Friday, 27 November 2015

Unpicking 'Poesie'

With roughly nine weeks left for me to finish new work prior to the opening of Weaving Ghosts the pressure is starting to mount.  Nine weeks that inevitably has to include Christmas and New Year celebrations.  It is true that I am no fan of Christmas, mainly because it seems to start at the beginning of November and just gets worse until Epiphany and the 'sudden and miraculous realisation' that it is, at last, all over!

Creative pressure, however,   is not like other kinds of pressure for me. It seems to be a positive force.  The nearer the deadline gets the more I start undoing things that are already almost completed. This would appear to be counterproductive behaviour but, often, it is because I have finally realised that there is a better way to use that material or technique and the remake, if that is what it can be called, usually happens very quickly. Since March this year I have spent many hours making things that I am now unpicking,  it's a bit of a kamikaze tactic because there is no time left to do it a second time so this time it will have to work. But, I am a fatalist and think that if my instinct is telling me to undo something then that is what I should do.

The piece that I am most excited about at the moment is something that came together relatively quickly and won't need a remake. But, on reflection, I realise that I have actually been working on the idea for several years and it just didn't manifest itself as a piece of work until now. When something excites me it takes over and I can work very quickly and put in long hours without noticing I am doing so.   It is almost as though the speed at which a piece comes together physically is an indication of how successful it will be for me. It doesn't matter if it is a first make or a remake, if it happens quickly it seems to work. That said, I still need to put the hours into making things that get unpicked because without making nothing happens, the ideas come out of the making process, however tedious that may be at times.

An obvious work ethic in art  seems to suck the vitality out of it for me, so I deliberately try to make my work look as though it came together without effort, but this can be counterproductive in terms of selling work.  Appreciating  the manifest gestures of labour in a piece of work is one easy way for the viewer to understand it and its price tag (if it is for sale). There are many contemporary basket makers who use a very obvious visible gesture in a piece to demonstrate that they have put painstaking hours into their work, which in turn will help to justify what appears to be a high price. But often they do it at the expense of what, in French, is referred to as 'poesie' and the work takes on a moribund character becoming nothing more than a demonstration of skill. Its' a trap I try to avoid, so more unpicking awaits....

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Paillasses and Peluches

Bric a bracs are a recurring theme for me because apart from the visual spectacle of a sea of  peluches (soft toys) or a crate of keys, they always have lots of old baskets in them.

Most of them are horrible commercial varnished things, made to sell cheaply, often imported from China or bought as  souvenirs in some far flung place.  Sometimes though, there are also old local baskets coiled from straw and bramble ( paillasses or paillassous)  that were made to store dried plums (these are known here as bourgnes) or to raise bread dough and no doubt many other uses  unimaginable to us now.

Unwillingly, as I am not too keen on clutter,  my studio has become  the rescue centre for these lovely old baskets as I find them too difficult to ignore in their often derelict state. This year however, I have blocked my ears when visiting bric a bracs  so that I cannot hear their plaintive cries, enough is enough! But I swear they know I am there. During the weekend of the Assumption  there were bric a bracs on Saturday as well as the  Sunday and I knew, somehow, I wasn't going to get away with coming  home alone. Having walked for at least an hour round the Sunday market in the streets of a local village and within metres of the car for a quick getaway,  I was feeling smug that not a centime had escaped my purse when I saw her. Sitting proudly above the sea of plastic junk on the wobbly wallpaper table, with her lid fitting as snugly as a sailors cap,  she was scanning  the hoardes as they pushed past  and before I had a chance to hide, she had spotted me and was calling out.

How could I resist? She was lovely, no holes, no worm, beautifully made, all that remained was to pay up. The owner had gone into her house to cook lunch and so was dragged out, wiping her hands on a tea towel, by someone manning the stall for her.  Apparently it had been made locally and had been in her family for four generations. We calculated that she must be over 100 years old but she really doesn't look it - the basket, of course, not the owner! She said she would have liked to have kept it for her children and grandchildren but they hadn't shown any interest in it. I won't tell you what I paid for her because it's not polite to talk about ladies this way, but it wasn't much,  lovely old baskets have little or no value for most people here now.

 Back in my studio she has found a warm, dry home and some friends. I will have to start finding good homes for them soon.....

