The first thing I notice, peering into the beach hut on Day 6 of James Norton‘s art residency, is how every inch of space is occupied by things. On the table and on the floor are James’s art materials: trays and plastic bags filled with various rocks, corroded metals, fishermen’s rope, broken pieces of china, tobacco wrappers, chain links, a glasses case, electrical appliances… Dotted about the hut are his work materials: brushes, canvases, wellington boots, rucksack, jacket, books on Lothian geology, OS maps, even a guitar. And on the walls, and spilling out on the floor, are the artworks, mixed media (see art materials above) on canvases of various sizes.
The largest of these, occupying the central position of the hut as you walk in, is a white-soaked painting depicting the cement works nearby. The metal scaffolding, sketched with geometric precision, is elegantly juxtaposed against the subtly textured backdrop, which I discover upon closer inspection is striated with finely rendered lines. It is a haunting and beautiful work. Strange numbered tags are encrusted into the piece, but unlike the way debris can disrupt a beach walk with its audacity, the use of found materials here evoke a calm (albeit unsettling) contemplation.
James tells me that many geologists, in considering the enormous impact human activity has had on the earth in recent times, have proposed that we are in a new geologic epoch – Anthropocene. The words combine ‘human’ and ‘new’ and reflects the extent and pace with which humans have marked the environment. James shows me rocks that he has collected on his beach walks, many of them separated in age by millions of years. Another rock is not a rock at all, but what appears to be a piece of plastic which has fused into a rock. We may think of rocks as static objects, but they are actually malleable, altering in shape and constitution over the course of a thousand years, or a split-second. Even the small sample of rocks and half-destroyed man-made products strewn about the hut reflect starkly how human activity has rapidly altered the landscape.
James’s pieces in the hut are receipts of the landscape that he has observed around Dunbar. Most of them are abstract, ghostly evocations (for me) of a splash of water at dawn, the night time sky over a beach (encrusted with small pebbles). I am interested in what James tells me about how words function in his paintings. The way that a word would resonate in his mind and inform the direction of the painting (‘traverse’,’lithified’) reminds me of what I had read earlier in Muir’s autobiography, about the way that landscape and language were irrevocably linked for him:
Around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay smooth in cultivation [ …] I remember […] Mother hanging a little green bag with my first book in it around my neck so I would not lose it, and its blowing back in the sea-wind like a flag.
James Norton’s art residency was from 23 to 29th June.