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In the Studio …

July 2, 2022

Last week I took four dolls to the Jelly at Reading. At first glance they look like a random collection, and they are. But they are among the first dolls I made.  The first incarnation was very neanderthal, this set was less so, but their outfits were not yet sophisticated. I was using fabrics and yarns that had been dyed with an arbitrary collection of natural pigments and scraps of fabrics. 

When I began to research dyeing in the studio and dye lab at university, I had all the information, guidance, and equipment to learn the vital techniques. At home on the other hand my resources and space were curtailed I was careful not to use precious fabrics and used inadequate equipment. I have however a much-improved studio space and better output.  With much research and cash investment I have learned to manage my requirements to balance with more stories and stop motion film making. My dolls are no longer random or unloved, they are all valuable members of the family.   

Nonetheless these guys need some explanation. They don’t have names or gender and the colour of their ‘skin’ is determined by the dye and mordant I use, whether it is copper, iron or alum (mordant) with weld, woad, onion skins, rhubarb, eucalyptus, avocado, log wood, Brazil wood, nettles etc.

One is wearing an broderie anglaise mini skirt and skinny ribbed sweater dyed with indigo, the sparkly shift is dyed with log wood, the gauze dress is dyed with woad, and lastly the knitted dress is dyed with weld and for the stripes I used rose petals. 

On the day they performed with a musical jewel box, silk scarf and a string of beads. 

Soon, I will be able to record that sound of the ‘music’ in the box and ‘add’ it to the film in the postproduction stage.  Sound making is in the absolute beginner’s stage.  I am hoping my past learning experience will allow me to find a path that isn’t too hot on perfection and that I will find away with not too many happy accidents but more well measured delights. 

films can be seen @coathangerdolls on instagram

Lovin’ a bike don’t you?

June 25, 2022
Needs a padded saddle I think ….

My dad was a master craftsman with a growing family and other responsibilities he had limited resources and time to explore other creative and or business opportunities. He worked from dawn to dusk, six and a half days a week, in a boat yard where he repaired and cared for boats and their mooring in his charge. Whilst he built and renovated our houseboat, he converted a lifeboat for us to sail in at weekends and holidays.  He was always on the lookout for salvageable boat-building materials. In this regard I proved to be an able helper. One off my daily tasks was collecting firewood, it was a year-round job so I could ensure we had enough fuel for the fire during the winter.  The pickings were rich, (and I have discussed this more fully in previous posts) due to the extraordinary tides we encountered in the Southampton Water and the rivers surrounding.  The twice daily tides bought debris from ships and docks, and other boat yards to the creeks and water’s edge at Crableck where we lived, that could I gathered and sorted into the various requirements.  I was diligent and vigilant, even when looking at other interesting arrivals on the tide.  Useful wood was my priority but sometimes I found metal and soon learned to look out for brass, copper, and lead.  So, the wood like teak or mahogany might be used in further woodwork jobs or less precious burned on the fire. The metal on the other hand no matter how small and insignificant would be bagged up and taken to the scrap man in Southampton beside the Itchen River the next river along the Southampton Water and near the Docks.  When the bag was filled and ‘worth’ the journey my dad would take a costly bus ride and return with some cash and a little trinket for my mum.

During the war the scrap man was seconded into the war effort and the local community were expected to bring him metal, like fencing and gates and old worn kitchen utensils to melt down in a furnace to use in ship, aeroplane building and munitions.  Some people would bring other metal treasures which he would put to one side and sell. My dad would bring back a brass figurine or a copper jug which my mum would delight in polishing and showing on the mantlepiece. 

One time he came home with a bike for me.  I assume he rode it home and it was a long way and the bike far from comfortable.  It was at least 50 years old then and with solid rubber tyres and an ancient brake mechanism which required back pedalling! To cycle ail that way up and down the hills was no mean feat, but he was rewarded by my smile and enjoyment as I went on to ride that bike until I got another more comfortable to ride to secondary school and having a bike ever since.

Therefore, they feature much in my work and my sadness as my dolls will never ride a bike, that is until now. 

