All posts by Maria

Speed, Bonnie Boat

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

For many people in the world the coast is a distant place to visit or to dream about visiting.  Those of us who count the sea as a neighbour, whether we are islanders or live along the edges of land, delight in its wide horizon, fickle mood swings and soul-lifting plays of light.

Coastal life

In Wales, 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Sea” and this title is also the theme of the poetry competition at this year’s Penfro Book Festival so if you fancy a bit of composing, you’ve got until the 15th August to get your entry in.

Back in June, when Cal and I crossed the Skye Bridge, we found a campsite right next to the sea and spent the evening walking with Mr MacGregor along the low paths of the Cuillins.

The Cuillins

The variety of scenery in the British Isles never ceases to amaze me.  I am used to the battered and scarred cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast  that dance in and out of the sea mists of the Bristol Channel.  In Scotland there was something almost brooding and defiant about the way the blackened rocks of Skye leaned towards the shore, standing their ground against the pounding waves of the Atlantic.

Mr MacGregor on Skye

As we sat outside a pub and I contemplated whether landscape features affect the character of indigenous peoples and vice versa, Cal slapped her neck and announced “Midge!”  We had until this point not seen a single one of the “Wee Highland Beasties” and hoped that our visit to Scotland was early enough in the summer to avoid them.  We were wrong.  Thanks to Cal deciding to leave Roxy’s back window open overnight we awoke at about 5am to find we were sharing the campervan with an advance party of midges scouting for breakfast.   Outside clouds of insects swooped and swarmed in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s doomsday film.   Ours was the fastest decampment ever seen and Roxy hurtled up the road, windows open wide in a desperate attempt to encourage the midges inside the van to leave.  Cal made an executive decision to aim across the island in the hope that this phenomenon was limited by location.  Eventually we swung into the car park at Dunvegan Castle – 2 hours before opening time – and assessed the state of play.

Insect repellent Dunvegan style

I had dead, dying and soon to be squashed midges in my hair, around my eyes and behind my ears; Cal had despatched any insect which had landed on her face with a self-administered open-handed smack which had left her cheeks red, shiny and covered with splatters of blood and bits of black carcasses.   I’m not sure if Dunvegan Castle Car Park had CCTV but if it did the sight of two women jumping about slapping themselves and each other as well as a Jack Russell joining in the jumping about and barking excitedly because he thought it was a new game, must have made for an interesting watch.

Eventually some semblance of calm was restored, breakfast was had and as soon as the gates opened we made our way into Dunvegan Castle grounds.  Cal and Mac toured the gardens whilst I went into the castle to fulfil two ambitions.  Firstly to see a Pictish stone close up

Pictish Stone

and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan

Both experiences were amazing and if you should ever find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan.  Perhaps not in June though because it became clear over lunch that the midges had followed us.  Cal decided that the best option was to make for the ferry port at Armadale and from there to Mallaig, Fort William and eventually the midge-less lands of England.

Silver Sands Beach between Mallaig and Fort William

We travelled through some of the best scenery the world has got to offer.  Longtown sits at the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall.  Fallow deers roam the woodlands and time stands still to watch dappled sunlight.

Longtown in Cumbria

Finally we got back to Wales; more specifically we reached the Welsh coast and the beautiful beaches around Harlech.  I’m going to leave it to Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr MacGregor to sum up this year’s tour because I think they both do it more eloquently and with more joi de vivre than me.

“Billow and breeze, islands and sea,

Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

All that was me is gone.”

 

 

I have no destination

“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live.”     Nan Shepherd

I blame Mrs B in the Hills   for diverting me from my safe, successful yet predictable existence as a Textile Artist and setting me on a journey along unknown paths towards the undiscovered destinations of Cultural Geography.  Indeed I didn’t even know that there was such a subject until someone visiting the MA in Contemporary Crafts final exhibition at Hereford College of Arts  regarded my final work and said, “Do you realise that what you’re doing is Cultural Geography?”  I didn’t because I didn’t know what Cultural Geography was.  As it happens, it’s one of those areas of study where no-one can quite agree on a definition and in particular what the parameters for the word culture should be in this context.  A general – but often disputed rule of thumb – is that Cultural Geography looks at the interaction of humans and landscape in cultural rather than environmental terms.  Lingering Fragments (my MA work) centred on shared cultural legacy interpreted through a creative expression of landscape, so I’m happy to agree that it was Cultural Geography (and poetry and mixed media art).

