‘Ice Limit’ by Royal Academy Artist Emma Stibbon
Interview by Joy Martin
It is always a pleasure to walk through the Polar Museum’s Temporary Gallery on my way into the office each day, and for the past week this space has been in transition: our exhibition of Scott’s photographs has been taken down, and the gallery has been filled with tools, drop cloths, ladders, the busy sound of drilling, and, of course, the beautiful and evocative giant artworks in Emma Stibbon’s new exhibition.
Emma Stibbon is an award-winning artist with an international reputation. She is based in Bristol and is currently the Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Brighton. Her new exhibition for the Polar Museum follows her recent Artist Placement travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula with the Royal Navy through a programme organised by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute (FoSPRI). She also joined an expedition to Svalbard in the High Arctic organised by Arcticcircle.org. Drawing on a large scale, Stibbon works in delicate media, including ink, watercolour, graphite and aluminium powder on paper. She often depicts wilderness and the remote and landscapes that are undergoing transformation.
I sat down for a chat with Emma during a break in the work of hanging the exhibition. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Q: So, how did the artist residency come about?
ES: I was fortunate to be selected for the FoSPRI Artist in Residency programme back in 2013, which was also funded by Bonhams and supported by the Royal Navy. So I travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula aboard HMS Protector, a Royal Navy icebreaker, reaching as far south as Rothera Station, which is the furthest south I’ve ever been.
Q: What was it like to see Antarctica?
ES: The experience is extraordinary. It’s a very disorientating landscape – you can’t really judge scale or distance. I found it to be otherworldly, like travelling into an internal world.
Q: And what inspired you to go?
ES: It is the most remarkable landscape on the planet, and I knew it would offer a rich visual subject matter. But although there is a seductive beauty there, one cannot ignore the underlying environmental concerns – that ice sheets and glaciers face a precarious future, and their evident retreat on the Peninsula is clear. One of the reasons I applied for the residency was to witness something of this. There is an urgency of change that I feel compelled to explore. In this exhibition I hope to convey something of the awesome beauty of Antarctica. But I would also like to suggest that despite the apparent monumentality of place, we are facing the inevitable frailty of change.
Installing the exhibition in the gallery.
Q: There is an interesting legacy of artists accompanying polar expeditions. Can you say something about this?
ES: Historically, in pre-photography times, an artist would have accompanied an expedition to visually record the topography. Obviously now things are different – onboard HMS Protector I was constantly aware of the sophisticated technologies recording data during the voyage. At times, the act of drawing from observation in my sketchbook felt absurd…I thought, ‘What am I doing, trying to define something in pencil or a bit of ink on paper, alongside the precision of modern data collection?’ However, I do believe the human response to places is still meaningful, and that the tactile quality of drawing connects people on an emotional level. Interestingly, the ship’s Bridge still relies on the human eye to identify types of ice while navigating.
Q: How have you actually done the work?
ES: My work evolves through quite a lengthy production. I usually spend some time gathering information ‘in the field’ through travelling and gathering imagery drawing from direct observation and through the camera. In the studio this evolves into the drawn or printed image. I try to represent and ‘stage’ the subject through the composition and material construction of the pictorial space. The scale of the work is important to me; I want to create immersive drawings that communicate something of the sensory experience of the place – to try to connect the viewer with the Polar environment.
Q: Any final thoughts?
ES: It was so exciting. I still dream about it.
The exhibition is now open and will be running until 5 September 2015 in the Temporary Gallery of the Polar Museum.