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Barbara Shaw

The North Wind Doth Blow: Artweeks Arctic

The north wind doth blow / And we shall have snow / And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
Oxfordshire Artweeks

"Ross’s large striking photographs contrast with fabric ice flows"

Named for the direction from which it blows, the north wind brings cold and wintry air to the UK, and while many of us wrap our coats tighter and wait for the spring, there are those who find the fresh cold air of the Arctic inspiring.


Ross Mackenzie from Headington travels regularly to the Arctic to photograph the landscapes and wildlife, drawn by its remoteness and by the opportunity to see landscapes with minimal human intervention. He explains that although the Arctic may experience extremes of weather, it also offers 24 hours of daylight during certain months, and unbelievably clear air.

Ross Mackenzie


To celebrate the natural world in winter, and to remind us of the ecological importance of the North Pole, The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is hosting an exhibition inspired by arctic habitats throughout December and January. Ross’s large striking photographs contrast with fabric ice flows; enjoy striking polar white pieces in alabaster and porcelain and glass pieces like melting ice by top contemporary glass artist, Vital Peeters. Vital explains how the Arctic qualities of intense light, the reflection of light and the sensation of crystal clear skies which are also intrinsic to the medium of glass. Although he often works in strong and fiery colours, for this exhibition he has limited his colour range to white, opaque white, blues, silver and gold to express the atmosphere of the Arctic, melting the glass into moulds to evoke the sense of flow and frozen movement.

Start, perhaps, with the realism and delicate watercolour landscapes of Jericho’s Susan Avery, who is passionate about the transparency and immediacy of this medium. Her inspiration derives from the paintings of earlier British watercolourists (Turner in particular), their travels, sketches and methods of work. She explains how her fascination with light, water and the patterns made by natural forms are underpinned by an interest in geology. “The Arctic, and most dramatically Svalbard, is a source of continuing wonder to me, and my concern for, and desire to document our changing environment is clearest there.”

In contrasting and striking abstracts, artist Mary Knowland describes how the man-made meets the natural in the Arctic as pollution, a hidden menace which breaks through the ice surface. Black yet beautiful, it contrasts and merges with the purity of the whites and blues whilst expediting the melting process and proving a catalyst for its destruction.

“Ice is the harbourer of many contrasts in the midst of the calm and beauty of the still,” says Mary, explaining how the passing of time is evident in her abstract paintings. “It’s the constant element in the transfiguration and transience of the ice cycle, or the changing nature of water to ice and ice to water. It is present in the building of the delicate and transparent, the translucent and opaque layers of an icy puddle and it is present in the compact solidity and powerful strength of majestic Arctic ice.”

Starting with elements from her own photographs and those of others, Mary uses this concept to underpin her artistic process. “The canvases are worked by pouring many layers of very diluted paint on, the pouring and drying mirrors the way the ice itself freezes and builds layer after layer over a long period of time,” she says.

Talented textile artist Barbara Shaw ‘paints’ with textiles, creating images by hand-stitching small pieces of fabric together in layers using detailed and sophisticated techniques. “I am influenced by impressionist paintings and how coloured marks depict subjects,” she explains, “whilst the inherent pattern and tactile quality of the fabric dictates the outcome of the final picture.” Stand close to these finished pieces to look afresh at familiar Arctic flora and fauna!

Didcot-based Charlie Davis’s collection includes examples of woodcuts, precious metal clay work and casting, bead work and stone settings. “I was delighted to have the chance to show my arctic pieces here in this beautiful building, where I spent many happy hours as a child. I have also been mainly drawn to arctic animals but I also wanted to give this new collection of silverware a strong colour theme to convey the icy beauty of the region and so I have chosen to use particular stones: sea-glass, moonstones, apatite and crystals.”

The exhibition also showcases work by three very different ceramicists. The first, Kina Gorska, is a contemporary porcelain ceramicist who gravitates towards simple, clean and aesthetic forms, creating visually pleasing shapes which invite people to use them. Her geographical crockery has been inspired by the striking linear pattern of topographic maps, and she has mimicked these ‘ice mountains’ for the table. Her white porcelain creates an impression of arctic landscape which can decorate a shelf, or serve breakfast when flipped over.

From Oxfordshire’s Ewelme Pottery, discover porcelain from Limoges which is glazed with a variety of ‘carbon trap shinos’ by Harriet Coleridge. These are elusive and unpredictable glazes which depend, for their diverse and mysterious effects, on the atmosphere in the kiln during firing. Like Kina, Harriet mostly makes pots to be used, but also creates one-off pieces too, particularly tactile pebbles and, for this exhibition, an ‘Arctic cliff’. “I hope that these pieces will simply provide a visual echo of the Arctic; and serve thereby as a reminder of an environment so precious – so pristine and so threatened,” she explains.

And in yet another cabinet, enjoy Mia Sarosi’s Arctic plates which use the colour palette of snow white porcelain, blue-black glaze, and a lighter zinc blue influenced by Russian polar artist Alexander Borisov. “When I think about the Arctic,” she explains, “I immediately imagine the extreme nature of the environment. My ceramic pieces echo the cracking and melting patterns of icebergs, and the colours of the polar night. Mindful that the Arctic is named after constellations in the night sky, I have explored a kind of constellation of geology, creating each glaze to give a certain colour and effect and to create cracks. I hope this exhibition invites reflection on the Arctic environment and the need to protect it from the invasive impact of mankind.

The Artweeks Arctic exhibition runs until 29th January. For other Artweeks exhibitions in December, visit artweeks.org.

- Esther Lafferty


Related Articles: The Circus at Christmas | Oxfordshire Artweeks in winter