Saturday, January 21, 2017

It takes time.

It takes time.
No one can know what our allotted time might be, some may have a rough idea what time is left, but the importance of time is what we choose to do with it. Today time is often seen as a currency, where the young are rich and the old are poor, however society’s demands and the pace of life leave many in their later years to wonder what it was all about while the pressures on the young to achieve often leaves them with little or no free time. Life is more than accumulating the symbols of success. Man has over the past century done the utmost to invent ways of saving time from doing the mundane or laborious. The washing machine and birth control liberated women so that now they can become as time poor as men. With two earning that means more to tax as well as increased spending power, and what will we buy with that extra cash? I would always advise converting that currency into time. If today having the time to do what you want is seen as a luxury then I am indeed fortunate, but time alone is of little use if you don’t know what to do with it. I have seldom been troubled by boredom as I’ve always seen that as a natural route to creativity. In those efforts to save time the tools of the trade have been abandoned for mechanical automation and handmade has become a thing of the past and yet the handmade still holds a charm that is human and we are more than ever fascinated by what the hand eye coordination is capable of.
The first time I saw a 17th century box covered with stump work I was transfixed by the fact that it had been executed by a girl of only 11 years and I marveled at just how impossible that seemed. One would certainly need very good eye sight for such fine work but also the time to do it. If schooling was not an option and the family was sufficiently rich then sowing was seen as a suitable gentile pastime before marriage and with time on ones hands creative excellence can flourish. Stump work is uniquely found in relatively wealthy households and was not something that would have been purchased or mass produced as with tapestry hangings.
While with age I become time poor so I find myself with more freedom to choose what I do with it. I have no patience when waiting at the supermarket checkout but when it comes to the creative I have it in abundance. After many years in the antique trade I realized I would never be able to afford to purchase an example of stump work but I could have a go at finding out just what it entailed to stitch such work and I soon discovered that all it takes is time.
My aim in exhibiting this stump work is to emphasize that in our computer generated age and mechanization the human hand is still capable of producing beauty.      

The exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath has taken three years to put together and runs from Feb 25th to May 10th 2017. The choice of a biblical theme seemed quite natural given its place in the history of needlework although I myself have no religious belief. The display boxes when open show the relevant text from the bible both in English and Gaelic. The work is relatively easy to transport, and when travelling I often find myself stitching in public on train boat or plane and the reaction of people without exception is fascination and amazement.
I am working at present on a 17th century style box covered in stump work tapestry which I have estimated will take about six months to complete and will continue this work during the exhibition. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Sumptuous stump work.

Sumptuous stump work.
My first encounter with the art of needlework was with my great aunt Flo who lived along with three other aunts in the top floor flat of my grandparents’ house. She had been a court dress maker but now in retirement stitched wonderful silk work pictures and dressed dolls for charity raffles. On our arrival at my grandparents I would be whisked off by Aunt Flo at the earliest opportunity to show me her latest creations. A large white painted Edwardian chest of drawers contained all her fabric offcuts and making materials. As she open each drawer the ever familiar scent of lavender billowed out but it was in the bottom drawer that the real treasure lay, wrapped in tissue paper was the latest finished doll dressed in the most intricate and heavily petticoated costume, every item of which could be removed with the smallest of buttons. On her bed nestled in lace cushions was her old wooden doll which I still treasure along with one of her little silk pictures.
During my days as an antique dealer I admired the extra ordinary skill and beauty of 17th century stump work but could never afford it. Only after five years of being up on the isle of Lewis did I decide to try sowing with yarn left over from some of our six local Harris Tweed weavers. After several years of collecting discarded bobbins of wool from the local weavers and charity shops I started my first picture and was delighted to find friends describing it as painting with wool. The dying process and mixing of wools before spinning for tweed yarn is such that the wool does not have a solid uniform colour and so lends itself well to pictorial work. Needlework is by its nature slow and whereas I could paint a picture in a matter of days stitching one takes me months. Experimenting with stump work (the padding out in order to raise areas of the picture) brought another dimension and depth to the images as I started on a series of six tapestries inspired by animals in the bible. The work took three years to complete and as such remains work to be seen rather than sold. Each image carries with it a story of its creation during the months they took to evolve. They were of a size that proved easily transportable and so I worked on them wherever I happened to be, in Western Australia, Brittany, Cornwall or the Outer Hebrides. So given that they take so long to stitch for me they are also images that capture my time. I can see a tiger that I worked on during a long haul flight to Perth and remember the young man sitting next to me enthralled by the intricacy of the work. Camping on the island of Bernara a weather beaten elderly shepherd wandered across the machair intrigued to discover me stitching a blackface sheep. While waiting to catch a homeward flight at Doha airport the entire cabin crew gathered round as I sat cross legged on the floor stitching the background of Daniel in the Lion’s den. Then in the midst of a Breton winter there are countless hours sat under an angle poise lamp with the roaring warmth of the wood burning stove, or early summer mornings stitching at the bedroom window of the croft house on the isle of Lewis; the neighbour walking his two sheep dogs, the school bus passes while others head off to work in Stornoway.
After three months working the image is well and truly imprinted so much so that I have to make a conscious effort to eradicate it from my vision I order to proceed with other work. The final of the six biblical stump work images was finished at the end of this summer and now seems a fitting season’s greeting card.

