The Scottish Basketmakers Circle celebrated 25 years of existence at Hospitlafield Centre for Art and Culture in Arbroath last weekend. I was privileged to be invited to this extraordinary venue as one of the three tutors. Owen Jones, oak swill maker, and Geoff Forrest, willow basket maker, were my co-tutors.
At first sight Hospitalfield appears to be one of those Victorian gothic piles that were built on the proceeds of a dubious mixture of colonialisation, industrialisation and exploitation, but the truth is very different. The Hospitalifield Trust has been in existence since 1873 and it became the first post graduate art school in Scotland in 1936 providing support for artists from both Britain and abroad continually since then. Carved ceilings, tapestries, baronial fireplaces, paintings and sculptures were all commissioned for the house with the intention of providing jobs for both artists and artisans or were accepted as payment for tuition. The money to provide these commissions apparently came from the astute, yet benign, management of the estates belonging to the house by the artist and landlord Patrick Allen-Fraser and his wife Elizabeth. She had inherited them from her father. In recent years most of the assests that could be dispensed with have been sold and the house is now in need of attention, especially the guest accommodation. So, the most common topic of conversation for the first day of the SBC’s celebratory gathering were the foibles of the plumbing and the eccentricities of the building! But it was an appropriate setting for the gathering, with its spirit of creativity and we have Laura Hamilton to thank for finding such a special venue for this occasion.
All three workshops took place in and around a purpose built (1901) studio block. My class had a room with a monumental fireplace, large white plaster classical busts and leaking roof lights. Owens class with their froes, axes and bonfires worked out of doors, when it wasn’t raining, (and sometimes when it was) and Geoff worked at the other end of the building in a large studio that had plenty of room for staking up square willow baskets.
It is always hard for my students to be in a situation where the students in the other classes are all making the same thing using the same materials that have been brought to the class and, quite often, though not in this instance, also prepared by the tutors. In my workshops the aim is to help students develop a personal identity for their work through the use of materials that are from their own environment, alongside the learning of techniques to help them adapt their ideas to those materials. But this takes time. First of all you have to discover how best to prepare the material, then you have to find out which techniques they are appropriate for, both of which you can only find out through experimentation. So, at the end of the first day, when their fellow students come in to see what has been done, there is always someone who, somewhat unkindly, says… ‘is that all you’ve done'? Lots of experimentation with different materials and techniques does not produce complete baskets, or immediate results. Often it isn’t until the students return home and have assimilated what they have learnt that anything takes shape. So, I have deep respect for my students who put up with the jibes and continue to experiment and try different things, just as they did in this instance.
This relationship between the basket maker and his or her materials seems to me now, to be essential to producing work that has integrity. When I think of all the makers whose work I have ever admired there are few who do not manage their own materials. They cultivate or gather and prepare them and they are involved in every stage of the whole process and in the end I think it shows.
Working alongside both Owen Jones and Felicity Irons this year has, for me, been a forceful reminder of this. They both have total control over their materials and all the processes necessary to turn those materials, in this case oak and rush, into products that are not only exemplary in terms of environmental impact, but also have a powerful authenticity and beauty as a consequence of being of the place where they are made. Owen spends days in the forest looking for the right tree and Felicity gives up six weeks of every summer to harvest rush from the local rivers and somehow, when you look at the end result, it is evident.
I always hope, therefore, that the students in my classes go away having realised that it isn’t necessary to buy materials to make baskets. If they then make their baskets from the materials they have found around them and are prepared to do the research to find out which techniques work best with each material, their baskets will also have an authenticity and beauty that those made from bought materials will seldom have.
I also hope that Patrick Allen Fraser would have approved of this methodology and the creative experiments that took place in his studio.