Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Seal

Jane and Nick Darke

Jane Darke is an artist,writer and filmmaker who was born in Wales. Married to the late playwright and environmentalist,Nick Darke (1948-2005) she lives on the wild North Cornish coast near Padstow. An area where she draws inspiration from the roaring seas, ochre cliffs and vast skies.

Jane first came to wider attention through her film The Wrecking Season which chronicled Nick's attempts to return to health after a crippling stroke. A struggle set against the backdrop of their passion for 'wrecking'. A traditional Cornish term for beach combing. An activity which brought them a rich bounty of flotsam and jetsam which the couple often utilised for artistic purposes.

The follow up film 'The art of catching lobsters' which was first shown on BBC4 was originally intended as a continuation of The Wrecking Season story. Tragically however,Nick had by now developed terminal cancer and the film became an incredibly moving account of their last months together.The following piece is an extract from Jane Darke's 'Held by the Sea'. A full and frank account of her latter years with Nick and their shared creative passions and environmental interests.

Spring tides are always lowest at around midday. During warm weather the sun beats down on the full length of beach from noon. As the tide comes in the water picks up heat from the sand. So the warmest sea here is in the evening. Then the sun is in front of you, hanging over the horizon.

Sometimes, when there are no waves and the long narrow beach is full to the top, you'd be mad not to go out in a boat, floating up near the cliff edge then out to sea for fish. And you'd be mad not to swim too. The fishing used to win every time but now I'm not so sure. It's so easy just to float. In a swimming pool you need to keep moving but salt water carries you. Swimming as a means of travel is freedom. like taking a walk. If I need to rest I stop and float. I lie in the water, my arms and legs outstretched, sound muffled by the water in my ears.

All I see is the sky above me as I drift. Loneliness was a gaping hole at first, I had so much time and it was all my own. I had to work to fill it. Get through the time. Loneliness is just a state of mind. I have time to work, to relax, to think. I treasure the quiet and the calm. Time has changed again. And because Nick didn't have much time I'm glad he had so much of mine. Could I have been this me with him? Our time would have been different, two people living separate lives, side by side, instead of one life together. We shared everything, we were one person. Those women who watched the film, that's what, they saw. Not many women want to do what their partners do, or are allowed to. He included me because I was interested. He wasn't really interested in what I liked to do, though he loved to walk around galleries and discuss the work with me.

In my heart I couldn't understood why a man needed a wife, he has it all mapped out, she is uncharted waters. I wanted Nick to achieve things that I needed to do for myself. And all that disaster of my childhood that I carried as a 'burden, thinking myself less for having such a past, I realise now was just experience. It was an achievement to get through childhood, adolescence, motherhood, to find a way through. I ran on instinct, emotion with knowledge. I was a late developer, distracted by my family until now. Nick understood what mattered, he learnt the lesson when his mother died. And now I understand his patience with me. I only hurt myself.

I had it all at the beginning but I didn't know until I lost it. I kept looking for something. I thought it was security I needed, that 'security' was external but anything can be lost. I had to learn to find security within myself, the strength not to be afraid. Rely on myself for most of what I need not someone else. I still have time. I've done a lot but there's more to do and I'm taking Nick with me,in me.I no longer rush to the future, memories are a refuge, not a torment. This has been an exploration. It was strange to put myself first. To write from my viewpoint. To be at the centre.. That was his place.I've been a painter, a film maker and now writing, it's all the same.

About eighteen months after he died I went to an exhibition of work by the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. She painted self portraits throughout her life, all affirmations of her 'Self'. I wandered through the gallery in a trance. In a small room were a group of drawings and lithographs. One made me dissolve. Frida had polio when she was six, then at seventeen her body was almost cut in two in a bus accident. She started to paint then, when she couldn't move in bed. At twenty two she married the artist Diego Rivera, he was forty two, and in that year she became pregnant. But this pregnancy would have killed her so the child was aborted. Three years later she drew The Abortion, signed it Frida Rivera.

It's like a diagram, her naked body in the centre, beads round her neck, tears on her face, one side of her body light, the other dark. A string leads from an embryo in her belly to a child in the foreground, the arms and legs too small. Cells divide above her babies head. Blood falls from her and fertil­izes plants to her right. One plant has fruit like a teat, another leaves like tiny hands. Above these, sperm enter an egg. Her arms are by her side but a third arm holds a pallet with no paint, no brush. The moon is over her right shoulder.
I understood her grief. And just now I've found the draw­ing again and it's all there, I hadn't realised.

In the same gallery on the same day, I went around the per­manent collection. A painting by Lee Krasner caught me. `Gothic Landscape' was painted in the years following the death of her husband Jackson Pollock, the great painter and alcoholic. A large canvas, black and white paint with a con­stant, moving, twisting line cut by broad black verticals. I could see it but I didn't feel it, the grief, it didn't work for me, it felt more like anger.