More often than not I already have in mind the next project however I try to make myself take a break between major works, however this latest project has been brewing in the back of my mind for the past three years, to make a stump work casket in the 17th century manner. I estimate this will take a full six months and will incorporate images of birds inspired by Audubon’s birds of America. The box is made and I’ve started work on the two side panels and am loving the sumptuousness of the work.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Time and the passing of it.

After a long absence I've found a way of signing in once again to my old blog. Therefore a quick update seems in order before going into more detail at a later date. 
Apple gathering is over the best of the unblemished neatly placed in the cool of the old Breton food cupboard; a time of year I love when the qualities of colour and light are at their best, and the slower burning sun rises over a riotous frosty autumn. Longer evenings behind shuttered windows give me time to reflect on my labours during 2016 both in Brittany and the Outer Hebrides. It’s been ten years since I started renovating my croft house on the north east shores of the isle of Lewis and this year was a landmark as my long awaited studio took shape. I’ve had an indoor place to work in France for many years but my studio is more often than not wherever I happened to be; back of the car, the kitchen table or en plein air, so the idea of having a designated space for all my artistic efforts meant that shed at the bottom of the garden would be a serious multipurpose building with woodwork workshop space, cosy fireside stitching and a light airy painting area. Last year I had the good fortune to find a builder in the village. Steve proved to be an expert in every area of conservation as well as modern building construction when during the summer of 2015 we ripped out the entire ground floor of the house to damp proof and insulate. With a combined age of 125 years we worked well together and from the end of July when the foundations went in we managed to build my 56 square meters of tin and larch clad studio. Over this winter Steve continues on with insulation and dry lining and next spring I hope to move in.
When in Scotland I talk of selling up in France but as soon as I return to Brittany the idea of selling up from this house that has been home for the past twenty five years seems a mountain that I simply can’t summon the energy to climb. When I see what has befallen the house I sold in Huelgoat and how all that I did has been destroyed and replaced with today’s bland modern look I realise that if my own home here in Lezele was to undergo the same disastrous transformation I could not return, not even to see my friends. So I will retain my foothold in Brittany for the foreseeable future while I try and rationalise its contents moving those things that I require in my northern studio while keeping open the opportunity to profit from the autumnal harvest of walnuts, chestnut, hazelnuts, apples and fungi.
I have since my days as an antique dealer been accused of living in a museum and here in my late seventeenth century Breton farm house I have known people become seriously uncomfortable with its dark interior. Only during the coldest days of winter do I sleep in the old lit clos facing the fire, preferring the more conventional later 19th century carved walnut bed in the room above; all my furniture has seen between 150 and 350 years of use. My day starts with green tea from an early 19th century teapot, the blue and white print depicting an estuary scene, in the foreground a rural farmyard were a woman carries two buckets hanging form a yolk full of slops to feed the pigs, horses stand ready to be hitched up to the old cart and a ladder is propped against the gable end of the thatched farmhouse presumably to recover eggs from the attached wooden dovecot. In the distance two figures look out across the estuary to a strange world (much as I do today) where all the buildings are castellated and an oversized obelisk seems to serve little purpose. You’d be hard pressed to find anything new in my home; I’m constantly bemused by latest must have irrational objects that the outside world thinks essential and in that respect I am much like the people of St Kilda who when given chamber pots for their new 19th century homes used them for their porridge, or the islanders who when a new telephone box was installed started using it immediately even though there was no telephone inside; there was however a very good little mirror and few possessed such a luxury. The new holds little interest for me as it carries with it no history and I prefer to be surrounded by stories of times past rather than be confused by present day events. I find it comforting to have reached an age when it is now my turn to use the family silver, to have object around me that hold memories from generations past as well as from within my own living memory.
