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