I discovered a neighbour who makes art out of scrap metal, I am not sure it is called that anymore. Nonetheless he uses waste metal from building reinforcement and his own motorbike making and repairing work with his welding skills to create art to sell art local art markets. I provided a ‘detailed’ drawing and a skeleton of a doll, and he was able to sculpt a bike with some moving parts that my dolls will be able to ride, with lots of artistic license of course. 

I am delighted with the outcome of this story, I delight in my dad’s ingenuity, thoughtfulness, and resolve as regards riding the bike home such a long and arduous journey with a precious return bus ticket in his pocket.

I love my dad and think of him daily.   

And Thank Darren and his Sticky Metal Art for his kind and cheerful attention to my dolls and their needs.  

At the shopping mall …

June 24, 2022

As you know each Thursday, I go to a studio in the town’s centre to make my stop motion films. The building has history and while it is not blindly obvious it is interesting and has its own rhythm.

It is a shopping mall, originally called the Butts Centre and built in the 1970s it became the ‘place’ to go shopping. There is a main street in Reading called Broad Street where the shops and department stores were found but it was then a busy thoroughfare, for cars and buses and open to the elements. The mall provided an integral multistorey carpark and undercover shopping space. It offered a different and modern shopping experience, shoppers could spend hours strolling and relaxing in the cafes.

The beside the mall, was a theatre, garden and local government offices and the infamous Inner Distribution Road, at the time like all major town redevelopments it caused divided opinions. However, over the 50 years, history has become forgotten and redevelopment has continued throughout the town and muddied the situation further. Meanwhile, the Mall was no longer invested in and become shabby and less desirable, the government workers were moved to another site, so buildings were empty and fallen into poor repair, the theatre became less attractive to visiting ‘stars.’

However, the Butts Centre has been modernised and has become the ‘Broad Street Mall’ and remains an inclusive and accessible centre for the local community and those like me a bus ride away.  There is a post office, a medical centre, beauty salon, advisory hubs for the elderly and those less able. There are smaller shops for hardware, hobbies, clothes, food, and gifts at affordable prices. There is a cinema and performance hub, Pound Land, Iceland, and TK MAXX, Cafes including Greggs, so everyone is welcome and catered for.  Nonetheless, rents remain very high, and shops are empty and will remain so until this recent recession is over. Meanwhile, the Jelly Reading, the charity that ‘champions’ creative art in Reading is renowned for its ability to transform vacant plots into art galleries, studios, and creative hubs where they run a variety of opportunities for emerging and established artists like myself at fair prices. 

For me it is a wonderful chance to make films in a warm community, I watch the visitors to the mall as they make their way to from the multistorey car park or the toilet to the shops, cafes, or cinema when they take a moment to look at the current display of stitch work by local mothers or me and the performing dolls.

Other artists use the space for painting, drawing, stitching, and knitting, one comes in the evening when the Mall is less busy to make music. Beside his day job he works tirelessly to raise awareness about the deterioration of the government buildings, theatre, and surrounding gardens.  While the buildings were not always regarded highly, they are a fine example of 1970s architecture and should be retained. They should be restored carefully and wisely employing  local crafts men and not demolished and rebuilt by ruthless property developers and hordes of migrant workers.

Saving water …

June 21, 2022

As a child and even as I grew up and become a wife and mum … waiting and being patient was normal.  Everything took time, before you could consider making a pot of tea and put the kettle on, one had to ensure there was water and fetch it if require. Food was cooked from scratch; we didn’t have a fridge and the store cupboard was mostly bare.  If I wanted to make an item of clothing even if it was using something from the rag bag it needed fabric, thread, thought and preparation. The shops for materials were long bus ride away. I could go on for pages pointing out the difficulties of life before things become instant and of course it did.  It sounds like I am grumbling, and I am a little, but we didn’t complain it was normal, we had to wait and see, nothing was straightforward or guaranteed.

So, we shared resources, we borrowed, we saved for a rainy day and looked for a silver lining. This upbringing stood me in good stead.  Being resourceful and asking for help has been a lifeline, especially as a young parent but even now as a self-taught artist I have had to rely on others and the community for help and guidance.  My dolls represent this hard graft, and my struggles with 21st century technology and my harking back to days when we were less well of when ‘waiting and seeing’ was half the fun. 

