Sunday, 3 August 2014

A Quine Like You


I'd forgotten to post about this until now, but a few months ago I had a commission to illustrate the story which won the Toulmin Prize literary competition, as in years past (2013, 2012, 2011).

At the time of painting this I was just back from studying with an icon painter (more on that sometime soon!), and I think there was definitely some influence lingering from the work I'd been doing on a painting of the Virgin Mary's very linear garments when I started working on this woman's boiler suit. Obviously the two garments look nothing alike, and this illustration is much more relaxed, but something of the approach seemed the same to me.
 

I suppose it's rather an appropriate illustration for this time of year, as the narrative begins with a young girl dropping off a jar of home-made raspberry jam on the doorstep of a rather intimidating neighbour. Scotland is a great country for wild berries and so we've been spending some our evenings out gathering wild raspberries recently. I hope you too are enjoying these late summer days and all the fruits of the season!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Voyages to Nearby Places



The summer is sliding onward, and already the glowing dark blue skies of late, late nights have gone. Out picking raspberries in the evening after work, it can happen that the night leaps down on you too quickly and catches you, sticky fingered, in its dark and itchy blanket.

As some of those people who stand at street corners waiting to discuss the weather with strangers will tell you in their creaking voices, 'the nights are drawing in'...


... and so, taking up that warning that everything passes too quickly, here is a little post to sustain a quiet moment for a little longer. These photos are from an evening's stroll a few nights ago.


We walked down towards the lighthouse, to breathe in the sea air before its journey across the harbour and the train tracks and the streets. At the mouth of the harbour families of dolphins leap, some of them still only small. Further on there are the sort of amphibious rocks that live sometimes on the land and sometimes under the sea, and with them come tide pools to peer into.




Sometimes there is a silver dart of a small fish or a great, wide piece of kelp that twitches suddenly and inexplicably, providing a hint of mystery which no amount of searching and peeking can ever seem to explain.


Some days there are other mysteries too, lonely driftwood fires that burn all on their own, for example. The one in the first photo was quite enticing, but like all such things -- empty row boats waiting by a vacant shore; sweet, uninhabited cottages with unlocked doors; steaming hot food with no one by to eat it -- it seemed best to stay warily away.


And while I have been out watching these days race past there are a couple of things I've neglected to mention here. First of all, Leenathehyena wrote the loveliest post about my work over here on her blog which is full of fascinating, well-researched essays on Scotland and Aberdeen. Do have a look!

Secondly, for anyone who happens to find themselves in Birmingham within the next few weeks, I will have a couple of prints on display there as part of the Printmaking Biennial put on by the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.


But back to the walking, because we do need to get home after all.
As we turned back and made our way homewards, we came across one more mysterious sight. A man stood just beyond the lighthouse, and whether he was coming or going, taking off or landing, or simply echoing the jellyfish we'd been watching from the rocks, it is impossible to say.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

How to Make Odds and Ends Walk


Following yesterday's puppet post, I wanted to write a little background post. These puppets had quite a long gestation period before work began on them. I realised today that the Puppet Challenge was first proposed as long ago as last November! This year has been incredibly full so far, so I didn't actually get started working on my puppets until sometime in June.

That said, in spare moments I found myself reasoning their construction out in my imagination, so when I finally got to work it went fairly smoothly.


Initially, I was especially keen to join this project because I'd always wanted to make puppets out of wood. I have no woodworking skills and thought this would be a good opportunity to get some. As time went on, the difficulty of finding the wood I needed and the impending deadline made me reconsider.

I had a dread of papier mâché. I was haunted by the lumpy, awkward creations of grade school art classes, but I decided to give it ago anyway.


I started out by making the general shapes I wanted from random materials. I used crumpled up aluminium foil and wire to block everything in, and then wrapped masking tape around it all to keep everything together. The parts of the 'bogel man' were built with drinking straws at their centres so that they would be able to slide easily down the marionette strings allowing him to appear in the story piece by piece. The old woman was built on strings to allow fluidity of movement. If this were a puppet that was going to get a lot of use I would probably have made her differently to allow for easy repairs.


I happened to have some plasticine around, so I decided to use this in the construction of the puppets as well. It allowed for easy modelling and was very useful in allowing me to add weight where needed. I know it is more usual to build papier mâché on a mould and then cut it in half, remove the mould, and then use more papier mâché to join everything back together, but I thought it was more useful to leave it inside in this instance. The puppets have a pleasant weight, and most importantly, the weight necessary for all the parts to slip into place easily.


The next step was applying the papier mâché over everything. We found a bunch of old student newspapers in the empty-for-summer university. Then, I made a simple paste from uncooked flour and water, and I set to work, reading opinion pieces on the Scottish independence referendum, an obituary of Gabriel García Márquez, and style tips as I tore everything to pieces. Rather than using great strips of paper, I kept my pieces very small, which I think may be the key to reducing lumpiness (though it does take a lot longer this way). I thought that the parts that had plasticine under them would be much smoother than the parts that did not, but this wasn't really the case in the end.


