Thursday, April 20, 2017

Thank you.

Thank you or thanks…….., such an English thing, and often used or overused much like sorry. If we give our thanks at every possible opportunity this might be taken as good manners or it might just be seen as dulling down the sense of being truly grateful. I would say thank you to someone who had saved my life but perhaps not to my brother for having cooked us a meal. In that case the thanks would be taken as read and need not be heard. My brother cooks a meal while I cut the beech hedge, all part of the working day each has his job and when all is working well within a close team there is no need for thanks.
So with that in mind I would now like to thank all those who have taken time out over the past two months to visit my exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. There have been many who have travelled a considerable distance to spend time to stand in awe of the intricate stitching and marvel at my dogged persistence over the past three years to have produced such extra ordinary pieces of work. In recognition of this two magazines have chosen to run articles which appear in this month’s issues of Selvedge and the Embroiderer’s Guild magazine.
The sale of work has been good considering that there is a 42% in commission for the gallery. We must accept that in any form of retailing there will be such mark ups.  During time spent in the gallery the staff have been charming and helpful at every possible opportunity. I have been faced with an almost constant round of questions and comments from visitors. “You must have tremendous patients” is amongst the most common but in truth I have very little, what I do have is a tremendous curiosity to discover just what I am capable of creating. The excitement is continually present as I stitch to see just what change a few minutes with thread and needle will produce.
On show as work in progress has been a stump work casket which has been perhaps the star attraction. My line of research for this took me almost immediately to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the most exquisitely fine work done by Martha Edlin at the age of 11 years old in 1668. The casket which I had no intention of trying to reproduce is in perfect order and seems to have miraculously retained its original colours. I decided to stay clear of the human form but to concentrate on birds and butterflies in order to incorporate the widest range of colours from my stock of yarn. The box itself had been made over in Brittany by my friend Simon who in his retirement enjoys the challenge of something small scale rather than oak framed windows and doors. The bank of seven small interior draws I veneered in choice woods and turned up minute boxwood handles as well as lining the interiors with some old floral material discovered when recovering a Victorian easy chair. I had just enough old linen left to act as the support material and started by trawling through my Audubon’s bird book for ideas. On the lower half I kept to marshland and wading birds, and on the sloped section I turned to birds perched in the trees while the lid was reserved for birds in flight. Having drawn out my rough sketches I then turned to stitching on white cotton all the birds that would appear as raised work.
Starting with the two small doors then front slope and sides I spent the next three months over winter in Brittany and Cornwall stitching in the backgrounds. The result when fixed to the box was a riot of sumptuous colour, packed full of intense detail, a real feast for the eyes. However that was not the end of it as there remained the top and the entire back panel which owing to my attention being taken up with the exhibition in Bath looked like another three month project. The top came together reasonably quickly as the birds had already been stitched into place. I finished this off during the first week in Bath but then discovered it to be slightly too small length-ways so when fixing the embroidery I was obliged to cut each piece separately and even add a little more stitching at either end.       
I've been working on this 17 th century style casket for close on six months and the final back panel is nearing completion. Thanks to the best part of a day spent at the V&A Museum I have now settled on how I will construct the braid to finish all the outer edges. I am not a great fan of touchy feely museum experiences but the chance to have a go at making a short length of braid as used in the 17th century enabled me to log and retain the technic just to the point where I could have a go using some tweed wool yarn. 

The alternating mix of colours should be a perfect way to frame the work.

There is a certain degree of selfishness involved in launching into such creative works in that I always consider the finished item will be for myself which more or less counts out any idea of taking on commissions. I had hoped to organise the continued exhibition of the six biblical works but this has proved to be too difficult for a man with my limited experience of modern day communication. So I will be taking them back to the Isle of Lewis where the idea of stitching using Harris Tweed yarn first bore fruit and either display them at home in New Tolsta or look for a suitable Hebridean exhibition venue. I am very conscious that I should have already been cutting peat by now and that it will be later on in May before I can attempt that if my back will stand it. There is so much to return to since this year I move my studio from the depths of Central Finistere to the splendid isolation of New Tolsta. To at last have a real studio with space to wield a brush and stand back from a larger canvas will be such a treat. I have plans to paint that have been brewing on the side for almost three years during my period of stitching. I can’t imagine throwing in the needle just yet but my creative output will I’m sure diversify once more.          

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Islands are calling.

