Love where you live – Fiona Spirals, Ripping Landscapes
I’m a collage artist and rock climber, and I live in Higham, Kent. The marshes are at the bottom of my road. When I first moved here over thirty years ago I had no idea they existed, and, as I worked long hours in London I never really got to see them. When I eventually discovered them I quickly became a fan. So, as you read my ramblings about loving it here and what makes me tick, you will also find a selection of poems I wrote a long time ago. Marshes, the rivers, the birds, the moody skies, the mudflats, and the wrecks – they all fired up my imagination, got under my skin, made me feel excited about where I lived. It’s still the case today, but instead of writing about it I sketch, photograph, make collages and rave about it! I captured these images in words in 1991.
The lake is green today.
The sweeping north wind is cold to touch.
A scattering of moorhens sit bobbing and ruffled.
A wind-swept flock of lapwings fly high, they open their rounded wings and the sun catches iridescent white feathers.
The reedbeds sway and rustle, their fine purple brown heads catch every bit of wind.
I pass through in silent step and feel the very heart of the marsh moving through me.
Hawthorns grow in abundance strong and thorny, laden with blood red haws.
A tiny wren sits, pert with tail cocked, she flies, this mighty fearsome bird, with her piercing trilling song.
A storm crow flies, her rasping alarm call breaks the atmosphere.
We turn away from the lake and head homeward bound.
St Mary’s Church sits on the edge of the marsh:
on the edge of quietness and solitude.
St Mary’s is a 13th century church which now belongs to the Churches Conservation Trust. I’m part of The Friends of St Mary’s which hold events over the summer and into the autumn, anything from art shows, talks, walks, jazz evenings, films, Scarecrow Festivals. We keep a heartbeat going in this ancient church on the edge of quietness, (but not so quiet when the jazz is playing!). A couple of years ago, we put on an exhibition showing 25 local artists work about the church and the marshes. It was rammed with people. Check St Mary’s out – it’s a magical place to be.
St Mary’s, Lower Higham
Nowadays as an artist I rip and stick pages torn from climbing magazines depicting a variety of landscapes and animals from all around the world. I like to think that I get into the very essence of the place through collage. Working with paper has a great freedom. I find that climbing magazines have everything I need: colour and texture, and of course, the climbers which I can hide in my pieces. Other media do interest me, but collage really does it, and recycling is an important part of my work. Plus I have an endless supply of magazines being a climber!
We are so small – collage
Time for another collage: ‘We are so small’. I was ambling over the marsh when I captured this fiery sunset with storm clouds that meant business! Back in my ‘Crows Nest Studio’ at the top of the house I spent a blissful time working from the photograph.
Of course, making art, like climbing and life, is not all roses. I have plenty of times when I can’t do a tricky bit, so I walk away, take a break, stroke the cat, breathe deeply, or scream. Carry on.
Some of my most memorable times locally have been spent kayaking on the River Medway. There’s nothing like getting out on the river at dawn, or sometimes a night-time paddle! Paddling along in silence, watching always watching.
Tales from the River Medway
What a brilliant summer for kayaking!
Launching from Grain on an early summer morning dragging the boats over thick slimy mud feeling my arms will drop off!
I scrabble into my cockpit and paddle to deeper water then I am rewarded by the warmth of the sun on my back and the smooth movement of the tide
taking us back to base.
A flask of tea on Burntwick island.
Watching a sailing boat pass
We cut through the quiet silky waters of a lonely marsh
with islands of sticky brown mud covered with emerald seaweed.
Silence embraces as we enter a bubble of quintessence.
A tiny feather carried by the current is within my grasp.
We reach the very heart of the marsh
an Oystercatcher breaks the silence, piercing my thoughts
I catch the stiff black and white wings vanishing.
Curlews fly and call, I picture the curve of their beaks and dappled soft brown bodies,
I fly with them over the mud flats.
Summer evenings that go on forever.
These ancient waters have a stillness like the Heron pondering in the shallows.
The sun slides down the blue sky firing up the land
Cormorants silhouetted with bellies full, black wings hanging out to dry in the last moments of the day. Sleek slender and powerful
Reptilian birds of the air and water
With dusk drawing on; out of the water the waxen moon is pulled
a large round beautiful orb, hanging,
we paddle on and hear the low vibrating hum of a ship cutting through the night.
An autumn morning black purple grey clouds are rolling
with a strong south easterly blowing we set off with the tide and wind going with us
The trees on the bank are turning from shabby green to a soft yellow
I soak up and glean the richness;
Paddling on past Hoo Island and Darnet the tide is ripping along and taking us with it.
The heavens threaten as we arrive at Sharfleet, surfing the waves towards the mud flats.
Turning the boat and bracing ourselves for the journey back
my arms become the paddle, muscles start to work and my stamina is summoned.
Waves crash over my kayak, salt water sprays over my face
and my heart thrills.
Wind against tide no stopping, keep going keep going
a short break at Darnet Island then press on paddling, and paddling ….
Muscles ache my senses dulled but home is within my sights.
I lie on the grass, my head spinning, the silver birch above me completely still,
the last of her leaves ready to fall.
I gather my thoughts and head for home.
Sea Wall, Grain – collage
Heron – collage
Of course we get some fabulous sunsets over the mud in this part of the world. Mud is a great subject for me. Many an hour has been spent describing it in one form or another. When I took the photo below, I was beside myself with excitement – it was a collage waiting to happen! I knew it was going to be a challenge and it was, working and re-working it. Here they are together. After making the first sunset I then had to keep creating them. Soon after, I was commissioned to make a large Kent coastal sunset.
Golden Mud – collage
In 1990 I wrote Much in little – a brush with a stoat. I had a momentary glimpse on a cold snowy day on the marsh. The dykes were frozen and there she was, as bold as brass. Only a peep, but that was enough to get the creative juices flowing.
