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Certainly it’s a challenge to express in words The Observatory experience which was essentially all about touch, play and intuition. (N.B if reading this on a mobile device please scroll down, as many more slideshows/photographs appear at the bottom). For the past 18 years, it has been an established part of my practice to make artwork inspired by, and expressed within, architectural sites or the landscape, so coming to Lymington was a very exciting prospect. I had never chosen to make any work in a landscape like this – which in itself is surprising as I was brought up near the Essex marshlands and spent much of my youth beachcombing near the Thames Estuary. So on arrival there was an immediate resonance together with the provocation of memories but also a sense of adventuring.  I am a great believer in synchronicity and as I got into the car on the first day to drive to Lymington I turned on the radio and the partial phrase that jumped out at me was: …a pocket full of seawater... I decided to bring this phrase with me, along with a determination to up my scale.


For the first two days, I decided that: Doing nothing was doing something. This approach allows me to listen to the landscape, absorb the place, reappraise and shake off habits, beliefs and boundaries. It isn’t easy but I decided to think of myself a pilgrim – a wanderer in a foreign land - roaming uprooted in the unfamiliar.  I took photographs, tuning into intuition not specific focus, waiting to analyse those images at a later date. I moved physically, dancing my exploration in response to things I saw. I touched. I walked. Lots. Every day.


I was immediately at home in the small studio and only realised why after I first turned the view around using the winding crank. As a very young child of rather elderly grandparents, I had often slipped away from the formal living room to the various sheds in the garden: an old air raid shelter; a garden shed full of tools (and weed killer – what were my parents thinking?!) and the washing shed with two old mangles which I spent many hours turning just enjoying their mechanical action. Here in the past something essential was laid down in my making – a love of the outside; happiness of being alone in confined spaces; the handling of tools and the kinaesthetic enjoyment of making something change and move. I think certainly it is the latter that the architects so wonderfully understood and why The Observatory became a real joy to so many people who passed by and interacted with it.


Watching the landscape express itself constantly charmed and excited me. Any one small feature could have been the focus of a year’s work. The sea outside my window could turn from deep purple, to silver to piercing aquamarine within moments. Mutability was later captured beautifully in the photographing of my performed pilgrimage of A pocket full of seawater where the weather changed from blazing sunshine to dramatic clouds and whipping winds to balmy breezes all within forty five minutes. I decided to embrace this unpredictability and to use the tides, sunshine and winds as part of my material, as a way of siting the work specifically in Lymington’s location. The first pieces I wanted to make came out of some playful experiments one evening and I conceived a photographic series of Wind Sculptures. So all psyched up I waited…And waited…All day…Patiently…No wind… Hmmmm...unpredictability as part of the work…


Arriving the next day before 8am was so exciting. Everything was in place –sun, sea and lots of wind. What I didn’t have was much time, as I was due to go and teach students at Brockenhurst College. The residency taught me to seize the moment, take the shot, never expect that time can be repeated, grab it.


It had always felt important that this piece took place at the end of a jetty with the beach visible in the shot because the foil also brought resonances of other foreigners travelling – refugees – who might arrive cold and needing the protection of this kind of survival material. I spent an exhausting session setting the ten second timer on my camera, then leaping up on to the jetty and running to the end just in time to place my body within the foil cylinder and enact the forms that I had collected, drawn and performed around the Nature Reserve a few days before, whilst allowing the wind to sculpt the material as it interacted with my body. I had to totally surrender to the wind’s action at that moment and although it sometimes played along, occasionally I just got tangled, but magically the foil was transformed from a fragile, thin sheet into a series of monumental-looking metal public sculptures installed at the jetty end.


After an hour, the wind decided it was time for a change. The tubular tent became gradually torn and shredded. This was altogether a new, and as I thought at first unwanted, challenge but then were created some different, very beautiful and unexpected images with the material edges streaming out in a ragged Cinderella-style. A gift from the unpredictability of the wind. By the time I reached the students I was in full adrenaline rush with rather bruised knees but mostly extraordinarily happy. They got to see the eighty-five pictures hot off the camera, which was great to share. See for a selection of the different sculptures.


I have never had a dog of my own but staying at the Observatory I couldn’t help wanting to be part of the dog walking community. I bought a vintage dog on wheels who I named Salty (the Sea Dog –well, what else?!). The name tag on his collar gave The Observatory as his address and he was available every day for children to take for a walk around the sea wall or to pose for selfies. One little boy (and thanks to his mother for allowing this photo) came back several times, and Salty proved a good talking point for the people passing and had the occasional bottom sniff from other dogs.  He also came around with me on occasions to witness things I did and was company as I watch my last sunset,


During one of my first forays I had identified a hidden mooring ring in the grass by one of the canals used in the salt industry, so decided to make a giant name tag to attach to it. This was my way of naming the place and in some fairytale fashion to transform the landscape into a giant animal that stretched out in all directions.


