Last week I installed North Atlantic Drift: Curious Objects. This exhibition uses a wonderful ‘cabinet of curiosities’ at the Old Low Light down on the fish quay in North Shields, Tyneside. The cabinet, which was designed especially for the space, sits amongst a fascinating multi-media heritage exhibition. There are many drawers of different dimensions and scales, with plinths and boxes on top.
This collection of altered found items and constructed forms are based on objects gathered from northern coastal locations of the British Isles. The materials have been subjected to the forces of North Atlantic Drift (the northern extension of the Gulf Stream); they have been shifted, displaced, scoured, tangled and fractured. Organic and man-made debris, floating on currents or shifted by water and tide, is intermingled, broken down and re-configured.
The space is filled with my altered and constructed objects until 30th June.
I spent most of last week on a workshop in Devon at the studio of Susie Gillespie. I do quite a lot of teaching now and I feel it is really important to be on the other side of that sometimes too. The workshop was all about growing, processing and spinning flax into yarn and then weaving with it. It was a really stimulating workshop in a lovely location and I felt very lucky indeed to have had the opportunity to be there.
There is a lovely vocabulary that goes with this activity: retting, rippling, combing, breaking, scutching…
It is quite an involved business to get this small hand full of fibres ready to spin. I quickly developed a huge respect for peoples of the past whose only way to have cloth was through this series of processes.
I’ve not done any spinning before, although I do have my Granny’s spinning wheel in the cellar. I’m hoping to use it now I’ve had an introduction. The linen yarn I spun was very hairy and more like rough string than beautiful linen thread, but it is a start and I am looking forward to improving my spinning skills.
It was also good to see a little of the surrounding landscape with walks along part of the River Dart and a windy bit of the coast at Man Sands.
We did some natural dyeing, ending up with a lovely colour palette of linen threads to play with and incorporate into our weaving. I was asked to lead a stitching session on one of the days: we used the dyed threads and a host of items we collected on our walks.
I will be teaching with Susie in April and August this year and I’m really looking forward to returning to this lovely pocket of Devon.
I spent last week in a quiet part of Cumbria. It was a working week but in a beautiful location away form home and studio. We made time to explore a bit as well, enjoying the sweeping views across the valley and the changing weather patterns.
Almost exactly a year ago I had a similar week working here and came across an old lime kiln that had been used recently as a bonfire site; a place to dispose of various bits of agricultural rubbish. You can see this structure on the picture above, in the middle near the bottom. What remained amongst the ash and nettles were various bits of metal, rusty and burnt. Some of these objects formed the starting points for a section of my Findings project. I brought this group of work back with me, intending to photograph them ‘on location’. So last Friday, with good light conditions and a pleasant breeze, the pieces accompanied me on a walk up onto the edge of the fell until I found a suitable limestone rock. This was within view of the old lime kiln and made a very suitable foil for my line of Findings.
I’m now in the midst of putting together the book to accompany the exhibition. This publication, like my previous self-published books, tells the story of the project. Images and words are gathered together from the places that sparked off the ideas, the making of the work and the finished pieces.
When I was in Italy a few weeks ago we explored the nearby lanes and land, collecting plant material and objects that we could make use of in the studio through various printing, mark making and construction techniques. Most of what we used then went to the tip when we’d finished with it. There was a lot of rubbish on the lanes, so I feel that we did quite a good litter-picking job, making use of things before they went in the bin.
There was charred wooden debris amongst the olive trees, presumably as a result of tree pruning, the brash being burnt on site. I used a piece to draw with on my first walk around the fields. There was also the smell of bonfires in the air all week as neighbouring farms and small holdings cleared the land ready for the growing season ahead.
There were a few objects that I picked up in the olive grove around the Masseria and these came home with me to the studio. I have since been playing with them and forming new structures and surfaces in response. These will form part of Findings, which I will be showing later in the year. There were various nut shells: walnut, almond and acorn cups. The acorns from the majestic Macedonian Oak, which we saw in various places are huge in comparison to the ones I’m used to here in the UK.
I’ve been making small vessel structures from paper yarn and once the surface of these is rubbed with mud they take on a really interesting quality. These structures are made with a looping stitch, sewing with a needle but building up a three-dimensional form. I used the same looping stitch but with a pliable linen thread on the burnt olive wood, encasing and wrapping the forms, getting to know each line, crack or subtle change in the surface as I work my way round and round the wood. And as I handle the wood the aroma of smoke takes me back to the place that they were found.
Earlier this month I was fortunate to be in Southern Italy, teaching at the wonderful Masseria della Zingara. We had a great week exploring the land around the Masseria, walking the lanes, collecting things to use in the studio and using various techniques to record our experience. We collected, printed, stained, wrote, stitched, wove, folded . . . and ate!
Spring was in full swing (which it certainly isn’t yet here in the UK!) and we were surrounded by fruit trees in blossom, beautiful wild flowers and a green lushness that I’m sure will have gone once the temperatures rise later in the year. The wonderful red earth in that part of Italy provides a striking foil for the colours of growth. And of course my travel reading had to be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, which provides the story for one of my favourite films, a must-see at this time of year.
