Fellow student Miriam had shared details of a free Alan Turing textile workshop on the OCA Textiles Facebook page and it was lovely to meet her at Manchester Museum and spend time chatting about our coursework during the day. She is ahead of me on 'Exploring Ideas' and has been through formal assessment so had useful advice to give on the process, such as how she went about mounting her work.
When I found I had a place on the workshop, I spent a couple of days reading a biography of Turing that concentrated heavily on his involvement in the invention of the computer. For me the book was very hard going, with complex mathematical codes. Turing, who was born 100 years ago, seemed an unlikely point of inspiration for textile work, so I was curious to see how we would begin to connect the two.
Firstly we were introduced to the course tutor Gwyneth Depport, then we were taken for a look around the exhibition 'Alan Turing and Life's Enigma' while we listened to a brief talk by the curator. While Turing was working on developing early computers at Manchester University in the 1950s, he had access to natural history exhibits at the museum next door. He was fascinated by finding the science behind the patterns in nature that he'd noticed related to mathematical sequences, such as markings on animal furs and skins, the spiralling tendencies of pine cones and flower seeds and the tendencies of branching trees.
|Turing was fascinated by the growth process and 'morphogenesis' - the chemistry behind what causes an organism to develop non-uniform shapes like spirals, spots and stripes.|
Gwyneth asked us to make a series of about ten 1 minute sketches of anything at all from the exhibition that caught our eye. Working on Project 4 has taught me how to focus on a single aspect, which I needed to do with this time limit, so as the lighting was poor and many of the exhibits behind glass, I decided to focus on shapes. I was surprised that in just one minute I was able to produce an identifiable drawing that conveyed the essence of an object and this was my biggest lesson of the day.
Back in the classroom we selected from our drawings. I chose one of a shell sliced through and redrew it, altering the proportions till it felt right. I cut it out and began to play with the angles and added an element from another drawing to balance the space until I was happy with an A5 sized design.
In the afternoon, we chose fabrics from the stash bags we'd brought and began to cut, layer and stitch. In the morning the time constraints had helped me but at this stage I felt I needed more time. Turing is often described as one of the greatest ever thinkers - and now I felt like I wanted to think. In particular I wondered what Turing would make of what we were doing and couldn't help but think he wouldn't have any time for work produced without more consideration and exactness. Though I have discovered that he, and his work, have inspired many art projects, I haven't found any references to his opinions on art. I also felt hindered by the limits of my mobile stash, and at no point enamoured with the sample I was working on. I haven't felt the desire to work into it any further since, though I still like my drawing and have ideas brewing on how to develop it using some of my photographs above of patterns in nature.
Though I was wrestling with my thoughts, it was still a very enjoyable afternoon. Gwyneth has photos of the work everyone produced on her blog, and as she says, it was fascinating to see the variety of work produced from one brief. Looking through Gwyneth's portfolio and sketchbooks, then hearing her talk about her work was also very interesting. I particularly identified with her 'Conversations Past' theme which she describes as 'memories of wisdom I've received from the older women I've known'. In my knitting group, there is always an older lady willing to help with a stitching problem or any personal dilemma. It also made me think of the Memory Cafe for Alzheimer's sufferers and carers where I volunteer. I always feel like I benefit from the arrangement more than the sufferers. I bake cake, serve drinks and chat. In return, every visit I hear wonderful stories, learn a new (or rather an old song new to me), receive a piece of practical advice or recipe or learn something of local social history.
One of my favourite stories recently was from one of our couples who were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. We were asking them about their wedding day and if they went on honeymoon. They said they set off for Filey in a motorcycle and side car. It was shortly after the war and all the signposts that had been taken down had not yet been replaced. This was designed to confuse any Germans parachuting in, but of course it confused everyone from out of the area. So it was after midnight when they finally found the guest house and had to wake up an extremely bad tempered landlady who kept up her bad mood for their entire stay! These memories are priceless snippets for me that help me empathise with older people and understand our recent past.
A few days later I visited the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield for the first time, meeting up with the OCA Yorkshire group. It was a chilly day so I decided to save the outdoor installations for another visit. I arrived early and entered the stark, spacious foyer. There didn't seem to be anyone else around and the space felt intimidating. (Later that week I was watching a recording of the series 'A History of Art in Three Colours' and I realised that my feelings were similar to those described in the 'White' episode. This described the public's reaction when they first viewed Whistler's Venice paintings in a completely white space in 1883.) After familiarising myself with the galleries though, I felt more comfortable. Being able to appreciate exhibits lit by daylight, without distracting backgrounds or other pieces placed too close, it felt wonderfully refreshing.
