Forward to Messum’s Catalogue 2017
A Sea’s Eye View
James Dodds is an artist much concerned with the tensions and alliances between the trinity of head, heart and hand. It seems, then, only appropriate that I met him for the first time on three separate occasions.
Occasion 1) I wander into a summer exhibition of local art in Wivenhoe’s Nottage Institute. I am already aware that Wivenhoe, Francis Bacon’s Essex hideaway, has a record of welcoming serious visual artists. Richard (Dicky) Chopping and Denis Wirth-Millar had lived out tumultuous decades in their house on the Wivenhoe quays, Ernie Turner had left his job as a Wivenhoe shipwright to become a highly-regarded naive painter and the Chelsea Arts Club – in all its creative, bohemian and alcoholic glory – had often come to play. The Wivenhoe Arts Club had become a focus for art in the South East of England. And Dicky, Denis and Robert Colquhoun had once watched Robert MacBryde bobbing on the lake at Wivenhoe Park, held afloat by his kilt, during a boating escapade. In short, I am prepared for work of quality, but perhaps with a certain morning-after sheen and a sense of a community having aged and faded. I am, of course, entirely wrong. The work displayed on all sides is more than impressive. It comes from a range of artists and is displayed with a practical and straightforward friendliness so that it can speak for itself. Downstairs, the bodies of boats are taking shape on trestles, upstairs an institute dedicated to teaching the skills of seamanship is allowing neighbours and visitors to appreciate artisans of another type and holding them to be craftsmen and craftswomen, communicants within the mysteries of trades. Art is not presented as an indulgence, a luxury, or something without inherent qualities that can establish quality, or its absence. This transports a temporary gallery space in Essex to somewhere beyond the UK, or perhaps to some other time, when compromising on skills wasn’t the norm, and when a lack of confidence and simple greed hadn’t placed artistic emphasis on price tags and concepts rather than genuine abilities and values.
Among the work are exquisitely detailed prints, their elements balanced in a hypnotic kind of tension. They have a simplicity and yet convey layers of meaning and suggest complex interrelations between the lives of animals, of figures and of objects. There is a dynamic balance between sky and land, land and sky, and between all nature’s manifestations of water and the elements which limit its courses. Head, heart and hand – here is James Dodds made plain in woodcuts and linocuts that speak of raging attention to detail, joy in obsession and the pursuit of perfection within craft. And he’s here, too in massive panels that hang like Melville’s foreshadowing ghosts of the Great Whale. They are carved with the imprints of wooden boats, prows looming at the viewer, advancing at an angle; the tense curves of faired planks, sprung together and waiting to meet water. It is clear this artist understands the bones of boats in a manner that allows accuracy to transcend itself and produce a sense of life. There is something mystical about Dodds’ boats. They stay with me.
Occasion 2) I am attending the reopening ceremony of The Wivenhoe Bookshop. The premises have been reorganised and refreshed and behind the till on a freshly-painted wall two linocuts are displayed. They have clean lines, immaculate detail, fair curves. Without being close enough to read any signature, I know I’ve seen that hand before. In one frame a mass of longlines are coiled at rest in a manner that’s far more energetic than would be normal for inanimate objects. In the other a wild man of the sea lies curled in what might be a prison, a creel, or a womb. Winding around him is a sinuous whirlpool of fish and seals and seaweeds – he could be hiding, sleeping, dreaming, he could be sinking, rising, flying in a waterspout. The work comes unmistakably from a mind which has to make complexity simple and simplicity dense with layered meaning. Before I’m told I know this is work from James Dodds.
I am also told the artist may turn up to see the bookshop celebrate its new/old self. Wivenhoe is a community which enjoys celebrating its culture whenever it can and dozens are gathered to be pleased about the health of their bookshop (Their interest also contrives to support a large second hand bookshop not far away.) Sure enough, a quietly compact, bearded man appears in the crowd. He diffidently mentions that he has a studio not far from where I live. He has a collection of printing presses he uses. He makes linocuts. He suggests I might find this interesting. He is working on a linocut now, reproducing the details of the quarry across our river: the hopper and the ironwork, buildings and sand heaps. He tells me he does seem to be going into an awful lot of detail on it and possibly should stop. But he isn’t going to stop. He’ll keep on. There is a sense, while he talks, that he hasn’t, in fact, stopped. His imagination is still sighting, deciding, planning the tasks owed to tomorrow: the fairing of lines, the journey towards perfection. And this is James Dodds. Of course it is – the slight avoidance of self in the pursuit of something else, the questioning balanced against an underlying certainty, the lightness and the dignity in the practice of skills – they all make sense as parts of Dodds. This is the man who guides the hand. This is the artist who set the tumble of longlines in its tub, who set the wild man inside the maelstrom, who set the boats out alive and urgent to stare out from walls.
