Monday 6 December 2010

The Law of Material Sufficiency

Over the years I have noticed a little known phenomenon and as I have never seen a name given to it I have decided to call it the Law of Material Sufficiency. Not dissimilar to Parkinsons Law  (Cyril Northcote Parkinson 1955) "work expands to fill the time available for its completion" ........ it works like this....

Having done some experiments and decided that I want to use a particular material for whatever it is that I am making, I then select from my boxes and sacks of collected materials the actual materials for the task. As I don't buy materials there needs to be enough for whatever job I have planned for it but, this is very difficult to guage accurately so, usually, I just hope and trust that there will be enough. The astonishing thing is, that  nearly every time it works to such a fine degree that I find myself  scrabbling in the bottom of a sack or a box to root out the last few centimetres of whatever it is to add the final touches, and it happened again this week.

I was given a  Limousin woven chestnut chair in very poor condition. Filthy, riddled with woodworm, a lot of broken splints and the joints very loose and after giving it a serious scrubbing I realised that actually I didn't  like the chestnut splints very much. But I found the curved form and simple stick structure of the chair very seductive so I decided to use the broken splints as fire lighters, but keep the frame and restore it in my own way.

My initial idea was to use either tetra paks or corrugated cardboard in the same fashion as the splints, that is, to weave panels and then nail the completed panels to the back and seat. But weaving a panel and attaching it to something never excites me as much as working 3 dimensionally and as I was restoring the chair for my own use I saw no reason why I should bore myself whilst doing it. In addition I find it hard to trust nails now after too many experiences of splitting wood by using the wrong nail for the job, and the chair was already splatter-gunned with nail holes. So, I abandoned the panel idea.  Weaving over the structure with tetra pak and cardboard strips was the next thing I tried, but neither felt strong enough and the curved shape didn't lend itself to this type of weave.

There is a sack of used polypropylene strapping tape in my studio. It is the remains of a large amount of waste tape that  I collected some years ago from a packaging company in London for a public commission that I was working on at the time .The tape came wrapped around the pallets of cardboard they imported and every day of the week they threw out one or two skips full of it. The skips were emptied into a barge on the Thames that floated downstream to the implausible sounding Mucking landfill site in Essex where this still perfectly functional tape was interred along with all the rest of Londons' so called waste. Something that struck me when I collected the material from the company was that the workers there obviously sensed that the material was not really 'waste' because they often bundled it into neat little hanks before throwing it into the skip, even though they were not asked to do this.

I have now used most of the colours that I like and had been  left with a large amount of very stiff, transclucent green tape that, until now, I have had very little use for as I did not find it particularly attractive or easy to work with.  But after a cursory rummage in the sack I realised that its moment had arrived (is this another law - when the right job comes along the material ceases to be unattractive?) and the chair has been woven with it and, as usual, I have been left with barely a metre of tape!

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Depressed, Pressed and the Press

Its been one of those weeks....a gallery that was apparently  interested in taking Urban baskets has, it seems, changed its mind, no reasons given - a pity because I thought it looked like a good space with an interesting programme. Then there is  the non payment of a teaching fee and related expenses  for a weeks work done nearly six months ago,  unfortunately  I hear I am not alone.....It's also been unseasonally cold and last night it snowed,  so to receive a good review of Urban Baskets came as welcome respite.

The marketing team at Walford Mill, Liz and Nicole, told me that they had met with 'severe apathy' when they tried to persuade journalists to make the journey from London,  where most of them are based, to Dorset to review Urban Baskets - even though they were offered encouragement in the form of train fares, lunches etc. Consequently  press coverage of the exhibition has, so far, been local and minimal but yesterday I received MUSE magazine from Christine at Walford which  had  a very nice review of the exhibition in it from someone who did not know my work previously.  If you click on the picture you can read the review.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Besom Season

Living in a small village you learn to recognise particular noises that tell you what is going on around you without actually needing to see what is happening. The post van accelerates fast up the road, it is about mid day and I am convinced that the French become more reckless the closer to lunchtime it gets. There is the dull, but nevertheless slightly sinister, thud of an arrow piercing a target when Daniel, over the road,  practices tir a l'arc - thankfully usually after lunch - and there is Anne-Marie gardening.....

