Jill Howitt

Teacher and Writer

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Following a long career in arts education I am currently focusing on art writing and research. I am studying for a PHD in Art History with the Open University. My topic is, ‘On the Borders: Public Art, Coastal Sites in the North of England’.

I co-run The Critical Fish, a visual arts journal, based in Hull. We aim to connect writers, artists, organisations and audiences through cultural conversations. My education and research background inform my writing practice. I like to focus on what Suzanne Lacy called ‘the relationship of the audience to the work’. I am interested in new and unusual ways of writing about visual culture. 

Latterly I have become more involved with initiating projects - I co created Fountain17 in 2017 when Hull was City of Culture. I am interested in collaborations and seek out cooperative ways of working, to make opportunities for new creative work. I am also a member of 'Lockdown Still Lives' - a local group which has developed from Zoom conversations during lockdown.

I have approached the theme by connecting art works in peripheral places around the coast of Britain to create an imaginary art trail. I am curious about what these works, that are closest to the edge, might tell us about our current precarious position as water levels and temperatures rise, coasts erode, and climate patterns breakdown. I have started my journey in the North East with Richard Farrington's Charm Bracelet situated towards the edge of the cliffs between Saltburn and Skinningrove.

1. The Proposal
 

CBV is a space for artists, writers and researchers to share responses to a common theme in the context of our collective experience of climate emergency – where connections and conversations are as important as individual works. What can we learn from each other and our different disciplines in the current inescapable crisis? I personally hope to gain a firmer vision of what art/artists can do to resist or comply with environmental and social injustice. My own contribution, which also builds on the relationships between things, concerns art works, past and present, that occupy peripheral sites around the coast of Britain.

My research explores public art in coastal/port towns and cities – but I find my attention drawn closer to the edge - to art works placed precariously on beaches, cliffs and promenades; in the spaces between high and low tide; or toppled, submerged and disintegrating in rivers and seas. Seaside architecture is specific and memorable – lighthouses, groynes, breakwaters, boardwalks, and jetties all evoke images of life and work by the sea. Likewise, murals, sculptures and art work, in seaside places, seem to me to have a powerful part to play in illuminating and giving presence to coastal precarity, habitats, species, cultures and communities.

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artranspennine98 catalogue, editor Nick Barley

I write about Hull, a city which experiences flooding and sits in the right angle between the river Hull and the tidal Humber estuary, not far from the fast eroding Holderness coast. This geography frames my interest in current and past art works entangled with the city’s relationship with water. Historically the rivers and sea signified trade, fishing, industry, activity, prosperity and pride; today they signal vulnerability and shame and call for us to change our minds about what we value and how we live. I also join places up, sometimes via maps, walking, and routes, and sometimes because of shared geographical features, such as spits, promontories, estuaries, and islands. In the same vein I mentally connect public art works within and between places, spurred on by reading about artranspennine98 and the concept of a ‘public art exhibition’ spanning the country from east to west, from the Irish to the North Sea, connecting the Mersey and Humber estuaries. I imagined the different projects joined up like words in a sentence or notes in a passage of music – what did they say to each other and what is the collective message? I find the connections between the cities at each end of the line, Liverpool and Hull, particularly compelling. Antony Gormley’s Another Place– figures placed on the beach in Crosby, near Liverpool, appearing and disappearing with the rise and fall of the tide – find their counterparts in Lawrence Weiner’s Hull Horizon (now in Bury, alongside the river Irwell) and Anya Gallacio’s two sisters (now dissolved and dispersed) – both artranspennine98 exhibits sited temporarily in Hull. Hull Horizon is a series of aluminum stencil words and phrases mounted alongside the river Hull, close to where it meets the Humber. Here words were revealed and concealed by rising and falling water levels; the water edge acting like a piece of card used by a child to distinguish a line to be read within a block of text. Gallacio’s Two Sisters is two 70-ton columns of chalk placed where the rivers join. The columns quickly eroded, dissolved, and were dispersed by currents and tides. Both works graphically illustrate the power of tidal, fresh and salt water, rising water levels, and the vulnerability of the coastline; the ‘fluidity of the geography’ and the ‘mutability of place.¹

