Life from the loam: Exploring beauty within darkness
“My aim with my art is to show that a certain type of beauty, even if it lasts for only a moment, can be found in the darkest of places.”
Ieuan Holt is a writer and watercolour painter based in Plymouth. He begins his final year studying BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing in September 2022.
As a fan of horror fiction Ieuan changed careers, switching life at sea working as a qualified Navigational Officer, to pursue a passion in poetry and fiction.
With an interest in mental health, particularly from the viewpoint of reassessing masculine values, Ieuan has set up the Understanding the Pieces of Ourselves poetry anthology.
Alongside his creative writing Ieuan has developed a burgeoning reputation for evocative watercolour paintings. His talent has been recognised by having a piece accepted into the 2022 Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Ieuan talks to us about his painting and creative writing and how both art forms can inspire a sea change in how men talk about their mental health.
<p>Ieuan Holt at the Royal Academy of Arts<br></p>

  • BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing Final Year student
  • Founder of Understanding the Pieces of Ourselves poetry anthology
  • Self-taught watercolour artist – 'Industrialised' accepted into the Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition 2022 

In conversation with Ieuan Holt

Watercolour wonder

Let's begin with your paintings which are incredibly fresh, full of mystery, yet suggestive of story and emotion. 
One in particular – Industrialised – has been selected in the 2022 Royal Academy summer exhibition – huge congratulations! How did you feel when you heard this news?
I'm not going to lie, when I got the email saying my piece had been selected, I cried. And when I was told the piece had sold, I just couldn’t believe it. 

What was it like viewing it in the exhibition at Burlington House? 
Seeing it displayed at the Royal Academy was a very surreal experience, especially since it was the first time I have had my work exhibited. It still feels unreal even now, but I am proud of what I have achieved.

<p>Industrialised by Ieuan Holt</p>
Is it true you only began watercolour painting in July 2021?
Yes, I have been painting for just over a year, which seems like a life time ago. 

Were you painting in any other capacity before this? 
Before watercolours I didn’t really paint anything except for Warhammer models. 

The last time I had put a brush to paper was when I was in Year 6.


What inspired you to pick up a brush again?
My mum and I took a trip to see my grandmother, who has been doing art for as long as I can remember. During our visit I kept looking at the paintings that lined the walls of her house, thinking to myself, ‘doesn’t this look like fun’. I asked if I could borrow some of her watercolour books so that I could give it a go and she was annoyed that I hadn’t asked sooner!

Why do you choose to work with watercolours?
I was drawn to the fluidity and that I am never entirely in control of the paint when it hits the water. That whatever happens on the paper, be it by design or by accident, happens, and you have to paint towards an end result that is constantly changing. The high risk and high reward of the medium is one I enjoy.

Have you experimented with using other tools or mediums?
Many landscapes are created using a store loyalty card loaded up with different paints that I use to sketch in the initial shapes and follow up with brushwork.
<p>Simmer by Ieuan Holt</p>
<p>Technocracy by Ieuan Holt<br></p>
<p>From Ashes by Ieuan Holt</p>

Liquid landscapes

Are there any artists or touching points that have influenced you?
When I started painting I knew little of the art world, so I had to use my imagination. There was a lot of trial and error, finding what worked for me and how to actually paint. 
The more I painted, the more I started to look at artists such as JMW Turner, whose use of light and darkness and ambiguity that can be found in his work struck me and influenced the way I paint.
The biggest inspiration has been my friends and family, who have always been supportive and a source of constructive criticism, which I could not do without. 

<p>Devonshire Shore by Ieuan Holt</p>
Landscapes, especially melancholic countryside, are a popular subject matter, with echoes of Dartmoor National Park and the Devon coastline. What draws you to paint this type of scene? 
I couldn’t tell you to be honest but I think it’s down to how I paint. I usually don’t have any concrete idea on what the finished result will be. I’ll pick the colour palette I want to use, play some music and see where my imagination takes me.

So when painting en plein air your paintings are influenced by your imagination?
When I go out to Central Park to paint, for example, the result is always something drastically different to my real world surroundings. 

There must be a part of my subconscious that is drawn to painting such scenes as a means of expressing and channelling my emotions into something that is a healthy outlet.

Exhibiting work

Judging by your growing Instagram channel, you seem wonderfully prolific. How often do you paint?
I try to do a painting everyday, a habit which is sometimes hard to keep, especially with university commitments, but one I try to stick to as best as I can.

