fan Club on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/Blue-Porcupine-Fan-Club-100823918862979/

Follow the Blue Porcupine Instagram: @theblueporcupine

Sarah Sparkes: 'Azure, Chained and Quilled', on LV21
Sarah Sparkes: ‘Azure, Chained and Quilled’, on LV21

 

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

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

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

 

 

James M'Kay ©Tim Goddard
James M’Kay ©Tim Goddard

 

James M’Kay

Blog: Blue Porcupine Poems and Things
https://blueporcupinepoemsthings.substack.com/

Soundcloud: Poet and Reciter James M’Kay
https://soundcloud.com/mckay_poetry
https://grandbabybeat.bandcamp.com/releases

Sarah Sparkes 

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 - 'Licht Und Blindheit' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 – ‘Licht Und Blindheit’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

Instagram: @thesarahsparkes

Website: https://www.sarahsparkes.com/blog/

GHost website: https://www.ghosthostings.co.uk/

Liverpool and Taiwan ghost stories:  http://www.theghostportal.co.uk/

Senate House Ghost Stories: http://ghostsofsenatehouse.blogspot.com/

New Art Projects: http://newartprojects.com/artists/sarah-sparkes/

 

 

 
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Nicola White Mudlark: Discarded objects and lives in limbo

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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

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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/

 

 

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Update: Exhibition of new work, Christmas cards, blog and Liberty fabric spotting

 

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Time for a few more quick updates.

My 20:20 vision – Exhibition of new work

I’ll be exhibiting some new work for 2020- inspired by my childhood, my town and other stuff – next weekend at St Andrew’s Arts Centre in Gravesend. Private view (you are all invited) from 6pm on Friday 24th January. There will be beer https://www.ironpier.beer/ and biscuits.

The exhibition continues on Saturday 25th January and Sunday 26th January from 10am to 4pm. There will also be biscuits and maybe beer then too, depending on how much gets (many get) drunk on Friday night.

Do pop along if you can!

New work will be added to my website in February https://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop/

St. Andrews Arts Centre has an interesting history. As you can see, it used to be a church. The Diocese of Rochester decided to close the church because of the cost of repairs, but it was rescued and bought by Gravesham Borough Council in 1975 and transformed into an Arts Centre.

The original church was built to serve Gravesend’s waterside community. In the middle of the 19th Century, the river Thames was really busy with cargo and passenger vessels preparing to sail to Australia, New Zealand or the Americas. Emigrants often lived on board ship, sometimes in terrible conditions, for weeks before they sailed.

Smaller boats serviced the larger ships and the crews of these boats lived with their families and livestock on barges moored just offshore. The priest of the local Holy Trinity Church, Rev C E R Robinson, considered all these people to be his parishioners and visited them. Records show that he carried out over 600 baptisms for emigrants wanting to be blessed before their departure.

A couple of interesting facts for you about St Andrew’s.
Did you know?

  • Most UK churches are aligned east/west. But St Andrew’s is aligned north/south because that was the land that was available and its parish was the river
  • The ceiling of St Andrew’s is shaped to resemble an upturned boat.

Come along to see for yourself next weekend. Did I mention that there will be Iron Pier beer, and biscuits?

Last word on Christmas cards
A big thank you to everyone who contributed to the Christmas card project, either by contributing a design or by buying the cards.  We raised £900, enough to fund Christmas lunch at Cafe No. 84 https://www.no84.co.uk/ this year, and with money left over either to fund a similar event next year if the cafe owners decide to do it again, or to donate to Crisis at Christmas if not. If you’re not sure what I’m taking about, more info here: https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/04/07/only-261-more-days-until-christmas-time-to-think-about-lunch/

Liberty fabric scraps of news
I think my Liberty fabrics have sold out now. The last remnants were in the recent Liberty sale.

The Faber & Faber edition of the Booker Prize winning Milkman was in the shops at Christmas. Did you see this interview with Anna Burns, the author, and me?
https://www.libertylondon.com/uk/features/design-and-living/faber-interview-anna-burns-duncan-grant.html

 

 

 

Now a new hobby for me is watching products made from my fabric springing up in different places, especially in Japan, where you can buy pencil cases and other small gifty type bits in a Small Town design. I saw this one on Instagram and contacted them to ask if I could buy a pencil case. A woman replied. She said she liked my art and would send me one as a gift. As the parcel weighed less than the 2kg allowed, she has filled it up with Japanese sweets. Nice. Looking forward to receiving it soon.

