This is the first piece of work I have produced since returning from my Artist Residency at The Mauser Foundation in Costa Rica. It represents a shift for me in my work and a deeper realisation of the purpose and message I seek to share through my art. I hope you enjoy this post about the development of this work, I’d love to hear any comments you might have.
It began as a sketch whilst in Costa Rica. The time I spent there really grounded in me a renewed sense of the importance of research and exploring the subject through my sketchbooks. I realised it was my lack of confidence in art-making in non-textile mediums that was holding me back from using this as a planning tool. The time and non-judgement applied whilst in Residency has transformed my willingness to spend time at the start of a portrait externalising my ideas on paper before fabric.
When I returned home, I had a challenging few weeks as I needed to complete my piece The Gateway. The sense of distance I had established from this ‘old idea’ (the bat) was profound; again, the evolution in what I wanted my art to communicate was significant and so my interest in completing that piece was much less. This was a large part of the choice to call that piece ‘The Gateway’, because of what it now represented for me as an artist.
So right from the start with the salmon I was in what felt like new territory. The choice to use a non-plain ground fabric, the use of a dynamic pose in the subject, and other elements all felt fresh.
I began with my fabric ‘underpainting’, and a commitment to have a ‘looser’ hand when it came to making my embroidered marks.
Another leap of faith was to use sequins to represent the shining scales of the salmon. I didn’t know if it would read as ‘magical’ or just ‘homemade’. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.
Anyway, the answer is that I was happy with the choice. It also gave me the opportunity to use some sequins from the Sustainable Sequin Company, made from recycled PET.
But actually the thing I enjoyed the most was the work I did on the fins. I just loved being so free and sketchy with my stitches and the juxtaposition of that with the very constrained methodical work of stitching down each sequin.
In this piece I took inspiration from the salmon as the Divine Salmon of Knowledge from my own British culture. In the Mabinogion (the earliest written prose stories of Britain, from pre-Christian oral tradition) and Irish myth cycles the salmon is the Oldest Animal, swimming in the well of wisdom at the source of all life. In the earliest Arthurian tale the heroes are led to successively more ancient Totem Beasts until they find themselves face to face with the oldest of all, The Salmon of The Lake of The Leader. Only the salmon is able to lead them to find the Mabon, the Divine Child of Druid Tradition – the Christ child who brings eternal life and vigour. In my piece, he is a male spawning atlantic salmon, resplendent and shining with divinity and power, he has travelled thousands of miles to the place of his birth to spawn, die and be resurrected in his offspring anew.
Globally, few animals have been as central to the human experience as salmon. Twenty-five-thousand years ago Paleolithic man carved a life-size salmon into the ceiling of a cave in southern France near the Vézère River. This is the oldest known artistic representation of a salmon in the world and proof that even in Paleolithic salmon was a well known and important totem.
The significance of salmon in indigenous communities in North America and Canada can not be understated. The legend of the Salmon People is told by many First Nations cultures and these stories helped shape the traditions and lifestyles that were passed down from one generation to the next. Salmon are indicator species: As water becomes degraded and fish populations decline, so too will the elk, deer, roots, berries and medicines that sustain the people living in river communities.
Salmon are the biological foundation of river ecosystems and food webs. A keystone species, of the 137 species documented as dependent on salmon, 41 are mammals including orcas, bears and river otters, 89 are birds, including bald eagles, Caspian terns and grebes, five are reptiles and two are amphibians. Not only that but as the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation, perhaps up to 70% of it’s nitrogen. One study concludes that trees on the banks of salmon-stocked rivers grow more than three times faster than their counterparts along salmon-free rivers.
Today just 14% of rivers in England are considered to have ‘good’ ecological status. Threats to salmon include pollution of all kinds, man made barriers to the best spawning areas, slowing them and making them easy targets for predators including bird, fish, mammal and human. Chemicals build up in their bodies when in freshwater, weakening them and making them easier targets for marine predators; open net salmon farms and sick, farmed salmon breeding with wild salmon, lice, and climate change altering currents and therefore migration routes.
When we protect salmon and river ecology we honour millennia of indigenous cultures that have evolved alongside salmon. Culture and livelihood are completely disrupted and almost irreversibly destroyed by globalist consumerism and colonial and neocolonial cultures of violence.
In the process of researching this piece, after completing it, I discovered a Squamish First Nations story, in which a woman witnesses the ghosts of salmon floating in and out of the water. She asks them what is the matter and they tell her that the humans have stopped bringing their bones to the water and the salmon are unable to return home. This story reflects the loss of tradition and the need to maintain ones cultural heritage and natural resources.
My instinct to include these ghost fish was a choice to simply more strongly narrativise the ‘ancestors’ leading the salmon home. It was like a little gift to me to then discover this story. I like to think it was a calling I responded to.
How have I watched the waters at the dawn!
How have I peered in the still waters at noon!
How have I scanned them spent and pale at eve!
Started at sudden splash in deep of night!Waiting the salmon-God that never comes.
The Song of the Salmon-God by W P Ryan
Sources: The hydrologic blog by Laiwan. The Druid Animal Oracle by Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Why fish need trees and tress need fish by Anne Post. Atlantic Salmon Trust. Salmon & Trout Conservation.