I have begun a 12 month residency based at the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Durham University funded by the Leverhulme Trust. I will be working as a part of the ROBUST team, a group of scientists headed by Dr. Karen Johnson carrying out research into the cleansing of contaminated soils and the regeneration of brownfield sites.
So far I have a corner in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory and I’ve started a series of drawing experiments using Ferric Oxide, a by-product of water treatment (WTR, Water Treatment Residual), to make clean drinking water. It is a gritty material, an iron-rich compound which when mixed with compost can enrich exhausted soils. It grinds up to form a beautiful sepia-coloured pigment which I have been using combined with gum arabic.
2015 is the UN International Year of Soils, set up to promote the importance of the maintenance of fertile and productive soils across the world. Soils which have been treated year on year with chemical fertilisers become unproductive and prone to erosion. Post-industrial sites which have been contaminated by pollutants are a danger to human health and with increasing pressures to provide housing, need to brought back into usage.
During my time at Durham I hope to explore these issues in some detail and produce work which raises questions as to how we tackle our desperate need for healthy soils.
The Environmentals Lab is a bit of a secret place in the Engineering Department. Hidden away in the basement, tucked under a staircase, it is only frequented by a handful of researchers and students interested in getting their hands dirty. Consequently, despite the lack of natural light it is an ideal place to work.
I have been using some of the equipment to make drawings, filtering, dripping and depositing pigments onto paper to see what happens. I have also met some very interesting people with a wide variety of skills and expertise and this interaction is providing me with a heap of ideas. Talking to Laura Harrington, a Leverhulme Artist based in the nearby Department of Geography, she recommends spending the first few weeks with an open mind, “getting lost” as she puts it, so that new ideas and approaches can gradually develop.
Galena is a material I used for my large scale moth piece for the Wirksworth Festival in Derbyshire a couple of years ago and I have been exploring it’s properties again over recent weeks. As the main source of lead it has been mined for centuries and its occurrence in the Pennine Hills has resulted in the wholesale remodelling of a landscape.
At the head of Weardale, some 30 miles east of Durham, lead and it’s accompanying minerals silver, zinc, barium and fluorite, have been extensively mined since the Bronze Age. Last week I accompanied a group of civil engineering students on a field visit to Killhope Lead Mining Museum where it was actually slightly drier underground than on the surface due to torrential rain blowing horizontally down the dale.
The terrible conditions only served to emphasise the incredible hardships endured by the people who risked their lives to get the ore out of these hillsides. Painters often take their materials for granted and are unaware of the human stories and health and ecological implications behind the production of their paints. Cadmium, chromium, cobalt, zinc, mercury and arsenic, all of which have been used in pigments, can have disastrous effects on humans and animals, landscapes and ecosystems.
And then there is lead. As white and red lead it has been used in paints since ancient times until it was banned from commercial paint production during the 1960’s when its detrimental effects upon health were finally recognised. Exposure to lead attacks the nervous system and has a drastic effect upon brain development in children. ROBUST has been investigating soils contaminated with lead collected from the old lead smelting works at St. Anthony’s on Tyneside. At the nearby paint factory lead white was manufactured by suspending scrolls of lead over an acid solution. Women were employed to collect the layer of lead carbonate powder which developed on the surface of the sheets, woolen scarves being their only protection against inhaling the deadly white dust.
I met with Professor Andy Beeby and Dr. Kate Nicholson who specialise in photochemistry and have been developing methods to analyse paint pigments used in ancient documents, particularly the Lindisfarne Gospels and other Anglo-Saxon books held in Durham Cathedral Library. Using a portable spectrometer which can be set up on a table top they can scan areas of pigment and identify chemical makeup. They have found extensive use of white and red lead used to paint the ornate carpet pages, illuminated letter forms and the portraits of the four Evangelists.
I have been developing a series of drawings which mirror the meticulous processes I have observed in the labs and workshops, drawings which follow a set procedure and reflect the importance of accurate measurement (weight, size, distance, angle, time). Sheets of heavy duty paper are inscribed with repeating forms made using a steel stylus and technical drawing aids, protractors, templates and curves, now rarely used in engineering since the advent of CAD and digital modelling software. The resulting forms are rotated sequentially in increments through a 360 degree cycle. I then soak the drawing in a bath containing lead ore, gum arabic and water for 5 minutes which leaves a deposit of fine particles of the metal on the surface and in the inscribed lines. The sheets are dried and I pick out one repeated feature of the design in a concentrated lead solution.
Working in a technical environment has proved to be a very stimulating experience, familiar, in that the workshops and some of the activities going on around me resemble a sculptors studio, yet alien in that the aims and outcomes of this work are so very different to my own. I have spent recent weeks refining my drawing process and have gradually put together a series of works to be called “Degrees, Minutes, Seconds” which will be exhibited in the department sometime during this semester.
One of the best things about the residency is that it provides opportunities to visit other areas of the university and meet academics with a wide variety of specialist expertise. Because all of the sciences are on the same campus it is easy to visit other departments. Recently I was shown around Earth Sciences by Science Outreach Officer Dr. Paula Martin, whose own area of study is the geology of the planet Venus. I was fascinated by her work putting together a geological map of a part of the planet based upon radar signal data transmitted by the Magellan space probe in 1990, very apt in this bicentenary year of William Smith’s very first geological map of England. I also met with Dr. Howard Armstrong who specialises in fossilised dinoflagellates, microscopic plankton found in sedimentary rocks such as chalk and limestone.
The Earth Sciences building is impressive with two entrances which are open through three floors up to the roof. The visit has sparked an idea to try to portray deep time, the immensity of geological time as suggested by the tremendous drop experienced from the top floor balcony of this space. Supposedly the University’s caving club practise abseiling into this void.
I’ve begun work using coal dust and galena for what I hope will eventually become four 10 metre high drawings to be hung in the space.
The interim exhibition of drawings “Degrees, Minutes, Seconds” is finally on the walls of the Common Room and the idea is to gradually add more work as it develops. For instance I have been working on a second series of curve drawings to accompany the three red lead pieces (below) using iron pirates and hematite as pigment. I have also completed a series of three drawings called “Chalk Variants” made using chalk samples that I collected some years ago from the ditch surrounding the neolithic chalk circle at Avebury in Wiltshire. The idea for the piece was suggested by Dr. Howard Armstrong’s work on dinoflagellate cysts, the fossilised remains of microscopic plankton found in many sedimentary rocks such as chalk.
I have been given the go-ahead to develop “Auger”, four huge drawings which will hang in the two entrances to the Earth Sciences building. To see how this project develops click here.
“Degrees Minutes Seconds” is being shown at the Customs House Gallery in South Shields, a short ferry ride across the Tyne from the Old Low Light where I’m also showing work as a part of The Boat installation. The exhibition is part of the Drawing? series of exhibitions which will hopefully develop into a bigger project next year. It accompanies a show by Nick Kennedy who makes amazing drawing machines.
As well as concentrating on the “Auger” drawings I have also been finishing another large scale drawing to be shown in the common room. Its’s called “Atmospheric Monitoring” and is made using manganese oxide pigment on circular graphs used to record temperature and humidity in the workshops. The symmetry created by folding the spattered graphs brings order to chaos and suggest maps of strange seas and continents, alien marine creatures and sectional scans of the human brain.
Manganese oxide is the mineral at the heart of much of Karen’s research and the subject of her recent paper published in Nature. She has demonstrated that manganese oxide, a common mineral in soils and ocean sediments, can trap carbon and may act as a ‘mineral pump’, transforming organic carbon from an unstable to a stable form. Carbon is ‘locked in’ and prevented from escaping into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming.