November – It’s been a pretty grey month for me. Literally grey most days, with very little sunlight managing to lift our spirits and emotionally grey too, with the loss this month of someone who was and always will be very dear to me.
I’ve rather auto-piloted through most days.
But the wheel doesn’t stop, it keeps turning and we go along too. I find comfort in that.
And I am reminded how important it is to live life fully and gratefully.
So when nature drops a dragon in your path – obviously you pick it up and take it home…
A few weeks back, when the Discover Original Art group was discussing our upcoming exhibition in November, it was suggested that we each share online, details about the tools and materials we use to make our art.
I loved this idea, because there’s nothing I like better than having a nose about other artists’ studios, seeing what they use to create their work: imagine the fascinating tools used by printers, glass makers, stone carvers, oil painters, mixed-media artists, eco-printers!
I was just happily nodding away, when it dawned on me, that my own tools of the trade were somewhat less exciting – in fact I did spend a few minutes wondering if it was possible to write a whole post about needles…
But then, there is surely beauty of a kind, in the simple, the mundane?
So although I can’t offer you the oooh factor of printing-presses or kilns – here are my particular tools of the trade…
Big and thick, short and thin, but all with a large hole and a blunt tip…tapestry needles
It took me a long time to realise just how much difference using the right size for the job would make – duh!
I would like to hug the person who invented the R & R Craft Frames – for me, the number one choice every time… which is not to say I don’t occasionally use others, but well, the flexibility of the R & R suits my stitching style.
The floor-stand gets a lot of use, but so do my knees, the steering-wheel (followers on Twitter will know what I mean) and the edge of tables – all depends on my mood and where I’m stitching at the time…
Loose-weave canvas: linen scrim, cotton crash – you name it, if it’s loose-weave, small holes, and reasonably robust, I’ll give it a go…
Don’t think of them as yarns or threads, think of them as a paints – that you can stroke…
I was delighted to read the latest post from artist Stephanie Redfern this week, where she explains her decision to work in needlepoint. Stephanie understands completely the slow nature of this process and rather wonderfully refers to it as ‘slow motion magic painting’ – I love that!
I smiled as I read some of the comments on her post – mention needlepoint, and patience is always the word that people associate with it. And yes, like Stephanie, my own patience does not extend far beyond the stitching.
When I talk to people about the pieces I make, so often there’s amazement at anyone being prepared to take the time to create in this way, they generally ask why I choose to do it. And this is where I struggle to express myself adequately.
Because however clichéd it may sound, hand stitching is one of those things you have to do, to appreciate the why.
And then, with serendipitous timing, today I read the latest post from my stitching hero, Judy Martin. I’m sure Judy’s work is familiar to you, but if not, I urge you to see what she does, because I don’t know a better or purer expression of the power and beauty of hand stitching.
At the end of her post, Judy says…
Evidence of time.
Evidence of thought.
Evidence of connection.
And really, there, in a nutshell you have the whole story.
There’s a wonderful article here by Martha Sielman, about Judy and her work which sensitively expands this expression – I’m sure it will resonate with all hand stitchers.
Pictures are details from the stitching of my latest piece of needlepoint embroidery, completed this week.
There was a short series of programmes on the BBC a while back, called ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’ Be honest, you wonder about it too don’t you...
The Discover group of artists will be staging an exhibition of our work in November and in preparation, we thought it would be a fun thing, to each describe a typical* day in our arty life.
So, here’s the answer to what this particular artist does all day…
Oh how delightful it would be to rise before dawn for an early mediation as the sun rises, to soak up the peace and quiet of a new day, write 3x A4 Morning Pages** to clear the mind and after 20 minutes of yoga, to eat a breakfast of mixed berries…
However, in the real world, I do get up pre-dawn, but then it’s straight into the ‘getting the girls off to school’ routine, which you’ll be familiar with I’m sure, (that or something similar). It generally involves the domestic pleasures of making packed-lunches, coffee, ironing, vacuuming, taxiing and if by some chance I’m very organised, deciding what we’re going to eat for dinner…
After that, my day begins again…
I don’t write Morning Pages, but for me, the daily walk with the Delinquent Dog is a form of meditation and the time when I clear my mind. We take the same route every day, which is a wonderful way to tune-in to the changing seasons, watching subtle changes and feeling the immediate connection with the weather. It’s simultaneously grounding and relaxing.