Mid-March and the islands are calling, I’ve been away for over four months and still I must stay down south for another two months. If I didn’t have an exhibition in progress that requires my attention I’d be heading north right now. If April turns out to be dry then the call will be even greater as I have peat to cut this year, but I must wait until mid-May before the van is packed with my art materials to set my new studio.
 2016 saw the building of my very first purpose built studio and during my absence Steve has carried on through the dark winter months to get the interior insulated, electrics and plumbing fitted and the walls dry lined with larch boarding for the workroom.
There will be little signs of life in the garden as yet with buds firmly closed for at least another month before the risk of bitter winds subside. Two years ago I sowed masses of foxglove seed which gave a wonderful display during the summer months and into autumn. This year the show should be even more spectacular with the new planting area around the studio liberally scattered and good deal of daffodils planted. Unfortunately the bulbs will be over by the time I arrive. 
I planted about sixty beech trees, around forty as a hedge down the north side of the vegetable garden and the rest scatter in places that I hoped would afford some shelter. Gardening this far north and with harsh winter coastal gales is not without certain restrictions but all is dependent on shelter. One row of shrubs will not suffice as a wind break so a band of planting three to five meters in depth is required before it begins to act as protection for more tender plants. 

The orientation of the house and barn at No 17 New Tolsta is south facing which does little to interrupt strong winds from the North West however the land slopes down to the east and the croft which means I have selected that lowest area to create my vegetable garden. Even so it requires some protective netting and one year I recall a late summer breeze so strong it blew the cabbages out of the ground, since then I’ve learnt to heel them in well and bank them up. Fruit bushes seem to do quite well and I have high hopes for the gooseberries that put on good growth. The best production however seems always to come from the rhubarb although they do need checking that no rabbits have tunnelled under and made their nest. Rabbits are a continual problem for gardeners and crofters when even in the village cemetery the long buried are at times no longer at rest. Last year I waged war and managed to trap and dispatch a dozen or more. Two made a delicious hot pot and the rest went to feeding the local hoody crows and buzzards. This year I’ll be late to arrive so while the man’s away the rabbits will hopefully not do too much damage.

I try each year to let out the house and during the summer months hope to welcome those tourists who venture this far north, however while five years ago they came now there are no takers. I realise times are harder and people will often elect for guaranteed sun, but judging by the amount of television interest I would have thought someone would have wanted to discover that true croft house experience. Escape to a world were coastal wilderness is paramount and television, telephones and internet connection simply don’t exist. Or are we all wired up?        

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Time to name the animals.

                                               “Give me the serenity to sit with canvas and wool,
                                                           the courage to keep stitching,
                                                 and I will show you what a difference time can make”.
Luckily I have never found a blank canvas, paper, room or computer screen threatening. There has always been ideas right from my very youngest years and my attention has always been drawn to the visual. Finding things to fill our time is never a problem today, there is always someone keen to beg steal or borrow whatever we have available. Our allotted time is precious to us but also profitable to others. What we choose to do with it is often not straight forward as a living has to be made. Finding free time is often the first step to creation itself and it is often the question people ask when they see one of my stump work embroideries for the first time, “how long does one like that take?”
The rough sketching started for Adam naming the animals with a potentially crowded image but that would work within the medium of woollen stump work tapestry. The foreground would simply be crowded with life and some would indeed be emerging from the ground. Since this is from a time before the fig leaf I felt it prudent as with all other historical images to place one animal strategically in front of Adam. This animal turned out to be a small horse-like creature but before the development of hooves and now only found in fossil form. To give a sense of the process of naming Adam holds aloft that comical little bird the ever popular but now endangered puffin on his left hand. God is in the top right quarter and during the drawing I felt his outstretched hands must be presenting the next creature to be named and it turned out to be in alphabetical order with a python. As usual nothing was written in stone and during the assembly many things would be altered, added or removed. During this constructive process it is important the work out the three dimensional or raised nature of the image and in this respect it is very much like creating a stage set with backdrop and side wings to give depth.
Having completed Adam and the adjoining creatures I drew out the next batch of creature to be stitched on the separate small frame and included in this was the head of God. Faces are always a delicate part of an image and to obtain an expression in wool over a matter of a few square centimetres is not always evident and can significantly change during the padding out process. I had already decided that the bird life would play a major role in adding colour and while the brilliant red flamingo stood to the right before the golden robes of God there would perhaps need to be a counterbalance of colour to the left over and above the striking white horse. Having stitched and stuffed the animals in the lower right corner I found that there was significant room within the central ground into which I would be able to fit a goodly amount of life by raising the horizon and coastline. My aim now was to fill the image with as diverse a mix of wildlife as I could manage. I worked from the foreground back placing animals and birds wherever there was space and with an eye on colour and contrast. With each rise and fall of the needle there is a precision that influences where the next stitch will be placed and while focusing on such a small area I retain a consciousness of the overall picture.
As I look at the image before me that has over the weeks been slowly revealed I find myself impressed with the work and the beauty of something that demands such a high input of my time. There seems today to be a tendency for exhibitions and installations to be extra ordinary impressive events on a grand scale that more often than not are one artists idea carried out by a large team of out-workers. The pace of life today is often at a break neck speed and so to catch the eye of the public, critics or press it is assumed that large scale plays an important part. However one must never forget the small gem like icons with an intimacy that pulls you into a magical world.  What I find impressive with my current work and which I hope will impress those who eventually see it on exhibition is that it is the creative hand stitching work of just one person over a three year period.
If you had shown me this work several years ago and told me that I would be doing it I would have said no way but then life and creativity is never a straight forward predestined path.     


