Category Archives: Tracks and Trails

The Craft of Learning

(The life so short, the craft so long to learn).       Hippocrates, 5th Century B.C.

I used to say that if I had my time over again my choice of further education would have been to go to medical school or study drama or go to art college so getting to spend over a year at Hereford College of Arts allowed me to tick a number of boxes, including the one that says “if only I had done this or that, then everything would have been different.”

Photograph by Dan Salter
(CRC Illustration)

Going to Art College – albeit fairly late in life – means that I’ve one less regret to deal with.  I remember reading that as he lay on his death bed, the actor Stanley Holloway was asked if he had any regrets.  He thought a moment and then admitted that he was sorry he had turned down the opportunity to do the voice-overs for Mr Kipling Cake adverts.  My regrets are less earth shattering in their significance but do cause me some angst.  In particular I am sorry that I ever sold this piece of work.  It is called ‘Happy as the Land’ and was part of the Etifeddiaeth exhibition.  No sooner had I hung it than it sold and now lives in France.  I console myself with the fact that at the time I needed the money but I still wish that it was in the box with the rest of the Etifeddiaeth work.

Happy as the Land

For someone who spends most of their creative life in isolation – I’m not a member of a group, collective or society so I don’t do the networking, engaging or interacting with other makers – being in the company of ‘proper’ artists as well as having access to wonderful facilities whilst in college was going to be a bit of a novelty.  Now that I’ve left Hereford, certificate in hand (well, nearly.  It will arrive in the post at some point), I’ve been thinking about what I learnt whilst I was doing my MA.  I had expected to polish my technical abilities but I reached the end of the course as skilled as when I started.  Whilst I did try a few different crafts – lino cutting, papermaking and letter press printing – I’m of the opinion that I didn’t need to be in college to learn them.

Penyfoel Memory Map

This realisation has got me thinking about a method of learning called ‘Heuristics’ which is gaining momentum in the world of Adult Education.  Working along side Self-Determination theory, heuristic learning relies on people teaching themselves by deciding on what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.  Quite often this means that students work together to establish the best ways to gain knowledge and looking back at my MA course I can see that some of the best lessons I had came not from the lecturers but from others in my group, particularly the girls I shared studio space with.

Cheryl Kirby and the pavements of Ledbury

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

Cheryl’s practice is in Quilting and from her I learnt the value of how important it is to believe in what you do so that you can explain your ideas in a way which doesn’t sound apologetic or as if you want (or need) approval.  Instead you assume the audience is interested and intelligent; that they not only want to hear what you are going to say to or show them, but that they are highly likely to enjoy the experience.   As neither Cheryl nor I make work to sell it was good to sort out how you still get taken seriously as a professional artist when you don’t use a price tag to validate your craft.  Most of all though I will remember the day when, a week before a project deadline and after months of researching theories and creating an outcome which centred around the use of indigo, Cheryl announced that she was fed up of dull blues and was going to switch at the last moment to using yellow.  In reply to the calls of “You can’t!” which came in varying degrees of consternation, Cheryl calmly sat back and said “I can, you know.”  Eventually when everyone else was in the throes of despair she reconsidered and announced “but perhaps I won’t,” before adding ominously, “this time.”    So the second lesson I learnt from Cheryl is to remember that you don’t have to follow anyone’s rule book but your own.

Eliza Glapinska and Women’s Rights 

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

From costume making to live performances, Eliza Glapinska uses any and every medium to bring her socially engaged practice into the public eye.   Sharing a space with her made me remember the excitement that I feel when I use craft to tell a story.  In my case the stories are usually inspired by the legend and landscape of Wales whereas Eliza is a Craftivist  whose work is a commentary, a protest and a call to action.

Those who know me are familiar with the criteria which I apply to art to decide whether it is ‘good’ or not:

  • does it evoke emotion?
  • does it provoke thought?
  • does it show good skill or technique?

I suspect that my opinion does not fit with some of the more esoteric and elitist theories which circulate in the art world but having spent a year in Eliza’s company I’m going to add another criterion.  I think that good art comes about when the artist honestly believes that what they are doing will make a positive difference to someone, somewhere.

Ruth Maddock Makes

Photograph by Oli Cameron-Swan

Those colourful, patterned children’s clothes in the photograph began life in Ruth’s imagination as pretty dresses for little girls; they would have printed flower designs embellished with hand embroidery and they would be beautiful.  More importantly they would form the basis of Ruth’s next business venture, Ruth Maddock Makes .  Somewhere during the course of our MA, Ruth put the pretty dresses on the back burner and developed a range of clothing which is suitable for children with sensory disorders.  Every aspect of her design work and the subsequent patterns has been underpinned by academic theory and objective evidence.   You might think that in terms of practice, Ruth and I couldn’t be much further apart but actually we were very often on the same page – quite literally when it came to books about map-making and dealing with incalcitrant websites.  I can tell you now what I didn’t learn from Ruth: I didn’t learn to love Illustrator software, I am still immune to making money from my craft and I have not developed anything other than competence with even the most basic IT programmes.  What has become a mantra to my creative practice was one of Ruth’s throw away remarks, vis “don’t keep digging it up to see if it’s growing.”

