This is the shortest blog I’ve ever written and it’s because I’m about to begin work on my latest project which is called Digoll/The Unlost .
There’s a place in Wales called Cefn Digoll. This translates as “The Ridge of the Unlost” and it’s what gave me the idea of making maps about what the voices of metaphysical features of landscape are trying to say. I love the idea that being unlost comes from becoming aware of place rather than by finding a direction of travel.
For the next few weeks I’ll be travelling up and down the country making small art maps of places that I visit. Some of these I’ll be leaving in situ, others I’ll be bringing back to form part of my next exhibition. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing and where I’ve been, you can follow me on twitter – @marialalic or you can wait until next month’s blog (which will be longer than this one!) when I’ll post photographs of where I’ve been and what art I’ve made. Until then, hwyl am y tro!
“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel,” Alan and Marilyn Bergman
I don’t usually plan ahead what I’m going to write in my blogs – you’ve probably guessed that if you read them regularly – but when Michel Legrand died recently, I started thinking about one of his most famous compositions, “Windmills of your mind” and was wondering how I could fit in a reference to it. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, mostly because it was sung by Noel Harrison. (I had a crush on him when he starred in The Girl from Uncle with Stephanie Powers. In my defence, I was 8 and not very discriminating about the sort of television programmes I watched.) Anyway poor M. Legrand’s demise got me humming the tune and thinking about beginnings and how difficult it is to spot the point at which you stop being a student of something and start putting what you’ve learnt into practice.
I know from my own experience learning to speak Welsh, going from dweud eich dweudin the classroom to sgwrsio yn y byd go iawn is as terrifying as going from pedalling a tricycle with stabilisers on to riding a racing bike with razor blade thin wheels down a steep hill. You can read more about how I got on with the Welsh language here incidentally. If you are dysgu Cymraeg fel oedolion it might make you realise that having a sense of humour is as necessary as a command of grammar.
Trying to work out the point when I got to grips with creativity is less easy. When it comes to Textile Art, I disagree with John Galsworthy when he said “beginnings are always messy.” This is my attempt at portraying the brooding atmosphere of Kenfig Pool in the year 2000. Local legend has it that a wizard cursed the inhabitants of the prosperous borough of Kenfig for not offering him shelter. A fierce storm arose and as the sea broke through the defences and flooded the village, drowning it for ever, a ghostly cry of Dial a ddaw! (Vengeance is coming!) was heard on the wind. If ever a piece of my work failed to capture a sense of place, this is it.
Shortly after I began a course in Creative Textiles with the Open College of Arts and had to come to terms with using a sketchbook to record the way in which pieces of work were developing. I have never enjoyed working this way. I see a piece of white paper and am convinced that any mark I make on it will spoil it forever. In spite of repeated attempts to convince my tutors that I was useless at drawing and worse at painting, they refused to give me dispensation for that part of the course. Grumbling and resentful, I set about a project on responding to place. I chose the entrance to an old mine close to where I live as the subject partly because it was easy to get to but also because I’d read something about it being haunted.
Bit by bit I came to realise that learning to be creative was much the same as studying Welsh. I didn’t need to be good at drawing or skilled at painting – these were simply the nouns and verbs of a visual language; my sketchbook was not a collection of images which were nice to look at – it was a record that only I needed to understand.
Just recently (January 2019) I attended a course at Kenfig Nature Reserve and had half an hour to spare before it started. I decided to walk across the sand dunes and pay a visit to Kenfig Pool. Having a mobile phone means that these days, there’s always a camera to hand so I started off taking a couple of photographs.
I’ve gone from thinking of sketchbooks as a necessary evil to a useful bit of kit. My change of opinion is down to finally finding a technique which works for me; I use a felt pen to draw on a still wet watercolour wash and because I’ve come to terms with the fact that the sketchbook is a resource for me and me alone, I don’t worry about whether it is good by anyone else’s standards.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing a small art map of Kenfig Pool. It’s still a work in progress but you’ll be able to see how it’s going to turn out. It makes an interesting comparison to that needlepoint work I did nearly 20 years ago.
