Wednesday, 15 June 2016

I finally cracked it

Crack in the Universe

The title of this year's Prism show was Fracture - and I confess it left me shattered. I finished my second entry at 1am, just 11 hours before it was due to be handed in at the gallery - to which I hobbled in a surgical boot having fractured my foot.

A Break in the Weather

Other tribulations on the way included lines of stitching in monofilament that then unravelled, and a glass of red wine spilt all over the fluffy white clouds (I'm not saying who was responsible but divorce lawyers have been consulted!).

A Break in the Weather (detail)

Crack in the Universe (detail)

And so I am stepping back from textiles for a while to concentrate on my real garden and to cultivate my other interests.

A Break in the Weather (detail) with
fresh flowers on the gallery floor

This blog will be taking a rest too. Thank you to those who have popped in over the past few years...

Friday, 29 April 2016

Stuff the sequins...

I am of an age that when Shirley Conran famously declared in her book Superwoman that "life is too short to stuff a mushroom", I took it to heart. I have never stuffed a mushroom to this day.

And when watching the original Come Dancing on BBC, I knew that the presenter's assertion that a multi-layered netting dress was decorated with 126,500 bugle beads and 38,000 sequins sewn on by hand was deserving only of an adolescent sneer.

So here, many decades later, is my current dilemma: Is life also too short to spend hours hand-stitching myriad little glass beads to my quilt-in-progress, A Change in the Weather, to represent rain?

Where does attention to detail become a ridiculous waste of time?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

A sidelong glance at death

To begin with, here is a picture quiz: where in England did I take this bucolic photograph of pretty little terraced cottages overlooking a village green and pond (sadly no ducks when I visited)?

Answer, in the traditional fashion, at the foot of the page.* But not before I've taken you on a journey there via Cornwall, Ireland and Cyprus with a chill shiver of mortality and, of course, a sidelong glance at some textiles on the way.

Madron Well, Cornwall

I have written before about my love of Greek shrines, but perhaps not of my somewhat morbid preoccupation with death. Whether this is a result of my upbringing or of the universal middle-age rites of passage involving parents and peers, I don't know. But I have chosen to wrap the bones of mortality in ribbons and amulets. And thus I have sought out and photographed sacred wells, prayer trees and places of pilgrimage - Christian, "ethnic" and "pagan" - on which to hang my neuroses alongside the "clouties", written prayers, fertility symbols, New Age dream-catchers, strips of plastic carrier bag, shoelaces and hankies.

Prayer tree, Paphos, Cyprus

Holy Well, Castlehaven, Co Cork

And inevitably this has fed into my work (although in tangible form only at the sketchbook stage. And, yes, here's my love of clouds creeping in again).

I've visited these sometimes ancient sites with a mixture of cynicism and respect, adding my scraps of torn fabrics, ribbons or wild flowers not because I expect my prayer to ascend to heaven courtesy of a special backstage pass, but to honour the history, myths, traditions and true faith that they represent.

Cross Bones cemetery, Borough

So it was, finding myself with an unscheduled 40 minutes before I started work and a real sense of excitement, that I chanced across an example of - and here I struggle for the right words - tributes to the dead outside the stiff-upper-lip British mainstream, much closer to home. Or more accurately, much closer to the office, fewer than five minutes by foot from London Bridge and The Shard.

Here the ribbons, beads and textile scraps are for the likes of "An infant, name unknown, 1789", "Henry Williams, chimney sweeper", and "Margaret Burton, aged 39 years, 1840".

These are the until-now forgotten whores, their babies, the nameless and the poverty-stricken, sharing what was once a medieval unconsecrated pauper's burial ground but now the occupants of a prime site of real estate, their resting place saved from the developers and their disturbed bones treated with dignity by a determined community campaign to turn the mass grave into a garden of quiet remembrance. A bronze plaque has the epitaph "RIP the Outcast Dead".

The story of Cross Bones cemetery in Redcross Way, Borough, is a fascinating one: find out more here.

A few days ago I caught an interview on television with an eminent but ageing author whose name I never caught, and scribbled down his comment that "the opposite of death is making". I like that.

* And now to answer the question of the strange little houses at the head of this post: It is a small "secret garden" that had recently featured in the London Evening Standard and which I had set out to find before I stumbled across the graveyard on the same street. Red Cross Garden and its buildings were originally laid out by Octavia Hill in 1887 for the benefit of the poor and has recently been restored under community management.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Flowers that fall from the sky

St Christopher's Place, WC1 

A Break in the Weather, detail, work in progress

As Samuel Johnson didn't quite say, if you're tired of London you haven't set your sights high enough. Above the traffic fumes and the heads of tourists is a delightfully quirky capital waiting to be discovered if you only glance up.*

St Christopher's Place

Nowhere was this more true, if only for a very few days (March 17-20), than in St Christopher's Place, nestling between Bond Street and Marylebone High Street. Look up and, tumbling from the sky, were thousands of real flowers.

