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The Access Art Sketchbook Conference

My Cambridge Sketchbook

My Cambridge Sketchbook

On Saturday 19 March I went to the Access Art Sketchbook Conference in Cambridge with my fabulous friend, Beatriz (www.beatrizacevedo.com).  It was a great day.  The presentations were inspiring and informative and full of ideas which were doable and that always helps.  There was a brilliant exhibition of delegates’ sketchbooks which we could handle.  And there were great hands-on workshops, including a mass sketchbook making session.  There must have been getting on for a hundred of us all simultaneously making sketchbooks.  Mine is shown at the top of the post.  Here are some shots of the inside of the book:

Piggyback small sketchbook

Piggyback small sketchbook

Foldout concertina pages

Foldout concertina pages

My sketchbook feels calm and well-ordered for once, with nice big pages and plenty of pockets.  This is unlike  me, except I do like to make sturdy notebooks, so mine is stitched.  Beatriz, on the other hand, made some wonderfully spontaneous and exuberant sketchbooks, which match her temperament.

Beatriz's Green Notebook

Beatriz's Green Notebook

And this is her lovely Spring-like book which will be accompanying her on her upcoming trip to Cornwall:

Beatriz's Spring Sketchbook

Beatriz's Spring Sketchbook

It was great to be with so many people working together on a creative project.  Yet again, for me it showed how the energy is amplified when people work together.  It’s a great feeling.  I really hope they run another conference next year.

What I did on Saturday

Vala Sketchbook Workshop - sketchbooks

Vala Sketchbook Workshop - sketchbooks

 

In September 2010, I went on a writing retreat where I met Sarah Bird who was about to set up a community publishing collective, Vala (have a look at Vala Publishing Cooperative on Facebook).  I love the idea of starting a publishing company.   I love the audacity.  We keep on reading about the demise of the book, and anyone without a kindle or an iPad is made to feel horribly old-fashioned and frankly not trying, but I’m not so sure.  I think we underestimate the tenacity of the tactile.  So, Sarah and her co-co-opers are committed to making books which are a joy to read and to handle, so I wish them all well.

Sarah asked me if I would do a workshop with her on how they could think about making artful and soulful books, and so I suggested that they actually made books.  So, we chose our day and invited people to join us in making books.  I used the most simple book form there is – the rubber band book with an upcycled scrap cardboard cover (have a look at www.accessart.org.uk for details), to get people started in the morning, and then in the afternoon, we ‘tricked out’ the books, as a Danish architecture lecturer described the process of personalising and customising sketchbooks.

I was a bit worried about not having enough to fill the day, but I started off by showing them books that I had made, and they were off.  They had to  be forced to stop for lunch and again at 4.00 pm for show and tell and a discussion about what Vala could do to make their books distinctive.  This is the workshop in full flight:

 

Vala bookmaking workshop, March 2011

Vala bookmaking workshop, March 2011

 

The books they made were just fantastic and each one really reflected the personality of the person who made them.

 

 

And yet again I was amazed at how people diving into the same pile of materials could come up with quite such different end results.

 

There were gorgeous details,

and a real flair for personalising the pages,

And people started to work in the books rather than leaving them as blanks, like I did!

They were luscious and I would have loved to have taken any or all of them home:

 

At the beginning of the day I promised the participants that they would take home a finished book and some of them were a bit sceptical, but by the end of the day they were talking about making notebooks for presents, to commemorate birthdays, and to use in school with quite small children.  I loved doing this workshop because the energy in the room was so high, and people were so enthusiastic.  It was a lovely day and I am grateful to Sarah for inviting me.

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A night at the Severn Valley Quilters

Fabric collage 2010

Fabric collage 2010

 

I was delighted to be invited to give a talk about my quilts to the Severn Valley Quilters in their particularly fine hall in Thornbury, just outside Bristol.  They were a lovely bunch who clearly love a laugh as much as they love their quilts and they were very friendly and made me feel very welcome.  They listened very patiently as I wittered on for over an hour.  I did offer to stop after 50 minutes but they were too polite to accept the offer.