There was a time when I posted regularly on face book concerning my latest artistic creations but after seeing some crass comment receiving over seventy likes while my own art work had managed only 27 in three years I decided to halt all contact. Since then I have had not a single enquiry from f.b.friends into my well-being and can only presume they were either not that interested or thought me already dead. Right now I’m going through a period of sublime silence as radio 4 long wave carries mostly cricket coverage from India. The last television I saw in this house was when the world trade centre collapsed and last winter I finally got round to cutting down and burning the disused telephone post that stood tight against the gable end. I often hear people talking heroically of going a full day without consulting their smartphone, and yet they look at me with disbelief when I tell them I don’t have one, not even a land line. They couldn’t tell me straight out I know, but I am surely their fearless hero, just as the winner of the race is cheered across the finishing line so I am admired for still sitting stubbornly on that same line that doubles as the start.
Some may recall that for the past three years I have concentrated my artistic efforts to that of stitching and on February 25th 2017 for those who want to see it for real I will be holding an exhibition of my stump work tapestry at the Victoria Gallery in Bath. It runs until May 10th and I hope to be around for much of that time, although a fine spell of weather in early April could see me dash north to cut peat.
When people see these needlework pieces they are immediately impressed with the amount of time (around three months) each represents, and that I who has been known to do a runner leaving everything at the supermarket checkout queue possessed such patience when it comes to slow process of painting with wool. Today we have machines to remove life’s drudgery and logically should have much more time available to create than in centuries past. However time is money in the modern world when even your own free time becomes something that someone else can profit from. Out on the islands Sunday is still respected, no shops open and therefore more likely to be truly free time.
I see that I have spoken mainly of time and I am happy that I am still here to note the passing of it although increasingly concerned with the speed at which it passes. For those who still take note of Christmas I hope yours is a joyous one and for the few of us who steadfastly refuse to have anything to do with it beyond burning the yuletide log I lift my alcohol free glass……. Cheers and good health.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Would you Adam and Eve it.

Adam the first man and progenitor of the human race, Eve wife of Adam and representative of the female sex in Eden a garden where they lived according to the Creation story of Genesis 2; a place of delight; a paradise.
Here we have it, the possibility for each and every one of us to conjure up the picture of a perfect world where beauty and harmony abounds and tranquillity rules over all living things and I wonder just how long it would take for the rest of humanity to destroy that dream. The apples would be left to rot for surely only peasants and those from Eastern European countries pick fruit. Modern man would have correctly surmised that within and beneath the garden there was much he could exploit in order to pay those fruit picker a minimum wage and still leave plenty to embellish the dull winter months with a few plastic flowers of his own design.
For many centuries the pictorial representation of Adam and Eve has been a particular favourite amongst those working a needle. A description of a manor house in King John’s time states that in the corner of a certain apartment stood a bed, the tapestry of which was enwrought with gaudy colours representing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The fifteenth century poet H. Bradshaw describing the tapestry in the Abbey of Ely wrote:-
“The storye of Adam there was goodly wrought
And of his wyfe Eve, bytwene them the serpent”
This tiny early 18th century sampler became my starting point and it seemed almost inevitable that I should turn to that familiar imagery for my next needlework picture. The classical central tree of knowledge divides the evil temptress from the frail contemptible Adam while the devilish serpent coils around the trunk possessively looking to broker a deal. 
Everything floating and in need of a cover up.

