By Nancy Campbell
I visit Jane Rushton’s studio on my first morning in the Scottish Highlands, and the artist’s evocative way of seeing stays with me for the remainder of my travels in the region. Lochaber is a place where the landscape is stranger and more alien than a southerner might expect, the seascapes wider and more dramatic, whether experienced from a freezing ferry deck or from the safety of the shore.
Rushton lives on a croft beside Loch Nevis, just outside the fishing town of Mallaig. To a visitor driving over the crest of a gorse-covered hill and down a vertiginous track, the land appears steeper than it is wide. Rushton’s studio is at the very bottom of the precipitous slopes, almost on the shoreline. These heights and depths, this sea-land border, seem an apposite dwelling place for an artist whose work considers these extremes in northern environments.
The paintings in the studio respond to the artist’s present surroundings in Mallaig. The title of the Lost Horizon series refers to "those conditions where the sea and the sky and the land merge together and their boundaries become elusive," Rushton explains. "I am drawn to the idea of exploring the point where this becomes that, and that the closer one looks the harder it is to define that point."
These are certainly works to look closely at. Like the northern landscapes that Rushton has travelled through, her paintings have a haunting beauty that draws the viewer in, but the experience is less one of passive admiration or awe than an examination of the act of looking itself. Rushton says that she aims to "make visually poetic work that provokes a different type of engagement: seeing, valuing, knowing and understanding."
I’m intrigued by infinitesimal specks on the canvas, elusive as a floater in the eye, which hold the paint and cast tiny shadows – just as clouds might do, passing over water or the crests of waves. What are they? "Sawdust," Rushton says, and I remember her words later travelling cross-country towards Fort William, as the train passes sawmills, the yards full of logs from the Caledonian forests, stacks of timber, and the byproduct – pyramids of pale sawdust. Everything in Rushton’s work, however minuscule, seems to be in sensitive dialogue with her environment.
Whether the horizons are close to home in Scotland, or further afield in the Arctic, a belief in the value of collaboration between fine art and science drives Rushton’s practice. Many projects originate in field trips: a twelve-day hike across Greenland from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut with a geologist, or work in Svalbard alongside atmospheric scientists. The latter led to the Cryosphere (2009) series: images composed from watercolour, wax and layers of graphite powder, which are incised and the wax distressed as if to suggest the textures of ice or wind-etched stone. Rushton watched the scientists gather snow samples from which the behaviour of pollutants originating in the temperate zones would be analysed. A collection of filter papers, although waste to the scientists, provided Rushton with the artistic vocabulary for this series: "after looking at them under magnification,’ she says, ‘the deposits took on a different sense. They became complex topographies, suggesting valleys, river systems, peaks and troughs."
A field trip to Ilulissat icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, resulted in the densely layered mixed media works of Greenland: At the Margins (2013). Here Rushton plays with scale again: at a microscopic level, these works suggest the intricate layers of Greenland’s geological features and the complex growth of ancient lichens over the gneiss. But the cartographic tracings that overlay the image represent much larger horizons: the fjords forged by glaciers during long distant ice ages, and the mountains formed of molten organic matter from the Earth’s core, cooled and hardened. The question facing both artists and scientists today concerns not only matter, but also time: how have past temperatures affected the land we stand on today, and can we predict how the temperatures of the future may change?
Jane Rushton’s Arctic work was recently shown at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy, and later at their site in Brussels as part of a meeting to engender greater Sci/Art collaborations.
For further information and images see www.janerushton.co.uk.
Nancy Campbell grew up in the Scottish Borders and Northumberland and her work is informed by these landscapes and borderlines. A series of residencies with Arctic research institutions has resulted in projects responding to ice and climate change. Nancy’s poetry collection Disko Bay (‘a beautiful debut from a deft, dangerous and dazzling new poet’–Carol Ann Duffy) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. Her artist’s books include How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet which received the Birgit Skiöld Award, and is now reissued in a new edition by MIEL. Nancy was a MarieClaire ‘Wonder Woman’ in 2016 for activities including Arctic Book Club and The Polar Tombola, an interactive live literature event.