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Janette Kerr

January 28, 2013


The sea in all its moods, complexities and challenges is an obsession for artist Janette Kerr.  She is well known for dramatic expressive paintings that border on abstraction but more recently she has been making large figurative drawings of Norwegian fishermen.



Sea of Fish.  Charcoal and graphite on vellum, 80 x 100 cm. 2013

Janette has always worked outside in extremes of weather and light using oil on small boards to record her instant impressions, as well as filling sketchbooks with charcoal responses full of movement.  Markmaking regardless of surface or media is part of her language.


Spume and spindrift. Charcoal, chalk, graphite on paper, 58 x 120 cm, 2010.

For her recent drawings she has been working on what the Americans call Mylar, an opaque film similar to tracing paper in its slippery smoothness, but tougher. She likes the surface, in particular the way she can work into it with a rubber. Working for weeks at a time at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen in Norway she has gradually been absorbing other types of language into her paintings.  The tumbling lines of a graph drawn by a professor of mathematics recording the flow of water, currents and waves at different levels in the sea, set her off on this trajectory.  She now incorporates equations relating to tidal motions and dynamics of fluid flow into her work, viewing them as another form of mark making: “which are as descriptive of sea as my paintings”. She is fascinated by the way oceanographers and meteorologists view the sea and how they analyse it, charting extreme wave movement, recording salinity, temperature and weather conditions. HMSO pamphlets of ships logs from the 1860s of journeys across the South Atlantic are another rich source of information.


Four square towards the land. Mixed media on board, 30 x 30 cm.


We the undersigned. Oil  on canvas with photographic element, 100 x100 cm, 2011.

Recently she has been working on a new aspect of the project. Returning to  Shetland, one of her favourite haunts,  she has been immersing herself in observing the sea in all weathers from the land and surrounded by the water, from a boat.  Moving to a different location every day she  had accumulated written and visual observations of the longitude and latitude,  photographs and water samples and intends to marry all this information with weather reports and emailed satellite images from the Oceanographers in Bergen. The results of these researches will be exhibited in April 2013  in the Coastal Museum in Bergen.

It was during one her frequent visits to the research centre in Norway that she came across a box of 19th century photographs of Norwegian fishermen taken on boats in the 1920s. The limitations of contemporary cameras meant that they were unable to freeze movement in those conditions.  Consequently there are double images, blurred areas and confusion between the men and their catch so that “the fish and the fishermen almost become one and the same thing”. Intrigued by these images Kerr started her series of charcoal and graphite drawings, deliberately merging the fish and the figures.


Fish-men.  Charcoal and graphite on vellum, 80 x 100 cm. 2012

Shocked by the number of hand injuries she had come across in the photographic material she talked to men who are still fishing in Shetland and took photographs of their hands.  These pictures are now being incorporated into a book. They are also appearing with increasing regularity in her paintings, printed on Japanese tissue paper. The tissue paper is so fine it fuses with the paint, so the photographic image has a barely suggested presence.


Hold fast the sheet. Oil on canvas with photographic element, 100 x 100 cm.

All of this is leading to ways of bringing together the different strands both of her practice and her research. She is making connections between the Norwegian and Shetland fishing communities; interweaving scientists’ data from Norway with that of her own records and research and combining information from historic weather maps and charts with contemporary ones. In her use of materials she is merging paper with canvas, abstract with figurative, and potentially interleaving drawing and hand written text by the simple device of layering sheets of tracing paper. She doesn’t yet know where all this is going but she sees it as a way of connecting the historic and the contemporary, the two locations of Norway and Shetland and the men who fish the sea with the scientists who record it and “Trying to put my visual description of the sea with theirs.”


Brimfooster 1. Oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm, 2010.


Fingers curled into the waves.

* Header Image:  Battling with the villains of Ure.  Charcoal, chalk, graphite and gesso on canvas, 116 x 200 cm, 2011.

© Fiona Robinson 2012

Edited version of article first published in Evolver 60 September/October 2012

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