I’ve just taken a very necessary four-month break from two years of fortnightly writing on the web. Do I try and fill in the gap with a resume of what’s been happening since mid July, or just jump right in and start from now? It seems a pity perhaps to miss out on making my #2 scarf (designed by my youngest daughter Meg, but this one woven by me). Then there is my series of minimalist series of paper and raphia pieces, much delayed because sourcing the right paper proved so difficult. Both projects gave me much pleasure and meant that rarely a day went by without a little weaving taking place on my Toika loom.
If I consider where I am now as a designer / weaver then I can say that I have a little more confidence in what I do, the results begin to please me, and the whole business is less of a mystery (and a worry) than previously. Just yesterday I received a card from print-maker Ann Marshall who I met when I had my two days study on colour and structure with felt artist Jeanette Appleton at Farfield Mill. The letter said she thought it must have been 2008!? It was, and I was just a few months into weaving then. I’m still a long way from my 10,000 hours (pace Richard Sennett) but in two and half years I can say, hand on heart, I can weave. Ann’s latest show is at the Jgallery and it’s a set of what she describes as ‘narrative pieces informed by two songs and how the poetry and music inspired dance choreographed for a Hollywood musical’.
Farfield Mill remains the epicentre of my textile universe. I make regular visits to Farfield’s exhibitions – the last to Norah Ball’s show. Laura Rosenzweig’s example and mentorship I regard as the still centre of my efforts to weave. A revision session in January turned so many uncertainties into confident actions – and I bless my decision to write up very carefully (with hand-drawn images rather than photos) that session in detail. I’m already thinking about my next study day with Laura – if she’ll have me. I also love going back to the quiet countryside and towering fells around Sedbergh, the environs of Brigflatts and the River Rawthy. In July I had a restful weekend there dodging the showers; the garden of the meeting house seems never more beautiful and affecting than after rain.
Sadly, nothing happens textile-wise here in Wakefield. It’s only the presence of Laura Slater at the Art House that lifts that particular gloom. Despite being once a thriving textile town nothing remains and the city’s art collection has only one textile item, a piece by Theo Moorman. We are awaiting the opening in the city of Yorkshire’s flagship gallery The Hepworth to house this collection, and more besides. It is said that some of the Winifred Nicholson paintings from the Dartington collection may have a semi-permanent home there. I paid my dues to Dame Barbara in 2003 with a series of compositions and a public project for her centenary year called Rhythm of the Stones. I had hopes of composing a new work for the Hepworth’s opening. Scented Guarea was to have been a five-movement suite for the guitarist John Williams based on a series of sculptures in guarea wood with titles coming from Greek places of antiquity. Sadly, despite Hepworth supporting the teenage Williams’ studies with Segovia back in the 1960s, and the guitarist playing at the sculptor’s memorial service, my ‘idea’ was a bridge too far for the gallery team for whom the original designation for the gallery as the Hepworth Centre for the Creative Arts is a distant and to be forgotten memory.
I mustn’t complain though as my composing life remains busy, indeed a little cluttered, and I did get to give the premiere of the concert version of Sense of Place towards the end of tapestry artist Jilly Edwards exhibition of the same name at Dartington’s High Cross House. This was a memorable occasion: a capacity audience, a gentle early autumn evening, a conclusion to several months of daily work at the guitar bringing this ambitious 40-minute composition to life. Some four further performances are currently planned for the summer of 2011 to coincide with Jilly’s retrospective at Ruthin Craft Centre.
I made a visit to Ruthin just a fortnight ago. I first went to this inspiring gallery and craft community at this time last year – to introduce Music and Textiles Interact to director Philip Hughes. The current exhibition was called Sitting and Looking, a show that was as diverse as it was interesting and (for me) challenging. As I’m supposed to be writing about woven textiles, here are some reflections on the work of Ann Sutton, one of ten artists featured.
I remember vividly when I first opened and attempted to study Ann Sutton’s book The Structure of Weaving. She has her own way of showing weave structure graphically, and even now I still struggle a little with it. Here at Ruthin the word is that Ann has put away her loom and is now painting. She declares that she wishes ‘to paint in space with no support’ and ‘produce 3-D movement on a 2-D surface’. Influences ‘include incontinent seagulls, brooches and the Sioban Davies Dance Centre’. Hmm . . . There are five exhibits in all: two large paintings, two wall-based constructions and a transparent box containing brooches made from acrylic paint (nothing else). In the context of a very diverse exhibition the Sutton ‘corner’ was effective.
