Sarah Gillespie: Moth

12 September - 31 October 2020

I have no news of my coming or passing away, the whole thing happened quicker than a breath; ask no questions of the moth.     (Farid al din Attar)

This show represents the culmination of an eighteen month long project, researching, drawing and engraving common English moths by artist Sarah Gillespie.  All twenty-four of the resulting mezzotints and a selection of silverpoint drawings will be seen together for the first time this September, at Kestle Barton.  The exhibition will be accompanied by a limited edition artist’s book.

Misunderstood and overlooked moths are deeply unloved by most humans. Unseen in the dark and dismissed as ‘dull’ in favour of their flashier, diurnal cousins, the butterflies, moths are in fact more numerous and more varied, are a major part of our biodiversity and hold vital roles in the wildlife ecosystem as pollinators, recyclers and food for bats and beloved songbirds.

We are in the middle of the sixth extinction of life on Earth, this one caused by human action. Since 1914  it is thought that around sixty-two moths have gone extinct in Britain alone. Habitat loss, intensive farming, commercial forestry and light pollution have caused the overall number of moths across Britain to fall by around one third in just the last thirty-five years. Some species, like the well-known Garden Tiger, fell by 80% or more.

Sarah’s work draws attention to this catastrophic collapse and goes further to see with a tender eye and celebrate their unseen nocturnal lives, their exquisite diversity, and the poetry of their common English names.

©Sarah Gillespie – Swallow tail, Mezzotint engraving


Below are audio recordings of a Moth Magic talk given by Author and Naturalist, Mark Cocker in Part 1 and Part 2 is Mark Cocker in conversation with Artists, Sarah Gillespie and Jem Southam, on the same evening. The event was held at Kestle Barton on Saturday 12 September 2020 with a social distanced audience comprised primarily of members from the Cornwall Butterfly & Moth Society.

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Artist Statement

I have no news of my coming or passing away, the whole thing happened quicker than a breath; ask no questions of the moth.     (Farid al din Attar)

‘I didn’t choose moths – they arrived in search of me.

Or, better put, they emerged over a period of years. In the summer months, they became ever more present, ever more insistent until there was no ‘choice’. They had come out of the night, with all their powdery fragility and found me…their fragile winged emanations speaking urgently of the dark, of the earth, of all it is we cannot see.

So, the question was, how to respond? I found in their short lives a glory that comes from participation in the whole complex, entangled fabric of life but in general Moths are misunderstood, overlooked and deeply unloved. There are few references to them in literature; even the Bible refers to them negatively, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt’.

The work of artists and poets has always been to awaken our attention, to show what is unseen, to love what is unloved. That work feels urgent now. Modern life may be brightly lit but our attention to the lives of so many creatures has largely slept and the damage has been enormous. Since 1914 there have been around sixty moth extinctions in Britain alone. In the last thirty-five years, the overall number of moths countrywide fell by around a third. Some like the well- known Garden Tiger, whose caterpillars are the main food of our much-missed cuckoos, have fallen by 80% or more.

We have to start by opening our eyes. To quote Rachel Carson, “the more we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

So, this is my response, my rebellion. If what I have been given is the ability to focus, to pay attention, and if there is even the remotest chance that in attending lies an antidote to our careless destruction, then that’s what I have to do – to focus.
It’s not enough but it’s necessary.’

Sarah Gillespie 2019

Sarah Gillespie

Sarah Gillespie is settled with her family in the Southwest region of Devon. She is an artist of exceptional integrity and skill in observing and representing the natural world – primarily focused on the countryside of England that surrounds her daily.

Sarah was born in Surrey and studied at the Atelier Neo Medici in Paris and the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University. She was awarded the Egerton Coghill Prize for landscape painting, and the prestigious international Elizabeth Greenshield Award for figurative painting in her early career. She most recently is known for the Mezzotint printmaking technique that she has adopted to capture the half-tones and gradients of the limited palate of ‘black and white and subtle shades of brown and grey’ she uses to create her work.

In 2019 Sarah’s work was recognised at the International Mezzotint Festival in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where she was awarded the prize for ‘Adhering to the Traditions and Skills of Graphical Work’.

Sarah is a member of the RWA (Royal West of England Academy).

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