Monday, 21 November 2011

Plaiting Iris Leaves

At the time it seemed so lucky to find a cache of iris tubers at the rubbish dump but some years later I am wiser. I have learnt that when you aren't looking they rapidly multiply and push and shove each other across pathways and over walls smothering all other more delicate plants. In no time at all you have so many that you might, in desperation, consider taking a boot load to the rubbish dump! But, the idea of rubbish dumps, let alone using energy to take anything to them is a tricky one for me, so I have tried to find other, more positive, ways to use these plants.

Cutting the leaves off after the plants have flowered has always seemed to me to be a brutal and ugly way to deal with dying iris leaves. So in this garden at least, they are allowed to die naturally and as the leaves turn brown I gather them. If I am going to use them straight away I do this in the morning, after they have been softened by the dew and put them in the shade till I am ready to work. If not I tie them in bunches and dry them.

Plaiting is something that can be done in those moments when you don’t really want to have to think too much about what you are doing, so talking, travelling and watching tv are all good companion activities. A trip to the beach for the day is for me the perfect opportunity to do some plaiting so I damp a few bunches by dipping them quickly in water and shaking off the excess, put them in a plastic bag and stick them on the back shelf in the car in the sunshine.  A couple of hours later they come out of the bag on the beach in perfect condition for  plaiting or rope making, both of which can later be stitched into baskets or mats. 

Six years a go I started making table mats with my plaits, and have made one or more a year since then, now I have a set of 8. These are simple circular mats 25cm in diameter that are used to protect the wooden table from hot plates. I am not keen on table mats that extend beyond the plates, I don’t really understand what the point of them is because they always get food spilt on them and need endless amounts of washing or cleaning, both of which are time and resource sappers.

Of all the things that I have made for my own home these table mats probably give me the most pleasure because I use them several times a day and they do everything I want from them. They look attractive,  protect the table,  never need cleaning, smell nice (a musky woody scent) and inadvertently they tidy up the irises. There is something very satisfying about turning an otherwise rather pointless activity i.e. pulling off dead iris leaves so the garden looks better, into a fruitful one, making something useful out of them.

So for anyone interested in making iris leaf table mats here, very simply, is my method.

Harvest the leaves and either use them damp with morning dew or damp them just before you want to use them.
Take 3 leaves and tie them tightly in the middle with a piece of string that you can tie onto something solid such as a door knob or table leg.This allows you to pull on the plait which frees up your hands to concentrate on it and makes it easier to get an even plait. When working on the beach I trap the plait between my toes.

Divide the leaves into three even bunches and plait them as if you were braiding hair. My plaits are folded inwards at the edges to give a smooth edge.

The plait is kept an even thickness by adding new leaves as and when necessary, I join them usually on the right because  it makes trimming the ends quicker and easier with them all pointing in the same direction. They are put in by the butt leaving a little bit sticking out.
Here is a short video clip

I make approximately 15 metres of plait for a 25cm diameter table mat.The plait is dried naturally out of direct sunlight or extreme heat. And then all the bits sticking out are trimmed off.

The stitching is done with jute, polypropylene or cotton cord i.e whatever I have available that is suitable. Starting at the end that was tied onto something I roll the plait tightly and stitch through a small coil of a couple of rows two or three times to hold it all together. I then continue the stitching working in a spiral by going through the fixed plait and the free plait using a simple running or tacking stitch.
Here is another video clip

As I near the 25cm diameter I estimate where the plait needs to finish and cut it at that point I then unravel the plait, cut some pieces out to thin it down and re plait it so that the end just tapers away to almost nothing. That is stitched in place and the mat is ready for use.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Urban Baskets Boxed In

Two of the exhibits in Urban Baskets

Urban Baskets has now finished in the Netherlands where, again, it was very well received. It will not be going on show again until June 2012 at the Harley Foundation in Nottingham so Walford Mill in Dorset will have to store it until then. For me this is distressing, I hate to think of my work sitting in dark, suffocating boxes for eight  months. These pieces were made to be seen and shared with others and when they are not on show they normally share my living space. Now the house feels empty and the baskets are shut away from view - it doesn’t feel right.  Do any of you  know of a vacant space, where they could be allowed to breathe again before June?