Followers on Instagram may remember that I photographed the same oak every day last year, an exercise that taught me much more than just how an oak changes through the seasons.
I pause most mornings at my Thinking Gate – sometimes I am actually thinking when I lean on the gate, sometimes I’m just listening, just being.
I’m not consciously looking for inspiration on those walks, but I’m sure something seeps into my unconscious which probably finds expression in my work.
Back home, and I try to do the things that need brain power…
My trusty accomplices are the Mac, my Filofaxes, my pencil and my smart phone (with which I take all my photos – I don’t own a camera).
And then, it’s time to stitch…
Stitching is wonderfully meditative. It isn’t long before I’ve drifted off somewhere in my mind. Most of my work is only lightly planned, with the details coming as I go along. If you’re familiar with the Druidic concept of Awen, that’s very much how I feel about inspiration and connection, which for me expresses itself in my stitching.
I’m fuelled by coffee, strong and black, which I take a break for, every couple of hours or so.
Once the family are home again, I slip back into the domestic routine.
Working from home can make it difficult to separate work from home life, and I used to suffer a lot from feeling resentful at having to keep stopping to change roles, but gradually, I’ve found the balance that works for me, and now I try to give myself entirely to family matters until after dinner, when usually I’ll have time to relax with my stitching buddy and embroider for a couple more hours.
Finally, I’m an avid bedtime reader. I’ve recently acquired a bookshelf to go right next to my bed, which is better than having huge piles of books teetering on the bedside table. I have a postcard picture of Bess of Hardwick which I use as a bookmark. I love Bess, she’s my historic heroine, a strong woman living in a man’s world, a loving mother and a brilliant needlewoman – I often wish her goodnight when I turn off the light…
* Obviously there’s really no such thing as a typical day – just typical elements, but you know what we mean.
** Morning Pages, as many of you know, is part of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way. Although I don’t do them now, I did do something very similar a couple of years ago and found it extremely helpful.
Being a slow artist has its challenges – not the least of which, is how to blog about a ‘work in progress’. I quickly realised that a weekly update here on my stitched tapestries would end up more like a ‘spot the difference’ competition.
In recent months, I’ve gravitated towards Twitter and Instagram as the places to share occasional stitchy updates, where it feels more natural to post a simple picture as I settle down to stitch with the Delinquent Dog curled up alongside.
If you use these platforms, please do keep in touch that way – it’s always lovely to receive messages ‘in real time’.
But today is one of those special days – a day to share for the first time, a work no longer ‘in progress’, but finished!
Very often I find it difficult to know where the inspiration for a particular piece comes from, but at least with this new work I have a pretty shrewd idea.
It all begins with that ages-old fascination for watching water moving over stone. I wonder how many generations of people have felt transfixed by watching waves glide over a pebbly beach, or have felt the hypnotic power of staring into a pool of still water at the edge of a river flow, or indeed have been caught up in a fountain’s magical dance.
I for one, can easily lose myself, simply staring into the water.
Now, clearly only a lunatic would attempt to capture that watery, mercurial sensation in a medium as distinctly static as thread – ahh well…
But as ever, the process of stitching has itself been a meditation, a way to drift into a flow of sorts, an escape to another realm, if not a watery one…
Stitched between June and September 2015. Wools, linens and silks on linen scrim.
29 x 39 cm
If you’d like to see it ‘in the flesh’, I’ll be showing it at the Discover Original Art Fair on November 28th & 29th 2015, at the delightful Ivinghoe Old School Community Hub.
