Cold Weather Clearout

A snowy day in North Cornwall

A snowy day in North Cornwall

You may have noticed I have not been active on this blog for a while. A cold, miserable January has never been my favourite time of year, or my most productive. This year I decided to put all my efforts into carry out my New Year’s resolution – to de-clutter my life.

If you live in the same house for over 20 years you accumulate a lot of things; if you are by instinct a hoarder (in a family of hoarders and collectors!), things can become ridiculous. Now that our children have grown up and left home our house should be far too large, yet every space seems to be packed full of stuff.

I took a hard look in my wardrobes and found clothing that stretched back twenty-odd years. Some things had not been worn in all that time but I always planned to find a way to remake or reuse them. This type of recycling is something I was brought up with but I have now come to realise that I will never find a use for everything in a couple of lifetimes.

Our children may have left but I still seem to have rooms full of their belongings, with great piles of children’s books, toys, games and knick-knacks that I have found it hard to sort through and dispose of.

Books are a real problem too; every member of the family collects books and this Christmas brought a few more; yet we have far too many to give them all shelf space and that means making hard decisions about which ones are no longer wanted.

The last and perhaps the biggest problem is all the fabric, dyes, paints and many other materials I have amassed to support my creative work. It is the source of my work and I never quite know what I will want to use next but I again I have more than enough for several creative lifetimes.

These hedges show where the wind comes from!

These hedge trees show where the wind comes from!

So how am I doing? Well it is still a work in progress but I now have sorted many sacks of rubbish and even bigger quantities for the recycling collection; the local charity shops have already received some new stock and are set to get more, while I have a growing list of items that are headed for eBay. I am not sure I will ever really change my habits and learn to shun possessions but at least I should have some space free for a while.

I must now try very hard to remember the Taoist message that we enter the world with nothing and that possessions are just baggage that ties us down.

Our hamlet in the snow

Our hamlet in the snow

More Museum Favourites

Here are a few more of my favourite objects in the wonderful British Museum.

There is no story here, just images that excite me, selected more or less at random. – Or if there is a kind of general story, it is just about what various creative people have done using stone, metal, wood or clay.

The great treasure-house that is the British Museum

The great treasure-house that is the British Museum

Weighty majesty - from Greece

Weighty majesty – from Greece

Flowing movement in stone - also from Greece

Flowing movement in stone – also from Greece

Chinese  jade  ritual blade - just a polished bit of stone?

Chinese jade ritual blade – just a polished bit of stone?

Fish-shaped ritual headdress, with beautiful shadows - Africa galleries

Fish-shaped ritual headdress, with beautiful shadows – Africa galleries

Shiny piece of abstract metalwork - Bronze age gold brooch

Shiny piece of abstract metalwork – (European) bronze age gold brooch

More bronze-age metal - corroded Chinese bronze vessel

More bronze-age metal – corroded Chinese bronze vessel

Metal blade in the form of a bird - Africa galleries

Metal blade in the form of a bird – Africa galleries

Practical metalworking - Chinese finger-nail protectors

Practical metalworking – Chinese finger-nail protectors

Exquisite modelling on a Chinese phoenix-headed ewer

Exquisite modelling on a Chinese phoenix-headed ewer – White porcelain (9th to 11th centuries)

Shang dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC) - bronze ritual vessel

Shang dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC) – bronze ritual vessel

As always, photographs are a poor substitute for seeing the real thing – Visit a museum again soon!

Threads of Silk and Gold

Last weekend we travelled to Oxford to see a groundbreaking new textiles exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum. “Threads of Silk and Gold – Ornamental Textiles from Meiji Japan”, presents textile pieces using traditional Japanese skills but made primarily for a Western audience. (Sadly, there was no photography allowed in the exhibition but I did sneak a couple of snaps to give a flavour of the show.)

Cover of the beautiful catalogueCover of the beautiful catalogue

Cover of the beautiful catalogue

Japanese art and crafts were hugely popular in the West between the 1870’s and the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912. Textiles were part of this export trade but have been little studied until now.

Although there are token exhibits of weaving and Yuzen dyeing, this is an exhibition of Japanese embroidery. Ranging from superb exhibition pieces and large artworks to examples of what are frankly “tourist kitsch”, the craftsmanship is uniformly superb and shows a level of hand labour that is now unimaginable.

Detail of Cranes and Wisteria (Ashmolean collection)

Detail of Cranes and Wisteria – Size 201cm x 279cm (Ashmolean collection)

cormorant fishing

This screen of cormorant fishing is the star of the show

Many of the largest pieces (up to nearly 4 metres high) were exhibition works for various World Fairs, or were produced for the richest foreign tourists to take home from their visits.

Detail of the Cormorant Fishing showing the free stitching technique

Detail of the Cormorant Fishing showing the free stitching technique

Detail showing the fire basket. This is painting with stitches

Detail showing the fire basket. This is painting with stitches!