Saturday, 1 August 2015

New Web Site

At last...... the new web site is up.  It has taken me months but, I have learnt a huge amount.

The old web site was designed by my brother Robert Walpole,  when he was just starting out. Now he does exciting (for him!) work with meta data and open source. Next week he will be presenting a paper at a conference in Washington DC about some ground breaking work he did at the National Archives and I am really pleased for him.  He also pushed me  to take on the task of creating the new site  myself and I am glad he did, though, in practice, it was very difficult for me to  find the time to  learn HTML.  What time I have,  I want to use in my studio. So, last year I contacted Will Palmer who worked on the Scottish Basketmakers Circle  site and had just set up his own consultancy and asked him if he would be interested in taking  it on. It was important for  me to support someone early on in their career. Happily, for me, he agreed. I knew how I wanted it to look and that I wanted it to be a thorough archive of my work, but also  something I could  manage  myself. So Will set up the structure and taught me how to work with it. His instructions were very clear and have enabled me to have the web site  I was seeking.  A lot of people  say creating web sites is a 5 minute job, but don't believe them if you want anything more than 3 pictures!  It was very hard work  going through all the photos, press cuttings and catalogues. Putting in all that information accurately was, for me, very tedious  because I had to work so methodically and systematically and at times it just felt like punishment  but, thankfully, it is now done!
I am very grateful to Will for his patience and can recommend him to anyone who would like to create their own site but needs technical support to do it.

Please let us know what you think of it.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Grass and Water

Over the last couple of months I have been walking in the surrounding countryside to get some exercise.  A  back problem has prevented me from doing any proper sport for over a year now and I think my tennis life is finally over. It was possibly the cause of all the bother in the first place and I can't just play tennis for 'fun'.... what is the point?

The bi-product of these walks has been the gathering of grasses and anything else that looks workable, like docks, plantains and wild oats.  Grasses are a whole new field of botany for me. I lived in London for 30 years where the only grass I saw was mown to within an inch of its life in a public park. So, my general rule of thumb for gathering the stuff has been, if I like the look of it I cut some.  There is a purple grass that grows in a dried out reservoir by the railway line that was stunning when I cut it first. But it has dried now and although it still has a hint of purple  it is very much less attractive.  It  seems to me that in basket making with natural materials  everything always ends up, ultimately, in the brown spectrum, which is probably why, on the whole, I prefer  unnatural materials!

But, it has been  good exercise gathering the, soon to be, brown stuff  and the back is almost back to normal with the combination of a daily massage, walking and the 'water cure'.

Looking for a natural cure for the massage god's  allergic asthma I hit on the 'water cure' and as the web site suggested that it works for almost anything and it costs nothing to do, we both gave it a try. He hasn't wheezed since and my back is feeling way way better.  Is it a coincidence  that plants and humans  both function better when they are hydrated? The grass is certainly greener when it is growing.

Friday, 26 June 2015

More Addiction and Obsession

Perhaps it is something to do with the air in Charente Maritime but not far from the garden of Gabriel Albert is this sweet little private garden. Giant birds, tiny aeroplanes and normal sized donkeys are all immaculately teased out of box trees.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Addiction and Obsession

Every time I drive through Chez Audebert past the garden of Gabriel Albert on the way to the coast,  I am reminded of addiction and obsession.

A friend once accused me of being addicted to basket making because I take my work with me when I go to the beach. I don't think he  intended it as an accusation, but at the time it felt like one.  It is true that I get looked at when I work on the beach, but I think most people are just curious to know what I am doing.  For me, it is just the  pleasure of being able to do work I enjoy in a beautiful outdoor environment.

It seems there is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable addiction or obsession. We tend to regard obsessive compulsive behaviour as undesirable and have called it a 'disorder', but many of the people whose work gives us pleasure, in one way or another, have to be compulsively obsessive  in order to be good at what they do.

Rafael Nadal has been the subject of  OCD rumours with his twitches, ticks and knicker adjusting on the tennis court, but surely he has to be obsessive about and addicted to tennis in order to be one of the best in the world. A few ticks on the court are just one more manifestation of that. Its' not just  sportspeople,  but also musicians, artists, authors, actors and scientists, to name just a few, who devote hours and hours  to their chosen activity,  often to the exclusion of  other aspects of their lives.