I’m sure by now, some jolly soul you know, will have cracked the ‘ooh the nights are really drawing in now’ line – which really helps lift your mood if you’re already feeling a touch of autumnal melancholy…
But of course they’re right (well for those of us up here in the Northern Hemisphere at any rate), this is the time of shortening days, we’ve passed the tipping point of the autumn equinox and it’s all wooly scarves, thermal undies and stew for dinner, until winter gives way to spring again.
For the last few days, I’ve been obsessing over the whole concept of balance. We’re told how important it is to achieve balance – in life, in work, in our diet…, balance is described as something to be attained and held on to, it’s an objective, a target, something to strive for. But in practice, surely balance is an extremely tricky customer – and the energy required to maintain balance is exhausting – try the Tree (Vrksasana) or my favourite Eagle (Garudasana) poses in yoga if you don’t believe me.
If you’d asked me a few months ago if I was happy with my own balance, I’d have said I was, but just lately I realised that I wasn’t so much balanced as teetering – wobbling about in roughly the same place, desperately trying to keep everything the same, but feeling that at any moment, I should really be heading off in some new direction.
Then today, right on cue, while I was walking with the Delinquent Dog, I realised that I’m not teetering any more – I’ve tipped.
Weird, because I’ve no idea what pushed me over the edge, all I know is, I suddenly feel as if I’m moving forward again. Perhaps I’m someone who enjoys the journey more than the destination, or perhaps we’re just not designed to spend too long in one place, – perhaps as someone who embraces a cyclical attitude to time, I just tried to stand still too long.
Whatever, I have to admit to feeling much happier again now.
Did anyone in the UK watch Midwinter of the Spirit last night? What did you think?
I’ve really enjoyed stitching this piece – not much more to do now, then I’ll show you the whole tapestry. I’ve used a lot of un-dyed wool this time – Wensleydale and North Ronaldsay, both from http://www.blackbat.co.uk which has added quite a lovely variety of texture and tone, although it’s been moderately more challenging to work with.
Crumbs, it’s been so long! Every year I promise myself I’ll try to post while the girls are on holiday, and every year I fail!
Oh well, never mind, I’m back in the swing of things again now. As you can see, I went to the Caribbean for my holiday – only joking – in fact we spent three weeks in the Highlands of Scotland – camping for two of them – I know, you think we’re bonkers, but really, there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather go – pictures may well crop up here from time to time, just to remind me how wonderful it is.
So, now it’s definitely feeling autumnal around here. The morning walks with the Delinquent Dog are turning decidedly damp lately, but it looks like being a wonderfully abundant autumn if the hedgerow is anything to go by – ‘dripping’ is the word that best describes it – both in wetness and sheer quantity of elderberries, sloes, rose-hips, crab-apples, holly and hawthorn berries hanging off the branches…
And what news here?
Two exhibitions coming up in November. It felt such a long way away when we first thought about them, and now I can see myself frantically working out how many days I have to get things done.
I’m very excited to be going to the Celts exhibition at the British Museum next month.
And with any luck, a new boiler for the central heating before the cold really sets in – if not, I’ll be coming round to your house to keep warm!
I had the great pleasure of visiting Fibre East last weekend at Ampthill, Bedfordshire – happily for me, very close to home.
Not usually the sort of person who enjoys big events, I was persuaded to go by the lovely lady at Art Van Go, who mentioned it in passing to me, the last time I was over in Knebworth.
We had been discussing the difficulty of finding the range of yarns we wanted locally and the demise of shops selling any worthwhile selection of tapestry threads.
And so off I went to Ampthill, armed with high hopes and a fairly bulging purse.
What a brilliant day I had! I was delighted to find that Fibre East was big enough to have a fabulous choice of suppliers, but not so huge that you couldn’t get up close and personal with the yarns and have a good talk with the stall-holders.
For me, one of the most fabulous things about becoming serious about textile art, has been discovering a whole new group of people, many artisans or very small business owners, who are producing an amazing range of threads. Access to such a variety of colours and textures is what has transformed my version of needlepoint/embroidery to the art practice it is, so I was enormously pleased to see so much variety available from people who all seemed to be passionate about their products.
