“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” Elizabeth Zimmerman.
In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect. Can you sense a ‘but’ coming? I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit? I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied. I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity. Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)
My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality. She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib. I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure. Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session. Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.
My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit. Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap. All have failed. Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting would have been welcome. Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again. Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure. Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit” and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.
Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting. I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué. This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.
My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art. A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’. Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD. In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.
In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes. It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.
My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away. One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.
Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in. By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west. There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.
So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go. We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do. Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:
Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort. My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other. (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk). There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade. You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.
If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:
“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting. Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”
“You can’t just turn on creativity like a tap(sic). You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last minute panic.” Bill Watterson
I like making plans much more than I like putting them into action and it’s great to find out that I’m not alone in this tendency – Bill Watterson (the American cartoonist responsible for Calvin and Hobbes) obviously feels the same. Lots of creative people thrive the closer they get to a deadline, happily procrastinating until there is no alternative except to put pen to paper, thread to needle or whatever equipment and medium needs to be employed. Dilly-dallying is not a particularly stressful approach for them; the same can’t be said for friends and family members whose emotional state ends up shredded. The reason I don’t get bothered by a ticking clock is that I know that sooner or later the creative bit of me will get out of bed and hit the ground running. That said, I’m going to add a “however”.
However, this only works for me when my fingers are fit enough to deliver the level of skill my creative idea demands. What with gardening, writing, holidays, working and all the other calls life has made on me this year, I haven’t actually got a lot of stitching done. Now that I’ve finished the first draft of my next book (possibly being called ‘Integrating multiple strands of creative practice in an ethos bound portfolio approach’, possibly not – I leave you to make your own mind up on that), I’m ready start work on my next project. This will be a journal of creative maps in the form of travel writing, poetic exploration and artistic interpretations of walked journeys through ancient landscapes. You’ll be pleased to know that I already have a snappier title in mind for this one but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment. I have spent many happy hours planning this project; in my mind’s eye I can see the pages of the book, the typesetting and the illustrations of my work. It’s going to be a combination of all the things I love doing – walking, Wales, stitching, composting poems and – I’m not going to excuse this – making maps that look like maps!
Last month I decided to help the creative me along a bit by doing a test run along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I’ve always disliked getting anything started – particularly sketchbooks. Only recently have I overcome this reluctance to destroy a perfectly good piece of white paper by convincing myself that whatever marks I make – written or drawn – will be a sort of resource for further work rather than a finished article. There, in one sentence I’ve excused the standard of the images which follow. I started my journey by helping a Canadian lady called Enid,who was struggling to manage her bags at Carmarthen. As we staggered from the train station to the bus station and then back to the train station (checking times of bus services to Haverfordwest and then deciding that rail was the best option after all), I found out that she was celebrating her retirement from nursing by touring Wales and Scotland to see where her great grandparents had lived before emigrating to Canada in the late 19th century. Having left her waiting for the next train I made my way back to the bus station to get the 460 to Cardigan. With 5 minutes to kill it seemed a perfect opportunity to put my journal of creative maps test plan into action. I scrawled down all the information she had given me and did a super fast doodle which will, I hope, act as an aide memoir for me and encourage everyone else who sees it to feel a bit better about their own drawing skills.
You can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – visit Cardigan without trying Cawl which is a slow cooked Welsh stew. Mine came with a hunk of cheese, 4 slices of toasted, buttered sourdough bread and cost £3.50. Bargen! Os byddwch chi yn Aberteifi, awgrymaf ymweld â Chaffi Carn Alw yn y farchnad. Yn ogystal â bwyd hyfryd ac er bod ro’n i heb y ci, maen nhw’n gyfeillgar i gwn – mor bwysig i wybod!
I left Cardigan via the bridge over the river Teifi and walked out to St Dogmaels. This was partly to see the abbey but mostly because I wanted to see the Sagranus Stone at the nearby St Thomas’ church. The Sagranus Stone is one of the few standing stones which has both a Latin and Ogham inscription. It is monuments like these which enabled scholars to translate Ogham (an ancient Celtic/Irish alphabet where letters are formed by straight lines carved against a vertical).
Near a place called the Teifi Net Pools, the Blessing Stone stands close to the river. This was the spot where the Abbot of St Dogmaels traditionally blessed fishing boats before they left for sea. In Welsh it’s known as the Carreg Ateb (the answering stone) supposedly because if you stand on it and shout across the water, you will be able to hear an echo of your voice.
I didn’t try it but I did experiment with the next bit of my creative plan – that of using in situ clays and pigments to colour some canvas which I then embroidered. I rubbed the fabric with sloes, blackberries and the local mud to get the background colour and then applied a few stitches. If a map is a visual representation of a place, then I’m happy to say that this is a map of the Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb.
By the way, a lot of the sloes, blackberries and mud got under my fingernails which explains their grubby appearance in the next photograph. Apologies if you are over-fastidious by nature.
On the way to the curiously named Poppit Sands, I stopped long enough to begin my scrolled and stitched map of the journey. This will be more mixed media incorporating found objects as well as textural interpretations of place. Because doing this sort of thing takes more time that pressing the button on a camera shutter or icon on a mobile phone, it means whatever I create is much more a reflection of being in the place rather than recording an image of it.
From the lane to to the Poppit Sands Hostel , I did take a couple of pictures however, just in case anyone reading this has got a thing about blue flagged beaches where the golden sands seem to stretch on for ever.
I spent the evening doing some field sketching around the Teifi Estuary and next morning I carried on with my scrolled and stitched map. I’m pretty happy that I think I’ve got a template that works for recording features of the walked journeys, building a collection of information which will act as a valuable resource for the project itself.
