Issue 231
May/June 2024

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Jun 17, 2024

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ArtWork Newspaper Issue 231
May/June 2024 (4.63MB)

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Painting with coastal castles

I'M BACK near Amble, on the beach, standing on a concrete cube. Close by, a corrugated cement tank trap. Both WW2 relics. Nearby, holidaymakers walk their dogs, unaware, or uncaring, that Arctic Terns, just in from Antarctica, nest here. Defend. Attack. Invade. Exploit. A familiar pattern, it confirms that, beneath any civilised facade, we're animals, part of nature's creation, fighting for survival.

Here in Northumberland, the four words spring up again and again. Then? Great castles defending against attack from Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Scots. Now? Hordes of visitors, and thousands of migratory birds. Next? Wind, tide and weather, washing away the coast. I retreat to the pub.

Katherine Renton

There's a quiz going on. Round 1:Identify public art commissions of British coastal towns, and their makers. Some are familiar; Gormley, Hirst, Hambling. But Bord Waalk? Rings a bell, but where? Of course, it's here, in Amble!

Having lost its identity as a mining town, the Department for Levelling Up provided £ 396K from the Coastal Community Fund for sixteen artworks to enable regeneration and economic growth. Preferably avoiding ructions over whether they're a good idea, waste of public money, or eyesores.

Or perhaps deliberately encouraging them? Anything to get publicity, encourage discussion, and get people out on the art trail! The sixteen commissions are sited over a few miles between Hauxley and Warkworth. All relate to and are inspired by seabirds that frequent the river Coquet, and its eponymous island, renowned for terns and puffins.

Not all the artworks are visual or sculptural. Take poet Katrina Porteous and sound artist Geoff Sample. Great choice, as both are specialists in the art of sound, as well as being deeply immersed in the culture and history of the Northumberland coast and its seabirds.

Their sonorous dialect names are best said out loud: cuddy, whaup, coulterneb, willock, handsaw, boondie. Definitely worth downloading the app which includes their six sound pieces, plus excellent text and photos, all part of this commission.

Other commissions are more sculptural but they don't hang together, like soloists in an orchestra without a conductor. Not surprising perhaps; artists, like birds, can be flighty and unpredictable. Does it matter? Probably not. It looks as if Amble's economy is picking up, judging by the number of visitors, the full car parks and cafes, and the new housing estates. Despite, or because of this project? Pass.

Back to the quiz. Round 2: Artists' materials. Spot the odd one out: acrylic, watercolour, oil, castles, gouache, ink, pastel, crayon. Castles? Katherine Renton doesn't just paint castles, she paints with castles, using fallen masonry from battlements, grinding the stone down, and mixing it with gum arabic, a binder.

Northumberland born and bred, she has always been intrigued by the coast, aware of its vulnerability from invasion, by humans, or the sea, and drawn to defensive castles like Dunstanburgh or Warkworth. Unlike them, apparently so substantial and permanent, her work has delicacy, vulnerability, a subtle mistiness, a dreamy, almost eerie quality, as if seen through the sea haars that can envelope this coast for days, giving it an isolated feel, a place apart. Are the castles emerging or disappearing? Is less more?

Next, to the beach, to paint sandcastles; impermanent, ephemeral structures that compress millennia of erosion into short hours between ebb and full tide. Walking the sands, Katherine picked up sea-coal, its shining, crackling glaze foreshadowing potential transmutation into diamonds, aeons away.

And so to making her own coaly paint. Followed by yellow ochre from shale, coal's geological bedfellow, with all its fissility, flocculation, and bioturbation. Coal and clay are often found together, and Amble-fired clay, fired, makes bricks, now washing up on beaches. Katherine, loving their deep orange glow, started grinding them down for paint-making. Next came concrete, essential for WW2 coastal defence. She tried painting tank-traps and pillboxes using concrete, but found it lacked the vitality and character of more natural materials – no surprise there!

I welcomed the opportunity to meet Katherine, and to get a better insight into why and how she paints. Understanding context, intention and background adds hugely to appreciation and pleasure.

You can see her work highlighted at Dockside Gallery in Tweedmouth in July, at Republic Gallery in Blyth in September and October and, sooner, with seventeen others including Luke McTaggart (see AW 230), a Dockside Gallery regular, at the Dovecote Centre in Amble in "Rooted".

This exhibition, organised by Luke, runs from May 18 until June 1, and explores how different artists respond to the impact of climate change on the Northumberland coast.


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The Crafts in Scotland 1950-1990
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