Last weekend I spent two days at Bankfield Museum, a former 19C millowner’s mansion overlooking the famous Dean Clough Mill in the town of Halifax in West Yorkshire. I was there to take part in a workshop given by textile artist Sue Lawty. I’ve already written about Sue on these pages back in November. If you haven’t read my blog on her York lecture then I do recommend you do so before embarking on this report. It will all make much more sense!
Although I have heard Sue speak about her work, this was my first opportunity to meet her. She is a bright-eyed, very energetic fifty-something whose regime of running and leading the occasional trek in Nepal seems a necessary part of being a very creative and inspirational artist . . . and teacher. Her workshop technique is impeccable: she is an accomplished facilitator. She talks as little as possible and what she says is a mix of hard factual information with observation, and a personal sharing of what her creative world is about and what it means to her. She is a wonderful listener, having first asked searching questions, but then it’s very much hands-off. She doesn’t pander to her students either. If it isn’t good, effective or just doesn’t work she’ll tell you in such a way that you’ll either realise what you are doing has to go in the bin, or (as in my case) spur me on to make an idea work.
So let’s set the scene: there are 12 of us, all very experienced needlewomen, weavers. rug makers, knitters, spinners (and many all of these), and me – the only male (again), and the least experienced of course. Quite a number of the group are full or part-time students, others include a designer and several ‘totally passionate about textiles’ people. We start with a short introduction by Sue given in front of ‘Intersect’ a tapestry (not as you’d know it) commissioned by Bankfield for their permanent collection. The piece is shown beside two woven fragments, of Peruvian and Coptic origin, which have so influenced Sue Lawty’s work. I’d seen Intersect on a photograph and was quite unprepared for the mass of detail and subtle colouring which she had woven into this predominantly hemp-made tapestry. I make no apologies for showing my sketchbook entry for this short introduction (DO enlarge the image by clicking on it) because I’ve tried to precis some of the main points in her talk and include a favourite quotation she presented at the York lecture (which I couldn’t write down quick enough when she originally showed it). This text by a potter Claudi Casanovas is now on her blog (along with images of this Spanish potter’s work).
Upstairs in the Education Room we began our individual work with a piece of aluminum foil. The task: to create small units of images in 2 or 3 D that would allow us to investigate ‘questions of rhythmic pattern, texture, repetition and interval’. I eventually produced a collection of gull-like shapes which I then ‘flocked’ by assembling them with a random throw. Sue had placed a long roll of black paper down the length of the room. This provided an ideal surface upon which to lay out our work for all to see. Now for the difficult bit – my attempt at explaining my rationale to Sue for the way I knew I wanted to work. This is the first time I’ve ventured to explain an abiding preoccupation: I want to bring together the tactile and analogue nature of a (woven) textile surface with digitally recorded and processed images, static and moving. In this workshop I intended to use digital photography and camera-based slideshows to provoke continuation towards an end result. The result being a material piece AND a digital piece, the latter possibly incorporating stages of the creative journey, what the Greek philosophers called the poiesis. I got the feeling Sue was very dubious about all this, and, looking at my meagre work in situ, rightly so. It was the kindest of warnings, but a later exercise confirmed for me (by complete chance) that I couldn’t / shouldn’t abandon my intentions. But back to my gulls . . .
My flocked gulls were thrown and then manipulated by repositioning the individual gulls sequentially, photographing each move, then assembling the photos on the slideshow feature on my camera. In this way I answered all the ‘questions’ we had been set to explore – rhythm, texture, repetition and interval. Only I’d done this with one set of units rather than the thirty or so I would have needed to achieve the same result in a physical, rather than virtual, space.
For Exercise 2 we picked a piece of paper off the black paper sheet with a number written on it. This directed us to a table with 12 sets of material: willow canes, a pile of unusual yarns, leaves, a brush head, . . . and for me – a box of neon-coloured drinking straws. Beside these materials we found every conceivable type of device for assembling our materials – except glue. This was banned. Although, as I found a roll of masking tape in this collection, I appropriated it later, much to Sue’s disappointment.
The extraordinary thing about my chance-selected material was that for some time now I’ve been considering working with neon colours on my loom. In fact I tracked down a supplier of neon yarns. The reason for this is because of my desire to signal the urban context of my weaving. My studio window looks out onto the central thoroughfare of Wakefield, clubs, pubs, banks, shops, bus stops and all. No green anywhere, just the ever-changing skies above the rooftops. So, in some ways, I was already prepared to work with straws of four neon colours: green, yellow, purple and orange.
Both the pieces I created used a natural language algorithm called the Lindenmayer System or L-system, an algorithm I regularly use in my musical work. I wrote a brief axiom that generated a sequence made of four colours and with that I could start assembling and inventing a surface of straws. Every stage of the process of making I photographed, significantly taking photos occasionally with a negative filter. This revealed a completely different set of neon colours: wonderful blues and violets. As my piece took shape I realised it could have the qualities of a mobile, a 3D piece I could ‘spin’, and this became its title. Back home after the first day I put together a sequence of digital images and applied a music track of about 2 minutes in duration. Play this by clicking here.
The second day of the workshop enabled me to do something completely different with my neon straws. First, I put together exactly the same number and colours of straws I had used previously. This time, instead of using the whole straw, I deconstructed it into its three separate parts: a long length, the concertina section, the drinking portion. I made a number of different assemblages. I did compass images of these collections (NESW), then I threaded over a thin piece of dowling a sequence of short straws lengths fastening each end of the dowling with a plug. This column of neon lengths I then suspended against a notice board and ‘swung’ it – the title of the piece became ‘swing’. I photographed each section of the column (about a metre in total length) and then swung the cane photographing many different angles of swing.
Where these experiments all came together was in finding some really bendy willow cane. This I could fashion with discrete pressure to produce curly shapes. I then assembled three such shapes, photographed the result, then proceeded to thread my 3 collections of length-sized straw parts in Lindenmayer sequences onto the three canes. The result was intriguing if delicate and next time I do such a thing I must remember the ‘taking it home’ bit. I did get it home, but I had to reassemble some of the straw pieces that came away when I put it in my car. Hanging from a notice board in my studio it takes on a quite different aspect from being on the floor where it was constructed.
Sue didn’t say very much about my labour of a whole day. But I knew it didn’t really observe (for her) many of those questions she hoped we’d explore and find answers for. For me, I felt I did tick those boxes, but it was difficult to demonstrate the digital outcomes there and then. Each piece I made has alongside it a digital partner which answers the questions and displays them in the context of the making process. I may have done myself a disservice by following my own inclinations, but I came away feeling I had taken an important step, and done so in the presence at least of an artist I so admire.