The work is very lightweight and is packed in postable cardboard boxes. It is not, by normal standards, an expensive exhibition to move around and it will all fit in a Transit van. From all the evidence in the visitors book and the attendance figures, so far, the exhibition is guaranteed to give pleasure and inspiration to it’s audience.  If you know of a public space UK, Scandinavia, Germany, Spain, or anywhere else that might be able to squeeze it in please get in touch with either, me or Christine at Walford Mill and make some baskets very happy!

At the same time we are working with various organisations and individuals on the possibilities of taking Urban Baskets to Canada and Australia from 2013 where, ideally, we would like to create mini tours. If you are reading this in either country please get in touch with suggestions of possible venues.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Duos Potier,Vannier.

 La petite galerie du chateau du Roussillon
Some months ago I was invited to participate in this exhibition which is currently on show  until the 30th October in the Chateau de Roussillon in the Rhone Valley, south of Lyon. The idea behind the event was to pair up potters with basket makers in order for them to collaborate on some pieces. It is an interesting and popular idea, the Scottish Basketmakers' Circle have a similar exhibition opening shortly at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow. Initially my collaborator was to be a potter in my region but that fell through, (I think it was the prospect of working with me) and I was then paired up with Michel Gardelle – a highly respected ceramicist who lives close to Mont de Marsan in the Landes region, some four hours south of where I live.  Various things intervened and in the end we never met! With time running out we arranged that I would collect three of Michel’s pots from a friend of his closer to me and I was given carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with them.

Michel Gardelle's ceramic pieces

This presented me with problems, not only because I find ceramic objects a bit scary ( I was terrified of dropping them) but also because here were three finished pieces that I really had no desire to do anything to! It would have been totally different if they had been created with a view to me working on them but these were not new pieces and had been conceived without that idea in prospect. In some way, therefore, it seemed disrespectful to add anything to them as Michel had already decided that they were finished pieces. This bothered me until I stood the three pieces on the studio floor in the sunshine. The shadows were each different and I immediately realised that I was going  to make ‘shadow’ baskets.

Pots, shadows and baskets

Once the idea arrived the work went quickly and I enjoyed making the three pieces. Each one taking inspiration from details on the pots as well as the shape of the shadows. I would not have made them without having had the opportunity to live with and look at Michels’ pieces in my studio, so for me, at least, the ‘collaboration’ was ultimately creative.

Last weekend we drove to Roussillon to deliver the work. There I met Francoise Demoulins who is a basket maker and friend of Monica Guilera in Catalonia. It was Monica who had suggested me as a possible participant in this event and I am grateful to them both. There were six exhibitors, the others were potters Sylvie and Francois Fresnais who were paired with the perigourdin expert Philippe Guerinel, and Christine Fabre  who was paired with the irrepressible Erik Barray, self styled Vannier Urbain. Neither Philippe nor Michel were there for the vernissage but it was a great pleasure to meet the others and for me a particular pleasure to meet Erik.
Sylvie and Francois Fresnais
and Philipe Guerinel
Christine Fabre and Eric Barray
Nathalie and Jean-Jacques Dubernard, who live and work in a 200 year old pottery that is known as ‘La Poterie des Chals, were our hosts. They have changed very little at the pottery preparing their own clay and using foot powered wheels to make decorated slipware using only mineral glazes. The ancient wood fired kilns are impressive. They have a small shop and sell their work at many of the pottery fairs held in France. We could not have had better hosts.

