It’s time for the annual end-of-year musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap this year, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Kurt Jackson.
Inside hoverfly whine and leaf rattle, 2020. Mixed media on linen, 195x138cm
It is often said that to plant trees is to plant for future generations; that the slow and gradual growth is only really appreciated, whether economically or aesthetically, by the planters’ children or even the grandchildren. Contemporary tree planters are more likely to talk of climate change, biodiversity or habitat restoration as the reasons for this activity.
We [in reality Caroline] planted our first areas of woodland over 20 years ago. Patches of croftland: uncultivated bracken scrubland around the cottage here in Cornwall were gradually filled with spindly whips and saplings with their stick supports and rabbit guards. The smallholding became a carbon-neutral home embracing the newest technological gizmos; a turbine; solar panels and geothermal heating and it was part and parcel of this forward thinking green package to plant trees.
During the Covid confinement of lockdown when I was forced to re-explore and rethink my immediate surroundings I found myself dawdling and lingering along the paths that lead to my studios. These routes cut through our new ’woodlands’ — they are largely the original pathways and tracks that that were left unplanted and have taken the form of glorious tunnels of green, cutting through and under the trees. In that wonderful warm spring and midsummer the green arching shadows and sun-splashed foliage took on the form of forest rides- almost Graham Sutherland-like, with their concentric dark and light rings of contrasting shade and light giving a sense of dense woodland interior, perspective and distance. It demanded a painted response. These paintings became ‘the Green Ways’.
Through, 2020. Mixed media on canvas, 122x122cm
There was a sudden dawning of absolute delight and real appreciation with this newly wooded habitat during the lockdown; that we were already reaping the benefits of the trees’ recent cultivation was enforced by the arrival of new species of birds adding to the choirs of loud birdsong already pouring out of the canopy.
It was also possibly the saving of our sanity during the confinement — the proof of nature’s health-giving potential, of mental well-being from that green light cascading down, the bird song, the understory of wildflowers.
I strolled up and down, around and along these paths; stopping and pondering, slowly choosing my compositions, bathing and revelling in the woodland. I set up my easel and seats around the land. Focusing on polka dot beech leaves in the foreground, the light catching a shiny alder, the dark, almost black shadow beneath a thick band of hawthorn or the sycamore leaves silhouetted like hanging hands against the sky. Almost infinite possibilities arose, all in this small area of ‘back garden’, all as a result of those trees planted by Caroline a few decades ago. Each slight change in the day’s weather, the strength of the sunlight, the moving arc of the sun, the progressing seasons, all lead to changes in the subject matter. Birds courted, nested and fledged; flowers bloomed and seeded; bracken pushed up from unfurling shoots only to fall over in spindly lankiness, the leaf litter and woodland floor vanished beneath the undergrowth to become a mass of bluebells then foxgloves and campion. All was dynamic, a procession, nothing was fixed or constant. Hogweed heads, fern fronds, oak sprays, beech trunks, the hoverflies and butterflies, the transparency of a leaf: this was my vocabulary and excitement.
I would push my wheelbarrow, laden with paints and canvas, to a chosen spot next to the easel, and then become obsessed with those few square yards. Settling into a patch of sun and shade with the resident speckled wood butterfly defending its territory, the warblers singing around me and the neighbouring individual trees; this became my daily routine.
And during those times observing and working in that calm wood light and tree shade, the mind wandered, thinking continued — of the world out there, the pandemic, the ecological crisis, the Black Lives Matter debates and concerns; the complex issues of the day, the urgency and need to find new routes ahead, to change our ways, to forge ahead but also to look back to where we had come from.
Inside this maelstrom of green
Arching shade shapes the way through
Foliage fractured by roof-light splashes
Paints spot lit sky gaps onto the earth
White sky pushes in and down between the leaves
The roof holed
Let’s in the light
For a shadow puppet show
Of leaf shapes to dance across the floor
The blackcaps and blackbirds
Fill this vaulted verdant space with song
This arboreal concert hall
To complete the woodlife show
Where the branches perform
Egged on by an unfelt breeze
They fidget and tremble
To fling and shift
Their dark shadows
And to move the gaps between
In this green neon lit subway
Burrowing within the trees
A robin tentatively recites a sweet line from memory
Short and modest in its smooth prettiness
From a twig sprig of orchard
The liquid burble trickling lilt of a blackcap
Through sharp crystal through-lit apple foliage
And gravelly earthy crooning magpie sweet nothings
That duet of ‘love birds’ side-by-side in the canopy
Of acid yellow-green pinnate ash leaves
Delicate and small stencilled over
The fast pent up almost electric wren trill
Bursting out of the leaf light
As if straffed by rapid fire
From the slowly unrolling unfurling ferns
Deep blue-green shaded shadowed ground flora
Submarine jagged nettle and hogweed
Ground hugging, ground ivy
At opposite ends to a repetitive chiffchaff
His own name a stuck record on the tree top tips
The chorus and rhythm
For the leaves to move in time to tremble and shake
And the blissed out blackbird’s melody serenading over
Accompanying that blackcap warble
Next door neighbours
Another language, culture, song
And hawthorn arrows of freshest lime green
Pointing everyway and none
Like the bluetits’ frantic twittering
Back and forth
This way, maybe that
As random as the bramble briars weaving weft and waft
Rambling and colonising with bronzed soft feelers
Through these layers of green leaf and bird life
Trees of song
Choral, forested, dense
An exhibition of Kurt’s Green Ways paintings is on display at Messums Harrogate until 2nd of January, before moving to Messums Wiltshire (13th January — 28th February). More info here.