Artists dive to show magic of our seas

Thursday 14th March 2013

It all happens at St Abbs Head by Anna Kirk-SmithIt all happens at St Abbs Head by Anna Kirk-Smith

All five artists who have benefited from winning The Wildlife Trusts’ Underwater Art Award since its inception are staging an exhibition for the first time after taking the plunge to show the magic of our seas.

The extraordinary creations of the winners will go on show in Dorset this month to highlight the urgent need for Marine Conservation Zones.

The award, established in 2007, provides a bursary for an established artist to learn to dive and then to work underwater off the coast, recording the wildlife of the sea in art.  The works created to raise awareness of the plight of our marine life from around the UK coast range from paintings to sculpture.

Head of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts, Joan Edwards, said: “This is a unique chance to see our marine world through the eyes of five very different artists from their very different diving experiences; we are extremely grateful to them for supporting the cause of our sea wildlife at this crucial time. The Undersea Art Award funds diving lessons for artists with a passion for nature who want to find out more about the astonishingly varied submerged landscapes around UK shores. The idea is to create art inspired by the amazing creatures that live in our wonderful cold water coral beds, sponge meadows, canyons and sandbanks.”

This is a unique chance to see our marine world through the eyes of five very different artists from their very different diving experiences

Painters, Esther Tyson from Derbyshire, Kim Atkinson from North Wales and Antonia Phillips from Dorset dived off the Dorset coast for inspiration. Another painter, Anna Kirk-Smith dived off the Yorkshire coast, while Harriet Mead, sculptor and President of the Society of Wildlife Artists, discovered the wonders of the Norfolk coast.  Harriet said: “The Wildlife Trusts’ Underwater Art Award was a tremendous opportunity to see the extraordinary life beneath the waves. The marine habitat is an environment that few people have the chance to experience so not only did the diving inspire my work it has also made me determined to spread the word about the precious world that surrounds the UK coastline” .

Of 127 recommended Marine Conservation Zones, chosen after two years of hard work by stakeholders from all sectors of the marine environment, the Government proposes to designate only 31 this year.  The Wildlife Trusts urge people to have their say and support a full network of protected areas by responding to the public consultation, which closes on Sunday 31 March, 2013.

The Underwater Art for Action Exhibition is open from Saturday 16 until Tuesday 26 March 10am to 4pm at the Fine Foundation Chesil Beach Centre, Portland Road, DT4 9XE.  Free event, donations towards marine conservation.  For more information, ring 01305 206191. 

Padlock Cuttlefish by Harriet Mead


The artists

Harriet Mead
Mead is widely acclaimed for her beautiful creations made from scrap metal (Mead's Padlock Cuttlefish above).  For this project she has scavenged local beaches in search of interesting pieces to make sculptures of some of the inspiring creatures she met on her recent undersea adventures - such as the dragonet and crab. She completed three dives which enabled her to explore the extraordinary Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds. Some of the dive photos show Harriet examining an old rusting digger left on the beach as she searches for potential pieces, diving, and making underwater sketches (with freezing fingers in extreme conditions!) - taken by her dive-buddy Kate Risely here.

Mead writes:  “Being based in Norfolk it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the Europe’s largest chalk reef, Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds off the north Norfolk coast. It’s one of 127 amazing proposed Marine Conservation Zones and is a really unique reef – the purple sponge found there last year is a species new to science and it’s also home to over 30 species of sea slugs, sunfish and basking sharks.

“The dive training was pretty straightforward, although I was quick to learn that nothing involved with diving can be performed elegantly on dry land.  I ended up feeling like a zombie with a toddler’s capacity for achievement.  Straps, buckles and zips become major triumphs to undo or do up and movement with all the kit on is a mammoth task.  Once under the water it is a different matter with the whole weight lifted by the water and everything that was a hindrance becomes a help.”

Esther Tyson
Tyson studied at the University of Wales and the Royal College of Art. She did her diving in the rich waters of Studland, home to rare wildlife including undulate rays and spiny and short-snouted seahorses.  An accomplished artist who achieves remarkable images with an economy of masterful brushstrokes, her work was selected for the cover of the SWLA’s catalogue and poster for its annual exhibition.

Esther said:I’ve inhaled more water than I’d have thought possible! There have been moments I’ve fought back tears and mental exhaustion, to moments of elation and everything in-between!  On my first dive, with poor visibility I felt disorientated and claustrophobic but subsequent dives have revealed a wealth of weird and wonderful creatures in these waters. Diving at Studland has been an incredible privilege, the seagrass habitat enchanting and drawing underwater has become as natural as drawing above. I have been fortunate enough to see remarkable sea life in these waters.”

Antonia Phillips
Antonia is based in Swanage and specialises in work about the sea, bird flight and movement along coastlines.  She says: “My work is about being near the sea; from walks in Purbeck along beach and cliff to the icy seas of the far north, this is a wonderful chance to see how the light and colour change under the water and a challenge to try out new ways of working.” Antonia sketched and painted from life as she dived under Swanage Pier, known as one of the finest places to see marine wildlife off the Dorset coast.  She used transparent Perspex so that she could actually see through to what she was painting, and the sketching block was tied on to prevent it from floating away. 

Anna Kirk-Smith
Anna undertook dive training with support from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and completed her sea dives in the North Sea at Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, when she made sketches to form the basis for her works.  
Kirk-Smith said: “The scuba diving training was completed over five wet weeks, communing with rainbow trout and sturgeon in a flooded quarry before progressing onto the salty stuff.  The sea dives were off Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire, a unique site known for its chalk reefs, kelp beds and partially submerged sea caves, which are inhabited by a diverse array of marine wildlife.

“Drawing underwater proved to be one of the easier aspects, armed as I was with neat, little waterproof notebooks and pencils, tied down to stop them floating away. A more tricky issue was the field of  visibility, or lack of it: an all-pervading brown sandy haze or shimmering greenish weed-filled fog are attractive in their own special way, but not so easy to capture with an HB pencil!

“The detail, the closeness, and the intimacy of encounters with marine species in, what is after all their world, are very beautiful and strangely humbling. This experience has indeed changed my life and my intended course from here on.

“I am already booked in to further my training as a diver, I shall work towards being able to volunteer for the very worthy Seasearch dives and I cannot even begin to tell you here how many ideas for artworks, interpretations, scientific collaborations and methods of working underwater have been flooding forth.”

Kim Atkinson
Kim lives on the coast of north-west Wales and trained at Falmouth, Cheltenham and the Royal College of Art. She learnt to dive and portray the underwater natural history in Dorset, at Kimmeridge and at Swanage. She writes: “To do this I used perspex which I drew on while submerged, with a mixture of graphite and oil pastels, to try to record the blennies, wrasse, anemones and beautiful seaweeds.

“On returning to my studio in North Wales I cut a large piece of Chinese paper from a roll and initially painted with acrylic on it which sealed the surface, and then using a combination of printing and painting I applied oil paint. The idea was to try to get across the sense of turbulence and Coralline weeds at Kimmeridge, contrasting with still water under the piers at Swanage.”