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'Another Place' Antony Gormley, 2005
Crosby Beach, near Liverpool

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'Radcliffe Horizon' Laurence Weiner
Now situated in Bury. Formerly 'Hull Horizon' in Hull for artranspennine98

This connecting of places, and attention to the sustainability and vulnerability of place, is central to Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Casting a Green Net: Can it Be We Are Seeing a Dragon. This piece, also for artranspennine98, used maps, images and text to envisage the Transpennine region as a dragon (with its mouth at the Humber and its tail at the Mersey), and as a self-sustaining, bio and culturally diverse region.² The sloping Holderness coast becomes the incline of the dragon’s profile with horns or ears at Flamborough head and the top of the mouth at the beginning of the magical and disorientating Spurn Point. If the dragon’s mouth is open (breathing fire?) then Spurn Point itself turns back towards the bottom jaw of the Lincolnshire coast - across the dragon’s mouth and squeezed between the North Sea and the Humber estuary. The Transpennine route between head and tail was historically travelled by European transmigrants – many fleeing persecution. More recently several art works have travelled this line, including Gormley’s figures, Weiner’s words, and also Neville Gabie’s A Weight of Ice carried from the North for You (2010) - connecting Bredefjord Narsaq, Greenland with Tatton Park in Cheshire. Travelling and connected, rather than static and singular art works emphasise that places separated across distance and time are joined in a network of cause and effect.

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Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison from 'Casting a Green Net: Can it Be We are seeing a Dragon' for artranspennine98. Image from the artists’ website.

The imagined nature of Casting a Green Net, and maybe the image of a coin with a head on one side and a tail on the other, inspired me. What if my imagined line between Hull and Liverpool is actually an elastic band which could be expanded to create a circle and then stretched around the outer perimeter of Great Britain, creating a border between land and sea (and coinciding along the Holderness Coast with the dragon’s profile)? I would like to walk this perimeter and discover all the past, present and proposed art works along the way. Instead of thinking about public art in a place like Hull – with pieces in the city centre and others nearer the edge (like a portion/segment of circular pie) I imagine connecting all the coastal, ‘on the edge’ art works (around the pie’s circumference). And so this is a long way round of arriving at my proposal for Carbon Borders Voices – a ‘Round Britain’ Coastal Art Trail. I imagine walking this trail and the conversations between different art works that sit on beaches, cliffs and promenades – each straining to catch some words from the previous piece, then turning to pass on the message to the next – like a giant game of Chinese Whispers. I can see them holding hands in a protective circle (like Matisse’s Dance). These art works, nearest the edge and closet to collapse, the first ones to go, may have the most to say about our current precarious position. How will this imagined perimeter line alter daily and over time, as our coastline (and the elastic band) shrink and contract, as water encroaches and land disappears?

In part two I will begin the trail with Richard Farrington’s Charm Bracelet on the tall cliffs between Saltburn and Skinningrove, on the Cleveland Way on the North East coast. My long-awaited visit to see this work coincided with the CBV call out and I wanted to see what a new work and place (for me) could bring to the table. In addition, the iron mines and steel works on Teesside and North Yorkshire bring me closer to the ‘carbon’ of Carbon Borders Voices. I also wanted to try something new – to choose where I write and to be conscious of my environment so that something of the place might seep into the writing. For writing, like walking, to be a particular way to connect to place.

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Richard Farrington’s 'Charm Bracelet',

between Saltburn and Skinningrove

2. The Charm Bracelet
 

Farrington’s Circle or Charm Bracelet can only be reached via the Cleveland Way – either walking south from Saltburn or North from Skinningrove, or by cutting across to the coastal path from the inland village of Brotton. I had attempted to see it a year earlier – but following an operation was unable to walk far or uphill enough to reach it. So, my visit was eagerly anticipated, imagined and researched – in contrast to many people who must just come across the sculpture by chance. I like to travel to see specific works in particular places so that a walk or train/bus journey is part of the experience of meeting a new work in a new place. And this was the first such visit since imagining a coastal circuit of art works – so that the sculpture itself appeared to me like the first charm on a giant coastal bracelet. 