The idea for the exhibition was theirs and the Association FIGLINAE that organised it came into existence because of their enthusiasm for their craft.  Most of the forty members of the Association supported the opening by bringing food to share. The vernissage was packed and fortuitously a bar next door was having a re-opening party after a change of management. The Champagne flowed, the band played and the assembled potters, basket makers and friends took to the floor. Jean Jacques turned out to be the partner of choice for the women with his astonishing Ceroc moves; he will forever be ‘twinkle toes’ in my memory. Later back at the pottery  the other JJ, aka ‘twinkle fingers’ played international folk tunes on his melodeon. I am not sure whether the French audience understood “Aunty Mary had a Canary”, but the clapping and stamping implied they enjoyed it.  I don’t think I have ever been to a better opening! 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Going Dutch

In a bid to be environmentally friendly I went to Noordwolde in Friesland by train. It took all day from Poitiers and for much of the journey time after Tours it travelled through a landscape blighted by the railways’ presence. Crossing Paris underground on a very warm day didn't add to my experience. The Gare du Nord is my least favourite Paris station surrounded, as it is, by dense traffic, expensive bars and restaurants and an annoying, though nevertheless quite interesting, assortment of audacious con merchants.

Looking at the acres of new railway infrastructure construction as we hurtled through Northern France, Belgium and southern Netherlands I began to wonder why we are being persuaded that it is more environmentally friendly to cover the land with new railway lines when looking up, all I could see was empty blue sky from horizon to horizon marked by the occasional vapour trail from a solitary aircraft!

There is a scene in the wonderful animation by Sylvain Chaumet,  Triplettes de Belleville, where the development around ‘Grandmas’ house has left the building that was once in the country jammed between a railway line, pylons, motorways and buildings with commuter trains now running right outside the upper floor windows. You can see a bit of it here . This vignette kept coming to mind as we screamed past bedrooms and gardens, places we usually like to think of as personal, private and tranquil havens.

It was the gardens that really got to me. Everywhere along these railway lines people had created little patches of verdant paradise with  affectionately tended grass, topiary, flowers and exotic trees, as though they were trying to compensate for the hideous sight and sound  of the railway line that they have to share their lives with.

Once an aeroplane is in the sky it doesn't usually bother too many people on the ground and I do believe they are not too far from developing ways to fly that do not vapourize ozone or require lakefuls of fossil fuels. Most airports shut at night but goods trains and many passenger trains allow no respite for the many poor souls who have to sleep near the lines. I am really not sure about more and faster trains.....

Things improved once I got beyond Rotterdam but, the Netherlands is undergoing a major construction boom. This is not just on their railways, cranes and cement mixers were everywhere. It was only after Zwolle that pastoral scenes became the norm and fortunately Noordwolde turned out to be a very small and quiet town in some lovely countryside. 

On my first evening stroll at twilight I saw a hare, only metres away. I had never seen a live hare before, I thought it was a dog with extra large ears!

The motive for my journey was a two day workshop to coincide with Urban Baskets which has been on show at the Nationaal Vlechtmuseum since July. The workshop was fully booked with 21 highly motivated and hard working students, including two men! I am always delighted to get men in my workshops and I like to have a lot of students mainly because it keeps me busy. More importantly though, I believe the students can learn as much from each other as from me, as everyone inevitably does something very different simply because they come with  different materials and skills.  Men often make bigger things than women which, for me, is another good reason to encourage them. 

On the Saturday morning the museum was closed to the public and I was given the opportunity to look at the library and the collections on display and in store.The museum is a former school of basket making modelled on the one in Lichtenfels in GermanyThe displays include the history of the school but also the history of Noordwolde and the basket and rattan furniture industry that once dominated the town. It’s an interesting tale of poverty, benevolence, colonialism and design that you can read more about  on the museum website (link above) though the google translation leaves much to be desired.

Whilst I am personally fascinated by these social histories I am even more concerned with trying to make sure that these skills are not lost for future generations, so it was a real pleasure for me to meet Esme Hoffman and to see her work. 