I have long loved Japanese embroidery but always felt that there was a stiffness and very “rules-driven” approach to its execution. With the notable exception of the Cormorant screen, this is still visible here but where the designs are so grand and original the end-result totally escapes any limitation from the fact that every feather on every bird is executed using precisely the same stitch technique. Indeed, the whole exhibition is an object lesson in the possibilities and limitations of craft techniques;  the truly original works exceed the limitations of technique while even the best craft skills cannot rescue the dreadful pot-boilers.

Detail of the peacock shown on the catalogue cover

Detail of the peacock shown on the catalogue cover. (Photo of catalogue illustration)

Outside the exhibition was an education exhibit on Japanese embroidery techniques (where photography was allowed) and on the day we visited there were also embroiderers staging demonstrations.

Many exhibits feature 3D embroidery. This is a modern imitation

Many exhibits feature 3D embroidery. This is a modern imitation

Demonstration piece showing basic stitches

Demonstration piece showing basic stitches

Techniques for couching gold thread

Techniques for couching gold thread

Modern, embroidered handling-piece

Modern, embroidered handling-piece

Silk-weaving is now the only affordable substitute for large fully-embroidered pieces

Silk-weaving is now the only affordable substitute for large fully-embroidered pieces

“Threads of Silk and Gold” runs at the Ashmolean until 27th January 2013. For more information see the Ashmolean website

Rules of Colour

Many of the comments I receive when I speak to people about my work are about colour and the colour choices I make.

The same basic brooch using two different colour schemes

The same basic brooch using two different colour schemes

The most common question by far must be “what is your favourite colour?” and people are always seem surprised when I say that I do not have one. I believe that having favourites is dangerous for someone who works with colour as it is likely to restrict the choices you make; if you have favourites it means that you also have non-favourites.

I try to be open to every possible colour combination

I try to be open to every possible colour combination

Sadly for me, having no favourites does not mean that I can escape from having habits and habit can all too easily dominate an artist’s colour choices.

Apparently, I have a habit of resorting to rust reds and burnt oranges

Apparently, I have a habit of resorting to rust reds and burnt oranges

The workings of colour, both from a technical and a psychological point of view is a complex subject but here are a few of my little rules of thumb.

1) How well colour-combinations work depends on context, for instance colours that look beautiful in a landscape would often look very dull if applied tone-for-tone to a small object.

The colours of a pretty landscape are usually very subdued

The colours of a pretty landscape are usually very subdued

The great American artist and educator Hans Hofmann taught generations of young artists that no colour exists independent of its neighbours; that the effect of a colour, both perceptually and emotionally, is determined by the colours it is placed next to.

Equinox - Hans Hofmann - UC Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum

Equinox – Hans Hofmann – UC Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum

2) When looking at objects close-up, our eyes (and our minds) find it hard to distinguish colour as a completely separate experience from tone and texture.  A flat area of colour is perceived very differently from an area where that colour has tonal variation, particularly rhythmical tonal variation.

This photograph is virtually monochromatic but we see it as attractively coloured

This photograph is virtually monochromatic but we see the colour as attractive because of the rhythmic tonal variations

3) For a safe rule when creating colour schemes, use contrasting colours of similar tone or use closely related colours with contrasting tone.

4) Beware safe rules – Harmonious colours are calm and satisfying but nothing excites like an unexpected combination.

The black areas here give sparkle but break they break the easy colour rules

The black areas here give sparkle but they break the easy colour rules

5) Take risks – You will sometimes end up with a colour disaster but it is the secret to avoiding repeating yourself endlessly. (Amazingly however, I have found that no matter how weird the colours I use, it is likely that someone, somewhere will like them!)

6) Colourful is not the same as bright. Sometimes very subdued schemes can yield the most interesting effects.

This brooch used very subdued, even dull colours but was much praised

This brooch used very subdued, even dull colours but the scheme received lots of praise

7) While there are lots of useful guidelines, the truth is that if you want to have a chance of really surprising yourself – there are no rules at all!

For anyone interested in learning more about colour in art I recommend the WebExhibits.org pages on Colour, Vision and Art

Pretty Boxes

When Alex and I went to London last week we decided that we were going to try and see some different kinds of museum work, apart from the textiles, Asian art, etc., that we usually look at. So Alex went to try and find a room in the V&A that he had not really appreciated before, where he would really study the objects and take a few photographs.

Lots of shiny diamonds but I would have allowed more of the beautiful blue enamel work to show

Lots of shiny diamonds but we both would have allowed more of the beautiful blue enamel work to show

Alex chose a room of displaying small gold or silver boxes in one of the Rosalind and Arthur Gilbert Galleries. These gem-studded boxes are clearly very precious and all showed evidence of the highest quality workmanship.

Miniature decoration with a musical theme

Miniature decoration with a musical theme

One of the most stunning aspects of that part of the V&A is the stunning view over the Madejski courtyard in the centre of the museum.

