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.

Monday, 27 October 2014

What counts as a Sketchbook?

I often include pages or single drawings from my sketchbooks in my blog posts and they are an important part of my practice. I've been asked by a friend to give a talk next month to a local art group about sketchbooks and how I use them and this has concentrated my mind - that and the buying of an iPad, and the small amount of time spent playing with it recently.

All this has prompted me to consider how I define the word sketchbook and to think about how I use my variants and why.

In general, for me it's a storage method for all those ideas, experiments and workings around things (I love that especially) that happen as a piece of work evolves. I include notes to myself that record thoughts as I work or reflections on what I've done. Some of my sketchbooks contain casual drawings, textile samples (like this one here), photographs I've taken or collected, scraps of memorabilia, visual amusements, photos of work by other artists and things that idly catch my eye and get recorded. These may never be used further or they may pop up, often unbidden, to be used at sometime in the future.

Sketchbooks, of course, come in an enormous range of sizes and formats and I own many. I love them all. I own large ones that I use more like journals to record my progress towards work, tiny ones that fit easily in a pocket or a bag for carrying around for those casual on the spot drawings when I'm out and about, and various square shaped ones that seem particularly adaptable. One of these is a favourite one of medium size that seems to be a particularly good receptacle for more considered and planned drawings. This one feels to me like a silent and listening friend and is particularly precious to me right now. I have shown pictures from it on this blog many times before.


I enclose above a page from a recent large journal, showing some of my 'working around the subject' of the recent black and white pieces. It also shows work by Denise Jones that seemed relevant to me. I came across her work last year in the Pop Up gallery at a favourite haunt of mine, Brewery Arts in Cirencester. A quick look at her work on the website (that I'd not seen till now) shows a rather uncanny similarity to some of my recent thoughts ... 3D and more trees!

Of course, the storage of material may not be in book form at all. Some of this stuff may be too big, too bulky or oddly shaped to fit in a book and finds itself stored in a box or on a 'record shelf' in my work room with associated things. Earlier this year I made some 3 D pieces and I have kept the paper mock-ups of those. Another one is planned (but not yet made) and shown here.

There is something special about the book form though. It is beautifully tactile. It has a special sense of entity that holds the work together - a sort of cocoon protecting the work - and provides a record of all the time spent.

It also has a great advantage for me - I'm inherently untidy and things get lost. A book keeps everything together, is easily carried about and can be flicked through as I search for ideas or reflect on what I have been doing.

To this range of storage possibilities, in my mind I will now be adding my iPad. I plan to use it for quick sketches and drawings, particularly when I'm out and about. So far, with very little time available, I've tried out the little package called Paper that I mentioned in a previous post. It seems very limited in scope but I do like the way it organises and displays completed drawings - in a book-style format with 'pages' that can be turned over with a brush of the hand. As a way of storing drawings in an accessible way, it certainly seems to qualify as a sketch book.

Also, of course, now I've taken this tack, there is my long-used PC. It stores thousands of photographs I've taken - some just because I like what I see and want to give it permanence, others deliberately for a particular project. I have special files in my directory for all sorts of textile-related topics so that I can find what I want quickly and easily (at least that's the intention!)

This then has set me thinking still further. There is of course blogging - definitely a diary of what I think and do but is it an online sketchbook? It has become part of my process and  I can certainly look through my blog and review what I've done in the past.

It seems to contextualise my work and give it a presence, offering a way to receive feedback and reassurance. Perhaps, in fact, that is the special contribution of the blog post. It records thoughts and gives the work a presence in a way nothing else does.

There are lots of other thoughts on this topic buzzing around in my head just now ... I may post further later when I have more sketchbook work to show.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Glimpses of an exhibition

I realise there's been very little work output shown on my blog recently. I haven't been idle but almost no new work has been done. I haven't even had time to think much about what is to follow from here - and certainly not had time to do significant experimenting that might be interesting to show.

I have been much too busy finishing, preparing and framing my work for - Stitching A Cotswold Art in the Subscription Rooms, Stroud, Glos at the beginning of November. Further details can be found right in the thumbnail and in a post from last month.

To show something of what I'll be exhibiting, here is a selection of snippets.

Of trees ...


... of walls ...




 ... and of a (not yet finished) geology panel with heavy hand stitching.


And now back to work ... I can put it off no longer!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

White ... and black

As those who visit my blog regularly will know, white is currently a recurring theme for me - along with black. I find it hard to consider the one without the other. They are the ultimate opposites.

White often seems to be linked to beginnings - marking a new period of life perhaps, or the clean white slate ready and waiting for images or words. So, for this post today I have photos of white newness, of the start of things - but often photographed with black for contrast.

First of all, close to home, there is the much-enjoyed black and white 'cow' mug bought for our young grandchildren when they visit us - the next generation - definitely a sign of a beginning.


Then, in my effort to upgrade myself digitally (definitely a new beginning), I've bought an ipad air - white, of course - and in the most beautiful white box, lovely to the touch. Apple sure have design and marketing licked - very satisfying. 

And onto the ipad, I've loaded a free drawing app called Paper, recommended by a friend, though the first trial suggests that there may be better drawing apps.

Someone else mentioned Brushes 3 and on searching for information, I saw a link to an article discussing the 22 (yes 22) best ipad apps for drawing and painting. There are so many new things to explore ... though I don't think I'll bother investigating all 22 drawing apps ...


I've posted before photos of the black shadow patterns cast on the deck of a graceful white pedestrian bridge over the Delaware River. Today, I have the whole length of the bridge to show. As well as the shadows I'm very taken by the perspective angles on those cables, criss-crossing the image. The patterns in these images could mark a new direction in work for me. 


