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What ever the weather …

December 15, 2021

From a lonely, isolated place as a 6-year-old girl, I was able create beauty, fashion and even theatre with waste materials. Fast forward … In isolation due to COVID and away from university life I also had to find ways to be creative.  My home now far more comfortable and materials and tools were readily available. Yet, my mind went back to the dark and lonely a default situation, where the weather, tide and seasons were a constant back drop.  My mother was a hard master, I was responsible for collecting driftwood for the fire from the foreshore when the tide turned.  After that there was fresh water to fetch from the standpipe a mile or so away and the weekly shop in the village much further away.  I was exposed to harshness, reality, and weather. My clothes were functional, seasonal, handmade, and hand me down. I learned to knit, stitch, darn, and repair.  My home life was not about be a boy or a girl, I was taught survival, doing what needed to be done, being what I needed to be.  I had to be aware of the weather and the condition at present, I did not imagine the future beyond my immediate environment.  My glossy magazines and comics did give me a glimmer of something else and a hope that things might get better. Long before saving the environment became norm my parents warned me of materialism and capitalism, so there was always a sense of environmental care, making do and manding was instilled and remains my method and the core of my practice. 

Sunday Stitching …

December 12, 2021

Long before I considered going to university to study the art of textiles, I was stitching coffee sacks, floor cloths and window cleaning scrim.  I was also dyeing yarn and fabric.  When I began my research and considering my professional practice with the help of experienced technicians in the studio and dye lab, I was able to develop these skills more fully.  As a result, I accumulated a vast collection of dyed threads, with printed and dyed fabric and have been able to use them for continued embroidery on my backdrops and ‘dolls clothes. 

All about the ‘dolls …

December 11, 2021

I was born and raised on and beside a dirty old tidal river on the south coast of England.  I have written much about the experience. It was difficult, uncomfortable, cold, and often traumatic, sometimes bearable and occasionally joyful. I will not dwell on it here unless required. Nonetheless these memories do have influence on my Coat Hanger Dolls (‘dolls) and their creation.  I am not sure where the idea come from, they seemed to arrive as if from nowhere.  They have never been made from discarded coat hangers; this is just artistic balderdash and a fake nod to recycling and make do and mend.  Yes, they are made with 2mm wire, a little softer that the wire used to make coat hangers. The ‘dolls merely look like coat hangers. A little before Covid and the subsequent lockdown I did learn a little about needle felting and the making of 3 dimensional figures, but it was a very painful venture, also the dolls looked a little neanderthal. When I learned and mastered wet felting, I was able to develop a consistent and pleasing result, in time I devised a cunning way with Velcro to make them stand. 

As a child I made and dressed dolls using discarded mail order catalogues and card from the back of writing pads.  My mother and I were active letter writers so there was always a supply to hand. The card from cornflakes packets was not robust enough for a standing doll. 

Last but not least …

December 8, 2021

Before I considered myself an outsider artist, I saw an exhibition of Black art from the South, at the Turner Gallery in Margate. I saw some Gee’s Bend Quilts and work of Thornton Dial; and read more about them in a book called the Creation story; Gee’s Bend quilts and the art of Thornton Dial. Susan H. Edwards discusses this vernacular art and artists and how since with the support of William Arnett and his sons have become known as outsider artists alongside Henri Rousseau, Adolf Wolfli, and Bill Taylor and receiving much attention. Edwards goes on to say that self-taught does not mean lacking in worldliness. Also, that ‘Dial remained an independent spirit despite increasing recognition of his voice among the establishment’. Furthermore, Edwards refers to extraordinary burst of creativity such as the Italian and Harlem Renaissance and there being no apparent reason for either.  Going on to suggest how some artists flourish in comfort and security and others like Anne Frank who created a lasting piece of work from horror, and Virginia Woolf preferred a room of one’s own. While the women of Gee’s Bend and Thornton Dial’s creativity came from the African American experience in Alabama; that of poverty, racism, personal struggle, and lack of formal education.  (Scala, M. 2012)

It seems from the Creation Story and from the work I have seen ‘the quilts soar in beauty and the provocative symbolic codes, and the visual power of Dial’s work can be appreciated both for their aesthetic qualities and subjugated knowledge’.

For this investigation there remains many unanswered questions; while I am self-taught, I have not been marginalised or oppressed and remain an unlikely outsider. 

I did not foresee doing my MA during a pandemic; my schoolgirl dream it seemed was dashed within weeks of my enrolment. While I am a part time student, I had time on my   hands there was no opportunity for grief or self-pity; and transported back to being a 6-year-old girl.    In days with limited resources, I was making dolls and taking them on a journey.  First establishing their needs and then placing them in an artful and creative place.  Then going on to look at ways on which other artists have achieved this.  Like the blind, illiterate poet and performer, the soldier who met monsters on his way home from a war, puppets that spoke to troubled children or oppressed citizens.  Explored the value of silence and sound with world renowned composer and music theorist and other scholars.  Discovered gardeners who while planning their plots might help me make a stage in my own garden making use of plants but more important colour, light, and shade.  Considered artists who looked deeply into bleak situations and exposed astonishingly dark work. Going further to discover outsider artists who while enduring very harsh conditions, using found items, still were able to celebrate colour and form to make art that looked at home in the back yard yet found its way to global recognition. Quite by accident I came across a Russian ballet dancer who invented stop motion animation to teach his pupils.   Furthermore, more recently but still early in the development of stop motion animation and again from across the world filmmakers that still amaze and entertain. 

None of these artists or creatives had an education in art; all self-taught skills using tools and materials at hand; often in isolation and or in hardship.  Yet their work and stories are showcased and referenced by scholars and other notorious artists.  This rather arbitrary story goes a long way to say that while the pandemic was not always a comfortable or easy situation it did play an important part in the progress of my journey to Russia and back and along the road to my MA.

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)