Water Marks

FROM ARTWORK INSPIRED BY SWAN FEET to an elaborate sculpture made of waste plastic – don’t miss this rare exhibition of contemporary art at the National Waterways Museum

Peter Watts

Posted on 11/10/2019

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When the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, invited members of the art collective Markmakers Artists down to the canal, the plan was to see how the artists would respond to the museum, its archive and the surrounding canal network. The wildly diverse results are currently displayed in Water Marks, a rare exhibition of contemporary art at the museum, which has already proved hugely popular with visitors. “We have everything from textile and print to photography,” says Markmakers’ curator Louise Hesketh, herself a long-time live-aboard boater who is familiar with the canal and the 6am coot alarm clock. “Artists could go into the collection archive and library, explore traditional crafts as well as spend time around the canal itself.”

The Markmakers coalition of artists meets each month to discuss ongoing projects but otherwise they work independently on pieces that are displayed in themed shows. This results in works that come from the same source but have radically different interpretations. At the museum you can see this in action. There is everything from elaborate sculptures made from plastic taken from the waterways to silk screens inspired by narrowboat cratch boards. “It’s so vast, it encompasses everything from baskets to bird feet,” says Michelle Kozomara, Marketing & Communications Manager at the museum. “The ideas have been presented in such a contemporary way that they are really thought-provoking and give visitors a completely different perspective.”

To get a snapshot of the variety on display, Maria Tern has created fabrics based on the traditional Roses and Castles style but translating those vivid colours into pictures of the entire canal space, while Sue Archer has made portraits in wire that are modelled on old portraits she found in the archive. Angela Sidwell’s work is based on the swan feet she saw when walking along the Montgomery Canal in winter, while Sarah Feinmann’s monotypes reference the museum’s historic Starvationer boat and the Barton Aqueduct swing bridge. Clifford Richards produced vast prints that responded to the way water comes through the lock gates, one of many artists who has look at the interplay of water, movement and light.

As an example of the diverse ways the canal can inspire each artist, Hesketh singles out the work of Judith Ferns, a basketmaker and weaver who was inspired by the canal’s traditional crafts but also the natural life that thrives on the network. “Judith looked at boat fenders and then took some of those knots and shapes in a different direction,” says Hesketh. “Some were made from beautiful string and fibre but she also took lots of iris leaves, dried them and then wove them into rope and made them into a fender-shape using a much more open weave so you can see the structure. It’s a very small piece that I placed in the opening cabinet.”

Hesketh’s role is to bring the disparate elements together into a cohesive show. “My job is to display each work to its best advantage,” she explains. “It’s responding to the physical space and the pieces. I ask the artists if they have any particular requirements, and then try and build a pleasing relationship between the pieces. It’s about colour and shape, creating a visual link and a story for the visitors.”

It has proven to be a real hit with visitors to the museum, who might be surprised to find a contemporary art show in what is usually seen as a museum of social and industrial appeal. “It appeals to a wider audience and engages with hard-to-reach groups,” says Michelle. “It has increased dwell time as there is so much to see – each corner has something completely different. The feedback has been very positive, and some of the pieces have been purchased by visitors which shows it has really hit a chord.”

Water Marks will be showing at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, until 3 November 2019. Entry into the exhibition is included in your admission to the museum (adults £9.75, child £6.00, family £25.00. Your ticket allows you to return as often as you like for one year).

Immy Llewelyn