A few weeks ago there was a real shift in the seasons as things tipped from late summer into autumn. Since then we’ve had a number of frosts at the allotment and as a result some things suddenly faded and flopped. As well as gathering produce in for eating and preserving I have been gathering materials too and preparing what I can for storage, meaning I have a supply of colour or fibre when I need it. Various flowers have been dried and bottled up. Some are ones I know are worth keeping for future use, others are more of an experiment. I’ve also dried various plant fibres to make into cordage when I have time over the winter.
I set up a series of solar dye jars in the summer and these were eventually emptied out to reveal dyed linen squares to add to my on-going collection of colours from the plot. Sunflowers have been quite a revelation, with interesting colour from leaves and petals. I grew a mix of different coloured ones and they were really happy with the particularly hot summer we had.
Yesterday I pulled up the flax plants that I showed growing at the allotment in my last post. They will now dry and then be retted and processed. Last week I finally got round to processing the small amount of flax that I had grown last year in a couple of pots at home. Because they were grown in less than ideal circumstances the fibres turned out to be pretty poor quality. However, I managed to get a handful of processed fibre, which was then spun.
Despite this being a very small amount of fibre and a great deal of work to get it to that stage, it was a very satisfying thing to do. The right hand spool shown below is the spun fibre. The small ball and the left spool are spun from the ‘tow’, which is the rougher fibre separated out during the combing, or ‘hackling’, as part of the processing.
These were added to a series of cordage samples I have made using a variety of different materials from my allotment plot. This series includes lots of different plant material (leaf, bark, stem and bast) as well as plastics, cloth and paper: things either growing on the plot or found in the sheds.
These form part of my submission for the third module of my MA in Creative Practice. I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting to know the properties of each material that I’ve worked with. To a certain extent I’m starting from scratch with each new fibre, but there is also a cumulative effect of the experience of working the materials. I’ve also been surprised by some that I had low expectations of and which turned out to be much more pleasing to work with than I’d expected.
I don’t have any plans yet for what I might do next with the different cordages, that may come later. For now, the process of working with each material and getting to know its possibilities and limitations have been very rewarding. Furthermore, tied up within each bundle of ‘string’ is the experience of the place they were made: the birdsong that surrounded the making, the smell of each fibre as it passes through the fingers and the slow accumulation of local knowledge about the plot of land where they are from.
Things are growing a-pace at the allotment, although it has been so very dry and warm that some plants are struggling. I sowed some flax back in early May (a bit later than intended but the spring was so cold). It has been good to see it grow and now bloom with its dainty blue flowers that only last less than a day each.
This is a very small patch of flax, which I know won’t result in much of a quantity of linen, once it has been retted, processed and spun. But it is an important part of my experiments in using gathered fibres for my MA project. Last year I grew an even smaller amount in large pots at home. I didn’t manage to process it over the autumn, so I left it dried until we had warm conditions. It has now been retted and is drying again in the green house before I can do the breaking, skutching etc. ready to hopefully spin some thread.
I have been gathering all sorts of plant fibres from my plot and using them to make cordage, including nettle fibres shown drying below. I’m really enjoying experimenting with these different materials and working at the plot when I can. You can see some of the cordage results on my instagram account here.
I collected Unknown Book from Newcastle Library last weekend, taking my piece off the shelves up on level 6, where it had shared the space with the local interest collection during the Love Big Books Exhibition.
Gary Chaplin, one of the participants in the Fifth-Sized Book Adventure has made a great little film using interviews with some of the artists explaining their contributions to the project. You can see the film here.
Next Sunday (26th November) I will be at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, demonstrating in the Artists in Action studio all day. I will have part of Unknown Book with me, as well as lots of samples and examples of book structures, with which I will be playing and demonstrating. The show is also another chance to see Page 17, the Embroiderers’ Guild exhibition in which I have a piece connected to my Unknown Book project. If you’re at the show do come along to the ‘studio’ and say hello.
My first couple of days working ‘in residence’ in the library provided a really focussed period of work on the project. I brought the starting points I had developed, along with sketches, photographs and notes to show any interested participants or members of the public. The ‘big book’ was brought down from the collection to sit on my worktable and provide an important proximity to my working process.
I continued to work on the book units, having now identified the exact dimensions to make. I wasn’t working any differently to how I would in my own studio, but being in the library itself provided a focus and impetus to my making and thinking. The library had been asked to collect together any papers or books that would have been otherwise discarded so that I could potentially incorporate them into my work. The range of these was slightly disappointing, but was enough to start exploring possibilities. The lovely library staff found me a tin of old library stamps and some inkpads, which I played with on the surface of some of my book units.
About a month later I had a second residency session, again working in the library in an intensive way and exploring further the use of withdrawn publications in my book units. This time in the library also allowed for participants in the project to visit and talk about what I was doing, as well as the development of their own work for the project. That sharing of process, thinking and development between the artists involved is a key part of this whole venture. Those discussions are so important for artists to have with their peers or mentors, partly as a means of over-coming problems (that you sometimes didn’t even realise were there), but also in a spirit of support and understanding. Even just describing what you are doing or trying to achieve to someone else can solidify things in your own mind and provide a way forward or even just a confirmation that the approach you are taking is right.