Esme  in her workshop, where she also offers classes
She is one of relatively few young people in Europe who have been taught how to do very fine skeined willow work by elderly master craftsmen in Lichtenfels spending three years of her four year course focussing just on skeined work. She is also possibly the only one who has decided now to make it her speciality.

Esmes  work
There is little chance for anyone to learn this craft to the same degree now at Lichtenfels as the skeined work module of the course has been reduced to just 6 weeks, which for anyone who has ever done any will know that it is barely enough time to learn how to make skeins let alone a basket! Esme is now seeking to take this skill in new directions and will be exhibiting alongside contemporary Dutch designers in a major exhibition next year in Holland. I can’t wait to see what she does.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

After the Catwalk

My broadband isn't very high speed so the live stream kept stalling and the Daks show video, now online  has been edited. So, perhaps, I missed something, but I could only see 3 bags in the catwalk show of the 10 pieces that I was asked to make. They were a looped white leather shoulder bag, (below) a  coiled red rope shoulder bag and a large circular coiled red rope bag (above).

Sadly, they didn't use  the 2 leather piped coiled rope shoulder bags, a  large and a small  looped leather bag, or the 3 rimless hats!

I was not given any idea of how many pieces might be used and I certainly did not expect them to use them all. But, they responded so enthusiastically to everything,  that I  had imagined some of the other pieces might have been used too. So, for me personally the catwalk show was disappointing.   Obviously for Daks the clothes are the most important thing and the accessories secondary  but I  still hope these other pieces will get an airing  one day.  The thought  of them never being seen or used by anyone  seems too wasteful of both materials and my energy! But, at least, I can now show you some of the other pieces.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Extreme Looping and Coiling

For the last eight days I have only felt the wind on my skin on the short walk from the house to the studio. I haven't shopped I haven't cooked (the 'kitchen god' did both)  I have hardly slept and  I haven't mowed the grass ('kitchen god' doesn't do mowing).  The looping and coiling marathon I have been engaged in ended last night and my hands and arms now feel strangely liberated. They seem to want to wave langorously about in the open air but I won’t let them as the neighbours and their pets would be unnerved.

The last package has just gone. With  luck it's contents will be seen on the catwalk at Somerset House in London on Saturday morning at 9am in Daks Spring Summer 2012 show for London Fashion Week. You will be able to watch the show live or later here: 
It was never intended to be a race against time as I had set aside the whole of August to do the work at a nice leisurely pace. But, the leather cord that was ordered for me to work with from a good sustainable supplier in the USA met French bureaucracy at Roissy airport, and a shipment that should have taken 5 days ended up taking nearly 5 weeks. As I don’t  import or buy materials for my own work this is, fortunately, not something I  normally have to deal with.

I suppose the moral of this story is don’t try to do anything that requires a French bureaucrat to work in August because they, like most other sensible Europeans, "vamos a la playa”. It is only those countries driven by a protestant work ethic that don’t take advantage of the sunshine and school holidays to spend time with their children. A report out this week comparing children in Spain, Sweden and UK came to the conclusion that British children were the least happy because they felt they didn’t get enough time being with family and friends or doing things out of doors. 

I cannot tell you much more about the actual work I did for Daks, until the show has happened, except that they were looped and coiled hats and bags. It’s supposed to be a surprise. But the picture hints at  what I made and despite the rush I really enjoyed doing it. Challenging and collaborative, the work required  both my technical and design skills and I  had the pleasure of working  with Flora Hely Hutchinson at Daks, whose attention to detail and support were superb. 

Unfortunately I cannot go to the show as I don't have a cat to walk and, more importantly, "vamos a la playa"!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Bric a Brac Baskets

Summer is bric-a-brac season, and each Sunday these outdoor markets occupy public squares, parks and football pitches all over France. Sometimes they are called bric-a-bracs, sometimes brocantes and sometimes vide greniers, but the subtlety of this nomenclature eludes me because they all look like car boot sales, with a few professional dealers thrown in.

