After graduating with a degree in fine art from Loughborough University, artist Harry Mayston went on to have his work exhibited in Surface Gallery’s recent exhibition Vessel after he, by chance, was asked to give the team behind the gallery a tour of the Loughborough School of Design and Creative Arts degree show. Following the exhibition, he tells us more about the nature of his piece Blue Things, which was made up of 76 cyanotype prints, and the plans he has for the future of his art practice…
You recently had an exhibition at Surface Gallery, can you tell us about the exhibition and the art you exhibited?
The exhibition was part of Surface Gallery’s 2023 East Midlands Graduate Project. The project consisted of a four-week residency using the top floor project space, followed by a public exhibition in the main gallery space which ran for two weeks and was intended to introduce recent graduate artists to the world of professional art practice. I initially found out about the project at the Loughborough School of Design and Creative Arts degree show, where quite by chance I was asked to give the Surface team a tour of the show, and eventually I ended up being one of eight people selected to take part in the project.
The exhibition was titled Vessel, and I exhibited my piece Blue Things. With the piece I was focusing on human perception and interaction with water. It consisted of 76 cyanotype prints on paper, varying in scale arranged over the gallery wall, overlapping and appearing to float in front of each other. I was also particularly looking at the role of water in creation, thinking about how life is dependent on water, including the role of water molecules in the birth of stars. In the imagery I created, I used ambiguous patterns that looked like refracting water just as much as it looks like skin, encouraging the viewer to think about themselves in relation to water and the ways we are connected to the world around us.
What is cyanotype photography?
The cyanotype was an early form of camera-less photography meaning that images are made without the use of a lens or camera box, instead materials are placed directly on coated paper, and exposed to ultraviolet light (usually in the form of sunlight).
A cyanotype print starts with preparing the paper. Mixing in equal parts the chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, which is then spread over paper and left to dry in the dark. Once dry you can place objects, like plants, flowers, or photographic negatives on top of the paper and expose it to light, the objects will block the light from developing the cyanotype underneath it, creating an inverse silhouette. Finally, the paper then needs to be washed, which develops the reacted cyanotype into a colour known as Prussian Blue, while also washing away the unreacted cyanotype. This is a slow-reacting form of photography, in direct summer sun it can take as short as two to five minutes to fully react, whereas in the winter it can take over half an hour.
The cyanotype has a history of depicting nature. Anna Atkins (1799–1871) applied the technique to illustrate algae and seaweed, which she published in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. This subject has transcended to contemporary work, with focuses on water and the coastline being a popular source of inspiration amongst current cyanotype artists.
I used ambiguous patterns that looked like refracting water just as much as it looks like skin, encouraging the viewer to think about themselves in relation to water
Can you tell us a bit about your art practice?
I have always been very interested in nature, with almost all of the photographic imagery being taken from near where I live as well as other locations throughout Nottingham and Derby. A lot of my work embodies the intricacy of nature, expressed through a focus on the patterns that emerge, such as the arrangement and the formation of Fibonacci spirals in leaf growth, known as phyllotaxis.
Something I focus on quite heavily is building a way of making that directly reflects the concept that I am trying to embody in the image, even if it isn’t directly observable in the final piece. With the use of cyanotype, I found my own engagement with water in developing the photographs, directly reflecting the sort of connection I was trying to highlight in the appearance of the image. Previously I have also made and used biological inks in nature inspired compositions. That way I have been creating an image depicting and inspired by nature, whilst also being made from pieces of the world.
What plans do you have for the future of your art practice?
I have recently been looking into the politically ecological implications of my work. I have experimented with printing images of nature onto fragile materials, like tracing paper, and thin washi paper as a way of highlighting fragility, while also depicting an almost idyllic image of nature to communicate a way the world could be, free of pollution or destruction. I am looking into this as a way of awakening the viewer to a sense of loss when we step away from the images in cyanotypes and we are affronted by the reality of the world, and hopefully motivate a restorative action and protection of the world by fostering a love for nature.
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