Friday, 31 October 2014

On blogging and hopping and thinking about how I work


I was recently invited to join the Around the World Blog Hop – a forum for anyone involved in the creative arts to answer four questions about themselves and their work. This involvement can include writing, painting, textiles, book art, photography, sculpture and anything else you can think of, I guess.


Lisa McGarry was my ‘sponsor’. I discovered Lisa, an American artist living in Italy, and her lovely blog Arzigogolare  via that of Julie Booth in a moment of idle browsing in the way of these things. What a pleasure it was on that first visit to find her crisp, clear photographs filled with warm Italian light and her fascinating artist’s books which have featured in various publications including 500 Artist’sBooks by Julie Chen. You can share my great pleasure in her work here.

For any new readers of this blog, I put myself and my work firmly in the category of stitched textiles (or fiber art if you prefer), though I also take photographs – lots and lots of them – and draw, print and generally explore ideas through whatever medium seems appropriate. But for this post, I’m going to answer the four blog hop questions in relation to my textiles – weaving and stitch - and to include photographs of my work and things that seem relevant as I go along.

Before I do that though, I feel I want to provide some background. Artistic activities of one kind or another have been at the centre of things for me for most of my life. I’ve looked, watched (both of those very important), thrown pots, drawn, taken photographs, painted (occasionally), and now woven and stitched.


It seems to be part of my internal make up. I am not happy unless I can be creative and I am utterly unable to imagine life without the opportunity to be involved in it all.

Art has been part of my life since I was a child. My mother was an artist – a painter – and I grew up surrounded by the paraphernalia of painting. I can still remember the smell of the artists’ oils as I walked in through the front door in my teens on my return home from school. Shown here is a pastel by my mother. This was a new departure for her. It was done when she was in her 60s and was beginning to find the whole business and mess of oil painting tedious. It is particularly precious to me for its memories of her and of a place.


I know my mother approached the world in essentially visual terms – as indeed do I. I notice colours and shapes and patterns long before I begin to appreciate function. I see spatial relationships between objects and how they relate to one another before I notice the detail of their construction. When my husband and I are buying furniture or household goods, I will have taken in the visual appearance of the object and how it relates to what we already have while my husband (a scientist, not that I want to stereotype him) will have attempted to discover how the thing works and how robust or well-made it is – pressing the knobs and turning the object upside down (if he can). We are a good combination, perhaps, but we also display a fascinating difference in approach.

I have never worked professionally as an artist in any way though I would very much have liked to. I studied graphic art during teacher training but, as was true for many of my generation after the war, I was encouraged to opt for a ‘safe’ job. After a relatively brief time teaching Geography and English in secondary schools, I worked as a Leaning Support Teacher working with primary age children with Special Educational Needs (which I enjoyed very much). I suppose much of what I did when I was working could have been loosely called ‘creative’ – but only very loosely. 

Since I retired, then, I have been making up for lost time, taking online courses, going to workshops, and reading anything I could lay my hands on. I love it - every aspect of it - and it enriches my life in a way I could only have guessed at when I set out seven years ago.
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And now to those four crucial questions posed by the blog hop. The first of these asks me to describe what I am working on currently. This is difficult for me because I’m very much between projects just now. As I posted last week, I’m finishing off various pieces for an exhibition which opens next Tuesday. As always, I find I’ve left things rather to the last minute for various reasons and this week finds me busy framing and mounting and putting in last minute stitches.

As I work though, I have lots of thoughts whirring around in my head, mostly relating to photos taken on a recent trip to the USA about which I’ve blogged several times since it made a big impression on me. It looks to me as if I will be trying to develop my black and white work further and relating it this time perhaps to bridges and grid structures, developing the abstract aspects of these through enlargement of the images, cropping them and embellishing with stitch.

Other thoughts that I may pursue relate to some specific ideas that have developed during my exploration of trees and walls and their patterns. These ‘sub’ ideas have been put on the back burner waiting for more time. One, a 3D piece, I posted about here earlier this week and I may now pick that up while I develop my less formed achitectural and bridge ideas.

The second question in the blog hop asks me to describe how my work differs from others in its genre. I feel that I am still very much developing as an artist – who isn’t? – but as I started in this field rather late in my life, I have a long way to go in developing my style of work and am very much feeling my way. 

All I think I can offer at the moment is that perhaps my stitch work differs from many others in its genre through the interrelationships between the photographs I take, the use of monochrome or a limited palette to develop the graphic aspects of these images, and the embellishment through stitch. As with so many people, I think it's in the combination of these three elements and in the subject matter chosen that any difference can be found.

