An Exhibition Of New Work At The Customs House By Mike Collier
7 June 2013 – 20 July 2013

The work in this show included new and recent work, most of which had been made since 2011 and not shown in the North East of England before. It is based primarily around two large-scale walking projects as well as work produced with Dove Cottage (the Wordsworth Trust). 

Much of the work I make in the studio is based around my ‘practice’ of walking, or more properly, meandering, with a group of people, often led by a natural historian. Moving slowly (or meandering), through an environment affects our experience in ways that are not immediately apparent. It allows the walker time to stop whenever and wherever they find something interesting to ‘explore’; and time to respond to the weather patterns and soundscapes of an environment. For me, the relationship between walking and artistic practice is a complex one, involving collaboration, participation and conversational exchange. Meandering in a group seems to encourage discussion that ‘meanders’ across natural history, social history, politics and philosophy. Each walk is different; sometimes (if along the same route) repeatable, but never replicable; the vagaries of weather, group dynamic and seasonal patterns ensuring this. These shared experiences with fellow walkers generate new knowledge of species and plant-life encountered during the walk.

Both before and after each meander, I explore the history of the place I walk through. I then take the research gathered whilst on these meanders into my studio, and assimilates it whilst, in the process, making a series of abstract images and integrating various elements of text into these images. Text and colour are important in the architecture of my work; a record of flora and fauna seen or heard, the familiar unfamiliarity of vernacular names, dialects of birds and plants once known but fleetingly remembered, hinting back to the specificity of places and their ecological frameworks.

I hope that people involved either directly in my walks or visitors to the exhibition gained a greater appreciation of their local environment. Surprisingly we don’t have to travel long distances to experience a sense of ‘wildness’. In his recent book, ‘The Wild Places’, Robert Macfarlane explored a range of so-called wild places in the UK. However, towards the end of the book, he became, he said: “increasingly interested in an understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, in backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries and spinnies.” He continued. “That margins should be a redoubt of wildness, I knew, was proof of the devastation of the land: the extent to which nature had been squeezed to the territory’s edges, repressed almost to extinction. But it seemed like proof, as well, of the resilience of the wild – of its instinct for resurgence, its irrepressibly.” Hence the essentially optimistic title of this exhibition: The Resilience of the Wild.

The work in the show included new and recent work, most of which has been made since 2011 and not shown in the North East of England before. It is based primarily around two large-scale walking projects which I recently completed as well as work produced in 2012/3 in Cumbria in a ‘collaboration’ with Dove Cottage (the Wordsworth Trust) which focused around the relationship between creativity and walking that the poetry and journal entries of the Wordsworths underline. 

Field Notes (100 km Walk up the Tyne and North Tyne) was supported by VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities). It began at the mouth of the Tyne, close to where the Customs House is located, and ended at Thorneyburn in Northumberland, where the pastels I use are hand-made. Along this walk, I was accompanied by natural historians Keith Bowey, Matt Hawking, Steve Westerberg and Tina Wiffen, as well as more than thirty members of the public over five weekends in June 2011. 

In Temperley’s Tread – the Birdlife of Durham’s Moor and Vale was supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and involved a series of guided walks (led by Keith Bowey) over four weekends through the Durham Uplands in the summer of 2012, and a number of Heritage Evenings presented in community centres in Teesdale and Weardale in the winter of 2012/13. Over one hundred members of the public participated in this project, and I am especially grateful to June Holmes of the Natural History Society of Northumbria at the Great North Museum, Newcastle for granting me access to the Temperley archive and for allowing me to ‘work over’ facsimile copies of Temperley’s fascinating diaries. 

I am also grateful to staff at the Wordsworth Trust based at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Cumbria (in particular its Curator, Jeff Cowton) for their encouragement and support in allowing me to work with the facsimile copies of the manuscripts of both William and Dorothy Wordsworth held by the Trust. Thanks also to Jurate Gecaite and Emma Tominey who assisted me on the design of many of the works in this exhibition.