I approached from Saltburn climbing the steep North Yorkshire cliffs, with the beach and pier below, and Middlesbrough, and the river Tees behind me. The previous evening, I had located the ‘Black Path’ at the disused Middlehaven Docks, and the section which joins Middlesbrough and the North Sea at Redcar, ‘through the heart of industrial Teesside’ (also part of the coastal path and Teesdale Way).³ If I had continued along the path that evening, I would have seen the iconic Dorman Long coke oven tower. Coal and iron mining, steel works and ship building were central to the prosperity, industrial economy and culture of the North East, and Dorman Long, founded in Middlesbrough in 1875, are famous for building bridges using Teesside iron and steel. During the night, after my visit, the tower was controversially demolished and thus absent from my view looking back from the cliffs towards the Tees flanked by other structural markers of the industrial past. Further traces and impacts of industrialisation accompany the meeting of sky, land, and water along the cliff top walk:  the path squeezed between the cliff edge and the sweeping curve of a freight railway line, piles of slag from blast furnaces deposited over the cliffs, and an old fan house used to introduce air into an ironstone mine. Iron mining peaked in the late 19th century and the mines were finally closed in the 1960s, leaving behind a legacy of unemployment, water contamination and pollution, some subsidence, and stripped and depleted sites. Steel processing, and the production of pig iron from iron ore, took place in blast furnaces where coke was burned, and carbon mixed with oxygen to create carbon monoxide which then reacted with iron ore to produce pure iron and carbon dioxide. At one time there were 91 blast furnaces situated along the Tees Valley. A little further along the coast the path crosses over the active and deep workings of the Boulby potash mine which extend below ground 5 miles out to sea.

Farrington’s Charm Bracelet is one of three of his works poised on the cliff edge that connect and stand between this industrial past and environmental future. The iron and rusted circle stands upright with ten charms hanging down from the upper half of the circle. Like a bicycle wheel without spokes the circle acts as a viewfinder for the bands of sky, sea and grass identified and isolated by the circular frame. I found myself seeking out views, from different positions and distances. I lined up the horizon with the diameter and looked from both sides – out to sea, and in towards land – as if approached by the ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ of a coin. This seeking out of different views and alignments recalls Anish Kapoor’s Temenos down the road in Middlesbrough on the docks at the start of the Black Path. This giant swooping deceptive form comprises of two tilted hoops connected by a taut steel cable net/grid like structure, narrowest in the centre, a bit like an apple core. As with Farrington’s circle the hoops are like openings, telescopes or magnifying glasses, and the viewer seeks out views from different positions around the sculpture. From one vantage point the furthest ring can be seen through the nearest one and both frame a patch of sky - like a bull’s eye. In both Farrington’s and Kapoor’s works positive and negative swap places as the backdrop of sky and land become the focus of the viewer’s attention.

The charm bracelet sculpture was made at the Skinningrove Steelworks nearby and Farrington reused off cuts and throw away materials, found outside the boiler house. The inner section is made from an old lift shaft mast and the outer part from fish plate – used for the hulls of trawler ships. On one hand this a serious sturdy object – one of many large, manufactured art works in the Northeast that reflect the industrial past. On the other hand, it is playful – a child’s delicate bracelet – an object that evokes personal memories and meanings. Farrington wanted the sculpture to be a collection of random items and was inspired by the bracelets worn by local women. The circle has human proportions, and you could imagine Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man standing along the bottom rim and stretching his hands out to touch the circumference. This enlarged everyday object, which looks as though it might have rolled away and out of sight, recalls Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Bottle of Notes in Middlesbrough town centre, which stands at a jaunty angle as if washed up on a beach. Maybe these are the toys of the ’infant Hercules’, the name given to Middlesbrough by Gladstone in 1862 when he saw the industrialisation of Teesside.

