March 22, 2017
Working at Deanland Airfield in East Sussex, just down the road from my studio, I’m slowly building up a series of drawings on paper and oils on canvas. This work is a continuation of my interest in the legacy of WW2. I go out to the airfield periodically to sketch and soak up the atmosphere, like all airfields it has a beautiful feeling of space, added to this Deanland for me holds the history of what went on there towards the end of the war; Spitfires taking off to support the D-Day landings. My father Don Johnson flew Spitfires as a young man, I’m not sure if he ever flew from here but many like him did and some never returned. My intention is to evoke the invisible history of the place, combined with what exists today.
It struck me that, although originally built in 1944, there is little there now that provides testament to this fact. The original runway was a cruciform shape and fairly large, much what remains of the original runway is now broken up, some lying under the Deanland estate which provides housing for older people in static homes, some is now woodland. The current runway uses only a fraction of the lower half of the cruciform original and none of the original concrete is now visible, the runway is now grass, the original buildings replaced by new ones. There is a raised arc of turf which curves around the edge of the plot to the original fuelling point and concrete standing, nestling behind bushes and a couple of large oaks.
My problem was to find a way of using what is there now as a way of reflecting on what went on there in the past. It occurred to me that the trees in any rural landscape are often the only witnesses to what went on in the past. I like this idea. Human behaviour changes – I see girls on horses riding past the house, busy on their mobile phones while the horse beneath them trots along oblivious – but the jackdaws arguing amongst themselves in the trees were ever thus, their language and behaviour unchanging and changeless.
Most of the plants and trees surrounding the airfield now are low-level; managed woodland and brushwood, hawthorn and weeds. The exception are two large oaks, both overlooking the airfield to the side of the original runway. Each time I visited to sketch at the airfield I thought ‘if those trees could talk’….So I decided to use the oaks as a basis for some paintings, effectively giving them a voice. Measuring the circumference of the largest one, the online Woodland Trust calculator estimates it at 230 years old or thereabouts. It would already have been a mature tree during the time of the original airfield’s construction seventy-five years ago and would have witnessed pilots and Spitfires, laughter and anxiety. Perhaps pilots like my father leant against it smoking a Players cigarette while their plane was refuelled. So I imagined a time-lapse stretching back and rather than paint a landscape decided to go for a bit of magic-realism, placing what I imagine the tree must have witnessed within the structure of the branches. Suddenly the work itself began to take off and I felt I was beginning to capture some of the magic I feel at Deanland.
More recently I have placed myself inside one of the hangars looking out and made sketches that are framed by the doorway of the hangar. This creates a geometric structure to the painting and more importantly to me, a perspective that would have been the same seventy years ago, the shape of aircraft hangars has remained pretty much unchanged, though now they are made of PVC stretched over a metal frame rather than corrugated iron. To this structure I add visual clues to the past, pilots standing around waiting to scramble, aircraft taking off. I am trying to capture the spirit of the scene rather than a photographic-type record; a feeling of space, of excitement and trepidation. The pilots who fly from the airfield now are often milling around and I talk with them, explain what I am doing and hear their own experiences of flying small aircraft over to France and beyond.
The colours I’m using are muted to suggest a sepia-toned record, like the black and white photos I have of my father and his squadron. I am not copying directly from the old photos, having looked at them so often over my life, they are all entrenched in my memory, so I allow myself free hand to paint what comes to my mind during the painting process.
Documenting this work is photographer Joh Brockliss, who himself works mainly in black and white using only Leica cameras. He is producing a hardback book that will accompany the exhibition; shots of the airfield, the work process there and my studio practice turning the on-site sketches into paintings. I expect to be busy with this project at least until the end of 2017, excited to see where it will take me. As thew work is finished I post it on my website under ‘DEANLAND’ in the main menu. I also have a Facebook art page at FB.com/alexanderjohnsonart and twitter feed @alexart63. Always keen to hear comments on the work.
Alexander Johnson, March 22, 2017