Art, memory and the lobster pot

It is a bright, dry day in October 2021, the full palette of autumn is fully established, and there is still plenty of warmth in the sun. With me are two friends from southern Norway, Lisbeth and Einar. We are spending the day together, drinking coffee in my Dumfriesshire home, exploring the Dalswinton estate, and eating lunch at Thomas Tosh in nearby Thornhill. The highlight of our excursion is to be a visit to CAMPLE LINE, a small gallery in Nithsdale, where I am a charity board member.

At the gallery, the three of us encounter for the first time the work of Tonico Lemos Auad.  His show consists of just 12 pieces. The largest are in an upstairs room, where some are suspended from the wooden rafters of what is a former textile mill. The exhibition is beautifully constructed. The work and the place that contains it seem uniquely at one. It is clear that the artist understands the building. So I am only half surprised when I learn that Tonico is also an architect.

I feel immediately drawn in, and warmly engaged with the artwork around me. Its constituent elements are from the quotidian world of material things: large timber beams, some hanging, others standing in columnar groups, pieces of cloth, knotted fabric, shining metal, woven and knitted fabrics, pieces of needlework. The materials are clean and softly coloured. The wood looks bleached by weather. The pieces are drilled here and there with bolt holes, suggestive of former uses. But they are also notched, inlaid, scalloped and embellished by the imagination of Tonico and the craftspeople with whom he works.  Woven fabric ropes, in grey, calico and red, loop round or pass through the wood, sometimes held by a simple slip knot, or half hitch. A piece of almost black linen is hanging from one of Tonico’s beams, looking like a dark flag. I ponder on the provenance and former uses of the hanging beams, but it is apparent that they, and indeed each exhibit,  now have a new function. Here in the gallery their purpose, it seems to me,  is to remind us of art’s relationship to the world of everyday, practical, things.

My companions live by the sea in Southern Norway. In a delightful synergy, they seem to share my enthusiasm and warmth for the exhibition. Something is resonating for them as it is for me. We walk around, wordlessly. Absorbed in the detail. Now there is a triad: the work, the building, and us. It is a splendid afternoon.

A few weeks later, I am back in the gallery on the penultimate day of the exhibition. Tonico himself is with us in a small gathering of people who want to hear about his work. His interlocutor is Tom Jeffreys, who also wrote the exhibition catalogue. We learn that Tonico grew up in the  Brazilian port city of Belém, with its old town Portuguese architectural influences and proximity to the lower Amazon. The word ‘maritime’ seeps into the conversation at various points, piquing my interest.

Tom moves the conversation along skillfully, picking up the themes in his exhibition notes. A rich seam runs through the dialogue. It is about materials, their purposes and re-purposes, and the hands that work them. It is about the sea, boats, harbours, jetties and landing stages. Tonico talks about his installation in Folkestone harbour, where pieces of reclaimed timber on which he had worked with a wood carver were situated with permanent and long-standing mooring posts at the water’s edge. He seems to like to work on the margins, betwixt and between different materials and ideas: the artwork and its setting, the object and the subject, the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’.

Yet he doesn’t seem confrontational in this. Rather, Tonico’s art is fundamentally collaborative in formation, as he illustrates with reference to weavers and their methods and the place of textiles in his work. He pays respect to the traditional craft skills that are key to his approach, saluting their provenance and traditions – metal and needle work, knitting and carving. But he also acknowledges ‘another purpose’ in working with them. For me, he gently disrupts our sensibilities, drawing us into his juxtapositions, bringing us into close relationship with contrast and complementarity, taking us to other places.

In my case, one of these places is the past.

For suddenly, and as the discussion with the artist unfolds, I have gone back in my head to the year 1975, and the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes. I’m the young sociologist carrying out my first postgraduate research project. My methods are immersive. Living in the village for an extended period, I am the participant observer, the note taker, the watcher. I am trying to understand the life of the village and in particular its religious culture. I take every opportunity to be with people and to talk with them. That isn’t difficult. There are village shops, cafes, pubs and churches. I go to concerts, funerals, lifeboat events and afternoon teas. I am soaking up the life of the place and as the sociologist Robert Park once said, getting my hands dirty with research. What freedom, to study an entire community as an ethnographer!