After allowing the papier mâché to dry for a few days, I cut the straws on the bogey man and I started sanding everything smooth. As I was doing this I noticed that I was getting a marbled effect as the layers of coloured papers wore into each other. Though I had originally planned to apply gesso and paint over everything, I was so taken with the mix of print and marbling that I really couldn't bear to cover it. Instead I added a very simple face on the old woman, trying to keep a unity with the patterned paper.

The only possible downside of the decision to leave the paper unpainted is that the bogle man was left rather less masculine than he would have been if he were painted. I had planned to paint him in all his hairy glory, going for more of a trompe-l'oeil effect rather than attaching any sort of projections. But alas...


Next, I strung up the puppets so that I could apply varnish to them without anything sticking on them. (The old woman is actually hanging back to front here, which is why there is a wire hoop sticking out of her. The wire hoop allows for a string to control her back, making it possible for her to hunch over.)


After a couple of coats of varnish, the colours of the papers became brighter and there was a pleasing sheen to all of the parts. Also, this transformed the soft, fuzzy, sanded paper into something much more robust for handing.


I didn't take any photos as I sewed the clothes, but you can probably imagine how that went. I am no seamstress, so it was slow going. Both the kerchief and the dress are designed so that they can be removed if necessary. There's really no reason for this, except that it seemed very unsavoury to me to glue clothing onto her or stitch her in so that she would have be cut out.

Finally I went out and found some sticks in a secret place by the river, and joined them together to make the controls. I had help to hold the controls so I could string everything up just right.


And there they are in a spontaneous photo I took of them together. It was lovely to create in the third dimension for a change, and also to rediscover papier mâché, which I think is definitely a technique that I may revisit in the future. I hope you enjoyed these process photos. If I've missed anything that you are curious about, feel free to ask away!

Monday, 7 July 2014

All She Wanted was Good Company


On his Artlog, Clive Hicks-Jenkins is hosting a Puppet Challenge and from now until the end of July, new puppets, created by a wide variety of artists, will be appearing regularly there. From what I have gathered there will be a mix of seasoned puppet-makers and people who, like me, are trying their hand at puppet-making for the very first time. I think it will be very exciting to see what each artist has come up with!


From the very beginning of this project I had a story in mind. As the story goes, there is an old woman who, sitting alone in her house one winter's night, longs desperately for company. Whether through some sort of eerie winter's magic or through the sheer force of her desire, eventually an enormous man starts to appear before her. Only, he appears in pieces... first the feet come, then the shins, the thighs, the torso, the arms and the hands...

The head, though, never appears.


Though I had this story in mind, it took me a while to find out where I'd first come across it.

I searched high and low for any reference to it, until I finally realised that I'd heard it told by Tony Robertson, a local storyteller. There is a recording of his father, Stanley Robertson, telling the same tale here, and I highly encourage everyone to listen to it (the play button is off to the left). It's only about six minutes in length and it's half-spoken and half-sung, and completely eerie and wonderful.

I should add, that if you do listen to the story, you will need to know the word 'muckle', which is used frequently around here, and means both 'big, large' and 'much, many, a lot of'.


As I set to work on the puppet of the old woman, I wanted to make sure that despite her being small and frail, there would be a sort of world-worn daring to her.


After all, she lives alone, and when faced with a rather frightening spectre she doesn't even balk, but sits back and asks: "oh big fearsome bogle-gadsy wantin a heid, what have ye done coming visiting a poor owld wumman sitting in her lane (alone) tonight on a cauld winter's night?".


In his post about these puppets, Clive wrote about how very suitable this story is to puppet making in general, but that turned out to be especially true for the making of these particular puppets. It just so happened that the first bit of time I found to actually begin making these puppets was a stretch of days where my husband had to be out of town, and the weird parallels of my lonesome evenings of conjuring up puppets bit by bit and what happens in the tale were certainly not lost on me.










The more complicated of the two puppets was the "bogel man". I spent months thinking about how I would make him. Because the puppet needs to arrive in pieces, but also be able to join up into a man, it wasn't possible for me to just float each part in separately. Finally I decided to build the parts so that they could slide down the marionette strings and sit in place. Certainly the feet, legs, or arms might sometimes be facing backwards to the body, but I saw this as being a good thing which would emphasize the unnatural horror of the puppet.


Any parts that haven't appeared in the story yet can be strung over the controls and out of sight until they are needed.


I was quite pleased with these puppets in the end. It was very satisfying to bring these two into the world with nothing more that bits and pieces from around the house. In the next few days I'll post again with a some process photos, but in the meantime, do keep up with the rest of the puppets from the puppet challenge!


