I am so proud, humbled and delighted to be part of the new Dark Mountain publication, with Mat Osmond.
Our new book, Black Madonna’s song, will be published soon after the lockdown ends. Details of launches and events will be available soon.
An essay to accompany an exhibition of recent work at Newlyn Art Gallery, February 14th – April 18th.
These recent works by Kate Walters stand on the cusp of change in her increasingly impressive oeuvre. Fascinatingly, they also position us on many thresholds, each of which works towards complex meanings: they are between worlds; between earthly beings; between beings and plants; between abstraction and figuration; between profound and ancient traditions and an innovative symbolism that extends them.
What I mean by this is that while she draws on traditions – the Shamanic, the Graeco-Roman – she never merely repeats them. So although she references Artemis/Diana (the huntress) we do not find a goddess figure accompanied by the usual trappings of hound, bow and arrow, and stag. Rather, Walters explores Diana’s rôle as guardian of the wild forest, protecting all newborns, without distinguishing between animal and human. In this, her wildness is associated with water, both as the free-flowing imagination and the untamed rivers and springs. This is not to preclude Diana’s lethal capacity as huntress; but rather to foreground that none of this is sentimental or easy. It is a matter of life and death.
The way Walters draws on the Shamanic helps to bring these thoughts of transition and the wild closer to the formal qualities of the painting. There are two elements in this tradition that she cites: the tree and hair. Several of the works in this exhibition articulate a co-emergence between branches and hair, and between both of these and veins or living sap, or the ducts through which nurturing milk flows. We see it in the forms and the way the paint flows and spreads. It is more than transitional: they are consanguineous.
So why ‘Island Bodies’? Because the works were inspired by islands, of course: Iona, Orkney, the Uists and Shetland. But it goes further than that. An island is not the opposite of the mainland; it’s as connected as all parts of the earth are. It’s just that we can’t see it under the waters, nor can we see that the waters are what define all life.
We have to think and see differently to understand these things, these works of art. We have to be “Deep in the Psyche of Nature”.
As Walters points out, quoting her favourite Rilke:
The moon won’t use the door,
Only the window.
In the garden
Deep in the psyche of Nature
Of Earth as River or Snake
I hatch babies in my hair,
The creatures I feed
Vision, Milk, Hair, Nest.
Penny Florence. With thanks to Kate for access to her research.
The Private View of Island Bodies is on Thursday February 13th, 6 – 8 pm, Newlyn Art Gallery, Little Picture Room, all welcome!
There will be short sequences of smaller framed works as well as a sequence of larger unframed pieces. All work is for sale.
Details also available at Curatorspace…
First drafts for Shetland Notebooks
Newborn eyeball (walking down from Fitful Head)
far-away half face
Crab claw and cairns
Rabbit leg bony and still;
Haloes of thrift
bones of feathers
feathers of bones
You come to meet me
pressing palm against rock, old hand of ages
Calloused, warm, dry.
Old family voices your slow song,
the deep rumble a vibration I have not senses to perceive;
The elements arrange you
Your heart is thunder
Your vessels air.
As if hung by some celestial cord the birds open themselves to the air, and trust.
Through a bird’s eye a glimpse of beyond stars
A place where you can feel time growing.
the skin of time marks you
pale flowers wing-bright and folded
Quiet as bird soar,
Hind hair or horn blown,
path crossed near sea to home of earth.
Burrow like an animal.
Stone nest curved as wing breast,
a line like bird call,
tapered voice, sharp call of hill green cloud
displayed as wing across all the sky,
From island to island
I hold a tern feather in my hand, the part which has come out of her body,
Grown by the sun, the fish, and her womb.
The colour of rock caught to flight
sky flashes silver as fish scales
-tirricks refract the air, turn it in their wings, make a sound shell of it, a musical spirit fish of sky.
Fish swim in air.
cots in the earth
little grassy cribs
The Mother belly rests
Feet pray to Heavens
Serpent bound rocking like seals, praying sea-paws skywards
In my pocket there are white hairs shed by deer, found in a wood, long ago in England; and feathers from the birds of Shetland.
I sit beside a broad beach sweeping white, open. Roman-nosed seals watch children play. Arctic terns dive and squeal.