Saturday, March 11, 2017


My wool work embroidery exhibition “Following a thread” was opened on the evening of February 24th with well-chosen words from Polly Devlin. I’m told the evening was a roaring success by those who know about these things. To go by the genuine comments of marvel and wonderment of my stitching during that evening and what I’ve heard since I have to believe that it is true, those viewing my work and who are the type to voice an opinion seem all to be enthusiastically positive. The comment “these are amazing!” came from the far corner of the gallery as a middle aged man in long raincoat spoke to no one in particular but all within ear shot. He later congratulated me with a sense of real joy and said he would most definitely be back.

I’ve spent a couple of days each week in the gallery talking to visitors stitching when possible and signing books and it has be very satisfying to hear all that has been said. The first evening when returning back to friends by bus it hit me, the culmination of three years’ work in virtual isolation and the intensity of that effort spilled over into tears; the times I caught myself thinking I must show a particular piece to my mother like all children do when they recognise an achievement in whatever medium. There are so many people no longer with us who I know would have loved to have seen this work. There is no call for praise but when a young punk says “respect due man” my chest swells. Who would think that woolly biblical illustrations could provoke such reaction and yet when I look back on the extra ordinary amount of hand stitched work even to me it seems jaw droppingly remarkable that I could have done it. The most often voiced comment is you must have tremendous patients and I have to reply no, anyone who has been in a queue with me whether that be traffic jam or supermarket checkout will know I have a very low threshold for the non-creative but for the process of creation thankfully I have that patience in abundance.  I also have to reply in the negative when people ask me if I am religious as in having a belief. I suppose not believing in God could in itself be regarded as a belief but there is disbelief in their voices that anyone who has created such time consuming and intense “Old Testament” images was not driven in some way by a religious faith. The only faith I have is in knowing that I have the creative drive required within me to complete the task. Yesterday I gave an hour long talk to a packed audience in the gallery and at the end one woman took it on herself to thank me and there followed a round of applause, so from that and many other comments I take it that the talk was a success.

None of this would have come about if it had not been for the encouragement of my good friend Deidre Mc Sharry who skilfully managed to convince the Victoria Gallery to give me a show. It dawns on me that they too must have recognised a talent that over rid the need for qualifications when they didn’t question the fact that I possessed not even “O” level art. Proof if proof be needed that in these days of becoming indebted by further education there is, certainly within the art world nothing like simply getting on with it and doing the work.    

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Daniel in the lion's den.

Stitched by Tom Hickman.

