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Leonard Cohen always has the right words …

December 3, 2021

Sometimes my ‘prayers’ were answered by a faceless person but always a surprise in sullied world. My dolls represent the hope of prettiness, warmth, and colour in a dark, cold, and ugly place.  Michel Nedjar an outsider artist renowned for his Dolls of Darkness; when asked Who are you?’ he replied ‘I work in order to find out … I have the impression I am a thousand people’ and ‘subject to all influences … I close, recall people in my memory and then I start to work’. (Feilacher, J. 2008) I can relate to this as I begin work and imagine my coat hanger dolls in their story, the memory becomes intense and to the fore. I begin to recognise myself in it and I search for something more as if I have a need to enlarge the memory or to dramatize it. 

The trauma I experienced in those early days have caused some mental health disorders; I have no wish to express this in a graphic way and cause further pain.  I was comforted by the words of Alice Slater in the book Outsiders; ‘We are all outsiders … protagonists of our own private narratives, and we experience the world from a perspective shaped by our wants and needs, our politics, and our regrets, and the things we chose to forget’.  (Slater, A. 2020) She goes to say that outsiders need to be insiders and that no man is an island and leads me to understand why my parents were not able to remain outsiders and provide adequately for a growing family.  While there is strength in numbers and our human nature to form communities; it is our social responsibility to recognise and protect those left behind or not cared for.

So, while I cannot forget the pain and anguish, I feel towards my parents and those who harmed me; I prefer to remember the delight, in hope, prayers and occasional answers. 

Lesley Millar talks of memory as ‘recreative act, and goes on to say that memory is not only re-constructive it is also destructive, it eliminates, wipes out …’  The theory is complex, but it is reassuring that memory rather than hold on to the facts like those learned by rote like the times tables or a poem it ‘mangles and transform the material’. (Millar, L.  2013)  This allows me to believe that while my work can appear comfortable and ‘inside’ it is ‘outside’ and represents a lotus out of the mud or as Leonard Cohen says … allow the crack that lets the light in.

Sometimes a prayer …

November 18, 2021

In my research I read much about artists who found the need to isolate themselves to do their best work or develop creatively. Scholars like Alistair Macqueen asks, ‘Could isolation lead to increased creativity?’ and goes on to question ‘can isolation fuel or stymie creativity?’ (Balance Media 2010) Picasso says, ‘Without Isolation no serious work is possible’. Article in the Observer talks of Vincent van Gogh ‘the poster boy for the tortured, isolated and ignored artist’ and Giogio Vasari who would take himself to a monastery to write and in his book written in 1550 ‘The lives of artists’ he suggests an ‘artist’ is someone who ‘lives on the periphery of society’ (Charney,N. 2020)

During my research I have discover that that a sustained and gentle education on the arts and creativity in particular puppets and puppetry does go a long way to ensure a child and even a grown up having experienced trauma can recover and become a self-sufficient person. 

I am not comfortable calling myself an outsider artist. I am undoubtedly self-taught, and my style is somewhat naïve, but I have not had the hardships as described earlier.  However, before writing this essay I wrote a longer piece discussing my parents who were children of the Great War and both embroiled in the effects of the 2nd World War and the devastation afterwards. They wanted a life away from tradition structures; no need for police and laws, places of worship and celebrated the art of barter in place of monetary exchange. My dad believed people should follow their abilities.     Their ‘outsider’ attitude to life might have been considered anarchy; sadly, it proved unsustainable, and the family broke up 1962.  However, while neither went to have long term relationships they both remained creative and maintained their gentle rebellious natures, particularly my dad.  My mother did her best to champion a balanced creative life, teaching, writing and being and active environmentalist.  As their eldest daughter I was exposed to undue responsibility, neglect, and cruelty; I could dwell on that and find a way to express that in a dark and shadowy way, but that would not be entirely truthful or fruitful.  As child I was left to my own resources and invented and imagined ways into kinder more comfortable environment with paper cut out dolls.  At night I prayed, not to God who in my tiny opinion was also neglectful, a whisper into the darkness for clean frock, a hug, a paint box, or a kind smile from my teacher, please. 

Be like Paul Klee …

November 4, 2021

‘Create goals for yourself: play, fool yourself and others, be an artist’ (Paul Klee 1902)

I cannot hope to tread such a hallowed path, my difficulties are no set against violence, abandonment, or radical oppression.