The Beach: Oil on paper: Jane Darke

Grief is personal, a different mix of emotions for each of us. I searched to see the contrast between this and her work before he died. I found changes throughout her life, she could adapt herself, she found a way through, she was the twisting line. Now I know the value of painting. It's of the moment,an unrepeatable single object. You see the brush strokes, a hair from the brush, a grain of sand, a finger print and thought. And a painter's life work put together in a retrospective shows a human mind tied to History.

And paintings can hold power. Picasso's painting `Guernica' became a symbol of his country's freedom. This huge painting of the violence of war which he would not permit to enter his native Spain until it was no longer fascist. He made it personal. Sometimes the story behind the painting makes it greater. Painting was the art form of his age, he was the artist of his century. So many great films were made but a single vulnerable object still has authority.

David Nash makes monumental sculptures with raw wood from fallen trees. He cut a wooden boulder and followed it's course on film, in words, photographs and drawings, for twenty-five years as it was taken by melt water down a mountain to the sea. If I found his wooden ball I'd roll it home.

Drawing with the brush on primed paper or canvas. A white base, to let the colours shine.
Working fast.
Sap green, Burnt Umber and Prussian blue.
The sea is blue green.
In Cornish there is one word for blue and green, `glas'. And `dulas' for a deeper shade.
The paintings which I have around me now are from my life, with Nick. He caught the fish. I picked the flowers as we walked back across the field.

I lived with him then. I've read that it's more difficult to love someone when we're with them than when we are apart. When we're away from them, we live in our imagination, reality doesn't get in the way.Absence makes the heart grow fonder.' It's not always so, it wasn't so for Nick and I, when he was alive. Is it so now, do I love him more in retrospect? I loved him, it was simply that, how could I love him more? In love our imagination projects our own needs onto the subject. They don't always match up. With time you learn to love someone for what they are. If everything goes well, you readjust imagination, change your finer categories of need. If someone provides you with something, like tenderness, you start to love them for it, then you start to like other things about them, things you never liked before, a love of fishing, Bob Dylan. Never rule anything out.

And if you don't readjust you get stuck wanting something from someone that they can't give. If you had a wonderful father who you idolised you could look for someone just like him and be dissatisfied. If you had a violent father who you loved, you could always look for violent men. I've heard that we fall for our parents first of all, that we need sex to lure us away from them, we look for sex and find love. I must have been loved as a child but it all went wrong. I went looking for love and found sex.

Difference, chemistry, mutual attraction, sometimes not mutual, sex can lead us in and dump us. But I was lucky, I found a father, mother, lover, friend in Nick. He was what­ever I wanted him to be and I did the same for him most of the time. I learnt how to share my life and to love. I tried to forget that need for someone, I worked to fill my thoughts.

What if I met someone else? I'd changed so much. I hoped I could hold on to it, not forget the lessons that I'd learnt. I thought about having someone of my own again and I had to tell myself to stop it. I lay in bed and thought about my work and anything else instead. When the tide is very high, only a few yards from the gate, I don't need a towel. The bank is steep and the waves slam in at the last minute, they pile up and swirl across. I have strong legs so I stand firm as they hit, like Colossus. I take it steady and hold on until there's a little calm, then swim into the waves, go with it, pull as required by the force of water.
I get out beyond the surf to float on my back, facing the setting sun, like a cork. My feet rise up in front as a wave rolls under me.

Seals do this too, the grey seal, the most common here. They twist and turn through kelp, through gullies, between the islands and into sea caves, picking off crabs and lobsters as they go. I think they wait above my pots and take the lobsters. Sometimes one is there, head and shoulders out of water, as I pull up the empty pot. I talk to them but their black eyes don't give anything away.
The pups are weaned at about three weeks, at six weeks they have their adult fur. As winter sets in many starve or die of exhaustion. They come ashore to rest. Leave them alone and keep your dog away, the beach is theirs not ours.

Sometimes a seal sees a wall of net with fish caught in it, they only eat the heads, the best bit. Fishermen shoot them. I've measured seal bodies decomposing on the beaches, a record for the Wildlife Trust. There aren't many fish in the sea and when all the fish are gone and we can't grow food because the climates changed, we will eat the seal. I brought some wood back from Rowan Cove, towed it behind the boat. As I entered the bay a seal came alongside and followed me in, flopped up onto the beach next to the boat, `OK what now?' It's rare to meet a wild animal, face to face, which has so little fear.

Jane Darke: Held by the Sea
All Images courtesy of Jane Darke

Details of Jane's films,paintings and book available through the Jane Darke Website

Souvenir Press