You could certainly (as the exhibition title suggests) ‘sit and look’, though I had to get pretty close to make something of the large paintings whose interest for me was in the play of edges and transitions inside the splashes of colour – in one canvas colour was freely ‘splashed’, in the other it was contained within the transepts of a cross-shape. I thought the constructions worked well as a pair – a small circular piece made of up of a web of triangular forms and a large grid-frame structure held 6” away from the wall to allow for a further accompanying grid of shadow. The organisation of this grid intrigued me; surveying the structure from top to bottom it didn’t do what you imagined it would! I’ll pass on the brooches . . . but more Ann Sutton to come, and this time weave and constructed textiles.
The big news at Ruthin is the forthcoming Anni Albers season from 4 December to 6 February. This features two shows and includes a study day. This is a must-see because, to my limited knowledge, Albers’ woven textiles as opposed to Albers’ prints have rarely been seen in the UK. One exhibition is titled Inspired by the Legacy of Anni Albers and features all those contemporary weavers you would expect to be brought together – Laura Thomas, the Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell partnership (nice photo of them in the Guardian Work supplement last week), Ptolemy Mann and three others. The web promotion for the companion show Anni Albers Design Pioneer has a woven piece that to me says everything that is so timeless yet contemporary about her work. I would so like to be at the study day (a formidable cast list including the chief curator from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation), but the exigencies of composing music take me abroad for a month at the end of November, so I’ll have to see if I can persuade a friend to go in my place and take careful notes.
Now for Warp+Weft. A full day of viewing in Carmarthenshire, first at the National Wool Museum and then at Oriel Myrddin. The two exhibitions couldn’t have been more different, both equally compelling. I’ve decided that I just can’t do either of them justice in the one thousand words left to me on this blog (not if I’m going to write about my work on the loom, which is what this blog is supposed to be about!). It will have to go into the same format as my May time Letter from Stroud. So I’ll map out the territory so to speak giving a little indication of the breadth, depth and importance of these two shows, one on process and the contemporary designer / weaver, the other on the woven textile as an artistic construct. And this, dear reader, is why the tireless Laura Thomas and all those behind the scenes are to be so warmly congratulated on an exhibition project of stature and significance: a snapshot of contemporary weave in the UK; a collection to remind the unfaithful that a woven textile can be both art and artefact.
I visited the National Wool Museum first and could have stayed all day. I had three hours and only made half the notes and drawings I wanted to. The location within the Wool Museum was inspired: a long, quite narrow space reclaimed from the area between two adjacent weaving sheds, but now glass-roofed over to make a tall gallery flooded by daylight. For the student of woven textiles this was such a rich education in contemporary practice and process. There were samples and sketchbooks ( though a few more of these would have been welcomed) alongside the finished product and clear, appropriate interpretation.
The companion show at Oriel Myrddin was a spatial sleight of hand. One space, cleverly divided, beautifully lit, but I am utterly ashamed to say when I arrived I thought ‘well there isn’t that much to see’ – I’d driven 300 miles or so and perhaps felt more is good. I was so wrong. It was very rich, varied, and laid out with prestigious imagination. I discovered (properly) the work of Ismini Samanidou who I now regard as an inventive voice in weave going beyond the high tech surface that is associated with her reputation.
It was her drawings and small pieces of double weave in paper and fibre that made me stand back in wonder and think ‘that’s what excites and inspires me’. There was a Sudo honeycomb blanket to touch, along with a double weave hanging of silk and feathers (in pockets) – touch at your peril. A weaving (one of three exhibits) by Ann Sutton that makes me say all is forgiven for her recent Ruthin experiments. Four Ways from a Square I would have taken home with me had it been possible . . . so please watch this space for A Letter from Warp + Weft coming shortly to my blogging space.
In August I went to Skipton one Saturday afternoon to their art market event called Art in the Pen. This takes place in the town’s cattle market and there I saw for the first time Alison Combes Walk and Weave pieces. This is a happy profusion of found material from her walks in Yorkshire and Cumbria. A recent graduate from Huddersfield University she admitted a series of tutorials with Sue Lawty had been the trigger for developing this work. Her blog is worth viewing. Sadly, this annual event at Skipton, in one of the few livestock markets still in existence, included a discussion forum with three eminent craftspeople and critics (Michael Brennan-Wood, John Dare, and Richard Cork). This was so badly advertised that it wasn’t until I was leaving the show that I realised I’d missed it!!).
