A Vibrant Vision - Hard back 62 pages Full colour.

A Vibrant Vision - Hard back 62 pages Full colour.

Stories of Stillness

Stories of Stillness is the culmination of an intense period of immersive, place-focused research into the coastal areas of North Wales and West Scotland, West coast of Ireland, sites and vistas of remarkable beauty and grandeur, a longstanding interest. Massing forms, marks, slashes of colour – place memories mapped out in line, light and shade – have been gathered, and fleeting impressions were then later reworked and developed back at her Conwy studio. Those impressions have been explored and anchored in a highly personal narrative about a sense of place, associated memory and emotion for each carefully composed frame.

‘I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.’ (Alice Walker, The Color Purple)

This exhibition is a coda; a breathing space on Jan’s continuing journey and an opportunity to consider her latest work, which includes much experimentation with new grounds, pigments, methods and scale. Stories of Stillness is a technical departure. Building on her colour research of some years since, Jan has been working to refine her vocabulary and this is the first body of work she has produced that is a considered reflection and commentary upon that research, and her recent travel around North Wales, Scotland and the west of Ireland. Using her distinctive palette, Jan applies water-based media and high viscosity pigments (acrylics, inks, gouache) and collage to build up a tactile narrative of the ‘actual’ blended with the ‘imagined’ on canvas and board. Working for the first time onto canvas has been both revelation and liberation, responding to the ways in which different materials behave on different canvas grounds and developing that dialogue; each piece is distinctive, a unique response and process. Accreted layers of pigment and texture, some pieces incorporating hand-stitched textile panels and accents, seemingly present us with landscape. Each is a deftly layered composition of blocked forms and marks where, though we may believe we recognise local features, scenes are not factually reproduced but edited, reinvented and enhanced to create an idealised, bitter-sweet sense of time and place.  ‘The places we see are beyond being ‘real’ and are as much about memory as observation. […] When she works she is transported into these places, relives an experience that we can share with her and experience for ourselves in a completely different way.’[1]

Her own creative process is similarly rooted in an immersive and emotive manipulation and layering of her grounds. It begins with, ‘drawing, thoughts and feelings become tools to hone the mark-making. […] colour and decorative content is intuitive and I love the process of manipulating the colours upon the surface. I add to this, new fragments blended from my imagination and stories. The magic of the unseen …’[2] This free and fluid approach is firmly based on field work, observation and visual note-taking, where source material, objects and forms are gathered as reference materials, then sensitively filtered to contribute to the rhythm and composition of a new piece. Sustained self-critique means Jan is highly articulate in describing the process and act of making, detailed technique and mark-making[3], and the deeper emotional dimensions of her work. Fascinated by the challenge that each of us sees colour differently, yet each engages with colour emotionally, her engagement with colour is both lens and lynchpin and this nuanced understanding of perception, emotion and association underpins the marks and choices of her process at a deeper level. 

The subject of many of the new pieces is big, open spaces and vistas, as for Jan they can inspire and transport, evoke strong responses, and powerful memories and emotional associations. For Jan, painting is an utterly immersive and pure process; though aware of technique, and constantly making professionally-informed judgements and decisions, her ecstatic love of colour means spontaneity is ever-present and at the centre of her creative practice. There is a strongly spiritual and meditative dimension to the manner in which she works. The resulting images are celebratory ‘visual poems’[4], on a much larger scale than hitherto.

Still life compositions are also growing out of this research period, act as a lens on an ‘ecstatic world’ yet at an intimate level. Here, the palpable warmth, familiar objects, patterns and points of reference, and pleasant physical spaces, all express delight in the comforts and closeness of home and family that is at the core of this story.  Yet there is no sentiment here; they have both energy and a sense of wistfulness, of respite from the risk and unpredictability of the wider world that is ever-present yet just out of sight.