I am always interested in the questions I get asked on these occasions.  I am often asked, as most quilters and embroiderers are, how long it takes to make a piece and what sort of machine I use (a Bernina, an old Bernina).  I am also frequently asked where I get the bits on my quilts (usually www.artchixstudio.com – beware the postage, and more or less anywhere I see them either cheap or interesting).  But each group has different concerns.  I was asked about sourcing beads (try the link to Anita’s beads in the link column) last night, but a significant number of them commented on my imagination.  They thought I had lovely handwriting and a lot of imagination.

I was struck by this because we don’t often think about imagination in academic research. There is, in fact, something suspect about it.  Is imagination the same thing as making it up?  That would clearly be wrong.  I am very interested in the whole area of fictionalising research, either to protect the identity of the research participants, or as a way of amalgamating a lot of different experiences and case examples into one coherent narrative, but this sort of admission causes horror in many academic circles.  How can we trust her?  How do we know she isn’t just fabricating her findings and so on.  I agree with a lot of the unease, but I think that it also deepens academic work if we have the sensitivity and imagination, in fact, to enter into our respondents or participants’ worlds.

And, I think that a lot of research starts with ‘I wonder what if…’ which is a kind of imagination as well.  I have always thought that my strength was in seeing connections and patterns in and between things, but perhaps it is in having imagination as well.  So, the lovely Severn Valley Quilters certainly gave me something to think about.

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So farewell, then, Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor Quilt, detail

Elizabeth Taylor Quilt, detail

 

I was very sad to hear that Elizabeth Taylor had died.  I love the big Hollywood films I used to watch on Sunday afternoons with my mum and a bar of chocolate (I can’t quite imagine having that amount of leisure time now!), and Elizabeth Taylor was in a lot of them.  I will still put Cleopatra on from time to time, particularly if I am ill.  Stupid, excessive glamour, and sexy without writhing about.  So, to me she epitomises a glamour that really has gone.  One of my very favourite images of her is not particularly well known, but is daft glamorous:

 

The ridiculous glamour of Elizabeth Taylor

The ridiculous glamour of Elizabeth Taylor

 

I love me a kaftan, and no-one wore them quite like she did.  And she could knock spots of Lady Gaga in the headgear stakes, as a quick look on the internet will reveal.

By a bizarre coincidence, I was getting my quilts out to get ready to give a talk, which I will also blog about, and I decided to take her along, which I don’t usually do.  I made three quilts based on a creativity technique where you ask a famous person for their advice in your head.  The idea is that it reaches bits of your imagination that you usually switch off.  So, my question to Elizabeth Taylor was about getting noticed.  And she was a great person to ask, because La Taylor was never out of the limelight.  So, I took black and white photos and transferred them to calico and then built a quilt round the image and then wrote my answer from them in overhead projector pen directly on the quilt.  In the Taylor example, I used the technique of completing a picture by extending its lines, which is familiar to lots of people who have done design work for City and Guilds, so

 

Elizabeth Taylor quilt

Elizabeth Taylor quilt

 

I am interested to see this piece which I did several years ago, because it is one of the first pieces that I painted, which is a technique that I am increasingly drawn to.  The background is washed with thin acrylic, but the dress is quite thickly painted.  Then the bodice was beaded:

 

Elizabeth Taylor Quilt, bodice detail

Elizabeth Taylor Quilt, bodice detail

 

You might like to know that in the end her advice was about not relying on men, but trusting your dogs, and only your dogs.  She was a great animal lover.

Thoughts on making

Edmund de Waal porcelain

Edmund de Waal porcelain

A slight change of tack, today, looking at porcelain and metal working rather than textiles.  This is occasioned by an article I read in the Financial Times at the weekend, which was the text of an essay by Edmund de Waal, the ceramicist, broadcast on Radio 3 on 15 March.  The article was called ‘With these hands’, and the talk was in Radio 3’s series on influential books.  De Waal takes Primo Levi’s book, The Wrench and describes what it meant to him in terms of his own art practice.

