Reflections on mud, art, history and an exhibition

By Marianna Dudley

For fotogallery please scroll to bottom

Mud. Commonplace, messy, mucky. It is something we squelch through on walks, wash off boots, and rinse away on hands. Have you ever stopped to ponder its historical significance? Its sensory delights? Its visual possibilities?

From 14 – 18 March at the University of Bristol, ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’ project invited the public to do just that, in a free exhibition of work by ceramic artist Tana West, who uses river mud to create beautiful – and thoughtful – objects that connect maker and place, process and product, material and environment.

In 2009’s ‘Subject for Change’ Tana walked the length of the River Severn, researching and digging for mud as she went. It was this artwork that captured my attention, as postdoctoral researcher investigating aspects of the Severn’s environmental history on ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’. Her rigorous research process, the importance she placed on experiencing the changing river environment, and the production of objects which held clues to the river’s history within them, connected with the research of the project on a number of levels.

When you work on the Severn, mud asserts itself, historically and physically. It is a river whose water is the colour of chocolate milk, dense with mud and silt particles kept suspended by surface run-off upstream and the tidal movements of the lower reaches. Environmental historian of the early modern Severn landscape, John Morgan, shared with me a source he’d found in the Bristol city archives, in which the river mud was held in high esteem.  In a letter from Captain Charles Symes to Edward Southwell about building out near Sea Mills in 1694, Symes claimed of local river sand that ‘when tis Dry its Licke aney Rock and much stronger then aney Other Morter, (as well it may) Takeing up Such a Deal of Lymme’.  This mud, much like the mud that Tana uses in her art, was valued for its malleable qualities, its strength and its usefulness.

In recent times, not everyone has valued mud in the Severn. John’s source contrasts with a modern source I’ve found, a 1966 article in The Western Daily Press. It discussed the possibility of a tidal barrage across the Severn which would have the effect, the author thought, of stopping the tidal movement and allowing the silt in the water to settle, turning the estuary from brown to a ‘more attractive’ blue.  Until that point, I hadn’t considered the muddy ‘brown-ness’ of the river to be a problem, or something that people might not value. I am fascinated by the tides and the rich ecosystem supported by the mud and silt of the river. But to some others, mud is problematic. It is not a passive substance, but something that has shaped opinion, and identities. Between early-modern builders and twentieth century tidal power enthusiasts is a big space in which to think about mud.  The idea for ‘Into the Mud’, and later ‘Land + Water,’ was born.

‘Into the Mud’ secured funding from the AHRC’s Connected Communities Summer Festival fund to hold an outdoor creative workshop on the banks of the river Severn in June 2015. Tana led the workshop, which brought together members of ‘The Power and Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects (which share research interests in water, rivers, and local understandings of place and identity); amateur potters; members of a local community group, Ideal Action; and passers-by. By creating a temporary manufacturing base down by the river, the workshop enabled informal, creative, environmentally-responsive expressions and discussions to take place. Two participants wrote about the experience here.

But we weren’t done with mud yet – there was more to say, and do. Tana visited the University of Bristol and I showed her around Royal Fort House, the home of the university’s research institutes. The ornate rococo detail on the ceilings, walls and cornices, Tana revealed, were made using some of the same techniques she’d shown us in the workshop. There were alcoves crying out for vases; plinths pleading for pottery!

We decided to hold an exhibition called ‘Land + Water’, that combined new pieces made by Tana in response to the venue; older pieces made from Severn mud; and the products of the riverside workshop. Two talks were also planned, with the help of the Institute for Advanced Studies (who also made available the beautiful Verdon-Smith Room and all manner of logistical support).

At the first public talk, Tana talked about her work and research, with comments by the project leads of ‘The Power and the Water’ (Prof. Peter Coates) and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ (Prof. Owain Jones), who both participated in the workshop. In the second, organized by IAS, a multidisciplinary collection of academics spoke on anything ‘mud’ related, for 5 minutes, to inspire conversations surrounded by Tana’s work.  Throughout the week members of the public were welcomed to the exhibition, and left their comments in a Visitor Book. Among the works on display were ornate vases and ‘mass’ produced tea-cups (river mud turned delicate, beautiful and functional); ceramic installations ‘Into the Vernacular’ and ‘Under the Road, a River’ (that echo the utility of ceramics in building, sewerage, and water systems); and a print of diatoms, the microscopic inhabitants of mud that sustain the wildlife of the Severn estuary, made using Severn mud on paper.

Through ticket ‘sales’ for the (free) events, and visitor comments, we know that over one hundred people interacted with the exhibition, notwithstanding the challenge of finding it – the University of Bristol desperately needs a dedicated exhibition space. We also know that, for some, seeing Tana’s work, engaging with the discussions around it, and thinking deeper about mud, land and water, has changed the way they view the river’s place in city life and everyday experience.

