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Under the influence

Words by Jilly Easterby

Artist and aquaphile, Tara Leaver, reveals her underwater inspiration as Cornwall’s creatives open their studios.

The feathery fronds of forest green sea kelp; the ocean’s inky depths; the thrilling chill of wild swimming and the sonic swish of wings in flight – all of these natural wonders have inspired Tara Leaver to create a body of work that is timeless, yet of its time – evocative, powerful, atmospheric.

Tara Leaver, image by Ian Kingsnorth

But there is deeper meaning too, as Tara explains from her garden studio with its glimpse of the sea.

“In 2017, after falling in love with Cornwall and moving here from Sussex, I started swimming in an outdoor pool enveloped by plants, lawns and trees. It was not so much about how many lengths I swam but about being immersed in water, cocooned in the natural world.

“My collections – Mornings at the Pool and Underwater Garden – developed as I became enthralled by the stimulus of swimming at one with nature, and the challenge of expressing it. Before long, I began to crave wilder water beyond the confines of the rectangular pool with its charming but cultivated garden environment.”

Tara’s process echoes her underwater encounters, image by Ian Kingsnorth

A primal fear of the sea and of encountering the unknown had overridden Tara’s urge to swim at Battery Rocks in Penzance but when she finally found the courage to do so, she was to enter a world that was beyond her imaginings.

“Sea swimming is nourishing at every level. There is the sense of accomplishment in braving the elements; a rediscovered love of simple pleasure; the camaraderie of a shared moment; a profound feeling of wellbeing generated by the healing power of negative ions; and the unadulterated jubilation of swimming beneath the sky.

“But there is also the surprising, mesmerising beauty of marine life on the sea bed; the unexpected abundance of an underwater garden. I began to take photographs on my daily swims and the results revealed a blurred reality, stirred up by ebb and flow, by weather and tide.

Artwork by Tara Leaver

“Over time, my fear of the sea – and seaweed – has softened. Instead of being scared to touch it, I marvel at how the deep red dulse, moss-green sea spaghetti and olive-brown bladderwrack are choreographed into an aquatic dance, suspended in the water, weightless, soundless and serene.”

Seaweed is a recurring theme in Tara’s paintings. So too are flocks of birds – not just the cormorants and seagulls that haunt the shoreline, but the neighbourhood crows with their abrasive, early-morning squawks.

“The exhilaration I feel standing beneath birds in flight is the aerial counterpoint to sea swimming. For me, both are about movement in harmony and a visceral sense of wild, connected joy.

“Back in my studio, with the sea ten minutes down the hill, I gather my sensory memories and collection of seaweed, and make paintings on canvas or wood using a process that echoes my underwater encounters. Liquid, dynamic paint layers of varying consistencies are combined with fleeting, recognisable elements that are more carefully drawn or carved, from the birds overhead to the seaweed below. Together they allow me to share, in a kind of eclectic, expressive shorthand, the truth and layered pleasures of immersion in wild water.”

It is well-documented that wild swimming and spending time in nature is vital for mental health and physical wellbeing, which Tara has certainly found to be true.

This, together with her art practise has provided her with a vital sense of purpose, as evidenced by the vibrant intensity and fluidity of her work.

“One of the reasons I moved to Cornwall was to immerse myself in nature more. Although I was already eco-conscious, I am becoming increasingly aware of how lightly (or not) I tread on the earth and am keen to minimise my impact. In the hope of eventually phasing out my use of acrylics, I am exploring how to create my own pigments. I want to create work with my local natural environment, rather than just about it.”

Tara will be welcoming socially distanced visitors into her garden studio to learn about her creative process through the popular arts initiative, Open Studios Cornwall, which will take place between Saturday 29th August and Sunday 6th September, following its earlier postponement due to Coronavirus.

More than 200 artists will throw open their studio doors, with appropriate safety measures in place – and others, who are not able to do so, for reasons of limited space or personal vulnerability – will be offering virtual studio tours and additional digital content on the Open Studios Cornwall website.

Although Open Studios Cornwall will be a little more virtual this year, and not just about following those distinctive orange ‘O’s across the Duchy’s creeks, coves and coastlines to curate personal art trails, the pandemic has induced productivity.

“Being confined to short walks between my home and the beach for my mental health and to inspire new work has resulted in a series of rockpool paintings, which transport the viewer on a different, but related journey.

“In capturing the glints of light that flash across the surface of the water as it is ruffled by the wind, or when the sun beams through and creates patterns on the sand or stones, a sumptuous shimmer of gold contrasts with the earthier texture of wood panel so the painting becomes more of an immersive experience, just like being amongst the rockpools at low tide.

Image by Ian Kingsnorth

“One of the things I love most about making art is the mystery of it – the way you never truly know what’s going to happen when you walk into the studio – and for all your intentions and skills and knowledge, your best work will be a collaboration with the unknown and unseen. I didn’t plan to paint birds but they keep showing up. And while they might seem unconnected to the immersion in aquatic life that is my primary focus, to me, they are woven together in a sensory, freedom-feeling, makes-total-sense kind of way.”

The critical acclaim and commercial success that Tara is achieving demonstrates that growing numbers of gallerists and collectors are inclined to agree.


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