Lingering Fragments. November 2017

Long before reaching this conclusion however, I’d had messages from Mrs B suggesting that I should read some of Robert McFarlane’s books as he seemed to like landscape-y type stuff and share our love of obscure words and endangered definitions.  Far be it from me to not take advice so it is thanks to Mrs B’s recommendation and Mr McFarlane’s knowledge that I can now describe myself as a solivagant – a lone wanderer; more importantly it is through reading Mr McFarlane’s book Landmarks that I discovered a field of Cultural Geography known as Geopoetics and the writer whose work best exemplifies it, Nan Shepherd.

Solivagant with self timer on camera

Since finishing my MA I’ve been concentrating on writing my own book about Ethos Bound Creativity but took a break from this in early June to go on a touring holiday with my friend Cal.  We loaded up Roxy, her little camper van, with all manner of necessities – liquorice allsorts and a bottle of brandy for her, jelly babies and field sketching kit for me, carton of cocktail sausages and chewy toy for Mr MacGregor, Cal’s Jack Russell terrier – and set off, heading in a roundabout way for Scotland.  Things got off to a good start in the first couple of days when I saw a red squirrel in the wild, visited the lovely 6th Century St Tudno’s church and bagged the trig point on Gogarth before driving through the Mersey Tunnel and then seeing places whose names I only knew from the birth, death and marriage certificates of my grandfather’s family.

Mr MacGregor in St Tudno’s Church

Cal is Liverpudlian by birth and nature so as we travelled through the dock area of Liverpool, I found that she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs we drove past – I particularly liked the one called The Sick Parrot but can’t imagine ever wanting to go there for a drink and a packet of crisps.  Eventually she brought Roxy to a halt and gave me my birthday present two months early: a visit to Antony Gormley’s Another Place  on Crosby Sands.

Another Place

The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater

Kirkstone Pass

before we headed for Scotland and more specifically, Braemar –  one of Nan Shepherd’s preferred stomping grounds.  If you’ve never heard of Nan Shepherd, she wrote several works of fiction but is best known for The Living Mountain – a reflection in poetic prose about hill walking in the Cairngorms.  It is difficult to read Nan’s books and not accept the existence of Geopoetics which is defined by some as a “geographical consciousness”.  My own feeling is that, as a concept, Geopoetics is an attempt to describe a personal and individual transcendence by physical landscape but is limited by words in the same way as the Welsh concept of hiraeth is much more than the homesickness it is sometimes translated as.

The River Dee at Braemar

Philosophical semantics aside, we stayed in Braemar for two nights which meant we had time to explore the village including the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (built by the wonderfully named King Malcolm Big Head in 1059), the Invercauld Hotel (site of the Raising of the Standard of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715) and the Queen’s Drive (route of a carriage ride taken by John Brown and Queen Victoria when she used to visit his relatives, taking tea and tobacco as gifts).

Kindrochit Castle

I was determined to get in a bit of hill-walking so on Wednesday, no sooner had the words “I think I’m going to sit down and relax for a bit” left Cal’s mouth then I was pulling on my walking boots and packing my rucsac for an attempt to follow one of Nan’s routes.  Mount Morrone (895 metres) is small fry to committed Munro baggers but it was going to be the highest peak I’d ever attempted.  As Braemar is about 395m above sea level, the trail would have an assent of 500m in 5k.  This can also be described as steep.  I made it to the summit in 1 hour 20 minutes because luckily, the path was sound and well-marked.  Even better, the weather was good and the insect life was quiescent.  Just for good measure there was another trig point at the summit to bag.

