Pieces of Sky



Pieces of Sky Detail



Pieces of Sky moth survey and installation project for Wirksworth Festival


I have been commissioned to make a piece of work for this year’s Wirksworth Festival, a big international showing of artists and events held each year in the Derbyshire town of Wirksworth. The town is situated on the edge of the Peak District National Park and has an old connection with lead and coal mining which obviously appeals to me.

The piece is called “Pieces of Sky” and will involve local volunteers using light traps to record moth species flying in the night skies over the town. I will produce a large drawing of the moths using coal dust and galena and this will be show in the church. I will also be coordinating moth trapping events during the festival period.



10th June

We visited Wirksworth on what happened to be Open Gardens Day which proved to be an excellent opportunity to see some of the locations where the moth traps will be sited. The town is very beautiful and I am looking forward to getting to know it a bit better over the next few months. There are already four volunteers who have very kindly agreed to use the traps and record the species.



I also explored St. Mary’s church where the finished piece will be sited. It is in the middle of town, set in an oval-shaped churchyard (often an indication of great antiquity) surrounded by the backs and yards of house and shops. It is believed to date back to the 7th century and contains an impressive collection of Dark Age carvings.



This also includes what must be one of the earliest depictions of a lead miner.



20th June

The plan had been to set the moth traps this weekend as it is National Moth Night (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) organised by Butterfly Conservation, but due to a slight delay in ordering the equipment and the prospect of more poor weather this weekend, this now looks unlikely. I’m hoping for better conditions over the next couple of months – moths prefer warmth and calm.

As the title “Pieces of Sky” suggests I am interested in the moths we catch coming to represent pieces of the night sky, small fluttering particles of darkness attracted to the intense light of the trap. The idea came partly from reading an article in the Guardian by science correspondent Jeff Forshaw writing about the latest developments at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland. Experiments to blast together particle beams of protons or lead nuclei hope to prove the existence of the Higgs bosun particle, an elementary component of all matter believed to give the universe mass.




The Alpha experiment at Cern is attempting to make and then capture antimatter, the opposite of matter, anti-hydrogen to be precise, the symmetrical counterpart of the simplest atom hydrogen. When the universe formed there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter created in perfect symmetry, but as the universe cooled they began to cancel each other out. The annihilation as it is called produces protons, or light – “Und es vard licht!” to quote Hayden’s “Creation”, the universe filled with light. Thankfully, due to a slight imperfection in the creation process, there was a little positive matter left over to form the elements.

This balance of opposites, polarities of light and darkness, positive and negative, suggested a profoundly symmetrical design, where moths could be moths, but also holes, bits of dark matter, pieces of night sky repeated in countless symmetrical rotations.

(You can follow the very human story of Cern in a series of regularly updated documentary fragments called Cern People produced by award winning film maker Liz Mermin. Scientists, like artists, are people too! The artist’s response to this ground breaking research can be poetically represented by Richard Long’s simple but profound “Carnac to Cern” text piece and Roger Ackling’s sun-energy mapping work.)


30th June

We are in business! The light traps have been delivered and the first trapping results have just been emailed to me (thanks Bill and Heather). They include this magnificent Elephant Hawkmoth. Lets hope for some decent weather so that volunteers can use their traps without fear of flooding!



I have been considering the best way to construct the drawing. As in the original submission (above) it will consist of four rings of moths painted using coal and galena dust – actually it will be the same ring flipped and repeated four times in mirrored  and rotated symmetries. I will be making a handcut stencil in card to enable me to draw the repetitions and inversions and the stencil will develop and grow as more (and hopefully more) results of trappings come in. The design will refer very loosely to the atomic structure of carbon (coal) and galena (lead).



The four rings also refer to the central motif of the Luke Cross Carpet Page of the Lindisfarne Gospels, something which has been key to a number of works I have made in the past.



In 2006 I designed a website for the British Library (who hold the book in their collection) called Sacred Book and produced “Moths and Moons”, the first time I used moths – a collection of thirty works made using discarded library books, which toured museums, libraries and historic sites throughout the North of England along with a digital facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The ‘four eggs in a nest’ motif represents the Dark Age view of the universe, the four Evangelists, four discs spinning in the firmament.


“Moths and Moons – Marbled Carpet”  2006  Frosterly marble and soot on discarded library book


4th July

It has been announced that the Higgs Bosun Particle has been detected in experiments at Cern.