I could not have a nicer neighbour than Anne-Marie who loves her garden and is a very knowledgeable gardener. To her the garden is an  extension of her pristine home that needs just as much housekeeping. Consequently she views overgrown lawns, weeds and the leaves that gently tumble from the trees at this time of year as a visible sign that she is failing as a housekeeper.

The lawn is dealt with in agri business fashion (as befits a farmers wife) with a sit on mower that sounds like a small tractor. When I hear its pistons cranking up and the blades reaching take off speed  I know that rain is forecast within 24 hours. But, the weeds on the gravel and the leaves on  the roads leading to her house need constant scratching and scraping and sweeping. Usually she uses a plastic leaf rake which has a distinctly plastic sound but yesterday  I was surprised to hear a new type of swishing  noise coming from the road and of course I had to investigate. My reward was to see Anne-Marie sweeping like a demon with a very obviously home-made besom, it doesn't take much to make me happy but this humble object gave me unadulterated joy! Apparently the plastic rake had broken.

Anne Marie doesn't know what particular plant she used but, traditionally in colder temperate climes besoms are made of birch or heather because they have the right amount of fine but resilient branches for the job.  In Nova Scotia according to Peter Barrs and Joleen Gordon in "Older Ways Traditional Nova Scotian Craftsmen" (ISBN0-442-29628-2) there used to be a tradition of 'sheen brooms' made from a single pole of yellow birch where, instead of the branches being used as the brush head, the wood is peeled away in layers or 'sheens' to create the brush fibres, leaving the unpeeled part as the handle.

Technically speaking  the 'Anne Marie special' is more correctly a 'swale' as it does not have a separate handle, this I discovered in the excellent " Encyclopedia of Green Wood Working" by Ray Tabor (ISBN 1-899233-07-5)

Of course, there are plenty of home made simple plant fibre brooms besoms and swales still being made and used all over the world but, it is rare now in northern Europe to find a person under retirement age who would think of making one for themselves, rather than spend their hard earned money buying something that will inevitably make someone higher up the food chain rich on the profit.

A plastic leaf rake costs about 20€ in my local 'garden centre'. Manufactured in China from planet munching materials it has probably been shipped to Europe on an ocean going skyscraper of metal boxes and I would need to work for at least an hour and a half (on the average French take home pay) to earn enough to buy one. Anne Marie thinks her swale does a superb job and it only took her about 15 minutes to cut the twigs from her hedgerow and bundle them with used baler twine which leaves her with a plus balance of 1 hour 15 minutes in her life account with which she can go and do something she really enjoys - which in her case is ironing!

Tuesday 9 November 2010

The Numbers Game

Galleries and artistic venues that receive public funding usually have to justify their existence by proving that what they do is of some interest to the public.  It is, after all, that same public who provide the funding via their taxes so, I suppose it is only fair.

In order  to provide this proof galleries need to count heads, persuade people to sign visitors books and have  external evaluations and assessments done. The upside to this interminable bureacracy, which gobbles up time for gallery staff that could perhaps be more creatively employed, is that I now know that an estimated 6,380 people visited Walford Mill Crafts during the 6 weeks that "Urban baskets tradition recycled" was on compared with 2,796 during the same period last year. I have also seen a copy of  the visitors book (2 pages are pictured  above) and the "Artistic Assessment" by the Arts Council  all of which I was delighted to discover are very, very positive. In many ways I see myself more as a performer and educator  rather than as a merchant so applause, when it happens, is precious and is what  inspires me to continue.

Today the exhibition has been taken by van to North Wales where it will not be unpacked until mid January. It would have been nice if it could have gone to another venue in between but it wasn't easy finding venues that were prepared to host it. Recently it has become very difficult for artists/makers to find spaces in Britain that will support solo shows but these shows are very important because they allow us and others the space to reflect on our practise, which in turn enables us to move forward.Walford Mill Crafts is an exemplar in difficult times and if the attendance figures and visitor responses mean anything then I am relieved that the risk they took would appear to have paid off.

Monday 1 November 2010

From the Cradle to the Grave

Whilst most of France is protesting at the prospect of having to work from the cradle to the grave I have been  taking  half-term visitors to look at churches, and have been reminded yet again of the essential role that baskets once played in our lives.