Having made certain decisions about what I was going to concentrate on (book structures as ‘units’, exposed stitching, split sections, fragments of cover, staining, page edges) it was now time to experiment with those details. I sampled different possibilities, identifying exact scale and dimensions and finalising how the work would be presented. These areas were explored alongside each other to some extent. I identified a type of acrylic box divided into units that would sit well within the standard library shelves. I wanted my work to be shown on the shelves, whether that was in amongst the normal book collection or in a gallery space within the library. This acrylic unit (about the scale of a large book) would encase my little books, keeping them safe from disruption by library visitors, whilst enabling viewing from both sides. That containment would also echo the string-bound big book, which cannot be opened: my little books will not be open-able either. The divided acrylic unit had a suggestion of the exposed spine of the big book, which is divided into an uneven grid by the lines of stitching in one direction and the split sections that make up the thick volume in the other. I could fill one of these gridded boxes, or 3, or any number, depending on how long it would take me to make the book units to go within.
I have long been interested in making simple book structures. My work previous to this project had included making a series of small Coptic bound books that then became the repository for recording some aspect of the landscapes I was visiting. The stitched binding remains exposed on the spine of the book, which is made up of page ‘signatures’. Bound together with a series of interlocking stitches, the book structure becomes a unit that flows beautifully in your hands or can sit open in a variety of curves through to a full circle. Using a fairly substantial, good quality paper for these books, I became fascinated by how this basic structure as my ‘blank’ unit could then be dyed, printed, dropped in puddles or dipped in exposed estuary mud, collecting some physical aspect of the landscape, just as I had also treated similarly ‘blank’ units of hand woven thread.
So it was only natural that my initial thoughts for this project were to make books. But… surely that would be too obvious? Wouldn’t everyone else be making some sort of book? Just because the starting point is a collection of books the creative response could take any form…
I considered something less bookish… I had thoughts about possible directions:
using the shelves on which the books are kept
the spaces within these shelves
the repetition of the book unit
the scale of these large books – making something big!
But I kept coming back to that incredible exposed spine. Just because something seems obvious doesn’t make it wrong. That gut reaction I’d had about ‘my’ book seemed just as relevant for my intuitive desire to explore this stitched bound book structure. Furthermore, to have some sort of continuation of themes between projects seems very justifiable. After all, we divide our work into ‘projects’ to present to our audience but really an artist’s work is a continuum, an ever-evolving line of inquiry.
I’m busy in the studio at the moment making work that will be shown in the autumn as Findings. You can read a bit more about the exhibition on the Knitting and Stitching Show website here. Findings is made up of a series of collections of objects. Some are forms that I have made, incorporating a found object within their structure. Once constructed, the form is then either soaked or dyed to allow the fibres to be stained by the embedded object; the detail of how the stain develops and ends up is unpredictable. Some are structures that I have made and then coated in gathered mud or ground-up stone, changing the colour of my woven, knotted or looped surface but also changing the character of it, transforming it into an almost ceramic-like surface. Other pieces are objects that I have gathered and then altered or added to, stitching or weaving into or onto the object itself.
Most of the pieces are made using neutral thread, allowing the staining to develop at the end after construction is complete. It can be quite difficult to make the leap from a fairly pristine surface where the contrast between clean fibre and rusty metal, weathered wood or hard stone is stark. But once the fibres are stained or marked the relationship between fibre and object becomes much closer, more complete. There are images of how some of the pieces are developing on here.
Each piece is an experiment, a trial, a question: what happens if I do this? There are variations on themes within the collections, some forming a series of developments, others being more individual because of their particular characteristics.
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.
Anyone who follows me on Instagram (where I post images almost daily) will know that I am starting to develop new work based on a series of collections of objects. Ultimately I am working towards an exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Shows 2016, which I’m really pleased to have been selected for. My working title is Findings. I have been developing ideas for this over some months now, thoughts whirring away in the background while other things happen. Findings will be a series of responses to objects I have collected in different locations.
1. the action of finding someone or something.
2. information discovered as the result of an inquiry or investigation.
The first group of objects I am exploring are a collection of limpet shells I brought back from Anglesey in the summer. I didn’t collect the complete shells: it was the ones with holes in that I was drawn to and I came back with a couple of hundred of these. I love the subtle variation in a series of items like this: they’re similar but all unique. Some are really worn down and smooth; others are rough and intricately mottled; some have a jagged broken top; others are almost perfectly smooth rings. I’ve been experimenting with replacing the broken section with a stitched/woven ‘patch’. Some of them end up mended completely, others partially filled. Some are being filled in across the inside, leaving them with a sort of woven plate across that reminds me of the limpet’s ‘foot’.
As I work away at these experiments (inquiries, investigations. . . ) the results are starting to form a new collection: a collection of my Findings.