Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Work Space

Monday was a special day because some tools and materials, equipment and the piece I am working on were moved into my new studio. Never having had the luxury of a purpose built workspace before (I have always worked in spaces meant for other things) it was quite an emotional experience for me.

It would have been possible for me to continue working as I always have done but I wanted to have a space big enough for me to be able to offer workshops and classes in the same space that I work in. I have always taught wherever I have been asked to teach but recently I have realised that the space in which you teach is almost as important as what and how you teach. Not only because the students can learn more about material storage and preparation, tool organisation and working methodology but also because the makers/artists philosophy is evident in the environment they have created to work in and the students can see their own work in the same sympathetic context. Trying to teach willow basket making in a classroom full of computers is not only a logistical nightmare but it makes it very difficult for the students to see and appreciate what they have achieved.

There are some lovely places to teach that are no ones' private studio or workshop, El Taller in Lugo, Galicia is a superb dedicated basket learning centre (that is sadly currently being threatened by administrative changes).

Sellafirth Hall on Yell in Shetland is a tin shed but with a lovely wooden interior and atmosphere that just seems ideal for basket making and under the trees in a village square in Mas de Barberans, Tarragona is also a very special place to teach and learn in, as some lucky people will discover this coming weekend

We started building these studios just under 3 years ago and although there is still work to do, it is now possible to work and teach in my space, all I need now are some students, some door handles and to clean the windows.

Thanks go to Yvette Clergeau ( Madame Le Maire) and Ghislaine (her secretary) for their assistance with the plans, to Lionel Belair for the walls and floor and Neil Read for the roof and electrics both of these men were super professional and a pleasure to give our savings to Thanks also to Pascal Carr for sharing his knowledge of stonework and John Guest and Mick Miller for help with plaster boarding at great heights, something I was unable to assist with. But most of my appreciation has to go to JJ who has worked solidly, often on his own in heat-waves and bitter cold, in dust and at 5 metres high on a ladder to give me a space of my own to work in, I cannot thank him enough.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The annual Fete de la Vannerie took place at the medieval village of Issigeac in the Dordogne last Sunday. It has been 9 years since I last visited so I was curious to see what changes might have taken place and together with David and Judy Drew we made the three hour journey. David is a good companion because he knows many of the professional French makers. He is also acknowledged as one of the leading experts on the making of the Perigourdin or Bourricou the spiral basket traditionally used to gather vegetables and walnuts and one of the baskets specific to this fair.

The first thing we noticed was that there seemed to be less Perigourdins on display this year, perhaps some of the older men who were making them last time are no more, and of those that were on display there were a lot that incorporated modifications of the traditional design that made them more decorative and less functional. The logic for some of these square, triangular or starfish (?) shapes was hard to fathom.

The training of French basket makers at Fayl Billot or at the Co-Op in Villaines is so rigorous (and excellent if you are making baskets for the baking or fishing industry) that to break the rules, which is what they probably have to do to be truly innovative, seems to be very hard for them. As a consequence those that seek to break free seem to make baskets that are immaculately woven but in extraordinary shapes or forms, as though just changing the form without changing the mindset will result in art. It's a pity that few of them seem inspired to make beautiful functional baskets ( as they know how to do) but adapted for contemporary life.

As with all fairs the content was very mixed. I particularly enjoyed the chestnut frame baskets made by Rene Parachout from Augignac on the borders of the Dordogne, Charente and Haut Vienne. His 'stand' was a minimalists delight, just a wooden table, the baskets and a hand written paper notice with his name and address. Nothing more was needed.

Francois Deplanches, who makes technically excellent willow baskets, is self taught and is also, unusually, a member of the British Basketmakers' Association. He told me that he draws inspiration from the work of some British makers such as Alison Fitzgerald and his versions of her 'ciathogs' I thought were particularly fine.

At the end of the day we watched a maker from Finisterre finishing a basket with wire stakes used for shellfish gathering. The handle required a great deal of skill, concentration and physical effort and he seemed genuinely surprised and delighted when he put the finished basket down on the plank and the gathered crowd burst into spontaneous applause, it was as though he had not noticed we were there.

