Monday 28 February 2011

Books, Libraries and a little bit of Magic

Urban baskets is currently on show in two libraries in Wales, Ruthin (above) and Denbigh (below) and it pleases me a lot that the work is being seen in  publicly funded spaces, but  for how much longer will  libraries in England and Wales  be able to afford to dedicate some of their space to galleries?  Many of them are currently battling to keep open and maintain their primary activity of lending books, for free, to the local community. It therefore seems highly unlikely that budgets for galleries within them will be considered a priority.

Tim Johnson, a British artist who finds much of his inspiration in baskets, wrote on his blog recently about  borrowing  Dorothy Wright's "The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketmaking"( ISBN 0 88914 055 3) and the influence that it had on his subsequent career. In so doing he described my own experience exactly.

It was the only book on the subject of basket making that I found in St. Martins art college library. I kept it out on loan  for months, endlessly re reading passages on my way to and from the sculpture studios by bus. There was, for me, an urgent  desire to discover how an unruly and apparently worthless twig, vine or leaf could be manipulated by human hands  into something of use or beauty, or both, and  I spent many hours trying to decode  the arcane knowledge that  the black and white illustrations seemed to be guarding. I don't think  Dorothy would have approved of the consequences of my in depth study, as she didn't seem to approve of  'arty' experimentation with basketry techniques.  But, the life size  figure of a man that I wove out of centre cane, with her unknowing assistance, was the catalyst for the direction I have taken since then, and I would like to think that my work now shows as much respect for the tradition as her writing did then.

It is impossible to say whether the same thing could have happened  by using the internet instead of borrowing a book. What is certain is that not all books in libraries will be digitised, and many of those on basket making that I have looked at are treasures from another era that went out of print many years ago.  "The Basket Maker" by Luther Weston Turner 1909 is a little gem, perfectly formed and with an almost cinematic aesthetic that shows us clearly that basket making really is the stuff of magic, a deft shoot of the cuffs and 'hey presto' - a basket!

Fortunately, the two libraries where Urban Baskets is currently on show are not in imminent danger and the exhibition continues at both venues until the 12th March. Please go and see it, if you are in the area, and sign the visitors book because  it is in some small way a petition to save these library galleries for future exhibitions.

All library photos thanks to Shani Rhys-James friend and super painter.  See her at work here

Friday 18 February 2011

Plaiting, Twining, Nets and Knots

After a few winter months in the countryside teaching in Paris made a very welcome break. Born in London and having lived in one of its more challenging areas for 32 years, I realise now that the old axiom that ‘you can take the girl out of the city but not the city out of the girl’ is probably true. I am not fussy about where I get my fix but Paris is as good as, if not better than most of the ones that I have visited.

The week started with a five o’clock alarm. A different sort of alarm took hold on finding the car windscreen needed more than a credit card to clear the ice which resulted in a mad dash to the station chasing the lights of the train pulling into the station ahead of me. Leaping breathless and triumphant into a carriage, I then discovered that the train would wait there ten minutes before departure. I have obviously lost my city nonchalance but no one sniggered openly which they would have done in London.

Five hours and two changes later I eventually arrived at the Gare d’Austerlitz. Walking to the college, the traffic seemed less frantic than I remember and there were bicycles everywhere. I bought a sandwich from a boulangerie, which is another improvement, it used to be only possible to buy a sandwich sitting at a table in a bar or bistro. Now there are small canteens and sandwich bars everywhere selling good and cheap food and the bistros are struggling to compete. 

Eating my sandwich on a bench in the sunshine my delight at being there must have shown because I soon found myself engaged in conversation by a disarming and amusing Tunisian author with glossy jet-black ringlets and a tweed trilby. His name was Adem and when he invited me to be his 'Eve' for the afternoon I politely made my excuses and headed for the college.

As mentioned in the previous post the students in the Design Textile department at ENSCI  work on looms creating fabric designs, so my intervention was something very different for them. It provided an opportunity for all three years to work together and gave them a break from the very intensive work that they normally do. Only one of the students had done any basket making before, which she did with me two years ago, and I was  pleased to have her back in the class as she had been a very creative student last time. 

 I teach basket-making techniques and material skills because I believe it is important to preserve this ancient and universal knowledge by handing it on to whoever is interested in learning. I do not instruct students in what to do with these skills. That is, I believe, for them to discover and for them to choose. For me there is a parallel with vocabulary, the more words you know the better you are able to express yourself and make the purpose of your speech or writing clear. With basket-making, the more techniques  you have mastered the more capable you are of choosing the most appropriate one for whatever it is you wish to do or make. I also find that once the students have grasped the basics of a technique they naturally become more inventive and creative without me ever instructing them how to be so. It is the confidence that comes with learning a new skill that seems to give them the courage to try something different and it never fails to delight me.

