The Free-Diving Artist

Armed with swathes of canvas and special ink, artist Peter Matthews immerses himself in the open sea to create his works, recording and revealing the power and mystery of the ocean depths

Your work seems to span many mediums, from drawing and sculpture to photography and video – what leads you to choose a particular medium for a particular project?

My choice of medium changes regularly, sometimes because of where I'm working, the season and often through economic reasons. Recently I’ve been painting large-scale canvases in the Pacific and Atlantic and using found objects washed up on the beaches. I once found a cuttlefish bone at low tide, dried it in the sun then added the ground matter to white oil paint, which made the medium go further and added to its depth and brightness.

For the drawings in the ocean, my mediums are simply pen on paper, using a range of pens from gel pens to a space pen, which allows me to draw when the paper is immersed in the ocean or when it's raining. I often place found objects, like pieces of plastic sheeting brought in from the open ocean, in various compositions on the canvas. I really like the sense of narrative that each found object possesses – I work these materials into my work by simply sewing them onto the canvas.

I have been using Chinese ink for the last year. Something really captivating and profound happens when I simply mix the ink bar with the echoes and mysteries of the ocean water. It’s as if the water reveals something in the ink that was invisible, and in return the ink gives a presence to what was essentially invisible in the water – that sense of mystery and time, the unknown and the sensed. That slippage point and place of exchange where the ocean and landscape make their own visual presence is something I seek and invite into my working process.

Would you say there is a continuing theme that threads through all your works?

I have been drawing in the ocean since about 2007, following a near-death experience while surfing in the Pacific in Mexico. In a nutshell, there is this pursuit and perhaps self-maddening relationship I’ve developed with the ocean and thematically it's all about that sense of being mindful, more observant, to be a sensitive instrument in that liminal intertidal or open ocean space where I am trying to visually record and reveal the mystery and power of the ocean. 

I am motivated by an encircling satellite system of subjects, such as meteorology, marine biology, oceanography, astronomy, earth sciences, etc. My work is about being out there, immersed in the sea for hours at a time, making visible that human physical and spiritual experience of being out there in the wild. It’s also about that relationship of distance and absence, that sense of longing for the ocean, for those wild vistas and big open skies no matter what the weather may be. There's a beautiful stanza in the poem Sea Fever by John Masefield that evokes this feeling for me:

"I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

In this modern world of ours, we're surrounded by so many screens and have a more abbreviated and fragmented sense of our human interrelationships. It normally takes me four to five hours of drawing in the ocean to become re-attuned to the biorhythms of myself as a living organism in a cosmos of other living things, to be still enough to 'see' once more, to see the world go by in its ever-changing, dynamic way. 

The drawings and paintings take their own journeys into the wild and come back with a mapping of that visceral and personal experience. That's really what keeps calling me back to the sea, like when we place an old sea shell against our ear and we hear the echo of the ocean – the ocean’s out there but also within. 

As well as bobbing around in the sea with a pen and paper, what other bizarre situations have you found yourself in in the name of art?

Several years ago I filled a fire extinguisher with water from the Pacific Ocean and then, when the tank was pressurised again, I ejected the water out into the Atlantic Ocean in Cornwall. There was this vastly epic experience for me when the offshore wind blew the Pacific back into my face while I was physically present in the Atlantic. 

Last year, when working on an ancient sea floor in the Anza Borrego desert in California I used a Fresnel magnifying lens to draw and focus the sunlight from far away to burn small holes through a large canvas, which was painted with the blackest paint on earth. This was while I was an artist in residence at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

What's been your most ambitious project to date?

Painting and drawing on the ocean floor while free diving in the Pacific Ocean off Taiwan. There is this interchange point in time and place that you pass through when you leave the rocky shoreline and swim out into the fluid margins where the ocean is stirring within the intertidal zone. It's a point of departure and arrival that body and mind take. 