Walking here I passed a stable. A golden horse, of broad front and blonde mane, peered at me from the gloom. His coat reminded me of the light dancing in a stream, river trout reflecting; of trips as a child to beaches where I’d seek out ponies and donkeys, burrow into their aura, follow them, learn their stories, leave my family to be with them. A nomad child then, maimed, my compass animal scent.
A child painting in a pale blue boat.
Dream of ploughing with my heart.
Dream of my body, of peeling back my skin to find my flesh is made of rubies.
Dream of a woman with a boat coming out of her mouth, full of people.
Song of bird
The skin of the sea your face
The skin of the sea made veins
birds gather ribs from clouds, dress them in feather
Stain your cheeks with breath of bills
Red of passage, daylight drunk
Folding in your hand as earth comes to hold her
Neck soft, body pliant
– no taut sky dancing now.
Breastbone aloft like a sail, cold open wings, bodies wash in around your feet.
I sit beside you tern
your still heart resting against a rock on the beach where this morning you fished
Acrobatting the mountain you made of air, the sea you swam in
now deep red tiny feet forever curled
Your mate is silent, chicks unfed.
I weep for your beauty, your courage, globe swerver, body artist.
I watch your fellows diving still, cavorting in the air, hovering cruciform, then twisting arrows dive.
Tiny deep red bill a miracle
your white tail feathers forked, still.
You are like the tips of petals, the constellations of stars
Your black-tipped cap night dusky ruffled in death
Carmine sharp bill cut like a lacey lance
a dagger closed,
the names of places the animals I’ve loved
Seal song lowing, a deep green banshee
swinging, rocking, embodied song sea chunk
belly song balancing soft flesh on rock, the tip holds you
stacks of rock layers of prayer
Glistening breath of water, the sound of water breathing, Island lungs, the creatures shine in completeness, their hearts quiet.
Thread of seals in brightness along the island’s rocky frills.
Flotilla of duck divers black curving water; land
Orange yellow meadows
Orchid pulsing purple
swallow scimitar blade cuts air
St. Ninian’s Isle 3.7.17
Thick arm of dark cloud twisting overhead, N to S. Three bonxie fight over gannet entrails, countless pink and yellow strings sand peppered.
Fat-necked bird you sleep now, your salt-blasted eyes forever grey, tide-hued.
Wing of fulmar forlorn, alone beside a cliff.
Sea anemone shell fragments the colours of a warm sea: violet, jade.
At St. Ninian’s Isle the Black Madonna bestowed her body – blood gone black to rock now starry with birds; a great skua lands here with crab fished from the deep; the sea dark with weed, the horse-sleeping-nymph her hair waves from the shallows; her hand print a continent of palm pressing on ancient sand; the mud between her fingers these slanting sleeping stone children.
So now the rocks speak with foam and through the mesh of weed; head-dress of feathers, constellated with birds.
Rocking seal, you gaze at me, round unblinking eyes. Fat creamy bulk in breasty form, the stony pillar supports you, you appear to rock and the waves come. You close your eyes, yawn, keep your balance on the rocky anvil where your life is beaten out. Your head turns as you shift your weight. I see a large red wound on your far side, a crescent bite, a pink moon wound. I imagine the Orca biting your neck, throwing your great form in the air. The afternoon is sadder now. I keep watching you through the binoculars, you keep on looking towards me. Then your eyes close, I see your eyelids dull, opaque. The tide rises. Finally a big wave comes, lifts you off the rock. You are submerged, washed out of sight. I wait. I do not see you again.
On a walk. Cow with newborn away on her own. Red birth-cord trailing, tiny soft womb-white feet. Creamy soled calf you hesitate as you cross the track, tarmac hard.
Legs still womb-curled from another world. Mother large-framed and attentive, her face near her babe, breathing the same breath.
Tern with silver fish bright as gannet wing. On the beach the scent of flowers. I paddle. I wear three scarves; winter for an hour this July day on Shetland. Still the terns dive, dunlin decorate tide-line. Newly mown fields make a palette of greens; the intense light floods my eyes, washes them.
PREFACE, first draft
I first travelled to Iona aged 18, to take photographs for my A levels. I remember the Abbey vividly, and the ferry crossing. And I remember walking past a tall, dark monk who could have stepped straight from an El Greco painting. He looked right through me; a spell was created.
I returned in my early thirties with my young son; I was broken-hearted then. I spread myself upon the heather near the Hill of the Angels, high up and far away. I felt a sort of bliss, supported by the scratchy and pliant purple, violet and orange-hued pillows. Wild places inspire me. Something in me responds to the sense of them being completely themselves, raw and pure. It restores my heart.
