Nigel Bird

In essence a work begins
 with an activation
of the senses

I sit, early, in the morning’s rose thin skin and I am considering how to open this piece of writing.

I have read some of Nigel’s thoughts on inspiration, the reasons for his own pursuit of expressing wonder of his environment; to draw the sound of birds flying away, to scribe the gravity of falling rain. They are moments of exultation to which any person might pause to inhale, to appreciate, yet it is the purpose of an artist to reach inside and draw forth a new gesture of gratitude.

From his international travels here and there; as far away as the outbacks of Australia, he has carried sharp moments of clarity and slowly bought new life into their being. There are textures of soot, born of the smoke of bush fires, widening circles which could be the swoop of a wing but are resident in the fields of Southern france. There is the invisible joy of physical movement scratched into paper through muscled insistence and given freedom through faith. Landscape and its open breath have informed his work with persistent persuasion.

Having recently visited his show at the Slade Centre in Gillingham, Dorset I have come to his studio to listen to the passion of an artist, to converse about truth and its many faces in the authenticity of mark-making and learn a little more about how such intense moments of awe and grandness of scale can be translated using a surface and a single colour.

Nigel is an artist and his mark-making is exquisite, thoughtful, intentional and yet not without surprise. I sense an urgency or a need to express in a language that has to have significance to him as well as sympathy for his inspiration.

The marks, in many works look quite calligraphic; of the hand. The sense of communication is strong with subtle variations of stroke; direction or weight. Words/not words demanding attention and inviting us to sit and listen to this story.

Despite their geometry...

and sharp, angular lines the works in the series entitled ‘Score’ have an immense amount of movement within them. I can see creatures scurrying from one intersection to another, busy in their flow. Topographical journeys are suggested to my eye to which I am seduced to undertake. There is rising and falling both mechanical and graceful.

As a younger man I studied dance and some of Nigel’s works called to me of that movement and direction; the flow of a flick or the recoil of gravity as you twist a torso. They remind me strongly of the wonderful, sprawling documentation of John Cage and the scribbled notations of Merce Cunningham.

The mark making itself is also deliberately alternative.

I enjoy the nature of mark-making; the process itself … the physicality.

I use syringes which I fill with indian ink, sometimes slightly diluted. I then draw on to the surface of the paper a deliberate line, usually with the aid of a rule. However the action of the effort on the plunger allows for the result of an indetermined mark, whether it pools or drags with the metal edge.

The thicker the ink than you are left with a mark, beautiful and shiny.

I dilute the ink to extend the range of tones of the ink. A thousand variations of tone and though I am told I don’t use colour I can see an infinite shades of black as if it is colour itself.

But the physicality of the material is how I respond to the next mark. It often takes a great deal of time as you can see. I am never apart from the creation of it as it comes together … always thinking.

Nigel’s studio is full of work, the finished pieces stacked and catalogued, while incomplete works are laid out awaiting attention. There is a draughtsman’s table centre stage surrounded by curves and rules, pens, ink and water.
Ink and paper has a certain smell, subtle and alluring.

There is a work of curling pencil marks – almost a doodle but something more. You can see the weight of pressure is different with each curve. The laying of weight yet the rising upward of an arc. There is intention in the movement and it feels particularly sensual.

Curved Moon

I wanted to make drawings about what I heard one windy night. I used a continuous line on a large piece of paper in order to do this, making the lines darker and lighter, pressing on hard and softly, quickly and slowly (louder and quieter). I needed the sounds to be rhythmic, pulsing between just being audible and as “LOUD” as I could make the line.

Again the materiality, the process becomes the dominant vehicle for expression, yet the result provokes so many questions from the viewer; how? why? where?

deeper than a hole

Another work catches my eye, a shining, rich, seductive circle of alluring blacks.

I ask about it.

Light in the Workshop

It is soot, the residue left when scorching the paper with a candle.

