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Laurie Powell: Building a Reciprocal Relationship with the Land

This week’s article is an exciting one for me as it was the first in-person interview for Between the Art, featuring artist and sculptor Laurie Powell.

Laurie was born in Sheffield but has lived in Northumberland for over ten years, currently based in Alnwick. He studied Fine Art at Leeds College of Art and as part of his studies he did a six month residency at ERASMUS+ in the South of France. Laurie describes this as playing a very crucial part in his artistic development, largely because of being based in such a beautiful place that had “such a tangible feel to it where you could taste the soul and smell the pine trees.” This led to the realisation that he wanted to work in environments that felt open and wild, such as Northumberland.

Since graduating, Laurie has exhibited as part of the Curator’s Choice Exhibition at Leeds Arts University; and at Cheeseburn Sculpture Gardens after winning the Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculptor Award.

Laurie speaks passionately about the beauty of Northumberland and the materials it provides for his work. Having an awareness of the place that you are in is clearly an important concern for him in today’s world, and this article will certainly inspire you to reconnect with your surroundings just that little bit more…

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I work in Alnwick in Northumberland. The surrounding region is a treasure trove of materials, history and beautiful landscape which have all been fundamental to the development of my practice. It is an area I know intimately having grown up here and it will always play a significant role in my creative practice.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

The first principal is to always gather materials directly from my surroundings. This is the most crucial part of my practice and is why place is so fundamental in creating what I make. Collecting in this way and processing everything from a raw state helps me to build a relationship and an understanding of the materials I work with, as well as of the places I take them from.

After this step, it is a case of trying to listen to what the material is saying and working with this. I think it’s important to realise that materials have their own agency and I approach working with them as a form of collaboration. I try to do as little as possible, bringing out the beauty that is already within, often focusing on a specific property. Sometimes I will start with a rough idea but during the process of making, I will stop halfway through because the material already looks right. By looking right, I mean that the object or material looks in tune. I find this difficult to explain but it is just like tuning a guitar, the moment when one string resonates with another. This happens rarely but when it does, I’m a happy boy!

"Materials have their own agency and I approach working with them as a form of collaboration. I try to do as little as possible, bringing out the beauty that is already within."

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

I love the wealth and variety of materials that surround us. All the different colours, tastes, textures and smells out there to explore and experience, and how all these things have their own characteristics and ways of working.

I also look to indigenous cultures that have often lived in much closer proximity to their environments. Their methods of working with the materials to hand produce a material culture that feels like it belongs to the world in which it was made. Objects that feel animate and alive.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment... Possibly a bit too much.

I’ve been making a blue pigment from the woad I planted in the spring. This is pure alchemy. You go from the green leaves without a hint of blue, to a murky, unpromising brown liquor, to a deep, beautiful, midnight blue.

I’ve also been learning to spin wool, working with black and white fleeces from a friend’s farm. This has been very time consuming but equally exciting as it will open all sorts of creative possibilities. It is still early days but I’ve started experimenting with threading two ply yarns around a wooden frame, and at some point I will start experimenting with weaving.

Other ongoing projects include processing clay and timber, making glazes and glass, making paper, parchment and leather. I have a long to do list which can be frustrating, but equally what’s the rush?

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

For me, sense of place is about the sum of all its parts coming together to create an experience and identity. This can fluctuate and change with time and the seasons so it’s more of an ongoing story than a fixed entity. It is definitely important in my work because when I take these materials from an environment, I am trying to use them in a way that maintains a trace of the places they came from. Similarly, as I was saying about indigenous cultures, I try to create work that feels like it belongs to the place it came from. Hence why the work I make here in Northumberland looks different to the work I made living in the south of France or in Leeds.

"Sense of place is about the sum of all its parts coming together to create an experience and identity. This can fluctuate and change so it’s more of an ongoing story than a fixed entity."

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

One of my favourite places is the rock pools at Howick, Northumberland, because there is this sense that it is running in its original clockwork state. There is very little human change. It is stunning – the more you visit and the more you look, there are constantly new things to discover. It is so rich to the point where you could spend your whole life trying to understand a 200 meter stretch. There are so many ways that you could interact with it: the geology, the biology, the pure beauty of it.

I struggle with this idea of the ‘natural world’ because I think it suggests a divide between the ‘manmade/human world’ and the ‘natural world’ but really this is a myth. There is only one world and, as we are beginning to find out the hard way, we can’t remove ourselves from nature. For me, the term ‘natural world’ is the same as saying the universe and everything in it.

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

My every day is undivided from my work. Again, I find this question hard to answer because of my understanding of the natural world. I know it sounds like I’m knit picking but how we use language can completely transform how we see and think, and can have profound knock-on effects. There’s an excellent book called The Other Side of Eden by Hugh Brody, which describes so elegantly the power language has in this regard. He talks about how in Inuit languages verbs are usually used to describe in place of nouns. For example: the shore isn’t a thing so much as the act of being a shore, which encapsulates how it is living, changing and has agency. Whereas the English noun ‘shore’ suggests a fixed entity that can be owned, controlled, or used. I’d highly recommend reading the book if this interests you, it really is class!

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

I’m usually more inspired by museums than galleries, though I always loved Andy Goldsworthy for the sensitivity and awareness he has when working. It’s like he has a child’s wonder and a sense of play that I relate to.

I once saw a film called Disorient by Fiona Tan at the Baltic in Newcastle which was one of the greatest pieces of contemporary art I’ve seen. It was completely mesmerising, and I haven’t been able to find it since. The thought I might never be able to see it again seriously stresses me out! Similarly, Primavera by Sandro Botticelli was utterly spell bounding. I could not believe how beautiful it was.

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

It’s not my advice but there’s a quote I love by Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

Have the weather in your blood.

Laurie's Book List:

1. Colour by Victoria Finlay

The author goes through the different colours in a paint box, explaining how they were made historically. She tells the stories that lie behind each of them in a beautiful, poetic way that leaves you dreaming in Crimson.

2. Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry

This is a short essay published in 1987. It challenges the thinking that has caused the environmental crisis.

3. Fruits of The Earth by André Gide

A hymn about being present and experiencing the world for what it is.

To see more of Laurie's work, visit his website

All Images: Artist's Own


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