Overpainting: order vs chaos

On this often-overpainted wall in Enmore the graffitists currently have the upper hand. I am inclined to think their tastefully colour co-ordinated composition is more interesting than the layers of creamish-fawn paint that preceded it.

 The subject of overpainting is fraught. Everyone has something to say on the matter – wall owners, local councils, concerned citizens, hip and tolerant inner city dwellers, and of course wall artists and graffitists themselves. And as far as people making their opinions known, in this case actions often speak louder than words.

 In his blog post on the aesthetics of anti-graffiti interventions, Kurt Iveson categorises the patches of overpainting in not-quite-matching colours as ‘the new urban swatchwork’. This swatchwork does not produce any aesthetic integrity of its own, he says, and is just a visible indicator of the desperation of authorities to assert their authority. They’re not actually too fussed what the wall looks like, so long as it doesn’t have graffiti.

 

In the decades-long war against graffiti, overpainting can evolve into an entertaining competition between graffitist and the paintbrush-wielding authority. A series of photos of a wall in Mt Druitt is still funny, although it has been around for some while. Eventually one or other of the competitors gives up, which is, of course, the aim of this type of anti-graffiti measure – to wear the graffitists down.

 And of course it is not only wall owners and local authorities who paint over graffiti. Taggers and spray-can artists also paint over each other’s work. Sometimes this is a display of disrespect and an assertion of territory. Sometimes it is simply a natural progression in the world of informal street art, where the art is necessarily ephemeral.

 

But disfigurement of street art, and in particular legal street art, can also be a political act perpetrated by graffiti activists who regard street artists as the complicit foot soldiers of gentrification. Such street artworks, as people like academic Stephen Pritchard maintain, have a role in what is called ‘creative placemaking’, and as such are ‘the harbingers of redundancy, displacement, social cleansing, colonialism and racism’.

 In 2009 the daubing of a Banksy mural with red paint caused something of a public uproar in Bristol, UK, but a group called Appropriate Media claimed responsibility, declaring on its website that ‘graffiti artists are the performing spray-can monkeys for gentrification’. Perhaps it was similar – although unarticulated – sentiments that saw a genuine Banksy stencil in Enmore defaced with tags around 2008. Or maybe it was just ignorance.

 

So, in the light of all this, what is to be made of French artist Mathieu Tremblin’s street installations, which he called ‘Tag Clouds’? This series of artworks was executed in 2010, but in 2016 Tremblin’s photographs went viral, often reposted under one reblogger’s heading ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’. For me they touched a chord and I happily shared the images on my Facebook page, commenting that the work reminds me of the process of writing. The original wall is like my first draft of an article, the ‘legible’ wall is my final version. It still doesn’t make sense but at least it looks neat and is kind of approachable

 

 

Some Facebook friends found them playful and funny, but I was surprised when some friends of friends appeared incensed. “Why digitise expressive arty jottings?” wrote one. Without anything but the photographs to go on, another declared, “The point of the art is to cover up the unwanted, messy, illegal graffiti and take away their meaning to discourage it”.

 I was inclined to dismiss these kinds of comment as the try-hard opinions of would-be ‘tolerant’ middle-class, middle-aged inner city dwellers. But then I decided to find out more about Tremblin’s work and I discovered an interview with him on The Creators Project site. It turns out that Tremblin’s work referenced tag clouds (remember them?), those visual representations of text data, typically used to depict keyword metadata (tags) on websites.

 As Tremblin says, tag clouds were still the main way to draw personal paths through contents, websites and blogs in 2010. In the early 2000s street writers used to share their work on homemade websites and CMS blogs that used tag clouds.

 But these days the big search engines and social media sites use algorithms to dictate the kind of content we see. Tag clouds are to a large extent a thing of the past, and the original meaning of Tremblin’s work became lost. Then in mid-2016 his images went viral when the website Design You Trust, reproduced them with their own interpretation, ‘Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti and Makes It Legible’.

 Tremblin sadly reflects, “They made me look like the emissary of a solution against graffiti, whereas my intent was actually totally the opposite—I’m pro-name writing as I’m a former writer … They transformed my simple gesture of ‘turning a hall of fame of tags into tag clouds’ into an anti-graffiti hygienist lampoon”.