On a shelf, I have a small pile of Pink Pig sketch books ordered earlier in the summer in an on-line sale and full of fresh white or near-white pages, but with covers in lovely muted colours.


All sorts of new possibilities here - some exploration of those bridge shadows, no doubt - lots of plans for the future and much work to be done.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Grounds for Sculpture, NJ

In a previous post, I mentioned a visit we made with friends to Grounds for Sculpture, a wonderful 42 acre sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey. Now I've had time to reflect on our trip to the US and download my many photos, I've chosen my favourite sculptures from the around 270 pieces we saw in the park - not an easy task.

On the day we visited there were more than 150 of Seward Johnson's lifelike outdoor sculpture installations spread naturalistically around the park in a truly extraordinary retrospective of his work covering over 50 years.

Johnson describes himself as seeking to capture human gesture, and works in a highly accessible style, usually in painted bronze. He says of his work I use my art to convince you of something that isn't real. You laugh at yourself because you were taken in, and in that, change your perception.

This was exactly my reaction throughout the park. On noticing what I thought were groups or single figures in the distance, I then looked again to realise that they were life-size representations of people caught in common poses or interactions, or perhaps representations of iconic American figures or well-known Impressionist paintings. It was in essence sculptural trompe l'oeil - although to that comment, I would add that quite often I found the work unsettling in its realism or in the approach it took.

For this post, I've chosen three of my most remembered pieces of Johnson's work - though later in the week, I may post again to show some of the other very different, mostly abstract sculpture we saw.

Of all the pieces in his Celebrating the Familiar series which accounts for the main body of work shown, I very much enjoyed these two. The first here is of a grandfather with his grandson, fishing, and entitled A Day Off. It was extraordinarily realistic and gentle in feeling, but its position secreted amongst the trees made it particularly convincing and disconcerting.

The second is of a young man asleep on a park bench. I don't know its name, but it is typical of much of Johnson's work - simple, natural and utterly believable ... till you take a considered look.




There were many others I could have included but the most impressive of all for me was a 26 foot (almost 8 metres) tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, called Forever Marilyn and part of the Icons Revisited series.  Modelled on her performance in the 1955 Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch, it is a representation of that famous image of Monroe - when she coyly holds down the flyaway skirt of her white dress.


Completed in 2011, this sculpture has previously spent time in Chicago and in Palm Springs, California, where it often provoked controversy as being too revealing. Under the heading Art or Trash, a posting on the CBS website describes the piece as 'risqué' and inappropriate.

I found it most memorable if somewhat disconcerting, and found myself returning to it to look at it again at the end of our visit. Perhaps this was as much because of its sheer size as for the exactness and liveliness of the representation.

I think probably that some of its appeal lay in the extraordinary logistical problems incurred in moving it from one place to another. Made of painted stainless steel and aluminium, it weighs about 14 tons (15,000 kg) and comes apart in three pieces which have to be lifted with a crane on and off low-loader trucks for transportation.

There was so much that was true of human form and interaction in all these figures. This style of modern sculpture is not what I usually seek out, as I instinctively prefer the abstract, but I found it surprisingly beguiling and there was an element which stopped it tipping into the banal and stereotypical.

For all its realism, it had a shiver down the spine feeling to it which I can't quite explain. Perhaps it was the frozen moments of personal time and space we were invited to observe closely and to share, in a way not permitted to us with strangers in ordinary life. It felt like intruding but at the same time provoked great emotional reaction - sympathy, empathy or even distaste. I was drawn into wanting to interact directly with the pieces, and to touch the smooth, tactile surfaces, yet I felt a need to keep my distance and show respect ... extraordinary and unforgettable.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Behind the cell-phone power curve

An amazing photo taken today with my new iphone - I'm a little behind the telephonic power curve and on a journey of discovery.

In the space of ten minutes, there were huge puddles, torrential rain, blustery wind, amazing autumn colour and a tiny rainbow in the right half of the photo (not able to be seen as my speed at getting to the right feature on my phone leaves something to be desired!). It was all so beautiful - that colour sang in the watery sunshine.

What a great thing these cameras are - gosh, I can photograph at any time without having to carry special kit to do so, and all on a small device less than half the size of a postcard that can fit in my pocket! Who would have believed it possible 20 years ago?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Disrupting the grid lines

I've been experimenting today with the shadow grids I posted at the end of last week ... much to think about.

To start with, I printed some of the grids onto white cotton using my injet printer so I could play with the width, intensity and orderliness of the line. I machine stitched over the solid, structural lines of the grid with random fine lines meandering in no particular direction. The idea was to disrupt the formality of the clear cut grid and edge into the negative spaces to add interest and contrast.

I used fine white machine thread, perhaps to suggest the ripples of the water flowing under the bridge, but I also accentuated the black grid lines with perlé running stitch to break up the continuous line and increase the contrast still further.

I then tried out the fine white cotton perlé over variations of the grid ...



























I'm not quite sure the contrast in stitching always works as I wanted, but it's a start ...


Friday, 3 October 2014

Bridge over the Delaware

We found a pretty iron bridge over the Delaware River in the eastern United States on our recent trip and I was fascinated by the crisp, dark shadows cast in the hot sunshine. I took many photos.

Looking along the bridge ...


... and with my camera turned at right angles ...


... and ...


These, together with other photos taken on our trip, are sparking lots of new ideas for me - and sometimes (though not always) a change from trees. 

I've already begun to experiment with stitch on two of these bridge images and I'll post any results that seems interesting.