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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.

is there too much technology?

July 20, 2021

As the lock down and restrictions tightened their grip; I was not able to research fully and going to university less and less likely, I began to despair about my opportunities to learn about doing stop-motion animation.  Having read much about puppets and was beginning to see a divide between puppetry and animation and any research I was discovering that stop-motion animation was a lot about a tabletop with small 3d models or cartoons.  With computer technology, hardware, and software, and more recently apps, animators can manipulate, space, time, and sound with dazzling effects. (Laybourne,K. 1998)  I was at a loss without technology and knowhow I could not hope to dazzle anyone.  Also, I did not want to enter what is described as artistic explosion and produce high-quality high artistry animation; I want to explore the possibilities for the movement of my large 3D dolls, develop my own voice and style as simply as possible.  So, when I did find a book to help me out of the quagmire it was highly technical and not readily accessible to a child of the last century and not fully functional around 21st century technology.  However, all was not lost; there was a chapter on clay, puppet and stop-motion animation which proved to be most helpful and reassuring.  I was at least going down the right path.  More interesting and inspiring was a list of ‘history’s seven leading puppet animators’ most of whom from eastern Europe where there is a longstanding tradition of puppetry (Laybourne, K. 1998) So while the book, a weighty tome may not be the best for my needs at present it did prove to be of some benefit. 

What about Punch and Judy?

July 7, 2021

It was not until I started to think about animation and stop motion that I considered puppetry and drama together.  I did not think of my creatures more than dancing things.  Even when I researched animation the books I read were about the techniques, Wallace and Grommet, moving table lamps and computer games.  I could not see how my coat dolls would fit in.  It would seem that puppets performed, ‘for entertainment the 5th Century BCE for ‘common folk at public gatherings and for the wealthy at banquets’ Beside this there were elaborate automatons that moved with cogs and levers or activated with water flow.   Some scholars believed the Greeks also had shadow theatre. Then with the fall of Rome and the growth of Christianity puppetry became anathema, seen as idolatry and a device of the devil.  So, it too did not fit into society and the new culture.  In the hostile environment, puppetry during the Middle Ages was considered to be a low form of entertainment alongside that of trained dogs and monkeys.  Puppeteers came from outcast groups such as Gypsies and Jews. (Blumenthal, E. 2005)

As a child I did not understand Punch with his long-suffering wife Judy ‘who emerged from the political turmoil in the 17th century in England’ (Diptee, J. 2011) It seemed neither funny nor educational. I have since learned that Punch for all his failings was a hero of the outsider and the neglected, with first-hand experience of the poor.  He took the opportunity to ply them with knowledge that in his opinion would bring change and freedom from the oppressors. Diptree points out at the end; that puppetry is not only a means of communication, but also an opportunity for the ‘public’ to criticise and voice their opinions about apparent oppression, hostility, and inequality.

What next …

June 28, 2021

So now, having perfected the wire twisting and felting the beginnings of the coat hanger dolls; they were dunked into dye baths.  Using, foraged, and finding eco-friendly suppliers I experimented with different shades that varied from green to yellow to indigo and brown and black using different mordents it all became a game of chance.  So, moving from the sculpture that needs a degree of uniform and structure so came an element of serendipity and playfulness.  Nonetheless, they were still a little statuesque, without properly formed and disproportionate hands and feet and rather odd wire heads and subtle differences of colour they were characterless.  They needed clothes, not costumes, they were not yet performers, nor strategically placed fig leaves or silken drapes they had nothing to hide.  They are made of twisted wire with a little felt to hide the joints; but need more not for warmth or dignity but for the artist’s 4th dimension; depth and furthermore distinction.  It was now I looked at artists who were masters of capture such as Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, and Pieter Bruegel dressing my sculptures as a ballet dancer, odalisque, old guitarists, glamourous girls, blue boy and girl, peasant etc.   With my adopted characters came colour I needed little or no imagination the masters had done it for me.  However, I had not considered this an issue until I attended a webinar at the Society of Dyers and Colourists about the importance colour, costume, and stage design.  Julane Sullivan explained how a costume designer must help the actor tell the story and ensure the audience understands what he is seeing.  Colour is a tool often used to give insight into themes, location, status, relationships, and personality.  While my performance will be very unsophisticated this knowledge will allow be to make informed decisions about my characters and their roles with colour, not only in the costume but scenery and lighting.  Which is important as my performance will be silent.