Early in 2015 I applied for a residency at Iona Hostel, staying in the shepherd’s bothy at the North End, or Traigh An T-Suidhe, near Lagandorain. Lagandorain means ‘hollow of the otter’. One day in the late afternoon dusk, I was standing still as a tree when I saw a see-saw creature scything down the beach just feet away from me. In my wrapped stillness I was unobserved – or ignored – and, breathless with delight, I watched the otter merge with the sea and swim away through towering swell. Next morning I was on the beach at dawn hoping to encounter the magic again; I found little round tracks at the shore line marking the spot where the otter had landed from her sea-flight, tipped gently from a wave…
The owner of the croft, John Maclean, wrote these words about my visit there:
Kate is a listener. She listens to her psyche and dreams and has an altogether more ancient response to the land. Her work explores place through archetype, symbol, the animal world and the older religions. This is home territory for Kate -she is quite comfortable in the company of the ‘Sheela’s (the Sheela na gigs).
Kate’s work isn’t easy, in the sense that it neither makes assertions nor statements. It seems to be deliberately un-emphatic. The effect is to unsettle, to make us alert and create a pause.
Whenever I stay on Iona I work long days. Spread around me as I sleep are my drawings and notebooks. I wake and review, pick up pen, ink, roller, paint, and continue my responses on the pages taken from The Bhagavad Gita which I have prepared with gesso.
And yet there is only
One great thing
To see in huts and on journeys
The day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.
Inuit poem, found in Ice Bears and Kotick, by Peter Webb
Curatorspace have kindly written a great feature on exciting events about to happen:
I’m very excited to be heading to Worcester University to speak on my work generated by residencies in Shetland; in particular a strong dream I had where I saw myself before I was born – which has lead to around 500 watercolours being made. I’m now returning to my first love, oil paint, to articulate and negotiate thoughts and feelings around fluids – sap, blood, milk: milk being the bodily expression of motherly love.
After that I’ll be travelling to London to see some exhibitions, and to be part of this event:
TREMENHEERE GALLERY. SEPTEMBER 7TH – OCTOBER 2ND 2019.
The Tree of Thought: The Art of Kate Walters
Kate Walters’ art speaks clearly. Yet because it is visceral, communicating to our bodies first, it can
be easy to underestimate the quality of thought it embodies.
Embodied thought addresses the kind of understanding that bypasses spoken or written language
because it is deeper. Precisely because it embodies rather than explains or narrates, it is not didactic;
Walters never preaches.
There is, nonetheless, a powerful and consistent message. It concerns the big questions: what does it
mean to be fully human; what is our place in the natural world; where are we going; questions that
echo Gauguin’s great philosophical work, D’où venons-nous, Que sommes-nous, Où allons-nous?
But, unlike Gauguin, the work does not so much pose questions as feel its way towards articulating
the mysteriousness of being.
This is a Shamanic understanding of what many of the ancient religions variously call the Path or the
Way – and Walters is a fully initiated Shaman. This is not a casual or loose similarity, but rather the
long-term commitment that underpins her art.
So what is this Shamanic terrain? It is paradoxical, because it is fully aware, yet indirectly evoked. If
you compare Child with Plant Wand and Buds with Babies , the eye-leaves of the first appear to be the
seed-children of the second, who resemble the child holding the plant. These eyes suggest insight as
much as sight, awareness and receptiveness to the cycle of rebirth, to movement out and movement in,
It’s an effect that reminds me of what Maleno Barretto said of the intrepid Margaret Mee (both
botanical artists), ‘She seems to be inside the plant’ . This suggests that art does 1 not distinguish us
from Nature, but rather is integral to it. Many of us who have known individual animals well
understand the absurdity of the idea that they don’t think. It’s the result of projecting our ways of
thinking onto creatures whose experience of the world is different.
But plants? There is increasing scientific evidence that plants, especially trees, do indeed think. The
interdependence of trees, for example, is such that they form something very like a community. Theirs
is a collectivity based on communication. It is extensive and applies to the entire tree: apparently their
more widely known capacity to warn each other of insect attack through the release of hormones
above ground, and to take defensive action, is complemented underground, partly through the
intermediary of fungi. Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but a form of life in between.2
1 Botanical Art & Artists.com About Margaret Mee (1909-1988) (Malu De Martino on Vimeo.) Walters has recently looked
at the work and thought of Mee, along with Simryn Gill and the filmmaker and gardener, Derek Jarman.