Mary-Jane, Librarian: ‘I shall look more closely at the different types/colours of the Severn estuary mud in future’

Ben, postgraduate student: ‘ A superb reflective experience. Thank you for letting me in to your way of the seeing the world. A beautifully layered exhibition portraying such a dynamic place’

Kelvin, unemployed: ‘Love the way the work fits in the building – coming up the stairs and seeing this is a brilliant complement’

Robert, historian: Fabulous. I begin my mornings at Sea Mills on the river bank by the station – 3 minutes by train into Clifton Down. This is such a stimulating exhibition and way of bringing the river into the city (and into Royal Fort House)

Faye, ecologist: ‘An interesting study of the environment, history, and art. Thank you’.

(all comments from the ‘Land + Water’ visitor’s book)



All images by Marianna Dudley


  • Peter Coates

    Thanks, Marianna, for these reflections on a gloriously muddy exhibit. Since you referred to the remarks I gave at the launch, I thought it might be worth mentioning that they included the findings of an intensive, ten-minute research session on the website of a book delivery company that bears the name of a muddy river in South America.

    Based on this research, I came up with nine categories into which you can slot mud-themed books.

    1 MILITARY MUD (TREACHEROUS MUD) – as in ‘Mud, Blood & Bullets’ and the definitive ‘Mud: A Military History’.

    2 MUD and HISTORY FROM BELOW (GRUBBY UNDERSIDE OF THE PAST) – as in ‘Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC.’

    3 FESTIVE MUD (GLORIOUS MUD?) – as in ‘The Reading Festival: Music, Mud & Mayhem’ and ‘Glastonbury: An Oral History of the Music, Mud & Magic’.
    4 MUD of DESPAIR (THE OTHER KIND OF CAMP) – as in books about migrants and refuges with titles like ‘Mud City’.

    5 LUCRATIVE MUD (MUDLARKING: OR, WHERE THERE’S MUCK, THERE’S BRASS) – as in ‘Mudlark River: Down the Thames with a Victorian Map’.

    6 FUN IN THE MUD (THERAPEUTIC MUD) – a muddy cure for today’s children’s nature deficit disorder, as in ‘Mud Kitchen: How to Get your Kids Outside, Playing in the Dirt’.

    7 TREACHEROUS MUD FOR CIVILIANS (MUD AS GRAVEYARD OF OFF-GRID DREAMS) – as in ‘Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving to Vermont, Raising Children & Chickens, & Running the Country Store, Pretty Much Led to One Calamity after Another’.

    8 MUD and MACHISM0 (OR EXTREME MUD) – as in ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears’, ‘Mud, Sweat and Gears’ (about cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats), and (my favourite) ‘Mud, Sweat and Beers: A Cultural History of Alcohol and Sport’.

    9 (and finally) MUD AS CREATIVE SUBSTANCE – whether for cooks or potters, as in (“Old Muddy” Mississippi) ‘Mud Pies and Other Recipes’ and ‘Mud Pies and Fries’.

    Returning to the initial, ‘Military Mud’ category, I came across an on-line review that referred to how, in November 1942, ‘Russian mud’ threw a spanner into the works of the German military machine. This encouraged me to think about adding a tenth category: MUD AND NATIONALITY. In her article, ‘Mobility/Stability: British Asian cultures of “landscape and Englishness”’ (Environment and Planning A, 2006), Divya P. Tolia-Kelly quotes an extract from Lord Lytton’s letter home to his wife from the summer hill station of Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu: ‘The afternoon was rainy and the road muddy but such beautiful English rain, such delicious English mud’ [with ‘English’ italicized in both cases].

    A corner of a muddy field (or a stretch of muddy river bank) that is forever England (or Britain)?

  • Marianna Dudley

    Brilliant, thanks for sharing these with people who couldn’t attend the talk, Peter. Your virtual exploration of mud unearthed (!) yet more facets to mud than even us attendees anticipated. The mud/nationality category is food for thought and brings to mind last year’s excellent ‘The Materiality and Portability of Place’ workshops here at Bristol organised by Lucy Donkin & Naomi Millner and especially the talk given by Andrew Wallis, Curator of the Guards Museum (London). Andrew related the journey of soil taken from Flander’s Field to the museum grounds in London to create a memorial garden for the fallen of WWI. It was important to them to have ‘authentic’ soil from the actual battlefield; and to assert a British identity/experience of war on to that soil, repatriated in London but imbued by ceremony as having, in some respects, ‘come home’.

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