The Sea from Here: Interview with Artist David Cass

“Cass has been in thrall to the wonder and beauty of the sea for as long as he can remember and since he has looked with an artist’s eye – to enhance, edit and interpret – he has been struck by the conundrum of the horizon.”

Guy Peploe, Managing Director at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh

Edinburgh born contemporary artist David Cass creates artworks from found and recycled materials. He paints the sea on tiny matchboxes and large vintage advertisements for motor oil. Right now David Cass is working on two new projects, in both of which anyone from anywhere can participate: Where Once the Waters will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale, while The Sea from Here will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year.

Sea Library contacted David to know more about his relationship with the sea and how to participate in the mentioned projects. His catalogue-book Rising Horizon, published last year, is available to borrow in the Sea Library.

Artworks made from found objects by David Cass
Artworks made from found objects by David Cass

What does the sea mean to you?

This is a question with many answers, which I suppose depend on which day you ask me. I love the image of the sea; but I’ve never lived at the coast and I rarely paint sea from life. So, maybe my seascapes would be better described as abstract paintings. Each has come from imagination, created in central Edinburgh or London. 

Often, I use a painted horizon-line to represent a scale: gradually ascending to reflect our escalating global average temperature or the rising of sea levels. Other times, I approach the process of patiently layering waves onto wood or metal as something grounding; some meditative relief during anxious periods.

"100 Percent" by David Cass
“100 Percent” by David Cass

Why are you mesmerized by a horizon line?

I read recently in photographer David Loftus’ memoir Diary of a Lone Twin part of a line by Rossiter W. Raymond: “…a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” This speaks to me, though of course the context of the words is very different. Our collective imagination and infinite combined creativity can be put to use to meet all the issues of the day – to reach far beyond that horizon – should we choose. And there are many issues to be tackled.

I feel such despondency at times, at how little true progress has been made in solving the various causes of climate change. Money must be invested in research, in carbon reduction, in a rapid movement toward sustainable business practices. Otherwise, our horizon will – quite literally – rise. Warming seas around the world will erode coastlines and flood low-lying locations.

So, a horizon is a mark to aim for; but it can also become a threat.

Sometimes when I’m near water I can switch off and appreciate the beauty of it all, and in much of my painting I hope to convey this feeling. But at other times, I can’t help but fear the ocean’s power, and regret the damage we’ve done.

Artwork made from found objects by David Cass
Artwork made from found objects by David Cass

You’ve explored the Great Floods in history – including that which assailed Florence in 1966. What can we learn?

In a magazine article published during the aftermath of Florence’s Great Flood (1966), a line read “Nature will cooperate with man, if man learns to cooperate with Nature.” This statement in its original context referenced the mismanaging of dams in the valley upstream of Florence – a complicated and political hot-topic (it’s been suggested that river management in this region of Italy is still flawed). But the same sentence is relevant today.

Historically, Florence has suffered a major flood once a century. As documented in the press “the situation has actually got worse than in 1966” according to Raffaello Nardi, who heads up a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. This potential risk prompts concern, in part, because of the importance of Florence: what it means to the world of art and culture.

The irreplaceable items, objects, artefacts and architectural features its galleries, museums, churches and even its basements contain. Not to mention the intangible: the belief that Florence is a mecca of the art world. Cimabue’s Crucifix lost over 70 percent of its paint in 1966. Donatello’s Penitent Mary Magdalene was stained with thick brown oil. Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise lost half of their golden panels. Twenty-seven thousand square feet of frescoes in Florence’s central churches and museums were almost completely destroyed.

In 2018, the Louvre museum in Paris was on high alert, after the previous year rooms housing Arts of Islam and From the Mediterranean Orient to Roman Times were flooded, and a set of works by Nicolas Poussin and Jean-François de Troy damaged. The Louvre wasn’t the only Parisian cultural institution to take on water that year: the National Library of France suffered damages to its collection too; and the Musée Girodet, 80 miles south of Paris, suffered a “cultural catastrophe”.