After I'd walked round the galleries alone, I decided to revisit two areas I was drawn to: the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Collection and Richard Long's 'Artist Rooms' Exhibition. I first discovered Hepworth when I was an architecture student but it has been many years since I've seen her work and I enjoyed simply walking round the sculptures looking at the contrasts in texture of the carved stone and wood and appreciating the different views created by the shapes, holes and shadows on the white walls. Maybe it's the time of year but I particularly love her polished curved wood that reminded me of opening up a horse chestnut shell to find a big, perfect glossy conker before it loses it shine. I can imagine climbing inside. They look comfortable and cosy like a nest or womb. (Unfortunately I didn't photograph an example of one of these, but click on this link to see something similar I saw a few weeks later in Leeds City Art Gallery)
|The Hepworth is so spacious, providing many different viewpoints to appreciate the shapes and shadows. The daylight flooding in and being able to get so close means you can really appreciate the craftsmanship and textures.|
Talking with two of the other students, we wondered about the meaning of string Hepworth sometimes used in connecting surfaces and highlighting the voids. Then we read how the string was part of a style she developed during WW2 when she was living in St. Ives.
Richard Long was a new name for me and his exhibition theme was using walking as art. There were photographs of sculptures created during a walk with found materials and one of flattened grass - evidence of a walk taken place. Photographs described places discovered as a result of walking in a straight line from a predetermined location on a map. Sarah and I spent some time looking at the 'Somerset Willow Line', looking for pattern, debating how it was constructed (border first or last and why is there a border at all?), whether the width was right for the space and whether it might have ever been exhibited outdoors. We wondered why the walks were straight and whether this was a male thing (after all isn't a walk in the country a meandering affair?). I benefited from the interaction with Sarah and learnt that I don't always have to have information available or completely understand a work of art to consider or enjoy it. Today I found and enjoyed the photos in this article that shows the artist installing the exhibition. We had been debating whether he did it all himself, how precisiely it was planned - are all the separate pieces coded in some way, or is it arranged by eye so that every time the work is moved to a new venue, it is slightly different to harmonise with the space?
|Richard Long's Somerset Willow Walk|
Looking at the slate sculptures in the next room, we discussed how Long's work might be an inspirational starting point for textile work. The materials were so hard! I thought back to my previous projects and focused in on the colours and textures of the rough stone. I imagined the arrangement of 'Cornish Slate Ellipse' as different length and width line stitches. We enjoyed discussing the differences of this sculpture with 'Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle'. They were both slate but one felt friendly, reminding me of a box of brittle compressed charcoal drawing sticks with their snapped ends tucked away and smooth, flat surface exposed. The other felt sinister. Sarah said she felt afraid she would fall on it if she got too close. The slate was jagged and the arrangement reminded me of a gang with dark, pointed hoods.
|Richard Long's Cornish Slate Ellipse|
|'Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle'|
When I first walked into the exhibition gallery, I was delighted to see a huge painting applied directly to the walls. Immediately I thought, 'waterfall!' and it made such an impact on me not just because of the scale but because of the 'drawing from an image' exercise earlier in the course. I'd used a photograph of a waterfall on a Yorkshire Water postcard I'd picked up somewhere. I could see similarities in the marks on the wall to some of my drawings which gave me some confidence that parts of my experiments had potential.
|'Water Falls' by Richard Long|
|Waterfalls by me!|
As I've now joined the Halifax Embroiderer's Guild, I'm looking forward to textile artist Alice Fox coming to talk about her work tonight. I felt I'd get more out of this opportunity by seeing her current touring exhibition, 'Textures of Spurn', at the South Square Gallery in Thornton beforehand. Alice is artist in residence at Spurn Point Nature Reserve this year as part of a lottery funded Arts Council project supported by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
The exhibition was in another plain white room but in contrast to the Hepworth, this space was small and intimate and my first impression was that this work felt very feminine. The pieces were not behind glass and most were at eye-level so I could really appreciate the beautiful, delicate, marks on paper and fabric. The colour palette was limited and the pieces really felt like a collection. Reflecting later on what I'd seen, I thought that I'd loved to have seen the exhibition in-situ when it was displayed at Spurn Point last month, the lighthouse hung with the huge Spurn cloths that South Square didn't have space for. How would the changing light, sounds and smells of the reserve have changed or enhanced the viewing experience? I also thought it would have been interesting to see how the cloths had been altered by the elements from the beginning to the end of their display.