Sellers need to enjoy watching the sun rise. Pitches are established on a first come basis before dawn and, if you are an amateur, it is necessary to be awake enough to haggle with the professionals who scan the contents of your car with their torches as you wait for it to get light enough to set up stall. If not, you discover when you do finally wake up that the things they bought from you in your early morning stupor are now on their stalls at twice the price.

Keen collectors also arrive early but those who go for the spectacle, and barquettes of freshly cooked frites or a glass of wine for 50c (unheard of in a bar) arrive at lunchtime, when eating has become the priority for sellers and buyers alike.  The picnic tables are laid, the camping chairs clacked open, corks popped and Sunday lunch is enjoyed surrounded by many of the same possessions that previously graced the diner’s homes. These are now no longer wanted, liked or needed and sit sulkily on the grass hoping to attract new and kinder owners. If you find something you want to buy at this time of day you are far more likely to get a good price simply because you are taking up valuable eating time. 

Visually raking over the tables laden with the physical manifestations of consumerism, I try to understand this foreign semiotic language. What could possibly have made someone want to buy a coat rack made out of the bent feet of goats nailed to a wooden board! And why does no one want to keep these lovely coiled straw baskets that are the tradition of this region and which embody so much of the history of rural existence here as it was only 70 years ago? What do either of these observations tell me about the people who once owned these objects?

That these Poitou Charente baskets employ the same materials and techniques as those of the Shetland tradition seems too coincidental for me to ignore and the temptation to become a rescue centre for these filthy, abused and neglected baskets has overwhelmed me. Invariably, after failing to persuade myself that I do not need another basket, I part with a few euros, (I don’t usually haggle as knowing the hours of labour that went into their making they are, for me, too cheap already). As the coins slip into the sellers pocket, I am aware of the burden of responsibility I am taking on. Now, I will have to find some way of dealing with this rapidly increasing collection of large baskets that will give these humble objects back some of their simple beauty and dignity. 
Click here to see more baskets

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Keeping It Simple

On the 17th July I returned to Issigeac for the “Foire aux Paniers” and to get first hand evidence of the public reaction to the exhibition of my latest work “Tri and Leaf”.

Unusually, I had total control over how my work was presented in this beautiful space, an opportunity I welcomed, and I chose to keep it deliberately sparse in text and not to use any plinths. The audience were only given simple labels with just the date of making and a description, in French, of the materials used, as it is not always evident that they are re-used, recycled or grown materials.

Lid hat
Now, more than ever before, I want my work to speak for itself. The visual and the literal are two distinct languages and whilst I absolutely believe that one can inform and interact with the other, when I make my work I make it with a visual imperative. If it doesn’t work visually it doesn’t work for me, no matter how many words I may write about it and I therefore want the onlooker to experience what they see and feel (because they always touch my work) unencumbered by my written words, which are far less adept than my ability to manipulate materials.

So, the only texts I provided at Issigeac were the simple labels and a copy of the “Urban Baskets” catalogue for people to look at if they felt so inclined. No name panels, no biography, no 'artists statements' and perhaps even more importantly now, for me, no price lists as the work was not for sale. This has been coming for a long time, but now I feel strong enough to do it, perhaps because I am old enough. My reasons for this decision are too complicated to discuss here, so it will be a separate post, essay or book!

Although I didn’t want to burden the visitors to ‘Tri and Leaf’ with text panels I did want to know what they thought of the exhibition. So, I provided them an opportunity to write words if they so wished by placing a school exercise book and a pen on the table which remained there for the last two weeks of the exhibition.
On Wednesday of this week I went back to Issigeac to take down the exhibition and read their comments. If you click on the picture below you can read for yourself some of the things that were said.

As for the Foire, I hardly had a chance to look at it but René Parachout was there again with his lovely baskets and it was nice to catch up with some friends in the basket making world.