View from Morrone over the Cairngorms

Best of all, the track passed Tomintoul, Nan Shepherd’s howff (cottage) on the lower slopes of the mountain so I really was in her footsteps.  Having read The Living Mountain as research for our trip, being on Morrone for a few hours made me realise that Geopoetics is not about the landscape or even about the human reaction to time spent in the landscape; it’s about becoming one with the landscape and that’s not something that can be achieved in a single afternoon.  For Nan Shepherd, it was a relationship that lasted a lifetime.

Tomintoul

Nan’s work is full of the sense of togetherness that she had developed with the Cairngorms and having wandered in just a small part of them, I think that she must have felt really frustrated at the inadequacy of words as she strove to explain what being in and with them meant to her.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”        The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd.

On my way back through Braemar, I called into the tourist information office to pick up some leaflets about Skye – our next stopping point.  That evening, jelly babies to hand, I read something that made me forget all about Geopoetics and dragged me back firmly into Cultural Geography and my own work researching limnal features of landscape.

Dunvegan Castle, said the guide, is home to the legendary Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.  When unfurled in battle it summons spirits to aid Clan MacLeod, snatching victory from certain defeat.

As Cal considered which route would take in the most picturesque scenery that Skye had to offer – which seemed to be on the north of the island – I tried to concoct a sneaky plan which would get us to Dunvegan in the south.  There was no way I could be so close to a remnant of the faerie folk and not get to see it.  In the event however, my scheming was not needed because Skye itself determined where we should go and what we should visit.  It all started so well, with no hint of the trauma to come: we crossed Skye Bridge, found a campsite at the foot of the Cuillins and I remembered what it is I love about limnal landscapes – it’s the feeling that you’ve wandered through another reality; that other folk are having conversations that you will never be party to and if you were, you wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

 

Stone Sculptures in The Cuillins

Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.

Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.

 

 

 

Hunting Words

“I and Pangur Bán, my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night …”

9th Century Irish rhyme ‘The Monk and his Cat.’ In an attempt to make you think that I have actually got a plan for this blog, Lily (my cat) will appear in most of the images metaphorically representing the logical part of your brain.

With no excuses for prevarication left I have finally started work on my book.  As usual I found the hardest part was finding the words to begin the first chapter.  I have overcome this difficulty with a neat little trick that I learnt when I was doing my degree in Creative Writing, namely don’t begin at the beginning.  Start writing half way through the book and in the middle of a chapter, page, paragraph or even sentence.  This will irritate the logical part of your brain so much that it will go and lie down in a darkened room thereby leaving your creativity unsupervised and ready to rock and roll.

The black cat of creativity waits for an opening.

So whereas my book (as yet untitled but when you consider it’s about integrating an ethos bound approach and multiple strands of creative practice, is that a surprise?) is going to start with an overview of what it means to have a)an ethos bound approach and b) multiple strands of creative practice before going on to explore how they can be integrated, I have not begun at this point for fear the excitement level would be too much for readers to bear.  Instead I have started writing the chapter which is all about working in isolation (and if you’ve been reading my blogs from their start in 2014, you’ll know that this is something which exercises my mind on a regular basis).

and the metaphorical cat of logic retreats to the rafters.

I approach writing with the same degree of preparation that I use for any other craft i.e. none at all: I don’t plan things out, develop a structure or even list key words and concepts.  I sit in front of the computer and as my lovely, talented Creative Writing lecturer Barrie Llewelyn (https://twitter.com/Arleta1?lang=en) used to describe it, ‘projectile vomit words onto the screen’.  This way of working, it turns out, is another irritant for the logical side of the brain and is likely to cause it to not only  lie down in a darkened room but possibly pull the blankets up over its head too so it can’t witness what’s going to happen next.

Let’s just pretend it’s not happening.