12th July

We now have a total of 44 different moth species trapped by volunteers, which isn’t bad considering how wet the weather has been over the past weeks. There have been some spectacular finds, like large Lime Hawkmoths and beautiful Cinnabars, as well as more familiar small brown species such as Heart and Darts. The volunteers will continue to trap and send me their results until mid August by which time I plan to be well on with the drawing.



I have made a start on planning out the template which I will use to draw out the design. I am using a roughly circular grid on a rather unattractive pink card (all I had to hand) into which I am scalpeling the profiles of the moths as they come in. The moths are randomly placed but appear twice in a mirror symmetry which allows for flexibility but also order. The template will be used four times, rotated through 90 degrees for each.



I was listening to the radio whilst working on the template late one night and came across a piece of contemporary music by Danish composer Hans Abrahamson called “Schnee” or “Snow”. In a pre-performance interview the composer talked about his attempt to describe the mesmerising effect of falling snow and his use of canons and fugues to achieve this. A canon is the earliest form of complex music which has a multitude of voices or parts, all singing or playing at once, the simplest form of which is the English ‘Rondellus’ or  ‘Round’ (like “Three Blind Mice” for instance). The form developed into the ever more complex Fugue of the Baroque era, of which Bach’s “Art of Fugue” is the ultimate expression.

There is a close link between canons and fugues and visual patterns and symmetries – some early notations actually take a circular form and the organisation of notes and parts  follow mirror and inversion symmetries as the subject is imitated and mutated through the progression of the piece. There are passages in the Abrahamson which suggest pulses and echoed reverbs, like blips on a radar screen. Incoming moths.



Incidentally one of our greatest living composers Sir Harrison Birtwistle is currently working on a Moth Requiem which is to be premiered by the Netherlands Chamber Choir in October. Birtwistle has always been fascinated by moths and his piece will involve the use of the names of all of the species to have suffered extinction during his life time. There is an interesting Radio 4 documentary about moths in which the composer speaks about the project.


15th July

Today has been a rare dry and sunny day, so to celebrate here are some pictures of two Garden Bird pieces posing in our flower beds…




and a sunshine yellow Brimstone moth plucked from a clear Wirksworth night sky…



24th July

I went to talk to Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall in Coxwold North Yorkshire, onetime home of 18th century literary maverick and author of “Tristram Shandy”, Lawrence Sterne. Patrick, recently assisted by intern Helen Levins from the University of Pennsylvania, has been trapping and recording moths for the past couple of years and I am hoping that we may be able to collaborate on a moth related project. The impulse to trap moths in the garden of the hall came from the famous ‘Black Page’ in Tristram Shandy where the Parson Yorick meets his death and confronts the death’s head, or Death’s Head Hawk Moth, famous for the skull-shaped marking on its back.

Down the road are the ruins of Byland Abbey, looking just as it did when Cotman painted it in 1809.



On the floor of the abbey church are the remains of an amazing medieval tiled floor, a true ‘Alhambra of the North’, which includes series of beautiful roundels sent into a mosaic of chevrons, chequerboards and foliage.



30th July

It is always nice when things connect up, when ideas and circumstance collide and seem to make sense (at least to me). It has been a busy week culminating in me finally staring the drawing. We visited Wirksworth again to meet committee members and to discuss the placing of work in St. Mary’s church. It has been decided to hang “Pieces of Sky” next to the Wirksworth Slab, a 7th century carved tombstone which is cemented into the wall of the north nave. As it turns out there are two conveniently placed eye hooks in the wall left over from last year’s festival which means that the piece can be wall mounted rather than propped up on buckets as initially planned. However I have decided to make the drawing in two halves, partly for practical reasons in that the frames will fit more easily into the back of the car (always a major consideration!) and conceptually too as it will form a natural divide between the two materials and now, coincidentally, echo the division in the sarcophagus lid.



The slab is an amazing Dark Age survival, having been buried face down over the tomb of an unknown man before the altar. This may have happened at some point during the Reformation to protect it and the tomb’s contents from destruction. The quality of the carving and complexity of subject suggests that it formed part of an elaborate shrine to an ancient saint, possibly Saint Betti who was part of the mission of Northumbrian monks who travelled to the pagan kingdom of Mercia in 635 A.D.

The imagery contains clues to the possible origins and purposes of the sculpture and includes what is believed to be one of the earliest surviving depictions of the Virgin Mary in Christendom. The Crucifixion (top left) is presented as an abstraction, with Christ represented as a slain lamb laid at the intersection of an equal-armed Grecian cross with the four symbols of the Evangelists holding books in the angles. In essence a stone cross carpet page. The Church banned the use of this form in favour of a more realistic Crucifixion at the Trullan Council of Constantinople in 692 A.D.



