Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Keith Pettit (artist)

High and Over
For today's blog, I caught up with Sussex wood-artist Keith Pettit whose work will soon be displayed as part of an exhibition at the Towner Gallery.  As always, eager to discover what inspires our local artists, I began by asking what first attracted him to wood engraving?

KP: I was first attracted to wood engraving - it would be better to describe it as falling head over heels in love with wood engraving - when my partner bought me a book illustrated by an incredible artist called Lesley Benenfield. It was a mix of beautiful loose pencil sketches and gorgeous and lively chalk pastels and some slightly unfathomable black and white "sketches". This encounter was followed by another book - a book called English Country Traditions - illustrated by a brilliant wood engraver - Chris Wormell. I was still very much in the dark about what Wood Engraving entailed. A chance conversation between myself and a customer resulted in a meeting with a very highly regarded wood engraver Sybella Styles who made sure I attended an evening class in Lewes run by the incredibly lovely Diana Bloomfield. She showed me the basics and let me get on with it. It was a remarkable experience. I found engraving was something I took to like a duck to water. I didn't experience the usual frustrations with learning a new skill.

My love initially came from the almost indescribable uniqueness of the look of wood engraving. And as I learnt the skill it satisfied me on many levels. I like the fact that you engrave with a range of tools each with their own name and heritage. I love working with wood at any time so having to manipulate tiny fragments to create art is deeply satisfying and I continue to love the engraving process. It is very meditative. To engrave well you need to slow yourself down, calm down, slow your heart rate to enable accurate engraving. With the usual range of problems and stress in life it is rather a relief when your focus shrinks to the eighth of an inch in and around the tip of your tool.

tE: How does the medium itself influence the images you can create?
Coastguards View
KP: I'm not sure it does. I often describe Thomas Bewick as the Shakespeare of wood engraving. His work and passion was very much recording rural life of the north east in the late 1700s. It is, even now, virtually impossible to avoid his influence. Almost everyone will be familiar with his engravings even if they don't realise it. There is nothing stopping the medium being used to record anything. There was a fantastic series of engravings recording the work to create the Olympic park for instance. However the medium seems to be bound up within the English landscape tradition because of its powerful, singular genesis. I know that one of the main things that drew me to wood engraving was the pastoral subject matter within Benenson's and Wormell's work.

tE: What particularly inspires you about the Sussex landscape?
KP: Difficult one....everything?! It is what I know. I was always, as a child, much more comfortable in the countryside walking with my Grandma around Herstmonceux either to the north in the Weald or to the south on the edge of the marshes. My Mum often took me to the Downs where we had a regular walk on Butts Brow or above Folkington. I would spend hours on my own cycling across the Pevensey Marshes. It was not a chosen hobby it was just something I did. I only became of the romance and passion people felt for the countryside as a teenager. So it is what has always been there for me. I've not chosen it as much as it has chosen me. 

tE: What work will you be showing at the Towner Gallery?
KP: Not entirely sure yet. I've just finished a block which I've not had time to take a print from yet - the view from Belle Tout to Beachy Head which is a conscious nod to the the view Ravilious recorded. I have another block I am hoping to have done in time of a view I discovered with my son walking out of East Dean: a beautiful wind sculpted hawthorn framing Belle Tout in the distance. A flock of sheep turned up when I was sketching it the other week, so they will make an appearance in it too.

tE: After the success of 2012, what do you hope to achieve with your art in 2013?

Christmas Post greeting card
KP: To be honest I have so much on my plate between now and Christmas I can't think much beyond that! I am considering applying to the Sussex Guild of Craftsmen to see if I can get onto their membership. I find demonstrating my art directly to the public is such a powerful selling tool that to be able to exhibit at the Guild's shows would be brilliant. I am giving serious thought to putting forward a large sculpture to the Towner's East Sussex Open (if they are running this exhibition in 2013). I have got two or three ideas that I'm quite excited by - just got to work out how I can afford to put it all together. I was very disappointed to miss out on this years Society of Wood Engravers Annual Show so that will be something I would really like to achieve in '13. One of my biggest ambitions still remains: having an opportunity to illustrate a book with my engravings. I would love the opportunity to talk to someone who could enable me to achieve that (though it is imperative they pay me!!). Which brings me onto my number one ambition. My art has to start taking the lead in my income. My core sign and design work has never been particularly financially successful and is right now being subsidised by my artwork. It seems to me a logical evolution for it to over take the signs and become much more my core.

Towner Gallery Cafe Project, from Tue 4th Dec.
Tue - Sun, 10:00 - 18:00.
Free admission.

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