It contains a really good explanation and definition of embodied knowing, which is a hot topic in social sciences at the moment.  He describes the physicality of making pots, and the way that that knowledge is held within the body, but is impossible to describe or codify:

Centring the clay, bringing this small ball into perfect receptivity for throwing, involved a ripple of different movements from hand to wrist, an inclination in the head and neck, a slight tautening in the shoulders.  It was a sort of learning I could not articulate.

de Waal, E. (2011) ‘With these hands’, Financial Times Life and Arts, 13-14 March, 1-2: 1.

He describes the experience of reflecting on something that you have created and the surprises it can bring,  as ‘the epiphany where you see what you have made is different from what you had conceived.’  Very often artists experience this as disappointment or failure, Turner’s famous gap between what was in his imagination and what he was able to put on the canvas and the sense of frustration that can bring, but de Waal sees it in a much more positive light.  It is an epiphany, which suggests new beginnings, possibly the receiving of a gift, certainly a happy apparition.  I have often experienced this.  I very seldom know what I am trying to do, and sometimes what I produce is rubbish and gets put into a bag of bits which are often cut up and recycled into subsequent projects.  On other occasions, I am delighted with what I’ve made, a happy accident occurs and it is much better than I could have hoped for.  I go where the spirit takes me and am often delighted to see the result.

De Waal goes on to describe looking for a writer who can give an account of what it is to make.  He tries Ruskin and Morris, but without much satisfaction:

I was searching for a description of Homo faber, the maker of things.  I wanted a story of making told without the penumbra of romanticising how hard it is, without nostalgia. (p.1)

Again, this is striking.  De Waal doesn’t want the hard graft of wrenching work from the innermost depths of being narrative, or the ‘wasn’t it all wonderful before the industrial revolution spoiled everything?’ story.  He wants a much more positive version of what it is to be a maker.  Thus, the hero of the book he chooses to discuss, Faussone, is a rigger of cranes, ‘someone who has a complex, adult relationship with materials..’  I am sure anyone who is a maker recognises this.  As you get into your craft you do develop an adult relationship of respect, and occasionally ambivalence with your materials.  You certainly get to know them and love them despite their individual quirks!  Furthermore, a craftsman like Faussone develops a bodily response in his work which tells him about his materials, and this resonates with de Waal:

This made sense of how deeply connected the hand and the head really are.  It articulated for me the way I would throw a dozen porcelain pots and look at them, affectionately perhaps, but also with a dispassionate eye, and plan the next dozen.  It understood how I know when dipping a pot into a bucket of glaze or listening to the sound of the flames when firing my kiln that there is something out of balance. (p.1)

Again, I recognise the phenomenon that even when you are creating one thing you are already moving onto the next, a real feeling of creative restlessness.  And I also like the way that he evokes the felt element of knowing, the embodied knowledge that means that just picking up a pot can tell you about the integrity of its structure without any kind of test.  It combines the cognitive with the sensory and the bodily.

I also like this quotation:

Levi was right: that it is through the hands that you learn the properties of the ‘grey of steel beams and plates, the actual heroes of his stories’.  But that these materials needed a lifetime of thinking around.  They are a start for conversation. (p. 2)

I like the idea that we have a conversational relationship with our materials; I think it is another way of thinking about the ‘what if?’ element of creativity.  The material will tell you what will happen if you slash, burn, melt, overpaint, reverse or whatever process you choose.  And this is a lifetime’s conversation as you get to know the properties of those materials.  The conversation never stops.

Finally, drawing on Levi, de Waal gives a list of the pleasures of making which we can all identify with:

  • being able to test yourself
  • not depending on others in the work
  • reflecting yourself in your work
  • the pleasure of seeing your creature/creation grow
  • the fact that it will possibly outlive you
  • it might be useful to someone else
  • ‘Maybe another man wouldn’t have brought it off.’

I think anyone who has ever created anything will have something in common with at least one thing on that list.

Edmund de Waal V&A installation

Edmund de Waal V&A installation, inspired in part by Primo Levi's The Wrench

Fabric-o-holics of the world unite

Margo Selby zip-up purse

Margo Selby zip-up purse

Short post today, but if you have been following my blog for a bit, you will know that I love textiles and that I love things that are really sumptuous.  I love it when other people do minimalism: I admire it, understand it, get it, wish I could do it sometimes, but I am about colour, texture, and sumptuousness.  I love beads and sequins.  I love braid.  I really believe that most people stop too soon with their embellishments.  Anyway, if you love gorgeous textiles, you have to love Margo Selby’s exquisite jacquard weave silks.  So, I was beyond stoked as the young people used to say, to receive this wonderful little zip-up make-up bag from my work colleague, Patricia.  The piece in itself is gorgeous, but made even better by the fact that Patricia went and bought it for my birthday, knowing how much I love textiles.

