Earth Gallery

Interview with artist Rodney Harris about his work, ‘A Delineation of Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland and France’, made during his Earth Sciences residency 2015.

Interviewed February 2019.

How did the residency with Earth Sciences department at the University of Bristol begin?

In 2008, I was sculptor in residence at Liverpool university as part of their European city of culture. During the residency, I developed a process of making and using natural material in inks. Subsequently, Bristol university heard about this work and together we made an approach to the Leverhulme for a residency to coincide with the bi-centenary of William Smith’s first geological map of Britain of 1815. Therefore, the Leverhulme Trust fund in 2015, was part of the 200 year celebration for the William Smith Map, of which they have a copy. This map was the first time that mankind had ever worked out the structure of what is behind our feet.

I made a number of different artworks but the most significant was a reinterpretation of William Smith’s original map, which didn’t include any of the information that Smith had, such as mines or towns, it was purely about the colour of the landscape. The map I produced was more to do with an environmental theme of encouraging care of the landscape. It is about encouraging people to love their landscape. It is all about the emotional response to the beautiful colour that the land is made of. It’s purely colour. It is also about unity, in that William Smith’s map is very southern England-centric, which is where the wealth was. The print I’ve produced is more about the colours of all the places on the geological area he described, so it includes France, Ireland and Scotland. It has an equal area on the map, as opposed to only concentrating on the South of England.

The map is made up of fifteen individual prints. These were popular and sold well, so it felt it would be great if there was an exhibition space within the university whereby artists could display, sell work and develop an interaction between Art and Earth Scientists. So the Art would influence the Earth Scientists to think about their work. From this, we decided to develop the EarthArt fellowship. The fellowship is about public engagement and about changing how the scientists see what they are doing.

We decided on developing the idea the fellowship and the earth gallery, maybe giving their work a different angle. The residency is not just about public engagement, it is also about changing how the earth sciences scientists see what they are doing.

Tell us about the conversations you had with the scientists?

I worked closely with Professor Kathy Cashman who is also a photographic artist. I felt that relationship was important because scientist’s don’t always know what an artist’s do, how they develop ideas or make work. Noone knew what I might do. The great thing about the Leverhulme Trust funding is that it was open ending. But Kathy understood what an artist might do. There was a mutual understanding and support within that. She also recognised the lack of awareness within earth sciences. One of the solutions was to begin a gallery. I also had a close relationship with Prof. John Blundy, who is a professor of Petrology. We would go on field trips and the thing about partnering with someone who knows what they are looking at when it comes to looking at the landscape, they can deepen your knowledge about what that landscape is. You are not just looking at the surface. You are getting a deep knowledge of the structure and the history that you would not get otherwise. You don’t need a degree about that, as in a residency they can just tell you that.

How did you work with the Earth Sciences department to do develop your new found way of working?

Prof. Kathy Cashman, Professor of Volcanology, encouraged me to make a re-interpretation of the map at the scale that it is at (3m x 1.8m) and encouraged me to work with the British geological survey who provided the information for which the map is based on. As an artist, it is wise to partner with large institutions and organisations that are huge knowledge banks.

Please could you take us through the making of the work and the outcome in terms of process and materials?

I had identified different areas of earth that had different geological materials and I would then visit those areas and collect those materials just by digging. You might have to go to a river where there is exposed material or a beach or a cliff face.

It is really fun… you just don’t know what the colour is going to be like until you have made the ink and printed it. It’s a discoverly. Different slates have different colours and what I didn’t realise is that Cornish slate is green - it is the most beautiful green. It is amazing to see.

How did this work influence other work and lead onto Invisibility of the sea?

Having made work about the land and having grown up next to the sea. I wanted to make a similar mapping of the ocean bed using sea-bed samples. The techniques that I had developed on representing landscape, I was able to use to represent seascape beneath the sea. That was the basis of making the project.

However, this work included mythology of the sea and superstition. And especially how the sea has an invisibility, in how we treat the sea badly and we use it as a dump. So again much as with the original map, I wanted the work to encourage care for the sea and heighten environmental awareness of the sea and how it’s a really important part of our lives but we often ignore it - 90% of trade is by sea, it cools the planet, it absorbs carbon dioxide, we eat food from it, the list could go on, It seemed like the right time to make work that had some beauty about the sea. It is that interesting word ‘beauty’. The unfashionable-ness of beauty.

Publication coming soon - January 2020