It's as if the goddess Flora, currently in town and starring in Botticell Reimagined at the V&A, had wafted over from South Kensington on a zephyr's breath to bestow her bounty on the shoppers scurrying across the square and drinking coffee in the pavement cafes, only for her scattered blooms to become caught up on the overhead wires of the modern city.

Botticelli, the Birth of Venus, detail

Because, of course, the flowers never fell to the ground, having been strung between buildings in a delightful display by the floral installation artist Rebecca Louise Law to celebrate the start of spring.

St Christopher's Place installation by Rebecca Louise Law

I have written before about my love of flowers and of the sky, and when the two combine I am on cloud nine. Here's one I made earlier.

The Poisoned Heart, detail, 2011

Looking back recently at my old sketchbooks, I found some quick collages and sketches from about 12 years ago that have been knocking around in my subconscious ever since.

And here's another one from 2007 that I rediscovered only this evening while searching for something else entirely.

And a sketchbook piece from the same year that I put together after visiting the White Cube exhibition of work by Fred Tomaselli, whose intricate, exuberant, colourful and druggy collages of magazine cut-outs are a somewhat more more troubling vision of flowers in the sky.

Now these fragments have come together in another sky quilt, A Break in the Weather, one of my pieces for this summer's Prism exhibition

Fabric sample for A Break in the Weather,
referencing Fred Tomaselli

Having previously read in The Cloudspotter's Guide about "cloud seeding", a technique whereby "seeds" of ice or silver iodide are introduced into clouds to make them rain, I posed myself  the question: "What would happen if  flower seeds were used instead?" For a small sneak preview, see top of the page.

Do come along to the show in Hoxton, East London, in June. And on your way, don't forget to look up....

* To pick at random a few of my favourite above-eye-level surprises: Barbara Hepworth's Winged Figure on the facade of John Lewis in Oxford Street; Green Man faces along Bond Street; a lighthouse on a rooftop in King's Cross; Tube carriages that aren't going anywhere on top of a building in Shoreditch. Look up  Look Up London's blog and walking tours to discover many more.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Pattern and colour and colour and....zzz

All pictures: Betty Woodman, Theatre of the Domestic, ICA

Pattern and colour. Colour and pattern. Pattern and colour.

I have written those words so many time that I am bored with them.

At the end of each semester of my degree course (and it was a part-time so there were 18 of them), in the section of the self-assessment form that required me to state my interests and strengths, each time I wrote "colour and pattern". I saw no reason to disguise what had driven me, drives me and will continue to drive me.

These words are what you first see in the "about me" section of my blog, and what appear in my Prism profile.

I may be bored with the words but I find endless excitement in the concepts. Pattern and colour determine how I dress, what my home looks like and how I approach my own work.

It also dictates what I am drawn to in magazine listings and art exhibitions. At the Agnes Martin show at Tate Modern last year, which I dutifully went along to, I was through one door and out the exit within five minutes max without pausing, her monochrome, geometric minimalism too much to bear. Does that make me a bad person?

I am drawn to colour and pattern. I can't help it.

And so when I came across a listing in that hard-core porn magazine World of Interiors about an exhibition at the ICA of the ceramics and paintings of the American artist Betty Woodman, promising to "see out the winter months with a burst of colour", although I had never come across her work before I just had to go along.

The title, Theatre of the Domestic,  made it all the more delectable. Here, as I was contemplating the redecoration of my own house, were "wallpaper" and "rugs".

But like the clothing that never looks the same outside the glossy pages, with a double chin, a bad hair day and boots that need cleaning stirred into the mix, interior magazines always lie. (When I worked on a women's magazine in the early 1980s I was involved in a feature about a couple's idyllic country cottage, all dried flowers and bare beams. By the time the magazine came out, they were divorced.) How often have you seen a picture in a home magazine that features a TV and a bookcase filled with real, mismatched books?  Let alone a carpet that cost a lot of money and you can't afford to replace, and a heavy pine cupboard that was so difficult to get up the stairs that you can't face struggling to get it down again, however ugly it looks?

Which is why art is so wonderful. And important. And so very necessary. Even when pretends to ally itself to the domestic and the quotidian, it allows us to soar and fantasise and grasp at something beyond the ordinary. The unadulterated concept flies above the lifestyle magazines that leave us frustrated and inadequate.

Pattern and colour, pure and simple and lovely and liberating. And that left me bursting with joy.


