(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 .