When I look at the stitching work I have achieved over two days it strikes me that a machine could have done it in a matter of seconds, given the right program with the corresponding image it could have stitched a perfect leopard far better than I could ever hope to achieve with my failing eyesight and fumbling fingers. So why do we bother doing anything by hand, what is it about the human hand, that human touch that values the handmade above the machine made?
Ever since man stood on two legs he’s been looking for a walking stick to make life easier; when he turned from tanning the hide to shearing the fleece it wasn’t long before he invented a machine to weave. Almost forty years ago I purchased at auction for the princely sum of seventy eight pounds five piece of framed embroidery, amongst them were two 19th century samplers, one early 18th century sampler, a religious embroidery on silk and a the framed front of a silk waistcoat encrusted with the finest of embroidery. On the backing paper of this frame was a text that stated this was the waistcoat of Sir Walter Raleigh. I sold it that same week for thirty eight pounds and since having studied work from this period am now convinced that someone got a bargain. Today it is hard for us to imagine how the human hand could have created certain pieces when spectacles were unknown and illumination was by candles or daylight.
During the heyday of stump-work a glass bowl similar to a goldfish bowl was placed on an adjustable wooden stand between the candle and the work so as to focus the available light.
For nearly three days I sat and unpicking an old remnant of Harris Tweed to get just the right tone of peach thread and reusing it for the leopard’s pelt. I overworked this with black and white to create those spots and watched the menacing image come to life.

According to The Bible Darius the King of Persia cast Daniel into the lion’s den but I decided right from the start to liven that image up to include a variety of big cat species.
The first rough composition sketch put a classical almost sculpted male lion in the centre foreground with the somewhat worried looking Daniel off to the left surrounded by cats, while top right a guardian angel floats unseen by the King who has come to inspect the fate of Daniel in his overnight accommodation. Even though the drawing onto the canvas is kept to a guide line minimum there is still a real sense of magic.
I’m often told that I stitch like I paint and that maybe so when considering mixing of colours and the use of contrast but wool certainly does not behave like paint and I find the slow progress is more like slow motion drawing that gives me the time to more easily access my inbuilt library of information.
I started stitching Daniel in the lion’s den in Western Australia, continuing in France and finally completing it during the summer months in the Outer Hebrides where I could source a more complete range of darker shades from my stock of Harris Tweed bobbins. To get enough detail and expression in the human face stitched in about a square inch is often a matter of chance but I was pleased to have achieved a degree of terror on Daniel’s face. 
As the separate pieces are assembled and stuffed with cotton wool the lay out of the picture changed and in order that the cats were well spaced I introduced an old tree for them to climb on, while pillared architecture was introduced to support the ceiling of the subterranean den and give the image more depth.

While waiting for my connecting flight at Doha airport the entire Qatar Airways on-board crew formed a half circle of admirers around me as I stitched. There is a fascination with textiles across all cultures and as soon as they had moved on two elderly Japanese women replaced them and even with very limited language I was able to explain how the raised work was done. It is very rewarding to be seen as someone special who is not playing on their I-pad but actually creating something with their own hands.
On a recent visit to a textile shop I spotted some sowing machines and their ability to stitch had been well illustrated by a small piece of perfect embroidery showing a beautiful young woman wearing a large hat full of flowers, alongside this was a second identical piece all done with a simple computer program and no human input. The age of the machines is with us but in the field of art it’s that hand-eye coordination via the brain that creates charm and guarantees that the handmade will always be superior to the machine simply because it is human.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Peaceable Kingdom and the loss of a thimble..

This was going to be fun as the image was to contain mainly animals in the foreground and my mind could run free as to what I might envisage as an idyllic peaceable kingdom. The image comes from the book of Isaiah chapter 11 and the verse most commonly and incorrectly known as “the lion will lie down with the lamb” is actually “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child will put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the water cover the sea.” This wonderful biblical image depicts a most bazaar scenario that illustrates the impossibility throughout history and even more so today of achieving a kingdom at peace. I associate this title with the na├»ve American artist Edward Hicks who around 1835 produced at least two oil paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom. He used the biblical text to produce a foreground of the animals mentioned while the historical event of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians is pushed to the background and seem just as unlikely to achieve peace as the juxtaposition of child and animals. Edward Hicks was a devout Quaker and saw Penn’s “holy experiment” which resulted in the establishment of religious freedom and self government in the colony of Pennsylvania as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy.
In my drawing up of this scene I have tried to capture some of Hicks’s vision of the ideal made real in the distinctive portrayal of the animals but to make sure that in these days of aspirations of independence I used the archetypal symbol of the Highland cow representing Scotland and supporting an equally Scottish golden eagle on its horns. The innocence of this ideal is represented by the central joyous dancing child and it was here that I started my stitching. The flesh tones were achieved using four different coloured wool's and it is the beauty of the yarn used in the manufacture of Harris Tweed that it is dyed before being blended and spun so the colour is never solid so allows me to create a graduation of colour that would be impossible using ordinary knitting wool's. From these subtle flesh tones I then turned to the vivid yellows and oranges of the leopard which is then over-stitched with black outlines and further filled with white and a rich rusty red spot. By the end of an 8 hour stitching day my right thumb is beginning to feel tender from the pressure of forcing the needle through several layers of stitched wool. 