Margo Selby purse, other side.

Margo Selby purse, other side.

What I admire about Margo Selby’s work is her rather sober but rich colour palette.  It has a touch of the Hapsburg Court about it.  And the way she plays with scale with very simple shapes, such as the circle shown here.  I am very keen to work with the scrap bag I bought at her shop recently.  I admire her skill and precision, but also the unashamed luxury of her work.  So, Patricia couldn’t have got the present more right really.

Margo Selby Fabrics

Margo Selby Fabrics

Margo Selby’s website is: http://www.margoselby.com.

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A generous gift: new cache of Laura Ashley fabrics

Laura Ashley Fabric Slice

Laura Ashley Fabric Slice

I was sitting minding my own business at Bristol Quilters on Wednesday when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the marvellous Trish, who is one of the organisers, with Rosie, of the Bristol Quilters Exhibition (2-4 June, 2011, more info to follow) walking towards me clutching a polythene bag.  Most people who make textiles resort to the polythene bag to store their latest project, so it might have been something she was working on, but this one was clear plastic and I could see it contained fabric.

‘A little bird told me you were collecting Laura Ashley fabric,’ she said, ‘so, would you like this?’  She handed me the bag.  I was a bit taken aback because it had such wonderful fabric in it; I could see that even at a first glance.  Oh, yes, I would most definitely like it.  I was still a bit stunned by the fabric, and spotting her chance, she said, ‘If you don’t use it all, I DON’T want it back.’  Which made me laugh, because I knew just how she felt.  If you do patchwork you end up with all sorts of things that you have hung onto for years, but are glad to get rid of eventually.  So I said I would keep it.

The reason I was so thrilled by Trish’s cache, was that it contained so much stuff that I have never seen before, and a lot of the really vintage stuff.  So…

Laura Ashley peacock fabric

Laura Ashley peacock fabric

And this one:

Laura Ashley Swan fabric

Laura Ashley Swan fabric

This one in particular reminds me of the work of Walter Crane, such as:

Walter Crane Swans

Walter Crane Swans

or possibly more characteristically:

Walter Crane - The Tempest

Walter Crane - The Tempest

This Crane endpaper even looks like the Laura Ashley signature print:

Walter Crane, book endpaper

Walter Crane, book endpaper

Compare these with this print from Trish’s stash:

Laura Ashley Griffon (?) print

Laura Ashley Griffon (?) print

I really love Crane’s illustrations, probably because of an unhealthy dose of nostalgia, and this explains why I fell in love with this fabric as it came out of the plastic bag.  These are really high quality prints on very high quality dress weight cotton.  And they bear close inspection.  For example, this is a hunt scene and if you look closely it is far from pastoral with pools of blood everywhere:

Laura Ashley hunting scene print

Laura Ashley hunting scene print

This is the last thing I expect to see on a Laura Ashley print.  It reminds me of Timorous Beasties, the design studio which produces provocative prints such as their toile collection, which plays with the traditional toile, showing scenes of contemporary working class Glasgow life:

Timorous Beastie, Glasgow Toile

Timorous Beasties, Glasgow Toile

This one famously or notoriously has a heroin addict strung out on a park bench, and was featured in the V&A quilt retrospective last year.

So, this collection was a real cornucopia for me, because it introduced me to prints I don’t remember ever seeing, as well as some time machine fabrics, which transport me back to being seventeen and being entranced by the dresses, even though they were totally impractical for my life:

Selection of Trish's Laura Ashley fabrics

Selection of Trish's Laura Ashley fabrics

Some of these prints are so distinctive and so beautiful in a mass produced fabric, that I really want to think of an interesting and innovative way of show-casing them.  In short, a fantastic gift deserving a special piece of work.