Some mornings in summer I am up when the sun is still sitting below the horizon, and the North Sea lies pellucid, framed by the cliffs on each side of the harbour. In what feels like a mark of trust, I’ve been asked to help two brothers who are part-time fishermen. Will is a builder’s labourer and James works shifts in the local potash mine.  Since they both have other jobs, they can need an extra pair of hands sometimes.  For me it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about the practices of inshore fishing, close up. They have a small wooden boat, clinker built, painted white and blue and named after an old hymn, the words by John Henry Newman: Kindly Light. There’s no surprise in the choice of name. James and Will are enthusiastic singers, both members of the Wesleyan Chapel’s Fishermen’s Choir.

Today at 5am we are heading out of the harbour to the brothers’ ‘fleet’ of lobster pots. They are lying just beyond the low tide in the deeper waters that fall away from the rocky scaurs, full of holes, crannies and ledges, where the lobsters live. I am at the tiller, taking brief instructions, usually linked to the site-lines of landmarks onshore, our main aid to local navigation. I concentrate hard and take a pride in my duties, but the real action and skills are in the bow of the boat.

Today it is James at the sharp end, attending to the morning catch. There are 30 pots in the fleet, laid in a line across the sea bed. The pots are spaced at regular intervals , each one is on a short light line that is attached to the heavier main rope, which has a marker buoy at each end. A small winch, powered from the boat’s engine, takes the strain out of raising this extended paternoster from several fathoms down. James loops the rope round the turning winch, pulling steadily until a pot comes to the surface, whereupon he unhitches, attaches to a cleat, leans over the gunwale, and lifts each lobster pot into the boat. All this is done with a rhythm and economy of effort that is the hallmark of an accomplished practitioner of his art.

Now the pots are being pulled in one by one, emptied of their catch, re-baited and then carefully stacked between the thwarts of the boat. To me there is excitement and anticipation at every individual haul. Sometimes, it is quickly dissipated, the pot empty. But then we see pots with brown crabs, large and small. The best are kept for sale. Others contain lilac and orange spiny sea urchins or large white whelks. These are thrown back into the water. Sometimes a silver grey codling appears, kept for the kitchen if a decent size, or otherwise quickly dispatched and used to re-bait the pot. The same goes for dabs or flat fish. The red gurnard, which often turns up, is treated with care: its prickly spikes can be painful. As the summer progresses, the more exotic squid start to appear, though they are never taken home.

The main prize is lobster, Homarus Gammarus, blue backed, shining and cornered in the pot, ready to defend itself. Each is extracted carefully and with a confident hand, then rendered harmless with two large rubber bands round its claws and laid carefully in a lidded box packed with seaweed. Today we have caught fourteen. They should fetch a good price with the merchant. I am excited, but James is wordlessly content, his affect rarely different between a bumper yield or meagre takings.  

When all is done, the pots are stacked high in the boat.  James ponders where to return them to the sea. Back in the same spot perhaps, especially as it has fished so well. Or depending on tide and weather, in some new place, likely to be productive or perhaps less at risk of damage if conditions turn bad. As he makes his choice, he is scanning the water for the fleets of other fishermen, not getting too close, and above all not crossing another’s lines.

I get my instructions and throttle the boat forward, at middling speed, my eyes fixed on a clifftop marker. James lifts each pot in turn, and as the rope pays out, heaves it into the water, avoiding tangles and snags, which can be dangerous. The stack of pots gradually goes down as we lay them out in a clear line, where they’ll sit for the next 24 hours, fair weather permitting. Turning for harbour, I look behind at our bobbing flags, rising with the inshore swell, and signalling our early morning task is complete.

The lobster pots intrigue me. In these parts they are not the domed wicker creels, found in other areas of Britain. They are an eclectic miscellany of materials, constructed in slightly different ways in each village along the coast, or according to the particular and preferred manner of their maker.  They are put together in backyard workshops on winter nights, among cigarette smoke and unravelling talk of fishing seasons past, and prospects for the one to come.

The flat rectangular base of the lobster pot is constructed from sawn planks, usually of driftwood, picked up on the shore after a heavy sea or a high tide. Down each side,  three holes are burned with a hot poker, just wide enough to take a wand of hazel, cut in the coldest weather and then soaked to make it supple. The hazel is bent into a semi-circle and anchored in the hole on each side of the frame. Attached to these hoops using a diagonal cross lashing, three hazel laterals run the length of the pot. The overall shape is reminiscent of a Nissen hut, about two feet six inches long and sixteen inches wide. The size varies according to preference or the size of the boat.

The frame of planks and sticks supports a net covering, which is woven in situ during the construction, with oily twine, or perhaps a plastic equivalent, in orange or blue. The newer material makes for easier construction, but it is important for it not too be too brightly coloured, otherwise the pot won’t ‘fish’ well.

