Wednesday 22 October 2014

Effort - Less is More

2007 willow and plastic lids
Sometimes, I just have to accept that it isn't going to work  in the way that I hope it will  and a whole weeks work has to be abandoned. That happened last Friday and the minute I made that decision and started something else it all flowed smoothly again.

Next year there will be some exhibitions of my work in Australia and in order to keep the shipping charges as low as possible we are not sending pieces with willow bark.  They necessitate fumigation and all sorts of other noxious processes to avoid the immigration into Australia of  rogue insects or diseases. But, the organisers of the exhibitions particularly liked  a couple of the pieces in brown willow with plastic lids (see picture above)  so I offered to try doing something similar but using white willow. I wasn't intending to reproduce the pieces, just to do something in the same vein. But, what I discovered  was that my original choice of brown willow  had been the best choice and that white willow didn't perform in the same way. It was much harder to prevent it kinking and the dark lines of the original brown willow looked better than the white. White might have worked on a dark surface but then there wouldn't be any of the graphic shadows and few galleries have dark walls and plinths. These problems were compounded by not having the right sort of wire, it was a bit too stiff and difficult to control and as I don't buy materials  that was that. I remade the same things four times in different ways but it just didn't work. The lids,  however, are still lovely and will be used for something else.

Fighting with my materials has never been my modus operandi, it always seems to show and  the work looks as tense as I feel doing it. I want my work to look as though it has been effortless to make  even though I might have spent many hours on it. It's  an economically  counterproductive way of working because if  it looks effortless potential customers can't appreciate the work that has gone into it and therefore think the price I am asking is unjustified. 

The balance between perceived and actual invested value, i.e time,  is an interesting one. I was once approached by an American gallery who wanted me to make a 'basketry teapot' for a show they were putting on. It had to be teapot sized (cheap to ship) though it didn't need to function as one and with as much labour in it as possible to justify an expensive price tag. I didn't take up the invitation because not only did I find the idea of a basket teapot horrible,  but, also because  it seemed such a stupid  idea to deliberately put as much labour as possible into a piece, when you could do something good much more simply.

Now I understand  that there is a whole commercial craft market that operates out of galleries in high overhead locations that work on this principle. Because these galleries are often quite small they can't show big works but they can get a lot of financial value on plinths by showing small one-off works with phenomenal amounts of labour built into them. It's not the amount of labour I find difficult to deal with, but the fact that it exists for one purpose only, and that is to make the item more expensive. It's almost as if it doesn't seem to  matter if the basketry teapot is a gross and pointless object as long as a customer can be convinced that they are buying a lot of someone elses skill, time and effort at a good price.

Ironically the production market works the other way. When we ran our own basket production company the buyers from stores constantly pushed us to lower our prices, but the only way we could do that was to take the labour out of the product. So for ten years  I designed the labour out of our baskets and in the end our baskets had very little weaving left in them.

These experiences have brought me to a place where, although  I believe Mies van der Rohes precept for minimalist design that "less is more", I  find I still have to show some  evidence of my labour in my work for people to like it enough to want to buy it. Its' a weird  place to be in and quite challenging.

This week I am having fun with  a sack full of corks, it may work, it may not, but at the moment I am optimistic that I will be able to strike the balance between evident effort and effortlessness!

Sunday 12 October 2014

Ateliers d'Art

Cover of September /October issue of Ateliers d'Art showing 'Start Point Tree' 2013 by Corentin Laval.
Photo by Bernard Dupuy
A couple of weeks ago and quite unannounced I received, in the post, a  glossy French craft magazine 'Ateliers d'Art' which, to my  surprise, had a really good picture of 'Satellites' in it taken during the exhibition at Nontron. The picture  featured as part of an article about the shift  towards artistic practice by some willow basket makers in France.

'Satellites' 2013
Photo by Bernard Dupuy

Articles about willow and basket making generally  make me nervous because they are often poorly researched, especially the ones for newspapers and  glossy 'housey' type magazines.  Usually these articles cast a romantic eco-glow over the whole subject with lots of seductive pictures of willows and weaving and seldom a glance at the bigger picture of unsustainable practice amongst commercial willow growers  and the massive international (and equally unsustainable) trade in willow products from China and elsewhere.

But, this article  is different, possibly  because it isn't trying to sell  anything. Well researched by its author, Dominique Brisson  it examines some of the key historical and socio-economic factors that have reduced the number of people engaged in willow basket making in France over the last century. It  goes on to suggest that France now has  a handful of mostly young makers who are starting to use willow and willow skills as a means of artistic expression, rather than for purely functional baskets, including  Erik Barray, Myriam Roux,  Corentin Laval and Karen Gossart. Interestingly Erik Barray  acknowledges that France is lagging behind in this respect and is quoted as saying "que depuis longtemps, les choses bougent beaucoup plus en Angleterre qu'en France" ( for a long time things have moved more in England than in France)  and the author continues "Les Anglo Saxons semblent en effet avoir une plus grande liberte avec la matiere" ( the Anglo Saxons seem, in effect, to have a greater liberty with the material).  Alastair Heseletine, Trevor Leat,  Tom Hare and Tim Johnson are all mentioned in the context of artistic work with willow but curiously not Laura Ellen Bacon or Lizzie Farey who are possibly the most groundbreaking of the British females who work almost exclusively with willow. My work gets a mention in the context of re-cycling, even though that is still an alien concept in the world of French basket making which is still dominated by willow.
Sweeney on his Throne by Trevor Leat 2013
It is an interesting article which  drew my attention to Trevor Leats work again. Generally I am not too keen on figurative willow work because it often seems to me to be ugly or lacking in real sculptural qualities, but Trevor does some amazing stuff. I particularly like this piece that  he did on Eigg recently and enjoyed his blog about his residency there. Michelle Cain works in a similar vein making giant figurative works for festivals and events and her willow badger  for Pembrokeshire (which you can see on the link) is very impressive!

If you want to read the article in Ateliers d'Art you can do so via the link by paying 3.50€ to the publishers of the magazine. (If they weren't a charitable association I would offer to copy it for you!)