'All At Sea' - the story of a painting inspired by a pandemic

'All at sea'

You can say that someone is all at sea when they are in a state of confusion or uncertainty. Collins COBUILD, www.collinsdictionary.com


'All At Sea' Acrylic and mixed media on board


In February 2020 my driftwood collection had grown from a few sticks to more sticks and a box full of unusual shaped flatter pieces with interesting markings. I had been busy accumulating them on local beaches when out for walks, I love how every piece is unique and has a different story. What was I going to do with them? I would always use the sticks for hanging my handmade felt work but the other pieces had to be for something special. I would wait until an idea came long.



The next month, we were in our first lockdown and at the beginning I remember often thinking to myself 'is this really happening? Is this all just a bad dream?' The whole world coming to a halt seemed and still seems so peculiar. I decided to use this time at home to continue research for my painting 'Final Passage' and while looking up various local and maritime history I came across numerous articles about the Vikings. I didn't know a huge amount about them or their beautiful ships so I read on.


I discovered that Viking longships were clinker built (overlapping wood planks) and this got me wondering if I could somehow replicate this effect in my artwork when it came to me what I could do with my driftwood - how interesting it would be to make a ship! The flatter lengths I had collected would be perfect for this idea and I kept thinking of a Viking longship style painting I had sold ten or so years before. I had always wanted to do another similar piece, it was called 'Spirit Ship' and was a reference to the rather beautiful analogy of the ship as a soul and the sea as life. The maritime theme holds numerous symbols and metaphors which share a universal significance. Many cultures and religions view the ship as an allegory of passage, security, freedom and spiritual journeying amongst other beliefs.


'Spirit Ship' Acrylic and mixed media on board


I began to see a driftwood longship with a tattered patchwork sail appear in my mind's eye. The phrase 'all in the same boat' kept coming to me - I get these hunches when ideas for artwork are forming and I have learned to follow them - this is my favourite part of the creative process when things start to 'click' into place and ideas keep coming. I started to see this driftwood vessel in a global sense as being full of souls on the sea of life with the Coronavirus raging all around us, 'all in the same boat' fighting together like Viking warriors. After all, are we not like warriors at the moment fighting a battle against a virus? Have we not had to hurriedly build some kind of vessel to sail us on through these strange waters? I was beginning to see a link forming between what was going on with the pandemic around me and the artwork I was envisioning. This was the 'something special' that I had been wanting for my driftwood. Lots of things seemed to 'fit'.


Detail from sail


It was July before I could begin this painting and after preparing a surface and assembling my wooden vessel I began to create a sail. Apparently they were made from wool and were highly prized by the Vikings. Mine became a collage of muslin, cotton and local newspaper scraps featuring articles from the first lockdown as I wanted to have subtle bits of relevant text coming through. I also included some words from a beautiful and ancient Nordic song I came across during research. 'Droymde mik ein draum i nott' (please see image below) translates to 'I dreamed a dream last night' and when I first read this I was immediately taken back to my earlier feelings of 'is this all a dream? Is this really happening?' As I read on I found that a lot of the lines of this song somehow felt familiar with the pandemic especially the lines 'the whole ill-fated human race, a different fear upon each face'.

If I hadn't been so far on with the painting at this point I would have included more reference to this song, I found it very inspiring and it was something else that seemed to 'fit'. However, I won't expand on it here as I would love to do some work with it in the future so I will save it for a later blog.


In addition to the sail, the ship needed ropes which I made from linen (the vikings would have used various animal fibres and lime bast) which has also been used for the horns on the ram figurehead. Why a ram? Viking figureheads were typically dragons and monsters as their purpose was to ward off evil spirits. The ram is a symbol for assertion, action, strength and creativity (amongst other things), surely all desirable attributes for warding off a virus?


Ram figurehead detail


The nine shields are individually fashioned with different colours and patterns, four of which depict stylized designs of the Coronavirus cell made with thread and cotton. The eight pointed star is a symbol for navigation and is painted in gold - the use of which lifts the whole image colour wise but it is also a reference to how precious our protection has become. These shields represent our only methods of defence available until the emergence of a vaccine which has now thankfully been realised.


Shield and steering oar detail


I'm not sure if it has been noticed yet but this is a rowing ship without oars. I decided not to include them as a reference to our unpreparedness for the pandemic - a ship built in haste from what has been available to us is always going to be missing something. Maybe the oars could represent the lack of PPE? We have sail and a steering oar (the prior invention to the rudder) for direction but we can't get anywhere fast without wind, hence why I have depicted calm waters in this painting. Therefore, without oars we just have to let the water carry us slowly onwards and make use of the tools we have to avoid heading where we don't want to go. I used a scumbling technique (a thin layer of paint with a dry brush) to try and suggest a slight fog in the background skies, adding yet another obstacle in our journey. I think the saying 'up **** creek without a paddle' would be appropriate here!



I did initially see this ship as global, containing all the souls of the world, however, comparing this painting under the current skies, I see this as more of a UK vessel. As nations we seem to have all jumped into separate boats. Some countries are speeding along toward mass vaccination with others close behind. Some are in much safer waters due to 'batting down the hatches' whilst others find themselves in very troubled waters at 'panic stations'. One or two are like u-boats hiding away from the radar, secretly navigating their own course.


I love how there are so many old seafaring quotes and sayings that are appropriate here! In my research I have discovered so many that we use every day which have a maritime origin - 'touch and go', 'bitter end', 'high and dry' are just some examples. I chose the title 'All At Sea' as I thought it was befitting of this painting on so many levels. Most people must be familiar with this saying, I liked the word 'all' as a reference to how everyone has been touched by Covid19 in some way, it has affected each and every person in some area of their life. We are all on these unchartered seas in this state of uncertainty together and it may be some time before we reach a stretch of 'plain sailing'.


Thank you for reading the story of my painting, I hope you found it interesting and you will read more of my blogs in the future. Find them at https://www.alisonthomasartist.co.uk/blog





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