We know now that so-called “hundred year” weather events are becoming so common that the metric is useless as a baseline for an extreme event. So, in tandem with reducing our environmental impact we must also safeguard.

Artwork made from found objects by David Cass
Artwork made from found objects by David Cass

How do you choose on what surfaces to paint the seascapes on?

I tend to look for ordinary, everyday items. Objects we can all relate to. Of course, the item must have a flat plane to paint upon, but it also has to be something that’s clearly lived a life already.

Robert Macfarlane speaks of something he calls Trace Fossils: “the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind…”

The objects I gather to paint upon are Trace Fossils too, then – etched with evidence of life and time. I paint on wooden doors, scored and scratched; on drawers and table-tops, discoloured and worn by daily use. I paint on ancient letters and postcards, written and sent and received and kept.

So, I suppose my completed paintings become a collaboration across time, carrying the marks of many hands. So much has come before. So much exists out there. So much will outlive us. Nothing in life can truly be considered blank, my artwork aims to reflect this.

In a few cases, I’ve aimed to combine my climate concerns with my desire to use found substrates. For my Rising Horizon project, I sourced surfaces made from waste plastics or metals – including vintage advertisements for motor oil, a key cause of global-warming.

"Rising Horizon" by David Cass. Photo by Beach Books
“Rising Horizon” by David Cass. Photo by Beach Books

Can you tell me more about your new projects The Sea from Here and Where Once the Waters and how everyone can participate?

I really want for my artwork to be inclusive. I want to offer entry points – to let others be involved – especially in projects concerning climate change. Working together is important.

I currently have two projects that anyone can be involved in: the first is called The Sea from Here, the second is Where Once the Waters. The two are connected, in that they both aim to offer us personalised pieces of information relating to our changing seas, but the outcome of each will be different.

I can’t give too much away about Where Once the Waters other than that you can take part by submitting your data here. I’ll use the data you enter to calculate the level of sea-rise (at your closest coast) since your birth. The “readings” will form a large-scale artwork set to be exhibited at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale.

I can, however, say a little bit more about The Sea from Here, which will take the form of both a physical and virtual exhibition next year. Send me a photo (or, up to three) of your local sea here and I’ll present them as part of the exhibition. I’ll select a few of the photos (there’s been almost 200 photos submitted so far) and pair them with data specific to the seas in question.

Once you’ve submitted your photo(s) by following the steps on the webpage, please do also consider sharing your photo on Instagram using the hashtag #theseafromhere so we can get as many involved as possible.

Book cover by David Cass for Mark Haddon's novel "The Porpoise", published in 2019 by Chatto Windus
Book cover by David Cass & Suzanne Dean for Mark Haddon’s novel “The Porpoise”, published in 2019 by Chatto Windus

What sea-books or artworks have inspired you?

So many artists and authors come to mind. You introduced me to David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge which I’ve just devoured. “If timelessness exists anywhere on Earth”, Gange writes, “it is not in sight of the sea.”

But if I had to pick one sea-book it’d be Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise. Maybe I’m biased, because I worked on the covers of the hardback version of this book, or maybe it makes perfect sense (maybe this is why the publisher picked me to work on the project). Escapism is sometimes necessary, and I’ve returned to this soaring epic in the last months of lockdown as some adventure-driven relief from the anxiety of the current situation.

This is a deeply affecting and beautifully-written tale about a family – a woman, a man and a child – apparently lost to one another, who must journey through an unstable world, across oceans and across centuries, to find a place they can call home.

And if I had to pick one artist it’d be William Kentridge, who creates artworks with and upon a vast range of objects. In my view the most exceptional of his artworks is the mural Triumphs & Laments, located along the banks of the Tiber in Rome, illustrating scenes of the current migrant crisis but also of Rome’s classical history. In this mural, Kentridge has created something temporal, drawn by erasure (by jet-washing upon a pollution blackened wall), forming a mammoth picture that will, in time, fade back into the wall…

David Cass
Portrait photo of David Cass