 Comments on the Design You Trust post ranged, as you might expect, from abusive to cynical, and were more about graffitists (artists vs vandals) than about Tremblin’s work itself.  Those that did comment on his interventions generally found them condescending and disrespectful, with the ‘corrected typeface’ turning organic graffiti into something that is ugly and tacky.  Much like the small sample of commentators on my Facebook page, they somehow missed the point.

 But even though I now know Tremblin’s original intentions, I still think his Tag Clouds are funny and clever. Maybe my interpretation was not so far distant from Tremblin’s intent because he proposes that “Tag Clouds is just a default aesthetic generated by computers where graffiti is expressing individual alterity; man vs computer; order vs chaos… Chaos is life!”

 Postscript. It has taken me a while to draft this blog post and during that time the wall pictured at the top of the page has once again been thinly overpainted with a shade of creamish-fawn. One up for the wall owner.

 

Apart from the images of the Tag Clouds installation, taken by the artist Mathieu Tremblin (2010), all images are by meganix and were taken in Enmore and Newtown in 2008 (Banksy stencil) and 2016.

Recapturing the magic

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

In my so-called office at home I am attempting to regain control. The room has been overtaken by stuff and progress is slow because I have neglected the fundamental rule: DON’T READ.

Amongst things that I have sinfully paused to read while culling superseded files, I found notes I took at the orientation day for new PhD students in the Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy at Macquarie University in 2008. It was on that day, by the way, that I discovered I was not the oldest PhD student in the world, and that there were many other culmination-of-career candidates. Anyway, here’s one piece of advice I dutifully noted:

At the beginning, keep a journal of what you read and what you think about it. Your notes will be like Ariadne’s thread leading you through the maze. They will help you to solidify your thesis topic or even change your mind about what that might be.

"Suck shit up". Stanmore, 2003.

“Suck shit up”. Stanmore, 2003.

Well, I did start a journal, which became a series of A5 notebooks. The PhD has since been completed but, many volumes later, I still keep this journal, with notes on what I have read, seen, heard, talked about, and thought about. It is quite separate from my daily diary of appointments and humdrum domestic events. As a diversion from room-tidying I hunted out Volume 1 to re-read the first thing I had written in the journal. Here it is (slightly edited):

If I am going to do this project I am going to have to re-find my belief in the magical properties of the pavement. These last few years my writing and thinking have become prosaic. I have lost fun and wonder – beaten out of me by [my workplace]. When I first started photographing footpaths eight years ago, suddenly I could write poetry.

Over the next few years I did manage to recapture the magic as I enjoyed the luxury of exploring, photographing, reading, thinking and writing without the need to churn out memos, attend interminable meetings, play office politics, carry the dead weight of work-shy colleagues and endure the hysterics of others, attend to bureaucratic niceties and write formulaic justifications for every decision – and that was in what many (including myself) would have considered a dream job.

Once I left that job, how lovely it was on a nice sunny day to admire the sparkles in the asphalt and concrete, on a nice rainy day to enjoy the wavering reflections of the world on the ground, and on any day to seek out the messages people leave on the pavement and speculate why they leave them. And, in imaginary dialogue with scholars past and present, to discuss both the enchanting and the disheartening aspects of public places, and to consider what’s so special about the pavement.

"Bread is making birds sick". Enmore, 2010.

“Bread is making birds sick”. Enmore, 2010.

These days I’m a bit more relaxed about the pavement. I don’t feel I have to look at the ground all the time in case I miss something, but I’m still interested in what’s so special about other places in the urban landscape that are so obvious they’re invisible.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Roadside greetings

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By early November you know that Christmas is coming. As the weeks roll on the decorations become thicker and more splendiferous. More glitter. More greetings. More Barbie heads.

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I’m talking about Maurice’s decorations on the streetside furniture in Annandale, an inner west suburb of Sydney. Maurice Jappanarid Ponza is a Sydney character always in seasonally adjusted costume complete with appropriate head gear. He is often a pirate, sometimes a cowboy, an academic or a wizard, and at this time of year his daily choices include variations on Santa, elf or Christmas tree.

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For years he has been darting into the traffic to wash windscreens, initially at Johnson Street and Parramatta Road, more recently at City West Link. This year there seems to be some problem with the windscreen washing but he’s still there intermittently, taking donations in exchange for his photocopied Christmas card. Sydney loves its personalities and Maurice has appeared in student short films like Adam Rosenberg’s award-winning ‘Maurice’ and Sam Barnes, Bek Hawkey and Laura Cosgrove’s ‘Window man’. He even featured this year in an ABC TV Lateline segment ‘Behind the squeegee’.