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poems in the Morning


A couple of mornings ago I went down to the art gallery to work at the desk of the Aberdeen Artists Society Annual Exhibition, and found, sitting on that desk, a pile of papers. A pile of poems actually, and one for almost every one of the artworks hanging in the exhibition. The poems were written by the very accomplished Sheena Blackhall, Aberdeen's Makar (official poet laureate). Sheena keeps a blog here, and you can find more of her poems here.

Reading my way through her poems as the morning wore on was a delight. It was lovely to mentally walk through the exhibit and see the works from her perspective. As I have mentioned, I have two pieces in this year's exhibition, and I was thrilled to read her responses to them. It is a magical feeling to find your creations have gone out into the world and met with other ideas and creative processes resulting in something new and unexpected. So, thank you Sheena, you certainly put a smile on my face!

And, for your reading pleasure, I present Sheena's poems:

Twenty Geishas

Twenty Geishas went to sea
In a vessel of polished pine
The traders' routes offered to fill their coffers
For sharing virtues free

The Flying Dutchman closed his sails
For the Geishas to step aboard
And what transpired it certainly fired
Their spirits which simply soared

The Marie Celeste, they encountered next
Do you wonder it's not been found?
With kisses of honey and blandishments sunny
The steersman he ran aground

So if twenty Geishas you should see
When you're sailing the ocean wide
Don't let them on deck, your ship they will wreck
Keep hard on the starboard side!

The Narcissist

Along the narcissist's body
Selfies break out like boils
Coming to a head

Faces sprout in every direction
The Twitter bird flits from ear to ear

Look at me, look at me it whispers
Am I not adorable?


Monday, 16 June 2014

The Narcissist


For a little while now I have been meaning to post about the mezzotint you see pictured here. This past winter I spent my Tuesdays taking the train back and forth across Scotland so I could spend some time at Glasgow Print Studios learning about this lovely, tonal printmaking process. The print is quite small, only 10 x 14 cm, so many of these faces you see here are probably about the size of your littlest fingernail.

Mezzotint is a little less common than other printmaking techniques, but basically how it works is that the surface of a metal plate is roughened by passing over it many, many times with a tool called a 'rocker' which is covered with tiny, steel teeth. Rocking a plate is a very long process. For a small plate like this it will take hours and hours, and for a large plate it could even take months. Once the rocking is finished, the plate, if printed, would produce a rich, velvety black tone. Any lightening of this black tone is achieved by scraping away at the rough plate to make it smoother, so it holds less ink when it is printed. If you like you, can watch a video of this process here.

I really fell in love with this type of printing. Even as I was attracted by the rich tones of mezzotint, I worried that it would be almost impossible to make small, precise images. Happily this was not the case, and there seem to be endless possibilities with this medium. So, even if the plate preparation is rather long, I am really looking forward to making many more mezzotints in the future.


Monday, 26 May 2014

A May Morning Quite Early


A little over a week ago, being on my own and away from home, I woke up early and went off to walk in the woods at a time when I would normally still be sleeping.


I was staying in an enormous, old and creaking house. Before reaching these woods, I crept down the long and bending stairways that traced their way down the house's three tall storeys, then I walked along a dark hallway, out into the rolling mist-covered morning landscape, across a lawn, through some incredibly tall wooden doors and into a gloriously blossoming walled garden, then across the garden, up a hill and through another gate into the shade of a mature arboretum which was like some lost kingdom of sheep with a herd peacefully reclining here and there at the bases of the enormous trees with their new lambs, then along a sweet-smelling path of lilacs and rhododendrons and even some bluebells, and finally I came to a rusted-out, sideways-hanging empty frame of a door.


Though the door had become mostly an imagined door and I could have just ducked through without opening it, I turned the knob and pulled the empty, groaning door open towards me and stepped through into this world of twisting old trees and bluebells.


I walked in the fragrant, bird-loud woods until well past the point where my feet were dew-soaked. I might still be walking now if I hadn't remembered that I had actually woken early because I had meant to get an early start painting that day, before I meandered off course.


Perhaps you are wondering why there are only photos of the woods and the bluebells, and not any of the places I passed through to get to the woods? Well you see..... growing up in Canada I had a depressive biology teacher from England who once mentioned bluebell woods as an example of a lack of biodiversity. And perhaps they are (though these ones don't seem so bad to me), but since that day it has been a small, hidden-away dream of mine to visit a bluebell wood in spring. Somehow, the past springs that we have been in Scotland it has never quite worked out (possibly not having a car is to blame), so I felt very lucky indeed to accidentally wander into a wood like this the other day.


Wishing you a good start to the week and hoping you enjoy these last days of spring!