Difficult to know exactly when the seed was sown, the idea mooted, just when the vision came before imagination’s eye. Like many artists beginning the journey towards a major exhibition Alice Fox was not forthcoming even to her friends as to what Findings might entail – ‘a lot of small things covering the walls’ was all she would say. To focus a body of work towards an end, a public presentation, is certainly something every art student experiences in preparing that ‘final show’. But for those carrying the certainty of a future career that final show is surely the first show, and of many to come. A theme is usually required to satisfy the examiners, and to make the tutor’s task a little easier as work progresses from first thoughts to a conclusive statement. Here, we have a theme: Findings.
The title Findings emerged at least eighteen months ago as a convenient, and now it seems, entirely appropriate label on which to hang a materially diverse body of work. It actually references a book of essays by the poet Kathleen Jamie, who, with the appearance of her book, became a necessary part of a largely male club of ‘new nature writers’. It did not quite have the academic authority of Robert Macfarlane (Landmarks) or the observational brilliance of Mark Coker (Crow Country), or quirky autobiography of the late Roger Deakin (Wildwood). It had something else – that spilled a woman’s particular kind of intensity of looking on to the page. Jamie’s Findings is about a life living the day-to-day of wife, husband, children, house and home, and job, all woven between those precious moments taken when time becomes available to notice and be in nature. Her opening essay about watching peregrines near her home is overflowing with that buzz of newly becoming a birder, someone who opens herself to the wonder of a living, miraculous thing – that flies ecstatically, sees almost beyond our imagining, lives chaotically, wholly, in and by nature.
We say that the world of knit, stitch and weave is a woman’s world, and so it should not surprise us that in its artistic rather than functional realm, those whose practice embodies these activities so often have what they do tempered by those very things Kathleen Jamie’s writing is surrounded by. Mr Macfarlane in his academic splendour could no more write of that all consuming release, what the precious time out from family and home brings to a woman artist or writer, than take wing and fly. For Jamie, Macfarlane’s Wild Places don’t really exist: There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them. It’s turned into prairie, or designated by this or that acronym; it’s subject to planning regulations and management plans. It’s shot over by royalty, flown over by the RAF, or trampled underfoot in the wind-farm gold-rush. Of course there are animals and birds, which look wild and free, but you may be sure they’ve been counted, ringed maybe, even radio-tagged, and all for good scientific reasons. And if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued. (quoted in Gerry Loose’s Kathleen Jamie: an appreciation). But I digress. That is Jamie’s stance, and it sticks.
The textile community, that Alice Fox brings her show ‘Findings’ forth to gaze upon at the Knitting and Stitching Shows this autumn, may need to make some adjustments to what they will encounter. In what is seen from the wrong end of binoculars there appears to be just a lot of things picked up from the path, the beach, the moor: shells, stones, pieces of burnt wood, rusty metal detritus from rubbish tips. But come closer – come closer still, and these ‘findings’ found beneath the feet are clothed, sculpted, refashioned, wound around, amplified by the hands’ dexterity, persistence and imagination into something wholly different. And if Alice had her way they would probably be put back into the landscapes exactly from where they came. But economic reality requires most makers, outside the coterie of Chris Drury, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, to exhibit and to sell, to gently proselytize through workshop teaching and talks to societies and guilds. The new nature artists use photography to capture their oft-ephemeral creations, and Alice Fox is well-versed enough in this particular aesthetic to have realized that production of her imaginatively photographed objects, seemingly in situ, in a bespoke self-published catalogue, gives her audience something vivid, and certainly something poetic.
It has taken much personal heart-searching to understand that what Alice Fox does, to and with an object, is the stuff of poetry. It is a poetry of the hands’ movement, movement we do not see; but with the object captured and stilled into something different from how it was when found, we can perhaps imagine its making.
A small limpet shell mysteriously holding a woven web to itself comes into our hand, lies quietly on the desk or shelf, an object artfully made, tiny but majestically significant against the welter of the usual sculptural forms that impose themselves on the viewer by their very bulk and materiality. Not so with Alice Fox’s pieces. Almost all are small enough to hold, to turn around and about in the fingers, and thus, are often, as in this current exhibition, displayed in multiplicity, in series and sequence.
If I have a favourite in this diversely rich collection of ‘findings’ it is the pieces that I know were partly formed, and often whilst walking, in the environment from which they originate. The balls of woven grass, dried bladder-wrack, lichen, beach combed plastic, twined marram grass.
The darned broken acorn shells defy even my childish imagination, but, what the hell, why not? I love them because I was close-by when the idea dropped into her imagination-stream, and was privileged to see, a few hours later, in a candle-lit Boxing Day kitchen the first casualty restored by her needle’s miracle: the bright-coloured threads (from those emergency sewing kits found in hotel rooms) lift the spirits.
I confess I have contributed to the interpretation of Findings, Alice Fox’s exhibition catalogue: a poem, an introduction and an afterword. I don’t say this lightly because I wrote about this body of work, not with any thought for publication, but as an attempt towards understanding what was going on. What I have written is not wholly conclusive, and possibly not even ‘right’, but the reflection that such writing requires summons up further mysteries, and certainly poses more questions than it answers.