When and why did you decide to share your art?
I decided to start sharing my art in September 2021 when I created my Instagram account, because I wanted to hear what people thought of it, with the hope of improving my craft. 

How have you responded to other people's responses to your work?
It has felt like our English and creative writing workshops, where we share work to a group of course mates and receive constructive feedback on the piece we've written, telling us what works well and what needs to improve. This is a process I have always found worthwhile and wanted to apply to my painting.
How important is it to receive direct feedback on your art?
Direct feedback as always been a great help and one I could not do without, for it gives me the confidence to continue with what I am doing.
I have always been happy responding to how others receive my work. The different interpretations people have provided of what is depicted within the landscapes – each different from the last – has been one of the delights of painting. 

Seeing how the landscape changes depending on who is viewing it, each person creating an individual scene that is wholly unique and entirely their own, is a true joy. 

<p>Amongst Flowering Fen by Ieuan Holt<br></p>
<p>Epoch&nbsp;by Ieuan Holt</p>
<p>Heaven's Roil&nbsp;by Ieuan Holt</p>

Beneath the surface

Your website and Instagram incorporate the phrase ‘from the loam’, which is very relatable to the organic, earthy nature of your art. Loam – as in soil – is often hidden beneath the surface; a dark place but one still full of life.
Are your paintings a way of communicating and processing parts of your inner self – exploring the mystery in the loam, so to speak?
Yes I agree, for a long time I have been struggling with my mental health, but painting has definitely helped me process those feelings and parts of myself. 

Through painting I hope to show even when you find yourself in a mentally dark place, there is still beauty that can be found and created.

The name 'Painting from the Loam' is from a Magic the Gathering card called ‘Life from the Loam’. This particular card can return from a dark place and bring things back in a positive way – an idea that resonated with me and one I felt best represented my art. 
From touching points such as Turner's skies and Thomas Hardy's Egdon Heath, to Shakespeare's personification of weather, your landscapes reflect something acutely personal and human. 
Are you aware of what you emotionally put in and take away from the painting process?
My painting is very much, and always has been, in the moment. After the paint has dried there is some form of self-reflection on the feelings I can only seem to communicate through painting – be it concerned with past feelings or current ones. I am becoming better communicating my feelings verbally, yet it can still be difficult from time to time. 

Has your audience shared any responses after viewing your paintings?

One common takeaway is that my paintings are almost like short stories and their endings. 

They are oblique in the way they open up a space in which the observer can infer their own interpretation and meaning.

Fleeting beauty

A minimalist colour palette that resembles liquid metal. A fire burning on a barren moor. Reoccurring elements such as skies, trees and water. Snapshots of fleeting beauty and symbolic of a cycle of death and rebirth?
I am very much tied to the idea that beauty can come from darkness. It is a way to acknowledge and express feelings associated with my own mental health. 
Through the portrayal of dark scenes I can show that life can come from whatever loam someone might find themselves in.

Fluid layers of paint creates drama which is gothic or pagan at times, or touching upon fantasy at others. Do you draw out a certain beauty from darkness by mixing our reality with others?
I invite the viewer into worlds that meld together a number of different realities. From those that are reminiscent of the tropes found in Gothic literature, to scenes that are influenced by elements of fantasy, each one having a certain darkness that can be considered beautiful. 

I hope to show it is okay to express feelings that might be considered dark in regards to mental health.

It is healthy to talk and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so, even if you can only communicate how you feel through a painting or piece of writing. 
<p>Dawn of Destruction by Ieuan Holt<br></p>

You have already progressed towards a more abstract approach. Have you noticed a development in your painting? 
Most definitely. When I shifted from traditional landscapes to ones that incorporated negative space and were more abstract, I wanted to find a way to challenge myself and a mode of expression that was more personal to me. 

What’s next on the horizon?
I plan to continue pursing new styles with the hopes to branch out into oil painting, which I am very excited about. 
I will be taking part in an exhibition at Christmas and waiting to hear back from a number of other galleries.

<p>Gehenna Rising by Ieuan Holt<br></p>
<p>Molten Trudge by Ieuan Holt<br></p>
<p>Through the Looking-glass Part II<br></p>

His world turned black.
The dreamer woke.
The trace of a happy memory had remained.
The haze persisted.

