Each of us brings a unique perspective to the elements based on our personal experiences, upbringing and interests. Recently I have met Corinne Costello, an artist who has opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, feeling and interpreting these fundamental building blocks of nature. I have been intending to write a post on how artists see, express and work with the elements for some time. That time has come. It has been greatly enriched with Corinne’s input.
The elements have inspired artists since art – defined as the production of works appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power – began. Once you start to explore, the connections between artists and the elements are vast. The original idea I had for my post was to focus on JMW Turner as an exemplar of the visual arts, a British painter who so beautifully captured the different moods of the sky, sea and land. Around five years ago an exhibition titled ‘Turner and the Elements’ was held in various venues across Europe. One review of the exhibition noted how Turner was fascinated by the interactions between the elements, creating unusual, frequently dramatic combinations of air, earth, fire, water. To this I would add spirit. Once seen, his portrayals of these ephemeral scenes stay with you forever. His ability to create these atmospheric works with oil and colour is impressive. Another elemental link is the colour in the skies in 1816 that Turner painted – these were influenced by a massive volcanic explosion in Indonesia that put particulate matter into the stratosphere, affecting global weather and climate. Everything is interconnected.
Another attraction of Turner is his connection with Tasmania, where I live. Tony Smibert, a highly acclaimed watercolour artist and Aikido Shihan based in northern Tasmania, is a leading expert in Turner’s painting techniques. Tony’s own creations reflect eastern and western traditions and have a deep engagement with nature. On his website, he refers to this engagement as The Sublime, an approach which many European artists such as Turner were noted for during the first part of the 19th century. As nature and the elements are one, Tony’s paintings have a strong elemental presence. The fact that they are also embued with the energy that comes from his practice of Aikido, another art strongly related to the elements, adds an extra dimension.
Corinne Costello is also based in Tasmania, this time in the south. Not surprisingly she admires and is good friends with Tony Smibert. Her works also draw on eastern and western traditions and is inspired by mythologies, her travels and philosophical concepts such as the Eastern concept of negative space. Since we met, Corinne has introduced me to several new artists whose work captures or works with the elements. Two of them, Lindy Lee and Christine Flint-Sato, add modern interpretations to traditional Chinese and Japanese imagery and techniques. Through Corinne, I was able to meet Christine in Ikoma, near Nara in Japan. Her insights into the elemental materials used in her painting, and the works themselves, opened my eyes to a new world. In a sense she collaborates with her materials, with both partners contributing to the outcome. More can be discovered from Christine’s website, blog, books and many articles.
Another artist that Corinne has introduced me to is Bill Viola. His work on the elements is in another sphere. Some may find his video installation titled ‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ makes them feel uneasy. Published on YouTube on 22nd Aug 2015, the piece sets the Christian notion of martyrdom against the concept of the four elements. I found it mesmerising. The video comes with music by MUSE. Originally it seems that the installation was silent. One of the comments on YouTube said: “Viola has said that the sound of his silent installations also have a sound, and that this sound of silence should be thought of as the “soundtrack” per say of the piece.” Watching the video in silence or with the accompanying music provides very different experiences, in my experience. It demonstrates the importance of sound in how we react and respond to art.
I majored in art at high school, where art theory and practice were my highest scoring subjects in the final year. That was over 35 years ago. From high school I trained as a scientist which has been my career ever since. I have always had an interest in art, particularly as a way to communicate messages about the environment. Currently my artistic expression is through photography. I find it lends itself to depicting the elements at a range of scales. It is also an art form that can be shared instantly through the internet and social media. Two friends who constantly share their wonderful images of nature and the elements on FaceBook are Gaylene Norton and Bill Roberts. They use professional cameras. 🙂 I believe that being exposed to beauty on a regular basis like this helps calm your mind and enrich your soul.
While I dabble in art I have not delved into the theory behind it since high school – having focused on science related concepts and literature instead. As well as introducing me to new artists, Corinne has provided insights into the deeper meaning and philosophies that underpin art that represents or is inspired by the elements. Many of the artists in this post have been influenced by eastern traditions and philosophies such as Zen. The media they use is diverse. Here I would also like to direct people to Lesley Kehoe’s gallery and website. The Japanese artists she represents are masters of beauty and form. Thoughtful and thought-provoking essays and videos can be found on the galleries website. They have taught me much about the connection between artists and the elements, and the passion, skills and energy that the artists bring to their creations.
When representing the elements, other artists take their inspiration from artistic traditions and schools of thought outside of the Asian realm. They may be drawn, for example, to the Impressionists of Europe or the Inuit artists from Canada. Or Turner. Whatever the influences are, all artists draw on their own experiences. With a renewed interest in the theory and practice of art in a way I am coming full circle, with some other skills added. So thanks goes to Corinne for rekindling these interests.
As noted, how artists see, express and work with the elements is a vast subject. I have previously written about artists working with clay (earth) and wind, water and sun. These posts presented the beauty, materials and innovation of the work. In future I plan to include posts that are written by artists themselves so that their elemental works can be explored, appreciated and enjoyed in greater depth.