Griff Rhys Jones – Hidden Treasures of Indian Art

Tribal Women Embroidering

Tribal Women Embroidering

In case you didn’t catch it, there was a lovely programme on BBC 2 on Friday about tribal embroidery in India in the ‘Hidden Treasures of’… series presented by Griff Rhys Jones.  I watched it because it featured lots of the places that Mum and I went to when we went to India about 13 years ago.  It showed the sort of  embroidery that you can buy at textile fairs in this country (John Gillow was interviewed) in its original context, and being worn by the women who made it.

Tribal woman wearing her embroidery

Tribal woman wearing her embroidery

So, there was lots of wonderful work on display, beautiful colours, and plenty of sparkle.  But to his credit, Rhys Jones discussed the social impact of the embroidery, particularly the way in which the time spent making it means that women have no time for anything else including education.  I was also struck by his conversation with a man in a market who could identify any passerby just by their style of clothing.  As Rhys Jones remarked later in the programme, if the woman’s clothes speak for her, she has no need to speak at all and can effectively be silenced.

But with regard to my current project, I was fascinated by Rhys Jones’ comment that these tribal people’s identity is captured in their clothing.  So  their clothes and textiles indicate their geographic home, their provenance, their tribal affiliation, and in the women’s case, their marital status, lifestage and fertility.  When we were in India I bought a piece of cloth that would normally be made into a skirt which was block printed with a design that showed that I was not past the menopause and thus marriagable, or maybe it was the post-menopause pattern.  The fact that I can’t remember suggests the latter, but if I were wearing it for real, it would definitely matter.   I am increasingly interested in the sociology of cloth, and this is a perfect example of cloth as semiotics – a series of signs which can be read by those who understand the code – or language – but, interestingly, in this example, is incomprehensible to those outside the semiotic system.

Anyway, the show is available on BBC iPlayer.  Type in Hidden Treasures and it will take you to the page.

Threads of Identity 3

Threads of Identity 3

Threads of Identity 3

So, Threads of Identity 3, part of my Laura Ashley project is now complete.  I blogged previously about gessoing over the stitching on this piece, but in the end, although I really enjoyed working in a neutral palette for once, I couldn’t resist putting in some colour.  Hence the big piece of slashed silk fabric.  Otherwise, however, this is one of the most subtle things I have made.  There is a lot of detail that you need to be close up to see, as in the following photographs:

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

And, spurred on by the example of Matthew Harris, about whom I blogged earlier, this is the first quilt that I have signed:

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

This felt a bit odd, but I really liked the effect.  It is quite difficult to see unless you look very closely, but, to me, it signifies that I take my work seriously.  I will sign the whole series in this way.

I used some big feature elements in this quilt, such as the bead, which I backed with some fine gold tulle – I very much like and am influenced by Beryl Taylor’s technique of building up layers of small elements which she then attaches to a whole.  This is quite a simple version, but including the tulle gives it a bit of texture and depth:

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

And, there was a large gap in the composition of the piece, which I think I had kept because it was the piece of Laura Ashley fabric, but it cried out for something which would be a focal point.  I used a laser-cut Christmas tree decoration from the Victoria and Albert Museum Shop sale, which was bold but also delicate:

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

I was always told not to wear gold and silver together as it was rather vulgar, but in this piece it seems to work.  The gold circles are cut from some ruinously expensive braid that I paid full-price for (imagine, not donated by my mother, or picked up in some sale and sprayed gold) in MacCulloch and Wallis ( http://www.macculloch-wallis.co.uk) which has a very elegant website which will not prepare you for the ordered chaos in the actual shop.  Here’s the braid:

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

Threads of Identity 3 - detail

On the other hand, the combination reminds of the primary school hymn ‘Daisies are our silver, buttercups our gold’.  Which might be a clue to the identity of the woman for whom this collection of cloth adds up to an identity.

Incidentally, ‘Threads of Identity 2’ is still in construction.

Get involved with my research

I have just put up a new page at the top of the blog inviting people, if they would like to, to get involved with my research by sending me a story about on of my small Laura Ashley quilts.

I would love to have your contributions via the comments section on the page itself.

More details on the new page.