Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Passion and madness.

Shell Work
Just as there is a passion to be found within all of us so there is also a madness, subtly different and perhaps a little harder to access due to the fear of what we might find. I realised my own passion or madness had been there since childhood; I was a impatient child perhaps no more than others, no sitting around waiting for eggs to hatch, things had to happen right now and yet I could spend hours model making and painting minute fine detail. So half a century on and I find I’m still able to launch myself headlong into projects that require access to that very same focused and absorbing madness. Working with tiny shells sometimes no larger than a grain of rice I construct fantasy flowers on wire stems wrapped in wool with leather or rexine leaves. One flower alone can contain between twenty and eighty shells and within the arrangement there can be well over a hundred flowers. Under each glass dome there will be on average about 2000 shells, each collected, washed, sorted and selected by me.
I have gathered most of the shells from beaches in Western Australia and the Outer Hebrides simply because it is there that I have done most of my coastal walking. My own interest in shells started on the Mull of Kintyre where our arable farm land hugged the coast road south of Campbeltown. Countless days as a child spent with my brother John peering into rock pools, popping seaweed, drawing in the sand, sifting through a pebble shoreline and coming home pockets bulging with winkles for mother to boil up extracting and eating the little lumps of grisly snot with the aid of a pin. Forty years on in the south west corner of Western Australia I once again found myself with limitless time to gather shells but now I had some idea of what I wanted to do with them. Shells with such wonderful names; abalone, limpet, turban, periwinkles, sundials, mud whelks, creepers, murex, dove shells, do whelks, spindle and tulip shells, olive, mitre and cone shells, turrids, augers, cowries and moon shells, ark, mussels, scallops and fan shells, cockles, cardita and trough clams, pipe or surf clams, angel wing borers, Venus shells, wenletraps and violet snails. Perhaps my own first recollection of the use of the shell form in art is the scallop in "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli painted in 1478. Venus emerges pearl like in her nakedness born landward poised on a shell. Collection has been with us from the earliest of times and how we have chosen to display these collections has been as diverse as the collections themselves. While some people will find during a walk along a beach they have almost involuntarily picked up a selection of pebbles, seaweed, driftwood or shells their collection may end right there, displayed or not. While I can fully understand that when constructing a large grotto there is perhaps a need to purchase large quantities in bulk for me the collecting is an integral and fundamental part of the creation as it is my eye that has spotted amongst all the rest that particular shell on the beach. In the nineteen eighties while living in Frome I discovered the delights of grottos, the well known such as at Stour Head and lesser well known in many abandoned gardens throughout Somerset, Wilshire and Dorset. The use of shells as a method of wall decoration had a revival during the 18th century from that used in Roman times and was taken to even greater heights with the elaborate use of encrusted work. A popular pastime during the 19th century for those wives and sweethearts of sailors was the shell valentine.
Shells collected by the sailors during their travels would be delicately arranged into octagonal boxes and later even incorporated photographs of the loved ones. Floral arrangements executed in shells under glass domes marked perhaps the pinnacle of this skill. Each flower could contain fifty to a hundred minute shells all uniform in colour and size. The work is mind boggling as to how anyone had such patience.
My own arrangements range from 20 to 80 shells per flower with arround 2000 shells in each domes. These were the days long before television (I've never had the time or inclination to watch the box) when we were particularly intrigued by what could be created by the human hand. While some wrote in the tiniest script the Lords prayer in the size of a six penny piece others stitched delicate silk pictures or worked with bone, feathers, sand, shells or even butterfly and beetle wings. At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th century there was a fascination with the fabric and new discoveries of our planet as well as everything that had existed. The discoveries and advancement of knowledge were immense resulting in large natural history sections in every museum as well as the appearance of zoos in all major cities. Man had discovered the vastness of the natural resources within planet earth and was not about to hold back on making every possible use of them. With a new age of tourism and holidays by the sea came the mass produced and kitsch all manner of objects were being covered with shells from bunnies to tissue boxes for a new breed of souvenir hunters.
Picking up shells from a beach can provoke strange reactions in some people, one such person I encountered on Middleton beach in Albany WA. On seeing me bent double carefully selecting shells strewn along the high water mark of this vast beach a striding female walker and her friend made a point of following the band of shells and on passing me of stamping her feet hard down on the firm sand in an effort to crush as many as possible.
When I pick up any individual shell on a beach I may not have a fixed idea of how I will later use it but I do have the knowledge that from this seemingly valueless detritus of nature I will be able to recreate something extraordinary. The work is indeed time consuming and after a few hours or days doing this I find a break is essential, a short walk for a coffee and a laugh with friends and I’m revived ready for another creative concentration stint.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tiger rag rug and the price of craft work.

