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So much to learn …

April 16, 2019












As my going to university gets closer so my mood ricochets; like a ride on a switch back; sounds nice, believe me, it ain’t.  I have the tablets and tools to cope with both extremes. Even, while the pain in either state is hardly distinguishable at first, I usually settle first with a cup of tea.  Not always good in the long-term but, good on the short when I can find a book or article that will blind me with science or, make me pour another cup of tea which always a good thing.

A book I enjoyed this week was called Double Harness by Robin Tanner.  While, it tells me the story of a schools Inspector and an etcher and illustrator during the early 20th century; it gives me a sound overview of the arts and crafts movement in the West Country.  I have a heap of influential names that I can dine out with for a while; those like Ernest Gimson, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Phyliss Barron and Dorothy Larcher.

It will be good to do some cross research and find some other inspiration that so that medication becomes less of a factor.

oh yes … then there are the ceramics

April 15, 2019

When I returned to ceramics after a break of 50 years it was for a number reasons.  I enjoyed watching the Pottery Throw Down and it looked like fun.  Especially as I was finding my own company since I had recently retired tedious at times; a little creative community for a morning each week seemed like a good idea.  While see myself making art and perhaps something lovely; for me it was the tools and craftsmanship that drew me.  Like tapestry weaving, with its loom, heddle, shed and shuttle, printmaking with the letterpress, press and engraving tools.  Therefore, learning the craftsmanship and then allowing my need to undo the rules and make art.

It was assumed by others that I had been inspired by Grayson Perry, perhaps, but not directly.  Although I had seen him once or twice on TV and his ‘show’ at the London Palladium.  He was to me more a celebrity of the upper echelons.  I even saw some of his work at an exhibition by the Serpentine, wonderful as it seemed, not for the likes of me a retired library assistant, a granny with a dodgy degree. So how can I reach such realms; Grayson Perry the Royal Academician and Turner Prize-winner was not my hero then or now.  However, his style and attitude does interest me enough to learn more and apply that to my own practice as a textile artist, printmaker and ceramicist.

Soon, I was building pots and moulding plates; becoming fine fabrics, surfaces, canvases to which to add print, text and stitch; works in the style of Perry while they do not compare with his wonders as seen in the Tomb of the unknown craftsman, like ‘I have never been to Africa’ and ‘Frivolous now’ they go along way and allow me to mix and match my other skills

How did Grayson Perry, self-acclaimed Essex trans potter make it into the wonderful world of art?  In his book Playing to the gallery he tells of the human being and the human mind being able to transform the most traumatic experiences to a positive.  Surely like John Craske and Hannah Ryggen I can relate to that.  There is still the artistry; where does that come from?  Glenn Adamson says we can all be taught a craft by experienced craftsman and goes on to say that not all craftsmen are artists.  This was always a apparent in the print room, in the weaving studio and now in the pottery; some are able to make a product but not a piece of art.

Grayson Perry, talks of a signature material; his being clay while he suggests we don’t read to much into his personal narrative; mine I think is wood as the daughter of a wooden boat builder this could be right and relates for me to the tools and not the fabric.

He goes on to discuss outsider art and those who haven’t been to art school with little knowledge of the art world those like John Craske.  He suggests Henry Darger 1892-1973 who after a traumatic childhood, was janitor in a hospital after he died many artworks were found in his tiny home and then sold for many 100s and 1000s of dollars.

He reminds us that children make art, and unless it is recognised as he was then they sneak under the radar.

One wonders what hope there is to redeem my situation and further to find myself in a position to recognise art and craft in the art world with some knowledge.

John Craske … and my mum and dad !

April 14, 2019

I was still not clear that my needle work would be up to scratch and did some research;  My mother could embroider well, as a child she would have learned by rote every stitch and needle technique at school and at her mother’s knee.  While in post war life on a houseboat there no immediate need for delicately embroidered dressing table mats or antimacassars, her general needlework and mending was fine and beautiful but no less than my father’s hand sewn boat sails.

I tried my best and could muddle through with old singer, a yard or so of fabric and a Simplicity pattern and some run and fell.  Embroidery was not cool in the 1960s.