Things starting to get grounded.

I left Eve without hair until the background work was complete.

The finished wrk ready to frame

Embroidering the nude figures on a small scale has always proved difficult and resulted in the subject treated for the most part from the point of view of the animals to be introduced rather than our first parents. During the 18th century the subject was again popular in samplers done by children where the charming draughtsmanship of the human figure was at its most primitive. I decided to remain with the technique of stump-work but to use painted fabric to emphasize the shocking nature of that carnal knowledge. Those who saw the work in its infancy were eager that I didn’t delay in applying fig leaves and I was pleased that the startling contrast between the stitched covered wool surface and the naked flesh remained in the finished
picture. Other procreating forms of life that enjoy chomping into a good juicy apple are represented in raised work from mice and birds to insects and snails. In fact all looks very colourful and rosy in the garden however that procreating has as yet born no fruit and the begetting has yet to wipe the smile from the face of the sun or drive God and me to go for a “lets try again” and the next needlework image.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another mobile phone free retreat for Alex Salmond at 17 New Tolsta

For the past four years I’ve attempted to let out the croft house at 17 New Tolsta and certainly during that first year I had hopes that this might just work as far as paying for its upkeep. The house was very basic but there were annual improvements and several people rebooked which was the best possible indication that they enjoyed the house and the location. However each year the number of weeks rented out declined to the point that this past season there has been not a single enquiry. Selfishly I have enjoyed having the house to myself and with friends over from Australia it has been far from a solitary time.
The season started with an extra ordinary display of soft white cotton grass out on the moor as if winter had returned to carpet the moors again and was a direct result of last years fire and the subsequent re-growth. The long days of June saw the growth in the vegetable garden pick up after a slow start. July was holiday month the dawn’s golden glow gilded everything including the lilies, late evening walks and wild camping with plenty of opportunities to swim before the jelly fish peeked.

Having no holiday bookings I was free to open the parlour and hall as a summer art gallery but despite having put a sign out on the beach road only a hand full of people have bother to call in. There has been no shortage of traffic particularly at the weekend, people making their way down to our two magnificent beaches and certainly no decline in the number of camper vans bristling with bikes and surf boards filling the car park and tents pitched out on the machair or sheltering in the dunes.
 The latest trend when decamping is to burn the tent leaving scorched grass and a few charred metal posts. This year there have been three such incidents and this week I found two abandoned tents blown beyond the dunes flapping manically in the breeze hooked on the barbed wire fence. The camper vans have over the years got a bad name as they come fully equipped from the mainland and are of little benefit to the local community. At most beaches there are large wheelie bins which often in high summer struggle to contain the quantity of rubbish generated by visitors. I observed a camper van driver a few weeks ago while down on the island of Berneray having used the facilities at the ferry terminal to dispose of his chemical toilet he then headed across the car park with a large plastic bag of rubbish for the bin that was situated at the top of the slipway. On finding the bin full to overflowing he spotted that some idiot had dumped a bag alongside which had been subsequently ripped apart by seagulls. So instead of hanging on to his bag until he found another bin he took a furtive look around and dropped his bag along with the growing mess. Disposal of garbage is a costly business as tourist numbers increase year on year so the least visitors can do is keep their rubbish in their vans until they find a bin that isn’t brim full. It is not difficult to fathom out why my own self catering holiday Croft House seems to be of no interest. Certainly it can’t be the price as it is one of the cheapest on the island and the end of the road location with the two wonderful beaches of Traigh Mhor and Garry make it an exceptional place to stay. Looking around at successful self catering places it would seem that what they offer is total luxury; new kitchens and en-suite bathrooms, television and internet connection and it goes without saying guaranteed mobile phone reception. Well we have none of these, this is a traditional croft house with its stack of peat out front that fires the old Rayburn stove and as for the technology there is simply no need for it, the location is more than enough and surely a true holiday must mean freedom from a logged on world. Alex Salmond when asked this week where he would go to wind down after the referendum said the Island of Colonsay as he thought it still had no mobile phone connection. Here in the coastal wilderness of the Isle of Lewis you can remake contact with nature, watch Minkie Whales out in the Minch or Sea Eagles along the cliffs or simply lie down on a bed of orchids and breathe in the perfume of the machair, maybe rediscover your partner, your children or even yourself. No 17 New Tolsta is a refuge from the hustle of modern life where I can guarantee wonderful solitude and yes, no mobile phone reception or internet connection, no land line or television but a chance to truly relax discover the rugged calm of the vast moors roam along the dramatic cliff coastline or walk bare foot along our beaches. Well that’s my every day existence and yes it is a tough call.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...: Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticke...