The Poitou Charentes is rich in Romanesque churches. These simple but solid limestone churches with intricately carved portals and capitols were mostly built in the 11th and 12th Century at a time when many of the  roads through the region were important pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. At that time, it is said, an estimated two million  people a year made the journey from all over Europe in order to pay hommage to the relics of the apostle St. James. In order for me to travel  to the same place now by public transport I usually have to detour via Paris, Madrid or London. In medieval times I would have just picked up my staff,  for beating off wild dogs, put on my cape, slapped on the floppy hat adorned with the eponymous coquilles St Jacques and  turned left outside my front door arriving in Santiago some months later, no doubt  with sore feet, but having completed one half of an amazing and no doubt educative journey.

Many of the abbeys and village churches in this region were constructed at that time to offer spiritual encouragement and hospitality to the pilgrims in return for donations to the Church. The resultant construction boom must have seemed extraordinary to the inhabitants. It is tantalising to imagine what it would have been like for them to have a comparatively huge building site in the centre of every small village, with the noise of hammer on stone ringing all day for a hundred years or so as these gems of architecture were being constructed in an otherwise noise free environment.

One of the most notable of these beautiful churches is Notre Dame la Grande, in Poitiers, with a carved stone facade that is breathtaking for its detail. Just above the right hand doorway on the west facade is a 12th Century carving of a nativity scene (pictured above) with Mary showing the world her somewhat adult looking new born in his woven cradle overlooked by two animals which look, rather scarily, as though they might just eat him. The cradle is obviously wicker  and given the ecology of the region would probably have been woven from hazel, chestnut or willow.

Woven cradles seem to have been neglected by basket makers in recent years yet I am certain there are many parents who would much rather have a cradle hand made from sustainable materials than a machine made pvc one. The hand made cradle used to be an object of desire that families treasured and handed on to the next generation. It would seem to be a tradition that is ripe for revival and what could be better than making one yourself?

photo:Jonathan Middup

I was delighted therefore to be sent this picture by Pip Hall (who, by a very strange coincidence, is a stone carver ) of a 'moses' basket made from tetra paks. Pip participates in workshops started by Monica Tweddell in Cumbria which she calls 'crafty container' workshops because, she tells me, they were inspired by my book of the same name. This beautiful basket was made by Elizabeth Dawson, a fellow participant, for her neices son William and is plaited out of approximately 44 soya milk cartons.

Melle in Deux Sevres was considered such an important staging post on the pilgrim trail that three churches were built at about the same time each requiring a small army of masons and here high on a capitol in St. Pierre is a less detailed but nevertheless clear rendering of Jesus being laid in a woven coffin. (left)

The revival of the woven coffin in recent years has been, in my view, a  basket making success story.  Both the owner occupier versions and those crafted by professionals seem  infinitely more humane than the gloss varnished exotic hardwood, or worse still,mdf and brass handled caskets that are not only environmentally dubious but have a grim  formality about them that says nothing about the person inside.

The Somerset Willow Company has made a speciality of woven coffins and this one made for a child has a simplicity and beauty that seemed perfect to me when I saw it being made. Perhaps it is the similarity between the woven cradle and the woven coffin that suggests that a life has come full circle and the physical  body  is now returning from whence it came that makes it in some very small way, comforting.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Moving On

Tempus fugit and Urban baskets tradition recycled will close at Walford Mill Crafts in Dorset next Sunday 24th October in the evening and is not planned to re-open in the South of England. So this is just a gentle reminder that there is only one week remaining in which to see it. The next showing is in North Wales and is being divided between two galleries Denbigh Library Gallery and Ruthin Library where it opens on the 15th January 2011 and will run until March 12th.

If you have already seen it and you would like to tell me what you thought of it, please do, either here, publicly, or by emailing me or, best of all, if you are planning a visit please write something in the visitors book. That way both the gallery and I get to know your thoughts and both of us can learn from them. As I said in an earlier post my work is meaningless for me unless other people engage with it one way or another.

There are still opportunites for other galleries to have the exhibition either in the UK or abroad, so if you know of a gallery that seems appropriate please tell me or Christine at about it.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Basket News

Yes, I have fallen for this one many times forgetting that "baskets" to a Francophone are a type of lace up sport shoe, presumably something you might wear to play basket ball in. Converse All Stars are a typical example but, the game of basket ball is also often abbreviated to just basket and is very popular in France, hence the demand for 'Basket News'.

