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On a crisp October morning, I drove the hour journey along the coast from Falmouth towards Newlyn, dipping in and out of view of the warm glow of autumnal sun hitting the horizon. As I sat next to a burning log fire in the studio of Sarah Woods, the warm glow didn’t leave me, forming conversations on living an alternative lifestyle, the importance of the landscape and the process of layering.

An interview with Martha Holmes

How did you start a life in Cornwall?


When I chose to settle in Falmouth for my degree, I hadn’t any past experience of the area, I had never actually been to Cornwall before. I didn’t give the transition of moving to this part of the coast too much thought, I have always had a very open mind and an undefined pathway that allowed me to continually discover, so the move felt like part of that process, I just went with it. I was definitely drawn to the landscape and the way of life, envisaging myself as a creative down here. 

Throughout the three years of my course, I mostly practiced as a painter, however towards the end of my degree printmaking became more of a focus within my practice. It became very clear towards the end of the degree what I wanted to specialise in and so the past few years have been very exciting putting my energy into this. Fine art definitely gave me the freedom and space to explore, allowing myself to come to this natural point of fulfilment and acceptance in how I work as a creative. 

How has your work developed?


A lot over the three years! It was really quite different at the beginning – as the three years went by my work became more and more refined and minimal in nature. The landscape developed into my refined subject matter, and it became clear the type of environment my work sat within. The landscape began to become more of a starting point, with my work a response rather than a representation of it, sometimes quite far removed form the subject. My works at my degree show were very subtle in suggesting their origins –  it might have just been one simple colour from the environment or just a depiction of the structure – it was more about the thought process and the materials I was using. I felt by the end of my degree that I had really stripped back my subject matter and removed something from it, this mirrored how I had become more comfortable living where I was, more connected to the land, sea and coast. I am now gradually building more imagery and colour of the land and sea into my work. 

The work at the end of your degree, was it reflective of you becoming more familiar and settled within your environment? 


I am probably more comfortable and confident in the fact that the work I produced was a very honest and reflective approach of the landscape – my thoughts rather than a representation – a consideration of the subject and how I made the work. 

How do you see your work at the moment?


I have two defined areas to my work – the prints are really quite different to the painting, but they have always sat alongside one another. The prints are initially drawings, and over the past couple of years I’ve spent time working into them to almost strip them back, simplifying the tone as lines in the drawings. A pencil sketch for me is very quick and immediate and allows energy from the landscape to be conveyed – I often take them back to the studio and using an alternative material, often pen, refine the lines further – it gives control to the drawing. 

In terms of sharing and exposing my work, I exhibit with the Belgrave in St Ives and Beside the Wave in Falmouth, alongside Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. I’ve recently become part of the North Coast Asylum who represent my work – another means of communicating with creatives like myself.  

How does working directly in the landscape enhance your working practice?


I find it really important to make work whilst I’m out, you get something form it that you can’t copy or achieve from an image – there is so much to experience in the landscape, which is then reflected in your work - sounds, sights – which constantly change. I feel excited when I am out, and the painting is a way to portray this through the colour and energy of the brushstrokes, but at the same time trying to also capture the stillness of the landscape. 

All my paintings have a stitched element, a seam formed from the joining of two pieces of canvas. I will build up a whole piece of canvas form different materials that I stretch together – sometimes re-using materials. The sewn line often influences what the painting will become - the line sometimes places the horizon or the edge of the land – that is the first little bit of inspiration on the canvas before I even begin painting. I like how the material itself forms part of the structure of the landscape.

I enjoy the whole process of the painting – building the frames, stitching them, and then stretching them – I like being involved in every process and layer that makes up the finished piece. Often I’ll sew a line along the horizon at the end to finish the work – the seams starts the piece and the sewn line ends it. I will often leave small areas of the canvas raw, whether it’s a bright calico or a dark linen, I find it allows one to envisage the journey of the painting, understanding the initial layer that began the work.

Do you record in sketchbooks and notebooks a lot? 


I write a lot and so always have books with me – the process of writing is always reflective of what I am experiencing, and before going back in the studio, writing allows my thoughts to unravel. The title of my works depends on the nature of the landscape – it might be a specific place; however with my recent water studies, it is more about the movement and balance of the space, and so the title is kept very minimal to allow people to reflect and feel the essence that I’ve captured – a similar concept to leaving parts of the canvas raw for people to interpret. This method of working allows a more thoughtful approach to being in the landscape.

The landscape itself acts as your workspace, but what about your immediate surroundings in the studio?


Oh they are hugely important, I think to work the way I do it is really important for my space to be simple -– I think that’s the best way to describe it. Simplicity allows me to be productive and continually inspired. My studio is minimal in its nature, I just have my materials and the essential objects I need to fulfil my practice. The space is very bright and balanced – I tend to work with painting at one side and print making in a separate workspace, alongside using a print studio in Penryn most weeks. Until recently I didn’t even have WIFI, so it really was stripped back to me and my work.

Are there particular creatives you reach to for inspiration?


Really it is quite a solitary space here, but there is a lovely group of people in Newyln and Penzance, as well as over in Pennyn, but I think I find most inspiration from myself – from the process of reading and writing and being out in the landscape, putting myself in surroundings that allow an uninterrupted flow of thoughts and visual imagery. I do however like to be inspired by creatives that practice with different materials to myself, perhaps with pottery or fabric – I prefer to be indirectly inspired rather than just looking at the work of other painters or printmakers. I find I can take from their methods of working or the materials they use and interpret them into my workspace. 

Could you talk a little about your lifestyle living in a van? Do you find that this style of being is reflective in your work? 


Being freer in my lifestyle has allowed my work to be more open in whichever way it chooses, it’s that feeling of not being confined to one space that I like. My lifestyle of being in the landscape all the time is quite inspiring for my work in that point in time.

The other evening I was near Rinsey in Porthleven when the storm arrived – it was late so already dark and the wind was wild – it gave a soundscape that you could just listen and listen to; unless you are directly in the space you just don’t realise the layers of sound one environment can produce. It was incredible that even being a distance from the coast you could depict the sound of the wind across the sea, almost visualising it as layers of colour.

Living in a van exposes you to all the senses in a very raw way, they surround me all the time and change depending on the landscape – I am inspired by these changes every second I am there. 

Is there something in particular you turn to when you are not working creatively?


I love walking – I could walk and walk and walk, as far as I could go, nowhere feels too far to walk or run. I like to feel exhilarated by the weather and then come back to the studio and work, it’s a nice balance. 

Do you plan to continue working in Cornwall?


It feels more like home here than where I grew up, but I think I’ll go wherever my studio goes, I enjoy the freedom that living in a van allows – so who knows where I will be next! It is lovely to know wherever I go is home and that I have the flexibility to move where I like. I tend to explore the coast more in the summer, and in the winter stay closer by.

Could you depict your practice in a couple of words?


Balance is key for my process and how my space works with my mix of painting and print making, and I suppose bring reflective is very important – reflecting is part of my day-to-day being as a creative.

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