What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed salve edge.

Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticked the boxes on the first two so last week I was not at all surprised to find myself building a loom. An old black an white photo of an islander at his loom looked inspiring and like a true na├»ve I thought if I kept it simple warp and weft surely couldn’t be all that difficult. Well after a couple of false starts I borrowed a book from a friend and discovered all about headers sheds and shuttles.
A few weeks ago a neighbour asked me if I wanted any off cut wool from his Harris Tweed weaving and so already having completed one needlework picture and always willing to accept any raw materials I said yes thank you thinking this would surely come in useful at some point. When two enormous bags stuffed full with salve-edge arrived on my doorstep I realised this was going to be a larger scale project. I’d seen a friend’s work with salve edging where she knitted it into hearth rugs and bath mats but having seen an illustration of a Navaho Indian loom I felt this might be an ideal and relatively simple way to start weaving. The natural dyed wools of Harris Tweed evoke every colour of the Western Isles and so I felt whatever I did with the wool would be bound to represent the surrounding landscape. There is something wonderful about launching into a new method of creation, and through play finding out just what is possible. Within half a day of starting the floor of the studio was covered almost knee deep with mounds of wool and the process started to make sense. It was also obvious that this process allowed for much in the way of versatility as I thought of all the different things I could incorporate within the weave and my mind raced on creating extravagant finished hangings within my head. Having started weaving one evening I dreamed of the repetitive process for most of the night so keen was I to press ahead. With visitors gone and the days proving far too damp and midgey to continue painting the roof I pressed ahead with childlike enthusiasm for the magic of seeing my first woven hanging appear before my eyes. My thoughts drifted back to Shill School in Burford and my very first close up encounter with a loom when on Wednesday afternoons we (all 18 of us boys) would march single file over the bridge that crossed the river Windrush to the Mouse house. We would rip up old sheets into thin strips, boil onion skins to make dyes and learn about keeping bees such were the joys of a small weekly boarding school in the early sixties. I raised my eyes hearing feet crunching on the gravel outside the studio window. I’d left the open sign up for days now in the forlorn hope that people might just happen by and was this at last someone come to look, if so the colourfully clothed couple were walking in the wrong direction. By the time I stuck my head out the door of the studio they had made the road walking heads down with a brisk purposeful pace outrider sticks tapping out a rhythmical stride. How strange I thought to have walked up across the dunes through the croft then climbed the boundary fence as well as that of my vegetable garden and not to have even glanced sideways at the pictures in the window. Evidently not everybody is interested in art but I felt I had just cause in feeling slightly miffed. The walkers had stretched the idea of the right to roam to the full so while traversing my garden they might have at least made some pretence at looking at my art. Later that afternoon they came back and I was full of smiles and ready to show them around but they only wanted to enquire what time the bus came past. Being polite can at times be such an effort. I’m often told I must have tremendous patients to create such complex works but I tell you now opening your doors to the public so they might see those creations requires infinitely more.