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Laurie Steen

July 20, 2011

‘I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance                     ee cummings

This lovely quote, is just one of many, which expresses for Laurie Steen how ee cummings ‘gives a humanness to nature’.  A quality that emerges again and again from the simplicity of his text.

Steen feels that the way the poet pares down the words, thoughts, ideas, to their bare essentials validates the way that she works.  She feels an affinity with cummings, because she perceives a relationship between their working processes.

The connection with nature:

 “no heart can leap,no soul can breath                                                                       

but by the sizeless truth of a dream                                                                        

 whose sleep is the sky and the earth and the sea.”                      ee cummings

and inescapably, I suggest the picturesque, and the Romantic tradition, makes cummings significant to her oeuvre. Steen says, “What touches me about poetry, and particularly that of ee cummings is the weight that an individual line can carry.  My aim is to make drawings where only the most important lines survive.  Lines that make you want to read, then breathe, then read the drawing some more because you know it is moving something inside of you  – and there will be parts that confuse and parts that sing and parts that you know you will never be able to forget.”

here and there, graphite painting 12-11
graphite on gessoed panel
30 x 45cm.

As you walk down the track away from Laurie Steen’s studio, a spectacularly beautiful landscape falls away into the distance.  Mounds of green slopes, interlocking as far as the horizon, are punctuated with majestic dark trees, stark against a low December sunlight.  This vista is what Steen observes every day, the inspiration which informs her drawings and paintings of nature. In the studio she works enveloped in an emphatic silence which makes space for the sounds of birds, the whisper of beeches, horses, the gamekeeper’s footsteps as he passes three times a day to feed the pheasants.

in front of me, graphite painting 10-11

Her working process has a rhythm that is in tune with the cycle of seasons and the routine that informs her days. The spring and summer months see her out making ‘shadow drawings’ of the emerging leaves on transparent mylar and rag paper; ethereal creations that capture the movement of a gentle breeze on a warm day.  In Winter she immerses herself in the architectural splendour of the denuded trees, observing the bones of their structures. She reads the architectural writings of Louis Kahn, who wrote lyrically of what he called, ‘silence and light’  saying, “…silence is not very, very quiet. It is something which you may say is lightless, and darkless. …Light to silence, silence to light, has to be a kind of ambient threshold and when this is realized, sensed, there is Inspiration.”   


Portrait of our (not unremarkable) Tree I.  43-10
oil, graphite on wooden panel
20 x 40 x 3cm. 

She works extensively with photography, “composing with the camera” and then returns to the studio with these images, written notes and pencil studies.  Recently she has been working on board, a more practical surface for shipping work to her galleries in Switzerland and Canada.  She is also working on a smaller scale, a necessity dictated by the size of her current studio, very different to her loft space in Canada where she worked and lived up until three years ago.  Canadian by birth, annual visits to see family in England over the years have now translated themselves into living in the UK full-time, so her ‘belonging in two places’ in now weighted in favour of Devon, to a deeply rural location in the South West of England, an area with which she has had a love a affair most of her life.

nest. Drawing 40-10

Drawing board 07.2010 – 05.2011 (detail)

Steen has a singular vision.  She describes her work, as ‘very experiential’.  Everything that feeds into her work is the result of direct experience, something observed whilst on a walk or when driving, or just being.  “When you walk past something, or experience something in nature, it is that specific bit that inspires me and needs to be recorded.  I have always had the desire to make work that is fleeting, which directly recalls the sensation of experiencing a specific subject.” The need to relate her vision with human scale, probably owes something to her architectural training. The complete focus on trees and the natural world is relatively recent, but she makes no distinction in her working methods between her tree paintings and the portraiture which is another element of her practice. The one informs the other and they are all part of the same progression.  When she wants to push her work in new directions she often returns to drawing people until she solves the problem and then returns to her trees applying the results of her investigations to this different subject matter.  Her working method is slow, a building up of layers of graphite drawing, gesso and oil. Then redrawing, waiting for pigments to dry, adding, looking and thinking until the piece is finally how she wants it to be.  Her drawn line is very beautiful, delicate, thin and yet has a tensile strength which encapsulates both the brittleness of dead twigs and the suppleness of sap filled branches.

© Fiona Robinson 2011

Header Image

liminal view 09.3.2009.  04-11
oil, graphite on wooden panel
20 x 80 x 3cm.

Laurie Steen’s work can be seen at Badcocks in Penzance in the show

New Beginnings
18th August 2011 – 10th September 2011

Badcocks 10 Long Row, Sheffield, Penzance, Cornwall TR19 6UN.  The gallery will be open from Tuesday to Friday – 11am to 4pm, Saturday 11 – 2pm. Otherwise OPEN BY APPOINTMENT PLEASE CONTACT THE GALLERY 01736731034 or 07977059326.

far from,,, View 21-11
oil and graphite on wooden panel
22.5 x 30 cm.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 12:43 pm

    Nicely done, Fiona
    Intriguing line, and work…


  2. July 20, 2011 7:11 pm

    Thanks Kate

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