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‘Reading Water’ – Naomi Hart at St Nicholas Priory

Throughout 2020 and 2021, I have been making work around the River Exe and the Exe Estuary. I’ve called the work ‘Reading Water’ – a term used by people who fish, by sailors and surfers, trying to understand what is happening on and in the water’s waves, currents and tides. The root of the name Exeter is ‘Isca’, meaning ‘water’, so this piece is both ‘reading Exeter’ and ‘reading the river’.

A river can be the start of an adventure: Topsham was once the second largest port in England and is the birthplace of ships which explored the world through literature, science and art, and through the trade of knowledge and exchange of ideas linking the Exe with places around the globe.

The River Exe gives us our sense of identity, and carries our stories. It anchors us and gives us a sense of place, yet it is forever moving and changing, a constant back-and-forth of life, and a never-ending stream of learning.

The Exe has historically provided water to drink, for industry (numerous watermills producing paper and textiles), for travel and trade, to put out fires (recently the Royal Clarence fire), for leisure (canoeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing) and a hundred other things. It is often seen as a symbol of purity and cleanliness, yet is also used as a dumping ground for rubbish and pollution. Rivers often threaten to flood our very cities with rising sea levels due to climate change, but in ecological terms rivers sustain plant, bird and animal life from microscopic algae to whales and dolphins.

For this project I followed the course of the Exe from Exeter to Riversmeet in Topsham, walking along the banks, reading poems and texts about rivers that I felt were relevant or inspiring, and collecting objects and materials to make an artist’s book.

I’ll be showing the artist’s book that I made for a City of Literature commission, along with other work inspired by my walks and conversations with Tidelines – a community project celebrating the Exe Estuary and the natural world.

Naomi Hart 2021

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