 My outsiderness and the feelings that causes comes from vulnerability, isolation, fear of the unknown and more importantly my aversion to the capitalist and non-democratic inner world.  Therefore, I would consider a kinder or more playful approach like Paul Klee (1979-1940) for instance who cared for his baby son while his wife who was a pianist and gave lessons and performances.  Theirs was a close relationship and while caring and cooking for him they would paint together and play with a puppet theatre.  For this Klee designed and made hand puppets each one quite different from the rest.  (Vry, S. 2011) In this way they both found comfort while at home and waiting for mother to return.

People including children need a platform to express themselves, when this is denied, they will find a way.  Likewise, they need friends and comrades to share concerns, grievances, and joys; if this is thwarted again determination, faith or trust will illuminate the way.  However, if this denial is extended or become violent then the outcome is quite different and often irreparable.  For ten years I was confined with vulnerable role models, and had unfair responsibility, yet, given opportunities and some freedom that other children were denied.  I had no platform, and my boundaries were unclear.   

During lockdown we were separated from our friends and family while we were allowed our digital or virtual platforms, conversations, and relationships on a personal level of any consequence was abolished.  Our boundaries and levels of restriction were mistaken and unclear.  We wanted to hug, dance, pray and sing with friends, learn, and explore.  While we were at risk for ourselves and others and of course the NHS; I for one did find ways to overcome this and turn my 2-dimensional plan to a song and dance act but I am not holding my breath.    

First Attempts

October 9, 2021

My first attempts at making felt dolls were painful in more ways than one and eventually aborted.  However, I did do further research as I was beginning to be drawn to the work of Outsider or Brut and did not want to miss an opportunity before going back to navigable path.  Whilst also considering animation I came across a book called Animo about an artist who makes dolls at first glance they do look a little like my first dolls, but the resemblance soon abates.  Michel Nedjar is one of the most important artists in the French Art Brut movement who drew inspiration found on his travels to South America.  His dolls are fetish figures made with waste materials; the result of ‘magic, artisan skills, baroque and death’.  (Feilacher, J. 2008)

In 1972 Nedjar’s first dolls as a tailor were used as commercial products to be sold in Parisian boutiques described as ‘little masterpieces of handicrafts, but nothing more’ made with fine fabrics and high-quality manufacture.  It was later after travelling in Latin America with a friend experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms and colourful fabrics found in the Mexican markets and learning about the dolls and figurines used in Catholic death cults and magical rites when his dolls changed.   No longer smooth and well behaved, now, ruffled with troubled grimaces as if ‘liberated from handicraft’.  While the fabric remains an important element; colour, light, and playfulness has disappeared.  Instead shades of earth and grey, the fabric is dyed with paint and sometimes animal blood that when dry appears brittle and fragile. The stitch work is replaced with violent wrapping and tying. Nedjar stopped making dolls in early 1990s and began painting. However, 10 years later when a close friend died of AIDS and the pain was so intense, he ‘felt the need for dolls again’. These figures are quite different, while the fabric is no longer dyed and appear softer, they are coarsely stitched.  At first sight they look more colourful almost cheerful; nonetheless with a patched and eyeless demeaner they seem to have a darker story to tell.  (Feilacher, J. 2008)

Nedjar’s second dolls called the dolls of darkness where representative of the horror and tragedy in his life and that of his friends and family during the Holocaust and discussed by Allen J. Weiss fully in Silent Screams; the dolls of Michel Nedjar.  Weiss considered the words of Nedjar from the radio programme and the screams of mute dolls and the way in which they are performative not sculptural, needing staging, not display, theatre not gallery.  Suggesting that while these monsters lead us to an underworld that is no need for particular of language and for this work, he used a Yiddish babble and imaginary language that seems to make sense of the ‘nonsense of death’ (Weiss, J. Allen 2015)

Dark or not …

September 28, 2021

Unlike those artists who use the art and skills in a playful way to educate and lessen the grief and hardship of physical and mental hardship; there artists that use their work skilfully to expose the harm and in some cases the perpetrators they have encountered.  During the course I attended a lecture by Erin M. Riley an artist whose work focuses on women’s issues in woven tapestries.  Her work is used to expose the harm that she has encountered at the hands of her family and lovers and self-harm.  While the tapestries are of the highest artistic and technical standard the subject matter is graphic, shocking, and some not far from the pornographic realm.  Her narrative, tone and attitude during the lecture was dark, poignant, and strangely beguiling.  I was reminded of an essay by Susan Sontag about Antonin Artaud the poet, dramatist, actor, and theatre director and major figure in the early 20th century theatre and European avant-garde and well known for his raw and transgressive themes. For Artaud, it is the extreme mental and physical pain that is transformed into artistry.  Although he was part of the surrealist scene he was at odds with their thoughts as ‘connoisseurs of joy, freedom, and pleasure, Artaud is a connoisseur of despair and moral struggle’. (Sontag, S. 1980)  

For me this is harsh and unattainable.  My tutor pointed out that we all have personal grievances and while they are not comparable or measurable some artists chose not to share or address them explicitly/publicly, they might use artistic tools, metaphor, irony or merely sanitise their work. 