2 See my forthcoming book Thinking the Sculpture Garden (Routledge, Jan 2020) for further discussion of this research.
The book is inspired by, and revolves around, Tremenheere.
Perhaps we might call this capacity to see into the life of things ‘Natural Intelligence’, not in
opposition to ‘Artificial Intelligence’, but as a complement. ‘Human Intelligence’ is only one form.
Mee always worked entirely from living plants, usually in their natural setting and including their
habitat, unlike conventional botanical illustrators. In this way, she shows that that they are integral to
their environment, an inseparable part of it. To capture the enigmatic Moonflower (Selenicereus
wittii), which blooms once and night and then dies, she balanced half the night astride a narrow canoe.
She risked herself alone with nature in order to convey the living energy of an organism in its habitat.
And it is a risk; like her, Walters risks herself. The result is demanding work that rewards the
concentrated looking of open awareness.
Truly look at the works in this show and you will see that living energy, a life-force that unites
everything that lives and breathes; for, as Simryn Gill, another artist admired by Walters, said, “If the
botanical world falters, so do we.” Our ability to breathe has evolved in exact synergy 3 with theirs. It
is an understanding that demands action and restraint from harm, a thoughtfulness about balance and
care. In this it is political; in Gill’s case, against colonial exploitation; in Walters’, in support of
Extinction Rebellion (XR) and taking personal responsibility.4
At the same time, the works are underpinned by a structural precision belied by their fluidity and
softness. This aspect of the work is evidenced in the approaches of two other artists Walters admires,
Christine Ödlund and David Thorpe. Both explore geometry and growth.
This sense of co-emergence is conveyed not only through form, but also through technique. There are
four methods in this show: watercolour, monotype, spit bite etchings, or a combination; and oil. Take
for example Kate’s three spit bite etchings: Breath of Plant or Horse ; Horse with Child and Planet ;
Mother Bird Feeds Human Infant. Perhaps the main characteristics of spit bite etchings are textural
similarity of figure and ground and closeness in feel to watercolour. And yes, spit can be an
ingredient, though not always. It seems completely appropriate here.
The image is not materially differentiated from its surround; it’s a matter of degree and, more subtly,
of construction, as in the figure-ground instability of Seeing Tree or Storm, World Tree with
Cocooned Infants and Untitled . Plant, tree, animal, bird and human life all materialise in these works
in the gap that is ambiguity, all part of the same miraculous planetary process. The oils foreground the
kinds of emergence to which the medium is so perfectly suited. Colour, marks (both ends of the brush)
and a fragile symmetry create a textural and layered becoming in which the animals both support and
merge into the human and plant forms, from birth to dissolution. From a distance, the palette and
composition evoke C17th Dutch still life masters; ‘still’ life here meaning ‘always’, not ‘motionless’.
They form a Tree of Thought.
For anyone who thinks they know more than this planetary tree, I offer this couplet from William
Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won’t believe
4 See Programme and Tremenheere website for events associated with the show.
Opening September 6th at 6 pm!
I have great pleasure in inviting you to my forthcoming exhibition at Tremenheere Gallery, which I am sharing with friends.
I’m honoured to be part of this selected exhibition, opening the evening of July 19th.
I’ll be showing 51 works from my recent watercolour sequences, in the beautiful Chapter House of Wells Cathedral.
More very soon on my recent wonderful trip to Orkney and Shetland.
Thank you Rupert Loydell for this great review.
A few more images inpsired by residencies on Shetland:
Here are two of my works from my recent exhibition at Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh – my first there in five years.
I was very pleased with how the exhibition looked; there was a great crowd at the opening on February 28th; and many people bought copies of my new book, Shetland Notebooks & Sketchbooks, published by Guillemot Press.
The next book launch will be at Tremenheere Gallery just outside Penzance, on April 13th, at 3 pm, when my publisher Luke Thompson and I will talk about the book, and then at 3.30 we will lead a workshop on walking and writing (£15 per person). This event is part of the next Newlyn Society of Artists exhibition, entitled Ex Libris, which has it’s Opening Event on April 6th at 2pm (until 6pm).