So we’re back in the old routine now term has started again and the kids are back at school. Our holiday seems a long way off but my head is still full of the sights, sounds and smells of the Outer Hebrides and my sketchbook is full of moments captured in one way or another. Those empty white shell-sand beaches that turn the sea the most wonderful turquoise greens and stretch for miles are just fantastic – the stuff of dreams (mine anyway!). I have been to the outer isles before but not the Uists and this trip took me to places I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. It takes quite an effort to get to these remote parts and I love a good ferry journey, which is necessary (made even more special by the dolphins and porpoise we saw from the boat). This is the very edge or Europe, and apart from the tantalising St Kilda, which we saw on a particularly clear day, when you look out across the sea the next land is Canada. Highly recommended: this fascinating exhibition, which is based on St Kilda but also deals with amnesia, was on in Lochmaddy. It will be moving to London soon here.
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.
Suddenly the seasons have shifted. Although today is the start of the meteorological autumn it doesn’t always feel autumnal on the first of September. The last week has felt very autumnal with changes in the feel of the air and subtle shifts in foliage colours. There are fruits and seeds ripening and all sorts of interesting fungi appearing. Last week I was teaching down in Hertfordshire and staying in a village surrounded by arable fields. The harvest over, machinery was busy turning the earth ready for the next lot of crops. One day a golden blanket of stubble covered the gently rolling landscape and the next it had been turned in on itself, revealing rich chocolate brown earth.
Walking the lanes near where I was staying my hands became full of treasures, so much so that I used my umbrella to hold them! I don’t now very much about fungi and I wouldn’t normally do more than admire. But I do know a puff ball when I see one and I was delighted to find one that was fresh and firm: ideal for my tea.
Back in Yorkshire a day later and we walk in local woods. Again there are beautiful perfect fungi, ripe berries to pop straight into the mouth as we walk and under one tree we find a scattering of oak galls, which I gathered for use in dyeing.
At home I drew the berries I’d found on the lanes and used their juice to add colour to my pages. The colours won’t stay true for very long but there is something ‘true’ about using the object you’ve drawn to make marks itself. A leaf that also caught my eye because of its purple hues sits alongside and seems to sum up the shift in the year.
Time flies: I realise I post much less frequently here than I used to and than I would like to. I have been away for much of the last three weeks and seem to have spanned a great deal of the country in the process. I had a wonderful few days teaching in Eastbourne (on the South coast) before Easter. As a group we explored the beach, collecting in different ways and then used what we had collected in a variety of techniques – great fun and a chance to explore an area I didn’t know.
Easter saw me in North Somerset (in the South West) with my family in the beautiful Mendip Hills. I snatched an opportunity for a bit of mud lurking – more on that another time.
Then we had a few days in the depths of Snowdonia, off grid and off everything else apart from a tent and whatever we could carry. We were blessed with the most amazing weather and managed to get the whole party (youngest 6) up to the top of Snowdon (the highest mountain in England and Wales) in glorious spring sunshine with a dramatic helicopter rescue (not one of us!) to add a bit of drama.
After a night at home I headed north to give a talk just over the Scottish border. I spent the morning on a windy walk overlooking Lindisfarne and its causeway in Northumberland. Serenaded by skylarks and calling waders the colours and creeks of the salt marsh were brought to life in the clear air.
Meanwhile, an article by Wendy Feldberg on artists using rust in their work has been published in Fibre Art Now and is available here.
I’ve just posted off my entry to this year’s Sketchbook Project. My book is called Contemplating the Badger and is made up of drawings of a dead badger that I met last September. Encounters with wildlife in this way provide a closeness that we are never afforded when they are alive. It may seem morbid to want to study an animal that has met with an end like this but I see it as an opportunity to understand more about them. It was particularly moving to find this young badger freshly killed (by a car) within days of the badger cull being re-started in the area of the country I was visiting, something I strongly disagree with. Very sad. One of my all time favourite books is a collection of drawings from wildlife by Keith Brockie. Many of his studies are made from dead animals: the model stays still! I have had his books since childhood and I go back to them again and again.
