I have been using stitch for lines and for texture and have been thinking about how the stabbing of the needle into the cloth brings something extra – it expresses a kind of violence, perhaps a kind of necessary pain which simultaneously pierces and repairs. Stitching, as in mending, strengthens. But it also perforates and weakens. A piece which has no functional purpose except to be displayed on a wall can be very fragile, unlike a garment or serviceable cloth which must withstand handling and use. As I stitch, I damage, I restore.
While stitching these ‘photo hankies’ I started to question why. Why remake a digital image into a laboriously stitched piece where the process of drawing and stitching removes and alters some or most of the image’s content? The question started out of the hard-to-shake-off received (imposed?) reputation of hand-stitching as domestic and inconsequential (and even more so when labelled ’embroidery’, or ‘fancy work’). But I can just as readily frame the act of painting as archaic and ridiculous – why smear and daub oil and ground up rocks across a piece of cloth? Slow. Pointless. Unproductive. My answer (which may satisfy only a few, and they would then be the audience…) is in connection, and in touch:
“Whoever wants life must go softly towards life, softly as one would go towards a deer and a fawn that was nestling under a tree. One gesture of violence, one violent assertion of self-will, and life is gone. You must seek again. And softly, gently, with infinitely sensitive hands and feet, and a heart that is full and free from self-will, you must approach life again, and come at last into touch. Snatch even at a flower, and you have lost it for ever out of your life. Come with greed and the will-to-self towards another human being, and you clutch a thorny demon that will leave poisonous stings.
But with quietness, with an abandon of self-assertion and a fulness of the deep, true self one can approach another human being, and know the delicate best of life, the touch. The touch of the feet on the earth, the touch of the fingers on a tree, on a creature, the touch of hands and breasts, the touch of the whole body to body, and the interpenetration of passionate love: it is life itself, and in the touch, we are all alive.”
I keep coming back to fragments of knit lace retrieved from Herbert Niebling charts. Or they keep coming back to me.
In silk fabric strips:
In hand spun silk and flax, suspended in a web:
Revisited later, in fine merino, in a hand made bobbin lace cage:
And left in a birch tree at Rud Artist-in-Residence, Dalsland, Sweden:
Lately, reconsidered in crochet cotton, with mulberry paper.
I had intended, months ago, to write about the process of making the Beverley map, to summarise my residency experience and then show the work in Perth as a conclusion to the experience.
After a long hibernation I have become aware of how my intense experience as artist-in-residence was just the start of what will be an evolving project. I took to Beverley questions about what and how to observe in a new environment, and how to use art-making to explore those questions. In my previous post I describe collecting information by walking, photographing, collecting and drawing. That research focus changed when my hosts invited me to show my work on the last weekend. I switched from gathering information, ideas and samples for future works, to producing work (or work-in-progress) to hang in the gallery. I also wanted to be part of the established tradition of donating a work I’d made there for the gallery’s collection. With one week of the stay remaining I took the samples I’d dyed from local plants,
and, perhaps influenced by the gliders circling overhead, decided to take an aerial perspective and piece a fabric map of the town site.
Sensations that arose while making the pieced map extended beyond cutting and stitching the fabric to my experience of the physicality of moving across the land. I felt the rounded curves of the rolling hills as I shaped the pieces to curve into each other.
Faint odour of plant-dyed fabric recalled walks under gum trees, bark crunching underfoot.
I joined the pieces with vertical black stitches so that the seams stood up like fence lines. The last stitches went in on the final morning. In the gallery I noticed that the Beverley locals who looked at my work saw their familiar town with fresh eyes.
Back in Perth, I felt unable to call the Beverley map ‘finished’. There was more to it than representing a town map in dyed fabric. In Ground Truthing Paul Carter writes about what a map reveals and conceals, how language, memory and being on-the-ground both enrich and contradict the impression from the air. Being on the ground to collect sensations and materials gave me a means of responding to the particularities of Beverley (physical, historic, cultural) through the process of making. Studying the plan of Beverley and remaking it into a pieced map made clear how the layout of streets and railway had been decided in response to the river Avon. And as the Avon flows into the Swan so the thread of the river leads to Perth where the streets, boundaries and buildings of the city are oriented and shaped by its position on the Swan. Making the Beverley map was not a culmination but a plan for thinking about the city of Perth, and beyond, for a mud map of how to approach any place I choose to observe and remake.
I’ve been down in the studio, chasing ideas, playing with materials, getting stuck; trying to keep on making while keeping the ‘admin’ side ticking over. Plenty of time gets spent on writing proposals, making plans, looking for opportunities. I can’t seem to make a connection between the art thinking and making, and the money side. What are the options? Make commercial work that sells, work a ‘bread’ job and make art on days off, find a patron? Around me other artists struggle with the same questions. We try out different options and many of us either lose touch with our practice or put it off for decades while economic needs come first.