Much in Little – a brush with a stoat
Bounding across our path, this exuberant gallant character ran,
her fluid body rippled with ginger brown, and a black tipped tail,
radiating life with every movement and every sinew.
With silver in her feet she springs across a grassy dyke.
Her gait is strong and powerful,
running fearlessly in the light of day.
With her acute sense of hearing and excellent nose for smelling,
she pursues her pray, relentlessly chasing with great agility.
Watch; Listen you can sense her attitude.
I`m coming after you, watch for me; listen for me;
but you won’t see me, you won’t hear me.
I’m cunning, artful, bold and graceful.
I can climb trees and dry stone walls.
I can swim great rivers.
I fear nothing
I am fiery and truly tenacious.
I run along hedgerows, in fields, gardens, woods, riverbanks,
scenting and tracking.
This is my domain.
I can lure my prey to me, dancing the dance of death,
rabbits and hares lie petrified paralysed; screaming,
before I make that deadly bite.
Don’t cross my path for I fear nothing.
We watch her disappear along the ridge of the dyke;
Marsh Sunset – collage
My first ever exhibition was in 2012 at The Deaf Cat Cafe in Rochester. It was called ‘Love Where you live’. I’m still using this title today for my exhibition at Higham Station. As a neighbour said, not since Charles Dickens’ Swiss writing chalet arrived flat-packed into 58 boxes in 1864, has there been such artistic excitement at Higham Station! It’s a wonderful place to show my work off, and I’m grateful to Southeastern Railways for being so positive. I hope that commuters take a little bit of marsh with them up to London.
I’ve always loved being creative. Everything from cooking, gardening, poetry and art.
A while back, I started an Access course in art at Rochester UCA. This was the beginning. I’d never been a student! I would pinch myself as I walked up the grasses slopes on a Friday morning, as happy as pig in muck.
The year flew by. I didn’t want it to end so I did another Access course in fine art, this time at Maidstone UCA. This was just as good and at the end of this I was ready to go and do my own thing. Getting a degree really did not interest me – all that writing stuff was not up my street. It was the diversity of these courses, trying lots of different techniques, that allowed me to discover collage.
Well, I guess I should show you my first ever collage that I did on canvas which I now work on all the time. It’s become a bit of a signature collage for me: ‘The Stacks’. It was of an old pier that is slowly rotting away into the mud. They can be found in many places in the estuary. I pondered as to what to call these. All I could think of was ‘piles’ and that’s just wrong! ‘Stacks’ seemed more fitting. I get a lot of pleasure from making these collages of stacks. I see it as a warm-up.
The Stacks – collage
Years ago I went to adult education to improve my spelling. After a few years and many exercises in grammar later, I decided I’d had enough. I can still remember that moment, sitting in The Victoria Centre, Gravesend. It was then I started to write my poetry and let go of trying to get the punctuation right. Here’s another one, from 1995.
On The River
Late afternoon sun
and a clear sky
and no wind
and riverbanks of green
and a small arched bridge of old grey stone.
Hawthorns brimming with clusters of tiny cream coloured flowers
overflowing with vibrancies.
soaking in the sun
her dusky chocolate cosy coloured feathers
his burnished and polished plumage.
In amongst the soulful song of the blackbird and the chur chur chur
of the reed warbler the unforgettable song of the nightingale dances
and sings through the trees and out over the river.
A kingfisher leaves a trace of blue velvet as he flies
I catch the blue and keep it.
Great willows spread roots and feelers down into the depths of the banks
branches stretch into the evening and tiny leaves jostles with cool breezes
I watch the grace of two swans
heads held high necks long and elegant soft strong and white
They extend their wings, slowly beating in time
black webbed feet walking on water
Two great white gods rise into the cool evening air
Droplets of water cascade and tumble from royal white feathers
like jewels .
I run workshops in collage, passing on what I’ve gleaned. It’s a fun medium to work in and most people have good memories of cutting and sticking from primary school. With collage, being able to draw is not essential at all. I maintain that it should be fun and relaxing, and from what I’m told from people who attend, it’s true.
For someone who loves the marshes, I also love climbing. It’s something I’ve had to fight for. Being scared of heights and never really trusting myself is not a good recipe for success, but I’ve stuck with it and it’s paid off. I know I will never be brilliant at it, but that’s not the point is it! Women climbers are amazing – they have a grace and strength different to men.
At the moment, I’m gathering photos of climbs that have inspired women climbers, and from these I’m creating collages. I want to celebrate women climbers and encourage new women into climbing. ‘The Cobbler’ in Scotland was professional climber Natalie Berry’s choice. ‘Dream of White Horses’ in North Wales was Lucy Blaine’s choice. I’m working on my third which is Hazel Findlay’s choice of Yosemite in the USA. I’m planning to create maybe 10 – 12 collages which I will exhibit around the country at climbing centres and galleries.
I’m calling this ‘The Gorgeous Project‘ and I already have my first place to exhibit at The Reach Climbing Centre, in Woolwich, London. I have a rolling exhibition of work there, and The Gorgeous Project will fit right in.
Mud and rock? It’s all connected.
You can see more of my work here:
Until July, 6am-1pm (weekdays only)
South East Open Studios – The Crows Nest Studios
4 Hope Terrace, Higham
16th, 17th, 18th, 23rd, 24th and 25th June, 12-7pm
Medway Open Studios – The Crows Nest Studios
22nd -23rd July 12-6pm
The Big Draw – St Mary’s Church, Lower Hingham
17th Sept, 12-4pm
Made in Kent shop, 54 High St, Gravesend
The Reach Climbing Wall, Woolwich
Natural Touch, Strood Sports Centre