Obsession in art manifests itself in many ways. With some artists it is the need to explore the same idea or concept over and over again, in order to express that idea or concept in the most effective way. With others it is about seeking technical perfection. Perhaps it was a combination of both of these that led Gabriel  Albert to work obsessively for 20 years (1969-89) making the  420 life size cement sculptures  that  filled his garden. It is said that once he had finished a sculpture he put it outside and wherever he put it that is where it stayed.  Apparently he wasn't that interested in positioning them to their best advantage. To me that suggests that he was never really satisfied with his creations and that he felt compelled  to go straight back to the workshop and start again, eager to make  this next one better than the last.  Since Gabriel's death in 2000 at the age of 95, thirty of his sculptures have been stolen and the rest have been gently rotting in his garden. In 2010 the Department decided to document everything and fenced it off. You can visit this monumentally overcrowded garden on one day a year when it is open to the public, but they are perfectly visible through the wire fence if you happen to drive by - it's on the D129 in Charente Maritime.

My 'addiction' if that is what it is, takes a slightly different form to that of Gabriel's  but, like his,  it's not one
that causes harm to anyone else and if, one day, I finally get it right it will, at least for me, have been worth the effort!

Friday, 29 May 2015

Ghostly Communications

This week has been entertaining....... last  Friday, and completely by chance, we learned that the proposals JJ Ignatius Brennan and I  submitted in March for two large outdoor installations were selected at the time for an exhibition that opens next week.... but no one thought to tell us! Even with a supreme effort  it just isn't possible now.  The director of the organisation hosting the exhibition has, however,  apologised to us for the curators failing to let us know or answering our emails! Hopefully we will get another opportunity to create the pieces.

By contrast, yesterday, I got the good news that 'Weaving Ghosts' is being invited  to Norway in June 2016  for 2 months, which I am very happy about.

In the studio working towards 'Weaving Ghosts' I have been having fun teaching myself to make fishing nets.  I am using instructions in the wonderful 5 volume series 'Golden Hands' published by Marshall Cavendish that my mother bought in the1970's. It's a gem of a period piece with lots of  macrame bags and flower power, but the techniques are as clear as they ever were.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Weaving Ghosts

After much consideration  this is the title I have finally chosen for my next solo exhibition. It will be in the Shetland Museum in Lerwick for the whole of March 2016 and as the name implies, it will be about weaving and ghosts!

All the work in the show will  use, in some way, materials gathered  from the beaches in Shetland.  Most of the materials I will be using are jetsam from international commercial fishing such as ropes, nets, crates, mussel pegs, wellies etc. Situated at the northern tip of the gulf stream, Shetland receives tons of it every year and much of which is from places as far away as Spain, France, and Canada. I have written about this stuff before as I have had a  love-hate relationship with it for a long time. As a maker it is, for me, a fantastic  material store but as someone who despises the profit motive because of the lack of respect it generally has for people and their environments it is also something I detest. Plus, there is way more washed up on the beaches in Shetland than I can ever use.

There has been a long standing tradition amongst mariners of 'deep sixing' the rubbish they have on ships that they don't want to carry around with them, but it wasn't ever really considered to be a danger to anyone or anything when the things they were chucking overboard were biodegradeable. The invention of polypropylene has changed all that.
This ocean trash that comes, primarily, from commercial fishing  is now internationally known as 'ghost gear'.  Luminously drifting phantom-like in the dark ocean, these nets and ropes trap many species.  An international 'Ghost Gear Initiative'  has been set up this year by the charity, World Animal Protection (formerly World Society for the Protection of Animals) which aims to draw attention to  this problem through discussion, agreements and creative recycling.

But the 'Ghost' bit of my chosen title is not just about these materials, it is also about the lost tradition of basket making in the Shetland  Islands. Basketry once played a critical role in survival, now there are only a handful of people who remember how these tools for life were once made. The centuries old tradition of making  containers, traps, brooms, mats and chairs  from indigenous natural  materials died in the space of 50-60 years and by 2000 could officially be declared dead and buried. There were lots of factors that lead to this sad end, but it was  irrevocable. Now for the most part the knowledge of how to effectively turn plants into functional objects is only to be discovered in museums and books.  There are a few individual exceptions such as Ewen Balfour who, since the passing of Lowrie Copeland is now acknowledged as the guardian of the knowledge of kishies and their making  and Ian Tait, the director of the Museum, who knows pretty much everything about the history of these items. But this was once knowledge that existed in every family in the islands because it was important to their survival.