I create my work as I do really because it is the only way I feel I am able to do it. It is what seems natural to me and appropriate to the expression of the design ideas I develop. It comes from deep within me and I guess it is an expression of how I see the world.

Through my photographs, I enjoy looking for the unusual angles that could lead into a piece of art work, rather than taking in the whole view. Ideas are often very speculative at the time I take the photos. I see bare trees silhouetted against a gentle winter sky and feel the urge to look right up into the branches, camera in hand, and photograph but I often have no idea where it will lead at the time.

Thinking up ideas has never been a problem for me. I always have many, many ideas wandering around in my head, often several versions offer themselves for a textile image for development. For me, certainly early on in the journey, the problem was that I had ideas above my station in life! They were way above and beyond my technical skill to execute them satisfactorily which was at one and the same time frustrating and challenging.

These days, as my skills have improved, things are better and less frustrating. Also, while I know that skills and techniques are important in showing ideas effectively, perhaps I’m less concerned to create total technical accuracy and more interested in getting the right general effect, the right feel. I have learnt that a few loose ends or slightly wandering machine lines can add life and interest to a piece.

I like to have choice as I work – although choice can itself be a difficult friend. It can allow dithering and indecision and lack of focus if I’m not careful. Still, I tend to have several things on the go at once because I find one idea feeds into another, helping me to solve design and technical problems in a more flexible way. I am a great believer in letting the quietness of the mind work on things. When one piece of work is giving trouble, I set it to one side and take up another, giving my mind time to work, often subconsciously.

The last thing that the blog hop asks of me is an explanation of how my creative process works but I need to set this in context. My inspiration and the focus for my work is almost always landscape - the rhythms, lines of movement, patterns, shapes and outlines to be found locally or further afield. I see inspiration all around me, in field patterns, wandering roads, animal tracks, the form of skeletal dead trees or the outline of hills. Consequently, much of my stitching is linear and wandering in nature. As my work has developed, it has become more and more abstract and increasingly focused on line and pattern rather than realism and I see this as a trend that I want to continue. 

Because of this, I spend much time at the beginning of a train of thought thinking as freely as I can around ideas and techniques. I play. I have learnt not to see this as trivial and an indulgence but as essential - though it is very pleasurable and liberating. I indulge the 'what if', the 'off piste' and the seemingly unrelated thoughts that force their way into my mind. 

I go out with my camera to take photos specifically for new work. I search through existing files on my computer for appropriate images I've taken previously and look through my collection of paper images for anything that seems appropriate to include. Then I get to work drawing, printing, cropping images and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop and physically cutting them up for rearrangement. If I feel the need, I do stitch or weaving experiments to work out how to proceed. I know none of this is unique to me and that I handle fabric and thread, paint roller and brush little differently from anyone else but I find the combination of things I do essential in developing ideas.

I amass all this material in a large journal-like sketchbook, repositioning the pages to put things that seem to spark thoughts next to one another. As I've described before, this is a record of the emergence of ideas for me and is very precious to me. I find working in these books to be so stimulating that I sometimes suspect that book art may be a way forward for me in the future - but that is for the future. 

All this often apparently random preparation seems essential for me. Once I feel that I've found a way of working that I want to pursue, the process becomes very simple. Using very low-tech techniques such as a large brush, a paint roller or gelli printing plate, I prepare a simple ground, often on white cotton. I like the uncontrolled, accidental and often indistinct shapes that these media create. The prepared cloth then becomes one of the staring points for my stitch.

Next I print the images I have generated from my photographs onto more of the cotton sheeting, and then cut them up randomly. I add these small snippets to the ground, offering them up until I'm satisfied with the balance they give to the cloth. I then stitch intuitively, almost always by hand. I follow the cloth and what it says to me, maintaining the balance between one element and the next. I try to choose the lines or shapes of stitch that represent what I see in the landscape around me. 

I almost always find hand stitching is what I want to do, although occasionally I may include some machine stitch to give a contrast in weight and style of stitch. With hand stitching, I love the feeling of the cloth in my hand and the control I have over each individual stitch. It is like drawing in thread. If the line of stitch seems somehow wrong, I can unpick and reposition easily in the manner of a painter working on a canvas. 

My weaving works in much the same way. After the experimentation and the choice of threads, yarns and other materials I want to put through the warp, the work is intuitive and largely unplanned before I begin. The piece shown at the start of this post was completed in just this way. 
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Now I would like to introduce you to the work of two blogging friends, both textile artists - Sharron Deacon Begg and Olga Norris. Their work and their blogs are very different but both catch my eye with every post and provide me with great enjoyment and stimulation.