I first encountered this linguistic trap some years ago when an attractive French man asked me (in English) what I did for a living and I told him I designed baskets. The ensuing conversation was quite strange because he seemed, unusually, very impressed with my chosen career and I hoped, by implication, me. However, he appeared quite disappointed when he learnt that I wasn't undertaking commissions for Nike, Adidas etc. It finally dawned on me what was going on but I decided not to tell him.

Monday 4 October 2010

Chiswick Eyot Osier Holt

Hek Khaleeli, a friend and much valued patron, sent me a link to a BBC news item about Nick a 67 year old man who has been living on Chiswick Eyot for the past 6 months and it has spurred me to write about this very special place.

I first learnt about the Eyot from Tony Kirkham in 2002. At the time he was responsible for the Arboretum and Horticultural Services at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and he had just agreed to let me plant my grown home experiments in the nursery there. I needed to get hold of willows for the experiments but, buying them was not an option because, I wanted them to be local and readily available in order to be true to the philosophy behind grown home. He told me about this little island in the Thames covered in pollarded willows that he thought used to be cut by basket makers. It sounded incredible to me as I had lived in London for 28 years, making baskets for much of that time, yet knew nothing about it.

My first visit to the Eyot in March 2002 was in the company of Diana Hutchings who at the time was a volunteer at Kew and had been instrumental in helping me make contact with Tony. She also knew about the Eyot and kindly offered to show me where it was and to help cut some willows. Hidden behind the Fullers Brewery just off the thunderous A4 was a piece of basket making history that seemed poignantly beautiful to me in the mix of sunshine and snow that we had on that day.

I had been researching the history of willow cultivation in London for my thesis and had found very few records of osier holts anywhere in the greater London area. I was convinced that there must have been many small plots of land used for cultivating willows for baskets around the edges of the city but could find very few references to any. Those I had found were either of nurseries or plantsmen in Chelsea and Hackney who sold willows for cultivation or of its natural occurrence documented in studies of the Flora of London and its counties. But here in all its wintery beauty was the evidence that, at some time in the not too distant past, basket makers had cultivated these osiers.

The Eyot is a tiny island that is covered with water twice a day at high tides but that you can easily walk to at low tide. The Thames rips in and out of there very fast so you have to be acutely aware of the state of the tide when you visit . Diana (pictured here) had found out the time of low water and we squelched across the mud and climbed the bank. The soggy ground was a jetsom lovers paradise, thick with the detritus that is thrown or blown into the river and growing majestically out of this mattress of refuse were the pollards. We spent the next couple of hours cutting common osier rods in the sunshine keeping a wary eye on the rising tide.

Subsequent research revealed that the Eyot had been planted and cultivated for basket making between about 1800 and 1935 when the last person granted a right to cut the osiers went out of business and the island was subsequently taken over by the local council. The demand for baskets in the area had come from the numerous market gardens in the area that needed containers to transport their produce downstream to the markets of the city of

Since 1949 the willows have been managed by the Old Chiswick Preservation Society in order to prevent further erosion of the island. Another incentive for the locals to cut the osiers, however, is that they block the grandstand view from the houses on Chiswick Mall of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. It seemed too strange a coincidence to discover that one of these handsome houses overlooking the Eyot is called Walpole House!

There is a good account of the history of the Eyot in the following publication for anyone interested in doing more research.
Pape, David, Nature Conservation in Hounslow Ecology Handbook 15, London Ecology Unit 1990, ISBN 1-871045-11-8

This is the BBC clip which shows the island and Nick constructing a shelter for himself from the osiers.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Urban baskets, tradition recycled

Is now open to the public at Walford Mill in Dorset and will be so until the evening of the 24th October so there are only four weeks left in which it can be seen in the south of England. We then have a gap in the schedule before it moves on to Denbigh Library Gallery in North Wales where it opens on the 15th January so if you run a gallery or an exhibition space and would like to have the show for the pre Christmas slot please get in touch with Christine Fletcher Jones, as soon as possible.

There is a 60 page colour catalogue to accompany the exhibition which can be ordered by mail from Walford Mill. The details of how to do this are on this link

Last week the exhibition was visited by a group of 50 mayors from all over Dorset (playfully referred to as the 'chain gang' by someone who will remain anonymous). Many of these mayors were not aware of the work that is done at Walford Mill and were apparently delighted with what they saw which can only be good news because like most other arts organisations in Britain, at the moment, Walford Mill Crafts is fearful about the projected cuts in public spending.