Fast forward to my work in the library and my becoming a printmaker and coming across work and books by and about artist such as William Morris and later, Enid Marx, and others making their mark in Art, Craft and Design at the Central School in early to mid-20th century.  When I could consider mixing stitch and print. I looked at contemporary textile artist such Alice Kettle and Cas Holmes and the way they ‘simply’ mixed media. I even tried some other needle techniques like Boro and Sashiko; traditional sewing using simple running stitch.  Finding a way to build on my printing skills without offending the likes of my mother and utilise my basic needlework to the full.

It was during this time when I read about someone who did just that and more beside while struggling with poor physical and mental health.

Threads, the delicate life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn.

A story about a fisherman born 1881; at 36 he became ill and for the rest of his life he moved in and out of what is described as a ‘stuporous state’.  At best he could walk around a little, but mostly he had little energy in his body.  He spoke softly and could work with his hands.  He wrote and painted pictures of the sea and fishing boats.  When he could no longer stand to paint he began stitch work, he lay on his bed propped with pillows with a cloth nailed to a frame in front of him.

Blackburn went to great lengths to find his pictures and there could be hundreds.  Some in exhibitions.  While Craske didn’t see his work on show it was exhibited in London and New York; among them his masterpiece the Evacuation of Dunkirk.  Others were found on walls in private houses, storerooms, cupboards and boxes.  She says he might have been famous but it seems he didn’t fit although some of his work was collected by people whose opinions mattered, such as Benjamin Britton, Peter Piers, John Betjeman, Billa Harrod and it seems for a while Albert Einstein was a friend and neighbour.  Sadly, as embroidery thread fades when exposed to light so, his memory faded.

The story goes on as Julia unravels John’s illness and how his wife and family cared for him as he went in and out of comas finding money to buy cloth and other artist’s materials as well as food and financial support when required and without question.

So, while the story is fascinating on all levels it is Craske’s work and how and why he did it, that is more interesting to me.  As someone who suffers from depression and complicated grief that is at times debilitating, this is 100 years later there is much more information, medication and care when required.  John had a supportive community and wife; a devout Christian who believed that god watched over her and her husband and would provide a small miracle if in real need and it seems he did.  But where did John Craskes’s artistry come from?

Hannah Ryggen was a scholar, she trained as a weaver. She was a strong healthy woman.  She and her husband until the war were able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and even then, she was able to source the extra yarns and dyes as required.

Craske on the other hand was poor fisherman unable to work and provide for his family let alone buy art supplies.  Yet his work found its way to London and New York and into the homes of eminent collectors

In the book John’s wife, Laura tells how he did his first embroidery. It was when they moved into their own house.  Her mother was staying for a time as John was unwell and restless, seemingly unhappy that Laura was struggling to look after him and ‘pull him back from despair’. She suggests we try to make a picture.  Mother found a frame and a piece of calico bought for the Christmas pudding. They tack it to the frame and John drew a boat and began to fill it in with some wool until he reached the sky when there was no suitable thread.  So, Laura mixed some distemper and a little blue bag in a saucer and he painted it on with a brush.   The boat was call Bob Roy and it was his first picture as he settled into their first home.

John was described in a local paper ‘… never far beyond slate and pencil in art education … at eleven a Grimsby fisherman … yet now an artist of distinction …’

I have not seen John Craske’s work and it is my hope to find some conveniently placed for me in an exhibition.

As an artist from humble beginnings I can relate (a little) to Craske’s struggles yet his gifts go far beyond that of mine.

He was they say ‘a seafarer, gifted marine painter who made a daring combination of needle thread with other media.  A tough act to follow.

Hannah Ryggen …

April 13, 2019

People sometimes ask me why I ‘became’ interested in Textile Art,  The truth is I was a textile artist before I became a printmaker.  I was always drawing as a child and loved dressing cardboard dolls in the latest fashion then as teenager I made clothes, amended hand me downs and could knit well; but this was from necessity and not considered art!

