From the Seas Of Imagination

ROBERT CALLENDER is a realist rather than a romantic, in spite of the consuming interest that his sculptures and reliefs unmistakably demonstrate in the sea and boats. His is a theme so embedded in the romantic that he has no need to emphasize the fact. If anything, he cuts across emotiveness and constructs his work with a kind of painstaking, cool deliberation. The feelings contained in his art are held in place, even hidden - but they escape from it anyway.

So I use the word ``interest'' rather than, say, ``passion,'' which somehow seems too overt a word. And yet it is not possible that this artist does not harbor inside a fierce passion for the ocean. His work is in every way interwoven with the great life-and-death metaphor that persistently approaches, retreats, and again approaches the shoreline - or bursts upon it with relentless, ferocious power, casting up and abandoning all sorts of debris. But if passion is there, he presents it, even when he talks about his art, with detachment or a degree of humor.

Callender's images, which were once in the form of paintings but have steadily grown more frequently three-dimensional until he is now almost exclusively making sculpture, are not invested with expressionistic push, but simply appear to be no more or less what they are. What they appear to be are such things as rusting or brightly-painted rudders; the charred, encrusted black skeleton of a wooden boat; the gates of dry docks; the remains of some boat-fragment pressed into oozing mud; a ``scavenged deck''; part of an old boiler, orange with the powder of rust; part of a pier; or a ``beach find'' of wood fragments, roped together.

He does not go out hunting for objects to make sculptures of, but gathers them like driftwood from the well-stocked beaches of his memory and imagination. Sometimes their arrival in his mind is almost mysterious to him. He recalls looking at the body of work that comprised his major exhibition, ``Sea Salvage,'' in Edinburgh in 1989 and, sitting there, rather bemusedly, asking himself where on earth all these ideas had come from. He almost found it a matter of wonder how he had made all these pieces.

The idea of ``salvage'' has now shifted into that of ``excavation,'' and his next show, in Dunfermline, will be based on that notion. He explains: ``The excavation idea is not based on actually going down to Pettycur Beach [a beach near the studio he shares with the artist Liz Ogilvie overlooking the Firth of Forth] and digging and finding a boat structure there: It's purely in the mind as to what I would like to find - what you would ideally like to find.'' It is, he says, the same with his images of driftwood: ``You'd never find stuff like that.'' Instead, he prefers his ideas to come straight out of his head. That way he can dictate their scale and everything else about them; he is not being dictated to by something found that he then tries to imitate. And he is emphatic that his art is not an assemblage of ``found objects.'' Nor is it a faithful replication of some chosen piece of ground, as in the work of the British family of artists, the Boyles. He admires their work, but is clear, when people find similarities between his and theirs, that he is pursuing a quite different tack.

If Callender has a rather stunning knack with materials that convince the eye that it is looking at rusting metal or distressed wood, when in fact it is only looking at cardboard ingeniously surfaced, then his aim is still not a kind of magician's trompe l'oeil. He wants to convince rather than fool his viewer. But he wants his sculpture to recreate - as it does for him - something of the stirring pleasure, the jogging of memory or strange resonance of inner feeling, that an encounter with the actual skeleton of a ruined, sea-worn boat might. In other words, he wants the experience to seem as real as possible.

Callender has, in the past at least, been a keen gatherer of items deposited on the beach. But this is not the only way in which his imagery has lodged itself so effectively in his mind. Although he has lived in Scotland most of his adult life, he was actually born on the outskirts of London, spent some part of his childhood in Devon, then went to school in the Lake District, and was cared for, after both his parents died, by an aunt and uncle in Newcastle, all before finally coming to Edinburgh.

HIS father, who was an engineer, had built a boat on the Thames. It was a converted wherry. In his childhood, Callender used to go up the river's reaches seaward with his father. At the beginning of the war, working on a minesweeper, his father was drowned.

The details of his father's disappearance were kept from him. Perhaps today this is a latent contributive factor to his intense interest in excavating his imagination for lost remains, an excavation so closely linked to the sea. More happily, however, another strong childhood memory has added its own ingredient to his vision. He lived with his mother for a time in Salcombe in Devon. ``And that was as near to the water as you're ever going to get,'' he says. It is situated on the mouth of an estuary, and ``all the old wooden ships that had been brought up the estuary and just dumped there'' were his playground. ``I used to play on these ... crawling inside where I wasn't supposed to be, and rummaging about in this kind of stuff.''

It seems amazing to him now (he was born in 1932) that it has taken so many years for these vivid childhood experiences to come out in his work. But there are different forms of reticence, and one is simply the effect of circumstances. Although he has been a very active artist since he trained at Edinburgh College of Art (after a struggle with his uncle and aunt who were concerned that a life as an artist would not make him a living), a great deal of his time has been taken up teaching at the same college. Now retirement from teaching has given his work new leeway and more time.

Since memory has become such an important part of his procedure, I wondered if a kind of nostalgia might also be at play. Before Callender answered this question, he hesitated. In the end he decided, ``Yes, probably, in a way.''

The times he has lived through in Scotland have brought vast change - the traditional industries of the country having either ''gone down the drain'' or about to do so: shipbuilding, coal mining, fishing. And, he admits, his work does contain references to and ``respect for the craftsmanship and traditions in building craft that have to go out into an incredibly hostile environment to put a bit of fish on somebody's plate.'' He is sure that most people (by implication urban people) when visiting the fishmonger's and being told there is not much fish today, do not realize this is because there has been a terrible gale.

Callender is familiar with both city and country, and perhaps his art is partly a confrontation of the urban with the rural. It also presents quiet confrontations in several other ways - a confrontation of the present with the past, of realism with imagination, and of man's artifacts with the ravages and marvels of the ocean.

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