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Anish Kapoor, Temenos, 2010, Middlehaven Docks, Middlesbrough

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Claes Oldenberg, Coosje van Bruggen, Bottle of Notes 1993

The charms, including a cat, starfish, mermaid and horse, are hollow and sway slightly in the wind. In a storm they would clang and chime against each other. Charms, such as four-leaf clovers, and horse shoes, carry meanings and a sense of protection. These magical and superstitious symbols of good luck hang, clang and chime on an object perched precariously on a cliff edge. The Charm Bracelet has been destroyed once – in 1996 when vandals rolled it into the sea, and when some of the charms were recovered from the beach and reused. Now it only seems like a matter of time before the sculpture, circular like the world, surrounded by cliff erosion, topples, falls, breaks up and is washed away again. Farrington describes being inspired by diatoms – which are algae whose cell walls are transparent and highly patterned. They live in the sea, waterways and soil and through photosynthesis remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release around a half of the oxygen we breathe. They are also essential for the food web in ponds, rivers and oceans but are vulnerable to planet warming and climate breakdown. I have a strange circul.ar image of the diatom inspired steel sculpture absorbing the carbon dioxide created by its own production.

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I stopped by the Charm Bracelet for a rest, coffee, and sandwiches and to chat to others walking the coastal path, and the Cleveland way, in sections or all in one go. I learnt about the fan house, where the fan that provided oxygen for the workers underground has left a circular imprint on the wall, echoing the circle on the cliff nearby. I heard criticisms of the way the demolition of the Dorman Long Tower was rushed through, concerns about the environmental impact and anger at the scrapping of plans to preserve the buildings as a monument to ‘hard graft and enterprise’.⁴ One walker told me about a new steel public sculpture, down the coast, marking 50 years since the Boulby mine opened. The Charm Bracelet is a whimsical and thought provoking object in a beautiful but threatened place. It draws attention to industrial heritage and is an appropriate place to recognise the achievements, pride and identity of industrial Teesside, at the same time as signposting a site where resources have been mined and extracted, where the ecology is depleted and the environmental consequences devastating. The Charm Bracelet will topple and fall (again) as the cliffs erode and, like a lighthouse or flare, acts as a warning about the danger to humans and other species currently poised on the brink of extinction.

Farrington’s sculpture marks a spot and concentrates attention on a web or net of connections between elements on the cliff top, out to sea, down on the beach, behind along the river valley and then further afield. This is a great place to walk to; to look, think, write, photograph, draw and talk to others. Standing on the highest cliffs on the East Coast with sections of dramatic coastal erosion the connections between industrial processes and environmental consequences come sharply in to focus, they stand side by side, above and below, and interconnected. There is also a confusing mix of beauty and ugliness, pride and shame, natural and man-made and a strange affinity between the brutal and final demolition of the tower in the distance and the crumbled, fallen, disintegrated cliffs on the shoreline below.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
 

Many thanks to North East Statues (@northeaststatues) for the information about the Charm Bracelet and excerpts from the interview with Richard Farrington
 

For information about artranspennine:

Nick Barley (ed.), Leaving Tracks: artranspennine98, an international contemporary visual exhibition recorded (August media Ltd., 1999)
 

Charlotte Mullins (ed.), artranspennine98 exhibition guide (Tate Gallery in association with artranspennine98)
 

For more about Casting a Green Net - see Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, available online here
 

Les Firbank, Helen Mayer Harrison, Newton Harrison, David Haley and Bruce Griffith, ‘A Story Of Becoming: Landscape Creation Through An Art/Science Dynamic’, in Michael Winter and Matt Lobley (eds.), What is Land For?: The Food, Fuel and Climate Change Debate (Abingdon and New York: Earthscan, Taylor and Francis, 2009)

CLIFFS AND SHORELINES: ART ON THE COAST

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[1] Mullins (ed.). artranspennine exhibition guide. p.80

[2] Ibid.p.29

[3] Paul Smith, ‘‘Monument to hard graft’: a post-industrial walk on Teesside’s Black Path’ in The Guardian, 26 February 2021, available on line at: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/feb/26/monument-to-hard-graft-a-post-industrial-walk-on-teessides-black-path(accessed 19 September 2021)

[4] Ibid.