Here is another one.

Top blog!
This blog has been going for just under a year now and you may have noticed that it has changed a bit. I ran out of things to say about myself and started featuring other talented and interesting artists of my acquaintance – check the archive. Well, imagine my surprise when I found I’d been included in Feedspots Top 100 Art Blogs and websites to follow in 2020.  I’m currently in at number 81 pop-pickers https://blog.feedspot.com/art_blogs/

I’m not really sure what this means or whether it will do me any good but I’d like to stay on the list.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already following the blog. But I would like to attract more followers if possible – aiming to get 200 maybe by the end of this year – have 159 at present. So if you know anyone who you think might be interested, just ask them to pop their email in the box at the top of this page AND THEN really important, click to confirm on the link that is sent out (it might go to spam, so check). They’ll get an email alert when each blog comes out – about once a fortnight – no spam, no ads, I promise. Thank you.

Well that’s it. I’ll be back with another really interesting artist for you in a week or two.  Hope to see some of you at the exhibition. Did I say there would be biscuits and beer…..?

 

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Heart of Darkness revisited: Some lino prints

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While I was adding some more pictures to my gallery a couple of weeks ago, I came across a series of lino prints that I did for a local art project in 2017, based around Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/526

Heart of Darkness begins aboard the British ship, Nellie, which is anchored in the Thames, near Gravesend. As the crew wait for the weather to clear, one of the sailors, Marlow, tells the story of the time that he travelled in a steamboat up the River Congo. He describes his shock at the European traders’ treatment of the natives and how the experience of trading in Africa changes people. He relates what he has learnt about the darkness of the human heart, and the things of which that darkness is capable.

In Chapter One, Conrad describes the scene from the ship, Nellie, looking up the river towards London.

Chapman Light on the Thames features in Chapter 1 of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Chapman Light – limited edition lino print

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman light-house, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

I’ve done a lino print of the Chapman Lighthouse, separately from the Heart of Darkness project. https://duncangrantartist.com/product/chapman-light/

The 2017 Heart of Darkness art project, hosted by St Andrews Arts Centre in Gravesend, was organised by Terry Lane, who I used to work with back in the day.  It featured excerpts read from the book, accompanied by projected images and live music composed specially for the event . The bands involved were The Closer We are to Dying (Terry’s band) https://www.facebook.com/thecloserwearetodying/ Whthppnsfpshthtbttn?, The Bleak Industrialists and The Science Department, and the projections were produced by Mike and Romana from The Hot Tin www.the-hot-tin.co.uk through their company Routestock https://www.routestock.org/about?fbclid=IwAR3AQlfQ_wjB4IzGoxS2dLPqbWpEOEAAfR0_2GSOaJuRqSMiw7xaFjkVn6o

The boat anchored on the Thames at the start of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Boat – limited edition lino print

Several local artists, including me, provided artwork, inspired by scenes from the book. Others involved were Matt Kilda, Jane Prangnell, Mark Wrangham and Nikki Price.

Mental health is a key theme in Heat of Darkness and the show was produced in association with North Kent MIND http://northkentmind.co.uk/, with all ticket money donated to them.

If you missed it, these You Tube clips give a flavour of the event.



If you’ve read the book you’ll know that, as well as being an adventure story, Heart of Darkness is bleak. It explores thenes of greed, cruelty and humanity, and raises troubling questions about imperialism. It is said that Conrad made the book deliberately hard to read. He wanted the reader to feel as though they were fighting through the jungle, just like Marlow did in search of the desperate and deranged ivory trader Kurtz.

My pictures, all lino cuts for the project, focused mainly on the weird and the macabre in the book, plus a couple of others on a maritime theme.

Maps and charts use for navigation up the Congo in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Chart table – limited edition lino print

As a boy, Marlow, the storyteller in Heart of Darkness, was fascinated by maps and longed to be an explorer. After several years sailing in the Pacific he returns to London, and inspired by a map of Africa and the Congo River that he sees in a shop window, he takes a job as a steamboat pilot and sets off into Africa dreaming of adventure.

