Astronomical Artwork is the Star of the Show at Yorkshire's Dark Skies Festival
As we look towards Yorkshire’s Dark Skies Festival later this month we find out why new astronomical artwork is the star of the show
This year’s festival, which runs from 18th February to 6th March, is all about discovering, learning about and enjoying the dark skies – and the stars that shine so brightly as a result. Events will be held right across both the International Dark Sky Reserves of the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales National Parks.
North York Moors National Park’s two centres, one at Sutton Bank and one at Danby (and Dalby Observatories in Dalby Forest) are Dark Sky Discovery Sites (known as Milky Way class because the galaxy is often visible to the naked eye). And there are four designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, at Hawes and Malham National Park Visitor Centres, Buckden National Park Car Park and Tan Hill Inn. On a clear night you could see as many as 2,000 stars.
For 2022 there are new solo art exhibitions in the Dark Skies Festival’s line-up, which aim to share the important message that the night sky needs to be protected. For the first time, the North York Moors National Park’s Inspired by… gallery has commissioned two artists to produce work that celebrates the night sky while encouraging an understanding of light pollution and the impact it’s having on our world. Worldrenowned astronomy artist Louise Beer is one of them, and Yorkshire Dales-based printmaker Helen Peyton the other.
Printmaker Helen has spent time walking ancient routes across the North York Moors at night, following landmarks, way markers and the stars, to create her Starscapes series. She’s a print-maker who makes lino cuts in response to the dark skies. ‘I used to work as a photographer and I created a series of books called Looking Up where you look at architectural features above eye level. So I was accustomed to always looking up because of that,’ Helen says. ‘I was in the garden one night, looking at Simon’s Seat, a local hill near Bolton Abbey, just staring at the night sky – and I thought I could somehow represent this. We’re so lucky in the Yorkshire Dales to have no light pollution and to see the skies as we’ve seen them for millennia.’
Helen begins each artwork by choosing an iconic landmark to use as a silhouette. ‘A Henry Moore or a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in silhouette works great with the sky behind. I just created one with the Angel of the North recently. Saltburn Pier, Ribblehead Viaduct – they’re really iconic features that lend themselves so beautifully to silhouettes. There are such great landscape artists out there, but I felt that I could spend a lot of time working with the skies in print.’
Always working from life, Helen immerses herself in nature to draw and create her lino cuts. ‘You get such a vibrance from sitting directly in front of the subject, and you get a much better personal response from that,’ she explains. And that’s exactly what she’s done for this exhibition. ‘I’ll be working on some iconic scenes of the moors: the Whitehorse at Kilburn, Roseberry Topping – very iconic views. The dales are traditionally hill farming territory but the moors are arable and it’s a completely different landscape. So I’ve been very much more nature-based with my approach to it. It’s been a revelation for me. The North York Moors have a set of way markers running right through with ancient crosses (some of the oldest in the world). These old trading routes are fascinating. The way markers are like the trigpoints that we use nowadays.’ Helen followed these crosses as she walked through the moorland seeking inspiration. ‘On top of the crosses there’s a ridge that has been cut out where people used to leave money for the next traveller – and people to this day still leave things for those out walking. I just felt the community there, and the fact that people have continued with an age-old tradition, is lovely.
‘The North York Moors wasn’t an area that I knew well, and it’s such a privilege to be given the opportunity to explore what really makes up the moors and what’s so special about it. For that, I’ll be eternally grateful. It’s been one of my highlights, certainly this year, to have something to look forward to and be part of.’
Sally-Ann Smith, curator of the Inspired by… gallery at The Moors National Park Centre is passionate about art and how it could have the ability to convey the importance of our dark skies. ‘Art has the power to be thought provoking and perhaps tap deeper into emotions than if people were listening to a presentation on climate change,’ she says. ‘For both exhibitions there will be a dual message: firstly that the North York Moors National Park’s dark skies are a beautiful, natural wonder, and secondly, to help open people’s eyes to the fragility of the night sky in the wake of creeping light pollution, and share why we should all care.’
Sally-Ann says being in the landscape gives her time to reflect and think. ‘I love the vast horizons, the richness and contrast of the National Park’s landscape, as well as the surprises that you come across,’ she continues. ‘The wonder of being in an ancient fishing village one day and then the following day having a beautiful walk up on the moors before dipping down through a wooded dale. You also can’t help but smile when you come across something unexpected, whether it’s a garden tearoom you didn’t know about, an honesty box offering local honey, or an artist’s work on display that you haven’t come across before.’
Now, as the exhibition comes together, Sally-Ann is excited about both Helen’s and Louise’s work. ‘It’s always amazing to see how artists interpret commissions,’ she says. ‘It is hugely important for the Inspired by… gallery as it reflects the National Park’s commitment to not just retain, but also enhance the quality of the skies sincewe achieved International Dark Sky Reserve status in December 2020. As part of that, we need visitors and people who live and work within the National Park to think about how they can help curb light pollution to protect the natural world – and our own wellbeing.’