Now we get to the detail of the netting, on one side there is a woven funnel entrance that leads the prey into the first compartment, known as ‘the kitchen’, where the bait is fastened between two closely positioned pieces of vertical twine, with a sliding knot that runs over a fish head or a fish tail, keeping it firmly in place.  From here another similar entrance leads into ‘the parlour’.  The two trumpet shaped points of access effectively exclude exit. Once the lobster is in the parlour, it can’t get out. Then on the side opposite the entrance, is a net door entry to the kitchen, attached to a short piece of hazel, which allows it to be tied and untied for emptying and re-baiting. Significant net making and knotting skills are needed for all this to work, creating the shape to sit over the frame and most importantly, shaping the funnel that draws in the lobster and prevents its escape.

The whole construction must be weighted down to sit on the sea floor. The chosen weights are objects of special curiosity in themselves: Heavy bolts, rusting engine parts, a broken fire grate or a piece of pipe, sometimes a flat stone with a fortuitous hole through it. Anything that can be garnered and tied to the base, and which will sink the pot and hold it down.

Finally, the fleet has two marker buoys, one at each end. Some are commercial products made for the task, many are pieces of polystyrene or other floating material, clamped together with plywood. The buoy is fixed to a stout hazel pole, and topped for visibility and recognition with a coloured flag, made from an old shirt, a trouser leg, or a cast off raincoat.  In the busiest weeks of the fishing, these raggy flags dot the inshore waters, their positions a subject of constant conversation among the old and retired fishermen, as they lean on the seafront rail, gazing out beyond the harbour. Although there is no coding system for the flags, everyone seems to know which ones belong to which boat.

I have been speaking in the anthropological present of 1975. Inshore lobster fishing today is mainly done with purpose built metal framed pots, covered in strong wire mesh. You can see these sitting ugly and uninspired on harbour-sides around the coasts of Britain. Some fishermen buy the metal skeletons and then add pre-formed netting themselves. Other commercial pots are made almost entirely of plastic, and look like the products of a production line.  They all seem to lack much of a narrative and can cost £100 each, ready to use. The art of their predecessors seems to be disappearing, save for a few romantics who stick to or re-invent the old ways. In a curious twist, the lobster pots of former days have also  become desirable pieces of indoor decoration. See them hanging on the walls of fish restaurants and bistros. Spot them in the lounges of seaside holiday cottages. But search around and you might see one in the shed of some old fisherman, who can’t bear to part with this functional symbol of a former way of life.

More than half a lifetime has passed since my days with the Staithes fisher people. Now, Tonico’s exhibition brings out in me the woven strands of memory, the flotsam and jetsam of the shoreline, the swell of the tide and the eagerness of a young mind. But his work also visits new and fresh insight upon me. Listening to him, I am struck for the first time by the indigenous architecture of those ‘traditional’  lobsters pots. The elegant bow of the hazel wands, forming a vaulted roof. The internal division of rooms. The external door. Like Tonico’s work, the lobster pots I encountered as a young researcher were made from reclaimed materials. They combined wood, metal and twine. The buoys that marked them were topped with intriguing pieces of fabric. Individual lobster pots also had agency. Some were lucky, with constant good yields; others were less fortunate and always failed to catch. They had longevity. If damaged at sea they could be repaired. If destroyed, some remaining element could probably be salvaged and used again. They were extraordinary pieces of bricolage. I feel sure Tonico would give them close attention were he perchance to stumble upon them. He would also notice the blue fisherman’s jumper, close fitting in a cable pattern unique to Staithes and made by James’ mother.

The exhibition at CAMPLE LINE that triggered all this was called Unknown to the World. My Norwegian friends and I didn’t comment on the title as we visited the gallery that autumn afternoon.  Nor do I recall anyone asking Tonico to explain his choice of words.  For me, as I think on it more, the title becomes clear and personal. Tonico was unknown to me until his work came into my world, yet my thinking has shifted in important ways since the CAMPLE LINE exhibition. As I continue to reflect upon it, memory takes me back to the postgraduate student I was in 1975. I too was unknown to the world, yet newly embarked on a lifetime quest to make sense of it. I feel inspired and fortunate that the art of Tonico Lemos Auad  has opened up new possibilities for me, on that twisting and curious journey.

Acknowledgement: Featured image at top of post: Mike Bolam.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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