Another thought came as I looked at the photographs I'd taken. Some of the concertina books were just a few centimetres high, yet on my images there was no sense of scale and I imagined them as 2 metre high screens. I thought that this small sized work would be so dramatic enlarged to a huge scale. Alice made three Spurn cloths to fit this gallery as a smaller representation of the textile element of the project that was too large to bring to South Square. What qualities make some art only work on a specific scale while others transfer so well?
|This concertina book was displayed on a wide window ledge and I loved the way the daylight shines through the stitching holes making me think of sparkling water in sunlight|
|One of Three Small Spurn Cloths - Rust Dyed Silk|
|I believe this piece crosses the boundaries of scale and would work whether 10cm or 10 metres high|
The weather was appalling that day and I was rather pleased to have the gallery to myself. I bought the book to accompany the residency and settled down at the table to read. The book was how I imagined a perfect sketchbook journal should look, with drawings, photographs and found objects, ideas and descriptions neatly laid out in poetic text. Though images of patterns in the water and sand reminded me of pictures I'd taken on the beach in Jersey and Spain, the feel at Spurn is quite different. I felt that the artist really captured the essence of the place. I can see words she used in her observations like 'scattered', 'hollows' and 'pummelled' when I look at the final pieces. And I like that Spurn itself is ingrained in the pieces. Rusty objects and wet shells stain paper and Alice has used found objects like feathers to print and emboss. She laid swathes of cloth on the sand, and as waves manipulated it, the fabric took up and was marked by water, salt and debris.
|Printed and Embossed Feather|
|Wormcasts in the sand perhaps?|
At one point I realised, if only I stopped spending so much money on art books, I could probably buy some original art! (I was really coveting the handmade concertina books with their embossed, stitched marks and collagraph prints.) Then again, I get a lot of pleasure from reading around my subjects and I wondered whether these little books would look quite so spectacular in my house, rather than being part of a cohesive collection. I also pondered on my own 'notebooks'. These are the total opposite of Alice's with scribbled notes and sketches made with any pen on any paper to hand, and intermingled with shopping lists, telephone numbers, my children's doodles etc. I can't always find my notes after I've made them. My systems, I decided, need some urgent attention and I was glad I'd booked to go on a series of workbook workshops over the next year with local textile artist Anne Brooke.
|The book I wanted|
Alice's book is a really good insight into the starting points and processes behind her work, such as how the cloths were made by wrapping the fabric around rusty objects and left till marks were made over time. The rust marks reminded me of distressed effects I've achieved by burning but these marks were much more subtle. I came home feeling inspired to try some rust dying but was disappointed to find a distinct lack of rusty object round my home and garden. I resolved to go on a rust hunt soon but in the meantime thought I'd try out some spray ink suitable for fabric I'd bought on sale at the local craft shop. They were partly filled bottles, three for £1 and it turned out there was a good reason they were so cheap. Most of the spray mechanisms were blocked to some degree, which caused blobs, and when they were less than a third full, no ink came out at all so I had to mix colours together. Despite not achieving quite what I expected, permanently staining the kitchen floor and ending up with blue Smurf-like hands, I was pleased with some of the effects I achieved (even with blobs) by layering the colours up and firmly ironing creases into the fabric before I sprayed. When I opened up the fabric again, I liked the way the creases had been protected from the ink. Alice describes using stitch in response to the marks on the cloth. Creases are held in place and highlighted by stitch to emphasise the reflective qualities of water and wet sand.
|Stitches highlight and hold creases in place|
|Overspraying with a different colour before the first has dried so that the colours merge. This reminds me of a coastline from above|
|Looking back at my recent holiday snaps, turns out I was always a rust fan!|
|Patterns in the sand at St. Brelade's Bay, Jersey - such a different feel from the beach at Spurn. More of my wave and sand photos are in my June 2012 post|
The following day I went to the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds City Art Gallery on a Study Visit for OCA Visual Arts students. Tutor Gerald has written about the day in a post entitled 'Erotically shaped vegetables and cheap nylon tights!' This can be found on the We Are OCA blog. (I have just focused here on the morning session because my head was so full of thoughts.) We were going primarily to look at the work of Sarah Lucas and Helen Chadwick and I was interested to see how much my views would change over the day. These were not artists I particularly knew and when I looked at images of their work, I wasn't excited or drawn to them in any way. However the chance of a local study visit and to meet tutors and fellow students was too much of an opportunity to pass up. The visit was open to all visual arts students - the majority were studying sculpture. This was a totally different experience from the Cotton: Global Threads OCA Textile study day back in April. I saw no sketch books or cameras, just a couple of note takers. This day was all about discussion and debate.