The more I free dive and the more I learn about this underwater world, the more my mind and body adapt. I enjoy that evolving and growing relationship between my work and the ocean – the depths we once came from. It has been ambitious physically and mentally, but also practically, too – trying to find creative ways to make a drawing in a place that's never been done before. There is this sense and scale of exploration and discovery that forever motivates me to keep on diving, peering under the surface, taking the paper and canvas farther out there and this sense of intrigue about what I may find and bring back to dry land.

What would you create if money and materials were no object?

I would love to create a place where people from all ages and backgrounds can learn about the sea and simply be near it to benefit from that recuperation, relaxation, personal adventure one can experience from the open water. It can also be a place where people can work together in a sustainable and sensitive way to help our oceans.

I've dreamt of crossing the ocean on a sailing ship and simply drawing the vast open water and all I can see while silently drifting along. 

But the simplicity of having just a few pens and a piece of blank paper to hand is the most down to earth and satisfying way of just being with the ocean, because when I am out there drawing and painting, those other material things don't enter my mind. I’m often reminded of our temporal existence on Earth, that when we pass on to the next world we simply take our spirit and leave those earthly possessions in our wake.

What do you find is the biggest barrier to creativity in this day and age?

It's a good question and it makes you ponder a lot doesn't it? I would say social media in some ways, although it places us into so many fields of opportunity where we can see such a wide spectrum of visual stuff, it also distances from experiencing the reality of things. 

Humans have this wonderful innate quality to wonder and experience and interact with new things, and this we see when we wait in line for hours to catch a short glimpse of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, when we could simply see the painting on the Internet on our phones. We have that curiosity and intrigue for experiencing life and our relationship to the world through art. 

We are also becoming increasingly more busy, and creativity needs time -  time to think, time to feel, time to see and watch, time to question and play and explore.

What's on your bedside table?

An old western novel by Louis L'Amour, called Borden Chantry.

Discover more of Peter's work at petermatthews.org

Moss-steamed trout

Our friends at Woodlore share their recipe for steaming fish in the outdoors – all you need is moss, a good campfire and some lemony herbs

Images: raymears.com

Images: raymears.com

The method of steaming your food between two layers of moss is one of the simplest ways of cooking in the outdoors, particularly with fish. It requires very little in the way of utensils or equipment (which means minimal washing up), and is very hygienic. But the greatest benefit of this technique is the way that it leaves you feeling truly immersed in the outdoors. This dish requires just two ingredients – trout and wood sorrel, the latter being a pleasant lemony stuffing that works well with fish. 

1. Firstly, prepare a hot fire with a good bed of embers, preferably of oak.  

2. Forage a handful of wood sorrel (make sure you are confident in identifying the plant first).   

3. Collect two large handfuls of sphagnum moss, taking care to keep them intact. Remove any leaf litter from the moss. 

4. Gut and clean your fish, then stuff it with the sorrel(at this stage you can use the clean side of the moss as a place to prepare the fish).   

5. Once your fire is ready, place the first layer of moss on top of the embers. Place the fish on top of the moss. Cover the fish with the second layer of moss, so that the soil and roots are facing upwards. Leave the fish to steam.

6. If the fire has been prepared correctly, you should see steam rising from the moss. After 30 minutes of steaming, check on the fish and turn it if it’s not cooking on top.
A simple way of testing if the fish is cooked is to gently press your thumb against the skin; when the fish is ready, the skin and flesh should slip away from the bone. Remove the fish from the fire and peel away the skin. Spoon the flesh away from the bone and enjoy with a pinch of wood sorrel.

You can learn various cooking techniques, alongside other bushcraft skills on a Woodlore course; raymears.com

Discover more wild food recipes in issue 4 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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Introducing Loake: 135 years of craftsmanship

We go behind the scenes at the Loake factory in Northamptonshire, where they have been making Goodyear welted shoes for well over a century 

The Goodyear welt is the oldest and most labour intensive method of shoemaking in the world

The Goodyear welt is the oldest and most labour intensive method of shoemaking in the world

The Loake family have been making shoes in Northamptonshire – the historic centre of British shoemaking – for five generations.