Exploration of a snakelike, concertina book form, an unfolding filmic strip is a further departure; Stories of Stillness is a first opportunity to reflect on this new format. The narrative of the image, each of which for Jan has its individual story, becomes a chapter within a larger, linear narrative, merging the impressions, memories, voices and associations of different places at different times. Each fold opens to create a continuous stream of vibrantly coloured switchbacks by turns subtle, poignant, vibrant.

Jan’s immersive passion for colour and texture first gained serious impetus during her studies at Winchester School of Art, and has evolved since into a distinctive creative practice encompassing colour, emotion, memory, the nature of beauty, and perceptions of the world around us. Expressive and emotionally immediate, her work is tempered in the studio through a process informed by deep technical understanding, acquired over many years. But this overriding passion began much earlier. Born and raised in North Wales, early years were spent wandering the lanes and byways near her home, absorbing and developing an affinity for their permanent and fleeting features, light and space, colours and textures; everything they had to offer to a young, forming and receptive sensibility. This period and these experiences were deep roots for what has become a lifelong journey.

The exploration of colour alone would be an immense challenge, but the application and tactile potential of colour, and its manipulation upon the surface, the colours’ fluidity and her mark-making akin to stitch on that surface, has been a central anchor to her creative practice. It is the starting point for her work, and over time, much research and many projects, Jan has consistently related all those investigations to her specific palette. Determined to develop a deeper understanding of her palette and materials, the project Colour Secrets was a unique opportunity to research the production and mixing of pigment and contemporary production of paints in New York and Milan. It was successful on several levels. During this period, she learned of the geopolitics of pigment and the historical origins of her present-day palette (indigo, Tyrian purple, ultramarine, madder red, and carmine). Subsequently, this has enriched her application and combining of intense and subtle colours during the iterative texturing and layering process. This period also saw the conversion of colour and pigment from historical point of reference to subject matter: The Root of Wild Madder, and Homage to the Cochineal Beetle. Love of colour, its interpretation and manifestation in everyday life, has been inspired further by research visits to Morocco, the States, and Europe. The historical and contemporary use of colour within the artistic practice of the Fauves, Impressionists, Expressionists, and Scottish Colourists has also been an inspiration and influence. Unsurprisingly, given this passion for and belief in colour’s powerful qualities, Jan’s educational work is also a powerful source of inspiration. Working with groups in often challenging circumstances, and where people may never have really engaged before with colour, her belief in people’s latent creative capacity is regularly inspired by their rapt and sustained engagement, and by the free and confident colour pieces produced by all ages and abilities in astonishingly short periods of time. 

Stories of Stillness is an intriguing title. Jan’s vibrant visual poems capture and share with us her glimpses of the primal qualities of special places and spaces, stripped and distilled to a powerful rendering of place remembered and those as yet still sought. These images encapsulate rural childhood, wending a weary way home beneath a Matisse-blue, darkening canopy of sky, or how we recall a blistering summer’s day or a field cleared after harvest. Fast forward to today, when some of those places are now scenes of hard graft, marked by furrows, tarmac ribbons and pylon slashes, yet are still part of a great imagined vista, exquisitely rendered, memory and emotion at the fore. Form, light and colour are deftly rendered in compositions that convey ecstasy, calm, yearning, poignancy, and anticipation. These visual poems envision and reconstruct an imaginary, recollected landscape, but their depth and richness means they may be framed but are far from still. Each is the product of a calm and meditative creative process, yet contains immense energy. They see and frame vistas anew, and exhort us to look at the world around us in the same way, to see it, its great views and vistas, its tiny detail, and its potential and infinite capacity for renewal. To paraphrase the words of our well-loved poet WH Davies, to take the time to stand and stare.

Fennah Podchies      2013

[1] Steffan Jones-Hughes, ‘Known Places’, 2006

[2] Jan Gardner, 2012

[3] ‘Responses in Colour feature, The Artist, 2008

[4] Jan Gardner, 2008