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From East Asia to East Devon – The Journey of a Print Maker

From sketching Buddhist temples to perching on a rock in the Exe estuary… How did it all start?

Temple roof in Nanjing, China

Photographed by Charlotte Ellis (1997)

Nowadays, inspiration for my printmaking comes from the tidal waters of the Exe estuary and the birds that wade in it and fly above it. This was not always the case. My print-making journey started over twenty-five years ago when I spent a year living and teaching art and English literature in Nanjing, China.  At that time, it was the architecture that mesmerised me, especially the Buddhist temples. Those red tiled roof-tops drew my eyes skywards, naturally following the ridge line to the elaborate wings, claws and fire of dragons that guarded them. The curved lines and intricate patterns of these mystical creatures lay above sweeping staircases and steep steps hewn out of stone. Huge terracotta pots, disappearing walkways and ornate doorways leading through the shadows into hidden courtyards bathed in sunlight were just perfect. The visual beauty only enhanced by the clouds of rich incense; ancient, ringing bells, with their deep resonance, and the chanting of the Buddhist monks echoing throughout.

Temple roof tops, China

Photographed by Charlotte Ellis (1997)

I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, whilst I was in Nanjing, but other than enough phrases to get by at the local market my visual learning style meant I was never able to master or even get the basics of this tonal language. Wanting to at least learn and have something to show for my time spent there I turned to Chinese painting and print making. Over the course of the year, with one-to-one two hour lessons each week, I learned to print-make under the expert eye of Chinese artist Hua Wenyun.  She taught me to carve and took me though the whole printing process. Looking back, the projects I undertook at that time were very ambitious. I remember so clearly the delight of finishing my first print of a temple roof and carefully packaging and sending the delicately printed calligraphy paper back to my Dad, who was living in Devon at the time.

Walking the Great Wall of China

Photographed by Bruce Ellis (1998)

Over the years, there have been times when I have printed a lot and years when I haven’t printed at all. During lockdowns, I turned to print making again in earnest. It feels like a lifetime ago that I was sitting in that humid room in China with Wenyun and yet very little has changed in that time with this traditional art. The tools I used were the same except the handles were made of bamboo and the ink was poured onto an ink stone. Back then, the concentration I needed to get things facing the right or wrong way was immense. Now, we have the unimagined technology so easily to hand,  so I can flip a photo to see the reverse image making things much easier.

Sketching in the local Chinese market

Photographed by Bruce Ellis (1997)

The magic remains though, and I still slip into a meditative state as I carve. Each cut working towards the whole, slicing though the lino in curves, straight lines and other forms of mark making all leading to the finished design. The frustration when you make a cut and instantly realise that it would have been so much better if it was slightly longer, shorter or not even there at all is balanced  by the joy when the cut is in just the right place or at the perfect angle.

Back then, I would get an image in my head, see something I wanted to replicate and then work on it in isolation. This is where the biggest artistic change has been for me. Now each print I make has its own story and is based on feeling and emotion as much as on the visual elements. I have to feel the environment I am creating and this comes from spending so much time in it. One of my recent prints, Call of the Curlew, grew from years of winter walking along the foreshore of the Exe listening to the bird’s haunting call.

Call of the Curlew

This winter, I have studied the local Lympstone curlews- how they move, how they stand, how the curve of their beak is silhouetted by the setting sun and often reflected in the shimmering low- tide mud. I sit and I watch, tucked away by a rock, and often write poems between sketches. I make simple line drawings to capture movement and form. Back home, in my studio, I look at reference photos and fill sketchbooks with zoomed-in images of curlew eyes, feather patterns, beaks and the curve of their backs. I draw and draw until I have that curve of the beak in my muscle memory and it is only then, when I really know the lines, that I start to sketch out possible print compositions, always trying to capture that feeling of the bird in its own environment and how I feel being in that place too.

Sketches for Call of the Curlew

I start to carve and it is then that the magic happens and the calmness pervades everything, as my hands almost work on their own knowing instinctively which way to cut and move through the lino. It has been a wonderfully creative journey and continues to be so. I teach lino printing workshops and that is my way of sharing what I learnt all those years ago and helping others to take a first step on their own  lino  printing  journey.

Exe Estuary, Lympstone, Devon

Photographed by Charlotte Ellis (2024)

My prints can be seen in the Seaglass Gallery in Lympstone.  You can follow my journey on Instagram too. @ontheforeshoreartist

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What an amazing experience to shape your artistic life.


13 de fev.
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An amazing journey!

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