Thicket Study 1
I first came across Sharron Deacon Begg's work when she became a member of my blog not all that long after I first began to post. From the beginning, I loved the strong design quality of her work - her pen and ink drawings - and admired so much her skill with the sewing machine – something I find very hard to do with control. She calls her blog Thread Painter and that choice of title is no accident. It describes exactly what she does – she ‘paints’ lovely images of her native Canada with machine stitch.

Through her stitch, she evokes a deep sense of place. Recently, perhaps she has been particularly inspired by winter landscapes. In her post of earlier this week, there is a pen and ink drawing of a conifer covered in snow. I can feel the biting cold, hear the muffled sighing of the trees under snow and see the wind buffeting those snow-covered branches – beautiful! Clicking on the the links button at the top of her blog reveals a sketchbook of wonderful drawings. You can see the beauty of her work here on threadpaintersart.blogspot.co.uk.

I really can't remember how I first came across Olga Norris and her work. I have been following her blog almost since I began my own. Olga has not felt that she could commit to being fully involved in this blog hop but has said that she is very happy for me to introduce her in this post. She has also promised to blog around the questions posed by the blog hop. In fact, I have just checked her blog and have found the post already written. Please do read what she has to say. 

Both her blog and her work - she is a maker of beautiful quilts - are unusual and fascinating. She describes herself as a designer, maker and artist and she makes both small pieces and larger whole cloth work in the form of quilts. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is featured in Approaches to Stitch edited by Maggie Grey at d4daisy books.

Her pieces are figurative and I particularly love the generality of the figures she chooses to draw and reproduce digitally. Each shows pairs, groups or a single figure which could be of any race, any nationality, rich or poor, and each suggests tantalising stories about relationships and the human condition. 

Her enormous knowledge of art and the art world means that she opens my eyes to something new almost every time I read a new post. Her blog always makes a fascinating read and you can find it here at threadingthoughts.blogspot.co.uk. 

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Writing this blog hop post has been a most interesting exercise.It has made me look with a new perspective at what I do and why and how I do it. It has prompted the thought that I should think more often about these basic questions. I shall be so interested to see what Sharron and perhaps Olga have to say. Now though, I'm off to investigate the blog hop posts of Lisa's other two artists, Susan Bowers and Eric Adama. Links to their blogs can be found on Lisa's blog hop post of last week.

8 comments:

  1. Lovely post, Margaret! I really enjoyed learning more about your background, as well as reading your answers to the questions...it was interesting to get a glimpse into how you work, and the thought process that goes into creating your work. I also just read your previous post about how sketchbooks figure in your creative process, and enjoyed how it helps to complete/forms part of your whole "story" too.
    Thanks so much for agreeing to join the blog hop!

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    1. Thank you very much, Lisa. Considering the questions and writing the post has been a real pleasure. I so enjoyed your post too and have since reread it with equal enjoyment.

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  2. Margaret, I very much enjoyed reading your answers to the questions. It is interesting that we are both from that time when studying art was thought precarious and therefore did more 'sensible' things. Also, our subsequent careers could have led to us meeting as I was in educational publishing.

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    1. Hi Olga - I remember you saying something very similar about your 'sensible' working life once before, but it's extraordinary that we overlap in another way too. I had gleaned that you had been in publishing but not realised that it was in the educational field. My working life was very interesting but I'd always promised myself that I would explore the artistic side of myself on retirement - so now I am and it's very good!

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  3. Great post Margaret and so very interesting to know more about you ! I am gearing up to write my post for Friday, Nov. 7th. I've been reading back through the blog hops and finding lots of interesting blogs to follow. A worth while endeavour, indeed.
    I will try to live up to your portrait of me ;)

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    1. It really was worthwhile - even more so than I expected. It has clarified some thoughts for me about how I work and why - very good.
      Looking forward to seeing what you have to write.

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  4. At last I have had some lovely quiet time to sit down and really enjoyed reading this post Margaret. I found myself nodding and grinning so often, recognising similar responses to the way we work, smiling at the lovely way you expressed things. Many things .... but one that comes straight to mind is the one where you say that choice is not necessarily a friend. I have really enjoyed learning a little more about your journey Margaret and will be attuned far more closely to all you reveal in your blog. Soon, as I can't digest too much at once, I will scurry off and have a good look at what Olga and Sharron write in their posts. As you said to me, this is so much fun! At the end of the day I re read my post and think of all I could have said but I am glad that I joined in the project. Thanks for sharing so beautifully.

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    1. So many thanks for your very kind words. This post was a great pleasure to do - so much to think about and express. Now after the event, I can think of so much else I could have said but the thinking is what all this is about, I'm sure, that and the insights into how everyone works which are so fascinating.

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