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Artist of the floating world

By Ruth Slavid
Artist Stephen Turner is spending a year living in a wooden egg on the Beaulieu River in a way that epitomises being ‘close to nature’.
There is a wooden egg on the Beaulieu River estuary in Hampshire, and there is a man living in it. He is not just any man. He is an artist called
Stephen Turner and he intends to live in the egg for a year, making artworks relating to his occupancy and, he hopes, turning them into an exhibition at the end.

The egg itself caught the public imagination when it was, literally, launched in the summer. Designed by PAD Studio for this project initiated by local arts organisation SPUD (it was intended to be one of several such projects but was the only one to come off) the Exbury egg was remarkably photogenic when new. As a result there was interest from organisations including the BBC and Vogue, the latter presumably envisaging fashion shoots.

But actually the photos were deceptive. The finish was much more rough and ready than it seemed, the egg rapidly sprang a leak, and Turner has made his own mark on it. Some of this has been to improve his Spartan living quarters, building a bed platform to replace the hammock which, while elegant, played havoc with his back, and making a desk. But he also stuck strips of tin foil on the outside, with the intention of removing one a month to document the weathering. Far from being a pristine architectural object, the egg is a working and living tool of a very curious artist.

And it is what Turner is doing in the egg that is really fascinating. He has a strong environmental conviction and he chose this site because it is in an area of salt marsh, a fast disappearing environment. What he is doing during the year is documenting and reacting to that environment, whether by photography and film, drawing (sometimes with inks he makes himself), launching clear plastic eggs with found objects like skulls in them and seeing where they end up, or making jam. He is endlessly curious and knowledgeable, and has allowed himself the time to think and immerse himself in his immediate environment in a way that few of us have time to do. Even fewer would be willing to live the way he does, with minimal comforts. He posts a regular blog (disrupted somewhat in the winter by the lack of solar-generated electricity) and is monitored by webcams, but discourages visitors who could damage his fragile surroundings, which are only accessible through private land.

Turner has styled himself the Beaulieu Beagle, and keeps warm in his tiny parish in a flowing cloak made for him by local art students. As he puts it, ‘In an age of hubris and self promotion, I want to provide a voice for mute nature, to be amanuensis to the tides, the terns and the turnstones.’ A selection of his images and the accompanying posts are shown on these pages.

7 August 2013
1. Penning a Line
There are around seventy Canada Geese summering on the marsh and surrounding fields, and today I found a large goose feather on the foreshore which I made into a pen by shaping the hollow end with a sharp knife. Goose feathers were the scribe’s’weapon of choice until the advent of steel nibs in the nineteenth century. Whilst penning these brief notes on a mac book pro, this writer still likes the feel of scratching over the surface of real paper and using an ink made in the traditional way from the surrounding Oaks. Whilst enjoying the best of the new, I would hate to forget, or lose, what endures in the traditional.

11 August 2013
2. Caterpillar Tracks
Many caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell butterfly were feasting on a nettle and leaving tracks of their own black droppings of processed green leaf.

13 October 2013
3. Ochre Springs
Oily looking ferrous reds stain the greyer mud of the marsh edges at different locations within the immediate Parish bounds. University of Southampton research concludes these are ‘ochre springs’ of ferrous hydroxide colloids emerging from alluvial sediment and the clays, marls and gravel of the later Eocene period 33 million years ago. This brush with the geological strata will continue to colour my thoughts.

19 October 2013
4. Gall Harvest
A small oak opposite the egg has a rich crop of galls to harvest. I will use them to make a dye for my clothing and to create an ink for drawing as the first step toward understanding the cultural and environmental importance of the tree in this particular riverscape. Oaks can have many different species of gall growing on a single tree. These were made by the species of parasitic wasp andricus kollari and resemble marbles in size and shape.

2 November 2013
5. Exbury Egg Conserves No3: Sloe Gin
Intense rain showers drove me indoors to make a limited edition of sloe gin. The blackthorn berries were picked eight days ago on October 24th and were kept refrigerated nearby until I came back from leave. The freezing is roughly the equivalent of all my solar energy generated in the same period… so I hope the gin will be good. Unlike the blackberry, it does not seem to have been a good year for the sloe and the trees (never abundant), were by today completely bare.

9 November 2013
6. A Trip to the Outer Bank No.1 Tamarisk
I visited the outer bank on Thursday and was impressed by the Tamarisk trees. Their tiny leaves are folded close to the stem as can be seen in my microscope photograph. I will look forward to enjoying a much wider perspective in springtime when their tiny pink flowers will be framed and enhanced by the colour and light of the dawn sky. They were probably planted to enhance the stability of the Outer Bank when the enclosed waters inside its sluice gates (removed) were used for concentrating sea salt for collection along toothed channels that can still be observed. It’s possible these trees or their forebears have been here since the late eighteenth century. They love being close to the sea and enjoy these salty soils.

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