There is a certain sense of urgency, even impatience when starting a major work to put in as much work as possible so as to see how the image in my head appears when transformed into wool. The raised stump-work effect is further complicated when two animals which require padding are set one in front of another and touching. In some cases it is better to stitch the two animals together where they touch as must be the case with the leopard and the goat. The days are long this far north and with an unseasonable cool summer I find myself sitting and stitching full of excitement to be creating my peaceable kingdom.

The foreground animals soon took shape as goat sat tucked in behind leopard and tight curled lamb comfortably before the wolf. The general appearance looked well balanced on paper but I was still unsure about what sort of bear it might be and am now drawn to perhaps a polar bear which would help to keep the general light feel. The large horned ox is very cheerful in bright oranges behind the child and the massive eagle with outspread protective wings should give a powerful feeling of the Kingdom being safe as well as at peace.

22nd July and just passed the hundred hours of stitching the Peaceable Kingdom. There is a certain obsessive compulsive element to the work much like that of a jigsaw puzzle that is hard to leave alone when the image is beginning to take shape, particularly if like me you prefer those puzzles where the finished picture does not appear on the front of the box. With most of the animals in place the background can begin and this is where usually it remains most fluid and free style. Changes from the original drawing are frequent and as the picture develops I can already see that to the right there will be at least one tree to help create the vista through to the distant view of the mountain on the left and that will help to maintain balance. It is now that the complexity of the image really starts and the choice of colour combinations and contrast allow each animal and object to find its place within the overall picture. 
On seemingly very rare occasions this summer I’ve been able to sit outside and enjoy the clarity of a Hebridean summers day.
Already the 20th of August the month has flown by with major works on the house but still I manage a couple of quiet hours stitching morning and evening. Having lit the fire I needed to put a bit more peat in the small stove but didn’t think to remove my thimble so much has it become a part of me. Having loaded the fire I returned to my needlework only to find my thimble had gone, I glanced around and then I realised it must have dropped from my finger as I pushed the blocks of peat in place. Opening the door resulted in clouds of smoke and no sign of a thimble and more frantic searching left me only with the confirmation that it had gone in the fire. If it had been plastic then I would have smelt the result but it was ivory and from my great aunt Flo’s sewing box and an avalanche of sadness descended with the thought of all the hours of work it had seen over the years. The "Peaceable Kingdom" will forever be linked in my mind to the final work of that ivory thimble.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Adam and Eve.

 My first stitching on the theme of Adam and Eve was based very much on the traditional sampler layout but now I wanted to make an image more from my own imagination that kept the same roots of a central tree of knowledge and snake but in which the figures of Adam and Eve were treated very differently. 
This was to show Adam and Eve their body’s snake-like entwined having had their first nibble of the fruit. In the tree many other forms of life are present and either are looking at the recumbent naked bodies or contemplating taking a bite of the nearest fruit. There is a general sense of curiosity or perhaps shock in the case of the swan that helps to focus attention on Adam and Eve. 
The work started during my mid-winter hibernation over in Brittany where I loaded up the wood burning stove each morning and kept the shutters closed against days of seemingly endless rain. Having as usual worked the image more or less out on paper I started the individual animals and mass of fruit. The two intertwined naked figures posed the greatest challenge as to how to obtain the three dimensional quality and a certain sense of modesty as well as to make it quite clear just what tasting the fruits of life meant. 
The serpent I chose was a python which allowed me to reproduce the fabulous patterns while the tree of knowledge with its mass of fruit helped to convey a certain sense of confusion within the image. Although God is out of the picture it is clear that he is on his way and none too pleased.

I have found that many people seeing this work for the first time will ask if they can touch it and I think that is a normal response to both subject matter in the case of animals and wool itself being a natural material that has been with us from day one. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to touch such an image if it was executed in plastic and I find it shocking that we as human beings have become so closely wed to plastic simply because it is cheap, giving up all rational thought as to whether it is the appropriate material to be using for the job. We give our babies as their first tactile experience plastic to play with. Looking back to my own childhood I can remember only a hand full of toys and we made do with our imagination to transform a few twigs and baler twine into a fortress capable of keeping all manner of evil at bay.