At the end of the week the students displayed their work and I asked them to tell me and each other what they had discovered during the week, what had worked for them and what had not. Interestingly the thing most of them found really exciting was having created something they considered worthwhile out of newspaper. It was the magic of making something from nothing and I could not have been more pleased

The week also brought the pleasure of seeing friends and staying in the house of a man who is in his 101st year. It seemed an honour to have the chance to meet a centenarian who is also fit and healthy and only stopped driving a couple of months ago. It is known that genetics play a huge part in longevity but it also came as no surprise to learn that he takes a cold shower every morning, exercises every day, keeps his mind active, goes to bed early and has always eaten simply and healthily.

With this lesson playing on my mind I went on to London and out to Essex for a family birthday party weekend,  little sleep and plenty of alcohol,  though I did manage a stroll in the very picturesque Maldon before going to the pub  ….. my days are definitely numbered.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Off to Paris

Coiling samples  done by Designer Textile students at ENSCI Paris 2009
Next week I will be teaching in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superiere de Creation Industrielle, or ENSCI as it is known, where I will be working with the students in the Designer Textile department. It will be my third visit to the College and I am looking forward to it. You can read about the department here: . 
The students will be learning plaiting and twining techniques, which they will use to produce designs for a container. Usually these students work on looms with incredibly fine yarns creating textile designs for couture and interiors and they seem to like working on a miniature scale.  Last time there were occasions when a student asked me if they had done something correctly and I couldn't see whether they had or not because the sample was no bigger than my thumbnail and the threads she was using were no thicker than a baby's hair.  
They are working towards a "conteneur de volume" this year and I got some new glasses today, both should help!

Plaiting samples  done by Designer Textile students at ENSCI Paris 2009

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Willows, Water and Woods

A descendant moon in the dormant season signifies that it is the moment to harvest the willows, so that has been the task of the week. Coincidentally it has also been a week of discussion about the British Governments desire to sell off the remaining publicly owned woodlands of England to pay off some of the national debt, and  in a strange way the two have become connected.

The land the willows grow on belongs to my neighbour. Having cut down some large poplars that were being cultivated there for timber, he had no further plans for the land and offered it to us for planting willow and we gratefully accepted. That was nearly 20 years ago and only a quarter of the available space was planted at that time, but it has been added to every year since. It now measures about 12 metres by 6 and has several varieties that have survived out of the 50 plus that have been tried there.

Willow bed January 2011 looking East

It used to be a real pleasure to go down to the willows on a sunny winters day.  A stand of scrubby trees on the north side of the plot gave protection from cold winds which, together with a mini wood of ash trees choked with wild clematis on the eastern side, created a warm micro-climate where you could work unfettered by layers of thick clothing or gloves.
Stream January 2011

Running along side the willow bed was a stream that originated from a small bubbling source and because the water was always there I pitted the willows for peeling in it.  It was an oasis set amongst the mixed  landscape of fields  and the little strips of potager.

Willows pitted in stream January 2000
Things began to change several  years ago. As the older villagers died so their  potagers were ploughed  into the fields, their children choosing to buy their vegetables rather than grow them. Then the trees on the north side that provided our micro climate were chopped, and the searing  north winds that often blow on sunny winter days now makes working there unpleasant. Last winter it seemed that every time we went to the plot a tractor would appear grinding noisily up and down the field spraying some noxious powder over the land and, with the aid of the north wind, us and our organically grown willows too. (This article confirms my fears.) .

By August the track to the willows had become a canyon in between the giant brutish  maize plants that bear no relation to their delicate  South American ancestors and which are apparently always thirsty. The indigenous agri-business method for quenching this thirst appears to be astonishingly stupid.  The water is pumped up from the water table and then often on a really hot day sprayed high into the air over the maize from a giant sprinkler in the hope that some of it reaches the ground. According to R.D.P.E statistics,24.html  it takes 500-1,000 litres of irrigated water to make 1kg of maize. This maize, which is unfit for human consumption,  is  fed to the pigs that live in sheds, never seeing the light of day or feeling sun on their skin, and which end up in pieces in the supermarkets "foires des porcs" of January at about 2€ a kilo. How do the sums add up, pork that is cheaper per kilo than cabbages?

Dry stream September 2010
It is hardly  surprising then that last year for the first time we saw a gaping hole in the dry stream bed where the spring should have been, and it wasn't until November that  water started to bubble up again.
Needless to say it  wasn't a good willow harvest.

Reflecting on all this in the biting wind with freezing fingers trying to grasp the secateurs, I began to tell myself that we should stop doing this work.  It is not much fun and  I don't really need the willows, there are plenty of other available materials that I can use to make baskets with, but if we stop cultivating this little plot  the trees surrounding it will be cut and the maize will be moved in. It struck me then that the only difference between Brazilian deforestation and the European version is that we have already done it.

Here is a link to a petition to halt the sell off of Englands publicly owned woodlands Thank you Barbara.