In amongst all of these Kenfig Pool shenanigans, I was invited to contribute work to an exhibition called ‘Interior Monologues’ which is opening on the 11th February 2019 at Oriel y Bont . I’ve produced a piece of poetic prose as a response to the work of artist Mererid Velios . It’s been a new and exciting method of collaboration for me and I’ve really enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, I probably would never have got involved except for the fact that Barrie and Maria, my Creative Writing lecturers from 2004 and 2005, remembered that I always wanted to write about visual art. Are there such things as beginnings and endings? I don’t think so.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Albert Einstein
I’ve been fascinated by walking ancient tracks ever since childhood when in long summer holidays, my mum would shepherd me and my sisters along the sheep trails that led from sandy dunes near Aberavon up onto the moorland slopes of Baglan mountain. At the time I didn’t know anything about the tracks being ancient and admittedly, much of the fascination came from seeing how long any of us children could hold onto the low voltage electric fence wires that were used to keep the sheep on the mountain and not wandering through the town of Port Talbot below. Let me make two clarifications relating to the electric fence wire: firstly, we didn’t have Health and Safety back in the 1960s; we had health, we had safety and for the most part, we had a lot of good luck and secondly, it was my younger sister Annie, who proudly claimed the record of being able to hold on to the wire – and its associated voltage – for about 10 seconds which was some 4 seconds more than Nell and 9 seconds longer than me.
Anyway, let’s get back to the point about the ancient tracks and specifically, the ancient tracks which crisscross the bracken covered slopes that look across the Bristol Channel towards Somerset. 2000 years back this area was inhabited by the Silures tribe who held sway over most of south east Wales from the River Severn to the River Lougher. The name Silures came from the Latin meaning “the people of the rocks” and according to Tacitus, they were swarthy with black, curly hair and a predilection for war. It took the invading Romans of the 1st Century AD about 30 years to finally subdue them. More recent than Tacitus, Niel Faulkner said “Ancient Siluria was a land of boggy uplands, wooded slopes and narrow valleys and plains… it was a rougher, harder and more impoverished land and its people skilled in war…”
Now this is about as much as I know about the Silures and as I am not a historian but an artist, I think it’s about as much as I need to know. I’ve never been one to let fact get in the way of creativity so you should understand that much that comes after this point is the product of my imaginative wanderings. Maps show that the Glamorgan ridge is about 20 miles west of Baglan mountain and it is covered with place names which hint at a violent past: Mynydd y Gaer (the Mountain Fortress), Mynwent y Milwyr (the graveyard of the soldiers) and Gadlys (Battle Court) to name but a few.
I’ve spent the last couple of years mapping the area but it was only at the end of 2018 that I climbed onto the ridge from the south (I usually go up from the west or the north). Suddenly I realised that all of my previous conclusions about the area being the site of an attack by the Romans on the Silurians could be wrong. Ascending from the South would have been almost impossible for the invaders and if they did make it to the top, then it was probably because they were being lured into an ambush. Whether hunted or hunters, I’m of the opinion that the Silurians and Romans would have fought a running battle heading towards Baglan mountain, not because they had a burning desire to see the spot where – 2000 years later – a street artist called Banksy would make Port Talbot famous (again) – but because it was a defensible stopping off point en route to the safety of the River Lougher. Who won and who lost is buried in the mists of time but there’s a small valley north of Port Talbot known to locals as Cwm Lladdfa (the Vale of Slaughter) so clearly it didn’t end well for one side or the other. Incidentally this is a place name which doesn’t show up on modern maps which are digital representations of topography rather that visual interpretations of place and time. As the Ordnance Survey do what the do so well, I’ll leave the technical stuff to them and stick to my wild imaginings.
The Glamorgan ridge is cut by deep, steep sided valleys and the first one to the west is Mynydd Llangeinwyr. It was originally called Allt yr Esgair (the Wooded Slope of the Ridge) but in the 5th Century, St Cein Wyr (St Keyne the Virgin) stopped for a look around, liked what she saw and stayed. By the time she died on the 8th October 505, she had caused a spring to bubble to the surface near the church which bears her name. It was bone chillingly cold on the day I sat near the spot, painted some canvas with watercolours
and pinned the fabric to a nearby fence to blow dry in the gale force wind. I kind of felt a lot of respect for old Cein Wyr. I was wrapped up in lots of layers and had a flask of coffee to hand. For her, living atop this ridge as a woman alone, with only the food she could forage, it must have been a bleak and sometimes fearful existence.
Whilst the material was drying I wandered about picking up a couple of bits of gravel and some sheep’s wool to trap into the embroidery. As you can see above, I also did a quick field sketch of the area so that I would have a point of reference as the stitchery grew. It’s taken me a few weeks to reach the point where I’m happy to say it’s finished. In a world of sat navs and GPS signals, it may not be a map which will get you to a specific place but I think it’s a pretty reasonable record of a journey – though not necessarily mine.
“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.