As the characters developed so I began to consider storytelling and performance; it was deliberate and necessary step if I were to show my work in the lockdown and/or socially distanced situation at the end of my course. However, while I was and remain without extensive technical knowledge it was to become for a while a stumbling block. While the characters were formed, and I was confident in the workmanship, the story telling and animation was completely unknown. 

A doll is born …

June 23, 2021

While decluttering my wardrobe I gathered some rather bedraggled and distorted wire coat hangers; the type one gets from the dry cleaners and fit for nothing after one use.  One was decidedly human and with a little more twisting a person appeared.  Looking rather malnourished and in need of flesh or in my case some felt.  Also, somewhat like my paper dolls not yet aesthetically pleasing and not going win any beauty contest.  Let alone convince my tutor that they will make it as work of art. 

So, while I continued to develop my coat hanger people, I had to begin some decisive research.  As a rare book cataloguer and printmaker, I used books as a primary and secondary resources using keywords in the data bases and card catalogues. contents and indexes when browsing the shelves.  For contemporary or the latest information Journals was often the better option.  However, I am in lockdown the University Library is closed; the online resources are available; unfortunately, I have a motley crew of coat hanger people with not a keyword among them. 

Early in my research my coat hanger people were little more than paper dolls; while they were 3-dimensional they could barely stand; so, I needed to find a way to give purposeful balance to my wobbly ones.  With these thoughts came words like ‘sculpture’ and ‘construction’ and later was gifted a book about wire sculpture by Gerald F. Brommer; I understand he is a watercolourist but more important for me an art teacher.  It is a presentation of photographs and ideas, and a listing of working methods used by his students and other artists while making wire sculpture and other 3-dimensional construction.  He talks about the need for making 3-dimensional work; how it ‘adds another form of communication to the working art vocabulary of the student’ and goes on to say, ‘it is possible that he can portray the delicate and unbalanced qualities of a young colt better in wire than in oils.’ Later, he goes on to discuss assemblages and found items; a daring suggestion in 1960s to say that ‘found items can be an exciting experience … and become fascinating assemblages’ and not only in the domain of Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder (Brommer, G.F. 1968) 

Encouraged by these thoughts I remember; I am a child of the ‘found’. My father a shipwright, built our houseboat home, sailing yacht and various other crafts from the spoils of salvage.  He bought and sold scrap to finance his going concerns.  Timber was found washed ashore at the water’s edge or reclaimed from other waste; nothing was overlooked as unworthy until it was.  However, it was not seen as art but as a shipwright my dad saw the beauty in the balance, elegance in the craft as much as he saw its value sailing across the Solent or weathering a stormy sea.   My mother made do and mended during the war and until she died. She took great delight in unravelling a cardigan past repair and reknitting some socks, finding the right thread or remnant from her ragbag to patch a torn frock, her darning was beyond compare, all tenderly crafted but artistically disregarded. 

trust my intention …

June 21, 2021

Early in the 1950s, at a time when resources were limited, food and clothes had been rationed, make do and mend was still mandatory and before recycling was a buzz word; there was always something to be made. This would go on to be a hobby and ultimately absorbing. One such pastime that I enjoyed was making paper and card dolls to dress.  Using a glossy magazine or a mail order catalogue I would cut out suitable models wearing a bra and a girdle, find some legs, a head and stick them on a card. With a complete mish mash of limbs, the poor girls were never going to be super models. Then I would cut out other garments or design my own with little tags to fixed them on to my paper doll. They became my friends, with names and stories. I kept them in a biscuit tin where my mum would put snippets and off cuts for me to work with as my work became more sophisticated and almost theatrical. 

On the outset this was a playful pastime but in time became a project and a way for me to find comfort in an imagined world away from the harsh reality where my mother was increasingly dependent on my help.