I found the briefing notes and the pre-reading were essential to my appreciation of the ideas behind 'Ordinary Things'. I understand that Lucas challenges the definition of sculpture, uses traditional sculptural techniques such as cutting and moulding and works with familiar everyday materials. I can see there is a narrative behind the pieces and an erotic theme running through and it was quite interesting to consider how she thought through the process of construction - where the puckering might be used on a pair of stuffed tights to represent a body part for example. My problem was that these were not things I found comfortable or pleasant to look at and I couldn't identify any great ingenuity, humour or skill in their making or arrangement, so I wasn't sure what I could find to like. Another student echoed my thoughts when she queried what was so anarchic about 'Big Fat Anarchic Spider'? (The tutors either didn't hear or couldn't seem to think of a response and moved on. If anyone has ideas on why, please share! ) It just looked like a large spider made from stuffed tights, like something I might make at home with the kids the other night to decorate for a Halloween party.
I've just seen an image of the spider and read this rather worrying conclusion from a review of the exhibition by Adrian Searle of the Guardian.
'But sometimes small, tightly curated shows work best. I urge anyone who likes Lucas's sculpture to see Ordinary Things. Those who believe contemporary art is a load of old tosh should see it, too – if only to be reminded that what counts is not so much the materials an artist uses, but the ways they are transformed. If you don't get Lucas, you don't get sculpture.'
I feel that I am open minded when it comes to contemporary art and I have no problem with non-traditional, ordinary or even repulsive materials. For example I loved the Compulsive, Obsessive, Repetitive exhibition at Towner pictured recently in Selvedge Magazine, with its constructions from till rolls, sugar cubes and fish skins. Manya Donaque's 'Presence, Absence, Duration' exhibition at the West Yorkshire Print Workshop last month sparked thoughtful conversation between myself and my daughters when we viewed it last month. Like Lucas, Donaque's art is of and from the body (for example here she used pubic hair and hoover dust) and has themes of decay and passing of time. I 'got' Donaque's exhibition even though I didn't find it beautiful. What should I make of Searle's conclusion then? Many of the comments posted in response agree with his views and those that don't are generally lacking in good argument. I tried but I still can't see the brilliance in Lucas. Maybe I will be embarrassed by these comments in future but for the moment, either I don't get sculpture, or as I prefer to think, Searle is wrong!
We moved on to look at the work of Helen Chadwick. Her work has similarities to Lucas's with Arte Povera influences, erotic and decaying themes. In their materials, both use degradable and bodily matter. The Chadwick exhibition included photographs of some of her 'Wreaths to Pleasure'. Pale pink tea roses appear like a pretty and feminine Victorian floral arrangement at first glance. Then you see they are obviously arranged as male genitalia. Another wreath is made of vibrant red flowers jam-packed together but then you get the shock of realising the flowers look to be exploding out of some dark oozy liquid and they're hinting at something bodily, possible internal and bloody. I liked the variation in the subtleties of the repellent and erotic aspects and agree with the description of the series of thirteen wreaths as both 'seductive and repellant'.
For me, the most thought-provoking aspect of the Chadwick exhibition was seeing all the accompanying prep work. Detailed supporting handwritten notes, sketches and test prints give us insight into how her ideas developed and how she approached the physical process of constructing a sculpture. I particularly loved reading one notebook where she'd noted memories of her own past. These gave me some ideas for my theme book which I need to start on soon. (I've decided on a family history theme.) Her notes included dates, records of her height, places, buildings and dreams. On one page she written a list of memories of a particular school. Alongside 'maypole', 'pale green frieze above window' and 'wooden block floor', I laughed to read 'Angel in Nativity. Miserable.'!
I was heartened to see that the notebooks Chadwick submitted for her sculpture course had many similarities with mine: untidily written in various directions using different pens in a handwriting style that can vary depending on mood. Thoughts are sometimes very organised and sometimes random interspersed with lists, dates and contact details. Like mine, I felt they were very personal 'notes to self' - sometimes no more than a word or two, possibly written in the middle of something important or maybe at night when you have a sudden thought you are afraid you might forget. Though they are not beautiful to look at in the same way Alice Fox's are, seeing Chadwick's notebooks encouraged me to feel that perhaps my own scruffy scribbles are just as valid.
|My notebooks have similarities to Helen Chadwick's! Some of her fasciniating notes are available to view online, courtesty of the Henry More Institute archives.|