This time last week I was on an island surrounded by water, mud, birds, boats and a clear blue sky… Northey Island is in the Blackwater Estuary, Essex and has only two houses on it. One of these was ours for the weekend for a workshop through which we explored the island and recorded our experience of it.
The approach to the island is via a causeway that is covered for a few hours at high tide. It only takes half an hour or so to walk right round the island. Salt marsh and mud continue beyond the land you can safely walk on, creating tantalising patterns that extend toward the watery edges and change with the ebb and flow of the tide.
After a period of bad weather we were blessed with a dry weekend of sunshine and blue skies, a keen wind and stars at night. Spending much of the time outside, we undertook a series of mark making, drawing, printing and recording activities, with students exploring different aspects of the place. We also shared our marks in a collaborative exercise one evening.
Then we made a series of books with our marked papers, which became our personal records of the place to take away.
I’ve really enjoyed drawing recently. Drawing is an important part of my practice but the product of it is usually not shared. I’ve been drawing with graphite and home-made oak gall ink, which has captured a surface quality that I’m really pleased with.
I found this squashed rusty bucket a couple of years ago and it has been sitting waiting for attention in my studio. It is squashed flat so that the metal has creased and folded like cloth. It reminds me of one of Cornelia Parker’s steam-rollered objects.
I have been studying galls of as many varieties as I can find. This drawing will form part of work I will be showing with the Textile Study Group later this year. I’ll write more about that another time…
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.
Anyone who has followed my work for a while may remember that I have collaborated on occasion in cross-discipline projects bringing music and visuals together.Fifteen Imageswas the first of these projects in 2010, which resulted in a kind of graphic score based on colours and textures from a garden, which the performer could use for improvisation (along with defined ‘tonalities’ and a conventional score). This week sees the first performance of a group of works called Fresh Yorkshire Aires. Four different composers/artists have produced graphic scores to be performed by piano duet.
Mapping Yorkshire, with composer Nigel Morgan, takes photographs from four locations in Yorkshire as starting points for our four scores. You can find out more about the scores we produced here. All the Fresh Yorkshire Aires scores are on show in Leeds 14-17th June and the first performance is on Thursday 16th June in the gallery. Later in the month the scores and performance will be in Sheffield. Information and tickets to the performances are available at Fresh Yorkshire Aires.
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.
I’m now half way through my drawing project 40 Sycamore Keys. Each time I go to the studio I start the day by doing a couple of these drawings. The latest 10 are now listed on my shop. I’m really enjoying working my way through the collection, studying and recording each one in turn.
This week I haven’t managed to get to the studio. I’ve had a great deal of administration to do, so I’ve concentrated on that and done research and reading. I find it depressing to spend a week staring at the computer screen rather than doing what feels like ‘proper’ work. However, it is all relevant stuff and next week will involve much more making.
Once again it is the time of year when Craft & Design Magazine run their Selected Makers Awards. Voting is open until the end of March. If you would like to vote for me (here) your help would be much appreciated – thank you!
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.
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.
I’m part way through teaching a workshop at Committed to Cloth in Surrey. We’ve been blessed with beautiful weather this week: it has actually felt like summer! This has made a real difference to how we have been able to get out and explore the area around the studio.
We have recorded walks in a variety of ways and used what we found along the way in a range of print and mark making techniques.
We worked out in the meadow, and at the edge of woods, a short walk from the studio; yesterday printing outside, today manipulating grass and leaves and other gathered materials.
Tomorrow we finish, bringing things together in some simple book forms and whatever else appears out of the mix of ideas and starting-points we’ve explored.
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.