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!