Karen Melvin used a combination of photography and drawing to create her images, inspired by the nature around her Northumbrian home.
Tell us a little about your project
I use photography and drawing to look at wildlife in my garden and on walks, and then construct images that examine our relationship to the natural world. I look at the idyll of nature and bring up issues around sustenance, consumer culture and a disposable earth. Recent ongoing work, Marginal Extinctions, reflects on the loss of species and habitats. Dead birds, little scraps of nature and found debris are merged with drawings from sketchbooks and found images. Finding and tracking the small insignificant deaths of birds in a garden, domestic “memento mori”, mirrors the complexity of environmental change and catastrophe.
As well as framed images, I use a long hanging paper scroll format with no single perspective point. The multiple view points of this use of space allow free flowing associations through different narratives. A continuum of flight, journey and death is suggested.
What attracted you to this specific project and how does it differ from your previous work?
In my current work, I was attracted to making still life photographs of birds that I found in the garden. I am part of various wildlife and heritage groups: RSPB, Woodland Trust, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, National Trust, so I am aware of issues around loss of habitat and climate change on wildlife. I decided to use this information to inform my imagery of birds found in my garden. This differs from past projects which have looked at family dynamics, reflected in the light of fairy tales and mythology. Also I started composing this new work in the computer rather than taking still life arrangements on film that I usually used. I started using a long scroll format to join imagery with painterly marks made in the computer. This new work marks a turn from film to digital and all the freedom that brings.
What are your favourite and lest favourite aspects of the project?
My least favourite part of the project is finding a dead bird or having someone bring me a beautiful bird, pristine but dead, so fragile. I love to examine the bird, look at its feathers and see how its wings unfurl and how they catch the wind when I hang it up in the air. Then I love to collect other images that may relate to this life in the wild or garden or sometimes in a painting. I have hundreds of bits of images photographed on a white background- stones, nests, eggs, feathers, shells, flowers, twigs, trees, boats, water, clouds- that I may use to make a finished scroll. The scroll may be just about colour and form or have a story hidden within related to that particular environment.
We don’t see many photographic works created on scrolls. Why did you chose this format and what is it you like about it?
The scroll idea came from being part of an exhibition generated by Hexham Photography Group in 2013, called Margins, at the Queens Hall,Hexham. I had the idea of looking at the scribbled doodled margins of a sketchbook or notebook. This idea freed up my thinking on imagery about the garden and the wildlife in it. I could combine all sorts of details in an intuitive way that suggested narratives around change, ageing, the slippage of seasons, loss, and missing certain common birds in the garden. I liked this loose way of constructing an image in an empty white space. I developed the scroll format systematically to partly reference eastern landscape tradition and to see how lens-based and hand drawn imagery could be blended. This new way of working coincided with starting to paint again, and bringing painterly mark making into my pictures with Photoshop.
What do you hope that your audience will take away with them from this project?
I hope an audience will see the beauty in the birds I have photographed and in the garden details. I hope it will create a desire to connect back with nature and to give it more space in our lives.
I believe you have an upcoming exhibition. Can you give us the details?
I have a solo exhibition opening at the Customs House Gallery, South Shields, on April 8- May 21 2017, called Flying Falling. The Opening Night is April 7, 6-8PM, all welcome.
What is your connection to the North East of England?
I live in Northumberland. I studied here, taught here in Newcastle and Middlesbrough, and exhibited widely here in the region. The work from “Flying Falling” is mostly based in my garden, and sometimes more widely in the Tyne and Tees area and occasionally at my sister’s in Florida.
What is it about the North East that attracts you?
The North East- why do I like it. I loved it the moment I crossed the Tyne on a steam train all those years ago coming here as a student. I love the drama of Newcastle on the steep riverbank, with its industrial buildings and ancient castle and walls. I love the Victorian and Georgian details of the buildings; the grand sweep of streets and bridges. Then the countryside, beautiful in every direction, north to the Cheviots, and coast, west to the Pennines and Lakes, south to Durham and the mining valleys by Weardale. My first date with my husband was to a cave in Weardale. We ended up buying an old single story derelict stone cottage with stone flag floors and a stone slab roof, a mile from heather moorland and the Devils Water Hexhamshire valley. I can leave the house and step over a single track road, then walk for hours without crossing another road. When we first came here I didn’t really “get” heather moors. Why does no-one live here? Then I started getting to know my neighbours and making documentary photographs of the life of upland shepherds, gathering, dipping, making hay, sheep dog trials, and the village shows and village life that goes with it. I got “hefted“ to the land myself.
Have you studied photography or art? If so where and when?
I studied Fine Art first at the University of Michigan for a year, then came to the University of Newcastle initially for a year, but liked it so much that I finished the Fine Art BA Hons course here at University of Newcastle in 1965. I then started teaching photography in the Fine Art Department at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic.