Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sketching - How It's Become Part of my Art Practice

I am a new convert to sketching as part of my art practice. And a very reluctant convert at that. I think it was the idea that other people might see my scribblings that I found so daunting, or perhaps it was a throw-back to fears of "not doing it right", learned in some long-ago classroom, or maybe it was seeing all those books about "artful sketchbooks" You know the kind - filled with so many beautiful paintings that they are a piece of art in themselves. Whatever the roots of my reluctance were, I've thrown them over. I've dabbled with sketching before, but I think I can safely say that I now see it as an essential part of my art practice.

It began with an invitation to look at lines - all different sorts of lines. I drew 30 little squares on my sketchbook page and quickly filled them in, beginning with the simplest of lines and eventually including any sort of line that appealed to me. And I learned something from that simple exercise that I didn't know before. I could see which lines appealed to me, which called my name, and therefore what sort of lines I might want to consider including in my own work. Fancy that.
I began, somewhat trepidatiously, to use my sketchbook for other things. After all, it's MY sketchbook - right? So I can make up my own rules (or not) about what I can include. I limited myself to two rules only - the first is that I must sketch something every day, and the second is that I must use a black pen.  One day I was thinking about different symbols that might be included in an embroidered piece I am considering making. So I drew them in my sketchbook.
Another day I went on a walk specifically to spend time looking at the roof and window lines of nearby houses, and then I tried my hand at sketching them too.
On yet another day I was thinking about some of my favourite work by Paul Klee, and what symbols he used, and then thinking about how to include them in my own pieces, and learned that working designs to fit a curve appeals enormously to me. Only I didn't just think about it - I sketched these thoughts, so now I have a record I can return to at any time I want. And then out of nowhere came these strange almost-people like shapes. I have no idea what they're about, but I don't need to know right now. I just need to keep sketching and see what else turns up.
Sketches of leaves and ferns are not new to me, and felt like a safe bet after those weird people turned up on my page.
And then another day, it was almost time for bed and I still hadn't sketched that day. I looked around the room and my eyes fell on this little suitcase - a little leather suitcase I'd found on Cuba Street in Wellington and which told me it wanted to come home with me. So I sketched that.
This day's sketching was an extension of the idea I'd sketched earlier, of constructing shapes to fit a curve. And because I've sketched that idea twice now, I'm thinking it might be something I wast to explore further.
This was an idea for an installation piece which began with me picking up a long driftwood branch on the beach. What if I were to use this as a hanging rod for African fabrics - strips of them arranged around a photo or appliqué of the Bitengye ladies? The sketch, in this case, became a place to record an idea before it danced off into the land of forgotten thoughts. I don't know if I will ever make it, but that doesn't matter right now. It's the sketching of the idea that's important.
On another day I had my sketchbook down at Grassy Point on Hornby Island, and recorded how it felt to be there, as well as making a rough sketch of where I was and describing it all with words. 
And on it goes. And it's wonderful. And I can't imagine now why I was so reluctant to make sketching part of my art practice, just like the journalling that I've done for so very many years. It makes me pay more attention, and it helps me remember what it is I've seen and what I've thought. It feels a little like leaving markers on a trail - perhaps red ribbons tied to low-hanging branches - that show that I'm on the right path, heading in the right direction. I can't see where it's all going, and I don't need to, but I can see the next red ribbon, and that's enough to keep me moving forward on this journey.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Life in the Northern Hemisphere

It has been a bit of a shock to return to BC from New Zealand at the end of November. Driving home from the airport, I asked David if it was always this dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. It felt end of the world-ish to me. I even took a photo of it, and looked it up online, and it's true that we are about 8 degrees of latitude further north than I was degrees south in Wellington, and it is winter here, but still. How quickly one forgets about the sluggishness that settles in, in November, December and January. It's not always like this, of course, and there was one brilliant day last week when the new snow was visible on top of the mountains, but those days are the exception.
So what does one do? Well, I'm being kind to myself while I re-acclimatize myself to my Vancouver Island reality. I have spent most of this week tidying up my studio, and it's looking as though it will be another week at least before I'm well and truly finished. While I was away I took the brave step of listing my studio in the guide to artists in the mid-Island. This was a necessary step if I want to be included in the Spring Studio Tour, which I do. But it also means that I might have visitors at other times too, and I need to be ready for that. So a massive re-organization and tidy-up was called for.
I finished another of my African collages this week - this one is called "In Search of a Better Life". It's is the fifth in the series, and began with me thinking about all the different ways that people consider themselves rich. It might be in acquiring property, or in having produce to sell at the market. It might be in gold and jewels or perhaps as basic as feeling rich when we have enough food to eat. It might be in having the opportunity to go on adventures. I especially liked being able to use the footstep fabric which I purchased in Ghana. Other found items include paper beads, cowrie shells, buttons from Lesotho, a barkcloth painting from Uganda, and porcupine quills from Namibia. I'm keen to get to work on the sixth collage, and have been sketching ideas for that. 
And for those times I simply want to add stitches to fabric, I've begun another project - adding African motifs to my cloth "canvas", improvisationally. The batting is a wool blanket and is as delicious to stitch through as butter. The thread is #8 perle cotton. I'm not quite sure how this will develop, but trust it will tell me what to do as I go. 
I also wanted to let you know that while I was in New Zealand, my dear Sweetie was in Uganda. For those of you who have followed this blog for sometime, you know that I used to spend a good bit of time each year in Uganda working with a group of women in a sewing project. I want to report to you that they are still sewing, albeit not as much as they'd like, and many items were purchased from them to bring back to Canada to raise funds for the Widows' Garden Project that David is now involved with. He also had the opportunity to visit Rechael's Clinic in Kikagate, and it is doing very well indeed. So good to hear news of these women, who are never very far from our thoughts. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Visit to Lake Ferry