I’d got in touch with Barrie recently because a friend of mine had decided she wanted to start doing some creative writing but wasn’t sure about whether enrol on a course or join a writers’ group.  Now that she’s four sessions into her studying, writing about anything and everything and even worrying about whether you spell the term for a temporary table as ‘tressle’, ‘tressel’ or ‘trestle’ (it’s the last one if you’re a pedant), Carole is having to face up to the fact that being creative – particularly in an ethos bound approach – comes with its own set of challenges, one of which is – what’s the point  of it?  Like many of us, Carole is unlikely to be able to measure her literary success in monetary terms; no matter how much work she puts in or what she writes about her creative efforts may never be appreciated in the wider world.  So when Carole said to me “why do it if it’s not going to be published or sell?” I had to do a bit of thinking about the answer because I knew  it was going to fit in with one of the chapters of my book – although I haven’t decided which one yet.

There’s a point to everything but sometimes it’s difficult to know what it is.

This brings me to my niece Alexandra.  Back in 2005, at the start of the school holidays, Alexandra came to stay for a weekend thereby reducing the complexities of her mother’s childcare arrangements.  None of us expected that a 10 year old sophisticate from the city would adapt well to country living in a cottage with no central heating, no computer and not much television allowed.  Alexandra however proved us all wrong and finally had to be forced home after 5 weeks so that she could spend a couple of days with her parents and sisters before going back to school.  What, I can hear you all asking, has this got to do with creativity?  Well, two things actually.  The first is that without the distractions of technology, Alexandra indulged in what Einstein called ‘combinatory play’ and that led to her starting writing wonderful stories which entertained her and us all summer long.  I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t heard of ‘combinatory play’ until I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent book Big Magic but I find that I have been indulging in it all of my life.  Einstein considered that by doing unrelated things, the human brain has the capacity to think thoughts which would not otherwise jump the synaptic gap. We many not all get the results that he did when it comes to “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another”, but the next time that you’re struggling for an idea, it might be worth walking the dog, painting some shelves or doing some knitting to see what happens.  There could be a Nobel prize waiting for you.

The second thing that Alexandra did was play a game called ‘the government is banning…’  and it went along the lines of that if the government banned, say, films and you were allowed to watch just one more, which one would it be?  We spent the summer happily considering our final choices of books, music, food, holiday destinations and many more things.  A couple of days ago I was sitting in Carole’s kitchen listening to her wondering aloud whether she should continue her embryonic writing career.  Yes, she enjoyed it but was that enough?  How could she justify the time, the effort and the satisfaction if there was to be no quantifiable measure of success?  The seeds of this sort of angst about needing external validation are sown in childhood when moving from crawl to wobbly walk, clasping your bottom and shouting ‘wee!’ or showing Mum the scrawled drawings made on your first day at school  are held up as successes of such magnitude that without them, we think that the world may stop turning.  This angst lingers with ethos bound (i.e. not in it for the money) artists and writers longer than is reasonable or appropriate but luckily for Carole, for you and for the readers of my book when it finally makes it onto Amazon, I have the answer.

Also in Carole’s kitchen at the time was our other friend Annie.  Annie has the craft skills of a gnat (and won’t mind me saying so).

“Annie,” I said, “Answer this truthfully.  If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”

“Nope,” replied Annie, hardly looking up from her magazine.

“Carole,” I said, “Answer this truthfully.  If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”

“Yes,” said Carole, going pale and twitching slightly at the prospect, however unlikely.

It may have been a very small and unscientific experiment but it confirmed my belief that for people who are naturally creative, the creative process itself is worth as much as – if not more than – the outcome.  Presented with this Catch 22, the logical part of your brain may well wake up and think that the world is not such a random place after all.   This could prove very useful because things like time management, administration and organising your finances can very easily get in the way of all of the exciting stuff that creativity trawls along in its wake.

Give me a moment to think about it.

Having realised that this is as good a place as anywhere to try out the ideas for my book, in next month’s blog I’m going to consider other aspects of working in isolation like how you come up with ideas, motivate yourself to get started and then keep going.  Textile artists like Lisa Porch and Lydia Needle find inspiration for their work in unexpected places.  I dare say that if you print everything out month by month and staple the sheets together you’ll have the untitled book without having to part with a penny!

In the meantime, I leave the last words of this hunt to the monk and Pangur Bán:

“Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.”