Thanks to Ruth I have learnt that the way forward for me lies somewhere between working in isolation and being immersed in a hothouse.

The Road Ahead

There are actually two roads ahead at the moment.  Luckily for me they are both going in the same direction and until I come to a fork in the road, I’m not going to choose between them.  If you’ve looked at other parts of the website you will see that I’m quite interested in what it means to have multiple strands to creative practice.  I’m not sure yet if anyone else in the world is interested but if I don’t get my thoughts in order, I’ll never find out.

Indoors research for the next book

Things have started off well however.  I have discovered a form of strict meter poetry local to Glamorgan.  This may not sound exciting to you but I think I am on the edge of a spectrum within which a nirvana like state is induced by counting syllables and half accent rhymes.  (I even sighed happily as I was writing that.)

Meanwhile I have come across a subject called Historical Geography which I think maybe equally transcendent.  Its study will require me to spend equal amounts of time tramping across the mountains as up to my nose in dusty archives researching ancient documents.

Outdoors research for my next book

The biggest lesson to learn of course is yet to come.  In a world without deadlines, project titles and the company of fellow travellers I need to do something called ‘double-loop’ learning.  I need to take the competences I developed during the MA course and transfer them into other spheres so that they become capabilities.  In short I need to determine for myself what I’m going to learn and how.

And yes, there is a deadline.  It’s called the rest of my life, Hippocrates.

 

 

August

“August rain: the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born.  The odd, uneven time.”

Sylvia Plath

It’s not just August which has been wet.  Apart from a few sporadic days of tropical heat that coincided with the first week of Wimbledon, this summer has delivered more and heavier rain than was needed by my garden.  Luckily I’ve had lots of things to keep me busy.  College finished in the last week of June but college projects have been ongoing ever since and if you take a closer look at my website you may notice the results of one of them – including some better photography.

Dawn at Porthcawl

Given the choice I’ll do pretty much anything rather than sit in front of a computer screen (which accounts for the random blog postings) so I wasn’t best pleased when Delyth (course leader on my MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts) suggested that I should rebuild my online presence for the Professional Practice module.  She was right that the website was looking a bit ‘tired’ and that was because ever since it had been created (thanks to a grant from the Arts Council of Wales in 2014) I had done very little with it and certainly didn’t mess about with the tricky bits behind the front page.  She was also right that the content didn’t reflect my current practice, though to be honest this is her fault because – thanks to the MA course – I have gone from using felt to creating mixed media work, lino cutting, hand-made paper and making maps with techniques as diverse as photography, poetry, video, bone carving, weaving and drawn illustration.

Bone Map of Coety Walia Common

Trying to find a way to get all of those activities to sit on a website without the result looking like the aftermath of a jumble sale was going to be a challenge but then, just before the end of term, our MA cohort was treated to workshops with Pete Mosley (coach, mentor and author of The Art of Shouting Quietly .  At the end of the four days Pete told me that I was a ‘multi-potentialite’ and a ‘multi-faceted person of intent’.  He might have just wanted to get rid of me because my allotted tutorial time was up by using words I didn’t understand but I prefer to think that he was helping me to join up some dots. It turns out that there are lots of us ‘multi-potentialites’ in the world and this is just Emilie Wapnik’s term.  Barbara Sher uses ‘scanners’, Roman Krznaric says we are ‘wide achievers’ and my late Aunty Phyl would have called us ‘Jack of all trades’.  In Welsh the term is Wil naw swydd  which translates to ‘Will of the nine jobs’.  How lucky is Will to be able to restrict himself to just the nine!

Artefact map

I’ve always been able to turn my hand to lots of different things, not brilliantly but with competence.  The only skill which escapes me is music – including dance, singing and even the enjoyment of listening to anything other than Gregorian chants.  I find music at best irritating and at worst, discomforting.  Apart from that there is virtually nothing that I’m not interested in or nosy about.  I followed Pete’s advice and made a list of all my activities and interests: it took up two sheets of paper and I only stopped writing because it was getting silly.   It got me thinking about whether I could combine all of my various activities into my new-ish website and use it to keep an eye on all my spinning plates.  Whilst I was thinking I popped up to Craven Arms for the launch of the new Wales Rail Trail which is going to create a long distance footpath that links to the stations along the Heart of Wales line.

