H2Open magazine, now as of this edition is Outdoor Swimmer, and I have an article in the first issue. And while obviously you should go and buy it, for those who haven’t, I thought you might still like to read my article, so here it is, in text below the pictures…
by Nancy Farmer
An early morning swim, startling the Environment Agency at work, was the first event that seemed worthy of immortalising into a drawing.
We had planned to meet in a little carpark by the River Sowy, a manmade channel across the Somerset Levels, rural and peaceful. When we got there a very large part of the carpark was occupied by a mountain of gravel which hadn’t been there the previous week. So we tucked our cars around it, and went swimming.
Some time later, following the appearance of the first digger, and a sprint swim back to our point of entry, the EA were a little surprised to see a grown woman suddenly appear, soaking wet and dressed in only a swimming costume, in the middle of their temporary building site. “Hello.. ah.. sorry, are the cars in your way?”. The digger-driver stared and blinked, and finally mustered a shake of his head. “Ok, thanks, back in a bit…” the grown woman tiptoed back across the nettles and plopped back out of sight into the river.
That was how I knew the EA had begun its flood-defence work on that part of the Levels: I caught them at it. But they were very nice, if a little nonplussed, and finally as we were dressing again in the once-quiet but now uncomfortably busy little car park, one man succeeded in finding the words of the immortal question that all land-based people ask those rash enough to swim outside in this country: “Is it cold?”
This was July of 2014 and no, it was not cold. But there were not many months before it was. A memorable lack of a properly planned exit strategy at the head of Wast Water, me still a relative newbie suddenly in charge of a rather cold girl, and my brother appearing from nowhere with miraculous shoes: these were the elements of the next scene that I drew. From memory and imagination, and this time I drew people, not mermaids.
And after that the swimming drawings quickly became a Thing, most particularly with the onset of winter. Because, while swimming around in a lake outside might be picturesque, it lacks a little something to a storyteller (unless there is a cold girl and a lack of shoes), and I’ve always liked to tell stories. Swimming around in a lake outside in January… and then trying to drink your coffee afterwards: that has a narrative I can work with.
I also soon discovered that people were delighted to be caught in my sketchbook, so that the tentative email that said “hello, I know you only met me for the first time today but I drew a picture of you only in a swimming costume I hope you don’t mind” [pause, hold breath, await reply], began to be a less tentative, more joyful: “look, I drew us!”.
And so, through the winter of 2014 to ’15 I continued to swim and draw. Increasingly surprised at my own persistent failure to put on a wetsuit, before the end of that winter I had discovered a respectable ability to deal with cold, several new friends, and a healthy number of cake recipes.
I was a self-employed artist before I began the swimming drawings, so I already spent quite a lot of time drawing and painting, but meanwhile back in my studio, the ultra-connected world of social media favours niches, and finding an audience for my pictures went hand-in glove with finding soulmates willing to swim in darkest January in a lake at 6 degrees, and more source material for my pictures.
Do not expect to have a work-life balance if you are a self-employed artist, it is impossible for me to even tell if I am working or playing anymore, it is all one: I study clouds and note seagulls as I swim, and try to remember the exact silty yellow-brown of the waters of the Bristol Channel, in case I want to describe them later; a day out to the coast may well result in ‘homework’ as I scribble the mood of the swim and the scene before it is lost.
I’d been through a whole year of swimming outside as a regular thing: beginning in the chilly waters of Clevedon Marine Lake on a beautiful April day, I’d swum through the summer, the winter, and back through the summer again, I’d shed my wetsuit (with which I’d always had an uneasy relationship), and I had a respectable collection of swimming drawings descriptive of the seasons as well as swims alone and with friends, notable events and silly ideas. So I compiled 12 of them, with their captions which are almost part of the drawings, into an illustrated calendar arranged by appropriate season. This was more to please myself than with any great expectation of selling many: almost a vanity project. To my surprise I sold about 300. That was last year. This year I have a new collection on offer, and I’m experimenting with that most niche-market of products: wrapping paper for swimmers. I have also designed t-shirts for two of Chillswim’s events, and drawn a number of fellow swimmers’ portraits as commissions. The annexation of my artwork by my swimming habit is almost complete, and I have loved every minute of it!