So, already an artist, within print in most forms from letter press to collagraph and monoprint and ceramics,  I attended a presentation of the work of Hannah Ryggen the Swedish/Norwegian artist early this year.  An occasion that was going to allow me to take a turn in my artistic journey, to read a book about a little-known textile artist called John Craske, discover more about Grayson Perry and begin to practice tapestry weaving.

I am glad I opted for a guided tour of the exhibition to learn about her life, chronologically. Woven with the occupation of her homeland during the 2nd world war, the imprisonment of her husband, the upbringing of her only child, the running of her home and farm with her tapestry weaving.

In an isolated environment Hannah’s husband built her a loom at a time when weaving was seen as decorative.  She on the other hand was to use her loom as painter; graphic, thought provoking and informative.  The fleece was shorn from her specially bred sheep, carded by her husband she was taught to hand spin by local women and dyed using plants and lichens on an industry scale. She also spun her own linen

In a country occupied by cruel fascist enemy supplies for the farm and home were scarce and harshly rationed.

The resulting tapestries woven using art-history devises to characterised pictures reflecting the social struggles against war and fascism were vast and dramatic almost cinematic.

How could I replicate this in to my work practices? While Europe is not stable and there are lots of social inequalities I can hardly make serious comparisons.  When I was able to look at the exhibition alone I enjoyed the vignettes at eye level, such as that in her kitchen (we and our animals 1934), while she was not a vegetarian she cared deeply for creatures and you could see her pain when having to slaughter a goose to cook.  While I live in a peaceful country and unable to draw on her subject matter her perseverance and resourcefulness is enviable. The smells and fragrances that must have filled her kitchen while dyeing, a little less pleasant the ‘piss bucket’ that stood by the door seemed to lure me to giving tapestry a try, not great wall hangings or huge heartfelt social comments; but see what happens when I challenge long standing ideals that are being thwarted, socially or in my personal life as an artist and/or craftswoman?

So how does the art of tapestry weaving compare with relief printing?  First there are lots of rules lots, tools, some robust some fine and delicate, there are fragrances (ink has a distinct smell) texture, fabric, paper is fabric, lots of colour; we make marks that tell a story.  There is a right and wrong way to learn and then unlearn with some wild confidence.

One story that warmed me, while I don’t play a musical instrument I listen to music throughout the day and forms part of my creative practice.  She, I understand played the harp with her hardship and oppressive occupation she enjoyed music. A harp made from a first loom that became too small for use.  She is truly a woman I would love to have met.


Before I go …

April 12, 2019

I had a great plan to tell you all about my next steps as regards my ‘going’ to university; but  I felt I hadn’t quite finished about the sacks.  In the end I completed 10 and they have been exhibited and enjoyed.

I didn’t have big plan but I was ‘angry’ about the slave trade, aware of a cover up on all levels and my un-knowledge. With a lot of carefully selected embroidery threads and some gathered knowledge as regards the coffee plant at least, I began to stitch.  Not to make the sacks beautiful or hide their use.  They were the result or product of an industry that is reflected in Rio itself; with its grime, oppression and guilt and then its beauty, taste and surrounding culture.

Gradually they grew, blossomed and remarkably finished and as the sacks were noticed and I talked about my journeys.

The stories, with the sacks and the heartache of leaving my daughter in her home so far away year after year was difficult to reconcile.  Some people tried to connect the two and suggested that the grief, sacks and their embroidery where symbiotic and that my art was therapy   Believing that embroidery was a bit like water colour to oil painting as restful and therapeutic.  That too, took some explaining, missing your daughter is one thing and doing embroidery is something else.  Like drawing or any art, embroidery takes skill, practice, focus and determination. I don’t just pick up a needle and sew.

Then, there is expressing one’s self without words and that I did find hard; so, I had to add narrative in the form of haiku.  Not to just tell the story but to say more that this is not a table mat to drape and look lovely, it is not here to hide the vacuum cleaner, its telling you that all that glitters is not gold, coffee (and cotton and that’s another story) may delight the many it has harmed many more in its production.

Coffee sacks ….

April 10, 2019

While I was print making, I discovered that the light faded pretty soon after lunch. So, I tried doing other things that didn’t require such intense light. Then I remember the sacks I had seen in Rio.