It has also reconnected me with the practice of stitching on a daily basis. On my return I decided to embroider a reflective map of October, with some time devoted to sewing every day.
There’s a well known saying in Welsh – Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau (two thirds of the work is getting started) -which should mean that this time next year I will have finished my journal of creative maps because I’m already more than half way through! Meanwhile I’ll leave you with another pearl of wisdom from Bill Watterson – something to bear in mind when you are next putting off starting your next project!
“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”
“People travel to wonder at the height of great mountains,at the huge waves of the sea,at the long courses of rivers,at the vast compass of the ocean,at the circular motion of the stars; and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.” St. Augustine
August was a month of milestones for me and one was that I finally got my bus pass. I have never felt that I deserved something quite as much as that little plastic card and I am determined to exploit it in case some youthful bureaucrat decides free public transport for the over 60s is a luxury too far in these austere times.
The day after it arrived in the post I caught the number 75 bus and ran homewards on the local community track. Once a railway line carrying coal from the from the Ocean and Wyndham/Western coal mines to Cardiff Docks, it is now enjoying a resurgence as a traffic free route linking the communities of Nantymoel, Ogmore Vale, Lewistown, Pantyrawel and Blackmill with everywhere which can be reached on the Lon Celtaidd/ Celtic Trail NCN Route 4: Fishguard, Chepstow and all points between the last time I looked.
As an aside, if anyone who is influential in the field of sustainable transport initiatives is reading this, how about some words of praise for those of us who use Shank’s Pony as opposed to bicycles as a method of getting about. I get a bit peeved that two wheels are often portrayed as the main solution to carbon free ways of travelling so let’s have a shout out to the walkers and runners who are also doing their bit.
Anyway, on this particular trek I was hoping to work out whether – in about 60AD – the Ogmore Valley topography had influenced the doomed decision of the local Silurian tribe to escape the onslaught of invading Romans by racing across the Blaenau towards Briton Ferry. Whilst there have been lots of changes in the last 2000 years (and particularly in the last 200), the geographical features of the Ogmore Valley remain an almost text book example of what happens to landscape when a glacier recedes. It begins as a v-shaped valley and transforms into a u-shape; there are interlocking spurs, truncated spurs and hanging valleys including the waterfall that flows over a vertical bare rockface at the head of the valley and which gives Nantymoel its name.
Had the Silurians gone in this direction and made it through the Bwlch Gap to the ancient ridgeway linking the valleys of the Rhondda and the Afan, the story might have had a different ending. In the event they went due west over Mynydd Baiden and were caught. What happened next is remembered in the place name of a re-entrant north of Port Talbot which known as Cwm Lladdfa – The Valley of Slaughter. If things go according to plan it will also be remembered in my next creative project which – at the moment – I’m calling The Roman Rout. I’m sure that once the maps, artistic interpretations and creative non-fiction writing are complete, it will have a more poetic title.
I have promised myself that I will only get started on The Roman Rout when I finish the book that I am currently writing which brings me to my second milestone, the Augustinian leap . I had spent months dilly-dallying, prevaricating and procrastinating but things came to a head in August when I realised that I had no excuses left for not completing it: time, ideas, a workspace, even the title – these were all mine. Unfortunately I still found it difficult to motivate myself to put pen to paper (actually fingers to laptop but you get my drift). I did lots of other things, some which needed to be done and some of which were nothing more than time-wasting frippery. I even applied for some jobs I didn’t really want and which, if I got one of them, would probably mean the end of writing the book on Creativity and subsequently, The Roman Rout.
I had managed to get myself into a state of mind called being “simultaneously incongruent” – i.e. having two clear and distinct thought processes contradicting each other at the same time. The first was that I wanted to continue researching and writing both books; the second was that most of my researching and writing in the past has been done in response to deadlines from college tutors, magazine editors or publishers. As none of these were in play I couldn’t find a reason to justify committing the time, effort and resources the projects needed. At the least excuse, I had begun putting writing into second place behind whatever distraction presented itself.
One afternoon I was sitting in my tiny camper, which serves very nicely as a mobile writing room, staring out at the same landscape the Silurians had raced across in their ill-fated attempt to escape the Romans. As so often happens I was struggling with what I was going to write about next. The title of the chapter was Legacy but that was as far as I’d got. I put a new screen up on the laptop, typed “What’s the point of this chapter?” and then started answering the question with sentences starting “I want to…”
With a moment of clarity, I realised that I hadn’t applied the “what’s the point” argument to the underlying concepts of either of the books I intended to write. Looking at Mynydd y Gaer on the Glamorgan uplands I knew what the point of The Roman Rout was and still is: it’s a story which needs to be told and I have a peculiar – as in particular rather than odd – set of skills which will do it (and the Silurians) justice. Deciding the raison d’être of the book about creative practice has taken a bit more time and a lot more soul searching but eventually I think I’ve got the answer. And it’s only partly to do with me waffling on about anything and everything that takes my fancy without having to worry about referencing and intellectual defences.
Fate took a hand when I was offered one of the jobs I had applied for and didn’t actually want. Finally I had run out of wriggle room. After a little bit of self-analysis I concluded that the reason I have been avoiding writing the the manuscript on creativity is because I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone and not taking the risk of writing a book that no-one will actually want to read. After a little bit more self-analysis, I concluded that probably the most important facet of my personality is my contrariness. This is the point of the book: there is no point. It’s a celebration of taking unknown paths simply because they’re there and I like travelling.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine
“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.
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 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.
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.
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
and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.
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.
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.
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.”
“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).
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.
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.
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.
The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.
Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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 …
and a lot of ‘authentic’ research which involves me getting cold, wet and very close to being lost
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:
“They have laid you on the ground next to me. You gaze, unseeing, skyward. Darkness covers you.”
“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.
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.
(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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.