It all began in 1880, with three brothers working in a shoe factory in Kettering. They each worked in different departments and they soon realised that, between them, they had all the necessary skills to make shoes themselves. It was a brave step, leaving the security of their jobs to set up a business of their own. 

A meticulous craft

The Loake brothers became one of the finest producers of Goodyear welted footwear – the most labour intensive and durable method of shoe construction. Fast forward 135 years and Loake are still making shoes the same way – it’s believed they’ve produced more than 50 million pairs since they first began manufacturing. Some 130 skilled shoemakers, up to 75 shoes parts and 200 different operations are involved in making a pair today.

A Goodyear welt is essentially a strip of leather stitched along the perimeter of the shoe’s outsole, connecting it to the upper. The most well-known Goodyear welted style that Loake make is the brogue – a timeless classic no English gentleman’s wardrobe would be complete without.

Lifetime companions

One of the benefits of the Goodyear welt is that the shoes can easily be resoled, something Loake take huge pride in. Their repair service covers re-soling on the original last with new soles and heels, fitting new seat socks and re-finishing the upper part of the shoes. A pair of Loake shoes can really last a lifetime – looking as good as new after a repair service, but still as comfortable as ‘old friends’. 

Traditional meets contemporary

Despite their heritage and traditional craftsmanship, Loake believe they are very much a forward-thinking company, with their range of footwear including alternative constructions and classic and contemporary styles. Their aim is to maintain a balance between traditional and contemporary design, thereby introducing new generations of wearers to the benefits of fine, handmade shoes.

This blog post was created in collaboration with Loake. Read more about the historic brand in the Ernest directory.

Anatomy of a pinhole camera

The camera obscura discovery that led to the invention of the pinhole camera can be traced as far back as 5th-century China. It is the simplest form of camera; at its most basic it consists of a light-proof box with tiny hole in one side. The hole acts as the camera's lens, allowing light to enter the box and project an inverted image on the back wall.

Illustration: Aidan Meighan

Illustration: Aidan Meighan

LENS This is the pinhole, which enables a cone of light to pass into the box. The diameter of the pinhole has a direct bearing on the sharpness of the image. The smaller the hole, the sharper the image.

CAMERA BOX A dark housing in which the light rays can be trapped, and seen, most clearly. You can use any receptacle, from cardboard boxes to tin cans for this purpose.

LIGHT RAYS Rays of light travel in straight lines and pass through the pinhole. These rays are inverted upon entering the camera and project an image, if the box is dark enough.

MIRROR AND SCREEN As the light rays hit the mirror they are inverted again, so they are viewed the correct way up on the screen. 

Words by contributing editor Duncan Haskell.

Lego lost at sea

In 1997, a rogue wave hit the container ship Tokio Express 20 miles off Land’s End, sending 62 bus-sized containers overboard. One held five million pieces of Lego, many of them sea-themed. Soon, beachcombers were finding plastic dragons and octopuses washing up on the shores of Cornwall and Devon, along with tiny flippers, scuba tanks and life preservers. Oceanographers believe the Lego pieces have floated all over the world....

Devon-based Beachcomber Tracey Williams is recording the journey of the sea-bound Lego on the ‘Lego Lost At Sea’ Facebook page, where finders share pictures and memories of the epic Lego spill. We chatted to Tracey about her colourful quest and the sobering realities of marine debris...

When the spill happened in 1997, did you have any idea it would impact you personally in such a way? 

No. At the time I was just intrigued by all the Lego washing up on the beaches around our family home in south Devon. Tiny flippers, cutlasses, scuba tanks, life preservers, spear guns, seagrass and very occasionally a Lego dragon or an octopus. We knew it must be from a cargo spill. My children would go down to the beach with their tiny plastic buckets and fill them with ‘treasure’. We stored it all in my father’s garden shed, which was tethered to the clifftop by guy ropes to stop it blowing away in storms. 

How much of an impact has the spill had on the beaches? 

Nearly five million pieces of Lego is obviously a significant amount but so much debris washes up all the time – the Lego is but a drop in the ocean! Although the Lego used to wash up intact it’s gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Maybe it will eventually be unrecognisable. Micro plastic pollution is a huge issue. 