I can remember back to the time at art school when we were taught etching and the lecturer put a ground of wax on the steel plate and then smoked it and made it black, so you can see the marks that you make more clearly. That idea stuck in my head and I started using soot to make work and I’ve probably been using it for the last 10 years. You need to be careful not to set your house on fire.

I taught in Australia for a year and while there we did a visit to where Crocodile Dundee, filmed his stuff, which was just off the Jabiru road south of Darwin in the national park. We did a walk over the over the land that belonged to Aboriginal people but we couldn’t stay there too long because we needed permission to be there. So we had to come back and we drove through a bushfire not through the actual fire, but by the side of the road that was the bushfire. The smell of the smoke, the sound of the crackling of the undergrowth was quite something really. And it was that that stuck in my head and the smell of the smoke stuck in my head. Hence the use of smoke and the sooty residue.

Although it is a very intimate process I can see that the time it takes reveals endless variety of tone and texture in the blacks and browns that it reveals.

Time is also an important component in my work. With this piece I dripped water from various heights to allow the sooty residue to explode outwards from the circle. With the various heights differing effects were apparent and it reminded me of the immensity of the australian outback and the bush fires themselves. The smell still takes me back to that place.

The Embers series of images arose out of seeing, hearing and smelling bushfires lit by the indigenous peoples of the Northern Territories in Australia, in bushland off the Kakadu Highway: Jabiru National Park.

The fires cleansed the land of debris, dead leaves, fallen branches and tree bark, creating space and time for new growth and revitalisation. The gentle breezes developed patterns and forms and spirals in the smoke; the ash left behind being a carbon copy of its previous state (in my dreams).


i live my life in widening circles

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

Rainer Marie Rilke

I quote Rilke above, from one of my favourite poems. Circles seem to be a recurring motif in your work?

Landmarks, Wet and Dry

Yes. They are inspirations I have directly accessed from the land.

I lived in the south of France for a few years very close to a geographical oddity, The Étang de Montady which was a lake that was drained in the 13th century to povide new land for farmers to buy.

The radial divisions were very inspiring to me and have been a constant quality in many of my works. I have managed to produce drawings of many sizes and even got a quadtich behind the concierge at the Corinthian Hotel in London.

The Corinthian Hotel, London

In this way I am inspired by the geography of the landscape and that seems to inform the composition or intention of my work; the lines and the lay of the land. It then becomes something where the material or the process begins to take over and I listen to the properties of the media which I am using. Each is very different in their presentation and use, whether it is the richness of ink or the power of smoke and soot. There is always an elemental quality that I feel feeds the intent.

faith, field and time

There is a large piece hanging in your show at the Slade Centre, Gillingham; is there a story behind it?

Field and Time

It is one of my older pieces and I am very fond of it. Although it goes back 20 years it was finished not that long ago so it’s taken a long time to make.

On my way to work, I was teaching at the time, I would drive past a particular field, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, driving or riding a bike. The field was fascinating to look at. Over the years, the seasons changed; and the weather determined how the crops change and sometimes it was used as a dumping ground for the tractor So I found the field fascinating and I really liked looking at the field. The more I drove by the more it’s inspired me, a bit like the Étang. So, this piece of work which arose from that time was all about the idea of making and it was made with collaged strips of paper. I used to have a shredding machine which eventually broke and iended up cutting each piece by hand. The lines, the three wavy lines, they were they were to slow me down. You can’t make these lines quickly. The field was sowed, it grew, it was cut, changed over time. I drove by it for at least three years at least twice a day. I wanted to make work about the experience of the field and time. things took time and making the drawing took time. Time was an important component of the work itself, the process and execution.

Nigel’s work in the first instance appears graphical, marks made in adherence to some mathematical formula. If you scratch that surface and allow yourself to be pulled into the reasons why, then I think you will find all of your senses actively confirming the richness of the work. From smoke and soot to fields of barley, the work is rooted in growth and the inspirational impulse guides the process and how it is employed. They are more than a drawn introduction to method and material, there is the essence of the elemental. If you allow yourself time then you can sense the genesis of the inspiration, the grandness of the scale and the humility with which his gratitude is performed.