Monday, 18 January 2016

What is a 'found object'? I'm at a loss

Moffat Takadiwa, Smell of Foreign Policy. Bottle tops 

As so often happens, a series of idle thoughts have coalesced to become a burning issue. In this case, what constitutes, in art terms, a "found object"?

Moffat Takadiwa, Superhighway of Coloniality. Computer keys  

Does a found object first have to be lost? Is it less "found" because you set out out to find it?  Or does a random object stumbled across unexpectedly somehow have a higher artistic value?

Shells, unraveled plastic fisherman's rope
and silver foil from the inside of  a coffee packet

Can a shell or stone picked up from the beach be a found object? It is, after all, exactly where you would expect it to be. And if not, are a sand-worn piece of coloured glass, the rubber sole of a flip-flop or a fragment of fisherman's net washed up on the beach more authentically "found"?

Takeaway menus, fused plastic fruit netting

Is a used bus ticket picked up from the pavement more "authentic" than a bus ticket you have paid for yourself? A beer bottle top from the gutter more deserving of being transformed into art than one from a bottle of beer bought, and drunk, with the sole purpose of obtaining the top?

Rings cut from party balloons

I first raised these issues with myself at a recent exhibition by the Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa at the Tyburn Gallery in central London. His large, intricate installations, draped on the walls like textiles, are made from "found objects including spray-can debris, plastic bottle tops and discarded electrical goods". Not only are they beautifully crafted and visually stunning - see the pictures at the top and below - but they aim to highlight the "cultural dominance exercised by the consumption of imported consumables in post-colonial Africa". But I paused at the term "found object".

Moffat Takadiwa, Toothpaste

Some of the works relied for their impact on the hundreds of matching objects - toothpaste tubes of the same brand, identical bottle tops. Had he, I wondered, retrieved all these from the town rubbish dump, or did he buy them? I have no quarrel either way, but I was intrigued.

Then I went along to a regular get-together at the Constance Howard Gallery and textile archive at Goldsmiths college. There I met the textile artist Jane Hoodless, whose most recent work is vintage children's clothing embroidered with lichen, hinting at the poignant gravestones in Victorian cemeteries. The small pintucked smocks and white cotton bonnets, she insisted, were not found objects, as some had suggested, but were "sourced". (Which opens up a completely different can of semantic worms: what is the difference between "sourced" and simply "bought"? But let's not go there.) During the ensuing conversation, it was suggested that if you came across an object that then led to an idea for a piece of work, that was a "found object". If the idea came first and you then went out to find the materials for it, however unconventional, then it was not.

Amazon Indian style neck decoration made from painted takeaway cutlery

I like to think that my way of working with "found objects" is somewhere between the two: I have the idea, and then find - or "source" - objects that feed into the idea, allowing it to change and evolve.

My most exciting such objects were found in the sadly now closed Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney where, over the years, I have bought a stuffed crow, human bones and, unexpectedly, what looked like a haberdasher's card of a dozen little plastic male torsos in a state of excitement. Who could possibly have set out to "source" those? Yet they were just what I needed for my then current project.

Plastic snake, skeletons, doll parts and excitable men, spray-painted red

Indeed, at one stage my mania for found objects was so great that when I was out with my husband at my local urban farm, and we spotted a half-hidden blow-up doll, her mouth agape at the indignity of being left in the bushes, he asked me jokingly if I wanted to take it home to incorporate in an art work. It should have been funny, but I have to confess my mind had been running along exactly those lines.

Caught up in this nerdy obsession over words, I decided to google the term "found object". One definition seemed promising: "In modern art, the term 'found object' is used to describe an object, found by an artist, which - with minimal modification - is then presented as a work of art." But then it listed "typical found objects": stone, curiously shaped pieces of wood, a human skull, newspaper cuttings, photographs, pieces of textile fabric. Oh really, is all textile art "found" art? I think not.

The Poisoned Heart, 2011, incorporating found objects as previous picture,
plus beads, sequins, skull studs and artificial flowers

Finally, in the Tate glossary, I discovered this: "A found object is a natural or man-made object, or fragment of an object, that is found (or sometimes bought) by an artist and kept because of some intrinsic interest the artist sees in it."

Which seems to hit the nail so firmly on the head that it made me think that if I had come across this definition at the beginning of my somewhat ridiculous quest I would have been saved from expending precious grey cells from my dwindling supply. Like the abandoned sex doll, I felt excited, then somewhat deflated.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Oh joy

Isn't this just the most wonderful, powerful, exciting, heady feeling in the world? The fabrics are piled up in abandoned ecstasy, the idea is intact in the imagination, waiting for release. The joy of creating a particular quilt will never be this acute again. Ahead lies all the compromise, the hours of tedious stitching, the gradual erosion of the pure, shining mirage.

And if you don't have even a slight idea of what I'm talking about, why are you reading this blog?