(Caroline Cleave feature for Cornwall Life Magazine | July August issue 2021)
Whitewater Contemporary’s August show celebrates the beauty of nature, and the optimism of spring and summer’s certain return.
Artist Caroline Cleave is known for her contemporary paintings and handmade prints of coastal flowers and sea life, which are inspired by her passion for nature, sustainability and the importance of the rural fishing economy. She works from her studio in the village of Port Isaac, where she lives with her husband, Fisherman’s Friends singer Jon Cleave, and their three sons, who make their living as working fishermen out of Port Isaac harbour. Caroline is entirely immersed in the Cornish way of life, and her appreciation for North Cornwall’s special community and coast are at the heart of her work. “Everyone who visits Port Isaac is blown away by its beauty” says Caroline. “It has been home to my family for centuries, so the 'knowledge' runs deep with me! Tales and superstitions run through this village like veins, and I love to tap into them in my work.”
This summer, Caroline is exhibiting as August’s Featured Artist at Whitewater Contemporary in neighbouring Polzeath. The show will include paintings and prints made during the last year, inspired by time spent observing nature at close quarters, at a slower pace and on a more intimate level. The resulting body of work is a celebration of humanity’s relationship with nature, and the many ways it has sustained us all through arduous months of lockdown. In particular, the emotionally uplifting return of spring is detailed in her images of snowdrops, tree blossom, burgeoning hedgerows and bright Cornish gorse, which she intends as an optimistic metaphor for our emergence from the winter of Covid. “Living in Port Isaac, I can't fail to be confronted by nature everyday” says Caroline, “and during lockdown we saw some really unusual sights: stoats running up the main street, deer on people’s doorsteps. It was wonderful. I am so thrilled at this awakening of our relationship with nature. It has been the silver lining to the dark cloud of covid. I think nature’s ability to endure despite adverse conditions is a real lesson - the barest branches, battered by Cornish storms but then breaking into blossomy boughs fills me with hope for the future. Hopefully, this sense of connection and a greater appreciation for nature is evident in the artworks in my exhibition.” Caroline’s daily ritual of walking, sketching and later painting and printing in the studio is the basis for all her collections. “We live in a very secluded part of Port Isaac, although it is right in the heart of the village, hidden away but with easy access to the valley footpath. My day begins with a walk, which is always a reflective time and one I never rush, come rain or shine, but cherish. I take a sketchbook and open myself up to whatever is out there. It is a daily reconnection with nature which enables me to follow the seasons. The roar of the sea, a random feather floating by, or the beauty of new buds all feeds into my thoughts, and often prompts me to read old folklore tales when I get home. Walking, talking to friends, listening to sounds and observing the village as the year unfolds all stimulates my imagination and is essential to developing ideas: inspiration might come from a comment made by an older member of our community, warning me about blackthorn blossom and the superstitions attached to it, or perhaps I will be inspired by the name of a hidden place on the coast path. My process starts with exploring the subject in detail, so I really know it. Large and small drawings fill my studio, quotes and snippets from books get pinned up, so I surround myself with the subject. I move between small, intimate compositions that looks at the fragility of the subject, to large canvases which take a lot of energy to paint. It is always worth the effort because I feel, in a strange way, that I owe it to my subject to give it a voice that speaks of something bigger than all of us.” Her intense exploration of her subjects has extended over the last year to an exploration of new studio techniques, including the specialist skill of metal plate etching: “Experimenting with handmade print has opened up another way of working for me” says Caroline. “My etching plates are large and take a lot of inking and working on, but it is a process that I love. I can even bring my love of painting to these prints, through the processes that I use: I choose earth-coloured inks that connect with nature, and I've been overlaying prints onto painted backgrounds. This gives me a real sense of combining painting with print, and enables me to express how we, as humans, imprint onto our natural environment, making marks that can't be removed.” One of the works in this show is a particular favourite of Caroline’s, and truly defines the ethos of the exhibition. "Blossom is a really special work in this collection” she says. “We watch it flower on a tree in our garden each spring from our bedroom window, and this year, during lockdown, I climbed up and sat right in the tree to draw the blossom and really experiencing the joy and appreciation that nature can bring! I probably scared a few birds” she laughs, “but those drawings and the final print are very precious to me, and will always remind me of what we have all come through, and give me a feeling of hope.”
See Caroline’s exhibition from 1st to 30th August at Whitewater Contemporary, The Parade, Polzeath, Cornwall PL27 6SR.