John Cockshaw – From Mordor to the Misty Mountains

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John Cockshaw tells us about his project ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ where he has used North East England landscapes to create a body of work steeped in science fantasy inspired by the writing of JRR Tolkien.

Image from the series 'From Mordor to the Misty Mountains' (C) John Cockshaw
Image from the series ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ (C) John Cockshaw

Inspired by the epic writing of JRR Tolkien, ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ is a large collection of digital photomontage supplemented by occasional drawing / paint work that presents a very subtle approach to the subject of Fantasy. The dramatic force of nature, landscape characteristics and careful reference to existing landscape in the North are emphasised over fantastic events or characters. This particular project, researched and prepared for almost a decade, uses photography to create a vast vision of an author’s invented world whilst also employing cinematic tropes. The frame of reference is 19th Century Romantic Painting, a lush sense of the cinematic and a loving tribute to Yorkshire beauty spots and locations further afield.

My connection to the North East comes in the form of both inspiration taken from the region and recent exhibiting in Newcastle in 2016. The North East has had a definite influence in my work and this particular twelve-year photographic project ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ (a geographic focused project that constructs JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth as unusual and poetic photographic montages). Although many locations referenced in the work are disguised to the limits of recognition it is still possible to perceive references to places such as Saltburn and Redcar beaches, Dunstanburgh castle in Northumberland and Carlton Bank in the North York Moors to name a few. In 2012/2013 when my project was getting press coverage and online recognition with its timely resonance with the release of the new ‘Hobbit’ movies (Warner Bros. 2012-2014) I featured in The Northern Echo newspaper on account of the regional references subtly worked into the project. Following on from this I appeared on a short news bulletin on ITV Tyne Tees regional news where I was interviewed about my project and interest in JRR Tolkien. More recently, in September 2016 I had the good fortune of working in collaboration with Gateshead-based organisation Time and Tide Events to organise a Middle-earth and Tolkien-inspired exhibition to coincide with their annual Tolkien Weekend event at Newcastle castle. Working with Time and Tide Events as exhibitor and co-curator, and in close contact with a further eleven international artists, a vibrant exhibition entitled ‘Illuminating Tolkien: An exhibition of art and illustration’ was held both in the keep of Newcastle castle and the preceding week in the nearby St. Nicholas Cathedral. Along with myself and Newcastle-based Tolkien artist Jay Johnstone the exhibition featured a range of artists from Europe and Canada in addition to Jemima Catlin the illustrator of HarperCollins’ most recent official edition of ‘The Hobbit’ in 2013.

Image from the series 'From Mordor to the Misty Mountains' (C) John Cockshaw
Image from the series ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ (C) John Cockshaw

My Art training covered the years 1999-2003.  I studied Fine Art: Painting and Printmaking for my degree at Sheffield Hallam University but a broad multidisciplinary approach to Fine Art was certainly encouraged and I was working with video and photography quite widely whilst simultaneously painting as a student. My final degree show culminated in a video and photography installation to accompany a 52 minute video art piece titled ‘Bloodrunning’; a part biographical fantasy part invented documentary about a fictional filmmaker. It consisted of both sequential still photography and video sequences very much in the vein of Chris Marker’s legendary 1962 film ‘La Jetee’ and his 1982 film ‘Sans Soleil’. Interests in using and combining lens-based and traditional media has long been a passion of mine. This had been the case prior to my degree during my Art Foundation year at Bradford College and continued after degree into my MA in Research in Art and Design (also at Sheffield). For my MA I studied photographic artists to an even greater degree in addition to sequential photography in all its different forms – again producing a 35-minute photographic narrative film to accompany my MA Project; ‘The Structure of a Narrative Revolution’. This continues to this day with more recent photographic film pieces and more notably in a newly published book in March 2016 with Author Robert S. Malan with the Edinburgh-based Luna Press Publishing titled ‘Quest & The Sign of the Shining Beast’; part illustrated novella and part graphic novel.

This specific project ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ is the most sustained photographic art project I’ve ever embarked on. In terms of research, development and the building of the project it covers a span of 12 years. Prior to this project, which focuses on inspiration gained from JRR Tolkien’s literary creations ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’, almost all of my projects featured original content or was based on my own writing. This project acknowledged and directly drew upon an existing author’s work for the first time in addition to applying a cinematic language of framing and viewpoint upon the work (acknowledging the inevitable influence of New Line Cinema’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films upon my own work) in combination with a Fine Art sensibility. My intention was also to explore a uniquely different approach to fantasy art in general but also proving a photographic art approach to Tolkien’s Middle-earth could yield unusual and intriguing results that referenced broad Art historical references.

My favourite aspect of the project has been the learning curve involved in making the transition years ago from traditional working methods to digital image manipulation to allow me to realise the vision I had of Middle-earth constructed from photographic montage. The years spent in gathering the visual reference and original photography from varied photographic expeditions was a real highlight and allowed me imagine myself as a journeyman wandering through Middle-earth, and ever seeking out aspects of the Tolkien-esque in everyday environments and landscape. Perhaps the biggest coup and unexpected joy of the project came in 2013 when years in to the project (and only six months after the launch of the platform I set up to to showcase it, my artist blog and website (frommordortothemistymountains.com) I was approached by Oloris Publishing based in Canada to embark on a dedicated art book for the project. Three and a half years later in Autumn 2016 this coffee table book finally enjoyed its release as ‘Wrath, Ruin and a Red Nightfall: The Art of John Cockshaw’.

The only aspect of the project which could be said to be my least favourite is the rare resistance to the idea that digitally produced art has the integrity and worthiness of art. That doesn’t happen often but experience has taught me that as soon as you start talking about the arduous processes involved, concepts and ideas attached to such a project you can quickly win sceptics over or at least plant a few seeds of doubt. To communicate well about a project you simply have to talk about it with passion.

The North East Coast and rugged landscape of the North York Moors that creep further into the region are huge inspirations in terms of visual references; walking hotspots like Roseberry Topping, Captain Cook’s Monument and Cockshaw Hill just transport me to Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth as so many other locations across the UK do. The artist, author, photographer and craft community in the North East that I’m aware of impresses me in terms of their fine work and resilience, entrepreneurial spirit and plain excellence. I’m particularly thinking of Time and Tide Events, Ancester Leathercraft, Author Joel Cornah and the world renowned Tolkien Artist Jay Johnstone based in Newcastle. Based in the North East Jay is also the founder of SFFN The SciFi Fantasy Network, a website that features genre-based interviews, articles and reviews. Also, according to the novelist Susanna Clarke’s labyrinthine work ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, I love the fact that Newcastle is the seat of the ancient Northern Ruler and magician The Raven King also known as John Uskglass. Clarke’s 2004 novel of English Magic in the Edwardian era just also happens to be my next major project which, now into its second year, combines traditional ink drawing and painting with photography (to a lesser extent than my Middle-earth inspired project) and continues to delve into Clarke’s hugely detailed book making reference to Newcastle and the Northern most corners of Yorkshire.

Image from the series 'From Mordor to the Misty Mountains' (C) John Cockshaw
Image from the series ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ (C) John Cockshaw

