October 10, 2008

Visual Arts: Capturing Charmed but Doomed Coastline ; Through Her Paintings, Shirley Anne Owen Asks People to Consider the Impact of Global Warming on Wales. We Find Out More About Her Latest Exhibition, Shifting Shores

By Shirley Anne

SHIRLEY Anne Owen's paintings and drawings reveal the beauty and wildness of the Welsh coast, captured in the deep of winter.

Her new show, featuring more than 40 paintings and 60 drawings, is a tour de force for the artist, whose long love affair with the environment prompted the project.

It brings into focus the consequences of rising water levels on the coastline and raises long held cultural memories of the advance of the sea.

Inundation of the land has been a recurrent motif in the Celtic mythology and this is linked by the artist in her observations of threatened sites - from the Gower to Ceredigion.

The work was completed earlier this year following publication of the National Trust report, Shifting Shores, a paper dealing with the devastating effects of climate change that are accelerating erosion and flooding. It calls for an immediate action plan.

Owen, who since 2003 had been involved in a number of exhibitions focusing on aspects of the Welsh coastline, felt great personal concern on reading this report, and that became the genesis of her project to chart the lands at risk.

In total, about 143 miles is under the care of the National Trust - a sixth of the entire Welsh coastline, much of it considered of "international renown" and it is estimated that over the next 100 years, three quarters of this will be severely affected.

Iwan Huws, National Trust director for Wales, says sea-level rises and more frequent storms appear inevitable, even in the next few years. His impassioned plea, to raise awareness of the issue is well served by Owen's forceful set of images as she unfolds the impressive collection of charmed but perhaps doomed landscapes she encountered on her own voyage around the shoreline.

In the '60s the artist attended Cardiff Art College, studied graphic design at Newport and worked as a medical artist and photographer before settling into family life. In 1997 she opted to become a full-time artist and since has been extremely productive, exhibiting widely and accumulating a number of accolades.

In Shifting Shores she displays a maturity of style compatible with her interest in memory, myth and poetry.

The artist's impressionistic style suits this record of eerie and often majestic sites where there is little tonally between the swirling sea, the leaden skies and landforms, fragile with their bleached colour and occasionally highlighted by the red bracken.

In Dinas Dinlle we see beyond the flood defences, the atmosphere grey and showing an inclement day uplifted by a cleverly composed slice of sunlight dividing the canvas.

In Porth Dinllaen 2, Owen uses a large canvas and, taking a position on the beach, paints a single house, emphasising its vulnerability with entrance guarded by boulders and a sweep of the cliffs behind: the tableau explains the forces of nature and the relative weakness of human intervention. There is also an intriguing scene caught on a shingle beach outside Gyrn Goch village in Gwynedd, an abandoned motor-boat looking marooned with the artist balancing the heaviness of the vessel with the lightly-sketched beach.

The paintings were almost all started on site, using acrylics and sometimes with the defining addition of inks. Owen has also now produced a number of collographs inspired from notebook sketches completed in the A5 and A3 she used throughout the journey. The final works range from large panoramas a metre square to more intimate scenes like the ochre and purple-headed sedge-like grasses, fighting for survival in the sand dunes of Oxwich Bay on the Gower Peninsula.

Owen's marathon voyage in a camper van was not without incident as she moved along the Gower coast, to Sir Benfro, Gwynedd, Anglesey and Ceredigion with her only company a giant Deerhound named Oscar. She spent six weeks on the move, often working in dreadful weather - "I chose to go in winter to catch the colours and the severity of the storms," she says.

After exploring the property she would decide on a situation and anchor her canvases on the ground with stones against the strong winds.

This is an exhibition where viewers can see scenes of the picturesque 18th century fishing village of Porth Dinllaen in Gwynedd, where it is predicted houses on the peninsula will be lost to extreme climate.

Cemlyn Lagoon on Anglesey could also soon disappear and also the historic sea fort of Dinas Dinlle near Llandwrog.

A series of glazed paintings relate to the story of Cantre'r Gwaelod, the mythic flooding of Cardigan Bay, a theme used as a counterpoint to the main subject in works such as Deluge 1, the site of the drowned forest.

The exhibition is at the Washington Gallery, Penarth until November 1. Shirley Anne Owen will give painting demonstrations on October 11, 18 and November 1 from 11am to 3pm

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