In order to fit my badger into the small format of the standard Sketchbook Project book I took the book apart and laid the pages out together so that I could work on a larger scale. I drew from a series of photos I had taken. The pages were then re-constructed back into their book form. The drawings are therefore broken up and somewhat abstracted. I have also included on my pages words from a poem of the same title as my book by Nigel Morgan:
I stopped the car I was alone,
I snapped it three times
with my phone and now
it lies here on his desk,
three shots of this dead thing,
its dark blue pool of blood
that spills half on the road
half on the grass, from deep
inside its side it’s dead,
and really still,
it has a such beauty,
This weekend there was a magpie dead on the road near my house. My daughter told me it was there so we went to look. It was laid out in the middle of the road. I removed it from its undignified position and spent a couple of hours drawing it.
Contemplating the Badger will eventually be able to view either as part of the Sketchbook Project tour or via the digital library, once it has arrived and been processed. Previous contributions to the project can be seen here and here.
I’m busy writing, trying to get my book finished for the deadline I have in a few weeks time. I am making the most of a day or two to myself while the kids are off splashing in the sea (she says jealously) and I’m plugging away at it.
In between summer holiday parent duties I snatch the odd moment to put something on paper in a sketchbook, recording things I’m seeing or things I’ve found. It doesn’t matter what it is – the act of drawing is the important thing and the discipline of being present in the moment for it to really work. I am reading John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook and am reminded of the pleasure and relevance of the practice of drawing – something I often tell myself I should do more of. The problem is fitting it all in to the routine . . .
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was preparing drawings for a publication. The publication is now live and is available as an e-book. This collaboration brings together poetry by Nigel Morgan (if you have my book Tide Marks you will have come across his beautiful poems already) with my illustrations taken from various sketchbooks. Many of these drawings were done en plain air, attempting to capture something of the experience of these places, although they weren’t done in the knowledge that they would later be publicly viewed – this kind of sketchbook is a very personal record of place.
These images and words blend together as evidence of such visits in each other’s company, and occasionally alone. Some of what you see or read has come into being in situ, others as dream memories. Together they form a record of time spent unconfined, in the opened air and the pressing wind, sighting distance, or observing the close confusion of what lies at the feet, or near at hand.
Having had the very rewarding experience of publishing a small number of books so far, initially with help and then as my own publisher, the concept of the e-book is one I am very interested in. It has to be the ultimate in sustainable publications – no actual materials being used etc. But, being a hands-on craft-orientated artist, the fact that I can’t hold this thing in my hands, turn the pages and feel the surface of the paper is something I have to put aside and accept: this is a different experience. Collaboration pushes you in directions that you might not have taken on your own, provides new possibilities and opportunities to learn as a result.
I’ve been sorting through drawings for a forthcoming collaborative publication. It has been lovely to re-visit sketchbooks from the last few years and to pick out drawings that are right for the context. Here are a few contenders:
This is a section of my studio wall at the moment. I’m really enjoying the routine of working in the studio and at home. My diary is relatively sensible at the moment so I’m making the most of it. I’m working on a number of small projects, although they are all linked in some way (perhaps the link is me!) and some may grow to be much bigger: one thing really does lead on to the next idea. I enjoy the experimenting stage of any project, probably more than making the final work, which can be daunting for various reasons. Sometimes I can’t keep up with the ideas and all the things I want to try – the sketchbook becomes incredibly precious as a repository for thoughts and ideas. These are some of the things going on at the moment:
Since the excitement of my Tide Marks exhibition going up and opening last week there has been a period of catching up, both with myself and with a few things that had to be set aside while I got the exhibition prepared. A week of half term holiday for the kids means time away with family and some welcome walks in the countryside near my parents’ home. I set myself a little challenge on these walks: to use only what I found to make colour in my sketchbook. Along with a single drawing pen and then the addition of some home-made walnut ink I managed to make a surprising number of different colours.
The things that I made marks with included: mud, sticks, leaves, chestnut leaf stalks, dandelion flowers, elderberries, haws, hips, sloes, conker (horse chestnut) cases, privet berries, cabbage leaf, blackberries.