I've always felt that in order to fully appreciate craft work one must have a go at making it even though making anything for the first time always takes longer there is at the end a better understanding of what boes into it's production in the time and effort which explains the price tag. I'm often asked how long it took to paint a particular picture
and I realise immediately that this is in order to calculate my hourly rate. Every job and skill has an hourly rate however can thios be applied to art. As artist we see it as impolite to ask much as one does not a woman her age. I do find on occasions when presented with a price ticket of several thousand pounds for a simple red Rothko style canvas or worse still a blank white canvas that I also would like to know the hourly rate for something that seems on the surface so simple. Maybe we should label our work with the time it took and leave the public to decide what that hourly rate should be, or should the price tag have a breakdown of what that very expensive looking frame cost. Last summer my indoor project, for one must always have something to do when it rains or when a damp still day on the Outer Hebrides brings the wee timorous beasties out in force and so I made from the off cuts of pattern books a platted Harris Tweed rug, which with its soft thickness proved such a delight to step out of bed each morning onto that I wondered if I couldn't perhaps make in the same way a pair of slippers to slop around the house. Finding out what is involved in making something has always fascinated me so this this summer my (no TV) project was a rag rug which even its name indicates can't be worth much. So I found an old jute sack and with a good stock of old shirts I started ripping. I discovered a small smooth pointed stick and bought the right sized crochet hook from Stornoway hobby shop. Having drawn out my design of a large prowling tiger I was off but very soon found that this was going to take forever. Perseverance is a fine attribute and while I have zero tolerance for standing in line and queuing I have thankfully a goodly amount for more creative activities. Six weeks on and the tiger was complete and I was getting quicker at it but I still had all the background and the border to do. I kept going for if once I put something like this aside it becomes one of those sad unfinished projects lying at the back of the creativity cupboard. By the time I reached the border I wondered if I shouldn't have had the entire thing stretched out on a frame as the weave became progressively tighter. Soldiering on stabbing at the jute and hooking the rag I arrived at what I saw as a satisfactory conclusion. After an estimated 125 hours I was now the proud creator of a tiger rag rug that I certainly didn't need, proof if proof is needed that we all have the right to waste our allotted time however we see fit. Given that manual craft workers are perhaps amongst the lowest paid on the planet I was left wondering just what my hourly rtae might be. I imagined a price tag of perhaps £80 in a craft6 shop that would leave me with £48 after commission was taken and an hourly rtae of around 30p per hour. Perhaps if I called it a hooked textile rug and tried for a more up market gallery it could carry a price ticket of £300 but even then I would still only be getting £1.50 per hour. So how does one value a tiger rag rug?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A better class of junk


A better class of junk.
 

One of the most common complaints I hear these days from my older friends about their offspring is that they don’t want anything from the family home and they really do mean nothing. I understand why this frustrates parents but to me it seems only logical having pampered their children from a tender age and allowed them their own choice in everything from style of hair cut and cloths to the colour of their bedroom walls and the furniture there in, so why now should those children suddenly want their grand parents or parents old cast off’s, throw outs or hand me downs. Friends have often said I’d make a wonderful father well if that means no TV, no pocket money, no Christmas and no choice until they were able to discriminate between recyclable trash and lasting quality then yes I would. When the Jehovah’s witnesses called this week they told me that when God created us he never meant for us to die, to which I replied “what like milk bottles?”  That’s why we are so troubled by death he continued. Personally I thought I’m more troubled by why we smashed all those perfectly good bottles.

We are all a product of our upbringing and should not be surprise if today the younger generation show no interest or attachment to what we see as their heritage. What else could we expect when we allowed them total freedom of choice without instruction from such an early age, so into the consumer boom ourselves that we were only too happy to see them have their own space kitted out with new and apparently cheap white melamine, plywood or compressed wood chipboard? Stripped pine was still permitted but anything dark and heavy was out with no thought to giving the good solid wood a lick of paint we chucked it for an inferior compressed woodchip replacement. I was only too delighted to obtain anything from my grandparent’s home and along with my brother still ponder on what happened to certain items like the elephants foot coal box, the musical toilet roll holder or the magnificently made model hay wagon. It would seem that from the desperation to treat children to the luxuries that the boom years could afford, we only succeed in creating the desperate situation we find ourselves in today. Children learn more at home than they ever do at school and so this consumerist trend is likely to stay, while our children learn nothing of hidden dovetails or mortis and tennon, of scratch stock or granny’s tooth, C scroll carving or marquetry inlay, of cabriole legs and pad feet, of plum pudding mahogany and mulberry.  The antique trade has become a thing of the past that which was environmentally sound and sustainable has been destroyed and we have been seduced into a world of flat pack furniture that will not even make it into the next decade. As our homes become depleted of any sense of history they become soulless simply another safe page from the catalogue. A home can says much about a person and today we seem fearful of our world and of being different. 



