‘Drawn From the Coast’ exhibit running from Saturday, September 5th to Friday, September 18th
Tim Salter is an artist who sees the beauty in deterioration, picking out the intricate, accidental patterns in both nature and the man-made that we pass everyday. Below, I speak to him about his inspirations for the exhibit, as well as his past as an art teacher.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Debatable whether I ever grew up, actually [laughs]. Rochester in Kent, which is where I went to secondary school. I left at 16, went straight to art college where I did a foundation degree. Then I did an illustration course, and at that point I realised I didn’t want to go into commercial art in any way, shape or form, and decided to do a teachers training certificate – and that’s how I got to Exeter.
Do you use a lot of the knowledge you gained from your art education?
Oh, yeah. I went to an art college when it was quite free, and because there was that freedom, I learnt a lot. When I realised I didn’t want to go into commercial art, I went to the head of department and said “This is what I want to do – I want to diversify, get some experience in 3D,” and he said “Okay, go round and see the heads of department in this area and this area, negotiate your time with them and you can do it.” So I was allowed to construct my own course, basically!
Wow! That wouldn’t happen today.
So that’s what I did, then I came down here and got a teaching certificate. I was teaching up until 2002.
And has art always been a part of your life?
Yes! I remember being very proud of a picture I did of London Bridge in infant school. I don’t know if I’d even seen it before.
Must have been.
How about your family, are they artists too?
Nope. My mother used to draw when she was at school, but later in life, no. I always thought my younger brother could draw better than I, but he never took it up. That’s it.
For this exhibit, you focused on degenerated organic and man-made surfaces. What drew you to this?
It’s been a long time fascination. I think it comes from textures, and being a print-maker. That was one part of the course. I did more printing; I used to do deep-bite etching. You leave a plate in acid for too long and it starts breaking up and doing interesting things – it’s an organic process that fuelled my interest. Then going into collography, and once again it’s focused on textures. I saw the work of Brenda Hartill a few years ago, and I loved the fact that she uses collography and etching. She puts real heavy pressure on the printing press and paper so it’s nice and embossed.
How has your style evolved since college?
I think I did a lot of very straight painting in some respects. Like most adolescents, I was involved in surrealism and Dali and people like that. I think the change came when I saw Rothko’s paintings, and was blown away. I was walking through this gallery thinking “Wow, what’s this?” and it was one of those really nice moments in life. However, I still stuck to things like simple watercolours because they’d sell [laughs]. I eventually decided “That’s it, no more watercolours!” and that I was to persue what interested me.
Well, I’m glad you did!
I’m glad I did! That’s not to say I wasn’t happy teaching, but I’m really pleased – it was a good decision.
What did teaching bring to your life?
Tolerance [laughs]. It’s sobering when you find a student and think, “You’re so much better than me!”
But it’s nice. I’ll always remember one student – I didn’t really think she had what it took to get an A-grade, so I gave her a B, and she complained, and they gave her an A-grade in the end. Some years later I went into the art college when it was in Exeter, and I saw her work there – I didn’t know it was her work at the time, and I thought “Wow, this is brilliant!” Gradually the penny dropped. Be very careful when you make comments on other people’s work!
Ha, I’ll keep that in mind. Could you tell me about your other artistic influences?
Ben Nicholson – I was fascinated by his white plaster pieces. I also became interested in the West Country, St Ives group of artists – Bryan Wynter, who else? Abstact expressionists, Frank Auerbach and his big gloopy paintings. Albert Irvin! He does these big canvases. I came across his work in Spacex – he’s a lovely man, very enganging and personal. His brushes are the size of sweeping-up brushes – he makes these huge, broad sweeps of colour. It’s got such presence.
And for your own work, how did you pick which pieces to include?