There has also been a political proposal that the arts should operate like commercial businesses and survive on their "profits" without tax payers help. In which case the only people who would be able to afford to participate in the arts would of necessity have to be middle aged, in work and rich as ticket, entry, participation fees etc would all have to go up and private enterprises do not normally subsidise the young, old or unwaged to attend events! The only arts events staged would be those that could be certain to bring in punters and the vision of endless re-runs of "Les Miserables" and non stop Constable exhibitions without the option of anything new or daring or different is just too horrible to contemplate. Removing public sponsorhip for the arts would be to abandon the next generation to a cultural life determined by the profit making organisations that dominate the virtual world.

It would not have been possible for me to do what I do without opportunities to show my work and teach classes in publicly funded venues in Britain and in many other countries and although my personal history is not important in the greater scheme of things, there are thousands of other artists/craftspeople/musicians/actors and authors who have also been supported in some small way or another by tax payers and most of them in return will have enriched many other lives by doing what they do.

Today there is a photography event taking place in a small village called Barro in France that attracts thousands of visitors who pay nothing to enter. It has been running for 10 years and is there for everyone that wants to see it. It is a prime example of the type of event that could not function without public money and it is superb.

It has enriched my life by showing me other ways to view the world in which we live, but I really wonder if I would have been prepared to pay to see it if I had never seen it before and didn't know just how good it is.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Opening

On Friday I flew to Southampton from Limoges and arrived at Walford Mill with enough time to add the piece I was finishing on Thursday night and the labels for each piece. Having got to know Christine (the CEO of Walford Mill Crafts) a little bit over the last couple of years I had no doubt that she would have done a good job on the layout, I was right and it felt almost as though I had done it myself, nothing needed changing even though she very graciously gave me the opportunity to do so.

On the morning of the opening we went for a walk on the beautiful Dorset coast which was superb preparation as by lunchtime we were all so relaxed that we arrived late! The weather had been a bit grey and damp but as we approached the Mill the sun came out and the first people I saw there were my parents who had come from Exeter with my brother and his wife, a two and a half hour journey away and it made for a very special beginning. About 50 people came to the opening, a mixture of locals and family and friends, the latter all having made long journeys to be there which I appreciated greatly. Private views are always strange occasions filled with expectation and nervousness and so friendly faces are always hoped for and treasured.

Bunty Ball who is currently the chair of the Basketmakers Association officially opened it for us and I am very grateful to her for doing so although I was a bit alarmed when she described the exhibition as my "lifes work" - I rather hoped I might make a few more baskets yet.....
The afternoon was so enjoyable that I forgot to take any pictures of the exhibition but Caroline the Education Officer at Walford took this picture of Bunty (left), Christine (right) and I as the doors were closing...........I will try to remember to take some when I go back to teach this weekend, but it is, of course, open to visitors before then.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Buff Basket Making

For the last five days I have been camping in a forest of maritime pines a short walk from the sea enjoying the wildness, natural beauty and pure escapism that is the Aquitaine coast. This particular camp site is slightly unusual in that one of the house rules is to "vivez nu" whenever the weather allows, and if you get bored with the beach there are lots of "animations " provided in July and August that you can participate in such as surfing, archery,photography, boules and basket making!

Usually my sojourn there is too late in the season to meet the person who teaches basket making, (I go there in September deliberately to avoid animation and because at 11€ a day it is amazing value) but this year I finally had a chance to meet Agnes Gaillut who has taught cane and willow basket making there from the 1st July to the first weekend in September for the last 18 years. Agnes comes from Marne in North East France and told me that she teaches for pleasure rather than as a profession and over this summer season she had taught 200 children and 30 adults to make baskets and she could have taken double the number if she had had the space in the workshop and someone to help. She is a true champion for the craft! On the day I was in the workshop she had two men making willow baskets, a woman making a willow platter, a boy of about 13 weaving a willow base for a round basket and a girl of about 12 weaving cane on a wooden base and all were obviously totally absorbed by their activity. If you have ever made a willow basket you will know that it usually involves knives and pointed implements so you might think it could be a dangerous activity for naked bodies but Agnes had thought of that and had 'aprons' i.e. strips of inner tube from truck tyres which provided the necessary protection.