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Happy Christmas or Happy Whatever-You-Choose-to-Celebrate from me to you, the people who look at the Pavement Graffiti blogsite and the Pavement Appreciation Facebook page. Thank you for your friendship and support. Special cheerio to Mark McLean who has his own way of noting the beginning of Christmas as he traverses the stormwater drains of Hamilton North (in Newcastle, Australia). May the road ahead be filled with little surprises for all of you.

And thanks to Maurice for providing the festive scenery for this blog post. Best wishes to him and all the city’s fringe entrepreneurs.

It's a sign. It's a sign. All photos by meganix.

It’s a sign. It’s a sign.
All photos by meganix.

Parramatta Girls Home

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Writing graffiti can be a way of claiming or re-claiming territory. That is what has happened at the former Parramatta Girls Home, as I found when I visited the site this week. I did not go with the intention of photographing pavement graffiti, but I unexpectedly came across the letters ILWA and the silhouettes of children sprayed on footpaths and concrete verandahs there.

The former girls’ home is part of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct whose history of incarceration and ‘care’ of women and children extends from 1821 to 2008. Numbers of inmates at the Parramatta Girls Home peaked in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as courts committed hundreds of girls every year to spend months or years in the facility.

Sent to this institution at the age of 15 for being ‘in moral danger’, Bonney Djuric is now an artist, activist and historian. In 2006 she founded the support group Parragirls and was inundated by responses from women still living with memories of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse they suffered there. Now the Director of the Parramatta Female Factory Memory Project, Bonney has been instrumental in the campaign to preserve and dedicate the Parramatta Girls Home and the adjacent Female Factory as a Living Memorial to the Forgotten Australians and others who have been marginalised by society.

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One of the buildings, renamed Kamballa in the 1970s, is now the centre of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project, and it was Bonney who sprayed the ghostly silhouettes on the concrete in 2013 as a way of reasserting the presence of those forgotten children who passed through the institutions on this site.

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More puzzling is the symbol ILWA, also sprayed by Bonney at the same time. It mimics graffiti scratched into the woodwork at the Parramatta Girls Home, she tells me, and stands for ‘I Love Worship and Adore’. Bonney showed me examples of the original graffiti, some of it dating to the 1940s, on doors that have been preserved. Not only a message of affection, it also represented solidarity and resilience amongst the girls. It was a way of asserting ‘I am here’.

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In a blog post several years ago I wrote that all inscription is about the politics of turf. Back in the days of the Parramatta Girls Home, the girls who scraped their messages into the woodwork would have understood that theirs were assertive acts of defiance, but they could not possibly have imagined that years later their marks would be regarded as significant documents that offer an interpretation of the site that is as important as official archival material. Nor would they have imagined that their marks would be deliberately copied as a way of reclaiming territory on their behalf.

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Asphalt rules

Man in the moon, Broadway Shopping Centre car park (Sydney), April 2015 (photo: meganix)

Man in the moon, Broadway Shopping Centre car park (Sydney), April 2015 (photo: meganix)

Today is the anniversary of the launch of this blog. It was on 3 May 2009 that I wrote the first post and welcomed readers to Pavement Graffiti, “where asphalt rules and grey is good. The focus is on roadways and footpaths, and ‘graffiti’ means anything written, drawn, scrawled or stencilled on them”.

Centennial Park labyrinth (Sydney), November 2014 (photo: meganix)

Centennial Park labyrinth (Sydney), November 2014 (photo: meganix)

Back then I had embarked on a PhD at Macquarie University, also titled Pavement Graffiti. Six years on, the PhD has been achieved, there is a gallery of images on-line at Pavement Appreciation and a Facebook page of the same name, academic articles have been published, magazine articles too. From time to time journalists stumble upon the blog and ask my opinion about graffiti, Eternity or, as happened this week, walkable cities. The blog does not have a huge following but I am grateful to those who have given long-standing support or have simply shown a fleeting interest.

'Happy BDay Lolz Grace', Watsons Bay (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

‘Happy BDay Lolz Grace’, Watsons Bay (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

My interests have broadened to encompass a concern for the disappearance of strange spaces, areas of decay, and layered sites under the pressure of urban renewal (or urban homogenization). I am now an Adjunct Fellow of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney.