Sunny, bright blue sky. Light wind. We walk across the beck and up the steep road, following the Cleveland Way. Fenced-off cliff-tops and a road that disappears into the void beyond the cliff edge. We follow ‘a line made by walking’ through a field of winter wheat, then on up the hill, climbing all the time, past cottages precariously positioned near the cliff edge. Last year’s bracken is bright, singing in the sunshine, contrasting against sparkling blue sea and sky. Up a steep bank with wind-sculpted hawthorn and a robin. Round the back of a dis-used quarry and up to a trig point, then on past noisy, shaggy cows and a communications mast. Turning down a steep lane with a pond to the side, an owl appears silently, flying low over the pond. We stand absolutely still, breath held. It turns and flies towards us, then suddenly off across fields to the right, and it’s gone. A flock of lapwings swirl around then disappear too. On we go, enlivened by our encounter, down the steep lane, past interesting farm houses and out-buildings. Back onto the footpath and we join the muddy line through the field. An owl pellet lies on a rock by the path: A perfect waste disposal package of hair and bones with jaws and pairs of teeth protruding from the tightly packed mass, not unlike the fossils embedded in stone down under the nearby cliffs. The shape and darkness of the pellet is similar to some of the pebbles I collected on the beach earlier in the week. We are almost back at the village and the owl re-appears and I see clearly now that it is a barn owl. A bonus second sight, this time prolonged as it flies low over a patch of rough cliff-top grassland. It cruises up and down, around, back and forth, hunting for quite some time. Suddenly it turns and comes too close, our eyes meeting for a split second, then it thinks better of it and flies off towards the sun setting behind the smoking potash works. Light fading. It occurs to me that the pellet I found was probably from this very same bird and the whole encounter feels very special indeed.
A long time ago I was taught how to dissect pellets and identify all the different small mammals, amphibians etc. that the owl had eaten. I haven’t decided yet whether to do that with this one. It is tempting to investigate all those tiny little jaw bones and skulls but there is something rather wonderful about this tightly bound bundle as it is.
Last week was a working week away from home on the North Yorkshire coast: a week of walking, reading, thinking and developing work towards my Findings exhibition; a week of changing weather, windy cliff-tops, cold fingers on the beach, fossils and falling cliffs, stunning views…
upside-down limpets, marks on rocks left by limpets, pebbles and pellets…
mud underfoot (and half way up the trousers), mud on woven thread, mud trails left by periwinkles at low tide…
As I mentioned a couple of posts back, I spent my 40th birthday exploring the wonderful Hackfall woods in North Yorkshire. This special place is a historic landscape garden, which appears wild but has been manipulated by the hand of man for over 400 years. Now managed by The Woodland Trust and The Hackfall Trust, it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
For two whole days, from sunrise to beyond moonrise, we drank every detail of the woodland in. Walking every path, treading each 18th century step, discovering all the carefully planned vistas and more. From our precariously perched hideaway we looked down onto the steeply sloping valley, lined with a tapestry of trees recently exposed as their winter selves. The luminous larch held the light and glowed from it’s soon-to-drop yellowing needles. Walking amongst the trees we came upon the recumbent trunk of a fallen tree that had become home to a whole community of plant species: a garden where fairies might have partied, littering the populated surface of the trunk with their tattered wings. The death of majestic birds was exposed before us on the path: blood spilled and feathers strewn. The naked pink of sycamore stems caught our attention. We marvelled at hazel branches holding droplets to sparkle in the last light as the moon rose behind silhouetted boughs. And through it all the rushing river wound its noisy way; energetic always. Water is a constant in this wood: dripping, rushing, hanging, pooling, reflecting.
Those tattered fairy wings I found were sycamore keys in various states of delicate decay. I collected a few, popping them into a little jar to study later. Back in my studio I emptied out the jar and laid out the keys. Counting them I found that I had collected exactly 40. I set out to draw each one, studying the detail of their veined surface and aiming to capture something of their fragility.
The drawings are made in walnut ink on watercolour postcards. The ink was made from walnut husks gathered in the Yorkshire garden of a friend. The first few of the series are now posted in my shop and a donation will be made to The Woodland Trust from the sale of each drawing. My drawings are ongoing, a few a week until all 40 are made. I’ll let you know how I get on.
The experiments I’ve been doing recently in the studio are my way of exploring 3D structures and trying out different ways to form them. This shot from earlier in the week shows some of these experiments alongside some of the objects that live on my studio wall, which I described a couple of posts ago. I am not necessarily trying to re-create the forms of these objects but there are often similarities between the ones I’ve got pinned up there (for instance, the ones included here on their own or incorporated into a a new structure are either circular, have holes or form vessels) so they gently influence my making in different ways.
My favourite book of all time is Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I have other books by Durrell but a few months ago in a second hand book shop I was pleased to find one to add to my collection: The Amateur Naturalist. If I had had this book as a child I know it would have been a constant companion. I am working my way through it at the moment and enjoying the wonderfully practical instruction and beautiful photography of found items from different habitats.
Last week I visited Manchester Museum to see their natural history collection and in particular to look at how their collections are displayed. I didn’t have time to linger and sketch, as I would have liked. But I got a good idea of what is there and hope to go back with more time.
The wall in my studio (shown at the top) where I gather items and samples of current interest is slowly building a new collection. This wall gradually changes as items are added and others might be put away: a constant work-in-progress. It is somewhat like the pages of Durrell’s book, where items are grouped but vary within that group, showing the mix of different things that might be gathered on any one visit to a location. The wall features both found items (natural and man-made) as well as experiments in making. The objects I am developing are responses to found items, not directly copying them but shapes and forms influenced by them and sometimes incorporating found elements. My new collection is forming slowly.