In isolation, 60 years later in March 2020 as spring was approaching and looking towards the rest of my study. In a comfortable home and garden and without my daily commute to college, I still had strong feelings of ‘without’ and bereft. I found myself grieving and motherless.  My parents were unmarried, outsiders and clumsy with love yet encouraged me to find my own path, never let the ‘withoutness’ hinder my journey.   To trust my intention, find materials and tools and maintain a strong sense of autonomy.  

So, while the distorted and muddled feelings began to lessen, I sought a way to use my bag loads of dyed fabric and threads and consider further ways to felt.  Thus far without the girl’s playful air it was clumsy and frustrating.  Furthermore, the artists that had inspired me in the beginning of the course were no longer relevant or helpful. I tried to imagine how the girl might have continued and muster motivation and find away from the quagmire.  Afterall, she was a girl of the river while she could not always navigate her parent’s expectations, she was able find her way along the riverbank and creeks without falling foul of the tide, in time for tea and that is no mean feat.

As child my inspiration came from my mail order catalogues, my weekly comics, glossy magazines and a library of fairy tales and adventure stories then that was fine … now this is slim pickings I needed more. 

with mother and father’s help …

June 15, 2021

While I have been in lockdown, I find myself transported back to the houseboat isolation. Now, no longer in squalid conditions and the war now a faded memory; but, in a situation when feelings are inclined to be polarised and exaggerated and some talk of mental and physical illness. I have rediscovered my well-founded ability to create is a valuable tool or even a weapon to take me from enclosed or unpleasant space. For all my parent’s misgivings I ached to please them so while I responded favourably to their relentless demands, I was encouraged to be creative. With my dad in his workshop, I spent many hours while he sharpened his chisels and saws, cleaned his paint brushes, or put the finishing touches to some task in hand, in silence. I would sort through the screws in the tobacco tins and generally fidget. Until he smoothed out a sheet of paper; taken from a supply of used envelopes, brown paper bags or scrap paper and sharpen a pencil; that was always a delight since he had a deep aversion to new-fangled pencil sharpeners.  Then he would position a cup or a jam jar on shelf and I would draw it again and again, without a word he would take the pencil and a rubber tweak the images until it was finished. This is how I work to this day a pencil, paper and something is drawn to death until I can do it when my eyes are shut. Then, with my mother beside the fire and with one ear on the radio I learned to knit and sew.  My mother not so silent, perhaps not so gentle was a hard task master.  My endeavours to sew fine seam or knit a complex pattern or embroider a dainty cloth were often thwarted with regular unpicking, unravelling and beginning again.  Again these; lessons have allowed me to find a place in the creative world where I need not strive for perfection from the practice come a natural ability. 

Influencial story tellers in textile …

May 19, 2021

In this particular story my only influences in the world of stories woven in or stitched on fabric, thus far were John Craske, Hannah Ryggen and Arthur Bispo do Rosario and while their work was valid and inspirational, they are extant and their stories not relevant to mine. Craske was a sick man and confined to bed much of the time embroidered stories of the sea and famously of the Dunkirk evacuation 1940, Ryggen wove tapestries in her home in Norway of harrowing stories while occupied by the Germans during WW2 and Bispo, a Brazilian artist suffering for schizophrenia created work using found objects in praise of god.  My mission was not quite clear, nonetheless, I mustered hope that going to the river, immersing myself in the environment exploring natural dyeing and printing materials my own story and style will evolve. 

Sadly, before that could take place Corona Virus happened and as nation the United Kingdom went into lockdown; any thoughts of going anywhere beyond my front door were thwarted forthwith. With a daily exercise allowance, I was able to venture to the Thames nearby and hopeful she might prove to be a fruitful alternative. The Thames as it flows past Reading has a rather pleasing countrified air until one notices the glistening office blocks at a polite distance; emblems of the silicon valley for which Reading is famed. That and the Reading Pop Festival and closer look reveals the carefully coiffured hedgerows, and pollard trees and realise it is all a bucolic dream, It bears no resemblance to the river of my memory; urban, polluted, and mysterious, therefore cannot play a part in my story. So my journey continues …