It was also a pleasure to be able to touch and test out so many silks, wools, cottons and linens. Most of my purchases are made online these days, and although this works well enough, there’s nothing quite like being able to stroke the threads, and see for yourself their true colours.
One of my main objectives, was to identify suppliers that I could go back to online, throughout the year, knowing that they had yarns, strong enough for me to use for my canvas embroideries.
Of course, there were far more goodies than my purse could cope with, and so feeling a little like the woman who goes to the rescue home for dogs and wishes she could bring them all home with her, I had the horrible job of deciding which ones to bring away with me. There were many I left behind – I know there were lots of other kind-hearts/yarn-junkies, doing their own bit to re-home the entire stock, so not too guilty! And I have noted a number of people who although I didn’t buy from at Ampthill, I expect to go back to at some point.
But for the record (and as a reminder for me too) – these are the champion suppliers whose threads are even now being stitched into my latest tapestry…
Black Bat – http://www.blackbat.co.uk – Exquisite natural woollen yarns – the lace weight Wensleydale works wonderfully as a tapestry thread!
Thank you’s to all the stall-holders who made the event so fabulous – especially as the second day, it rained so heavily – you’re doing a wonderful job, and this textile artist for one, is very grateful x
Any minute now – in fact almost certainly by the time you read this – the summer holidays will have broken out around here – hooray! It’s been a tough old year one way or another and I’m sure we’re not the only family relieved to have a few weeks away from the usual routine.
For most of the year, I do the main part of my reading at bedtime, but during the holidays, I feel no guilt whatsoever about reading whenever I like, so I’ve started putting together my reading list for July & August.
And the books I’ve chosen are…
The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods & Legends – Miranda Aldhouse-Green
In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in all things Celtic, and I keep coming across names and stories that I know nothing about. Ironic isn’t it, that I could certainly tell you much more about the Ancient Greek gods and heroes, than anything about those of our native countries. When I saw this book last week, it practically screamed at me from the shelf, to buy it. And I’m so pleased that I did – it’s a lovely ‘beginner’s guide’ – complete with pictures and – get this – a guide to pronunciation!
And it’s timely too. In September, the British Museum is opening a new exhibition featuring Celtic art and identity – I’ve booked my ticket already!
Next, I chose…
Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems & Prose – Penguin Classic.
I have Phil Rickman to thank for introducing me to Thomas Traherne. References to Traherne crop up in several of his brilliant Merrily Watkins novels and it took me some time to find any of Treherne’s works in print. Then, on a day when I wasn’t particularly looking for it, there it was, on the shelf of the Oxfam bookshop in Berkhamsted – definitely there waiting just for me.
If you like William Blake’s work, Treherne might be for you too.
My third choice is the recently published…
Field Notes From The Edge: Journeys Through Britain’s Secret Wilderness – Paul Evans
Now, this is a book I intend to consume in small amounts, it is so beautifully written and the mental imagery so rich, that it would be a shame to read it too fast. It’s like a fine wine that deserves to be savoured. I downloaded a sample onto my Kindle, but although I knew straightaway I wanted to read it, I felt sure I needed a hard copy. Fortunately, when I visited Toppings in Ely last week, (possibly the best bookshop outside Hay that I know), I found one to bring home with me.
God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England – Jessie Childs.
I’ve actually been reading this for a while now, but things have been so busy around here lately that instead of reading at bedtime, I’ve been crashing out as soon as my head hit the pillows. But I am delighted that Jessie has written this book. Having been brought up in the West Midlands, right in the heart of Elizabethan recusant territory, and on the doorstep of Harvington Hall, one of the existing Elizabethan houses where you can still see numerous priest’s hiding-holes, I was excited to finally hear more of the story of that period in English history.
For anyone familiar with the area and the many houses linked to Catholic recusancy, it’s wonderful to have a whole book describing events, and not be confined to a few footnotes.
