A beautiful otherness

A beautiful otherness: NNN interviews Nature Matters speaker Sarah Gillespie

Sarah Gillespie is an artist who specialises in wildlife – particularly moths – and landscapes. Her mezzotints and charcoal drawings have an enchanting intimacy; an Alice in Wonderland of the art sphere, Sarah dives into projects that create microworlds in each line and tendril of her pieces.

Sarah will be speaking at this year’s Nature Matters on the panel ‘Arts and environmental awareness’ (Saturday, 09:45). I spoke to Sarah about the beauty in detail and how her work differs radically from the fast-paced world, and also about creative and ecological interconnectedness. She showed me sketchbooks full of moths, trees, and poetry extracts as she spoke of her immense gratitude to writers. We also spoke about the growing awareness of the importance of Indigenous knowledge within this year’s theme of ‘Local to Global’, and the unique nature of NNN which holds at its core the idea that the sciences and arts can offer each other more than what the public and political domains give thought to.

Sarah believes that making art can shift behaviour patterns towards heightened awareness and advocates taking a moment to try to encounter what Paul Shepherd calls ‘a beautiful and strange otherness’ in the more-than-human-world.

How can art change perceptions and even behaviour patterns?

There are two ways of thinking about this: firstly, from the perspective of people viewing or experiencing art, versus how creativity changes our own behaviour.

From the perspective of what creative people have to offer, one of our roles is to grasp what is lasting and calm and meaningful amid all the confusion, rush, and noise. The point of art is to bring joy and dignity and to stimulate and heal. We really need that now, and artists hold that space.

But I think we also have to have the humility to realise that as visual artists we are like compost heaps. We are slow, and it would be hubristic to assume we are going to do anything terribly dramatic in terms of changing peoples’ behaviours.

As far as practice is concerned, this quote from John Berger answers it for me: ‘Every artist discovers that drawing, when it is an urgent activity, is a two-way process. To draw is not only to measure and put down, but also to receive. […] The encounter of these two energies – their dialogue – does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulate dialogue’. The point of the practice for me is not actually about observation, rather it is about engaging with a world that is communicative, listening, looking, waiting. It seems to me that as humans mostly we talk to ourselves.

From the other perspective – that of the viewer – when people read a poem or see a piece of art, it moves them. It’s something akin to when you’re walking in the street and you suddenly hear a burst of blackbird song or suddenly the light is falling on some gorse or blossom: that sudden resurfacing out of the busy and rushed and mundane and awful into something that is connected and meaningful and restorative. I think that’s the best you can hope for as an artist – that, in holding that space, you might just be able to offer moments of blackbird song to other people.

Before I start work I will often randomly open a book of poetry from the stacks in my studio to set myself in the right frame of mind. There are many musicians and writers who play Bach while they create, and I do that too. So there’s another function of art: to reset to a truer frame of mind.

Is this something you actively seek to achieve with your own practice?

There is the danger of hubris to setting out to change people, but I think we do have a role in transforming and – to return to this image – composting what is unwanted, unloved, into something good.

Instead I follow Seamus Heaney’s guidance: ‘Be kind, don’t be afraid, tell the truth’. If one sticks to that kind of mantra oneself as much as possible then there’s possibly some transformative power in that. I need it tattooed somewhere – maybe with a moth!

Your work is delicate, intimate and precise. How do you encourage people to seek beauty in the detail, and what role does close observation play in the current climate?

Paying attention has almost become radical. By ‘paying attention’ I do not mean mindfulness: it needs to go beyond one’s own body. It’s paying attention to the detail of what is other than us whilst acknowledging that everything is connected.

I think, to mis-quote Matthew Gandy, once you do this, you notice subtle visual differentiations between similar species of moths or learn to spot their cryptic patterns as they rest on trees, and on stones and lichen. What you’re doing when you slow yourself down and train yourself to notice at that level of detail is unlearning the degree of sensory elimination that characterises our lives. A great deal of where we go wrong is the search for speed. We’ve become poor at noticing things unless they’re very fast and very big and bright, and part of that is because we are used to looking on screens.

