The wide-eyed wanderer

What captivated you? – I ask Tamsin Relly. We’re sitting in the garden of her mother’s home in Somerset West, and the fluid rhythm of the Lourens River nearby is the soothing backdrop to our fascinating conversation about her life as an artist, and her trip to Svalbard in 2014.

An iridescent Malachite sunbird alights on a bush almost within reach, and Tamsin’s eyes open wide in wonderment. “Look!” she exclaims, pointing at the exquisite little creature. She marvels at the intensity of colour, the neatness of form, the bright-eyed alertness of this wonder of nature.

“The cycle of ice carving off the glacier,” she says, in answer to my question. “It is constantly changing, streaming past the ship, bubbling, moving. I stood and watched it for hours.” It is clear looking at her work since then, that this experience in one of the world’s most extreme environments, has exerted a profound influence on her.

Tamsin was fortunate enough to be selected as a member of the bi-annual sojourn of artists, scientists, educators and innovators who spend a three and a half week residency on a traditionally rigged Barquentine tall ship, courtesy of The Arctic Circle, an NGO which seeks to foster multi-disciplinary collaborative engagement with the central issues of our time. The expedition takes place twice each year, in summer and autumn, and Tamsin joined the Arctic Circle Autumn Expedition 2014, from October 2 to 20, in the International Territory of Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole.

“The ice is constantly changing in form and colour, opaque and starkly angular when it calves off the glacier, it eventually becomes crystal clear and softer, more rounded in form as it streams past the ship, until it comes to rest on the shore across the bay,” she says, “and as the ice melts, patterns hitherto hidden in the glacier are revealed, as if placed on shore like an installation.”

Tamsin was born in Rooi Els, and was educated and grew up in Somerset West. She matriculated at Parel Vallei High School in 1998, and it was there that her natural talent took form, under the tutelage of art teacher Francois Visser.

“He found the magic in my work,” she says. She lives and works in London, where she completed her education, graduating with an MA in Fine Arts from the City and Guilds School of Art in 2011.

For Tamsin, the creative process is a constant voyage of discovery.

“There is a huge element of surprise. I may have a starting point, an idea, but how it will finally look, I know not,” she says, “and I think this is due to unpredictability of the medium.”

Tamsin works in multiple mediums – including, but not limited to, water colour on paper, traditional metal plate etchings, soluble oils, and medium format (6cm x 7cm) film, the latter having played a significant role during the Svalbard trip.

“I use a digital camera for reference,” she explains, “but I wanted to explore analogue photography that far north, I wanted to use quality film to honour the landscape.”

And it is a landscape of extremes, exquisitely beautiful and at the same time, surreal.

At the 79th Northern parallel, nothing is pedestrian. The temperature averaged -17ºC, and just surviving the cold required constant vigilance. “You have to remember to dress for the cold, and you end up eating twice as much as usual, because you need the calories to combat the cold, and of course in such extreme temperatures, your relationship with your materials changes as well,” she says.

“It was sensorially overwhelming, and you almost want to be awake 24 hours a day, so that you don’t miss a thing. Every day is unique. You lose 20 minutes of light each day, as Winter approaches, and the quality of the light is constantly changing. The ships clock was adjusted so that we could make the most of the daylight hours each day.”

Most of the three and a half weeks was spent on board ship, as it sailed up and down the western reaches of the Svalbard Archipelago, making for a stark contrast. “Vast and sublime empty spaces while being around people all the time,” she explains. The expedition company numbered 25, plus a crew of 10, who when they did go ashore, provided the safe space they needed to pursue their creativity. “I was in awe of our guides, all Nordic women, who would stand guard around us with rifles. They are so centred, and so balanced between their masculine and feminine sides. They are warrior adventurers, Nordic goddesses, who are at home in this unusual world. One of them actually lives on Svalbard, in a tent with her husky,” Tamsin says.

Our conversation ranges widely, as she recounts her sense of wonderment at the constantly changing landscape, her intense engagement with the extreme environment, and concludes with her heartbreak over the very obvious impact of our assault on our fragile world. “The glaciers are receding each year,” she says, “and you realise this when you see the ship’s crew marking newly exposed rocks and reefs on the navigation charts. The impact of climate change up there is staggering, and you can feel the grief of it.”

As much as I want to see more of the world through Tamsin’s wondrous eyes our time together must come to and end, for her return flight to London departs in just a few hours.

And as I reluctantly take my leave of Tamsin and her family, wishing her well for her return journey and her work that beckons, the lyrics of Tim Rice’s “Can you feel the love tonight” from The Lion King run through my head – There’s a time for everyone if they only learn / That the twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn / There’s a rhyme and reason to the wild outdoors / When the heart of this star crossed voyager beats in time with yours – and it strikes me that she is the wide-eyed wanderer of the song, and her love affair is with the world around us that she sees with a remarkable clarity which most the rest of us miss, but which she reveals to us in her exquisite work.

BLOB) Tamsin Relly has exhibited widely in London, New York, Paris, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban and her art is included in a number of public and private collections locally and internationally. Visit to view her work.

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