Arena Exhibition at the Festival Gallery: Stendörren Dreamscape

The National Arts Festival sets up the Arena Exhibition as an opportunity to showcase your artwork.  My problem was which piece to decide on.  I settled on this dreamy looking landscape taken late last September at Stendörren Nature Reserve in Sweden.  It’s looking west into the sun (which all camera makers tell you never to do) reflecting over the sea.

Stendörren Dreamscape

I like the tranquility, the curling clouds and the range of blues which make you wonder is it night or day?

The Arena Exhibition opens on Monday 20th June and will end on the last day of Festival, Sunday 10th July 2016.  It’s held at the Festival Gallery on Somerset Street, Grahamstown.

‘A tree sits like an avatar, an embodiment of the immutable, far beyond the pains of man.’

Nearly all of the Portals exhibition pictures are of trees. So I think a word of two of explanation is needed.

Why trees and what is their significance to me?

The great woodworker George Nakashima says in his book The Soul of a Tree:

‘Then, when I am there, feeling at one with the trees and space around me it’s easy to feel the trees with soul.

A tree sits like an avatar, an embodiment of the immutable, far beyond the pains of man.’

Sometimes, when I am alone with them, I feel the trees with soul.  Some trees speak more clearly than others. When I’m in Western Sweden I’ve discovered that there are a lot of Scots Pine (Tall in Swedish).   They’re special trees that usually hide deep in the forests on small rocky outcrops.  Here are a couple of pictures of one of my favourites sitting ‘like an avatar’ in its own space.

Äsperöd Gnarly Tree (Tall)

Äsperöd Gnarly Trees

I’ve visited this particular tree often in the autumn.  At sunset the light dips across the forest catching the branches in a  kaleidoscope of fractured shards.  Here it’s turned into a dark archway: spanning the forest floor.  Inviting you to stand beneath it.

Äsperöd Sunset Archway

But it’s easiest to photograph it when the sky is overcast or just after the sun has set.  That is when you get the images to help uncover its character.  There’s no sharp contrasts to distract the eye and it becomes a giant being with arms reaching high above you.

Äsperöd: Giant Tree Being

Äsperöd Tree Being: Waiting

Or, and this last picture is my favourite, it’s inviting you to pass between the old exposed tree stumps as it waits – poised, balanced, almost expectant – for you to come before it.

‘Giving a work a name is the start of letting it go, making a space to start again.’

Once I’d decided to have an exhibition I was faced with some really difficult decisions.

What would I call it?

What works would I put in it?

What is it trying to show?

Over the weeks and months I’ve made a lot of progress, and naming things – letting them go, making a space to start again – has been a key part of that.


‘Portals’ took a while to emerge as a title.  ‘Follow your imagination’ appeared whilst rewriting (again and again) my 200 word entry for the Festival programme. The funny thing is that once I had the name and the first descriptions I could move on to design what was going to be in the exhibition.  You would think it would be the other way around.

The quote at the top, incidentally, is from Edmund de Waal’s lovely book The White Road, a Pilgrimage of Sorts. I’ll finish this post with more from the book.

I’ve been using shorthand names in the filenames of the images and, eventually, I’ve realised there’s a structure to them I can use for the exhibition.

‘Symmetry’ in the filename almost always means it is a simple symmetrical image that may well be quite abstract.  RFOX8069 symmetry is pretty unimaginative for a filename but I can tell what camera I took the photo with from the RFOX prefix.



This is one of my forest images taken at Björkensdal in Sweden. The filename is replete with time and date information but it also says that I flipped the image and that it’s a simple symmetrical design.

Björkensdal PA180110 flip symmetry - 2015-10-18 at 13-56-16

Björkensdal PA180110 flip symmetry – 2015-10-18 at 13-56-16

When I use ‘Pattern’ it shows that the image is still symmetrical but I have repeated the original many times to make a pleasing design.  If the filename also uses the words ‘Archways’ then it means I originally joined the trees to make an arch.

Safari Archways Temple Pattern 50%

Safari Archways Temple Pattern 50%

Recently I’ve realised that it’s also possible to make ‘endless patterns’ by folding over the symmetrical image to make the lines flow and connect sinuously.  I’ve used the curves of Natalie’s arms and legs to do this in NatalieEndless10%coolblue.



So the exhibition’s going to be structured around symmetry, archways, patterns and endless patterns.

To return to the quote.  I’ve nearly finished reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road and I have enjoyed it a lot. Near the end he describes how he named a ceramic exhibition and the works in it.

“A title is a letter of promise in a pocket.  Sometimes a title brushes alongside a remembered view or is a conversation overheard, a line from an inventory, a favourite melody, a street.  Sometimes it is a provocation; the claiming of a shared space with someone I care about.  Sometimes it is a stone thrown in the opposite direction to distract attention.  Giving a work a name is the start of letting it go, making a space to start again.”

As soon as I read this I knew exactly what he meant.  I’ve got images called Alice in Wonderland, Baobab Temple and Björkensdal Shields and Spiders. Some titles are places, some are people, some are the journey I was on, some are seemingly random and quirky.  All of them, now they are named and appropriately labelled, are Portals, they are imaginary worlds.


Portals Exhibition: Endless patterns

Night photography allows me to make some unusual images.  I lit the forest path below Dassie Krantz with three lights and, by chance, there appeared a blue phosphorescent effect on the thorn tree.  Mirroring then gave me this lovely blue portal.

Further along the path you have to bend double to get through a really dense tangle of creepers.  It took me an hour of experimenting to get this picture.  Placing the lights was very tricky and I did a lot of crawling under the creepers!

DassieTunnel7original - 2016-03-21 at 08-58-52

Tangle of creepers

I did the usual mirroring to get a richly textured, dramatic image but then I realized that duplicating and offsetting it would give an endless weaving pattern.  I was surprised and very pleased with the result.


Portals Exhibition: Fusion of Night Images

Images taken at low light have always been one of my passions but lately I have been able to take much better images at night.  A new camera and lens have helped!  So I’ve been taking milky way pictures and star trails – quite a few have been posted in Instagram using my @roddythefox account. A few nights ago I was taking some star pictures in the garden below our house and I swung the camera down and round to  capture the vegetation.  Here’s the picture I got – I was blown over by the glossy aspect of the leaves, the jungly shapes, the amazing violet-pink sky and the interesting composition.


I saw straight away there were lots of possibilities in the shapes to make some special images.  So I enhanced the picture’s contrast, cropped out most of the right hand side and then mirrored it horizontally and vertically to get this dramatic image.


I’m pretty sure I will be using it for Portals.  It’s such a great fusion of night imagery with mirroring to find a stunning pattern.  I could see, though, that there’s the possibility of another great pattern using the almost vertical leaves on the left hand side of the original.  This time I’ve duplicated it many times to arrive at a fantasy wallpaper/wrapping paper design.


Portals Exhibition: cloudscapes and skylines

One of the unusual things about taking the portals pictures is that I am often looking for an image to complete.  So I look for quirky shapes that can be combined into something intriguing, different and provocative.  Fortunately for me there are plenty of trees in and around Grahamstown with strange forms which provide me with great material – especially at sunset when the light is changing rapidly.

PJ Olivier gray sunset

PJ Olivier red bands

There’s a hook at the top of the trunk of this leaning tree, with slanted bands of clouds behind.  When I cropped through the hooked tree and copied, flipped and joined I got the following two images.

PJ Archway

PJ Red Archways

The shapes of the clouds now focus your eyes on the strange silhouette in the centre of the image.  One of these will go into the Portals Exhibition but I haven’t been able to make my mind up which it will be.