‘Places on the edge – marginal areas – are where nature usually survives better because it’s away from aggressive agriculture,’ says polymath artist and environmental activist Kurt Jackson of the area in which his practice has been rooted for the past 30 years. He is based on the north-west coast of Cornwall, near St Just, overlooking the Celtic Sea, almost as far from London as the Scottish Borders. The population is small, the soil poor – ‘it’s tin-mining country,’ he says – and the elements ‘are all in your face’.
While reading zoology at the University of Oxford, Kurt says he spent much of his time ‘hanging out at the Ruskin School of Art and painting the Oxfordshire countryside’, explaining that his ‘knowledge of natural history and environmental politics underpins everything’.
Primarily a plein-air painter, he rolls up his canvases and takes them to a basic studio on a cliff, to the fields, beach, or Helford River. Sometimes he goes further afield – to Glastonbury, the Greenpeace ship in the English Channel, or, at the invitation of landowners, to private ancient woodlands. ‘I exploit and collaborate with the sun, the rain and the wind,’ he says. ‘It can be a challenge, but the marks left narrate the story. They’re part of the process.’
Kurt’s main studio, a geothermally heated former cowshed, reflects the breadth of his practice – sculpture, ceramics, poetry and jewellery – and the number of projects he works on. ‘It’s usually five at any one time. Some are dependent on tide or season, and I like to maximise my energy,’ he says.
At the root of his efforts is a determination to raise awareness of the fragility of the natural world, ‘seeing how we influence it and it influences us’. Extensive bodies of work have focused on fishing, farming, quarrying and mining. A current exhibition at the Jackson Foundation Gallery, the space Kurt and his partner, Caroline, have built in St Just, celebrates the Royal National Lifeboat Institution via a collection of seascapes and beachscapes – from Fowey to Padstow, Lizard Point to Trebarwith Strand. But alongside the beauty is tragedy. Kurt has also painted the old Penlee Lifeboat Station, which in December 1981 saw a disaster that resulted in the loss of 16 lives. ‘Cornwall is a community that has been shaped by the sea,’ says Kurt. ‘You have to respect it’.