Whatever…

 

 

Cake Thursdays

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”         T.S.Eliot

I’ve had to get to grips with a few things since my studies at Hereford came to an end in December.  Some I have no regrets about – leaving the house at 6am and not getting home until 6pm is one of them.  I am wistful about the loss of things like ‘Cake Thursday’ when we used sponges, cookies and traybakes to underpin our learning.  The last ever ‘Cake Thursday’ culminated in this Chocolate Gingerbread made by Kathleen.

Cakes and fellow students, however, are not the only thing I’m missing about being in College.  I’m having to readjust to self-directing my work.  Luckily I’ve still got lots of ideas connected to my MA dissertation and at least one ( but probably two) books are just waiting to be written.  The first will be to continue musing about what it takes to successfully integrate multiple strands of creative practice using an approach that relates to Divergent Theory, Self-Determination Theory and the principles of Heuristics.  Without ‘Cake Thursday’ and the opportunity to interact with fellow students, I explained what I meant to Mr MacGregor.  He was all ears.

Divergent what?

By the time I got to my thoughts on ‘working in isolation’ and ‘ethos binding’, I had come to the conclusion that this book is unlikely to make the best seller list.

 

Zzzzzzzzz

With no  project deadlines to be met I’ve been able to get back to the love of my life which is tramping across the mountains on Shank’s Pony.  This will fit in very well with book number 2 which is going to be all about the ancient tracks and trails of the Glamorgan uplands.  I’m doing a bit of ‘proper’ research …

Save our libraries!

and a lot of ‘authentic’ research which involves me getting  cold, wet and very close to being lost

The road to nowhere

The South Wales hills formed the backdrop (literally) for my final MA project and is likely to do the same for this book.  Mynydd y Gaer is part of the Blaenau ridge and is the site of violent conflict  between the local Silures tribe and the invading Roman army in the 1st century AD.  It was as I was walking across this landscape that I imagined a conversation between a soldier on the eve of his first battle and another who was already a casualty of war. I was making postcard sized mixed media artworks so finding a form of strict meter Welsh poetry called ‘englynion y milwyr’ that once existed as a form of oral postcard was really useful.  I composed 5 verses for each of the protagonists which could be read either as two monologues or an interspersed dialogue.  Here’s a sample of both:

First Voice

“They have laid you on the ground next to me.  You gaze, unseeing, skyward. Darkness covers you.”

Second Voice

“Only to you my eyes are blind.  Beyond the day I see stars draped across eternity.”

Having failed to impress Mr MacGregor with my first book I explained the concepts behind the second one to Lily Smalls the Treasure.  Her response reminded me of why I have a cat in my life.

Sounds brilliant!

I’ve always thought of life as being a journey.  It can be a mistake to try and hold onto the past.  We should keep the memories but then move forward.  Sorry as I am to say goodbye to the friends and experiences of Hereford, I am now taking a different road.  Except on Thursdays when I sit down, have a cup of coffee, a thousand calories and remember them all fondly.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake by me.

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.

 

 

Mastering an MA in Contemporary Crafts

“I am told that there are people who do not care for maps and find it hard to believe… here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any many with eyes to see or tuppence worth of imagination to understand with.”

R.L.Stevenson

Back in October 2016 one of the first things our MA group did was visit the Hereford Museum Learning and Resource Centre  for a behind the scenes tour.  (Many museums, galleries and cultural venues will offer guided tours for small groups that book in advance.)  Hereford Museum LRC has an eclectic range of artefacts from archaeological archaeological bits and bobs (flint arrowheads and Roman glass beads) to agricultural paraphernalia (Victorian carts and farming tools).  Between these two extremes is a conservative collection of art and ceramics and some slightly more difficult to categorise exhibits that I suppose you could call folkloric – curse dolls and Celtic stone heads, for example.  Incidentally these traditions are alive and well in all parts of the country.

