It seemed like a curious decision to spend a Blue Monday walking along Seaham’s glass beach, a freezing wind biting my face. I was lucky enough to be saved from the cold by Seaham based artist Jac Howard. She welcomed me into her studio, inviting me to discuss her work over a steaming cup of black coffee. Seaham is a seaside town whose historical ties with the mining industry has left visible scars in its community as well as its coastline. Its nearest colliery, Dawdon, was vastly affected by pit closures across the UK during Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. Although its effects can still be felt, it has since been able to enter a slow recovery thanks to its position as one of Durham Heritage Coast’s best-preserved jewels.
I came to discover Jac’s work in the Seasons Framing Gallery on Church Street in Durham. Aside from being a prized reference for picture framing in the region, Seasons holds a small collection of artworks from local artists, a few of which are part of the East Durham Artist’s Network.The EDAN was launched over 20 years ago, in 2004, to group a voluntary collective of professional and amateur artists. Each one of these artists were joined by one common interest: their passion for the topography of the East of County Durham’s coastline.
Jac Howard is particularly inspired by Seaham’s social history and shoreline. She regularly handpicks objects washed up on the beach that almost come crashing onto her doorstep. Born and raised in the municipality, she endured mining strikes and its blighting effects on local community. For her, her art became a tool to guide herself out of the town’s traumatic present. She went to art college first, progressing onto her undergraduate degree at Hild Bede college in Durham University, where she read English and Art in the School of Education. She then taught art to middle-school children for over thirty years in Houghton le Spring, teaching ceramics and two-dimensional art. Returning to Seaham, she then decided to take an early retirement to become a full-time artist, cultivating her personal style by completing a Masters’s in Fine Arts at the University of Sunderland.
As a professionally trained artist, Jac explores a variety of mediums: she started with figurative works, depicting detailed close ups of fisherman paraphernalia: buoys, nets, etc. Today, her works deal mostly with textures and patterns which evoke her intimate, emotional link with the seashore.
Her exhibition Dyed Coast (August 2022) is a testimony of this passion, where she exhibited works using a range of media, from paint to encaustics, textile to ceramics, and monotype prints. The exhibition explored the visual legacy that the Blast Beach in the South of Seaham left for Jac throughout her childhood. Now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the beach is preserved, and the magnesian limestone cliffs that encircle it make it one of the town’s most treasured natural spaces. The beach is unfortunately known for its despoiled past being a receiver of the mine waste tipped from Nose’s Point, where the Dawdon Colliery once lay.
Using collagraphy, a method incorporating collage and low relief print, Jac creates highly evocative series of abstract images. Red Pool, Yellow Cliffs is one of the exhibition’s prints, where Jac traps the rusty terracotta ink on a low relief piece of cloth found on the beach, evoking the “rocks that bleed rust as if wounded” (Howard 2022). The yellow cliffs above are made with leaves, whose acid tinted veins evoke the cellular patterns of the limestone cliffs above the blast. Nostalgia, nature, and expression all merge into one, evoking the regenerating power of the North Sea.
Jac’s work has been exhibited around County Durham and beyond, but most of all in Seaham’s EDAN Gallery. Previously a toilet block, the network of artists refurbished the space, transforming into a space of exchange, giving the opportunity for local artists to be part of a budding artistic community. The gallery is open to anyone with a passion for art wishing to become a member, offering workshops and lessons on a weekly basis. EDAN Gallery is currently open Tuesday- Friday, 11am-3pm, as well as Saturdays, 10am-4pm. Jac and other artists from the network are currently building an exhibition that will commemorate the 1980s Women Against Pitt Closures Movement.
Illustration: Hayleigh McLean