Piece of mind

Julia Ball has seen the light in her paintings of the dark and mysterious Fens. By Anne Garvey
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You cannot rush Julia Ball's painting. It slows you up and calms you down. I fell into the Fen Ditton gallery where her work is hanging, full of a sort of distracted anxiety. It was not altogether my fault. The high-tech hinterland of Cambridge is troubling. A murderous motorway hurtles you past great monoliths of new buildings, temples to the electronic revolution which has rocked the world - and turned some Cambridge academics into millionaires. Cambridge Science has gone global but here the horizon is as horizontal as it comes, while a jumble of supermarkets and sewerage farms lie scattered between road interstices, servicing the inflating demands of a city which has hit boom time in a single decade. No whisper here of the medieval elegance that is Cambridge's shop window to the world. If Gerard Manley Hopkins worried about Oxford's "base and brickish skirt", he would have had a fit at this concrete tutu.

Yet this is the Fen. Here the land is recent and ancient. It's only a couple of hundred years since the Dutch helped drain it; yet, almost two millennia before, the Romans were at the same game, draining the great Cardyke Canal, carving up the landscape, sculpting the scenery. The Fens remain England's mysterious and misunderstood region.

Julia Ball, painter, has been sitting in the same spot in the Fens for 30 years, week in week out; hour after hour after hour, she contemplates her subject. Her long study transforms the detail she observes into the radiance of her subtle, quiet, comforting abstract work. "What may seem boring is really very complicated and therefore interesting," she says. "There's a myriad of greys through to most purples and blues there." She has scrutinised her scene so minutely, the form has dropped away and the colour only is left; marvellous tranquil, dreamy colour. The result is a feeling of sinking into a strong, subtle visual field charged with infinite possibilities. I stayed in the Fen Ditton gallery for hours. I drank a large cup of tea and wandered around the winter Fen scenes in a kind of trance. I read later that the poet Wendy Mulford has described Ball's painting as "the visual equivalence of meditation". That is it. Drifting around Ball's work is a spiritual experience, a cheat's way of achieving bliss. Looking at these paintings drained all the jangling, near-death, motorway hype out of my bones. It was a fast track to peace, almost too good to be true.

The Fens keep going after Fen Ditton right into infinity. Only fen and sea stretch between Cambridge and Siberia. As the wind whistles off the Tundra, it clears England's great flatlands unimpeded by forest or hill. Yet this agricultural outdoor factory - with its million-dollar, super- productive black peat - is also a mystical region, a smudgy frontier between land and sea, where often it's hard to see which is which. Ball embraces the black, takes it into the paintings. "The blackness is rich in colour really, with reds and greens and browns. I came to the Fen first in a wet, dark February. I did a few sketches. There was the beginning of the light coming back."

And that was it for this artist. She went home to the studio and "began to think about colour rather than anything else". So it is that colour triumphs in her work. The colour is so absorbing, so patiently all encompassing, you not only want to stay for hours breathing in the cool, calm quiet of the paintings, but you begin to read your own story into them. I first came to the Fens a couple of years ago when I began to skate there. Striking round the frozen-flooded, snow-ribbed Fen ice, I felt the same exhilaration as up any mountain. And here I was again, in Winter Fen, the canvas scored with a grid of dazzling light, on the skates, disappearing into the colourn

Julia Ball at the Lynne Strover Gallery, Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire (01223 295264). To Sun