For the moth project I made images of common English moths, and there’s 2,500 of them compared to about 50-60 butterfly species in the UK. People write in the visitor books for the exhibitions that they had never realised these species were out there, in their gardens. I love showing people these details and their patterns and their quietness, revealing what’s not seen.

There are worlds other than us. It does us a power of good to be noticing something other than ourselves. You have to get people to stop in their tracks long enough to notice it – and that’s the challenge of the artist.

You have said you choose to work on moths as they are often overlooked. Why should we be turning our attention to these and other flora and fauna that are not typically thought of as ‘charismatic’?

My answer to that would be that I do think moth are charismatic! But here’s the thing:  We are absolutely failing to see things as complex systems.  Moths are like the canaries in the coalmine for wildlife in this country… Since The Beatles disbanded, moth numbers are down by over a third, and some of them as much as 80%. One of the most iconic species – the garden tiger – is down 83% since the 1970s. They’ve just crashed, and there’s a knock-on effect of that. Cuckoos need their woolly caterpillars for food. Cuckoos are more charismatic and have a bit more of a story to them than moths, so we notice their absence – but one of the reasons we don’t see them anymore is because we have eliminated their food source.

For me, it is really important not to separate animals out. I do not see blue tits, for example, as separate from the 30,000 caterpillars they need to raise their families – they’re just another form of moth in a different emanation! I think I’ve stubbornly stuck with moths in order to make that point.

Over half of us live in cities now and most of us don’t encounter animals other than on television, or on holiday, or walking through a field of cows, or we may have pets. The human biologist Paul Shepherd has said that ‘The grief and sense of loss that we often interpret as a failure in our personality is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered’.

I think moths, far more than tigers or polar bears, offer us a real possibility of encounter if we just make a tiny effort to look in our own gardens: the possibility of encounter on a daily basis with a beautiful and strange otherness.

Which other species of flora and fauna capture your imagination?

Once you start looking, it’s all extraordinary. So, I suppose I’d say: all of them! That said, I had the privilege of being taken round Askham Bog by the botanist Alistair Fitter this summer and immediately started imagining a whole series on moss and bog plants, for similar reasons to the moths. We don’t think very highly of bogs. They’re dark, and their timescales are very slow but without them we are lost.

Having done the common moths, I’m also starting to look at the ones which are on the verge of extinction – of which there are quite a handful. The reason they are so endangered is usually to do with the fact that their larval food plant has been pushed out by modern farming. So, the next piece I’m going to make is about a moth called the White Spot whose larval plant is the Nottingham catchfly. As its name suggests, this plant was first observed on the walls of Nottingham castle. It now only occurs in just one tiny patch of coastline on the Branscombe undercliff in East Devon. People think it is a coastal plant but it’s not; it has been pushed to the coast, and as a consequence there is not enough of it to support its moth. I’m beginning to think about pieces that might speak to those relationships.

Your work resonates with themes of connectedness, from literary allusions to wider interdisciplinary conversations within the sciences. How do you see your practice within this network of exchange?

My overwhelming feeling towards poets, writers and musicians is one of gratitude. Poets in particular are way ahead of all of us. They have already taken the risks we hesitate on.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with the poet Alice Oswald on a couple of collaborative projects. I find that exchange with her enormously useful. She has an almost unique ability to inhabit other; to inhabit another species: to become part of the body of a moth or a raindrop or a tree. I think she’s extraordinary. I think all one can hope for is to be part of that exchange.

And how important are the viewers of art to that network?

I am hoping that a perceived barrier is breaking down a bit here. In The Book of Trespass Nick Hayes talks about edges and boundaries being entirely artificial and that all borders in nature are in fact permeable zones of transition. It’s an entirely human-made thing to make a fence or a wall and say ‘I am this and you are that’.

In the same way, I am hoping that the distinction between artist and ‘non-artist’ is another boundary that is dissolving. Look what people did in lockdown – they got creative; they made music.