Rene Parachout
If anyone reading this fancies exhibiting basket related works in this beautiful space during the month of July they should contact the Tourist Office at Issigeac as they are open to proposals.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Tri and Leaf

Log Basket II

Issigeac, in the Dordogne, is three hours each way from here and on Monday I made the journey there and back to deliver and install 11 new pieces (one of which is a tower of five baskets so it is really 16 new pieces) in the Salles du Caveau of the Chateau. I have been working on this body of work since the beginning of the year for this exhibition that I have called “Tri and Leaf” 
There were other pieces that I rejected at the last minute, but they will emerge when I have more time to resolve some problems on them. These are technical but they usually manifest themselves as aesthetic ones.  Because I do not buy materials and use only those that I have, can find, or grow, it always take time to resolve these problems.

Some of these pieces were direct follow-ons from previous work, altering the technique but not necessarily the form or the materials and some went in new directions. This was deliberate as France is a new and in many ways tricky audience for my baskets, so I needed a few pieces that I knew would work. Both the basket making and the artistic cultures are very different in France to Britain. This is a direct consequence of the educational and tax systems operating  in very different ways which results in  the artist/maker or designer/maker being  a fairly unusual concept in France. The norm is that one is either a fine artist or an artisan or a designer but seldom the mixed up version that I am.

The exhibition is on for a month and we shall see what the reaction is…

Chair and laundry basket

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Urban Baskets in the Netherlands

Laundry basket 1995

'Urban Baskets' opened at the National Vlechtmuseum in the Netherlands on Saturday where it will be on show until the 23rd of October. I was not there because the ‘opening’ will not be until the end of September. Esme Hoffman,  superb basket maker and a curator at the Vlechtmuseum told me they had learnt that openings  and workshops were all better attended once the exhibition had been up and running for a while, an innovative approach that  makes sense to me. So, I will be going there for a few days at the end of September, beginning of October to teach and talk and have a chance to look at the museum.

Not having shown my work in the Netherlands before it is difficult to gauge how it will be received there, but we have now had the statistics for the showing in North Wales and because the exhibition was split between two libraries and most of the people going into the libraries had to walk past the exhibition the visitor statistics are impressive! 11,000 in  Ruthin and 15,000 in Denbigh which added to the 6,000 at Walford Mill means that at least 34,000 people have seen Urban Baskets over the last 10 months, even if all they did was walk past it! We don’t have the Shetland statistics yet.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bee Behaviour

Only two weeks to go until I deliver the new work to Issigeac for my next exhibition, "Tri and Leaf" (details in the side panel), and I am behaving like a bee! This is quite normal, it always happens. 

Two months ago I said I was dedicating this time to making, and I have tried to so. But, as I thought, the vegetable garden has been a major diversion due to an extremely dry spring with abnormally high temperatures. Can we really ever call weather “abnormal”? It seems to do what it wants, and fortunately, no one has found a way to control it – yet. More pumps and hoses and gadgets would no doubt make watering the garden easier and quicker but it's just more consumerism, which as a rule I try to avoid.  It is also more stuff to own and maintain and hauling buckets of water out of the well has benefits in the form of nicely toned arms.

There is an old cast iron hand pump on one of the wells in the garden, but it does not work. Last week I got distracted trying to repair it. The bit that creates the vacuum was missing so I made a new one out of a piece of  plastic pipe and some wire and an old hot water bottle.

I got quite excited when I replaced it, I could hear it sucking sweetly against the walls of the pipe as I levered it up and down. But, then I realised that the check valve might be broken or that the well is too deep for a hand pump. Wikipedia says the maximum depth you can pump by hand is seven metres but the water line has now dropped in this well to nine metres so I have temporarily abandoned the task, as I must make some baskets!