And my final choice doesn’t have a picture, because I have it loaded on my Kindle – it’s Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I absolutely loved watching the recent TV series, I remembered reviews from when it was first published, but somehow didn’t get around to buying it, so now I have! I think it should keep my fantasy levels suitably inflated over the summer…
Have you read any of these? Do let me know what you thought of them, or tell me what delights you’re planning to read over the hopefully long, hot summer.
Walking the Delinquent Dog this morning, I was struck by the feeling that we are reaching the peak of the summer, moving towards the tipping point, where the strong pulsing energy of late spring and early summer finally flips over into the languid pause of August and begins to be absorbed quietly back into the land.
The bracken, which not so many weeks ago I swear you could almost see growing as you stood to watch, towers over me now, but it’s stopped getting taller. Now it stands, erect and still very green, but the energy that shot it upwards has ceased. It seems happy just to wait.
Along the edge of the lane, colours are subtly changing. None of the gold and oranges of autumn yet, but look closely and notice the grasses, bleached pale blonde by the recent heat. In the hedgerow, the white elderflowers have gone, their stalks begin to turn reddy purple, the few remaining flowers are brown. The cow parsley that made the lane look as if it wore a fluffy lace collar, has now turned to rust and bends down as it dies.
In the fields, the grasses have been cut and baled, some are still there, drying in the sunshine, waiting to be collected. The crows are happy, hopping noisily amongst the bales and taking off when the red kites come gliding over them.
In the wood, the horse-chestnut trees are showing tiny, prickly, conker buds, although many fall in the thundery rainstorms. The brambles and nettles have climbed all over the paths, making it difficult to follow some of our winter routes, forcing us to choose our steps carefully.
Summer is not my favourite season. I find the heat uncomfortable, I’m fair-skinned and blonde-haired, and burn in minutes, so forays outside have to be early or late. But since we’ve had the Delinquent Dog, I’ve begun to appreciate this time of year, it seems to be saying slow down, wait, stop – which of course is what so many of us do. Nature works in cycles, and we are part of nature, so it’s natural for us to be tuned-in to this seasonal round. It’s not surprising that we want to slow down for a while.
It makes me wonder how people who work especially hard at this time of year manage to do it – I’m just extremely glad not to have to.
I know I’ve said it before, but never mind, I’m going to witter on again. The thing is, when you spend most of your creative time making extremely slow art, you do occasionally have the uncontrollable urge to do something different, the bubbling juices just have to be uncorked.
For some time now, I’ve been hatching a plan to do something I haven’t done for, well, let’s just say, it was before Mrs Thatcher’s era…
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I started putting my plan into action – I bought a small selection of oil paints and a bottle of brush cleaner. Yes, I’ve decided that I’m going to spend time this summer revisiting the joy of my teens, oil-painting.
Way back then, I was so lucky to have an art teacher who let us experiment with oils, in fact he positively encouraged a group of us who were being channelled down an academic path, to relax at the end of each week in the Sixth Form, by going along on Friday afternoons to the art department, to paint for a couple of hours.
I can’t imagine now, why I didn’t keep it up after I left school. Probably I was simply too caught up in the whole forging ahead in your career imperative to think about making art very much in those days. And at times of stress – and there were plenty of those – I turned to stitching as my relaxation.
But for a few years now, certainly since I’ve well and truly left that world behind, I’ve occasionally hankered over oil paints again.
And now, having finally managed to scrape out a tiny space in the house, where I can set up an easel and leave it, I’ve taken the plunge.
Yesterday, having started off in what I’m going to call a slightly prickly mood (you know the one, where you turn green and scaly and begin to breathe fire), I knew it was the right time to crack open the paints and the turps substitute and get down to some serious playtime.
It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes before I was that teenager all over again.
So, there you have it. My plan for the summer (apart from the three weeks in Scotland), is to reacquaint myself with the special alchemy of oils. I’m not anticipating any startling results on canvas, but if yesterday’s experience is anything to go by, I will at least expect to be smiling most of the time.