My daughter lives in Rio de Janeiro and we have been visiting her annually for 9 years.  For most of that time she has lived in a favela among 100,000s of key city workers.  While she does now live in a more comfortable apartment it is not semi-detached suburbia.  Hotels, apartment blocks, shops, restaurants, favelas and offices are built cheek by jowl; there is little green space and the blue sky is hardly visible.  In the busy city, people just make the most of their tiny space covering the less attractive bits and finding light and green when needed.  It is a fabulous city and with a resident guide we were lucky enough to see that and the stunning beaches, mountains and forests.

Nonetheless, it is the city and its grime that seems more attractive.  Coffee- come- music -come – book shops have become our preferred watering holes when sightseeing.  They too, little or large. wonderful or less so, are wedged between the side of a mountain and anything between a multi-storey carpark, a Bank, a wooden shack or indeed was an ex colonial building.  None of which were designed for use having little or no storage space any nook and cranny was used to store stock and unsightly cleaning materials.  It was often a coffee sack that was nailed or hung over a piece of string; mostly very shabby probably hung there for decades.  Part of me felt the urge to tidy it up and then other found pleasing; but Rio is like that.

That wasn’t the only time I saw sacks, or the cloth used to make sacks, in use.  In the market there was a stall that sold rather lovely table cloths and napkins made with sack cloth dyed to a multitude of colours and fringed so delicately; beyond recognition. It seems to have been traditional slave-trade product now for the tourists.  For me it was a little overdone but perfect for those who really wanted to see Rio, the slave trade and the sacks tidied up a bit.

It was my first encounter with dirty old sack that inspired me to look out for some sacks to take back home.  That proved to be impossible so it wasn’t until I got home when I found a supplier I could begin work.

So I did retire …

April 9, 2019

So, I did retire and enjoyed the freedom and opportunity to work in my own Studio …. I do have various presses now but at first, I was using a spoon!  Nonetheless, I kept busy and was able to sell work in exhibition’s and galleries throughout the year and in time even discovered other ways to be creative.  I found textile art! Which proved to be ‘acceptable’ in the exhibition spaces and sellable. Sadly, art spaces in Reading are at a premium and people are not buying art .  I had to make some realistic decisions if I wanted to work and not make money not even enough to cover my costs.

So,  with some consideration I decided to invest my last little bit of my pension to fulfil my dream to go to art college.  I will not make a penny in fact I will be penniless but I will retire a happy lady.   Not counting the days yet as I Brazil first in 18 days …

Preparing to retire …

April 8, 2019

Still very happy working at the Library, when my daughter moved to Rio and I could no longer commit so much time to ITAS and a time for a natural break came. That, and the idea that I might consider retirement and the fulfilment of my own dreams.  I began gathering and sifting my previous knowledge and its relevance to a more personal creative future.

So how does this seemingly dry and dusty career lead to me wanting to fulfil a dream to become an artist. As a 16 year old was talented I may even been gifted for whatever reason it went under the radar.   However, I did learn other skills that took me into creative world but from another direction

Moving to Reading in 1980s I wasn’t sure of the job opportunities; the library was not foreseen  yet.  I took what was available in cars sales and advertising; not very enlightening but soon found myself as a volunteer wardrobe mistress for the Reading Operatic Society.  They put on shows twice a year at the Hexagon. I undertook this role for 6 years until my third child was born.  They were big productions and I worked closely with the choreographer.  It was an exciting chance to use my buying skills when hiring costumes from agencies and the imaginative opportunities were more about making a size 10 frock fit a rather larger frame or vice versa.  With my child in Sunday school Beavers and Cubs Again, not far away from creative world.

After a short break I returned to work, in the Bank.  Here I was given to opportunity to do an Open University Degree in Art and Humanities including art history, philosophy, Classical history, enlightenment etc and being able to take a step nearer my dream.

As explained I was ‘only’ library assistant which allowed me to have a more light-hearted approach to the subject matter.  I wasn’t paid to be important; giving me time to enjoy the materials in a professional environment.  Almost forming relationships with artists and craftsmen dead and alive dipping and in and out of their lives for colleagues and researchers as I retrieved and returned requested materials.