Decisions have to be made and pieces finished. I have five things on the go at once, partly because it stops me from getting bored and partly because it helps avoid RSI in all its painful forms. For weeks I have been buzzing around the studio landing here and there, playing with this, trying that, taking an other to bits and starting it again. I am then off  onto something else, or into the garden.  

 The real creative stuff begins when I  wake in the morning thinking there are only so many hours left to finish everything.  I realised long ago that I need the pressure of deadlines in order to work well and today was a turning point as a result of finding just the right material for a particular piece, I can now see what has to be done – it’s just a question of putting in the hours and steering clear of distractions. I am buzzing off.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Talking, Talking, Talking....

Some months ago, National Life Stories at the British Library asked me if I would be willing to record my “Life Story” for posterity. For some time now, my name has appeared in English school exam papers and so I get emails from students asking me to tell them my life story.  It struck me that a recording could be a good resource, and would save me having to explain why their request is tricky for people who have lived a few more years than they have. So I agreed and last week I spent almost 12 hours answering well-researched questions about both my personal and work life.

National Life Stories is a charitable trust based in the British Library whose brief is to 'record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of present-day society as possible'. The recordings are housed in collections such as ‘Architects' Lives’, ‘Artists Lives’, ‘Lives in the Steel Industry’, ‘Medical Lives’ etc. The one that my recording will be in is 'Craft Lives' and at some future date, it will be available to listen to, either at the British Library or as a download. I will post the details here for those of you desperate to hear it (my parents) when I get the information! 

It was a strangely exhausting experience as even the most garrulous amongst us (and I do not count myself among their number) don’t normally talk for two hours at a time. I imagine it resembled a session with a psychotherapist more than anything and for the first time in my life, the bizarre nature of my parents’ home life started to register with me. My fathers’ work required that they move house almost every six months during my teens, yet this was something that at the time I accepted as normal, if a bit annoying. My interviewer, Frances, deserves a medal for staying awake and asking intelligent questions every day even though the temperature refused to fall below a sultry 24C. She pointed out that I am always seeking to make lightweight work that packs easily and suggested that it may be a consequence of this nomadic childhood. It is an interesting point that I had not considered before, I always thought it was because I needed to reduce the cost of postage!

There is no editing so everything I said is there in perpetuity. But, the interviewee is given the right to mute out the things that they wish they had not said, for a maximum of 30 years. On the whole I was nice about everybody. The exceptions are my first basketry teacher, and my excruciatingly boring history teachers. I still have not forgiven the latter for making the very raunchy story of Henry VIII so tedious. Thanks to the recent TV series 'The Tudors' I now know just how raunchy this story was. I also had little praise for a Welsh ‘English’ teacher in Tenby who destroyed the magic of Shakespeare’s prose and poetry for me. He also used me as a scapegoat for all his vengeance against England, not that he had any idea where my roots lay. I am, however, regretting that I forgot to tell my very personal Prince Charles story which would have explained why, for me, the guillotine seems quite a good idea…..  but, it just might have landed me in the Tower.

The studio:  one of the things I was asked to describe 

I also restrained myself from “f…ing and blinding” and I did ask to mute one small bit for 30 years though I am not telling anyone what it is and Frances is sworn to secrecy.

Whilst I am on the theme of the British Library my Doctoral Thesis "Grown Home an exploration of processes for the manufacture and cultivation of willow products,Royal College of Art, 2003" has now been digitised and is available to download on line.
Surprisingly, it was done because quite a few people have wanted to read it. I hope they got something of use out of it. Strangely, I haven’t received any copyright fees for it and yet I am sure I signed a piece of paper in 2003 that said I would receive something when anyone read it! I must hunt that bit of paper out, yet another case of “if you don’t ask you don’t get” …..last week I was certainly asked!