The annual Host open studios trail event in and around Huddersfield was a little more successful in promotion and guidance. I focused my attention on makers at a small studio community in Huddersfield itself that included Dionne Swift and Fiona Wilson. I’d seen Dionne’s work previously (and met her) at Saltaire’s Arts Trail, an event organised by Saltaire Inspired where artists present their work in the lovely Victorian houses dotted around Titus Salt’s mid 19C utopian village, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This restrained, severely feminine body of work encompassing devoré and print is refreshingly ordered and direct. You know absolutely where you are with her images, which are perhaps not so much images as visual states that don’t seem to belong to any tradition. Rozanne Hawkesly might be a companion . . . though Swift’s work lacks all the clutter, decoration and allegory that can surround Hawkesly’s unique textile creations. As for Fiona Wilson, I’m fortunate to have an example of her work on the wall of my studio. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for this Braford-trained artist in a previous post.
Now to what has been going on in my studio. A second scarf was made in mid July to Meg’s design and choice of yarns, but woven on my terms with much critical readjustment and as much care as I could muster. But it’s my long-promised paper and raphia project that has occupied my thoughts and energies. Getting the warp on went unexpectedly well. I put this down to Laura’s advice that when winding the warp I needed to put in plenty of choke ties to stop the paper springing all over the place. Care and patience enabled me to achieve a good overall tension on the warp and looking at the photo of my first sample I’m astonished at how consistent the weave is. By the sixth sample I had really found a way of handling this paper as weft, essentially beating it twice with a tweak of adjustment at the selvedge between beats.
The whole series of six samples is predominantly plain weave with raphia inlay, but as I hope you’ll see from the images, there is a little more to it than that. It’s not quite Agnes Martin comes to Wakefield, but there is a repetition and simplicity there, which in itself was a good thing to focus on – could I do a sequence of three pieces where the raphia inlay gradually morphs from just one colour to just one other colour? I became quite adept at splitting raphia into ever-subtler sizes and making invisible joins. The end product is to be / can be viewed on both sides. My aim (eventually) is to make a series of limited edition table runners.
Last but by no means least my determination to explore tapestry remains very much alive. This is thanks to the tireless teaching and encouragement of Fiona Hutchinson. Last weekend I managed to fit in attending one of her weekend workshops. This was an important and necessary step for me to take. Back in January there was just too much to take in, inspiring and wonderful though it was.
On this second go at her Contemporary Tapestry Workshop I knew exactly what I had to do, and Fiona enabled me to achieve this. I know now how the essential tapestry techniques work. Most particularly the challenge was to understand exactly where I was in the weave process. I needed to recognize and understand the play of the pass and half-pass, how to tie on and tie off whether you are in open or closed position with your warp. I can now do blocks, curtaining (getting the position of the weft ends correct). I can sew my slits together. I can do flowing ‘up hill’ shapes, cross-hatching, and alternate weft coloured lines of 1/2 passes, full-passes and mixtures. I can etch in a linen thread amongst the doubled plied texture of Swedish Tuna wool I was able to use – lovely stuff, but difficult to get in the UK. The first few hours though were very difficult. I thought ‘I cannot do this’ and went off for lunch in some despair. It simply didn’t make sense . . . and then after a particularly excellent bowl of spinach and potato soup and a cup of Italian-made coffee it did, and I just know I won’t forget any of it now.
The trouble with being a student at a Fiona Hutchinson workshop is there is so much inspiring advice and recommendation going on all around you. Concentration can be very difficult. Earplugs next time I think. You start to discuss what you are doing and she’s there with an example from her studio library. I discovered West Coast artist Richard Diebenkorn this way and how cross-hatching is fundamental in mediaeval tapestry (and why the work is woven on its side). I started to overhear advice on planning a large-scale tapestry and just had to beg one of my workshop colleague’s notes. My little sampler tapestry is now on my notice board to remind me how much technique I covered and how much concentration I gave to it over two days.
I’m planning to give up writing poetry (until Christmas at least) and weave a series of small pieces straightaway, and like my heroine Sheila Hicks (Weaving as Metaphor) I vow never to be far from my tapestry frame. I cleared my work-table yesterday and started to pin paper sheets on to about a third of it so I could just sketch and make notes directly, and be really conscious if I got to the end of a day and hadn’t covered at least some of that the white space. Here is what I’ve done today (it’s nearly tea time) in odd moments between phone calls, bars of music and practising scales and studies. The contact print sheet is a collection of photos that arrived by email this morning – lovely images of fallen leaves on a flight of stone steps (St Stephen’s market in Edinburgh), a few little drawings, a collection of possible yarns of sympathetic colours.
There’s more of course, but that’s all I can cope with right now. I think the break has done me good, but the challenge of 2,500 words a fortnight rises up before me. Oh, and I should say I’m about to start another blog. This one is focused on music and the composition of a new work of symphonic proportions for bass voice and symphony orchestra. The blog and the composition are called Sounding The Deep and the former focuses on my public art project for 2012, a celebration of the city of Hull’s signature harbour-side building The Deep and the city’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.