During this time, I began a blog called Living, libraries and dead languages; posting daily about my life in and out of the Library mostly about items found during other researches; snapshots of the unseen. I became popular and I enjoyed writing.  When I retired I changed its name but seemed less hopeful.  Posting from my printing room and Instagram proved to be in more interactive and relevant.

I attended lectures during my lunch breaks regularly and also staff training each Friday morning during term time (for 18 years) as staff members we could choose from a small selection of sessions.  Everyone including the Librarian, it was staff lead. It could be a visit to another department in the University, to another establishment in the town, learn conservation and book binding, or be just health and safety or customer care.  Again, learning that goes unnoticed.

Also, I discovered that other colleagues were members of local creative groups not just art but drama, creative writing, singing, dancing etc. so, I found my way into other community where I could enjoy art hands on and long before I retired I was learning printmaking, illustration, book binding, letterpress with local artists and those further afield as I gained confidence. I am now fully practicing artist and exhibiting with the Reading Guild of Artists.

It seems that we can learn skills and some take us in the wrong direction but I was a good clerk and provided well for my home and family that was not without the trauma and upset can contribute to my being a creative person.

The path could have gone else where ?

April 7, 2019

Studying and a round cycle trip of 20 miles to and from work was becoming a problem and my prepubescent child was needing ‘mum’ a bit more.  As the degree was progressing well, I was in a position to apply for non-academic posts at Reading University ,a short walk away from my home.  Soon I was offered a job in the Library in the University. After graduating I was promoted to work in Special Collections  The role was unique as a library assistant, while it was not an academic post,  I found myself working with a range of professionals; cataloguers, archivists, museum curators, book binders, conservators and a range of social media opportunities. Supporting the academic staff and researchers the work was vital and mundane, heavy and dusty.  I undertook training mostly in house but some at Library school in London. I worked with rare books, archival materials and books relating to the publishing of books, such as book design, typography, book jackets, book binding, graphic design, illustration etc.

While working with rare books I was able to use my  Greek and Latin knowledge; during this time a colleague suggested that I learned Sanskrit so I attended SOAS weekly at a night class for 4 years and also ‘played’ with Classical Tibetan and I became a volunteer cataloguer at the Institute of Asian Studies in Malaga … for 6 years I went to Spain 4  times a year to work with the materials in the library;  books and manuscripts connected with Buddhism as it went from India to Tibet and the culture surrounding it.   A tiny team that supported scholars from Canterbury University and students from all over the world interested in the promotion of Buddhism. I was here I learned about ‘communication and the use of Social Media and blogging.

So now the drip drip and the tiny reminders of the lovely things of life …

Nearly there …

April 6, 2019

Being single, with a beat up old Mini to maintain and to be less reliant on by good friends and family I had to take a second job as a barmaid to pay my rent for one room and shared kitchen and bathroom was difficult enough with out dreams except one day my family would be together again.

Then I found a flatmate who became my husband it was great we could share resources and eventually raised a mortgage and bought a tiny house in Reading. So, my prayers were answered.  Job hunting began again still there was no computers and I was at least a reasonable Accounts clerk.  I worked for Thames Valley Trading selling advertising until I got pregnant with my third child.  When dear Maggie dropped the married man’s tax allowance and the poll tax came in; our house was in negative equity we were broke again.  I had to return to work and my husband doing night school and exams had to do a second job it was horrible it was if I had been here before. I was difficult as now need costly child care; relying on friends again was not good.  However, she soon was at school and I found work that I do around her.  I was a kitchen assistant meanwhile I took a class or to learn about computers that were now in common use.  As soon as she became more independent. I got a job a 24 hour bank that I could reach easy on my bike.  On the plus side the bank were keen for staff to undertake training outside the bank and were very pleased to pay half of the  fees for BA in Art and Humanities so for the next 6 years I burned the midnight oil reading and writing and spending weekends at courses it was very had work and my family were all again supportive and I could dream about the outcome ….