‘Ground Work’ is a collection of poetry and art by David Attwooll and Andrew Walton, based on a year of walks in Port Meadow, Oxford. The collection was exhibited earlier this year by Jenny Blyth Fine Art at Art Jericho. I spoke to them about the project, and the challenges of committing one of Oxford’s best-known landscapes to paper and canvas.
This is obviously a very collaborative process. How do you find working with someone else in such a close way?
Andrew: I’d known David as a good friend since the seventies and as someone who was very interested in the visual arts, is amazingly knowledgeable about music and is a very good percussionist playing in a street band. A couple of years ago we were having supper and he told me that he’d started writing poetry… Out of that we thought it would be interesting to have some kind of exchange, with no preconception to what it might be. So we talked about it and decided maybe it would be a good idea to go for walks together – and so we went to Port Meadow, which we both really like. Really we kind of discovered the project through that.
David: Working together is great fun. A bit like improvising in jazz in a band: it’s not always clear who started a particular riff but the collaboration can take you to places neither of the individuals had anticipated, as you bounce things off each other – as well as just nattering, of course.
Why did you choose Port Meadow as a subject?
D: It’s somewhere both Andrew and I know well. We first met when I moved to West Oxford and our families had picnics together etc there over the years. He has deeper roots there having grown up playing on it, but I worked nearby too for a dozen years (at Oxford University Press). But I think the main reason is its ‘otherness’ as a place, outside contemporary Oxford’s space and time – something I tried to get over in some of the poems (e.g. ‘Topography’ and ‘Cumulus’).
How did you decide upon the titles for your paintings?
A: The work divides clearly into two groups. Therefore the works painted in the landscape are titled to indicate where and when. Titles for studio work always come after the event – quite a few of them have come after we’ve hung the show, I don’t think of a subject then paint it . It’s more that I will have noticed something in the painting that will make me think of say early [Robin] Nolan. It’s the process of improvisation that I think is a fundamental part of most people being creative. If you’re following a set of fixed rules you don’t come across new things you just cover the same ground again. There are all sorts of things to do with improvisation that are common to any creative form – music or visual art – there’s a theme that is returned to, gone away from and brought back again – a kind of openness.
Are the shapes in ‘Four Plots’ allotments?
A: It might be! In terms of the meaning of things… visual images, like music, are not good at communicating specific things. If I want to say to you that I need five pounds because I’m broke, I wouldn’t paint a picture but I’d say ‘Can I have five pounds please?’ It’s unambiguous. But even the most apparently obviously images are interpreted by different people in different ways. So it might be about allotments.
Do you find art is quite a free medium because of this ambiguity?
A: Well I don’t write poetry so I can’t really compare. But what I am aware of with the years’ project as it’s gone on is that when I look at David’s poetry (he has a poem for every month), I can look at them and it’s like a diary of what happened on those works. But I’d struggle with most of my things to draw a direct connection. Some of them, but not a lot.
Did you conceptualise the poems as a diary of the walks?
Where did the artifacts mentioned in ‘The Museum of Everything’ come from?
A: There are my sketchbooks and items that I’ve collected over the last 50 years. For example the clay pipes I found in my teens where one part of Port Meadow had had allotments on … When they stopped being allotments there was an abandoned allotment shed, and I found that the man who had owned the plot dug up the pipes and put them on the shelf in his shed. But he didn’t take them with him. So I stole them!
So are they your souvenirs?
A: I’ve always been intrigued by archeology. As a boy I took part in archeological digs in Oxford, so these bits of broken pottery and other things say a lot about a period. And there’s also a kind of magic about finding things. Some of them are very beautiful and detailed, or they’re strange like this ceramic bust that reminds me of Ottoline Morrell. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t look at if it was in Boswell’s window but when you find it lying in the mud it’s quite curious.
This is a place with a great sense of history – from the prehistoric artifacts in ‘The Museum of Everything’, to the links between landscape and computer technology in ‘Topography’ and ‘Shift Key’. Is the transformation of the landscape over time something that was particularly important to you when putting the set together?