(Although, thinking about it now, I wonder if the turps substitute had anything to do with lifting my mood…)
Have you ever returned to an old arty love? Do tell.
In which even the persistent rain couldn’t spoil the pleasure of a visit to the home of my historic hero, Bess of Hardwick…
It won’t surprise anyone who comes here often, that Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire exerts a powerful allure for this particular history junkie, combining as it does the attractions of a seriously grand Elizabethan great house, with an unsurpassed collection of historic textiles.
And perhaps adding the real cherry on top, is the fact that both the building and the textiles exist here today, due to the efforts and vision of one truly remarkable Elizabethan lady – the redoubtable, Bess of Hardwick.
I don’t need much encouragement to go along to Hardwick, so when an opportunity came up at the weekend, off I went!
Hardwick Hall is in the care of the National Trust, which considering the nature of the building and its fragile and delicate contents, is probably a very good thing. But the downside of showing so many historic tapestries, embroideries and needleworks, is that they keep the light-levels very low to avoid light damage. So if you have the chance to visit on a day when it isn’t raining – grab it.
Sadly, I didn’t have the option, and so I apologise here and now for the poor quality of the photos. I’ve done what I could, but as you will see, it was wet and seriously dark on Saturday afternoon, so try to go with the sepia flow…
If Bess’s wasn’t exactly a ‘rags to riches’ story, it wasn’t far off. Honestly, I don’t understand why dramatists aren’t all over her story – married 4 times to wealthier and wealthier men, life at the court of Elizabeth I, sharing her home with Mary Queen of Scots, arranging marriages for a brood of children, building at least 3 magnificent houses, acrimonious divorce, deaths – her story has the lot!
And the best bit – Bess wasn’t some pawn in the game, she was a lead player. Time and again, Bess confronted difficult situations and worked at them to the advantage of herself and her family. She is for me, an incredible example of a strong woman, standing up for what she wanted and what she thought was right and at a time when this was certainly not the norm for women.
Luckily, much of her correspondence and her inventories remain, so it’s possible to read her own words, which make her feel extraordinarily real. She comes across as something of a cross between an extremely powerful business woman and your Grandmother – juggling the stresses and strains of a major business empire with the day-to-day upheavals of a complex and sometimes dysfunctional family life.
I’m not sure that she would have been all that easy to live with, or to work for, but of all the people in history I’d love the chance to go back and talk to, it would be Bess – she is my all-time historic hero.
But of course there’s another reason why I love her so much. Bess was into textiles. Her homes were adorned with every kind of rich tapestry, needlework and embroideries money could buy. And although much was produced by professional embroiderers, she also stitched some pieces herself – which gives me a kind of thrill when I look at the many textiles at Hardwick and imagine her running her hands over them, or even wielding her needle.
Details from the needlework table carpet – Story of Tobit (1579)
Details from a long cushion – Fancie of a Fowler – velvet with applied needlework motifs.
I stood for a long time, working out in my mind how some of these pieces were worked. And I suppose it’s seeing something made over 400 years ago, using techniques exactly the same as the ones I use today, that gives me a special thrill. Occasionally, you find yourself understanding precisely why they chose to work in a particular way, and in that moment, there’s a connection across those 400 years. You stand there and realise that if the embroiderer was standing next to you, you’d be talking the same language.
The building itself is superb, but in a way, it overwhelms me, which is why I usually find myself looking for the odd or the quirky aspects, such as the staggered windows and the worn stone stairs. It’s the sort of house that will speak in different ways to every visitor, I’m quite sure. Certainly on Saturday afternoon, it was proving awesome to many of the visitors – which is really quite some legacy, even after all these years.
For a wonderful and fascinating insider’s story, follow Ellen Scarlett’s delightful and informative blog – View From My Attic – Ellen works at Hardwick Hall and gives fabulous glimpses into the life of the Hall.
Oh, and the gardens…well, even in the rain, they’re wonderful…
Do visit Hardwick if you can, you’ll be very glad you did.