Occasion 3) I accept Dodds’ invitation to visit his premises and printing presses. Dodds was brought up around the complicated waterways of South East England. He’s the son of a well-regarded artist and teacher father, who didn’t want the compromise of part-time art – only the much more risky full commitment. But Dodds, the boy who always drew things, was a sailor and racer of boats and then an apprentice builder of boats before he set off into an artist’s training, finally at the Royal College of Art. It’s therefore unsurprising that his print shop is not a bohemian muddle. It’s tight and trig as a cabin should be. Everything is in its place and there are places for everything, everywhere, floor to ceiling (He mentions the possible storage of nails and screws in jars with their lids nailed to the ceiling with a type of wistfulness. It’s perhaps only the absence of great need for nails and screws that prevents him appropriating the shamefully unoccupied space overhead for storage.) Shelves look after books from his Jardine press – named for one of the three printing presses crammed into the floor space. They are, like boats, beautiful, useful and potentially dangerous things – all stillness and then all movement. Even the areas of mild disorder have a reason – a used sheet of heavy-laid paper protecting the pristine stock, for example.
His depiction of the quarry still lies waiting for Dodds to commence work, yet again. Linocuts can take months to finish, although this is already a thing of remarkable beauty. Easily at hand are finished views of watery landscapes, riverbanks, quaysides, dry docks, boats and muscular flows of water, their directionality showing white… Each composition is engineered to hold and steer the eye, draw along in like a powerful current and take it to the heart of things. The land appears bowed, distorted as if it were trapped in a water drop, or a drop of compressed time. The rivers, the seas are dominant here and the land a small and vulnerable thing. The figures that crew it are clearly subject not only to literal storms and floods, but economic and political forces that could sink them.
Beyond his own workshop, Dodds walks me a few doors down to Rob Maloney’s. Maloney is Wivenhoe’s remaining boat builder and restorer. Dodds and Maloney treat each other with mutual respect, discuss the merits (and rarity) of Elm, the possibilities of ash, the heaviness of oak. At the heart of Maloney’s boat shed a small wooden craft is being restored. Its skeleton is showing, along with its copper nails. It offers a living demonstration of the truth that Dodds’ work makes plain – that a properly constructed wooden boat can never take a form that is ugly. The craft under reconstruction has a kind of immanence that Dodds infallibly catches in his piece. It speaks of its past and its future along the branches and echoes of the boat frame. Dodds’ portrayals of boats allow the viewer to appreciate both the time distortion and the detail of a boat’s complexities as the symbolic and the real are fused together.
Next we head round the corner to Dodds’ quayside studio – a space capable of holding life-size paintings of whole boats. Dodds painstakingly depicts local boat types like the Brightlingsea winklebrig, or the Wivenhoe One Dinghy. In an extended project, he has also toured to study and then depict vernacular wooden boats from around the UK: Cromer crabbers, Northumberland cobles, Orkney Yoles; all manner of craft shaped by demands of tasks and conditions and by the memory and understanding of crafts. There are paintings of massive, modern ships under construction, too. And savagely ruined wrecks join more abstract responses to the changes and conflicts in the shipbuilding industry. The studio doors open on to a view of the river and the sound of gulls and, while the boat building industry that was once here has disappeared, Dodds sees to it that work and memory goes on.
The James Dodds you will meet in his work is at home on canvas, or the delicate lines of lino cuts and woodcuts. He may paint on rough timber, or use an entire boat as a type of woodcut. His range changes and expands from portraits with a flavour of Stanley Spencer’s compassion and spiritual energy to nautical illustrations for a children’s ABC. He can be realistic, or interpret dreams, myths and the edges of nightmares. Throughout his work, no matter in what medium, certain elements remain. He presents humanity as a flawed but positive project, often surrounded by forces greater than itself. As a child he watched Joan Firmin knitting pink Clangers for Oliver Postgate’s and Peter Firmin’s wise and crazy children’s TV show. (Firmin’s studio wasn’t far away from a childhood home.) Dodds seems to share something of Postgate’s melancholy, quietly angry tenderness about our species and life in general. And the warm response to Seamus Heaney’s poetry is again looking towards the human project with concern, sadness, tenderness and wonder.