D: Good question and yes, absolutely. I avoided using the word ‘palimpsest’ in a poem, but it does feel like a piece of re-used vellum where the earlier writing is still just visible below subsequent texts – layers and layers of it.
How do you build from sketches to the finished article?
A: I think it’s a kind of immersion in the place… I’m there, looking at this place and I note down the rise and fall of the ground or the track, what’s happening with the trees. But then between sketch and finished article I don’t know how it happens.
A: No it’s not inspiration. I think that’s a cliche. It’s that I’ll be aware of things, and sometimes it’ll turn into exploring patterns. For example, if you know the Meadow at all you’ll know the tracks that the horses make. I’ve always loved those and it’s curious because when the track gets too muddy they then walk net to it and a new track is made and the old one fades away. There are quite a few drawings to do with playing with mark making as a result, such as ‘Track on Wind’.
Is ‘Moonrings’ to do with a similar pattern exploration?
A: The paintings come in a particular way. I know that with ‘Moonrings’ I will have – because I’m left-handed – I will have gone from right to left, so you can see that there’s more pigment at the beginning of the stroke. Then I’ve refilled the brush. All I will have had in my head is that maybe I’ll go across the middle with a particular sort of brush. Then I suspect I will have thought that I’ll work below it – the idea of making shapes then develops. I will have started in the corner and the brush will suggest moving in a certain way – and it ends up like that. Finally things will come right at the end, when I step back and think ‘actually, I do need a line across to separate it.’ The picture tells me that. You can see how this one I will have started drawing the circles anti-clockwise.
If I spend a day on the Meadow, I might be painting, I might just be wandering around. I’ve always got a sketchbook with me, so I might draw what I’m seeing. And then I’ll notice things. Some of the ‘Ground Work’ series are drawn from being there at this time of year, and when you see the water catching the light you get a fantastic brilliance on bits of water. But they’re painted back in the studio. This was me thinking I’d try to describe that particular corner of Port Meadow where the old dust cart track meets the new. If anything it’s the most stilted image in the show! But in conjunction with the others it says something.
I’m particularly fascinated by the snow scenes, as they strike me as the most abstract.
A: For me they’re the most literal. This time last year there was very heavy snow and so I deliberately went to the meadow twice in the middle of a blizzard. It was just fantastic weather… I tried drawing and the ink froze as it came out o the pen. But they’re very specific, to do with what it was like to be there with the distant landscape obliterated.
Do you feel that there’s been a distinguishable difference over the last ten years in how you think about approaching a painting, or is that not a conscious thing?
A: I’m always intrigued by this business of balancing whether you can control things or not. I quite like things to do with chance and the unexpected. There’s an element to do with that in the painting ‘Strata’. There will have been a definite decision to make something that’s that proportion and divided into those four rows. After that it wasn’t that pre-planned: things will appear, like for some reason I’ll have thought to have the dark green, and then the lighter as a sense of light on the landscape. This could be a tent! But I had no idea that it would come out like that. I’m not even sure which colour came first. I suspect the light was first and then I added the darker.
I went to art school in the sixties when the rule book was ripped up and people went into all sorts of things and different directions: performance art, conceptual art. I’m not an intellectual and I’m always slightly confused by conceptual art, I think it’s posturing or the result of art having been taken over by institutional respectability. The theorists move in. I experimented with performance art and things, I think a key thing for me is that I’m an image maker in the old-fashioned sense. I remember thinking this through when I was sitting in a church looking at some old Romanesque carvings, and feeling an affinity with those people who were doing the same. Carving images. In a sense it’s very simple, I like the surprise of what happens when you make an image.
You can read reviews of ‘Ground Work’ by Sabotage Reviews and Poor Rude Lines on their respective websites. For more information about the collection itself or to order a copy, please visit the Black Poplar Press site.