Ebb & Flow 

Multi-disciplinary artist Isabella Martin raises questions about the fundamental role of movement and time, in her final days of her North Sea residency, and asks what it means when an entire town appears to be in flux

How do you make sense of something in constant motion? I’ve asked myself this question in the studio before, about waves, about time, weather and clouds, rock formations. Never about a whole town before, a community, a web of industry. 

However it’s a question I’ve returned to often as I bring together all the work from this North Sea residency and try and make sense of it. This question led from my initial seam of enquiry - inspired by research into sea-shanties, exploring what the rhythms of this coast are now. 

Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals[1]

My way through this question was guided by my collaboration with the children in the Year 4 class at Wells Primary School. Some of them were born here, some moved here, some were refugees. All agreed fish and chips were good. We worked together to map the coast and think about the future; recording their impressions by drawing out forms and features from their experiences and observations of the town. Shell textures, the feel of a rope in the hand, fishing net patterns, the sound of seagulls in summer, the way wind might look. 

We looked in particular at the international code of signals - a system of signals and codes used at sea to communicate between vessels. Signals can be sent by a flag system, consisting of red, yellow, blue, black and white abstract patterns. Each flag represents a letter, but also functions as code for a message. For instance, two red squares diagonally on a white background is the letter ‘U’ but also means “You are running into danger.”

Children from a local school designing the signal flag

Children from a local school designing the signal flag


With the children I designed a new set of flags, a code of signals local to Wells. Their designs are rooted in the place, based on patterns collected and observed in the town; driftwood shapes, wind notation, marsh topography and so on. The flags’ messages, written by the children, share local knowledge and future imaginings, what they want to communicate from and about the town. When read together, they tell a story about Wells, its present and possible futures.

Tide is Turning[2]

The story the flags tell shaped my own way through the rest of the material from the residency, giving form to my output. A poster of the designs will be given to each child, and presented throughout the town, and I’m working on a physical set of flags for display at the school and in the town .

At the same time, I continued my research into nautical charts - maps of the sea and adjacent coast. They contain information on tides and currents, navigation aids, hazards and depth contours. They’re essential tools for navigation at sea, and while digital charts are mostly in use on board sea-going vessels, mariners often take paper charts as backup in case their electronic charting system fails. 

A series of drawings expand the squares of the chart, each square a drawing, each drawing guided by the messages of the flags. Combined, the squares form a sea chart of Wells coast, taking people's impressions, memories and imaginations out to sea. Folded up, they become a book. Individual squares will be displayed throughout the town and a full-scale version of the entire chart is due to be installed at Wells Community Hospital.

Guided by the rhythms of sea shanties and the flags messages I’m also working on a film series in 29 chapters. It traces the coastal rhythms of Wells, with each chapter a flag, the material guided by their messages and visual associations. The film traces material collected from conversations, workshops, walks and meetings, archival footage, drawings and animation to give form to the rhythms in the town. 

Wells Protection Force[3]

What is a song? A set of words or composition meant to be audible, to be sung and heard. Integral to this residency, which began back in September,  was the idea of exploring what a modern sea shanty might sound like, in order to understand this small part of the North Sea coast, and imagine its future. 

This notion of a song became a focus, for listening to Wells and to its residents, migratory birds, morning breezes and boat engines. The cadences of sea shanties reflect the rhythms of the sea, and as such this has shaped my enquiry. 

How can I reflect the rhythms of this sea, this coast? By their nature rhythms are repetitive, recurring patterns of movement or sound, of events or processes. The fishing industry is still a presence in the town, though processing is no longer done in the whelk sheds on the seafront. Tourists have always come here, but this has seasonal variations, the second homes and chip shops quiet in winter, the high street packed in summer. There is no dominant industry but rather coexisting worlds, all of which the town is reliant on for survival. 

The tide has a twice daily rhythm. But even this tidal rhythm isn’t constant. Robert describes how a multitude of factors, rising sea levels, atmospheric pressure, the level of sand in the harbour, the shape of the harbour mouth, all influence the timing and height of the tide. So even something as constant as the tide has an irregular rhythm, subject to local and global factors. 

As such, my attempt to map, to reflect the rhythms, these flows of energy in Wells, is necessarily provisional and ongoing.

Thanks to the Sheringham Shantymen, the staff and community at Wells Community Hospital, Jenny and the art club, David and the singing group, Harbourmaster Robert Smith and the year 4 class at Wells Primary School, teacher, Anna Martin, and students: Amy, Annie, Archie, Ava-Rose, Betty-Lou, Dino, Ella, Felix, Finley, Harry, Harvey, Isla-Mae, Jack, Leighton, Lily E, Lily W, Luke, Lyla-Rose, Mark, Mason, Max B, Max S, Oliver, Orla, Phoebe, Rossi, Ruben, Rupert, Seth and Skyla. 

To see more work by Isabella please visit: https://isabellarosemartin.com/ or Instagram:  isabella.r.martin

[1] International Code of Signals: X flag meaning

[2] Wells Signal Flags: flag message

[3] Wells Signal Flags: flag message