Craven Arms sketch

For once the weather was good and the scenery was stunning.  What made the day truly memorable for me though was that as I walked to the station to get the train home, I noticed a road sign that was almost covered by hedgerow growth.  Pulling the leaves away I found this and ticked something off my list off my bucket list – and you will only understand why if you are a history (in particular, Roman history) nerd like me.

Watling Street

Early July saw 13 children and four adults from Llangan Primary School coming to visit our garden.  In order to maintain some semblance of control, I’d sorted out the activities which included a tour of the garden, produce tasting, a quiz, observational drawing and the very popular ‘Cake Idol’ competition between Truly Cake and Thunder & Lightning Cake.  It was great to hear Harri (aged 10) telling Max to “be serious because every vote will count!” Democracy is safe in their hands.  As usual  Thunder and lightning cake won and if you follow the recipe I’ve attached you’ll realise the reason.

Meanwhile I was still wrestling with the website and wondering how many wrong buttons I’d press before the whole thing collapsed before my eyes.   Distraction came by way of a few days in Aberystwyth during which time I managed five exhibitions in a single day.  The first was ‘Lives of the Celtic Saints’ at Llanbadarn Fawr Church and very lovely it was too. I followed that with ‘Fallen Poets’ (poignant), ‘Arthur and Welsh Mythology’ (jaw droppingly good) and ‘Legends!’ (amazing) at the National Library of Wales   before getting to ‘Radical Crafts’ at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Aberystwyth Castle Sketch

One of the things I like about Aberystwyth is how esoteric some of the street entertainment is.  This was the scene at a free concert of folk music on the promenade.

Entertainment Aber style

Lorraine (my website guru) lives in Aberystwyth and gave me some ‘calm-down-and-get-on-with-it’ advice about button pressing.  On the way home I walked walk part of the Aberaeron to Lampeter trail to visit Llanerchaeron and apart from advising you to be very sceptical about the information which is given to you there about where the nearest bus stop is, I heartily recommend the place.  It is beautiful.

The River Aeron

Eventually I got to the point where I couldn’t put off interacting with the computer any longer. Even the weather conspired to get me into cyberspace as rain, more rain and then, yet more rain fell.  Stuck indoors one damp afternoon I pressed my first button and found that nothing catastrophic happened either to the world in general or the website in particular.  Buoyed by (probably misplaced) confidence, I pressed button after button removing redundant tabs and inserting new, relevant ones.  Whereas activities used to be crammed into four sections, my website now has 18 different pages and all my interests are arranged in a logical and integrated whole with lots of bits and bobs embedded – just because I learnt how to do it and wanted to show off.

Hopefully you’ll have a tolerant attitude to any bumps and wobbles in my newly realigned website.  It’s not only Sylvia Plath’s time which is odd and uneven.

Maps That Mean Something

“They were maps that lived, maps that one could study, frown over, and add to; maps, in short, that really meant something.”

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals.

If you read my last blog ( Give me a map…) you’ll know that I put the blame for my love of maps fairly and squarely on my father.

Give me a map …

The responsibility for my love of poetry is less easy to assign to just one person.  This never mattered very much because it never occurred to me that I would need to get the two things to work together.  Doing the MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts , however, has created some unusual alliances in the way I think about things.  Around about the time I was walking the Wales Coast Path around the South Gower, two projects were occupying my mind.

Higgledy Piggledy thinking

The first was how I was going to find away to convert all of the experiences and ideas of that journey into a map that made sense and the second related to a piece of work that I have been asked to submit for the exhibition called ’50 Bees – The Interconnectedness of All Things’.  You can find out more about the exhibition here .  Luckily I was reading ‘Art Quilt Maps’ by Valerie S. Goodwin.  One of the chapters is called ‘Map Haiku:Visual Poetry’ and set me on the way to making the sort of maps which reflect both the physical landscape and the way in which I experienced it when I was out there walking.


A word about Haikus and other forms of poetry

Lots of people don’t know what a haiku is.  This is because they didn’t grow up with my sister Helen.  By the time she was 10, Helen knew virtually everything in the world (or so I thought at the time).  It is thanks to Helen that by the time I was 8, I had been instructed in a variety of theories including how to mummify a corpse ancient-Egypt style, how to skin a rabbit and -most importantly for my MA – how to write a haiku.  A haiku is a form of minimalist Japanese poetry with a set number of syllables.  Strictly speaking, the first phrase should evoke the season to set the time of the haiku, the second phrase the place and so on.  Let me not, however, give Helen more responsibility for my love of poetry than she is due.  My mother was a poet whose work was best described as Vogon-like (only readers of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will understand – and sympathise).  I grew up with shopping lists written in rhyme, limericks on birthday cards and – worst of all – letters to teachers excusing me from games or for absence – composed as country & western style song lyrics.