So, the 'ghosts' are the nets and ropes and other junk, the memories of baskets that are no longer needed, and also in some way the  family  'ghosts' of my grandmother  Eliza Tulloch and her  brothers and sisters who lived for the early part of their lives in the Haa of Midbrake, Cullivoe,Yell . I have so much  respect for these people who were self sufficient but also, of necessity, courageous and strong. Sent away from the family  for the first time as teenagers to go to sea or to serve as maids in places like Edinburgh, as my grandmother did, many of them never returned to live in the place they always regarded as home.

It is now my big challenge to try and amalgamate all these ideas into a coherent exhibition that I hope to tour to other venues in coastal locations where it could also have some relevance. If any of you know of any venues that you think might be appropriate please let me know.

At this stage the ideas are just starting to take shape and I know that the best way for them to develop is just to make, so I am trying to ensure that I get a few hours in the studio every day working on something even if that something ends up being a sample rather than a finished piece. 

I will try to keep you posted about  how the work is developing both here and on facebook.

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Family of Baskets

Knowing I am interested in old baskets, Neil, a  friend and professional electrician, brought these baskets for me to look at. He spotted them in the loft of an old farm in Charente, Limousin that had just changed hands and where he was working on the renovation.  The previous owners were 'paysans' and these baskets were  obviously made to be used on the smallholding.

It is unusual to come across a collection like this. Baskets that are thrown into lofts and forgotten are usually destroyed by woodworm.  Coiled straw baskets tend to survive in  the Charente because woodworm are not very interested in straw, though they will have a go at the bramble stitching. Sadly the two large frame baskets had either had something damp left in them or been sitting under a leak. As a result the chestnut frame work has become a filigree of worm tunnels in just a couple of places on the bases and are now ready to crumble away. The worms like their wood damp, I guess its easier on their teeth!

Eel traps

Not only is it unusual to find a group like this in relatively good condition but the variety is intriguing. Among them are chestnut eel traps and baskets, one for harvesting root crops which acts as a sieve and a little rectangular one with a pegged base and rim, possibly for egg gathering. Then there are several chestnut and split willow frame baskets, three of which have been made by someone who has done many of these and knows exactly how to do it. The very small one without a handle is beautifully made.

 At first I thought it had lost its handle but in fact the ribs have been carefully cut to a point where they meet on each side so perhaps it was never intended to have a handle. But  I cannot  be certain, as someone may have shaped the rib ends after the handle had broken. There is also a tiny frame basket, again chestnut ribs and split willow like  the bigger ones, but it was never finished. I almost burst into tears looking at it as my first and slightly bizarre thought was that the maker had died before finishing it. Since then I have rationalised it as a "teaching aid" for the grandchildren which makes me much happier!

It seems highly unlikely that these baskets were all made by the same person, though possibly by two generations of the same family, and the person who made  the three brown willow baskets obviously never had access to the 'teaching aid'! These three  look much more recent and are great examples of someone just having a go,  without much prior knowledge, and arriving at something that functions.  It wasn't without a mega struggle though, and if the maker won in the end, the willow certainly  put up a good fight.

In a way I love these baskets as much as the perfectly crafted ones. They seem to prove the theory that  basket making is innate in all of us, not the arty farty, tidy,  tightly controlled kind of basket making that I and many others engage in, but a raw, energetic, wrestling with twigs to make a basket to gather the crop in before  it rains or the winter sets in.  How the basket looks being of zero importance in this context.

There is a similarity with music making which also appears to be innate in all of us. Thomas Brennan, my Irish father in law had only one question for people who said they could play a musical  instrument... "can you get a tune out of it?" He wasn't interested in whether they knew their scales or could read sheet music, all that mattered to him was whether or not they could play a tune he could dance to. As far as Thomas was concerned, music was for dancing to, just as these baskets were made for carrying crops and nothing else is therefore relevant.

Sometimes it seems as though too much knowledge suffocates the life out of things.