'Go vegan', Queen Victoria Building (Sydney), October 2014 (photo: meganix)

‘Go vegan’, Queen Victoria Building (Sydney), October 2014 (photo: meganix)

But I still retain my fascination for the pavement and am currently waiting to hear if my article on ‘Imagining the pavement: a search through everyday texts for the symbolism of an everyday artefact’ has been accepted for publication. Watch this space.

'I love same sex love', Sydney Park, St Peters, February 2015 (photo: meganix)

‘I love same sex love’, Sydney Park, St Peters, February 2015 (photo: meganix)

And do, please, continue to enjoy the literary adventure of reading the street beneath your feet.

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Tributes outside site of Martin Place siege (Sydney), December 2014 (photo: meganix)

 

Roadworks retrospective

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Pothole marked for repair, Newtown, 2008. Photo by meganix.

 

Comedian Dave O’Neil has been to see the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition, From the sidewalk to the catwalk, at the National Gallery of Victoria. He liked it because he’s into seeing what one person can achieve in a lifetime. But as Dave says in his newspaper column:

“It’s kind of sad that it’s mostly famous people who get exhibitions and accolades.

“Gautier rightfully gets his time in the sun, but what about other people who have contributed to society in some of the less glamorous fields? Wouldn’t you love to see an exhibition tracking the life of a road worker?

“Someone who goes around fixing potholes and other structural problems in the roads.

“Imagine the before and after shots of carefully repaired roads, a map pinpointing all the achievements and major works over the years.

“I can see a Next Wave Festival highlight already. I’m putting in for funding as soon as I finish writing this column.”

Yes please, Dave.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Glebe (Sydney), 2004. Photo by meganix.

Dave O’Neil, ‘Man about town: celebrities are not the only ones who deserve an exhibition about their life’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2015, The Shortlist, p.2.

 

Destruction and adaptation

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In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.

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But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.

 

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.

 

The swagman artist

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Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).

Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.

He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1910 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.

 

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

 

Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.

The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.

But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.

Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.

Walking on clouds

The public artwork by Jason Wing in Chinatown is so appealing that night-time shots of it – like images of the Opera House – are frequently used in promotional material to illustrate just how artistic/ vibrant/ innovative/ cultural/ multicultural Sydney really is. Commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2011, Between Two Worlds incorporates ‘themes of heaven and earth, the elements, and respect for ancestors past and present ‘.

'Between Two Worlds' by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

‘Between Two Worlds’ by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

At night the glowing blue spirit figures suspended over the dingy service lane are visually dominant, but in the daytime it is the ‘auspicious clouds’ on the roadway and walls that first catch the eye.

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Naturally I am interested in an installation that includes ‘floor murals’ (as the City of Sydney calls them), and last week I paid a visit to see how these were faring after three years of wear and tear. After all, the vulnerability of artistic mediums (whether paint, plumbing or electronics) means that public artworks do not always survive interaction with the public.

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It turns out that the pavement clouds are going well. The etchings on the granite pavers at the corners of the laneway are proving resilient and most of the paint on the concrete roadway has lasted. It must be a blue version of the kind of tough paint used for traffic marks. It’s all looking very grubby, and in places there are gaps in the clouds where the concrete has been patched or worn away by leaking water, but to me this is fitting for the element of an artwork that seems to be reflecting (or asking us to reflect on) the tribulations of our earthly existence. Life wasn’t meant to be easy.

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The walls are still looking good too and I could only find one place where the clouds have been overprinted with graffiti. But again, this seems appropriate, especially given Jason Wing’s background as a graffiti artist.

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But it is the host of airborne spirits that appears to have suffered the most. A building next to Kimber Lane has been demolished and with it a wall that supported several of these ‘little dudes’ (as comedian and art commentator Hannah Gadsby calls them). Four of them have vanished. Perhaps they are waiting in some kind of limbo until a shiny new apartment block is built. And then they will be reinstated to their watchful heavenly posting above the clouds. But that might take a while, because at the moment it looks as though the empty site is being made into a parking lot.

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Drift

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!

beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.

Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.

This is what Kate wrote to me:

‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.

‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:

‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.

‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.

 

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail)

‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail). All photographs by Kate Riley

‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’

Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.

 

(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)

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