Julia Blackburn

When I was busy with my book Threads, about the fisherman,
artist and chronic invalid John Craske, I began to get a sense
of what the sea means to people who work upon it, especially
fishermen who learn to trust their lives to a little boat, let loose in
the vastness of the ocean.

A traditional fishing boat, a crabber or a winklebrig, a coble or a
peapod, appears to be such a vulnerable shell of a thing and yet
the technique of its construction makes it able to face a Force 9
gale, or avoid being smashed to pieces just a few yards from the
shore, where the breaking waves are at their most fierce.
Talking to fishermen who are used to going out on the North Sea,
I was often surprised how much they reminded me of painters or
writers; they shared that same quality of abstracted concentration
which is part of the creative process, when you have to make
long and solitary journeys into the uncertainties of the unknown;
learning to let go of any sense of being in control and having faith
that you will reach your destination and eventually you will find
your way back to a place of safety.

I have admired James Dodds’ paintings for a long time. I have
watched how he moved from his early figurative work in which
human beings are seen battling with the elements or struggling
with the angels or devils of their own nature and into the
simpler and calmer waters of his more recent work, in which the
central image is a small and empty boat, the vessel that holds the
fisherman, that keeps him steady and protects him from harm.
These boat paintings are wonderful. Like a surgeon who
understands the bone skeleton that holds a body together, so
Dodds knows his boats and how they are built, plank by plank,
rivet by rivet, every detail intrinsic to its strength and its survival
out at sea. His boats seem to float on an element that is neither
water, air or earth and they are illuminated with a mysterious light
such as you get just before a storm breaks and I think its these
two qualities that gives them the mysterious nature of apparitions.
They also have something that I can only call an inner calm, a
meditative quality which makes them good to stare at, until you
are lost within the act of contemplation.

Although I had often looked at the work and wondered at its
simple power, I first became aware of what one might call its
spiritual dimension when I went to the Salthouse exhibition
in 2008. For that show Dodds was commissioned to paint an
altarpiece for the church and he chose a Cromer crabber and
made it as a triptych. You see the quiet length of it, set against a
dark space of blackness turning into blue and although the boat is
brightly coloured, its colours are worn and faded, as if it has spent
many years battling with storms. And yet in spite of the struggle,
or maybe because of it, it has emerged and stands there as an
eloquent and simple metaphor for life and how we try to live it,
until we need to let go of it.

It seems odd that even though we live quite geographically close
and share a number of East Anglian friends, I did not meet James
and his wife Catherine until a few days ago. They arrived at my
house, their van filled with paintings which they carried in and
propped up against pieces of furniture, until the whole room
was enclosed. One of these big paintings showed the insides
of a winklebrig, vivid with the accuracy of detail; its intersecting
wooden structure like the ribs of some strange creature.

Then there was a classic floating apparition of a coble that seemed to
be drifting straight towards me, foreshortened by closeness, even
when I stood back to look at and a painted tryptich, similar to the
one I had admired at Salthouse. But for me, the most impressive
of all the works was a big wooden panel which was once part of
his grandfather’s beach house at Brightlingsea; the old pine stained
and tarred and battered, marked with all the scars of its long
life. Dodds had used the wood as a living surface into which he
cut the familiarity of a boat’s shape, so that it seemed as if it was
emerging like a new born thing, out of the energy and grain of the
wood. It made me think of a cave painting: something you might
stumble across, suddenly and unexpectedly, illuminated by the light
of a torch in an otherwise dark space.

The three of us sat around the table and talked and drank tea and
then James and Catherine packed up the paintings and drove away
in their van. After they had gone I realised the images of the boats
stayed with me, quiet presences on all sides which I could still look
at in my mind’s eye.

Julia Blackburn
September 2015