The idea for the project, in its very early days, was to use photography and photographic art to go in a different direction when approaching fantasy art and illustration. Being primarily a Fine Artist I was surprised how strongly I’d been enchanted by the treasure to be found whilst delving into the writing of JRR Tolkien as a result of experiencing ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films starting in 2001 and concluding in 2003. I’m not overly fond of the Fantasy genre as a whole still but there was something fundamentally substantial, excellent and enduring to be found in Tolkien. I loved the idea that the reasons I was captivated were fairly abstract and impressionistic; the pleasing escapism; and the vividly detailed landscape writing of invented landscape locations combined with the powerful emotional memory associated with the cinema experience. These are just a couple of reasons but in some way this prompted the project. On the whole I set out to abandon typically recognisable tropes of ‘fantasy’ and concentrate on photography, and later photographic montage, to build up a series of landscape and geographical settings that strongly alluded to Tolkien’s Middle-earth and associated story points to be found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’. My Fine Art sensibility was to be applied to the collection by weaving in additional concepts relating to viewpoint, voyeuristic gaze and narrative for example but also in the fact that much of the imagery would be impressionistic or in favour of inferred meaning.

The long term aim for the project was, and still is, to build up a significant collection of imagery inspired by these sources and JRR Tolkien’s works and at this current point the project is in a transition to its next phase because I have achieved many goals that I desired to accomplish. I was aiming to generate a large exhibition collection of works and I’ve had the good fortune of exhibiting at numerous group and solo exhibitions since 2012 when my blog and website ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ launched in 2012. These exhibitions have taken place at sites and locations very relevant to the life of the Professor Tolkien from two different Oxford colleges to Sarehole Mill in Birmingham near where the author grew up, and to locations both nationally and internationally from Yorkshire, Newcastle, Spain and Germany. I’ve had the good fortune to act as curator too so in additional to planning dedicated exhibitions where not only my own work has been able to feature I’ve been able to invite and draw upon artists / illustrators who share similar interests in the subject matter, thereby actively building my own reputation as artist / curator but encouraging collaboration. The crowning achievement for me in this way was curating an exhibition of photography, art and illustration titled ‘Evil in the Shining Light’ at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield as part of the ‘Opening up the book’ festival in Autumn 2015. Immediately following this was a lengthy solo show of my photographic work of ‘From Mordor to the Misty Mountains’ at a dedicated photography gallery in Skipton, North Yorkshire with the exhibition title ‘Dales of a Perilous Realm’. This was great because I also got to invite local archaeologist Shaun Richardson to collaborate and bring in Middle-earth inspired archaeological drawings into the mix to enhance the photography. In addition to interviews and TV news spots, and presenting talks on my work I was also able to obtain the opportunity to work with film music specialist publication FILM SCORE MONTHLY ONLINE to write an article with new photographic works on the subject of composer Howard Shore’s musical contribution to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films. In Autumn 2016, after three years of development and collaboration with indie publisher Oloris Publishing, my near-entire collection was published in a large colour coffee table art book with accompanying commentary under the title ‘Wrath, Ruin and a Red Nightfall: The Art of John Cockshaw’. The question of what is next is a very interesting one.

The daunting new aspect of curating that I challenged myself with posed certain challenges in terms of figuring out the best presentation methods to combine photography with drawing and painting. Many of the challenges of the curating scenario and planning can be actually overcome by social media in that it allows in depth contact between geographical location but the image and video sharing that helps so much in planning complex shows featuring a lot of artists is where it really helps aid curating and decision making. It also extends into the arena of publicity in that the power is essentially in your hands to promote and spread the word about a given exhibition and spread an ‘image’ of it to audiences.

My next project is going in multiple directions at present and all feature photography in some form. I have a collaboration in progress with Edinburgh-based Luna Press Publishing on a series of novellas/graphic novel titled ‘A Darkness in Mind’. The first book was released in March 2016 and featured photography in combination with traditional media. Combining traditional and photographic means of image making will further continue in more SF-infused work and another (nearly finished) large literary-inspired collection of works based on Susanna Clarke’s 1800s set novel ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’. Gravitating a bit more towards purely photographic is also a new series of sequential still photography pieces in the works titled ‘A Yorkshire Magician’. Inspired by the photo-roman and American Photographer Duane Michals these works are full of humour, exuberance and a sense of fun.

Name: John Cockshaw
Title: From Mordor to the Misty Mountains

Website:  frommordortothemistymountains.com

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