Meanwhile work continues

Monday, 16 May 2011

Basket Making for Bairns

Basket by Grace. Photo: Shetland Arts

After I left Shetland, at the beginning of April, Hazel Hughson and Jane Mathews ran a 'drop in' basket making session for bairns at Bonhoga to tie in with Urban Baskets. Here in Hazels own words, (taken from her hastily written email to me) is her report of the event:

"We had 8, the youngest was 3, she pulled through and selected the materials with her granny. They enjoyed it, and some made a few containers.  I had cut vertical slits in Soya Milk cartons and strips of the same material plus strapping tape and other containers. They selected from a pile and wove them in.  I included a cheese box and one little lass made a good effort, curled up the edges. They all took the technique further, a boy wanted to add a handle and worked out a way with wire and tape, so others followed. I really enjoyed it, the bairns were so serious and quiet.  We had no glue or staples, only a couple of hole punches and because it was a bairns event and in the lower café, Jane and I were Scissor Prefects ! So all the cuts were carefully planned! " 

Baskets by bairns Photo: Shetland Arts
Teaching small children basket making skills in public spaces is not easy, there might be sharp tools involved and British health and safety laws now make it almost impossible for children in classes to handle anything that might perform as a useful tool. This over protection  is not restricted to children,  the adult students  in my workshop at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts were not allowed to bring in their own tools for  "health and safety" reasons, yet, the only tools I had requested they bring in were  large eyed needles and  all purpose scissors! If students (of any age) are not taught to use tools in supervised classrooms, one can only imagine what will  happen once they are liberated into the XXX rated adult world of DIY stores. The tempting ranks of chain saws, hammer drills, hot air guns, electronic nailers, brush cutters, angle grinders  and their safety manuals, often  badly translated, can surely only lead to carnage.

One of the most memorable TV programmes I have ever seen was one of the Cuisines des Terroirs series  (an Arte production that documents cooking as it is done in family homes in Europe today) and was about the Sami of northern Europe, whose main source of food is the reindeer.  I watched, mesmerized, as a class of under 5’s were given very sharp knives and the bloody, freshly skinned, heads of reindeer to cut up, which they attacked with gusto. Interestingly the children, spattered with blood, showed no revulsion as they did it, and there were no fatalities.

In America there is a growing movement towards providing places where very small children can be taught to use tools. Jaqueline Allwood a glass engraver who works at home surrounded by her small grandchildren gave me this interesting article from the New York Times.

In most cultures where basket making is still practiced daily the children learn by just being around the adults whilst they work, playing with the materials and watching what is going on, learning initially by osmosis, rather than by practice. Now, in many parts of northern Europe and North America there are few homes where the adults regularly  make baskets, so this way of learning is not an option for most children and school and museum sessions are often the only way a child will ever get a chance to make a basket.  As such these sessions are important not only for the preservation of the craft knowledge but also in terms of opening up opportunities for children to work with their hands, something that has almost been written out of school curricula in Britain (and America) at secondary level. Mathew Crawford in his book “The Case for Working with Your Hands” ISBN 978-0-670-91874-4 makes a very strong argument for the re-introduction of practical workshop tuition in schools. Here is an excerpt from the introduction.

“ A decline in tool use  would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent…… What ordinary people once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”

As a child, like many others, I was a one-person factory with a constant production line of 'things' made out of paper, fabric, wool, twigs and mud. It turns out that making 'things' was obviously what I was put on this earth for but, perhaps, my paternal grandfather, Ernest Walpole, was also instrumental in my ultimate career choice. He made things all the time too, model boats, furniture, toys, lights and kites were just some of his creations and as children we were always encouraged to help him with his making which often involved using tools like saws and hammers. Cane basketry was one of his many hobbies and as a child I helped cut and soak the canes.  If I was lucky, I also got permission to poke the soft damp sticks into the holes on the wooden bases and bend them over. These experiences cannot have been anything other than formative for me.

Photo  from "Pomo Basketmaking" ISBN 0-87961-016-6 by Elsie Allen, taken in Hopland California in 1935 of her mother teaching a young Pomo girl  how to make  a "lattice weave number  4-twine  basket "