Having said that as I try my hand and piano playing, first learned a life time away, my patience is going to another level.

Running fresh water

Is valued beyond diamonds

Let’s not forget

Is it appropriate for me to attend a Pride parade?

June 6, 2022

My dolls would like to celebrate LGBTQ Pride month during June, and they can, they are puppets and with my help they can do what they do best, in extraordinary clothes they dance and bring joy to any celebration. 

I am on the other hand, cautious to join and appear to ‘get on the band wagon’.  LGBTQ+ is a movement alongside BLM and ME Too where I do not necessarily fit.  I can only look in and possibly be an interested bystander. 

I am a privileged white heterosexual lady while I am not entirely comfortable with word ‘privileged’ it is true. While I have seen racism from both sides among my family and friends and on two occasions the harm was fatal. I have seen and heard about homophobia. I have experienced misogyny and sexual abuse but afraid to put my hand up and say ‘me to’

I am protected by the colour of my skin and the topography of my home in other words ‘I fit it’.

Me and my generation are protected and have used the protection or safety unwisely.  We were exposed to a media that was misshapen and harmful.  Television in particular was complicit in misinformation.  We watched and enjoyed the Black and White Minstrel show, a variety show where white singers and actors performed with blackened faces. This was aired every Saturday night for twenty years. This horrible impersonation was offensive and caused much distress to the black community. We continued to watch uncomplaining. We missed the irony of Warren Mitchell’s characterisation of Alf Garnet, a right-wing moron in ‘‘Til death us do part’ a situation comedy. Garnet become our voice and it was funny to call our wives and mothers a ‘silly mo’ or our black neighbours some unrepeatable names.

We become complacent about racism, sexism and the fight against homophobia, we allow it to be humorous or another person’s problem because it isn’t in our neighbourhood. We attach ourselves to a friendly black or a gay person who keeps ‘themself to themself’ or overlook the misogynistic comedian. 

I am aware of my short comings, they have nothing to do with lack of education, where I live or the BBC. The world is so much smaller, information is clear and available. It is no longer shrouded in comedy and irony and ‘I am alright Jack’ attitude. There are no excuses.

The LGBTQ+ (BLM and MeToo) is my community and I want to be a part of it.  The dolls and I are going to celebrate that and support their on going protest. 

I hope this makes sense and I don’t cause offense, my support is genuine and don’t intend to capitalise on the gay culture.

in my dreams …

May 28, 2022

Every week I go to The Jelly Reading to make a tiny film or two. I rent a space that is super light and free from domestic distractions. I work in the shop window and imagine myself like the Tailor of Gloucester in the story by Beatrice Potter.   

This week I worked with a backdrop I had stitched to ensemble a woodland scene and the dolls look a little as if they come from Bruegel painting. 

When I was experimenting with natural dyes and using vegetation and mud (earth pigments) the colours were much like those we see in his works of art. 

Coming soon … ish

May 16, 2022

During some complex and painful weeks, I have found solace working with the dolls in the dolls house.  I have maintained a stringent regular weekly routine making films at a nearby studio and continued to make and dress the dolls. Meanwhile, stitching the backdrops as they were required.  It has been, as it sounds a bit of a roller coaster and not always joyful.  So, I have been taking stock.  For a while I was unable to take my daily walk alongside the Thames, subsequently my mood and wellbeing began to droop drastically, and I had to consider my working practice.

During this time my daughter came home from Brazil for a visit; while that came with much needed respite and lots of fun, she got Covid and was unwell for a week and outings and visits were curtailed for some time after.  She has since returned to Brazil and while I have been immobile, normality has given me space to think about the future here in the Dolls House, As I said they have not been neglected at all, in fact they are abundant and well dressed and I sense that they need to have an outing and be ‘shown’.

I do have exhibition in planned early in 2023 in Bermondsey Project Space in London.  So, I foresee doing something locally after that, in collaboration with my daughter who is a poet, printmaker and textile artist in Brazil with a view that the exhibition can be taken to Rio perhaps the following year. 