Morning sunlight filtering into the Madejski courtyard

Morning sunlight filtering into the Madejski courtyard

When you love museums and visit them regularly, you tend to accumulate a list of favourites that you check out each time as old friends. With large National museums there are also lots of rooms that you wander through without really paying so much attention; maybe because you do not see a connection between your particular interests and the type of artefacts on display. This is particularly true of places like the V&A, where the range of material is huge and much of it consists of very specialised collections.

This is my favourite. Not sure if the centre is Japanese metalwork or a copy

This is my favourite. Not sure if the centre is Japanese metalwork or a copy

The work I produce is mostly small and intricate so I would have expected to feel a natural appreciation for this type of very detailed work, yet I confess that I find some of it a little over-fussy. I cannot help feeling that setting off all that very fine detail against some empty spaces would allow the designs to “breathe” a bit better.

Serious bling but I think that some less textured areas would set off the stones better

Really serious “bling” but I think that some less textured areas would set off the stones better

Nice moss agate but I am less sure about the metalwork on the lid

Nice moss agate but I am less sure about the metalwork on the lid

Really tiny mosaic work!

Really tiny mosaic work!

Next time you visit a favourite museum, make sure to have a close look at some very different objects!

Tang Horses

The pottery horses of the Tang dynasty are among the most iconic objects in all Chinese art. Fired to fairly low earthenware temperatures and decorated using simple lead glazes, often in three colours (san-cai); these beautiful objects were essential grave goods for anyone with pretensions to status and produced in very large numbers.

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Tang dynasty horse in the British Museum

Head of the British Museum horse above

Head of the British Museum horse above

Examples vary greatly in quality and size and smaller, cruder examples can still be bought for modest sums by collectors today. The large examples from high status tombs are, of course, much less common and stand among the highest examples of the sculptor’s art anywhere. Two examples in the British Museum in London are astounding for the way the  “essence of horse” has been abstracted from the maker’s knowledge of real animals, especially in the modelling of the heads.

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

Another Tang horse in the British Museum

Even in the best examples, the bodies of these horses are generally very simply modelled with all the careful observation and formal invention devoted to the heads; so much so that the heads can sometimes  seem a mismatch for the bodies they are attached to.

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Tang horse in the Shanghai Museum

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

Head of the Shanghai Museum horse

Modelling horses in clay was already an ancient tradition by the Tang dynasty (618 – 906AD). It is interesting to compare them to the horses found with the Terracotta Warriors dating from 800 to 1000 years earlier.

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

Horses of the Terracotta Army (circa 206 BCE)

I am not in any sense a horse lover but I never fail to appreciate just how sensitive the artist’s reaction to these animals was.

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A fine example in the V&A Museum in London

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

A powerful beast from the Imperial Collection in Beijing

Sadly, the Tang horse has become a bit of a cliché, with endless modern copies, often of poor quality. Perhaps that is why Chinese today do not value them as highly as they do more modern Ming and Qing artefacts; or perhaps it is because refined surface decoration counts much more than form for Chinese connoisseurs. This is a subject that Alex and I plan to expand on in a later post.

A modern "replica" of a Tang horse in an interior design store

A modern “replica” of a Tang horse in an interior design store

TAFA List

I recently became a member of the Textile and Fiber Art list. This is a fairly young but very impressive organization dedicated to helping textile artists access the power of the web by working collectively. TAFA now has over 400 members from 35 countries. Each member has their individual profile page on the TAFA website, which is based on the idea of linking all the various presences an individual has on the web in on place.

The images here are just a tiny glimpse of the work to be found on TAFA.

Leaves - A hooked wool wall hanging by Hana Rosenmann Leaves – A hooked wool wall-hanging by Hana Rosenmann

By going to my profile on TAFA, you can see the work currently for sale in my Etsy shop, view my Flickr slideshow, check out my location on a world map and access direct links to my Facebook, Etsy, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr accounts, plus my website and this blog. It is a very well thought out solution which must be a great model that many other organizations could follow. In addition to the main website, TAFA also has a presence on Facebook, etc., as well as running an Etsy group.

Colourful felted and crochet handbag by Renate KirkpatrickColourful felted and crochet handbag by Renate Kirkpatrick

The driving force behind TAFA is its founder Rachel Biel who supplied a great deal of assistance in getting me up and running on the site. Rachel is a great believer in the power that comes from people working together and has clearly put in a great effort to make her vision a reality. As well as trying to build a successful business model for individual craftspeople, the organization also pays a lot of attention to issues such as fair trade, sustainability and the environment.

Rachel Biel is the driving force behind TAFARachel Biel is the driving force behind TAFA

If you have an interest in textile art then the TAFA list is something you definitely should explore. All the members are professional artists and the work is both very diverse and of high quality. Walk in the woods - A felted picture by Stacy PolsonWalk in the woods – A felted picture by Stacy Polson