 

During my childhood I grew up with the furniture, pictures, china and glass that my parents accumulated objects that in the main I was already familiar with from my grandparent’s homes. Then my father started his period of hording all manner of things and the entire rang of farm buildings plus a small Cornish chapel became stuffed full of what he liked to term junk but was in fact antiques.

 When I set up my first home it was with what I had collected since the age of thirteen but it wasn’t long before great uncles and aunts started to die off that mementoes of them found a place in my home. Having become an antique dealer my own home soon became hopelessly stuffed and eventually moving proved to be the best way of thinning down and remarkably lucrative with the antique market still very healthy even if in the early 90’s house prices has fallen. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the accumulation process started to repeat itself but this time across the channel in Brittany where my 17th century farm house acquired a fine collection of Breton furniture plus all that I had shipped over. It became evident that I had inherited the house stuffing gene and that given any space I would eventually fill it. Being a creative person and an artist my home also filled with my own work, mainly paintings but also various items of furniture from a dug out chair to simple spoon boxes as well as shell work creations that sat on side tables and adorned my bedroom walls.

It is never a comfortable experience to look in the mirror and discover someone that resembles your own father looking back but in so many other ways I was becoming my father. Then with his death I realised there were family items and things he had bought that I would like to find space for and so in order to make space I started to give away the odd armoire or old chair to younger friends. So up to this point my home interior had been a product of accumulation of the old rather than purchasing new and as such was described by most people as being like a museum to which I would have to add, “yes but a living one”. Now at the ripe old age of sixty I find myself wanting to scale back and simplify but with no children to say no thank you Dad I find myself in the same boat as so many others, what to do with all this wonderful stuff. Antique dealers have had to change with the times and as one friend remarked about a younger dealer “she’s wonderful dear, learnt her trade well and opened up a shop in the Cotswolds selling the most extra ordinary array of rubbish not an antique in sight”. Auction rooms are still an option for disposal and last month twenty lots of fine English furniture including a large single pillar mahogany dining table, set of Regency dining chairs, a delightful rosewood regency chiffonier, a good cabriole leg stool and a four tier whatnot, three 17th century oak coffers, an early 18th century walnut veneered chest of drawers and a pair of fine Georgian salon chairs, all in perfect order made a grand total of £1300. I insisted that it would be a one way trip with no reserves so have only myself to blame, thankfully back in Brittany I still have the massive open fire that will comfortably handle the disposal of a chair or two at a time and Breton furniture is easier to dismantle than the IKEA equivalent, being real wood it also gives out far better heat with no nasty toxic fumes.

Meanwhile back in England I unpack boxes of china that have not seen the light of day in twenty years and discover that the family silver has miraculously been transformed into worn out silver plate, not even worth recycling. I repack the boxes I send them off to the nearest auction house, no reserves in the hopes that they will make more than the newspaper they are wrapped in. The wonderful treasured and riveted 18th century ceramics today would not be accepted in charity shops as the young hunt for plastic and chrome bargains from the seventies and eighties. I also have joined the throw away society but like to think I chuck a better class of junk.         

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The finished work




Standing before the finished work the corner of my mouth raised in an involuntary smile I allowed the imp of contentment to rest on my shoulder a while as together we looked at the image. A title comes to mind, this 80x80 oil is from a sketch done at Ghearadha Beach a few minutes walk from my house on the Isle of Lewis, looking inland to the contrasting brown heather and beige bracken up on the escarpment and down to the beach where I stand with my “back to the sea”, fresh water from the loch seeping out in a great fantail beneath my feet. My normal reaction is to search for any glaring mistakes; difficulty of composition, correctness of drawing, and discrepancy in colour or simply something not quite finished. How does one know that a painting is finished when Lucien Freud would take a hundred hours or more while another will run the perfect trace across the canvas and declare it finished? All is down to the individual artists and for me it’s a point where I know if I continue the painting I will risk loosing rather than gaining. That single perfect line can be sublime and in its execution it sums up all that is essential to the subject, the nub of the matter, the ultimate simplification or abstraction that still retains within it all that is required to recreate that image. I have always enjoyed paintings that look as if they have been easy to execute rather than something laboured. An easy light touch results in a level of spontaneity that imparts a feeling of lightness and joy, it may also result in transporting me back to the place where I feel the breeze and smell the salt fresh air. On the rare but none the less enjoyable occasions when I walk with friends through a landscape I note also the difference in what we see. My eye can be equally drawn to the curve of a bleached rabbits jaw bone tangled within the vivid yellow trefoil or the white dart like gannets dropping from an inky blue sky way out at sea as well as absorbing its enormity and passage of time within a landscape that holds me there truly looking and ready to draw. It is important that I find that tranquillity, rage, brilliance or brutality within the landscape and then having passed through me I can impart that emotion with paint and brush. “Paint it as you see it and always push the boundaries” is what I try to tell myself, whether that be in size, format, colour or subject matter. Being a rational romantic is not always easy when wielding a brush full of paint.