‘Dolls are something scream, something mute.

Something of childhood, something of death,

Something of cruel, something of joyful…’  Michel Nedjar 1996.

Puppets in education …

September 23, 2021
I have taken this image from @DoctorSusanLinn

When I began animating my coat hanger people, I had not realised the amount of dexterity and concentration needed for a few seconds of film. I had expected my people to do all manner of activities and that I might make an epic film. Thus far they can walk about trying to look nonchalant or dance and a long way from making entertainment and educational intent is not possible so far.

Professional animators and puppeteers with scholars are seeing children worldwide exposed to trauma and those whose social-emotional wellbeing has been destroyed. Puppets ‘speak to immediate moral crises … after the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, UNICEF-sponsored puppet shows in a refugee camp that urged non-violence.’ In the South African version of Sesame Street, a HIV positive Muppet was added to the cast.  Characters from the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the show, play together (Blumenthal, E. 2005)

Doctor Susan Linn, psychologist, play therapist and ventriloquist believes her puppet Audrey speaks and becomes a person with healing skills. In March in response to Covid 19 when the people worldwide were instructed isolate in their homes Linn was deeply concerned with the difficulties families with children would find themselves in.  Since becoming an awarding winning ventriloquist with her duck puppet, she has worked with children from many backgrounds ‘helping them cope with challenging situations, including long term hospitalisations, painful sickness and frightening medical procedures’.  (Amato, F. 2020 p. 26-27)

always something to think about …

September 18, 2021

While my journey into animation has been closely mixed with the notion of marionettes and puppetry for me, they are symbiotic; until one discusses the stage required.  I use a Black and Decker Work Mate as an animator might use a tabletop; with an adjustable pair of vices with the use of clamps I can rig up a back screen. This, Binyon suggests, is a plain curtain or painted background and best so the puppets so they can be seen as clearly as possible.  ‘Your marionettes must be so expressive so the audience will imagine the scene’ (Binyon, H. 1966) As my puppets do not have strings or hands to govern them, I do not need a complicated structure or a proscenium stage with more complex lighting system.  Filming outside, while I do not have light difficulties, I am limited to daylight hours.  I have experimented with back screens and discovered that while they might add another element to the action and story, they do cause technical problems with camera, when it focuses on the back cloth instead of the characters. With careful stitching I have learned to make them less attractive to the camera lens.  It is for this reason Binyon does not advocate scenery.  As I am a Textile artist first and puppeteer at present by default and due the Covid isolation I am keen to find an alternative to my garden limits, such as the bushes, trees, and my neighbour’s washing as it blows in the wind. 

After washing and unpicking the seams of some seed potato sacks found in the shed, I draped one over the back screen. With its open weave, drab colour and no adornment it served well as a background.  So, while I have managed to navigate a rather a haphazard path through the busyness of animation, puppetry, stage, and costume design; to leave an opportunity to stitch something is an anathema.  Especially as Covid and its restrictions has given me time to consider stillness, silence and space and a chance to the perfect juxtaposition. 

Silent vibration …

September 10, 2021

As I allow light and shade on my stage, I want to maintain silence; or at least understand the noise and master it.  ‘Silence is all of sound we don’t intend. There is no such thing as absolute silence’ and John Cage says that it is ‘the multiplicity of activity that constantly surrounds us. (Cage, J. 2010) This knowledge gives me permission to allow the silence of the world to permeate my work in a refreshing and creative way. Furthermore, adding sound to stop motion animation is complex and costly.  Early films without the necessary technology were a silent medium so the moving images and the spectacle were more important than the plot.  (Kenny, C. 2011) One more of those comforting thoughts that gives me the opportunity stitch and ‘embroider’ the costumes and allow the audience to use their imagination in the name of art.   

