Noel Ashton, the crazy artist behind Africa Geographic’s monthly column, 52 Artworks: A Year in Nature, has stuck to his guns, producing one nature-inspired piece a week for an entire year. All 52 pieces are now making up a powerfully moving exhibition at The Cape Gallery in the centre of Cape Town. Here follows a little Q&A about Noel’s experiences over the year.
1. I imagine that producing a new piece every week put a lot of creative pressure on you, never mind logistical pressure. What was your primary motivation for taking on this project?
At its essence, 52Artworks was about committing to a process of engaging deeply with nature and exploring this relationship on a personal and spiritual level. As I am an artist and writer, these were the tools I used to assist in the process, for by establishing the need to create during the period of the year, it would ask of me to observe not only the world around me, but to also listen very carefully to my emotional response, to seek that sense of resonance which alerts me as an artist to aspects which capture my attention and engage the imagination. And as an environmentalist I wished to share these experiences and invite others to also explore this process in their own lives.
2. You have talked a bit about the technical challenges you’ve faced on the blog and in the AG inserts over the year, but what have you found difficult from an emotional/personal point of view?
Surprisingly the year has offered very few emotional or personal challenges, I could speak of discipline, focus or the need to pace my creativity, each which presented difficulties and the need for consideration, but the process of a structured time frame allowed me to rather translate potential difficulties into exciting challenges. This sound like rather a glib response, but what I found early on in the process was the option to manage my perspective in order to enjoy the process and get the most out of it. I realised I could engage a sense of challenge and adventure by not seeing the week ahead as a looming deadline, but rather as an exciting opportunity to do what I love doing. Consider being given the directive – For the next week you can do what you love doing, going out into nature and engaging in the experience, and find an aspect which inspires you to then spend time in the studio creating an artwork which you can then share with others, accompanied by any thoughts which you can share in words – not too difficult an ask for an artist/writer!
3. What would you say is the most valuable “thing” to come from this experience?
This is a difficult question to condense into a single definitive outcome, for the experiences and processes of the year asked much of me on many different levels, and each of these had much value in their individual outcomes. For example, as an artist the growth in technical ability, in understanding my medium, the process of conceptualising, creating and completing each work have astonished me, especially when looking back at what I achieved within the timeframe of each week. On a personal and spiritual level, the year reminded me what it means to slow down and to truly engage with the world around me, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, to learn to listen again not only with my ears but also my heart, and to seek a deeper understanding of the profound relationship that we have with the earth, a connection so quickly hidden in life’s rush towards tomorrow.
4. Was the process of choosing subjects an organic one or did you plan each week in advance?
This had to be organic, as I don’t think I could have even started the process if a list of work was pre-determined, probably too daunting a task. In order to achieve each artwork within the time limits I had set myself, and to not compromise on the need to do my absolute best, I needed to engage the emotions, the sense of awe, inspiration and emotional connection that motivated each piece and carried me through the difficult moments that are intrinsic to the creative process. These cannot be pre-planned, but rather come out of the actual experience of observing nature and translating the inner sense of resonance which became the compass pinpointing the subject and content of each artwork. Without passion this project was doomed from the start!
5. Do you have any memories from the 52 artworks project which will stay with you forever?
Each artwork and experience has left me with many deep memories, not only of each nature encounter, but also the associated creative process. Whilst reviewing the full body of work just before the exhibition opening, I spent some quiet time revisiting each piece, and could relive each experience, and each held special unforgettable aspects wrapped within each artwork. But probably most profound has been the Mapungubwe Revisited rhino sculpture (52Artworks #42) and the public response to it, for within this piece are not only captured my deep concern for this magnificent animal of Africa, but also the associated narrative around our changing relationship with the earth, as seen by two artists speaking over a period of 800 years, where ancient meets contemporary. This piece has given me the opportunity to not only raise money for WWF-SA’s excellent rhino work, but it has given me an opportunity to give voice to the core message that has come out of this year of engaging with nature, to realise that, before we speak of the rhino, the whale or the mouse, we must first speak of ourselves and the need to better understand who we are, where we come from , and how important the earth and all its animals are to our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. We need to remember that we do not walk this earth alone.
Noel’s exhibition, A Year in Nature, is on show at The Cape Gallery until the 27th of October. I highly recommend that you swing by and check it out.