There are times when that stopping point slips by and I fall into correction and overworking as was the case with the second done on the same format from a collection of drawing of the island of Davaar that my parents once owned. A confusion of perspective marred the first effort and even after several corrections the following day they left me just as disappointed with an image that was not imparting what I felt when crossing over the Dhorlin. A radical change was required and so I removed much of the foreground and continued to repaint.



Saturday, March 9, 2013

Sketches can say so much more.













For almost twenty years now I’ve roamed with my sketch pad to the wild and remote coastal Australia, the quiet and calm of eucalyptus forests, or the bustling tourist throngs of inner cities and always I am happier with the results of sketching than the snap-shots from my digital camera. Maybe if I had read the instruction the results would be better, but still for me there is nothing like a sketch to transmit a true feeling and sense place and having sat for ten minutes or more observing thoroughly the surroundings I am easily transported back to those places by that simple sketches, a sketch that contains in every mark of the pencil or flick of the brush a direct connection with being there. The top shelf of the armoire is filled with my carnées de voyages from Scotland, Spain, Brittany, New Zealand and above all Australia.  Many are now lightly splattered with oil paint as they served to create a studio study and a few have been cannibalised in an effort to sell the occasional water colour sketch but on the whole they remain in tacked as a testament to my travels. In early years they took on the form of a visual diary but increasingly the writing has been kept apart with just the occasional comment. This latest trip to the south west corner of Western Australia has filled another sketchpad that conveys the summer of 2013 as being a relentlessly hot one. There have been delightful encounters with the wild life and the discovery of more early ruined homesteads and rusting fishermen’s shacks. The relentless coastline and beaches north of Perth often seem devoid of interest and featureless, giving every outcrop of crumbling limestone disproportionate importance. In contrast much of the accessible Southern Ocean coastline is filled with curious granite outcrops and headlands. Driving inland the more interesting roads are red, rutted and dust filled, much has been cleared for cereal production and the remaining bush interspersed with crystal white salt lakes that occasionally sport a colourful algal bloom. Fire is a constant worry and although I smelt bush-fire smoke several times at night there was nothing that came too close. I arrived in Esperance a week after a serious fire had curled north of Pink Lake leaving burnt out vehicles and the remains of a caravan in the bush bordering the road. Now in the quiet of my studio looking back at these sketches there is an immediacy that I will struggle to convey in any oil painting but that will not stop me trying.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Creative Casualties




CREATIVE CASUALTIES
In overnight temperatures approaching 40 sleeping with Betty Swollocks can only be fitful. No air movement, no cloths and not even the lightest of covering the entire night spent dozing in a shallow dream-filled sleep. I awake dazed at predawn as if from an all night cinema showing X rated children’s horror films where people are transformed into sugar coated icing their limbs so fragile and yet irresistibly tasty. I visit other-worldly places where a Scottish peat bog borders soft white sands and mountain crags rise from hot foaming seas, where giant birds wearing wellington boots and plastic raincoats talk earnestly of wanting to remodel their ostentatious Palladian abode, and as the tsunami approaches I attempt to save only the most valuable and rarest from the museum supermarket shelves.
For the past two days I’ve been putting up plaster board lining and I marvel at just how fast Mat can work in such heat, the sweat dripping from his brow as he swallows another glass of cool water replacing the 15 beers he had the previous night. A vague smell of something rotting drifts across the back of the house from the bush, perhaps that magpie I buried a few days back. The speckled breast feathers joining those of a green parrot, a black duck and a Sparrow Hawk. Bird road-kill is surprisingly low particularly with small birds given the speed at which vehicles are driven but maybe the lack of bends means they receive sufficient warning of oncoming cars. There is however plenty of foxes rabbits and kangaroos that fail to apply the green cross code and while staying at Boyup Brook I witnessed a sheep explode on the roo-bars of an oncoming car.  My peripheral vision skims the verges for any likely casualties and this trip I’ve skinned a particularly well-marked Racehorse Goanna and a large blue tonged lizard or Bobtail. Like the one and a half meter long Carpet Python I skinned a few years back these will go to cover boxes. There is a certain risk in transporting reptile skins it being illegal even with photographic evidence that it was indeed road kill, that changes nothing in the eye of the law but to my eye there is a beauty that I can not resist and that I know I can transform into something spectacular.    

Tuesday, December 11, 2012




Today my evenings are filled with feathers and fluff as I work away on the kitchen table gluing the smallest of brightly coloured plumage to my imaginary birds. From freshly plucked road kill I am able to create fantasy feather birds that have never and will never exist. The discarded feather another one of natures detritus which would otherwise have rotted is turned into something that merits a second look.