All this seems such a long way off but there is much to do and plan for, I am excited about beginning a new journey with the dolls and trying not to get anxious about the unknown and the vital fund raising. 

Pretty appalling …

April 29, 2022

Every Thursday I spend a day at The Jelly Reading.  It is a good place to make my stop motion animated films.  It isn’t perfect because I need to catch a bus and take my equipment for each visit fortunately, I am allowed a little storage space for the stage and structural equipment. During the week before my attendance, I write the story and prepare the dolls and props accordingly.  I have over a hundred dressed dolls, several boxes of props and at least 20 backdrops and these are added too frequently! While all are packed away carefully, I have no idea which doll, backdrop or prop is in which box. There is a true saying that ‘there is none so badly shod as a shoe menders son.’

I was a rare books cataloguer in a university library for 20 years and able to place the books in Dewy decimal order so each one was findable among 100,000s items, and have allowed my dolls to become ‘unfindable’ this is an appalling state of affairs.

So, from today I am going to attempt to unravel a few notes written on the proverbial fag packet and see if I can locate my dolls as required instead of scabbling in boxes on a Thursday morning. 

I took these dolls this week and it would seem that the doll in the yellow silk dress, dyed with onion skins and alum is Box 3 Doll 1, the doll in the natural nettle knitted dress with mother of pearl buttons is Box 3 Doll 2, the doll with the bottle green knitted dress is Box 3 Doll 3.

I made 2 stop motion animated films that day, one can be seen on Instagram @coathangerdolls and the other on my YouTube channel Helen Westhrop.

Distraction versus pain relief …

April 27, 2022

This past month should have been a holiday, not from my dolls but from life in general.  My youngest daughter who lives in Brazil paid us a long overdue visit and I planned a time of outings and entertainment with friends and family, lots of food, wine and music and we did fully until my daughter got Covid and I sustained a painful groin pull.  My daughter had to quarantine and was very poorly and my condition is ongoing and renders me to severe pain until I overdose with painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication and immobility without sticks. 

While it was not the ‘holiday’ I had planned my daughter and I were able to achieve lots of nice things and some I had only ever dreamed of!

My daughter who, among other things is a musician and owns a piano that went into storage when she left home to live in Rio in 2010.  During her recovery and my discomfort, we decided to reinstate the piano with the help of a kind and strong neighbour it now has pride of place in my sitting room, and it isn’t going anywhere else for the foreseeable future. 

Fortunately, while I can read music sadly can only play very badly so with regular daily practice I can enjoy the ‘rest’ part of my long recovery and plan to make some sounds to accompany my dolls action.

Happily, stop motion animation can be done while hobbling and it seems work better when taking a bit too much medication.  I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek I cannot wait to be pain free and until then I find distraction works best …

From the studio last week …

March 29, 2022

As I walk carefully along the path as a Concept Costume Design Animator, I have made positive moves to ensure that I can progress and grow in this bold challenge.  Having some initial tuition and prolonged guidance as needed has helped and the new improved films have attracted some attention which is comforting.

I have ‘given’ my dolls their own Instagram account where I post all the performances as they become available. 

Last week I took three dolls to the studio at The Jelly Reading.  First Hip Hop Rose and a doll with no name wearing a dress made from a scrap of William Morris furnishing fabric. I like my dolls to be well dressed so, I favour quality off cuts.  I have friends who make theatrical costumes from whom I can source bling and sparkle. From others short lengths of lace and ribbon. While I dye and embroider luxurious fabrics like silk, velvet, and wool. Local patchwork quilt makers always have remnants that don’t fit with current trends, to spare. I have no difficulty meeting the dolls fashion needs.

I cannot pretend to be upholding any ethical moral code or adhering to the laws of sustainability, but my dolls and their dramatic antics bring joy and hope during difficult times. 

My third performer, also has no name but previously known as the Old Guitarist, inspired by a painting by Picasso. He wears dungarees from silk dyed with indigo and a brown leather sleeveless jacket made from a tiny off cut.  The film can be seen on Instagram @coathangerdolls and is a story about an overseer in a blue frock and her two underlings taking some buckets to who-know-where. 

I hope you find time to view it.