Skip to content

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 …

as I began …

May 4, 2021

When I began my MA in textiles months before we could have imagined Covid19, the pandemic and lock downs; I had more than the required ‘good ideas’.  Those that encompassed my current activities as a newly retired rare books cataloguer, such as my garden, music, and my yearly trip to Rio de Janeiro.  I am also a printmaker and merely enjoyed a little needle work and was hoping to make a colourful and rich wall hanging.   For first few weeks, I threw my net wide bewildered by the opportunities the art college offered.  I experimented with various dyeing techniques using foraged ingredients with various fabrics and threads.  I explored the use of alternative printing inks and acids all with new and exciting results; taking full advantage of the technical staff, tutors, studio space, and the facilities it offered. As a result, I had large array of 2-dimensional work; beautiful but still related to nothing in particular.  During this time, I began looking at the use of earth pigments and study them fully; working closely with a supplier I built up data base and skill set to carry on dyeing and printing fabric with native dyes and local pigments with this and studio space at the University I began to take a few steps forward.  Meanwhile, I was also reflecting back to river where I was born, the Hamble near Southampton. On the river and its banks since the Iron Age and for centuries to this day is a vast shipbuilding and dock industry grew.  In a small, isolated community that serviced one such boat yard, away from the school and other local amenities I lived with my parents until I was 12 years old.  I have bittersweet memories of that wild and free existence and wanted to stake a claim to the rich history that is fast becoming more remote as private modernity lays a formidable fist on public rights. I saw an opportunity to capture this in MA practice; so, I made plans to return to Hampshire and gather dyeing materials, images and stories and create a tapestry …

Inspiration …

April 23, 2021

My early personal story from 1950-1960 and my MA journey are closely interwoven.  This may not have been apparent had the pandemic not happened.  I was born into a small community by a river on a houseboat, miles from local amenities, school friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. For this essay I will reflect on these years and remind myself of the way in which I entertained myself and those who and what inspired me to create and make sense of the indignity, fear, and discomfort of isolation.  Then consider the last year and how I continued to be creative and those who influenced me with my new explorations.

My parents and my surroundings were my inspiration; immediately after WW2 they were able build a relatively comfortable home for a growing family with salvaged and reclaimed materials with dignity and pride. I was encouraged to find resources and make the most of somewhat uncomfortable situation.  Along with emotional support and personal care, play was often neglected.  Nonetheless, with music from the Light Programme on the radio, comics, and mail order catalogues everything was new, and exploration was the key. 

During the pandemic on the other hand, I had plenty of resources, social media, and all home comforts and in the short-term lack of visits to art galleries, theatre, and other social events was not a serious issue.  However, as time went on family visits were curtailed and shutdowns went on, I became fearful and feel abandoned. I was transported to the time on the river during rare moments of comfort with my dad or mum in a place of silent communication. Now, with more worldly experience and chosen to continue my doll making, started 65 years ago where there remains much that is unexplored. Surprisingly, the artists who have inspired me in those weeks were far from new; Gerald F. Bremmer is a wire sculptor of the 1960s, Paul Klee is an artist and puppet maker of the 1900s, Michel Nedjar, an artist of the French Art Brut movement with a fascination in dolls and Alexander Shiryaev a dancer, choreographer, and animator also of the 1900s.  …. See how this unfolds soon.