There is a sense in which the conflicts in parent’s relationships as he grew and the other challenges in Dodds’ life have been most consistently eased and answered by art. Perhaps it’s partly because of this, his finished pieces seem to offer a kind of refuge, or empathy to the observer. They have a peace about them, but it derives from a hard-won balance rather than an absence of movement. Dodds the boat builder, Dodds the artisan, Dodds the dyslexic – they have found their mirror images in Dodds the sailor, Dodds the artist, Dodds the printer and storyteller. Long obsessed with the contest between the angel and the carpenter – the high-faluting artist and the straightforward artisan – Dodds has translated what seemed a wrestling match into a kind of dance between an understanding of the material and a journey towards something beyond aesthetic beauty. The numinous quality in the art can express human solidarity, compassion and also provide secular symbols of spirituality so potent they are not out of place in a church. From an early woodcut ‘Building Eleanor Mary’ where the eponymous boat, although supplied with props, hums with a possibility that she could be self-sustaining, we move to ‘Out of The Marvellous’. This takes its title from Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Lightenings VIII’ and shows the vision of the Clonmacnoise monks. In Dodd’s painting of the subject a boat hovers vertiginously above the viewer, its sanctity glowing softly, the form barely tethered by its anchor rope. The piece hang in Salthouse church near ‘Salthouse Altarpiece’ – a triptych which turns the trinity into a quietly perfect boat, its lines both flawless and broken in to three. It aches with a desire for unification.
The linocut ‘Out Of The Marvellous’ shows a monk floating along with the boat, contagiously risen, holding fast to the anchor rope while his brethren look on. ‘Out From Under’ in which a man stands, weighed down by his heavy craft, but has a lightly sailing boat on the waves behind him and ‘Fear Not’ in which a man steers a dinghy blithely onwards into the unknown, Dodds can seek to offer a vision into which, like the monk in Heaney’s verse, the reader may actually climb. The dream may be a boat which can bear us away.
This use of narrative and metaphor has led Dodds into collaborations with the written word. His long term association with Martin Newell has been especially rich and has made the humour in his work more manifest. Jardine press publishes beautiful little volumes winding together poetic and seafaring lines. The uncanny qualities of the sea, the wildness and variety of its life, its history and its reach beyond human timescales are all wonderful sources for illustration and for an exchange of ideas with writers responding to Dodds.
Dodds chooses, among other words for his house, to display a quote from another guardian of craftsmanship potter Bernard Leach, “I found the craftsman is almost the only kind of worker left employing heart, hand and head in balance.” This comes close to the heart of Dodds’ philosophy. His work consciously stands outside an age when many arts and crafts have agreed to be bought, to forget old skills, to mock quality and lose dignity. He reminds us that the bad bargains we have made with ourselves and our skills can still be subject to change and to better examples. Dodds may be a modest man, but he is not modest about his craft – he thinks enough of it to serve it. He brings to it a Calvinist work ethic and a pagan joy.
The forms of boats take logical and necessary shapes, are the beautiful solutions to fatal problems and Dodds’ pieces elaborate on the levels of necessity that both the sea and art require if humanity is to survive. If a boat fails, if art fails, this is a matter of life and death. The shapes he reveals aren’t just about pleasing aesthetics, they’re not simply examples of elegant styling, they’re about truth. The ease with which the eye moves along the lines he marks out is the result of a difficult process, of experience and of making fair. In Dodds’ work there is the kind of truth that can’t help but be beautiful, the kind of truth that hopes to be useful and sustaining. And it’s the kind of truth that resonates outwith itself, producing the looped figure of infinity, the figure of eight that Dodds sees in the open shape of a boat. Vessels, like art, and visions are intend to reach us forward to somewhere near the infinite. While his sails rise and his wings take flight, his boats – of course – fly in an element portrayed as something more miraculous even than water, a kind of distilled light. They always stare at us, almost challenge us, looking out of the Marvellous.
And in Dodd’s world, as in ours, the water is always there. His landscapes, rather than showing a fish-eye view, show a sea’s-eye view. Here mankind and its works are laid before us – frail, clever, tender, damaged, beautiful and trying to stay safely alive. His perspective shows us our home from the point of view of the outsider. We are perhaps seeing as a boatman would, or a Viking raider, a Wivenhoe smuggler, a war time mariner. We may be aloft at a masthead, we may be adrift in time. And we may be angels. Something about the work insists – we may be angels with salt on our wings.
A L Kennedy, writer and broadcaster.