“There is something magical about creating art with metal,” says Debby Mason as she carefully unwraps the copper plate from its paper covering, revealing a stunning coelacanth seemingly fossilised beneath its facade. “It is at once so beautiful and permanent.”
The texture on those ancient scales is remarkable to behold – the result of weeks of painstaking ‘roughing’ with a chisel-like rocker and then ‘burnishing’ the detail, a technique that produces a beautifully ‘velvety’ quality when transferred onto paper. “I like the blackness and the texture you get from mezzotints,” Debby says. “It is somehow more atmospheric; like with the coelacanth here – there is this sense of a prehistoric creature emerging from the deep.”
Emerging from the deep: like the Nautilus of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo that stoked the fires of Debby’s imagination as a child; like Jacques Cousteau and his film crew on The Silent World, who provided a window into another world, one that she has gone back to time and again on dive trips of her own across the globe; like the process of memory itself, from which Debby has drawn forth the inspiration for so much of her artwork – the family holidays in North Cornwall, the close encounters with cuttlefish in Plymouth Sound, the hours spent sketching animals and fish in aquaria and museums.
The South West itself is an undeniable source of inspiration for Debby, who first began to explore printing at Plymouth College – and she was quick to return to the city once she’d completed a degree in Surrey. She now lives in Oreston, on the banks of Hooe Lake, upon whose tidal waters legend says that Drake and Raleigh once sailed. Certainly you do not have to look hard for signs of history: the skeletal ribs of the hulk Arthur is visible barely 30 metres from Debby’s garden, jutting skywards with seagulls now her only crew. Buoys and an old beam, flotsam washed up on her shore, decorate one leafy corner, next to a wooden smokehouse. And, perhaps most touchingly, in the converted garage that serves as her workshop, her printing press is in fact a converted Victorian mangle that belonged to her grandmother, and was used to wring the clothes of the wartime evacuees that lived upon their Somerset farm.
Three times selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Debby’s prints have found their way into cookbooks and educational posters, private commissions and public exhibitions at some of the great aquaria of the world. “I never know what I’m going to do next,” she says. “But something exciting always seems to come up!"