Head of The Keeper of the Meadow at Bryngarw Country Park

On a normal day any of these (except perhaps the ceramics) has enough to pique my interest but all paled into insignificance when I discovered that Hereford Museum LRC also keeps the research archive of one of my heroes – Alfred Watkins.  I was first introduced to Watkins back in the 80s when  Mrs B  gave me his book (The Old Straight Track) as a birthday present.  Watkins was one of those purposeful Edwardian gentlemen who wandered the countryside with a camera, notebook and walking stick.  Whilst you may not have heard of him, you may be familiar with one of his theories: in The Old Straight Track Watkins introduces his belief that places in ancient Britain were linked by intersecting and invisible tracks that he called ‘leys’.  These could be identified by noting the existence of certain features both on maps and in the landscape.  Using a ruler, he believed it was possible to track a ley by drawing straight lines that linked standing stones, barrows, early churches and groves of Scots Pine trees growing on hilltops.

Carn Ciwg Standing Stone

Leys got a less than enthusiastic welcome from more conservative archaeologists and Watkins’ theory took another knock in the academic validity stakes when it was suggested by some esoteric thinkers that ‘ley lines’ were actually invisible energy fields and conduits of earth magic.  Nevertheless I am nothing if not loyal to my heroes and from the very outset of the MA in Contemporary Crafts course at Hereford College of Arts Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track were influencing my thinking.  The first project involved selecting 50 words and 50 images which would refine and underpin all the subsequent creative practice.  My collection clearly indicated that I wanted to look at something to do with landscape or time or poetry or Alfred Watkins or spirituality or Wales or folklore or toponomy (place names) or maps or walked journeys.  I wonder what I would have added to the list if I hadn’t been limited to 50 words and 50 images!

An early incarnation of the 50 words and 50 images board

The early part of 2017 saw me abandon my intention to use felt making as the major craft technique.  That may sound calm and considered but let me tell you it was anything but at the time.  Casting around for other ways to make ‘stuff’ – what the ever-patient course leader Delyth Done called ‘craft outcomes’ – I tried everything from papermaking to pressing flowers.  By the end of term I was drifting into a state of panic which only receded when over the Easter break I returned to my default setting.  I put on my walking boots and headed out to the hills.  April saw me back in Hereford quietly confident that I was – quite literally – on the right track.

The MA project takes shape

I suspected however that quiet confidence wasn’t going to be enough.  Luckily, in June I was given the directions to find the next stop on my journey.  Reading Pete Mosley’s book The Art of Shouting Quietly and having four days tuition from him made a massive difference to the way in which I approached the rest of my time as a student at Hereford.  You can read more about my thoughts in the previous blog and eventually in the book which I intend to write about integrating multiple strands of creative practice (I bet you can’t wait!).  Perhaps I should have spent more of the summer months making ‘stuff’ – I know a lot of my fellow students did.  Instead I walked, ran and generally explored the ancient tracks of Glamorgan, subconsciously developing the ideas, theories and concepts which would form the basis of my final project.

Carn yr Hyrddod

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent that “time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” I beg to differ.  October 2017 was more doubly so.  I don’t think I’ve ever known time disappear so quickly as the autumn months of last year.  Having got my panic and stress out of the way in the Spring and having had a shot of self-belief and confidence in the Summer, I strolled calmly through the tempest which passes for the final term of an MA.

‘Stuff’ aka mixed media postcard

I sketched, I wrote poetry, I stitched and best of all, I researched and wrote.  Even though photography is an anathema to me, I took advice from the talented and generous Ruth and Oli Cameron Swan on things like light and framing the landscape.  I got up early one morning to take some snapshots of my chosen location and considered them good enough to use them as illustrations for my dissertation.

Mynydd y Gaer

The last hurdle to overcome was to convince lecturers Del and Lisa that my work would need to be exhibited in a very particular way.  Thanks to the blind faith of them both, this was done and my final project ‘Lingering Fragments’ combines all of the 10 original ideas which were on my 50 words and 50 images board back in October 2016.  It was then that I first announced that I intended to use the MA to “map both the physical and the metaphysical landscape”.  At the time I had absolutely no idea what I meant but somewhere down deep inside, the creative bit of me knew exactly what needed to be done.

Photograph by Oli Cameron Swan

If you want to see more of the MA in Contemporary Crafts exhibition, it’s open until 31st January 2018 at the College Road Campus.  Details of opening times here .

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.