The Seed [extract]

Textual landscapes

Do you recognise any similarities between writing and painting?
There are similarities, especially when it comes to poetry and short stories. In both you are creating a snapshot of a story that, whilst being limited by word count or size of paper, contains characters, emotion, tension and drama, all in the effort to immerse the reader or observer into the fictitious dream contained within pages or paint.

Similar to painting, your pursuit of creative writing is also relatively new after leaving the Merchant Navy in 2020 to pursue becoming a horror writer. When did creative writing become a passion?
When I first went to therapy about three years ago, my therapist suggested I should write down my feelings in the forms of stories, so that I could process them better. From there, I started to write short stories, which quickly became a passion, and before I knew it, I was applying for a place at university.

What made you decide to study English and creative writing at Plymouth?
Plymouth was my first choice. I had grown up in the city most of my life and wanted to study somewhere I knew and was close to my friends. 
One of the biggest draws of the course were the study texts and module options in the second and third years. I was especially drawn to the 'Gothic Fictions: Villains, Virgins, Vampires' module, which has remained a personal favourite.
Can you imagine a future project that combines your love of horror writing with painting, perhaps a fantasy novel or an illustrated poetry collection?
Yes, for my dissertation I am looking forward to creating an illustrated poetry collection that focuses on themes associated with the Gothic horror genre.

It will follow me down,
casting shadows that splatter
against the submerged sides of my concrete construction,
where happiness
never learnt to survive.
Loam for the indifferences
that taught me to man up

                                                          And never cry.

Leviathan [extract]
<p>Drowned Meadow by&nbsp;Ieuan Holt</p>
<p><strong></strong>An extract of 'Leviathan’, a poem by&nbsp;Ieuan Holt <br></p>
<p>Moor's end by&nbsp;Ieuan Holt </p>

Pieces of ourselves

You have set-up Understanding the Pieces of Ourselves. Why did you launch this anthology?
I launched this project as part of one of my second year modules, ‘Burning Issues: Interdisciplinary Writing Project’. I created an online poetry anthology to provide a platform for anyone who has experienced or is suffering from mental health issues – especially men – to write down their experiences or feelings in the form of poems, in the hope of encouraging people to use writing as a means to express emotions in a positive way.

Your poem ‘Leviathan’ speaks about experiencing negative effects of regressive masculine values. 
How important is it to continue to encourage people, especially men, that it is okay to talk about their mental health? 
It is very important because it is normal to feel sad, to have problems and worries. It can still be all too easy to say, ‘I’m fine,’ when you might not be – something which I am still guilty of, but it takes time. 
I want to combat regressive masculine ideas such as the saying ‘man up’. Creating an environment where everyone is free to talk about their mental health without being judged is very important.

How can the creative arts help with 'opening up'?
The creative arts are a brilliant way for people to express feelings they might not be ready to talk about. By encouraging people to partake in the creative arts you are, in some sense, asking them to open up emotionally to themselves and to others, to connect to a side of themselves they might not have yet began to explore, which is very important to uncover.

Creative writing and painting are positive mediums to express my emotions. Poetry in particular helps process my experiences with masculinity and mental health.


How can people get involved with Understanding the Pieces of Ourselves?
Anyone can submit to: writingfromtheloam@gmail.com. There are no fees as it is a non-profit website, so if you would like to share your poetry, then please do.

Do you have a dream job in mind after you graduate from Plymouth that combines your creative passions?
I am looking to pursue a career in art and writing, hopefully combining the two into a collection of illustrated short stories and poetry. I am also interested in continuing my education to masters and hopefully one day to PhD.

Many thanks Ieuan and good luck with your painting and writing pursuits.

Memories edged in static remembrance begin their scene,
swirling in the purple of blues 
around a boy 
the past can never allow you to forget.
Laughter [extract]
Works featured

Images from top to bottom, left to right

1.   Life from the Loam
2.   Ieuan Holt standing in front of Industrialised at the Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition 2022
3.   Industrialised
4.   Simmer
5.   Technocracy
6.   From Ashes
7.   Devonshire Shore
8.   Amongst Flowering Fen
9.   Epoch
10. Heaven's Roil
11. Dawn of Destruction
12. Gehenna Rising
13. Molten Trudge
14. Through the Looking-glass Part II
15. Drowned Medow
16. An extract of Leviathan
17. Moor's end

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