My coat hanger people have no character or life of their own; they are ‘governed by the law of gravity’ (Buchan, S. 2011) until me as the animator gets involved.  I must make them move, perform, and dance and give them soul like a ‘neoplatonic god’ (Buchan, S. 2011) grand words for magic.  Even after the painstaking frame by frame photography it does feel like that.   However, as an animation beginner, movement and animation are in the hands of the gods especially when the action is complex.  For instance, dancing the Flamenco I need to hear the rhythm of the guitar, footsteps and handclaps and castanets in my head; I must become the dancer and immerse myself in the music while the puppet does the mirror action. ‘Unless the operator can transpose himself into the centre of gravity of the marionette. In other words the operator dances’ (Buchan, S. 2011) However, it is the unwanted movement that concerns me; since I have learned more about the Stop Motion Studio Application and its very basic editing features, I am able to eliminate awful intrusions. Stillness, like silence is long lost in the bluster of life.  Movement cannot be eliminated unless we have died and gone to heaven.  No matter how I try I cannot still my beating heart, the wind in the trees or vibration of the train as it rumbles by.  So, while I must learn to dance and maintain a healthy relationship with my camera and editing device, I must allow the vibration of life to carry on. 

Let there be light …

August 11, 2021

While gathering thoughts about the use of animated puppets in a Textiles MA course I looked again at the words of Helen Binyon and the point she makes about Puppetry being a dramatic art, a communication between performers and audience.  The work of art is not the puppet but the performance, the drama being the verbal art.  She goes on to say that puppetry is a visual art and communicates by visual means (Binyon. H. 1966) This is reassurance for mixed media artist who champions costume, fabric and colour before enforced narrative and unnecessary sound.

I am a gardener and read a little about Gertrude Jekyll and her ideals in ‘natural beauty, in the exploitation of natural shapes, colour, and harmonies …’ in the garden and her claims for gardening to be a ‘fine’ art.  As an artist wanting to express ugliness, disharmony and as Jekyll says ‘things jarring and displeasing’ as well being a textile artist with the use of puppets and animation one can apprehend puppetry as an art not so fine but not be disregarded fully.

Letting in light (Chatto, B. 2002) I live in a Victorian terraced house with a tiny north facing garden.  I value every moment of the rising and setting sun in my back yard; where I sit and enjoy the world and of late do my filming.  Light for a prolonged period is vital for the lengthy stop motion process.  During the months of lockdown and specially in the winter when filming was not an option, I discovered that that lack of light does have effect on my mood and wellbeing.  As a gardener depression can be addressed to some degree with careful planting.  Beth Chatto the noteworthy garden and plants woman talks about this, trees and shrubs planted years before were advancing at alarming rate since the winters were becoming milder.  ‘Spaces between the shapes were closing in I am losing too much sky of wonderful cloudscapes … I feel hemmed in and depressed.’ She went on to describe how she would cut back and replant to let in the light and bring balance to the overall structure.  On a smaller scale and no less important on my workmate in my back yard I have to allow my people to move and grow, be watchful of changes in the season, daylight and shade.  I must cut back to encourage regrowth but more important add light. Not with pruning shears but with needle and thread and colour or conversely embracing the negative spaces and allowing the sky or light to touch our souls and illuminate our imaginations.

a role model …

July 31, 2021

As I tried find a way to animate my coat hanger people for my MA in textiles without previous experience in isolation I was at a loss. Until, while researching my childhood memories and scrapbook images of Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova and Anna Pavlova I discovered Alexander Shiryaev who died in 1941, was a principal dancer at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg.  He was also a teacher and choreographer and worked for decades with many of the greatest stars of Russian ballet.  So, while his first love was dance very early in his career and even more remarkable working alone and in isolation, he became the inventor of stop-motion animation using techniques that still astonish professional animators today. (Breumers, B. 2009) He produced hundreds of pencil drawings in sequence and built an ‘optical’ device’ to play the drawings.  Soon after this he moved from 2-densional to 3D and used wire puppets with flexible joints and filmed them frame by frame using a 17.5mm camera.  His puppets only 25cms tall perform on a small proscenium stage.  His longest film at 15 minutes called Harlequin’s Jest is masterful and entertaining.  This aspect of Shiryaev’s work was not seen art but an education tool for his students and kept in storage until many years later.  Now they are considered art and in my opinion jewels of delight. 

I have a long way to go to reach such lofty heights, but it is reassuring that he more than 100 years ago he was able to achieve so much with limited tools and technical knowledge. He was surely ahead of his time.