Artists John Holt and Dan Polak begin new periods of ‘residency’ at Creswell Crags Museum and Prehistoric Gorge in October 2020 

Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags contains some of the earliest art known in the British Isles, in the form of 12,000 year old Ice Age rock art. In Robin Hood Cave, archaeologists found the Ochre Horse – a drawing of a horse scratched into a bone which constitutes the first coloured drawing known in Britain. Later, the superstitious folk of the seventeenth century scratched mysterious symbolic ‘Witch Marks’ into the limestone walls of Robin Hood Cave and, in the eighteenth century, artist George Stubbs used Creswell Crags as a backdrop in some of his most famous oil paintings. Although it is often thought of as an archaeological site, or a place to enjoy the great outdoors, Creswell Crags is also a site with a thread of art, symbolism and creativity twisted through its long timeline. It is, therefore, fitting that the site – which recently received emergency funding from the Culture Relief Fund to help it survive the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic – is now announcing two new collaborations with Artists in Residence.  

The outline of a bird's head, with a long beak, carved into limestone rock

Rock Art Ibis in Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags, over 12,000 years old [Photo credit: Paul Bahn]

The residencies will be remote, with regular communication and interaction with the Creswell Crags team, and the Scheduled Ancient Monument site. 

John Holt is a widely published writer, art educationalist and founder of a national arts and mental health charity AiM (Artists in Mind). Over many years in the arts, as a teacher in mainstream education, and as an arts facilitator in the field of mental health, he developed the concept that ‘creativity is the immune system of the mind and the source of the mythic,’ that creativity has a natural tendency, as inclination, when stimulated and encouraged in the individual towards and heightened sense of ‘self-realisation’ of ‘awareness of self.’ He says this is, I believe, a process of the clarification of the relationship between self and the world, and that this need manifests openly, given the chance, in diverse ways through the construction of language and symbols. After many years of teaching, John left to establish AiM, building it up over 12 years to become a successful organisation with studios for people suffering acute and long term mental distress. He is also published widely in the field of ‘creativity and health’. 

A collection of ceramic art pieces in progress on an artist's desk, including some based on witch marks designs from Creswell Crags. The designs are different shapes and sizes.

Works in Progress in John Holt’s studio, including designs inspired by Creswell Crags

Leaving AiM in 2012, John took a studio in Holmfirth and began to explore ‘flow and fluidity’ – flow is manifest physically in nature and psychologically in the process and mechanics of human creativity. John says “This work was developed in a series of large scale drawings, ceramic sculptures and in installations such as one in which I placed a series of seven ceramic sculptures into the flow of a fast flowing river and another working with a musician on an ongoing project entitled “Fragments of Lost Rivers”. These works took on a Taoist dimension. Taoism teaches a person to flow with life and to me this working process was concerned with placing oneself into the flow of life through art, to manifest a “creative flow”. The idea that the construction of language was an antidote to psychic fracture and disconnection from self was continued in my studio, just as I had always espoused in my work with students, patients and users of mental health services over many years. These visual maps of “flowing” I made in my studio are indicators of a search for a unity, of a psychic and a spiritual health and potentially of the true expression of one’s own nature. This work indicates the healing potential in art, and it celebrates the power and beauty of the nature within us all. “ 

John’s interest in the construction and purpose of visual language was particularly connected to psychologist Carl Jung’s notions of “archetypes” as models rooted in memories and found throughout the world in many cultural forms as symbolic language.

A ceramic pot covered in swirling flow designs, in tones of grey and brown

Dan Polak is a doctoral researcher at the University of East London. Originally from Nottinghamshire, he still resides here, close to his family, amidst the many former coalfields of his home county. Prior work experience has seen him work across the arts in a variety of capacities, but currently he is exploring painting and printmaking in relation to his artistic practice. 

His research interests involve the study of cave art in order to assess what philosophies may be at work behind them. His particular interest, in reference to the relationship between philosophy and cave art, is to determine what sense of the metaphysical prehistoric people had in relation to themselves and their environment. 

His research enquiry involves utilising post-structuralist sensibilities, as influenced by philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Michel Foucault. This was done as there has been, in recent times, a growing sense of dissatisfaction of the conclusions drawn by the structuralist archaeologists and anthropologists from the early 20th century concerning the meaning of cave art. As such, it seems that we are now at a juncture within the study of cave art to lay new foundations regarding the subject itself. 

A black and white image of Daniel Polak

Dan Polak

Additionally, his research focuses on how we critique cave art. This was achieved by way of uncovering what use of symbolism (as exposed through archaeological, mythological, and ethnographic studies) early people put forth into their art. The hope is that this will provoke conversation around the cognitive processes of these individuals, and to make a case for artistic expression having developed during the Palaeolithic. Further interests involve the application of cave art theory within a contemporary Fine Arts practice, in order to assess the many commonly held assumptions we have of Fine Art processes today. 

Both John and Dan are already working on projects inspired by Creswell Crags, outcomes of which will include exhibitions and installations, but also workshops and talks – some of which will be available online.  

Rebecca Morris-Buck, Communications and Programmes Manager at Creswell Crags said “We are really delighted to have two Artists in Residence joining us at the end of 2020. After a year in which we weren’t sure our charity would survive due to the pandemic, it speaks to the relevance and importance of the Creswell Crags story and its ongoing ability to spark creative practice and research interest: it has been a site where art is created for at least 12 millennia and the team are really excited to continue this thread by working with John and Dan. They both bring very different processes and focuses to their work, but we were drawn to the way both artists focus on the humanity in art, the cognitive and spiritual aspects of creativity, and explore this in their own work. Audiences should look out for new talks and workshops, new exhibitions, and even new products in the gift shop, as a result of these brilliant Artists in Residence.” 

Find out more about John Holt here: http://www.flowart.org.uk/ 

Find out more about Dan Polak here: https://www.danieljamiepolak.com/