The architects of my love of poetry

In some ways I failed to escape the early influences and I still find it incredibly easy to write in verse although I usually get bored and move on to a different activity after about 4 stanzas.  Luckily I live in Wales, a country with more than its fair share of poets.  I love the brooding melancholy of R.S. Thomas (Reservoirs):

“There are places in Wales I don’t go:

Reservoirs that are the subconscious

Of people, troubled far down

With gravestones, chapels, villages even:”

and I adore the imagery of Dylan Thomas(Hold hard, these ancient minutes):

“Hold hard, these ancient minutes in the cuckoo’s month,

Under the lank, fourth folly on Glamorgan’s hill,

As the green blooms ride upward, to the drive of time;”

So as I thought about the South Gower and the 50 Bees,  I wondered about using a haiku as a starting point.  Especially as I had no other ideas floating about in my head.  Rather than use a Japanese form of poetry, I did a bit of research and found that there is a Welsh version called an englyn.  There are 24 different styles of englynion which range from incredibly complex to just downright incomprehensible.  The englyn milwyr (soldier’s englyn) was the simplest: 3 lines, 7 syllables per line with the last syllable of each line rhyming.  I thought that the soldiers wouldn’t mind me borrowing and tweaking their englyn so I decided my verses would be in English and would go with the 3 lines, 7 syllables but not bother with the rhyming.  I started with the 50 Bees simply because time was pressing and I had been getting emails which urged me to send photographs of the completed work as soon as possible.  The COMPLETED work?  Small chance of that happening.  I had been assigned a bee called the Colletes Cunicularis which is a fussy eater of goat willow and has very specific ideas on where home should be – sand dunes.  Also, my bee was prone to dancing with all the other bees from her hive.  I liked that image and thought about it a lot as I walked around the sand dunes of Kenfig Burrows in Glamorgan.

Postcard sized embroidery of Kenfig Burrows

According to local legend Kenfig was once a rich town and its people were cursed after they failed to show shelter to an old man on a stormy night.  Voices on the wind were heard to cry “Dial a ddaw” (Vengeance is Coming) and by morning the whole town had been buried in a sandstorm.  It is said that the bell of the church can still be heard ringing from beneath the waters of Kenfig Pool.  That story helped my englyn along.

“Paths swept by wind, strewn with gold

are lost to all save those who

watch her giddy dance unfold.”

There we are – 3 lines, 7 syllables per line.  Easy – thanks to Helen and Mum.

It made my final piece of work for the 50 Bees exhibition almost logical.  I just scaled everything up and got my poetry in for all the world to see.

The Giddy Dance

I decided to apply the same methodology to the South Gower.  I looked back over the photographs I had taken and the sketches that I had made.  In my mind the images of stairs cut into the woodland floor and the smells of carpets of wildflowers were still strong; I remembered that I had been mulling over a problem and trying to find a solution that was proving to be irritatingly elusive.  3 lines, 7 syllables per line later, I came up with this:

“Heavy, heady, scented steps

Violets, Ramsons, Celandines

Perfume the path, the moment.”

I was more pleased with the englyn than it probably deserves and this may have been because it kick started a design idea for a map of the South Gower walk.  I did a postcard size sample piece to just make sure I had the colours, lines and textures going the way I wanted them to.

South Gower 1 – Postcard

I came to the conclusion there wasn’t enough map-like content in my postcard.  It could as easily have been an atoll in the South Pacific as the coast of South Wales.  I refined my design and my colour palette and started again, this time working on watercolour paper rather than fabric and layering up glazes before stamping the text on.  I’m not that keen on stitching into paper and I’ll probably be altering my techniques before I do the next map but I’m not dissatisfied with the outcome of the South Gower map.

South Gower Moment

Felly, i ble nesaf?  Wel, es i am dro dros y mynydd lleol sef Mynydd Llangeinwyr.  Roedd y gwynt yn gryf iawn.  Tynnais i luniau gyda chamèra ac yn fy llyfr sgets.  Wedyn, daeth y geiriau’r englyn yn hawdd.  

My next map is probably going to be based on a walk I did over Llangeinor Mountain.  Llangeinor is a tiny hamlet on an ancient drovers’ route across the Glamorgan uplands.  On the day we crossed these now barren moorlands, the wind was harsh and bitter so:

“That wind – cuts through cloud spun light

carving shapes, crafting shadows,

splintering the dry stone walls.”

I’m not sure what sort of map I’ll be making to go with this englyn but I’m pretty sure that it will be one to frown over, study and it will mean a bit more than if I’d just drawn the route.

Never written an englyn: try now! 3 lines, 7 syllables per line.