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Mark Daniels ‘at home’ on his allotment

Mark Daniels: patience and observation

HOT’s Erica Smith met artist Mark Daniels on his allotment.

“Some sad news. I seem to have lost the ability to walk barefoot on pebbles when going for a swim. Another tragic milestone passed.”

There are many negatives to social media, but some of the plus points more than balance out the ills. For me, discovering the work of Mark Daniels through his early morning sea-swimming posts on Facebook is a real (though sometimes a minor key) joy. I was delighted when he agreed to talk with me on his allotment on one of the few sunny evenings this August.

He claims that his allotment is nothing to do with his art practice, but I’m not sure that I agree. Many of his encounters with foxes have happened in this verdant space on the back of the West Hill. And, since his lockdown pond has become a home for newts, he has been drawing them from a compact ‘observation deck’ over the water.

“Smooth newt hunting a pond skater. From my Observered book of newts.”

“One of those moments. As a breaking wave thunders in. ‘Stand firm Marky.’ I says to myself. Not much time to write. It were a laborious duty getting dressed after in the rain. Ken always used to marvel at my swiftness in this endeavour. His plaudits would not be so forthcoming now. A year older, a touch slower. It happens. Running out of time.”

Mark has been logging his early morning swims since 2016. He would swim on his way to one of his three jobs. One of the remarkable things about Mark is that he manages a fulltime work week composed of three part-time jobs, all working with people with complex needs, and on top of this he finds time to produce more art than many fulltime artists achieve.

Washing up in Hastings

Daniels left school at 16 – the education system didn’t agree with him. He aspired to be a fishmonger but couldn’t find a job in the area of Norfolk where he grew up so he became a butcher. Like many mis-fits at the time, he ended up at art school in his early twenties, and then moved to Brighton where he was a founder member of the Brighton & Hove Wood Recycling Project. Eventually he found his dream job in a fishmongers run by a fellow Nick Cave fan. In 2002, an opportunity to teach art at Horizons school in Hastings turned up, and his boss at the fish shop said “Mark, you’re a terrible fishmonger – take the job in Hastings.”

One of the many foxes from Mark Daniels ‘Skulk’ project – see a fox, draw or make a fox.

Back on the art trail

Fox © Mark Daniels

One of the challenges of teaching art is that it can block you from your own art practice. In 2016 Mark began an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration at University of Brighton. He struggled with it and took a break. He returned to study in 2018 with a completely new approach to art inspired by Taiwanese-born US performance artist Tehching Hsieh. By then he was regularly logging his sea swims by stitching the weather report for the day on his swimming trunks and writing beautiful posts on Facebook. He had also become fascinated by foxes and started a project called Skulk where he would take note of every time he saw a fox and draw or make a ceramic fox to record the encounter.

Mark’s work has a compulsive quality about it – there is a narrative in his journaling and documenting. His social media posts stand alone as beautiful pieces of  reflective writing, but the compulsive documentation applies to his drawing style too. Every feather on a bird and every hair on a fox are drawn individually – the ‘strokes’ bring the creatures to life – and increasingly – his drawings are life-size or larger than life.

Close up of Mark Daniels drawing a fox. Each hair is drawn individually using different colours to build up the ruddy coat.

Nature and childhood

You can see Mark Daniels’ work and the narrative of the parts of his life that he chooses to share on his Facebook and Instagram feeds – his posts are open and sometimes personal but you can tell that they are also carefully ‘curated’. For a boy who left school at sixteen, he writes well and he’s very well read. It’s no surprise that nature writer Roger Deakin is a favourite.

“New treehouse commission started.
A while since I’ve drawn one. Need to get my mojo round that bark.”

I ask him why his Facebook and Instagram feeds are called BoneysIsland. “It’s a place I used to make dens in when I was a child… a copse on Beccles common surrounded by rusty barbed wire, a moat and skull and crossbones signs – I think it was an ammunition dump in the war. I remembered it and it seemed to fit. You might as well embrace your past. No one else is gonna.”

Perhaps Mark’s allotment is the grown-up version of Boneys Island – his shed is definitely a grown-up’s den. His memories of his childhood inform his work – another series of drawings that he makes depict beautiful tree houses that could so easily be illustrations from a children’s book.

Turner Prize nominated!

Mark is one of many local artists who are part of the Project Artworks collective which has been nominated for this year’s Turner Prize. Like other members of the collective that I’ve spoken to, the news of the nomination came as a surprise to him, but was a welcome acknowledgment of the work that everyone within Project Artworks contributes. It’s put a warm smile on everyone’s faces. I ask him if his work with people with complex needs informs his own art practice and vice versa. “Yes,” he said. “It’s all about patience and observation”.

You can see Mark Daniels’ work on his Facebook and Instagram feeds and he has been commissioned to paint a mural in Newt’s Way, West St Leonards, to tie in with Coastal Currents. If you like the work he shares on social media, contact him and make him an offer. His tree houses, animals and birds regularly find new homes locally and internationally.

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Posted 11:19 Monday, Aug 16, 2021 In: Visual Arts

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