Underwater artist that inspired you

unduhan-2When I have fears that I may cease to be,” as the old poem goes, “before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain … then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” The artist Peter Matthews has gone one step further than John Keats: he’s actually waded into the sea.

The 37-year-old, who hails from the stubbornly landlocked hills of Derbyshire, has made a career of drawing and painting in the ocean. That’s right: floating in the sea, using an old piece of plywood as a desk-cum-flotation aid and scrawling across huge sheets of paper with the charcoal pencils and gel pens that he keeps tucked under his hat.

“My mother’s father sold fish in Leicester, so I like to think it’s in my roots,” says Matthews, currently in Taiwan where he’s been bobbing about in the Pacific. “I’ve always had this profound fascination with the ocean.” In 2007, in Mexico, he experienced a “life-changing event” while out surfing. “I got hit by one of those rogue huge waves. It crashed over me, broke the leash connecting me to the board and I got a surge of primal fear. It was kind of epiphany; I saw life drawing to a close.”

All at sea … Matthews’ canvas Photograph: Peter Matthews

It dawned on him afterwards, however, that waiting around in the water was where he was happiest: “that communion with the ocean”. And so he swapped surfboard for hardboard and started immersing himself in the sea, often from dawn until dusk, trying to capture, consciously and subconsciously, that strange, suspended state.

Looking at the resulting drawings, which Matthews often leaves in a tidepool overnight to work on again in the morning, it’s tempting to draw comparison to the scratchy, abstract works of Cy Twombly or Jasper Johns. But there is also something of the alchemist to Matthews – his stream-of-consciousness texts, his lyrical way of speaking and his frankly eccentric work practice. “Big grey seals often pop up,” says Matthews, who has been working for years around the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, wild-camping on the cliffs near Coverack. “When I’m exhausted and lie on the rocks to try and generate a bit of heat, the seals come up really close. Those unexpected things in nature are fascinating.”

It would be wrong to describe Matthews as a nature artist. Although his work is literally soaked in seawater and scattered with the imprint of small shellfish, he is far more interested in exploring the fluid midpoint between sea and land, thought and form.

“There’s a period of time in the early morning and again at twilight that’s beyond words,” he says, his soft Derbyshire vowels still just about detectable. “That’s when the scrawlings ignite. It’s almost caveman-like. Approaching the ocean is quite mysterious in itself: seeing it, and that visceral experience of listening to it, smelling it, touching it.”

5 Hours In and With the Atlantic Ocean #2 (England) Photograph: Peter Matthews/Courtesy of the artist

Of course, there are practical obstacles to working in the sea. As well as numb hands, the odd fall into a rockpool and concerned dogwalkers peering out at him on the horizon, Matthews has to contend with the unpredictability of waves. “There’s a romantic side to me that’s drawn to the wild, breaking white. But I’ve also lost quite a lot of drawings that way,” he tells me, as I try to picture this floating male selkie pulling pencils out of his sleeve like a magician. “The waves crash over, it tears off the board, and ebbs away into the abyss.”

Some of his works dance along the border of the brilliant and the ridiculous. For the piece With the Forces of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Matthews rigged up a CD player on a floating tripod, then spent days bobbing about in the Atlantic, listening to a recording of the Pacific, trying to capture the watery confusion between the two. For A Mystical Exchange of Energies he sprayed nine litres of Pacific ocean, collected during typhoon Nanmodal in August 2011, into the Atlantic using a fire extinguisher – transferring one ocean into the other.