One of the last things I did before I left New Zealand this time, was to take the train up to the Wairarapa, to visit a new friend - Trisha Findlay. Trisha is a textile artist whom I met through Lisa's online class. I knew she went to Lake Ferry on the south coast of the North Island most Mondays, and I asked if I might possibly accompany her. She graciously took me on what has become a regular visit for her to one of her special places, no matter what the weather - a time to sketch and write and just to be there experiencing all of it. And to pick up whatever treasures she might find on her explorations.
The sky was blue but there was a cold wind blowing hard when we arrived, so we pulled on hats and hoods and buttoned up our jackets as we went in our separate directions. Trisha headed off in the direction of the water, but I didn't get any further than the grasses growing in the dunes beside where we'd parked the car, and before a large expanse of smooth black rocks began stretching out to the water. They were fighting to remain vertical in the southerly and the chattering of their stems as they rubbed against one another in their efforts was like a frenzied conversation. They caught the light so beautifully, ever-changing because of the constant movement, like the waving of golden flags by an enthusiastic crowd.
And there were so many varieties of grasses. I don't have names for them, but that didn't matter to me at all. There was something heroic about them that captured my imagination. Something about surviving and even thriving in spite of difficult circumstances, I suspect.
Look at these little puff-ball things, crouching down for shelter amongst the taller grasses. Whispering to each other as they nod this way and then that.
And then just beyond the grasses were the sands and the rocks, scattered with a few remnants of long deceased logs. Like ancient skeletons. So very different than our west coast beaches, heaped high with logs that have escaped  the tugs that were pulling them to be milled, or just raw trees newly knocked from their earthly moorings close to the water.
Looking back behind me were these craggy and much eroded bluffs, almost devoid of vegetation. Lesotho-ish.
After a time I looked back to the water, to see that Trisha had found herself a perch on which to anchor herself while sketching. And that's when it began to dawn on me that what we were seeing, what we were drawn to in this interesting place, was quite different. She has a fascination with the ever-changing sky and sea and beach, and her beautiful work explores this. Meanwhile I was more interested in seeing what managed to grow there, against the backdrop of the sea.
In fact it took me a little while to get down to the shore, and then I began to understand what Trisha was seeing. I sat and watched for awhile, journalling (with some difficulty) at the same time. And in that brief interlude, I saw it change from this,

to this. A storm front was moving in and the colours of everything began to change. Absolutely fascinating. Earlier this week I read in Debbie Lyddon's blog, that she and her artist friend Mary Morris are travelling to the same place in the UK together, the first of many they hope, where they will spend a week working independently but from the same source material. How brilliant is that! Because, of course we all experience place differently, and reflecting our own response in our work is what makes it authentic. What an amazing revelation! And thank you Trisha, for a most wonderful day, and visit.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cyanotype and New Zealand Ferns - a Not-So-Original Idea

I first began printing on cyanotype-prepared fabric this spring, after our February visit to New Zealand. Ferns I had collected in Abel Tasman Park were particularly suited to this method of printing.
I got spectacular results printing between about 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the sun was at its strongest. The rich indigo of the background was the perfect way to draw attention to the lines of the fern fronds.
Over the next few months I made several pieces which incorporated these prints. I especially enjoyed being able to combine them with African, Japanese and batik indigo prints I'd collected over the years. Even shirting scraps combined well, as well as the indigo shibori fabric our small Fibre Art group made together the previous summer.

Some of the tiniest ferns were perfect for card-making, and disappeared at our group exhibit at the Ladysmith Art Gallery in August. So I had returned to New Zealand on the lookout for more ferns, and thinking about how to work with them. One day very recently, I was looking through a book that was issued in conjunction with a photography exhibit at Te Papa - the National Museum, and was intrigued when I turned the page to find this:
It is a cyanotype print on paper, made in 1880, by Herbert Dobbie. Herbert was an engineer who lived in Auckland, and who had a fondness for ferns. This was before cameras were commonly available, and he turned to cyanotype to record his findings.

He recorded 148 different varieties of ferns in this manner, and published them in what is now known as his "Blue Books". Only 14 copies still exist worldwide, and several of them are at Te Papa in Wellington. After doing a little research, I discovered that I could make an appointment to see rare books in the collections department of the museum, and this is just what I did. I couldn't quite believe it was that easy.
Most of the pages are still is excellent shape. The person helping me said the faded ones had probably been exposed to light at some point.
But even then, they were fabulous. Such an exciting discovery. I put on the gloves provided, and slowly turned the pages one by one.
I had also asked to see the New Zealand Ferns book by Dobbie that was published in 1921, and became the authority on New Zealand ferns for over 50 years. It's in black and white, and have jest learned that copies are available even now, and for a reasonable amount, as the book was reissued a few years ago.
What I didn't know, and what was the most exciting of all, was that Te Papa also has the original photo album of all the photos that were eventually included in that 1921 book. And it was incredible.
 Here's a side-view, showing the depth of it. And it was in excellent shape. What a treasure!
Each specimen had been carefully photographed, with the name had been added, in a most careful and exact manner.
And there were photographs showing the size of some samples, in relation to the size of people. Needless to say, I've already ordered a copy of the it for myself. And am more excited than ever to pursue this area of research, ready to see what work results from my investigations. I'm beginning to understand far more deeply, why it's so important to do the research in your area of interest as you move forward with the actual making. It leaves me with the feeling that I've met this pioneer in printing ferns, and share his interest in printing in blue, if not having the scientific bent required to push this in a more scientific direction. Thank you, Herbert Dobbie.