How far and wide across the globe have these Lego pieces been found? 

We’ve had quite a few reports from the Netherlands – the Lego has been washing up there for years. A beachcomber in Texas recently found a Lego octopus and someone else in Maine, US, found one of the Lego life rafts. A beachgoer in Australia found a blue Lego flipper and we’ve spotted Lego spear guns in montages of beach finds posted online by beachcombers in California. In recent weeks we’ve also had reports from Portugal and France. Obviously it’s hard to tell from a single find whether it’s from the Tokio Express or just a random loss but oceanographers do believe that the Lego will have travelled all round the world by now. We tend to look at patterns, i.e., whether or not more than one item has washed up and if so whether they are pieces we recognize.

Do you have a favourite piece of Lego that you’ve found? 

It’s always fun to find a Lego dragon or an octopus. And I still love finding the teeny tiny cutlasses. They often wash up with the nurdles or mermaid’s tears – those tiny pellets of plastic that are the scourge of the oceans.  Because the cutlasses are so tiny they are really hard to spot.

Is there a piece you’re hoping to find? 

Yes – a green dragon. Only a few of those have been reported so far. I still remember the envy when our next door neighbour found one! 

Have you ever considered having a Bring-Your-Own Exhibition to show off the quirky pieces found ashore?  

Now that’s a really good idea! We have considered putting on a display. We’re writing a book about our project at the moment so once that’s finished we’ll think about an exhibition. 

We can see in some of the pictures posted online the amount of debris that is washed up on the beaches in the South. Do the Lego-searchers help out in clearing up the beaches? 

We’re part of a network of beach cleaners and originally set up the Lego Lost At Sea page so that between us we could record where the Lego was turning up and how much had been found. We knew other people were finding it too and thought it would be interesting to track how far it had travelled and who was finding what. After the BBC featured the page the number of followers shot up from 400 to over 50,000. We do encourage them to do a two-minute beach clean or a mini beach clean while they’re hunting. If everyone who visited the beach did the same we could make a huge difference.

What debris – aside from Lego – is being washed up onto these beaches? 

Where do I start! Discarded fishing gear, beach litter, food packaging, dirty nappies. Items from other cargo spills, such as shoes, clothes, syringes, lighters, intravenous drip bags, car parts, etc. Sewage related debris – tampon applicators, cotton bud sticks, lancets. I’m always amazed at the number of toothbrushes that wash up. Plastic bottles, bottle caps (beachcombers in Cornwall collected over 60,000 bottle tops for the Great Cornish Bottle Top Chain, an initiative organised by Rame Peninsula Beach Care). Much of the debris we pick up has come from cities and towns – dropped on the street and washed into storm drains, rivers and eventually the sea. Some of the litter we find has travelled thousands of miles – we get quite a bit from the US and Canada. Some of the marine litter is quite old. We’ve dated some of the toys we’ve found to the 1950s. 

Are there any elusive pieces that are on the ship’s manifesto that haven’t been found ashore yet? 

Yes.  As an example, we still haven’t found the dragons’ wings, arms, tails and fiery breath! Where are they? We do tend to find the same pieces time and time again but there are many more items on the inventory that we haven’t yet discovered. Not all the Lego floats though. We believe some may still be trapped in crates at the bottom of the ocean.    

Do you have any advice for would-be Lego-seekers? 

Do check the tide times before you head to the beach and wear protective gloves. We often find the Lego on the strandline, among the seaweed and micro plastic that washes up. Some of the smaller pieces, such as the Lego cutlasses and daisies are really hard to spot. We often find those when we are down on our hands and knees scooping up the nurdles. Searching by colour is another technique Lego hunters use. A friend recently found one of the elusive Lego dragons when she focused solely on picking up black plastic from the strandline. She would probably have never spotted the black dragon lurking in seaweed otherwise! 

Tracey was interviewed by Rosie Gailor.

To find out more about Lego Lost At Sea and to log your washed-up finds, visit the Lego Lost At Sea Facebook page.

This originally featured in print issue 4 of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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