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 www.piphall.co.uk ) 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  http://www.wickerwillowcoffins.co.uk/ 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.