Blue water

A NEW exhibition in the Lake District is focused on the element which has defined the national park, water. And it seems pertinent in a hot summer, heading towards drought conditions, and amid concerns about the quality of water in the lakes themselves, to take time out with artist Nick May in a thought-provoking show.

Hydrosphere Blues opens this month at the Heaton Cooper archive gallery in Grasmere. It marks the re-opening of the gallery and exhibition programme after months of building work. The show is a series of watercolours by Cumbria-based May, referring to the entirety of the earth's water - oceans, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and glaciers, stunning images that combine a scientific curiosity with the magic of art.

Predominantly blue, May’s pictures are mesmerising in themselves, quite apart from the narrative of his work. The hydrosphere, he reminds us, is a vital component of the planet's ecosystem, playing a crucial role in regulating climate, supporting biodiversity, and providing a source of life-sustaining resources such as food and freshwater.





“Today, the stability of the hydrosphere faces unprecedented challenges from climate change, pollution and over-exploitation, so it is all the more important to celebrate its beauty, value and fragility,” he says. “I’m keen to explore the science and cultural significance of water in ways which are powerful and informed – if not overtly illustrative, so I’m developing strategies to explore the physical and conceptual relationships between water as subject and water as medium.

This also reconnects to the fascination of playing with water as a child, to exploring its versatility and beauty and I strive to inscribe the residual attributes of discovery and wonder in the work.” There is, indeed, an almost child-like fascination in seeing May’s work for the first time.

The artist quotes Loren Eiseley - ‘If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water’ and Toni Morrison - ‘All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.’ But perhaps more pertinently today he emphasises the words of Jacques Yves Cousteau: ‘Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.’

Nick May studied Sculpture at St. Martin's School of Art, and Direction at the National Film and Television School. Shortly after moving to Cumbria in 1986, he wrote and directed the Prix Italia nominated film ‘The Hills are Alive’ for Channel 4, which explored the experience of the hill farming community in West Cumbria following their exposure to Chernobyl contamination - and reflections on living with Sellafield.

Other films include ‘John Cooper Clarke, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’ (1982), ‘In the Mind of Man’ (2000) and ‘Fair Game’ (2002). He’s had a number of solo exhibitions, and in recent years his work has been exhibited in the USA, China and Sweden as well as London and Edinburgh. This new exhibition is a distillation of work during a period which has seen the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine invasion, both of which are alluded to here.

“However, the Hydrosphere series primarily explores the relationship between water as medium and water as subject and the layers of meaning generated. Through a process of experiment with increasingly contained parameters, I have begun to understand how specific pigments, papers and water interact and have sought to harness this to make watercolour which is evocative of, and inscribes the processes of the natural world rather than illustrates them.”

Hydrosphere Blues runs at the Heaton Cooper archive gallery from June 23 until September 15.