“Pieces of Sky” measures 123 x 123cm and is drawn out on two sheets of Fabriano watercolour paper. The circular template is cut twice with the profiles of the 70 moths trapped and identified over Wirksworth, in a 180 degree rotational symmetry. The template is used four times, rotated through 45 degrees each time and appearing to return to the beginning of the design, eight turns of the wheel. Two of the disks are painted using coal dust and the other two in galena, the first disc with moths as the positive (pieces of the night sky) and the second  as negatives (holes in the fabric of the sky).

“The stars are pin-holes in a dark fabric through which we glimpse the cosmic fire”  from Arthur Koestler’s “Sleepwalkers” describing Anaximander’s 600 B.C. model of the universe.



The coal comes from Easington Colliery on the County Durham ‘Black Coast’ which was made famous as the backdrop to the film “Billy Elliot” (and in the closing sequence of 1970’s thriller “Get Carter”). The pit closed in 1993 and I was given some of the last coal to come out of the ground. It makes fine paint when ground to a powder and mixed with gum arabic and water.

postscript: We saw Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “Forty Part Motet” at the Baltic yesterday which was originally commissioned prior to the Baltic opening in 2001 and shown in the Castle Keep. The piece has taken on a life of its own and now tours to venues around the world, retuning to Tyneside to mark the Baltic’s tenth anniversary.

It consists of a wide ring of forty speakers playing the recorded voices of a choir performing Thomas Tallis’s  “Spem in alium”, a sacred choral work for forty voices written around 1570. It requires eight choirs of five singers (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass) who echo and repeat each other in a canon of complex patterns and symmetries growing to a spectacular crescendo of sound.

“Spem in alium” was given a rare performance at Henry, Prince of Wales’ investiture in 1610, an event attended by Arbella Stuart (see Lady Arabella Stuart project).


3rd August



Killhope Leadmining Museum at the head of Weardale has provided me with a supply of galena. Weardale, like the Derbyshire Dales, has been mined for lead since ancient times and in the process created an unique landscape. Although mining in the area ceased over 100 years ago the land has still to fully recover and the scars left by mining activity are clearly evident on the hillsides. Galena (lead sulphide) is a shiny metallic material which occurs in big chunks, often accompanied by other minerals such as silver and fluorspar. It is relatively soft and grinds quite easily to form a grey, sparkling dust. When mixed with a little gum arabic it makes a beautiful paint, a property that has been known for thousands of years as it forms as a major constituent of kohl, the black eye make-up of the ancient world. I have deliberately left the pigment coarse to fully exploit its starry twinkle.




6th August


The spacecraft Curiosity has landed on the surface of Mars in our continuing search for life forms other than our own, excavating beneath the surface of the Gale Crater where it hopes to find evidence of molecular compounds, including carbon, the building blocks of living organisms. The rover will move around the crater sampling from a variety of environments, including Mount Sharp seen in the far distance. It will eventually send back high resolution colour images, but I have to admit that, aesthetically speaking, I tend to prefer early pre-digital images like the blurred and decayed pictures transmitted from the surface of the Moon in the mid-60’s by Soviet probes.

I went to see Kelly Richardson’s amazing “Mariner 9” video installation at the Spanish City in Whitley Bay, a perfectly derelict location for a bleak work which imagines the surface of Mars hundreds of years in the future, a desolate and hostile landscape where the rusting remains of failed space probes still search vainly for signs of  life. It is epic in scale and scarily convincing, the probes twitch like dying insects as clouds of toxic dust blow in hurricane force winds.



We came out from under the famous but now sadly neglected dome of the Spanish City (or ‘Spana’ as we used to call it as kids when it was still a thriving seaside attraction) into a storm of Biblical proportions which flooded the centre of Newcastle for the second time in three days.



11th August

“Pieces of Sky” is finished and ready for framing.

25th August

Neil Armstrong died today.


2nd September

Pieces of Sky is now installed in St. Mary the Virgin, Wirksworth, next to the Anglo-Saxon coffin lid which is a fantastic juxtaposition. The plinth to support the buckets of coal and galena isn’t quite ready but should go in over the next few days. I have started work on a follow up drawing inspired by the stone carving using ground up meteorite found in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Wirksworth Festival opens on Friday 7th September.



8th September

Wirksworth Festival opened to beautiful weather and large crowds.


Medieval moth floor tile in St. Mary’s church.









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