River Congo described as a snake in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Snake – limited edition lino print

But Marlow’s comparison of the river to a coiled snake is a portent of the evil he would later encounter.

But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.

Marlow soon realises that his employer, ‘the company’, is in the Congo for gain and to spread European ideals. ‘The company’ say they are ’emissaries of light’, but what Marlow sees are ‘groves of death’.

Images - Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Heads – Limited edition lino print
Death and decay in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Skeletons – limited edition lino print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heads on sicks at the climax of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Heads on sticks – limited edition lino print

 

The heads on sticks appear at the end of the book and symbolise Kurtz, the ivory trader’s, excessive brutality and madness.

Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

I was interested to find out that the film Apocalypse Now  was based on the Heart of Darkness, but set in the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It explores the ways in which the ‘darkness’ of Vietnam caused an apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight, just as the ‘darkness’ of the Congo revealed the darkness in the hearts of the European traders.

My Heart of Darkness  limited edition lino prints are available to buy in my gallery https://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop/

Boat – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-boat/
Chart table – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-chart-table/
Heads – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-heads/
Skeletons – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-skeletons/
Heads on sticks – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-heads-on-sticks/

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Lions of Windsor and other animals

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After I came back from the Liberty factory in Milan in March I wrote in my blog, ‘I wondered where this journey will take me next’. Well one answer is possibly ‘Windsor’ and I certainly didn’t expect that!

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by award winning homeware designer, Lisa Todd, who is Director of this year’s Lions of Windsor project https://lionsofwindsor.org/, to ask if I would be interested in decorating a life-size resin and fibre glass lion to be displayed somewhere around Windsor this summer. The original lion was created by Bath sculptor Alan Dun https://alandunsculpture.weebly.com/ as a 3D canvas.

The project will involve a giant pride of over 60, individually decorated lion sculptures being positioned around the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead from 10th August until 27th October this year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria. There will be an official public art ‘safari trail’ where visitors can see the bigger lions, decorated by artists and designers, plus a mini-pride of lion cubs decorated by schools and charities.

The project will culminate in a Lions Roar Goodbye  festival (9th/10 November) and then a charity auction on 22nd November. All profits will be donated to local charities, including the new Thames Hospice in Maidenhead, Look Good Feel Better and the Lions Club of Windsor, for distributing to good causes across the region.

I haven’t really got much experience of 3D art or drawing (on) animals really. I did decorate this set of Russian Dolls in 2018 for ‘Art on a Postcard’ https://www.artonapostcard.com/ and I’ve done relief prints of a few cats, birds, water creatures and insects over the years (see below) but a 3-D lion is going to be a bit of a challenge. Not least because I have to get it home, paint it and then get it back to Windsor, without being eaten!

Russian dolls decorated for ‘Art on a Postcard’

As you might be aware, over the last year I’ve been working on a series of Small Town ink drawings. You can see then all in my Gallery under ‘Original Artwork: Ink Drawings’. https://duncangrantartist.com/product-category/original-artwork/drawing-ink/ They are all also available as digital prints. I submitted one of the Small Towns to the #LibertyOpenCall competition that I won and the two designs that Liberty have been produced are due to be launched next month as part of their Summer Collection. I’ve included elements of the Liberty Small Town design in my lion design because Liberty fabric designs were very popular in the Victorian era.

My lion design is called Night and Day  and depicts Windsor in daylight (on the side of the lion with his eye open) and Windsor at night (on the side of the lion with his eye closed). Each side will reflect Windsor’s position on the Thames, and will feature prominent landmarks, such as the castle and the Great Park. You might even spot some Windsor collars and ties with Windsor knots on the final product. I haven’t really decided.

Anyway, that’s for the future. I have to have my design accepted first. The templates are really small so what you can see here is only an impression. If I’m successful, the design on the final lion will be much more intricate.

Here is what I have submitted:

Front view
Windsor by day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the other animals….. As mentioned above, here are some of my earlier encounters with animals. They’re all for sale via the Gallery on this website – just follow the links.