That so many people had wanted to make baskets for pleasure was a delight to hear but I couldn't help wondering how many of them would ever make one again once they returned home because the effort involved in sourcing and ordering cane or willow would probably be sufficient a deterrant to stop most people from bothering, added to which most willow suppliers in France do not deal in quantities of less than a bolt which if you just want to make a small basket is far too much.

The maritime pine has long needles that carpet the ground in

the camp site and the beach can usually supply ropes and cords so it seems to me to be a lost opportunity not use them for coiled basket making. I asked Agnes if she had ever considered using the pine needles but she did not know it
was possible to make baskets from them so we arranged a mini coiling workshop after her class and she seemed genuinely pleased to have learnt something new to offer and promised to show me what transpires next year.

For me this is a not just a question of the dubious sustainability of imported centre cane or commercially grown willows but it is also, and maybe more importantly about empowerment. The child who learns that they can pick up the materials that are lying at their feet and make something useful from them has learnt far more than just techniques and will be able to repeat the exercise whenever it finds appropriate materials to hand, without needing any help financially or organisationally from an adult. For hard pressed parents this could also be a big attraction!

Friday 20 August 2010

Economy Drive

There are only 2 weeks left until Urban Baskets opens at Walford Mill Crafts. The last couple of weeks have been particularly intense for me as I had several pieces to finish as well as all the work to pack and document for the tour. Despite the aching hands and arms there are always benefits for me of making under pressure. It forces me to think more analytically and each process is then considered in terms of how much time it will take for the results achieved. Some of the techniques that I have developed to save time have been discovered in the last hours before the work has had to be posted/ delivered/collected or displayed.

Christine Lawry, who is the Chief Executive at Walford Mill and a person with huge amounts of
energy and passion for her work hired a van and drove the 600 mile round trip to Charme on Tuesday with Paddy, the man she married last weekend to collect the work! What a star! The 7 large boxes were whisked away on Thursday morning and my studio suddenly seems very empty. I am very grateful to them both because it took away the stress of posting the work with the hideous spectre of the work not arriving in time for the opening.....

As well as the actual baskets there has been a lot of work on the catalogue but now, finally, it has gone to the printers. Richard Broadway at East Dorset County Council has designed it and has come up with something that I am very happy with. I have had many experiences of my work being represented in print in ways that have not been appropriate or sympathetic so it is a real delight for me to be able to say that I think this catalogue does the job very well.

One of the things I wanted for this catalogue was to have other people write about about my work. Artists and craftspeople are constantly asked to write statements to explain what they do but often they are not very good at using words, they are, after all expert visual communicators and I am indebted to the following people who all generously gave of their time to write about my work from their perspective: Martina Margetts, Senior Tutor in the School of Humanities Department of Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, Tony Hayward Artist and Publisher and fellow student in the Sculpture Department at St. Martins in 1975, Carlos Fontales, Author and Researcher into the Spanish basket making tradition, apparently the only person reading this blog!) as well as Michael Norton, Social Entrepreneur and Alice Meynell, Designer and mother of 4 children, who are both much appreciated patrons.

Still labels to do and documentation of the other smaller exhibition of baskets from other cultures......

Friday 6 August 2010


This week I have been photographing my work for the catalogue that is being produced for the forthcoming exhibition, (see Exhibitions for details).

It is always the same, with nearly three years to prepare for this exhibition everything gets squashed into the last few months including the photography.

It has always been my job to photograph my work and a challenge that I have enjoyed. In the beginning I had to do it because I couldn't afford to pay a photographer, I still cannot, but now I would not consider employing anyone else because creating the images of the pieces at least gives me some control over how my work is presented. It also helps me to see the work, the good bits and the bad bits and draws attention to anything that doesn't quite work on the actual piece.
The pieces that are easy to photograph are usually ( but not always) the ones that work best in reality. In this instance I took over 800 photos to arrive at 32 that I was happy with, something that was not possible for me prior to digital cameras because of the expense and time delay.

The accidental photos or the ones where I am just 'playing' with the piece the light and the camera are often for me very interesting, although they don't necessarily show what the audience for these images is wanting to see - a dilemma.

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....