Kurt Jackson’s Dart exhibition

Spent an absolutely brilliant morning at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, viewing The Dart, the new exhibition by Kurt Jackson.  The show charts Kurt’s progress, following the river from sea to source, and was accompanied by an illuminating documentary filmed throughout the journey by his wife, Caroline.

On show were three floors of Kurt’s work on show, including paintings, sculpture and pottery. The highlight, though, was the surprise of finding the artist himself was present in the gallery, and taking the opportunity to briefly discuss his working methods with him.

The exhibition begins with a poem by Kurt Jackson:

Indian Dart 2009

And I walked along the Dart
scribbling and striding dustily
(towards Wistman’s Wood)
around and past
that crouching clenched squat copse
and then across the ling, cotton grass and bog
to search for the river’s source
in an Indian summer.

And I painted up the Dart
among the many happy Two Bridges sheep
their shit mixed with my paint
and the meadow pipit’s song,
following those riparian meanders
to lead the eye from moor to tor to blue horizon
in an Indian Summer.

And I swam down the Dart
on my Hexworthy birthday
drifing over the trout,
gasping with the golden cold sunlight,
under lipstick-berried rowan and watchful oak,
in an Indian summer.

And I stared into the Dart
eager to glimpse the salmonid pilgrims
of Buck – fast – leigh’s slow – dark – depths
through the jewelled sinking –  sun – spangles
and swimming monks’ reflections
in an Indian summer.

In the gallery basement a film of Kurt painting by the river was being screened.  It revealed the methods that Jackson employs and lengths to which he goes in creating his images, working plein air.  When working on the larger canvases, he does not – as I had imagined – work at an easel.  The canvas is spread on the ground, and Jackson may splatter the paint across the canvas in a manner rather like Jackson Pollock; or he may walk across it, or scrape his muddy boots on its surface.

I had a chance to speak to Kurt, and asked him about his method: I was curious how a process of random-seeming paint splattering could result in an image that seemed far from abstract, controlled, almost recognisably ‘photographic’ (though I realised later, on reflection, that this is entirely the wrong word to use, since no photograph could ever the sense of place, time, weather, light that you experience looking at one of his paintings).  Is there much re-working back in the studio?  He responded that, though he does sometimes make final adjustments in the studio, often most of the refining and re-working of the image is completed at the location.

What is really striking about his approach is the way in which he immerses himself totally in the environment.  We see him swimming in the river. He often records details of weather and the sights and the sounds around him in handwritten notes on the paintings themselves.  He endures the midges, and in one extraordinary scene in the film he is seen sitting on a snowy bank in December, icicles hanging from bare branches overhead, visibly shivering with the cold. He told me that the paint was freezing as it touched the canvas and he achieved the effect he was seeking by scraping the paint surface with a metal box-lid because his brushes had frozen solid.

In other paintings there are strands of grass, clumps of earth, his own footprints, and there’s an ink sketch created with a freshly- picked reed.

The show also includes several simple yet beautiful  still lifes of flowers from the banks of the Dart – either paintings or etchings.  Two of my favourites were this painting of a dandelion, a primrose, and a few daisies: and the etching of ransoms – wild garlic.

There are also work by Jackson in other media – including pottery and metalwork.  A beautiful example is this piece – ‘ The river is surrounded by oak and sycamore with a granite bed’ – constructed in pewter, tin, copper,granite and oak.

The inspiration for the Dart project were the wartime memories of  Kurt’s father, Alan, who was evacuated, aged 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth. He would tell Kurt stories about having a wonderful childhood by the river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. Kurt continues:

For me the stories and the material in them were very powerful and so I decided to go first to that place to see if for myself and then to trace the river back and find out where it came from.

I knew that the Dart ended her forty-seven mile journey in ‘my father’s estuary’, flowing between Dartmouth and Kingswear before entering the sea, and that she originated somewhere on the Dartmoor wilds, but where did she go after pouring off those moorland flanks?

A brief day trip in 1999 on a freezing mid-winter’s day, suffering with the side effects of a doctor’s back medicine didn’t help.Wistman’sWood briefly revealed its unique beauty and magic, but the Dart was only the briefest of glimpses tumbling along the valley bottom. I had already immersed myself inTed Hughes’Dart-based poetry; then came Alice Oswald’s prize-winning ‘Dart’ poem to entice me further. Richard Long’s Dartmoor ramblings, Seth Lakeman’s ballads, Chris Chapman’s photographs and maybe even Widgery’s watercolours all seemed to gradually demand for my own engagement with the Dart.

And what did I learn after my brief few years exploring and scribbling up and down that watercourse? I could see why a small London boy would find comfort and adventure in this paradise, removed from the horrors of war and the city, but I also discovered that this Eden, the Dart, is not just extraordinarily beautiful, but that it is a meandering string of jewels – a chain of very special plant and animal communities, many that are now extremely limited in their habitats and distribution.A haven of biodiversity,with moorland and blanket bog, valley mire, acid grassland, ancient woodland, gorges, flower meadows, mudflats and salt marsh.

Ring ouzel, high brown fritillary, southern damselfly, bog hoverfly, marsh fritillary, Dartford warbler, southern marsh orchid, goshawk, salmon, spotted heath orchid, lamprey, marsh violet, hen harrier, sea trout, otter, osprey, eel grass, cornish moneywort, blue ground beetle, nightjar, small-leafed lime, wood warbler, greater horseshoe bat, red grouse, alder buckthorn, keeled skimmer, wood ant, goosander, cirl bunting.

– Kurt Jackson, 2010

Kurt Jackson summed up his journey along the Dart in these words:

I’ve walked the river, swum in it, snorkelled it and boated on it. I’ve tried to become as intimate with it as possible. It was a very fruitful experience and actually a true delight.

Jackson refers in the essay above to Alice Oswald’s poem, Dart, a book-length poem that seamlessly integrates the voices of the people who live and work on the Dart that Alice Oswald recorded in conversations  over several years.

Dart: Excerpt

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who’s this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking…

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I’ve taken to the moors.
I’ve done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won’t let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks

cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot

I don’t know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and
head down into Cranmere pool. It’s dawn, it’s a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right
in, it’s like walking on the bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping
between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out.

Listen,
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,

tent, torch, chocolate not much else.

Which’ll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I’ve
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness

he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we’ve seen each other, somebody knows where we are.

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