‘Sand Painting’ Artist Tony Plant on Finding His Place in a Landscape
“There’s no protocol, no hierarchy, and I don’t have to ask permission.”
U.K.-based artist Tony Plant is known for his intricate, geometric “sand paintings.” The work, captured in epic images as well as time-lapse videos, has found many admirers on social media. But before becoming an internet sensation, Plant made his sand paintings with the hope that just a few individuals might randomly encounter them and form lasting memories around the work.
Plant hails from Cornwall, England, where he still lives. There, he grew up surrounded by the sea; before and after school he was on the beach, checking to see if the items that had washed up on shore were worth claiming. For Plant, the Cornish beaches, walled off by cliffs, were always in vibrant flux—they were living entities. Later in life, these beaches and cliffs, in both day and night, became his canvas and tools. The Cornish coastline’s impact on Plant is on full display at the artist’s new exhibition, Walk. Stop. Walk, which opens March 18 at the Royal Cornwall Museum.
Walk. Stop. Walk finds Plant debuting dozens of paintings and drawings based on the Cornish coastline. Plant’s sketchbooks, composed over several years, will also be on display, along with a video in the foyer titled “Forever Skylarks,” which shows Plant making beach paintings that are quickly erased by the tide.
“Nothing stays the same, and beaches change shape based on weather patterns and storm fronts,” Plant tells GOOD. “They not only change shape, but color, and different winds will make a beach into a completely different color. The whole thing for me growing up on the coast was being open to all of those different events as they happened.”
The Royal Cornwall Museum contacted Plant nearly two years ago about doing a show, and he was happy to oblige. He sees the museum exhibition as an opportunity to take his “outside work” to an indoor space. Plant describes the difficulty in capturing his work for this kind of show and how natural elements like time of day impact what he produces.
“I’ve drawn under every full moon for many years, because often the light is amazing—you can’t actually photograph it,” Plant says. “So I started to do these night walks and paintings and drawings along coast paths and cliffs I know really well with my friend and filmmaker Lee Evans. So this exhibition is paintings from drawings and memories from those night walks.”
“At nighttime it’s your peripheral vision that really works, so you can’t really be looking at anything—if you want to see something, you’ve got to look to the side, and you can see horizons really well,” Plant says. “I’m interested in horizons and crossover points and edges, whereas with the beach drawings I’m playing with scale.”
Plant says it’s never his intention to impose a piece of work onto a landscape. If he ever felt he was doing that, he’d feel “gutted.” Instead, Plant likes to make work that fits into or is an extension of a given place.
“Although the beach paintings are really big, they’re less than five millimeters [a fifth of an inch] deep—they’re like scratches, and literally the only thing you see is a shadow,” Plant explains. “If you’re in the wrong position to see the shadow, you’re not going to see a thing. You can be in the middle of a 500-meter drawing and be totally oblivious to the fact that you’re even there. I’ve seen people do it, and it’s amazing when they realize. They stop and freeze in their tracks because they don’t know what to do.”
Plant adds, “That’s what I love about making these drawings in public spaces.” He appreciates that “there’s no protocol, no hierarchy, and I don’t have to ask permission. And there is no correct way to behave in those situations. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be in the Royal Cornwall Museum—I want to see what happens when my work goes into a gallery space where there is protocol and an acceptable type of behavior.”
One might look at Plant’s sand drawings and see works that are ephemeral. That is, the elements will eventually erase them. Sure, the internet, whether through images or video, preserves or archives them in a way, but Plant doesn’t even see the original sand paintings as ephemeral. For him, they have a permanency that occurred to him when struggling with the difficulties of photographing his work.
Plant started recording these images years ago, and he did so with big clunky gear. While he was working on the beach, the camera would sit on a tripod up on cliffs. And when he was finished, he would hike back up the cliffs to retrieve his gear, where he would meet people who had been watching him work.
“What I’ve noticed over the years is that while these images are not long for this world, people will come up to me who have been watching me work from the clifftop and they’ll start talking to me, and they tell me stories of why they’re there, whether it’s a journey of remembrance or discovery,” Plant says. “But the narrative that is associated with that landscape isn’t ephemeral for them.”
“I had a guy come up to me once about three or four years ago, and I could see him with his two small girls, and he said, ‘I’ve never seen the tide come in, so we had to stay and watch the picture go,’ and I thought that that was just fantastic,” Plant says. “Now the piece wasn’t ephemeral—it was locked into a collective narrative between the father and two daughters.”
Beyond that, Plant thinks it’s misleading to call the sand drawings ephemeral because it implies that other things, especially other forms of art, are not. Again, nothing is fixed in Plant’s world. On the other hand, he sees memories and stories locked into landscapes.
In a gallery, Plant says, people will look at a work for a couple of minutes, but when they turn around they might as well have forgotten it. But with a beach painting, he can stop someone for at least 20 minutes. So, in a sense, Plant believes that these beach paintings might be more permanent than art hung in a gallery or museum.
“If you turn your back on a beach painting and it’s still chugging around in your head, and you mention it to someone else or remember it in relation to something else 10 years down the line, it’s not ephemeral,” Plant muses. “It’s become something else that is associated with a landscape and locked into a memory.”
In recent years, the internet has changed how Plant shares his art, and how others experience it. Unlike some artists he knows, Plant has no problem ceding control of his art to the whims of the web—letting social media take it where it will, and redefine it in the process.
“I can literally make a piece of work and know that maybe one or two or three people have seen it,” Plant says. “Put an image online and then it goes, and it can literally go around the world with a click of a button. That becomes very, very powerful: the way the image travels through social media without any kind of editing in some sense. But then it gets warped and moved away from its original intention really, really quickly. I like relinquishing control in that way, and seeing where it will go next.”
While he enjoys what the internet does to his work, Plant takes the greatest joy from people’s experience of his work in the actual landscape in which it exists, however temporarily.
“I just want someone to stop and look at the landscape,” says Plant. “This is my response to the landscape—what’s yours?”