The phrase a pocket full of seawater continued to go around my head and I began to question how might one catch this pocket full of water and to write a score for the piece. I remembered that in my childhood I had caught a small fish in my swimsuit and it struck me that kimono sleeves can also be used as pockets. For several years I have been obsessed with Japanese pilgrim coats: short kimonos worn during pilgrimage where at each shrine the monks draw in calligraphy or stamp the coat rather like a passport. Thus the coat becomes a testament to the journey: a walking trace. If I could design a pilgrim coat with four metre sleeves these would be long enough to dip in over the sides of another jetty to fill with water, and also their length would highlight the obstacles and surfaces within the landscape as they dragged along the ground as I walked. I made the coat during a brief sorjourn home for Easter. I felt it important do the pilgrimage barefoot from the Observatory to the jetty with the X on top as a mark of committment and hardship, counting the number of steps. The symbol of the X is particularly potent as it has so many meanings: X marks the spot; I am here; X as a signature of the place/in place of a name; X as an unknown (in an equation); nautical flags - I require assistance; a kiss. I would later inscribe the coat with calligraphic Xs as a record of my own pilgrimage, combined with a stamp of the shape of The Observatory building: in total 3300 steps.


Having checked the tides and fixed a date and time, I was lucky enough to meet Karen Kingsnorth at Brockenhurst collage, a member of staff who was a fantastic photographer and she generously offered to come and document the performance for me (this one too hard to manage alone!). Then just as we were about to set off, a second surprise arrived, Nikki English, a professional photographer with whom I’d had a casual conversation about the project some days before. So I set off with an amazing team and I can’t thank them enough for working so hard to capture all the details. The photographs are just incredible.


I only had one dismal rainy day and actually rather enjoyed the chance to dig in, appreciate the difference in light and landscape, light the charcoal stove and be forced inside to draw and paint after such a week of physical activity. Even then, though it was pouring, visitors still arrived hoods up, ready to chat and exchange. 


Scale continued to be a big part of my material responses. Framed by the studio window the creeks and gullies when the tide receded reminded me of huge calligraphies in the landscape. I bought a mop and bucket and using a large Chinese ink (plus milk as a resist) pegged out a canvas on the ground and made the biggest calligraphic painting I have ever tried. Loved the action. Loved the freedom and the way I let the ink move and run. And it struck me that I don’t actually need a bigger studio at home to achieve the scale I’ve been looking for, I just need an outside space where I can be free (although preferably where dogs don’t try and walk on it!). I continued to play with these materials over the next few days, trying crosses and other shapes. I now have plans to resolve this method to make a bigger piece in London.


There were so many wonderful moments:

  • The luxury of being able to throw myself totally and physically into living The Observatory in every moment was so precious; keeping odd hours; letting things flow; no domestic routines (& the throwing away of artistic routines); watching the sunset and sleeping only 4 hours before driving back across New Forest to watch sunrise ….just because ….

  • Eating my lunch with a shell because I had forgotten to bring a spoon

  • Singing my long-forgotten old school song “To be a Pilgrim” lustily out loud as I walked around.

  • All the birdwatchers who showed me their discoveries.

  • John Gardner leaving me a lovely charcoal drawing as a gift.

  • A huge swan flying right across the window of the studio, so close I might have touched it.

  • All the interested questions and stories from people who popped in –art-related and other fascinating tales.

  • Shouts of encouragement from a regular dog walker as once again I was doing crazy-looking stuff

  • Being discovered by Mark Drury one evening nearly up to my knees in sticky black mud wearing a posh camouflage print dress - much amusement!

  • A particularly wonderful conversation at sunset with Sophie and Sam, two A level students seeking a break from revision, about the potentials in their lives.

  • The sky being reflected in the flat sea and then the transformation as just a few ripples turned it into a magic mirror.

  • Rupama Polet giving me her only collected 'pilgrim shell' - the exact type used for medieval pilgrim badges - to accompany me on my pilgrimage and for which I sewed a special tiny pocket in the coat.

  • Being taught that “if you see a white feather falling, you must catch it because it is a blessing”.

  • Meeting some of the other Observatory artists and hearing their experiences – Alice, Isabella, Emma, Julie Katie and Jilly

  • Being taught to dowse with a pendulum – in this case a brass plumb bob I brought with me to “plumb the depths”.

  • Discovering that I could write in the sand and then cast the letters in Plaster of Paris.

  • Conducting a peaceful Listening to the Landscape exercise with a group who came to my Sunday talk and seeing their faces light up as they shared their creative responses.

  • Jen who watched and encouraged many of my experiments and who then started to carry and write creatively in her own sketchbook.

  • All the dogs and dog walkers especially my regular chats with Peter.


So what do I take away?

  • Location is all –it can be the opening or a block to action –what do you choose?

  • You can have an adventure close to home.

  • A commitment to look for a large outside space I can continue to work in.

  • Seize the moment.

  • Go with the environment and all its unpredictability and respond with the body.

  • Peace and wonder.

  • A liberation of the bigger scale in me and a realisation that I might need to move into more permanent expressions of my performative interactions – so highlighting new materials to explore, skills to learn.

  • Rearrange my domestic life to better utilize the rhythms that work best for my practice.



Special thanks to:

  • Mark Drury for unfailing support

  • Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

  • Salterns sailing club for allowing me to use their facilities

  • Emma Moxey for inviting me to teach at Brockenhurst College

  • Karen Kingsnorth and Nikki English for committing so much of their Saturday to helping me photograph A pocket full of seawater.

  • All the National Parks rangers



Julie is a cross-disciplinary artist who explores the body’s dialogue with site, through gesture and sculptural inscription. Using drawing, sculptural intervention and performative exploration she creates delicate pieces, which speak of the fragile relationship we share with the world around us.


All Photography unless stated © Julie Brixey-Williams


This is where it starts


This is where it begins


Julie Brixey-Williams

17th March - 27th April 2016


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