It struck me then how important these demonstrations are in terms of teaching the general public about the quantity and quality of the work that goes into making a basket. Those that had watched this man would have had no doubt that it was worth every cent of the 31€ he was asking for it.

Clicking on the picture on the right will take you to more pictures of the Fete.

Tour de France

Basket making can be quite a lengthy and monotonous activity, especially when coiling, which explains why,traditionally, basket making was, and still is often, a communal activity. Not necessarily something that everyone present in the same space is doing but something that is done in the presence of other people.

In Shetland the baskets for use in the home and on the croft used to be made indoors in the winter. Made by the men the baskets were coiled or twined from oat straw, whilst the women of the house would probably have been spinning or knitting , but its also highly likely that someone was telling a story or playing the fiddle or tending the fire and as family numbers were large and the houses small there would also have been children and babies doing what children and babies do.

Commercial basket making workshops have always been communal workspaces but often in these spaces, by contrast, the making process itself is shared out, consequently no-one has propriety over one basket, instead they are produced, in effect, on a production line, one person doing bases the next the sides, yet another to border and someone to do the handles and finishing touches.

Both ways of working permit chatter and conviviality that allows the basket maker to work without thinking about the action of their hands and instead allows the body to work rhythmically doing what is asked of it and what many sports psychologists suggest is the ideal way for the body to perform i.e without intellectual interference. (Timothy Gallwey "The Inner Game of Tennis"). Which brings me to the rather satisfying connection I have found between the Tour de France and basket making.

I have been working on a coiled paper laundry basket for months, in small bursts, the technique has not altered from start to finish so requires little thought -just the occasional glance at the shape, which is one of the reasons I cannot work all day on it without some external stimulation. When I lived in London I listened to radio 4, the spoken word providing the company and distraction I needed to just get the job done, but here in France I have happily discovered that for three weeks of the year the Tour de France on television is sufficiently distracting to allow my body to work efficiently without my brain interfering. Watching 150 young fit men wearing skin tight clothing slogging round France on bicycles in some stunning scenery has meant the basket is almost finished, without me noticing the clock ticking away.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Nine weeks ...

It is exactly nine weeks today until the opening of 'Lois Walpole urban baskets; tradition recycled' at Walford Mill in Dorset, England. It is in fact two exhibitions 'Urban Baskets' is the larger one and includes some of the work that I have done over the last 28 years as well as some that I haven't finished yet..... 'Tradition Recycled' is the smaller show that I have put together of traditional baskets from different parts of the world that also use recycled materials.

It has been 18 years since I had a solo exhibition of my baskets in UK, so there is a whole new generation to show my work to, and I am delighted to have this opportunity. Having an audience for my work is paramount, it only really has any value for me when other people engage with it . This exhibition will be touring in Europe for at least 2 years and I am hoping a lot of people will, therefore, have a chance to engage with it.

Now I am wondering why I am at the computer when there is only nine weeks to the opening....?!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Plaiting garlic

Today I plaited the garlic.

Plaiting braids from leaves, grasses and cereal stalks is a universal, simple and very portable activity. It isn't really necessary to look at the work, you can feel it and it doesn't require much thought, just a steady rhythm. The finished braids are found stitched together into baskets and mats all over the world.

The leaves of garlic are plaited with the bulb attached and don't require any stitching, they are just what they are, braids of garlic. It is a very practical way to store the garlic because every bulb is visible, making it easy to see which ones need eating first, it is also very decorative and it is one of the jobs I enjoy at this time of year. I always try a few different ways of doing it, usually because I have forgotten which method I liked best last year, and the only thing that seems critical is how dry the leaves are. Yesterday I tried doing it late in the afternoon but the leaves were very dry and brittle and kept breaking so I decided to do what I do with other leaves when I want to plait them and let the dew moisten them. I left the garlic out overnight and this morning they were soft and silky.

Friday, 2 July 2010


Set up as an adjunct to this blog will allow me to quickly tell you about any teaching I am doing or exhibitions my work is in. It will also give you, the people who come to my workshops or view my work, a space where you can let me, and anyone else interested, know what you think about the experience....... if you wish to.

It will also allow me to talk to you about all the baskets and basket related things that I find interesting, inspiring, infuriating and intriguing, of which there are many....