We’re all making the mistake of approaching the question as if it is a personal issue for each individual to resolve. I believe that artists cannot constrict themselves to the formula of being a branded micro-business producing disposable commodities to decorate the lives of the affluent. Our necessary role is to be thinkers, observers, provocateurs, cranks, canaries in the coal mine: those are our services to society and how society values our services is a political issue. Ours is not a personal failure when we can’t support ourselves financially. Our society is failing to support artists and that failure is political. We all, artists or not, are impoverished as a result.
I went to Beverley without a pre-conceived plan, so I could respond to what I found there.
I started by thinking about the white gum (wandoo) strainer posts which anchor the ends of fences. Their name, function and form suggested potential material and metaphor. Driving on the district roads there were plenty of fences:
And plenty more rolled up into discarded bundles, replaced by new metal fence posts.The rhythm and tempo of the fence posts and wires as the car went past recalled the rushing past of notes and bar lines on the stave while playing music,
and the movement of the front fences in town as I jogged past every evening.
It may be a small town, but there was plenty going on. Visitors from nearby towns remarked on the activity and optimism there. I wanted to make some work which could reflect this perception:
“the more we are pre-occupied with living, the less we are inclined to contemplate, and that the necessities of action tend to limit the field of vision” (Henri Bergson). But it is possible for us to perceive more thoroughly. Bergson reassures us that through the means of art, such as poetry or painting, things are revealed both in the world and within ourselves that are not ordinarily perceived.
It seemed that the diversity yet camaraderie of the locals was reflected in the variety and continuity of their front fences. Rather than selecting a few (how – the most picturesque? the most idiosyncratic? the oldest?) I decided to create an archive and record all of the front fences of the town. I walked up and down every street, taking photos of the junctions of every fence. I then drew the detail of each junction, spaced evenly along a scroll of paper, one for each street.
It is a tradition for the artist-in-residence to give a work to the Gallery’s collection. Most of the pieces are landscapes; my fence drawings on kitchen paper seemed too ephemeral.
What about a map?
After finding bones and bark in the Wandoo Conservation Park west of Beverley
Murray Bail said that the indent of a paragraph is like the gate to a paddock. It is the way in. For a long time I have been looking for a way in to a piece of cloth. What is the gate or indent that allows entry? Otherwise it is too much like a painting or photograph, it is just there, take it or leave it, dictating instead of revealing and relating.
The reader can’t take in the paragraph instantaneously, the eye must move along the text, even retrace and repeat if necessary. A visitor to a paddock also has to enter and traverse the paddock. Think of seeding or harvest, going methodically over the paddock ground. As grazing sheep do in their own practised way.
A painter would argue that to properly see a painting the eye must move across the surface. True, but it is possible to have an instantaneous, complete impression in a way that is never possible with text, or land, or the complete qualities of a textile.
Is touch the way in?
I’m writing this in a plane returning home after being away from my studio for four days. The trip wasn’t long enough to miss family, friends or home, but it was far too long to be away from my studio.
Surely artists have differing relationships to their studios – from a welcome, creative refuge to a dreaded place when they feel stuck and facing down a block or self-doubt. My studio is a peaceful, private space where I can enter internal realms of research, reflection and making. The physical act of leaving the ‘external’ world and going into my studio allows me to mentally disconnect from mundane life (knowing that it will be waiting for me when I leave the studio) and let my creative self roam. When I close the door behind me I can drop my ‘public’ persona and be unobserved. My attention can be fully directed to the ideas, materials and works-in-progress that fill the space.
The studio also serves as a sign to others of my commitment to my practice and that I am ‘at work’ when I am there and therefore less likely to be interrupted by daily demands. It is where I try out new ideas, finish work and make long-term plans.
But the lease expires in a few weeks; our building, with more than twenty artists, has its third owner in a year and in this speculative town we are once again looking for an affordable, usable space to house our various practices. Otherwise it is back to the interruptible kitchen table and the unlit, dusty shed.
It is half a year since I finished studying. As warned by more established friends I am wandering about in hazy, boggy directionless realms, tripping over confusions of ideas and bumping into deadlines. Timelines, proposals, action plans seem forced, their language too stark and linear. So I am accepting my swampy state and slowing down to explore and dream quietly with materials, and time.
I have two works hanging side by side in the studio. They both express what seems to be a recurring theme for me, of combining disparate elements so that the qualities of each are present but together they form a whole that is more than the sum of the parts. But they were made in quite different ways.
For Equilateral I started by choosing a favourite form; a Möbius strip. The width of the kimono fabric and the size of the triangular space in the centre dictated the overall dimensions and so determined the width and length of the piece of hand spun, knitted grey mohair which is the other surface of the quilt. Two different fabrics, quilted together into a form which unites and reveals both surfaces.
Through intuition and chance:
Sometimes a piece evolves unintentionally. From an indigo pot on the go, a piece of silk and a plastic cylinder I made a (very) rough version of pole-wrapped shibori. It went into a pile of fabrics on the table until its mid blue undulations lay next to a warm brown length of layered and stitched fabrics which I’d put together with no end in mind than to be something to stitch on in the good company of other makers. And now, after a gentle three years, I am putting the final stitches into Two journey to.
Something as simple as observing how I make reassures me that I can continue.