Cats

 

https://duncangrantartist.com/product/black-cat/ (also Blue Cat)
https://duncangrantartist.com/product/moon-cat-2/
https://duncangrantartist.com/product/cat/

Hares

https://duncangrantartist.com/rabbits/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://duncangrantartist.com/product/crow/
https://duncangrantartist.com/product/raven/
https://duncangrantrist.com/product/penguins/
https://duncangrantartist.com/product/pigeon/ 

Sea creatures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


https://duncangrantartist.com/octopus/
https://duncangrantartist.com/squid/
https://duncangrantartist.com/dogfish/

Insects

 

https://duncangrantartist.com/stag-beetle/
https://duncangrantartist.com/cheesy-bug/

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Drawing inspiration from the Thames

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A beautiful sunny day with a Force 9 gale battering the prom seemed like the perfect backdrop for a nautical themed Explore and Draw session on the magnificent, retired lightship Light Vessel 21 – LV21 now moored at St Andrew’s Quay in Gravesend, Kent.

I was booked to give an introductory talk to the artists and after that, taking care not to be blown overboard, we set off to explore the ship in search of inspiration for our drawings .

LV 21 was acquired in 2009 by Päivi Seppälä and Gary Weston who have converted the 400m, steel-hulled ship into a thriving cultural and heritage centre. https://lv21.co.uk/ It was the last lightship to be built by Dartmouth-based Philip and Son, and spent most of its service off the Kent coast on the Varne, East Goodwin and Channel stations. Derek Grieve, the last Master of the lightship, explains what daily life was like for the crew on board. website https://lv21.co.uk/about/history-of-lv21/crew-stories/

In 1981, LV21 survived a collision with another ship, the Ore Meteor, which was being towed by a tug. Crew member Brian Packham gives a fascinating account of the event. https://lv21.co.uk/about/history-of-lv21/collision-at-the-varne/

The Thames has inspired artists for centuries. Many people will be familiar with J.M.W. Turner’s work but you may not have heard of The Wapping Group of Artists, founded in 1946, who met initially to record the busy life of London’s dockland and, since then, have painted the Thames and the land either side of it. http://thewappinggroupofartists.co.uk/

Being born and bred in Gravesend, the river hasalways been part of my life and, inevitably, its history and childhood memories have found their way into my art.

This limited edition lino cut shows the Chapman Lighthouse, which stood off the coast of Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary from 1851 to 1957, warning sailors away from the mud flats. It featured in Chapter 1 of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. https://duncangrantartist.com/product/chapman-light/

The digital print (below right) depicts Lower Hope, a stretch of the tidal Thames, below Gravesend, near the Ship and Lobster pub.  The picture, which was originaly an acrylic painting, is about remembering my dad. We would go walking down by the sea wall when I was a kid. The background is a doodle of elements from my life. I am the small figure in the middle. I guess I am walking on my own these days.  http://duncangrantartist.com/product/ac364-print/

 

This final image, also a digital print from an acrylic painting, is a view of the Thames from Gravesend High Street. Visitors to Gravesend are often amazed to see 7-storey cruise ships appearing from behind the buildings at the end of the road. http://duncangrantartist.com/product/to-the-river-print/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The variety offered by Thames and LV21 did not disappoint the Explore and Draw artists. Encouraged by workshop leader and artist Luna Zsigo, they captured their surroundings in very different ways – from detailed drawings of ropes, to windswept landscapes framed by the lightship’s portholes. My LV21 inspired drawing is at the top of this post.

 

Everyone is welcome at Explore and Draw sessions – from absolute beginners to more experienced artists. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and non-judgemental…oh, and the cake is to die for!

If you are interested in joining or attending other cultural events on board L21 or organised by Päivi and Gary, visit the website: https://lv21.co.uk/events/ 
Explore and Draw workshop photographs by Neil Thorne Photography – 07715 681855

Finally, talented musician Ian Kirton has set some of my Thames-related work to one of his original compositions ‘Simplicity’. See the You Tube link below.

A licence to use Ian Kirton’s track ‘Simplicity’ can be purchased here: https://www.productiontrax.com/royalty-free-music/249644

All the pictures featured are available to buy on this website, just search for the title in the Gallery.