What does this year’s Nature Matters theme ‘Local to Global’ mean to you?

My experience of the last two years has been terribly local – I’ve been very much here in my local village. So to answer this question I want to mention three books that have been hugely influential to me this year: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, and Nick Hayes’ Book of Trespass.

They all in their very different ways approach this subject of the local or the Indigenous or the native and try to reclaim that as a way of knowing who we are. These three writers talk about identity not just as political but as beings within the complex systems of where we live.

Hayes talks about the way we are kept out of place, and Kimmerer and Dochartaigh show how the entirely deliberate colonial practice of taking away of Indigenous languages and names has deprived people of their sense of themselves within and as part of place.

So that’s what this year’s theme means to me most at the moment; I’m really interested in ‘the local’ in the sense of what we have to learn from local knowledge.

You will be contributing to the panel on ‘Art and environmental awareness’ with Harriet Mead and Rachel Taylor. Can you give us an insight into the big questions or challenges facing conservation that you’re taking to the panel?

My encounters with the conservation world have been very friendly and welcoming – I’ve been amazed by the generosity with time and knowledge of conservationists  – the challenge I would give them is: how are you going to use us artists?

I think the conservation world understands wildlife art and knows what to do with that (using it to raise funds for conservation projects), but the art world is a much wider diaspora than that. We’re getting an increasing number of artists saying they want to align their practice with the concerns about things that are happening to the planet that we can no longer ignore. So how are you going to make the most of us?

The challenge is how to use artists to capture the imagination of a detached urban population that, for the large part, does not have any spare time or money to think about anything like where their food is coming from or what in the air is making them ill or whether our soil will yield crops in 20 years’ time. Many people don’t have any spare capacity for this. As Mark Rylance said recently, the very job of artists is to make us fall in love with the rest of our world again.

I think the key might be in this word ‘activism’. Conservationists are activists, really; as a conservationist you are actively trying to do something, to conserve something. Activism isn’t just for activists. I strongly feel there are different forms of activism and I think if artists such as myself who are engaged with biodiversity collapse or climate change and conservationists meet and recognise each other as activists, then we have possibly got a way forward. But I don’t think we quite know how to do that yet.

But then maybe not knowing is a good thing and we just have to carry on moving along. Maybe it’s the job of geographers and conservationists just to continue being generous and open with their knowledge, and the artists continue doing their work. I think that’s what conferences like this are for – for us to try to thrash this out. Either way we have to keep talking to each other.

What role can groups like New Networks for Nature, and events like Nature Matters play in making change?

During lockdown my local community formed a habitat watch on WhatsApp. It was so heartening to find that there were other people in the village who I didn’t know but who were also recording species, noticing what is now absent, or restoring land. New Networks for Nature feels like a larger scale of that.

There’s that cliché about conservationists treading water in a sea of despair, but I think it is true. Events like this build resilience and support.

You have been thinking with another of your collaborators, the writer Peter Reason, about Mahmood Darwish’s question ‘What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?’ How do you respond to this in the context of visual art?

There is a poetic answer to the question behind all of these questions. This is W. B. Yeats answering it in his own W. B. way:

All the words that I utter
And all the words that I write
Must spread out their wings untiring
And never rest in their flight,
Til they come where your sad, sad heart is,
and sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm-darkened or starry bright.

You can’t rest as an artist. In the last lines of her poem ‘The Watchman’ Alice Oswald says ‘Ours is not to sleep or walk away’. I think that that is another message: that we just have to keep going.

Do you feel that as a burden?

No. It’s positive – it’s good to have a role.

Sarah will be joining Rachel Taylor and Harriet Mead on a panel chaired by John Fanshawe on art and environmental awareness from 09:45-10:45 on Saturday November 20th. The speakers will be discussing the ways in which the visual arts can raise awareness about the environment, and whether seeing problems through a different prism makes issues more accessible to a greater number of people.

Written by Noa Leach

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