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All the paintings in Falmouth Arts Centre’s exhibition IN THE OCEAN LIGHT which runs from September 30th to October 11th 2008 radiated with Tom Henderson-Smith’s deep and abiding affection for West Penwith, its beaches and cliffs, its granite outcrops and fields, its villages and towns with their higgedly-piggedly houses and tight corners crowding their narrow lanes. His work is a celebration of the warmth of the sun, the glory of the sea and all that surrounds him. Tom has an astute eye, he sees the real Cornwall, its darkness as well as its light.
Indeed, one important aspect of his work is this light. “An overarching vault of light stretches from one coast to the other in West Penwith, where we are virtually surrounded by the Atlantic,” says Tom. “It is like having a giant glass dome above your head, so even when it is grey, you can sense the light piercing the gloom. Of course this affects colours, how one interacts with another and how you make them sing together in a painting.” In St Ives in Ocean Light the buildings glow from the golden light reflected off the sea and sand.
Using bold blocks of strong colour, Tom is a colourist in the true sense of the word. Like Henri Matisse, he believes, “ ‘A good painting should be comfortable, like an armchair’ and you should be able to relax in its colours.” Thus, by contrast, three large charcoal drawings are simply stunning. Beautifully executed, showing the ocean at night, they are atmospheric and haunting, a pale moon glints on the sea, illuminating the ceaseless movement of waves and the shadowy houses of the town which stand ghostly and silent in the background. “Drawing the sea in charcoal makes me focus on its darker aspects,” says Tom. “The ocean is a very powerful personal symbol for me.”
For this exhibition, Tom has produced an intriguing new series of ‘folded’ paintings. “I enjoy playing with picture formats.” he says. Although he's used slanted, hinged or angled frames before, these new folded paintings have taken on another form as three-dimensional objects. Free-standing, they can be moved about and when light catches them from a different angle, you discover that their colours change. Based on Cot Valley, they reveal its beauty, from its brilliance in the summertime when the sun beats down on a tranquil turquoise sea to its sombre autumnal shades when ochre bracken and purple heather cover its slopes.
Tom’s idea of using split panels is evident elsewhere; two magnificent paintings Ocean Light and Afternoon Horizon are divided. “I painted one panel with brushstrokes going in one direction and then twisted the canvases around to paint at right angles to it,” he explains. “The top panel has the natural tones of the linen showing through the paint, the other panel is primed, which gives the paint very different qualities. Being an artist, I reserve the right to experiment!”
Tom wants the painting process to reveal his original experience of a place. “It is like making a runway for an aeroplane to take off,” he believes. “I like to let a painting have a life of its own. Yet, as much as anything, it all starts with simple geometric shapes, looking at angles and then references which come from outside as well as the internal process. I try to keep it as simple as I can and eventually everything has to balance.”
Tom relishes the opportunity this exhibition has offered him - the chance to make a statement about the ocean light which he feels unites everything. Fogbank at Portheras, which shows Portheras Beach on a warm day as a cool grey sea mist encroaches the shore, encapsulates his ethos. This beach is a very special place for Tom, who sees it as somewhere magical, somewhere which gives him an extraordinary awareness of the continuum between the present and the infinite. “I feel this almost like a physical sensation. I want my paintings to express how West Penwith’s landscape and its ocean suggests a connectivity with the infinite, a very tangible sense of existence from here to eternity.”
Peter Jane Field June 2008
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