It was fairly easy in that just before Christmas, I broke my arm. I couldn’t do any painting or drawing – I couldn’t even pick up a pound of sugar, and that was my instruction from the consultant. The only thing I could do was use a camera phone or my SLR, so I took photographs, walking the dog on the beach. That’s what my focus became. It was nice because it made me look at things differently again; I’ve got a prosthetic leg as you’ve probably noticed, and if you’re not careful, you trip over, so you look at the ground an awful lot, and you notice all these lovely little incidental compositions. It’s these two factors that came together. Later, I decided there’s probably enough space for a few more pieces. I’d already taken pictures of the shipwreck about six months before breaking my arm, so I thought they’d fit in quite nicely. The ‘I Am The Sea’ painting was a therapy to get me back to it, and for that [‘Teignmouth Groyne III’], I used the print-making process by wetting the paper, putting it through the etching press to emboss, and then I drew into them using biro. That’s the same technique as the ‘Woodhenge’ drawing. Then, I use metholated spirits, and a little atomiser spray to make it bleed and run and much softer. I thought they fit in because, once again, you make a drawing and completely destroy the original – and you don’t really know what’ll happen, and that’s the nice thing. Its like print-making; you never know what you’ve got until you pull the paper off the printing press. That’s the sort of accidental thing I like.
Could you tell me more about the creative process behind ‘St Ives Harbour’?
If you were to look at a printing plate, you’d see different levels, and that’s how that was created. It’s from a photograph – does it destroy the illusion if I tell you where it came from?
No – tell me all the secrets!
It’s where they’ve cut off the safety rails along the harbour. The square plate was the oldest one, the round one was newer, but that one had gone, and a new one was put in. The background was broken concrete, so I thought let’s try to destroy the background of the piece as well, cracking the plaster and scraping into it. You put in various stains, often oil paint, rubbing it back and forth, and they’re all worked in that way. Once you put the oil paint on, you can burnish it to a reasonable polish, or you can break it down to its core level.
Sounds like a very physical process.
Yeah! It is. It’s a bit like etching. It’s a nice physical process that destroys the plate – that’s what I like.
I don’t know [laughs]. It just excites me I guess.
How about your piece, ‘Faust’? It’s the only one with a person in it.
Yeah, my partner said to put that in and I said “Just because it’s got the sea in?” and she said “Yes, and it’s got the textures.” It was a photo montage. The background, the sea, the chain and the wood came from photo. The barnacles came through when I was doing work using oil-based spray paint with a methylated spirit base and an oil base, and they interact. I can’t remember who the portrait is of, but he looks like a nice, wiry old character, and he was painted in to complete it.
And ‘Combe Martin’ – the colours are so different and bright for that one. What was your inspiration?
I went to Combe Martin on a beautiful, sunny day. I’d been to a new gallery there and seen some nice work, and sat down on a bench. Once again, there was this composition of shadow from the bench itself. So the red is the – the shite – and the green is a blob of paint from where they’d recently painted the bench – and the two blue elements were bolts holding the bench together. There’s a link to the groynes [‘Teignmouth Groynes’] where there’s bolts coming in through those, too. All these things just filter down.
Do you have a favourite of your own works?
Probably ‘St Ives Harbour’, funnily enough. Maybe it’s because it was the first one. I think it’s the one I’m happiest with in many ways. They all have a life of their own, they never stop – they grow, they demand, they change – and sometimes I get very physical with them to destroy them, to think afresh. Really hammering at them is good therapy, but always makes you think of a new piece of work. But with that one, although it changed a lot as I worked on it, it has the feeling I wanted from it.
And what’s next for you?
I’m still centered on source material in terms of broken images. I’ve got a series on woodhenge – I’ve only done two in that series, so I want to work on those. They’ll all be different. I also have a large painting that I did twenty odd years ago, which was returned to me because the person who it was with moved and couldn’t get it into their house. They didn’t know what to do with it, so they gave it back. It’d been in storage in a barn for – [laughs] – so I cleaned it up and I thought, “Hmm, I’ll rework that one.”
What’s it of?
It’s an abstract based on a collage, and the collage was based on broken glass. So I took that broken glass and added bits to it, and that became the starting point of this. They all have roots in damaged property. Damaged artist [laughs]!
And as a teacher, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Don’t listen to your teachers!
You know what, I like that.
I do despair at the education system because it’s become very prescriptive. Pupils are driven towards A-grades, and “What have I got to do to get an A-grade?” and at times, people seem to lose sense of what the work’s all about – so stay true to your work.
Keep up with Tim’s work and browse through his paintings at Artsel.co.uk, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.